Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Fake and Real of Toronto's Upside-Down G20 Mirror

Picture and a thousand words
Toronto aspires to be ‘world class’ but finds it’s annoying, expensive, and dull. Wouldn’t we all rather be playing soccer? Four reflections on the G20 host city, seen through the looking glass
Toronto Star | June 18, 2010 | Ryan Bigge

Vanity Mirror
Mirror, mirror on the security wall, who’s the fairest G20 host city of them all? The answer is probably not Toronto.

At this point, it appears the only people in our city looking forward to the arrival of G20 leaders are anti-globalization protesters.

Which is not to suggest the upcoming summit will be a complete failure. Already it has served to accurately reflect the petty irritation that Torontonians emit toward any inconvenience large or small.

Our city is about to serve as a stage for some of the world’s most powerful politicians, and most of our citizens are casting about for a shepherd’s hook.

Sad to say, but “the personal is political” does not extend to complaining about traffic and parking disruptions. And, in a tidy irony, those most inconvenienced will find it difficult to share their frustration, since cellphone signals will be jammed during portions of the summit. Unlike the puppeteering activists who will coalesce at the barricades to agitate for a better tomorrow, the everyday complainers will allow their rage to turn impotent. As per usual.

Funhouse Mirror
While the reflection in the mirror on this page offers a reasonably accurate representation of the big, curvy ass of the Rogers Centre, the mirror is ultimately a distortion device, reversing whatever is placed before it.

And in relation to recent events, this circle of glass and reflective coating might as well be a rippling funhouse mirror.

True events now sound false: a $57,000 fake lake, trees being removed for security purposes, a ban on kite flying near G20 events, a Toronto-based security fence company called Mammoth Erection (FYI: mammoth as in woolly). Meanwhile, false events now sound true: “Protesters will all dress as zombies, attempt to gnaw police, world leaders” and “80 per cent of G20 security price tag will be used to distribute fluffy kittens to subdue protesters.”

The zombie and kitten theories, courtesy of @jo_words and @rmcw respectively, are two of the many fake G20 rumours now circulating on Twitter thanks to a request from Torontoist’s Andrew Louis editor-in-chief David Topping. Look for them under #G20fakerumours, a hashtag created by @frsrmtthws, who initiated the rumour mill by warning that the CN Tower will be relocated to Brampton during the summit.

Unlike the $57,000 artificial lake (a.k.a. “water feature”) to be built inside Toronto’s Direct Energy Centre, the fake rumours are funny, but that explains only part of their appeal. This humorous hearsay wouldn’t have gained much traction if the actual G20 event wasn’t becoming so unreal.

And while Twitter satire and reversal of expectations might rely on a modern method of digital delivery, its roots can be traced back to the 15th century. Barnard College professor Keith Moxey, in his book The Practice of Theory, discusses how painter Hieronymus Bosch drew inspiration from the margins of illuminated manuscripts and their notion of the world upside-down.

Moxey argues that the artwork along manuscript borders “satirize classes, occupations, and the sexes by inverting the relationship in which they usually stand in society.” Hence, police handing out kittens instead of pepper spray. The world upside-down provided the freedom to imagine revenge, but always with the knowledge that such satire “could take place only in a context in which such questioning did not constitute a real challenge to the status quo.”

Two-Way Mirror
Although this mirror works in only one direction, the meetings of the G20 are held behind two-way mirrors, at least metaphorically. The powerful can see out, while protesters and ordinary citizens can see only themselves.

But as Antonia Zerbisias explained in the Sunday Star’s Insight section last week, our city will also host a variety of alternative summits, and these “open gatherings are counterpoints to the closed-door sessions between the heads of the world’s richest nations, and their financial elite.” It is here, not the G20, where various creative solutions and fresh utopias will be sketched and debated.

And, as it happens, the late Michel Foucault, the philosopher and critical theorist who closely examined the intersection of power, surveillance and politics, had something to say about utopia (and mirrors). In his essay “Of Other Spaces,” Foucault talks about a counterpoint to utopia he calls the heterotopia. Utopia, by its definition, is imaginary — what Foucault calls a “placeless place” — while a heterotopia is “an effectively enacted utopia.”

Foucault suggests that thinking about a mirror can help define heterotopia because “it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real . . . and absolutely unreal.”

The point of this academic smoke and mirrors? Foucault felt that a heterotopia offered an opportunity to “suspect, neutralize or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror or reflect.” By combining the real and theoretical, alternate summits can be thought of as heterotopias, an opportunity to turn the world upside down with the hope of properly challenging the status quo.

Mirror of Society
“G20 security forces will be equipped with vuvuzelas,” according to a tweet from @zbussey, offering yet another entry in the fake rumour competition. The real G20 security forces will be equipped with sound cannons, although given the $1 billion security price tag, some serious cost savings could be realized if a bunch of small, colourful plastic horns were utilized instead. They might even be as effective since, as Monocle magazine’s Andrew Mueller noted in a June 15 online column, “the enervating drone of the vuvuzelas” can reach up to 127 decibels.

There are other parallels between the World Cup and the G20, which is why Franklin Foer, back in 2004, published his book How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. But no matter how hard the G20 might try, meeting economic goals will never be as exciting as scoring one. And so, as we cheer our athletes and jeer our politicians, we make soccer the truest mirror of our city.

(Toronto Star article link).