A Hurdle Race. A Spectacle of Art. and Sport

> Joanna Kobyłt


The gigantic sports spectacle which we witnessed in June was a peculiar factory of phantasmata. The hegemony of image, which took over at the time, did not concern the visual sphere only, although undoubtedly the city landscape was dominated by national colours, large-scale replicas of footballs and images of a smiling, multinational crowd. Apart from an attempt to take over public space, the dominance was connected with building the image of a perfect city, of citizens – hosts proud to receive their guests, building a multicultural, happy society. The images which abounded in everyday life seemed to be a wishful vision of many people: fans watching the games on giant screens, politicians, supporters of building roads and stadiums, entrepreneurs hoping to do business of their lives. But it was not just about these unfortunate images.

A mass spectacle produced by the powerful sports industry is tailored to a society dominated by modern conditions of production. The mediated image, which reaches the viewer via electronic media, is a staged spectacle with heroes and their enemies. Like in ancient theatre, a drama of overcoming one’s weaknesses in order to win is played in front of our eyes. The games are a spectacle, a gigantic stage show, subject to incessant mediatisation, having the function of a secular holiday. The need of spiritual rapture, met by watching the contemporary equivalents of biblical Davids and Goliaths or mythical Hectors and Achilleses, as well as the destructive collective urge to celebrate after the triumph of the favourite team, is a reminiscence of the desire to experience pathos.

Sport, together with its entire factory of images and the devotion of the crowds, is a spectacle as Debord understood it, a concrete inversion of life, a nonlife which is detached from real life and takes the form of a spectacle1. The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.2 Within post-industrial cultural and state formations, the spectacle is an organisation of tempting, deceiving, scattered and superficial appearances. The role of citizens in a spectacle has been limited to politically-neutral viewers who use entertainment, which is a form of celebrating a commodity and consuming free time. Commercialised sports games with archaic roots and political usefulness serve to endow mundane rankings in the hierarchies of consumption with a magical ontological superiority3. Debord perceived culture, which becomes completely commodified, as spectacle, too.4 It is the star commodity of spectacular society. According to the French situationist, art is the purest expression of the impossibility of change, and the more grandiose its pretentions, the further from its grasp is its true fulfilment.5 On the one hand governed by free-market rules, functioning as a source of revenue, on the other – bureaucraticised by public institutions, appropriated by the language of projects and grants, art is not authentic anymore, and its postulates vanish in tiresome procedures. The spectacle is a moment when the commodity completely takes over social life, and both art and sport serve as examples here. This coincidence became the starting point for the tenth edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review.

The ‘Oławka’ stadium in Wrocław, away from the city centre, recently renovated but nowhere near the splendour of the newly-built sports objects, moves attention from global sport to its local character. Until recently it functioned as a kind of heterotopia6. The ‘Niskie Łąki’ open-air market, which used to be situated in these premises, although legal, was simultaneously a space functioning on its own rules. Apart from its commercial character, it was important because of the unique social situation it created every Sunday. One may be tempted to say that a bazaar of this kind constitutes a ‘crack’ in the spectacle. Debord divided the social structure into a group who yield power and make the spectacle and the viewers who consume the spectacle. In the case of the ‘Niskie Łąki’ market, the micro-reality was created by everybody, both the sellers and their customers, although it was difficult to find the representatives of the authorities themselves. The spectacle forced its way through the commodities, although a part of them was useless junk which could be bought for next to nothing. But it was not really about that – the ritual itself was far more important, although the social space for exchange organised itself around selling.

The mechanisms governing the spectacle of art seemed to be noticed by contemporary young artists. Many of the works presented at ‘Oławka’ took up this thread, in a more or less grotesque way. In the field of art it is customary to think like in some sports areas. The laurels, the podium and the victory depend entirely on the individual artist, his or her perseverance, hard work and talent. External limitations, such as the impossibility of gaining good education, the lack of financial means or an unfavourable background, have no influence on their careers. This idea is humorously and sarcastically commented upon by Małgorzata Kazimierczak’s very simple but meaningful video Special Transmission Entitled: Up To You…?, in which a small hamster in a cage is desperately trying to get out of it, running tirelessly in a wheel. Perseverance and commitment will not change its position, new possibilities, or even chances to improve its situation, will not emerge. Michał Bieniek referred to a deeper, ontological meaning of this motto. Plato’s Phaedo, deliberations on the immortality of the soul and the mortality of the body, from the point of view of a spectacle in which the commodity takes the dominant position seems to be describing an inverse order. In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates deprecates the ‘matters of the body’ (food, clothes, physical strength), with death being just the parting of the soul and the body. An individual’s existence belongs to gods, therefore it is dishonourable to take one’s own life, even if the suicide’s motivation is not his miserable life but the awareness of the soul. The book with the ancient dialogue was interspersed with illustrations depicting a diver’s unfortunate jump into the water, referring to two stories: Cleombrotus’s suicidal death, who threw himself into the water after reading Plato’s book, and Greg Louganis’s unsuccessful jump, who was injured in a diving competition after a bad take off from the tower. This artwork emphasises the degradation of ‘being’ into ‘having’, which, according to Debord, nowadays means ‘appearing’7. Fatalism evident in both stories casts doubt on the belief in absolute power we have over our lives. Cleombrotus’s soul and body belonged to gods, his individualistic, liberating action has no significance for the force majeure. A sportsman’s unlucky jump is, in turn, just a bad coincidence, a twist of fate.

Piotr Blajerski, using amateur videos he had found on the Internet, referred directly to artists’ situation on the market and their chase of the spectacle. A collage of the videos constituted a kind of how-to manual about finding one’s place in the art world. Self-proclaimed artists, aspiring to the laurels of triumph, speak to their virtual listeners as masters, celebrities sharing priceless advice. Blajerski’s How to Become a Professional Artist revealed the true deceptiveness of the spectacle of art: the roles assumed by the authors of the short videos are fictitious wishful thinking, missing the truth about their real selves. An extremely meaningful and deeply critical work was presented by the Agnieszka Popek-Banach and Kamil Banach duo. Race Rankings referred to a list published yearly by one of the most opinion-forming art magazines in Poland. The names of the ten ‘best’ curators and artists, written in the order of importance on hurdles, direct attention to fields of influence and set-ups in which art is entangled. The point of making such lists was questioned – their aim is not factual evaluation but building ostensible prestige, as is the case with brand names. Race Rankings highlighted one more element: jumping over all the hurdles seems impossible. As in the spectacle, an artist and a participant in art was degraded to being just a viewer who can admire the ranking but not influence it. Aleksandra Sojak-Borodo’s Benches made a symbolic reference to the structure of sport and art perceived as a secret social contract in which seniority has a dominant role. The artist put the names of positions in show business on the seats in the stadium stands, revealing the professional and social relationships in both fields. Places for a VIP, a photographer, a president or an art critic, and ‘the lodge of the important’ which was thus created, actually proved the ostensibility of these roles since none of them was in fact sitting there. The 4:0 performance of the ŁUHUU! group may be interpreted in terms of the impossibility of participation in creating the rules which govern the hierarchical structure of professionalised fields. Four heads of immobilised artists buried in the ground stuck out above the playing field. The feeling of powerlessness was strengthened by the fact that everybody except them was walking on a surface exactly at their line of vision. A football lying next to their heads, as well as the title of the action, hinted at the viewer’s absolute dominance, who had to confront this temporary power.

Dorota Nieznalska in her work Construction of Race focused on the side effects of a sports spectacle which take place on its margins: fans’ culture, physical and symbolic violence, exclusion. The artist used genuine photographs of the most devoted fans of various football clubs. Aggressive postures of young men, excitedly chanting slogans of ‘hools’ and ‘ultras’ in the most climactic moments, were accompanied by the content of their clubs’ cries and the inscriptions decorating the stands. ‘White people black characters’ or ‘Your honour, your race’ can be unambiguously associated with the rhetoric of national socialism. Revealing the myth which constituted the foundation of the enemy group seems necessary for the group’s creation because its existence loses its meaningfulness without this element. Nieznalska’s work accentuated the dark side of sport, loaded with prejudices and aggression, which often disappears from public discourse. Krzysztof Furtas, who used Deleuze and Guattarri’s three-part book, and the truly spectacular nature of his work, corresponded tightly with Construction of Race. Capitalism and Schizophrenia referred to the inconsistent, fragmented and nomadic construction of the subject. Furtas used the fragmented identity of a schizophrenic and contrasted it with the fans’ mania of showing ostensible cohesiveness. An attempt to rebuild the lost whole appears as a desperate unwillingness to accept the reality. Michał Łagowski’s intervention Fags was very simple but meaningful, bordering on Derrida’s hostipitality.8 A modest and uncomplicated gesture of substituting the plaque saying ‘Visitors’ with ‘Fags’ referred to receiving strangers and the internal contradiction of hospitality. Aversion towards another human being may take, as it was the case here, homophobic character, which usually manifests itself as a rude epithet addressed at the guest/enemy. Therefore Łagowski posed a critical question about the simultaneously declarative and subconscious reverence of our society for homogenous unity and the honour of being the host of the Euro 2012 games. A similar commentary was made by Durczak and Kowalewska’s modest but meaningful artwork The Sacred Truce – situated in men’s locker room and surrounded by vulgar insults towards other teams. Dominika Łabądź worked on the consumption aspect of sport in her Food for the Mob. Ordinary heaps of sunflower seed hulls in the stands of a local stadium make it possible to identify the largest group of spectacle viewers, for whom it is almost impossible to truly participate in a sports event. A paradox emerged here: a spectacle needs mass audience to exist, but it simultaneously stigmatises and excludes ordinary consumers.

A separate group of works was concerned with the phantom nature of the ‘Oławka’ stadium. Its site-specificity as well as historical and cultural implications were evoked in Alicja Patanowska’s Lawn Sale and Maja Wolińska Slow Sport. Both artists turned to the meaning of heterotopias, which in this case took the form of both the market mentioned earlier and the surrounding allotments. Both spaces are a crack because they do not take into consideration the social relationships that emerge around a commodity, but rather a peculiar sense of community and an exchange whose aim is not just profit. It is worth posing a question whether the space of art, in spite of the commodification of culture, may become a similar space, even temporarily.

Debord searched for means to make art real in life but he did not want to blur the boundaries between art and life; instead, his aim was making art more life-like.9 Ranciere in his Aesthetics as Politics put forward the idea that, in spite of the avant-garde movements’ desire to melt art, paradoxically it was in everyday life that art managed to refresh its language.10 The separateness of these two planes guarantees that art has critical tools for analysing and questioning the order. The artworks presented by artists at SURVIVAL seemed to illustrate both theses; they were committed to comment on current issues, remaining separate, but also permeating the everyday. One may risk saying that during the noisy June, the ‘Oławka’ stadium temporarily became a kind of heterotopic enclave, which was governed by its own rules.


  1. Debord G., The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Ken Knabb, London 2004, p. 3.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid, p. 17.
  4. Ibid, p. 61.
  5. Ibid, p. 60.The concept of heterotopia was coined by Michel Foucault. cf.: Foucault, M. Of Other Spaces. Heterotopias. http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault. heteroTopia.en.html (last access: 15.09.2012).
  6. Debord, G., op.cit., p. 4.
  7. Derrida, J., Hostipitality, [in:] Receiving Strangers., ed. Lubiak, J., exhibition catalogue, Museum of Art in Łódź, 2010, p. 6-12.
  8. Kwaterko, M., Guy Debord – Teoretyk Przeklęty, [in:] Społeczeństwo spektaklu. Rozważania o społeczeństwie spektaklu, Warsaw 2006, p. 10.
  9. Derrida, J., Hostipitality, [in:] Receiving Strangers., ed. Lubiak, J., exhibition catalogue, Museum of Art in Łódź, 2010, p. 6-12.
  10. Ranciere, J. Aesthetics as Politics, [in:] Ranciere, J., Aesthetics and its Discontents, Polity Press 2009.