Giant Robots and the People’s Spectacle

This weekend I went to go see La Machine, a show featuring two giant animatronic monsters who basically took over downtown Ottawa for four days. I only stayed for about half an hour, as the crowds were a bit much, but the machines were as awe-inspiring as advertised. As public spectacle, it was certainly better than the kind of bland patriotism we usually get in the nation’s capital.

What really struck me was the way in which La Machine makes visible the massive amount of labour involved in creating such a show. Kumo, the giant spider robot, features at least a half-dozen operators visibly hanging from the spider’s underside, and a pair of musicians that ride on top. There is no illusion that we are seeing a real giant spider. Rather, what gives us wonder is the sheer scale of engineering that goes into the spectacle.

There are critiques that can be made, obviously. Before the show I saw there was a speech by Ottawa’s developer-friendly mayor Jim Watson, described as an apolitical “visionary.” This event was nominally tied to Canada 150, an event whose colonialist and ahistorical message has been the target of a lot of deserved critique. It’s questionable whether the city should be spending money on these kinds of tourist-y events when homeless people still struggle through the Ottawa winter. La Machine itself represents a celebration of gigantified technological progress which supports a mechanistic blah blah blah blah blah.

Anyone who’s taken a humanities class in the last thirty years can make such a critique before breakfast. And certainly such arguments are valuable, and should never be shouted down in the name of an uncomplicated mass-market hedonism. But it’s also clear to me that there is something of value, or at least something very human, in the childish parts of us that marvels at giant robots. I mean, they’re pretty damn cool.

On a broader scale, we can ask the same question of any incredibly expensive and labour-intensive form of entertainment, from Hollywood blockbusters to global sporting events. In our history only giant multinational communications giants have been able to marshal the resources and manpower needed to make something like, say, War for the Planet of the Apes (another spectacle I saw and enjoyed this week.) As much as we enjoy these spectacles, they are something we are fundamentally disconnected from. We relate to blockbusters only as passive consumers. Rather, they act as a marker of the capabilities that capital has and we do not. They work to enrich the ruling class, and almost always serve their politics.

Would there be room for such large-scale spectacles in a post-capitalist world? The socialist states certainly had their share of parades and grand symbols, but once again the public existed only as spectators. Here, the spectacle was a reminder not of the power of capital but as the power of the state. When I think about the world I want to live in, one made up of co-operative local economies, it’s easy to see how an independent film or novel would be created, but hard to see how a giant dragon robot would.

But maybe we simply need to think more spectacularly. If people really care about the IP-driven blockbusters beyond needing to keep up with the zeitgeist, surely they can care enough to spend time and effort making new ones. Imagine a superhero movie not just seen by millions but actively created by them.

Apologists of capitalism often like to describe entertainment as democratic — if people like a movie, it’s more likely to become widely available and get sequels. But people don’t have a great ability to predict what they will like before buying at ticket, and studio heads have an even worse record at predicting what movies consumers will think they’ll like enough to spend money on. Who honestly thought Valerian was going to be a massive hit?

For instance, just about everyone outside Disney’s offices knows that getting Colin Trevorrow to direct Star Wars: Episode IX is a bad idea — what if the fans could vote on who they wanted the director to be? And if a minority faction didn’t like the choice, they could go and make their own version of Star Wars, with the “intellectual property” belonging to the public? A popular vote is of course not a good way to create autonomous art, but when it comes to mass spectacle, the masses should be in charge.

As noted above, these spectacles require a massive amount of skilled labour. Under capitalism, it is important to make sure that all of that skilled labour is payed and treated well. But when we envision the art of the future, we do not have to imagine an end to spectacle. Rather, let us make it our spectacle. Let us all work on the giant robots in our spare time, or support those who do. That way, when they battle in our downtown streets, we will look on with not just wonder but pride.

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A guy hiding underground shouting at the TV.

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Rob Hutton

Rob Hutton

A guy hiding underground shouting at the TV.

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