Stadiums: Islands of Swarm

Stadiums: Islands of Swarm
Published: Dec 10, 2012
Rosie Jackson interviews artist Kai Schiemenz about how buildings shape crowds, the rebirth of the stadium, and his latest exhibition, Islands of Swarm.

The latest work from Kai Schiemenz – a collaboration between the Berlin based artist and Mueller Kneer, the architects responsible for White Cube Bermondsey – is divided simply into two parts: a wall-mounted assemblage of scrapbooked stadium images and a windowed built structure through which to view them.

As giant enclosures designed solely for mass symbiosis, stadiums are rarely considered outside the context of the events they house. The freedom here to view them from outside, from multiple angles, is a luxury not often afforded from within.

Here monochrome photocopies of a mass wedding in Seoul sit alongside ampitheatre sea battles, shoals of fish, Kepler’s heavenly harmonies and a concentration camp in Santiago’s national stadium during the Pinochet dictatorship. Diagrams of Dante’s Inferno are informed by a map of Alcatraz. The stadium, theatre or rallying ground are linked by the analogous quality of events for which they’re designed.

The whole is reminiscent of Don Delillo’s story ‘At Yankee Stadium’ which depicts the stadium-goer's ability to project his/her feelings on the sea of anonymous heads in front of him. “It knocks him back in awe, the loss of scale and intimacy, the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd. This really scares him, a mass of people turned into a sculptured object. It is like a toy with 13,000 parts, just tootling along, an innocent and menacing thing.”

In this case, the stadium event is a pretext for summoning the crowd for a performance of togetherness. Swarm behaviour, characterised by the collective motion of a large number of self-propelled entities arising from simple rules followed by individuals, goes hand in hand with stadium architecture which can effectively contain hundreds of thousands of people for a unified purpose.

All Schiemenz’s work could be seen as ruminations on the stadium theme. He builds walk-in structures which translate and subvert traditional theatre architecture and ideologies – spiralling, indecipherable monuments which require the viewer to participate in unexpected ways.

We emailed him some questions to find out more.

How did this preoccupation wih stadiums begin?

Growing up, I was an athlete. I was training four times a week and there were competitions on the weekend. Mostly this took place in stadiums. The funny situation was all the rows were empty; there were just some people in the centre where the competition happened. All this had a strange impact on me. An empty stadium makes absolutely no sense. It needs the spectators; it needs the noise, the rumbling of the masses. I also remember a small book, a stadium fiction, written by the Frenchman Georges Perec called ‘W, or the Memory of Childhood ‘. It is a stadium fiction. He describes an unknown Olympian island called ‘W’ in Chile, governed by an absolute sport dictatorship, ruled by competition. I think that could be considered the starting point for my whole pursuit.

In your work Total Theatre, a seat is built inside the structure, creating a viewing platform for passersby. The title suggests an inversion of the usual division between audience and spectacle. How is the perception of the participant altered in this case?

The idea came from the sixteenth century scholar Gulio Camillo, who convinced Francis I of France to fund the construction of a "Theater of Memory". It was designed to be a physical representation of the sort of mental memory palaces used by orators and philosophers in the days before printing. The wooden memory palace was shaped like a Roman amphitheatre, but instead of the spectator sitting in the seats, he would stand in the centre. Everything that was knowable was laid out on the rows in a well ordered, systematic way. What Camillo did was invert the classical perspective of a theatre. The visitor no longer sits on the terrace looking at the drama performed on the stage, but stands himself amidst the scene viewing the world as the auditorium. What was interesting for me was how easily one could change the whole set-up of perception by using this simple method.

The press release describes stadium architecture as "a critical participant in the shaping of the crowd" and as "both stage and main actor". How has the stage, and therefore the nature of the swarm, altered throughout history?

The rebirth of the stadium came along with the Olympic Games, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the Parisian Champ de Mars etc. and is linked with the birth of the modern nation state in central Europe at the edge of the emergence of totalitarian states. Today the situation has changed. Stadiums are characterised by economic and representational reasons. In Munich, a new stadium was built by Herzog de Moron, a colourful bubble. Inside is a lot of space; there is so much space that you could stretch your legs without touching the person in front of you. That creates a totally different situation than the stadiums of the last century. Now we have skyboxes, where you can make business deals, where you can have a drink or do your shopping.

Architectures aren't containers for human needs – but needs and humanities are being generated by architecture. Buildings aren't neutral boxes for communities, but communities are being formed and governed by them.

Sloterdijk describes stadium events as "the public merging in the light of a narcissistic narcotic spectacle". To turn that on its head, what happens when stadium-goers begin to feel dejected as a result of their collective experience, and spiral into negativity? Is it possible to fall through the surging wave of the ecstatic swarm and shrivel into insignificance?

When Sloterdijk writes about stadiums, he writes about the appearance of totalitarian systems and at the same time he implies the spiral of negativity that appears in a war, a competition in a dimension where there are no winners. There is an interesting point and I would like to come back to the beginning, the book ‘W’ of Georges Perec. Perec connects the Stadium Fantasy with his own memory about his parents who died in a concentration camp. And finally he connects the stadium directly to the concentration camp and sees the “athletes” for what they are: desperate, half-starved creatures staggering around the track in striped prison garb. In fact, they are inmates, victims of “this huge machine, each cog of which contributes with implacable efficiency to the systematic annihilation of men.”

Islands of Swarm was created for the show of the same name at PayneShurvell from 13 July – 22 September 2012.


Image credit: David Torcivia

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