February 4, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Second Straight Super Society of the Spectacle

This is our second annual simultaneous screening of the “Society of the Spectacle” (1973) & the Super Bowl (live). There will be a halftime show with Anna Oxygen performing, and videos from Heather Bursch (”The Singer Not the Song”) and Javier Morales & John Michael Boling (”The Church of the Future”). French fare and American snacks will be available all day.

Heather Bursch’s three-channel video installation, “The Singer Not the Song,” will be exhibited from February 4 until February 25.

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“In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves.”[1]

Ten of the top twenty television network telecasts of all time are Super Bowls. During any given “average minute” of any given Super Bowl from the past 13 years, more than 80 million Americans (that’s better than one in four) would have been watching.[2] These Nielsen statistics, so important to advertisers, only begin to measure the event’s cultural impact. Over a third of all Americans see some of the Super Bowl; others experience an unusually quiet Sunday evening – with light traffic on the roads and few people to be seen – which is regularly punctuated by the shouts of fans from public bars or private dens; and many more witness the cultural milieu surrounding the event through newspapers, television, advertisements, the internet, office betting pools, and the popular music industry.

The Super Bowl, of course, is more than just a football game. It is the culmination of a series of suspenseful games, where the drama builds over the course of weeks as television commentators and action-packed montages articulate a narrative that personalizes the conflicts, triumphs, and failures of the actors involved (players, coaches, family members, fans, etc.) These parallel, overlapping, and conflicting storylines promise to be brought to conclusion on Super Bowl Sunday in a spectacular show incorporating many forms of entertainment – fireworks, marching bands, musical performances, competing commercials, awards ceremonies – which have little to do with ‘the game’ itself. The production of the event extends beyond both the stadium and television, as the general public itself organizes a multitude of smaller gatherings, complete with ritualized food, drink, and decoration.

Just months after the first Super Bowl was played in 1967, Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the society, in which experience has become mediated by images, than the massive Super Bowl show. Appearances abound to such a degree that one would have difficulty locating a center, because there is no center apart from images. Corporate logos compete for position on the televisual field; cameras switch instantaneously; sport, advertisement, politics, and entertainment blend seamlessly into one another, with the crowd constantly playing the supporting role.

While Debord writes of isolation, alienation, and separation, however, the Super Bowl is a kind of massive gathering, and consistently the most massive gathering of this kind. These two realities are not incompatible. More and more frequently, “the masses” are incorporated into the very images we consume, producing the effect of a social body: we laugh with the “laugh track,” we cheer with the fans in the stadium, we witness history with those in the crowd, and we observe political debate with the silent spectators in the studio. The recent proliferation of polling allows us to express ourselves (within heavily prescribed limits) and see representations of these accumulated expressions.

For those interested in ‘crowds,’[3] the Super Bowl is a rich topic. Although histories of crowds often flourish in the teeming modern city in the late nineteenth century, the fascist rallies of the early twentieth century, and the public demonstrations of the 1960’s, something happens in the 1970’s. It is here that Jonathan Crary locates “the eclipse of the spectacle,”[4] where the totalizing characterization of television is no longer tenable in the face if its reorganization into larger networks of communication. The same decade is proposed by Jeffrey Schnapp to be the end of “the era of crowds” as sources of political power, a time after which political mass organizing “flickers live on television screens under a growing patina of anachronism”[5] and images of the masses are restricted to sports, religion, and entertainment. And the 1990’s saw the World Wide Web stimulate the public imagination with alternative forms of “being together,” which further antiquated notions of “the crowd” while stimulating a profound nostalgia for it. Through this all, the Super Bowl has been a yearly bonanza of crowds, with nationwide participation in a televisual spectacle that is saturated with people.

“Super Society of the Spectacle Sunday” kicks off (sorry) an exhibition by Heather Bursch called “The Singer Not the Song,” which is primarily titled after the Rolling Stones song of the same name. In the center screen of the three channel video, Mick Jagger’s fragmented image does a languid dance with the microphone, just months before Altamont. Closer inspection reveals that the video imageis actually made up of hundreds of hands holding colored cards, like those common in foootball stadiums or North Korean political rallies. Heather’s exhibition begins more or less at halftime on Super Bowl Sunday. In Javier Morales and John Michael Boling’s video “The Church of the Future” (which will also be shown once at halftime) the audience becomes a character in an ambiguous dramatic standoff with a talk show guest. Both videos foreground group identification and implicitly open some kind of dialogue with the late 1960’s when the first Super Bowls were played; when Society of the Spectacle was initially received; and when “race riots” touched almost every city in the U.S.

- Sean Dockray

[1] Walter Benjamin, in the final footnote of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

[2] Nielsen Media Research. Even more startling is the fact that 33 of the top 35 sports telecasts belong to professional football, with the 1994 Winter Olympics taking the two remaining spots. There haven’t been fewer than 60,000,000 viewers since 1976. Numbers worldwide are debatable, but the National Football League claims that nearly one billion people worldwide as a “potential audience.”

[3] By “crowds,” I mean something quite general: a group, arrangement, or system that produces a new (in the sense that it does not exist before the system) collective subjectivity. Crowds, in our conventional understanding of them, are one very important historical example of this.

[4] Jonathan Crary. “Eclipse of the Spectacle” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Interestingly, Crary deems 1967 “the last high tide of the “Pax Americana,”” which places the Super Bowl in an interesting historical position. Is it a last gasp of the spectacle, a remnant of the ‘old order’ in the midst of a world-in-transition? Or is a hybrid event, an expression of this transition?

[5] Jeffrey Schnapp. “The Mass Panorama” in Modernism / Modernity. Pg. 278.