Shanghai Expo 2010: the city above the sea, the country above the world

Notes on a video-essay

By Juan Francisco Salazar and Tim Winter

10 October 2011

Documenting Expo: a convergence of narratives

Tim Winter

In 2010 the city of Shanghai hosted the largest, most spectacular and most expensive World’s Fair ever. The Shanghai Expo attracted a staggering 73 million visitors, ensuring China and the host city remained in the global spotlight for the six-month duration of the event. Costing around 45 billion dollars and with its theme of Better City, Better Life, the Expo was held in a country experiencing a level of urban growth unparalleled in history. With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, many of which face uncertain futures, this mega event confronted the multitude of challenges now converging on the all-pervasive notion of ‘sustainability’. To this end, 190 countries, more than 50 non-governmental organisations, and a variety of multi-national institutions involved in urban governance addressed such issues.

The history of World’s Fairs tells us much about the major events and changes that have shaped the world over the last one hundred and fifty or so years. Ever since they began in 1851 with The Great Exhibition of London, World’s Fairs have stood as important markers of history, charting the rise and fall of empires and on-going shifts in the global ordering of power. As public events reaching huge audiences, they have also reflected the aims and anxieties, beliefs and values of their time. No exception, Shanghai 2010 was framed by a moment in history defined by China’s rise as a global superpower and by the multiple challenges associated with sustaining life on an ever-warming planet. More specifically, the event provided a window onto the historically significant shifts now occurring, as global capital moves east and new economic superpowers come to the fore. Together with the Beijing Olympics, held just two years previous, the 2010 Expo delivered a definitive statement about the economic, developmental and geo-political pathways China is now pursuing.

It was an event that captured the imagination and intrigued many of us who work at the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney. As a research project emerged, it soon became apparent that the Expo demanded much more than the usual journal article or two. A book perhaps? And indeed Shanghai Expo: an international forum on the future of cities is now forthcoming. But it was clear that text alone wouldn’t capture the visual, experiential qualities of the event. We thus embarked upon two projects designed to mesh into and extend outwards from the writing: a series of photo essays and a video documentary. To this end, a team of twelve undertook a number of fieldwork trips between July and September. It was experimental in a number of ways: an attempt at a genuinely collaborative research project, where ideas were openly shared, bounced, and digested; and an exploration into how to capture our collective (albeit diverse) set of interests into different forms of media, such that writing, imagery, and video would all speak to one another in meaningful ways.

The images below constitute the first photo-essay from the project. The Shanghai Expo site divided the world – with all its countries, cities, institutions, and corporations – into five zones: Asia; Southeast Asia and Oceania; Africa, Americas and Europe; Corporate; and Urban Best Practice. In so doing it rendered the world visible and consumable in peculiar and interesting ways. Given that over 95% of the visitors were Chinese, the vast majority of which have yet to travel overseas, this remaking of the world in miniature took on particular significance. A visit to Expo meant coping with an onslaught of messages about sustainable cities, the beauty of nations, and the promise of technologically rich futures. But hidden among the crowds, queues, and giant LED displays was something intriguing: a mega event that, in its design, declarations of cosmopolitanism, and inter-cultural dialogue offered a glimpse into the state of the world as it is today. It was a prism, however, through which only certain features were rendered sharp, with much of the mess and complexity of our contemporary global moment fading away into the background.

Shot in July, Shanghai Expo: a video-essay sets out to observe the layered complexity of the Expo as an assemblage of people on the move, pervasive technologies, urban swelling, extreme weather conditions, and of nations showcasing their pasts and ideas for ‘better’ futures. Four members of the team contributed footage and the analytical themes in the video directly emerged from discussions about book chapters and articles. As such, the video is at once an exploration into innovative research strategies and a communicative-pedagogical device, as its Creative Director Juan Francisco Salazar explains below.

Capturing Magnitude

Juan Francisco Salazar

It’s day three of a week-long visit to Expo Shanghai 2010. Unlike the first two days when we attended the Expo site during the middle of the day, today I decide to arrive late in the afternoon to capture the Expo under a different light and tone. I am staying in the Xuhui district, a short distance by Metro from the Expo site. The Shanghai underground urban rapid transit system is over 400 kms long, has 11 lines and 277 stations and (considering it opened as late as 1995) is one of the largest and fastest-growing metropolitan train systems in the world. To bring visitors to the Expo, new metropolitan rail lines were constructed and – six months before the Expo opened in May 2010 – several new lines were built or extended. This major infrastructural upturn of the city in anticipation of the Expo’s opening is described by Ayşen Savaş thus:

The expo site is indeed a constructed land, covering 5.28 square kilometres of what used to be an industrial dump and a swamp area in the old city proper on the South bank of Haungpu River. Besides the inevitable ‘facelifts’ given to the existing buildings surrounding the site, major investments have been made to update the local infrastructure, amenities and public services, turning the whole land development process into a large-scale urban land reclamation project. The existing dam has been extended for an additional 110 kilometres along the river, the two sides of which are now served by underwater vehicular and pedestrian tunnels. Indeed the whole public transportation system has been reorganised, integrating new metro lines with the Maglev, the fastest train in the world that links the airport with the city centre. Potable water, sewerage and drainage systems, fibre-optic communication infrastructure, and security and electric wiring systems have all been integrated into the transportation lines, providing a multi-layered service infrastructure to the site. (2010: 15)

As I come out of the underground station into the site, the humid heat is confronting. Augmented by the thick pavement and no green areas I start to wander around amid the masses of people. Digital billboards give visitors all sorts of relevant information. As I walk through the site, close to the Australian and Thai pavilions, one such board informs the total number of visitors from the previous day: 507,988 people.

I am visiting Istanbul for a documentary film conference in a few weeks’ time, so think it a good plan to check out the Turkey Pavilion. To be honest, I am also trying to avoid the heat. It is 39.5 degrees Celsius, 89% humidity outside.  This queue is only 30 minutes long. Other pavilions I am interested in visiting (and am meant to record for our research project) have much longer queues. For the Japan and Saudi Arabia Pavilions the wait is up to six hours. A digital billboard outside of the Turkey Pavilion informs visitors that a strong storm is approaching, with an expected rainfall of 50mm. The digital billboards do more than inform the visitors of upcoming events and queuing times to enter pavilions, they also offer information about visitor safety, such as in the following display:

Dear visitors, welcome to Expo 2010 Shanghai China! Plum rain season is coming and please notice food safety at Expo site. No perishable food. No overabundant food. No take-away food. Pay attention to the quality of food you buy at Expo site, and eat cooked food as soon as possible. Wish you a pleasant tour!

Not only the food is affected by such extreme heat and humid conditions. After only half an hour of wandering around, capturing the flow of people on the move across the spatial configuration of the Expo site, the HDV digital video camera is burning. The tape is stuck.

I walk into the Turkey Pavilion. It’s very dark and cool and full of people. The first object on display as you walk into the Pavilion is a tall stone monument which seemingly indicates that Turkish-Chinese relations date back to the 2250s BC. Discovered in the Orkhon Valley, Mongolia, the The Kül Tegin and Bilge Qaghan Inscriptions date back to AD 732 and 735, were carved in both Turk and Chinese languages, and account for the close interaction between the Early Turk (AD 552–734) and Tang China (AD 618–905) cultures (Togan 2010). As with many other national pavilions, Turkey’s construction makes clear its historical connections that may strengthen current relations with China – a significant trade partner for an economy just coming out of the financial crisis of 2008. In fact, during the last month of the Expo, both countries agreed in Beijing to a ‘strategic partnership’ aimed to treble bilateral trade to $50 billion a year by 2015 and to $100 billion by 2020, by which the two G20 countries look to work together to boost their global influence at the two poles of Asia.

As with Turkey, most countries have used the Expo as a transnational trade market for the performance of the national, where the spatial configurations of the site often invoke a language of ‘flows’ rather than of frictions to account for the gradually ambiguous role of nation-states and their boundaries and influences in the emerging transnational circuits of goods, people, and ideas in times of deep economic, political and environmental crises. The Turkey Pavilion (as with most) is an example of what George Yúdice has termed ‘expediency of culture’: the deployment of culture and cultural capital, and the valorisation of the multicultural as an expedient for political and commercial ends.

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The Video-Essay Form: Practice-based research at the Shanghai Expo

World Expos are grandiloquent events, and Shanghai Expo was no exception. Masses of migrant workers from the city and other areas were employed to build the Expo. An estimated 18,000 families and 270 factories were relocated from the site of the event – permanently transforming an important area of central Shanghai along the Huangpu River. As with other world events of this magnitude, the Expo acted as a forum for many of the world’s most important players to communicate their ideas about the future, about urban sustainability, about what makes for a better life. It was also a significant stage for nations to promote their own identity to millions of Chinese visitors, and stimulate interest in trade and tourism.

Shanghai chose ‘harmony’ to interpret the theme of Better City, Better Life, with pavilions displaying their own versions of harmonies: among people, between culture and nature, and between the past and the future. Yet one year on from the closing of the Expo, this motto seems completely removed from the looming global economic recession provoked by the European debt crisis in late 2011.

So does the Expo encapsulate a moment in history defined by China’s rise as a new global power? How much does it tell us about globalisation today? Or about how the world has changed in recent decades, and how different nation-states perceive themselves in the international arena? And, more importantly, how do we capture the magnitude of this event in an essay film? And how do we value a video-based work as a research output? In other words: how can practice based research be at the same time consistent with the grammatical and discursive logics of academic language (cf. Grech 2006) and also critical of this form?

This creative project (a video essay) is situated within a larger ongoing research project undertaken by researchers from the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, who travelled to China to undertake fieldwork at the Shanghai Expo World Fair. The larger project investigates a wide range of themes to better understand how the Shanghai Expo addressed and revealed questions of urban sustainability, a rising China, civic governance and cultural diplomacy, the cultural politics of and between nations, ideas of the future, and of the possibilities and limitations of international, cross-cultural forums for solving planetary challenges. A first public screening of the video essay took place at Artspace, Sydney, during a free public event for the City of Sydney’s Chinese New Year Festival in February 2011.

One of the first tasks in the design and creative production of this video essay project was to understand that initial spark for the project and how in practice-based research, as Brad Haseman (2006) argues, springs more out of ‘an enthusiasm of practice’  than from ‘a research problem’ per se. The challenge, in other words, was to connect the conceptual and theoretical accounts of the Expo being formulated by my cultural research colleagues to my own practice as a filmmaker/researcher, and to my experience of the Expo as a visitor (for whom this was also a first visit to China). To my mind, the optimum outcome of this challenge would allow for the production of a situated knowledge and account for an affective experience of the Expo.

For prominent Swiss video artist Ursula Biemann, video essays are part documentary, part art, transgressing the borders of both.  In reference to Biemann’s work from the early 2000’s, Pamela Rosi defines video essays as a ‘mixed “genre” of practice that taps the creative potential of mediating between cultural spaces while deploying innovative aesthetic strategies’ (2005: 177). In describing Biemann’s work, Rosi argues that this hybrid form of documentary/art video ‘engages the representation of the real reality within a gaze that is subjective, disassociative, and theoretically situated in post-colonial situations of diaspora, migration, and ambivalent experiences of nation, borders, and belonging’ (ibid.: 177).

So we arrived in Shanghai in late June 2010 with a visual treatment and a tactical plan for ‘attacking’ the overwhelming spatial complexity of the Expo site. The visual design had been developed by examining the animated and interactive Expo website, footage from the construction site, and television coverage of the opening of the Expo. But perhaps a key reference was Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, a nine-screen installation and interactive film-essay which had its world premiere at the Sydney Biennale in May 2010 and its Chinese premiere at ShanghART H-Space in Shanghai at the opening of the Expo 2010. With Ten Thousand Waves – having shot on location in Shanghai and Guangxi province over 3 years and having collaborated with some of the most important contemporary Chinse artists – Julien has combined fact, fiction, and film essay genres against a background of Chinese history, legend, and landscape to create a deep poetic meditation on global human migrations.

The production process involved 6 days of shooting in Shanghai (the Expo and the city itself) with two main HDV video cameras plus two extra HD SLR cameras. A core team of three video makers recorded over 25 hours of footage, which was complemented another 10 hours of video footage and photographs taken by our colleague researchers. The Expo site spanned both sides of the Huangpu River, incorporating 8 pavilion groups in Pudong and four in Puxi, and amassing a total area of over 5 square kilometres. Our tactical plan was to divide the Expo site according to the spatial division of its pavilion groupings and to further divide these into regions. This was to ensure coverage of the whole site and the documentation of as many national pavilions as possible.  Each of the three video makers covered a set of pre-assigned sections. These sections overlapped, such that key areas identified were covered two or three times by separate cameras on different days and at different times of the day, allowing for maximum versatility of footage.

This treatment was complemented with a basic script, which became a post-production script for the voice-over narration of the video essay. This outline was, in effect, a montage of texts written by the team of researchers for their own chapters and journal articles. The exercise was intended to capture in images some of the ideas and concepts being developed in written academic form – the challenge here being the translation of academic output into a visual- and sound-scape.

This plan was useful as a road map or blue print for the commencement of the work. During the week-long shooting, we decided to also allow for improvisation and free wandering in order to also capture the Expo from the point of view of visitor experiences. Very important were the random encounters with other members of the research team that roamed the site. Some of the decisions made during the post-production phase arose from these improvised conversations under the Shanghai heat and plum rain.

The final output of this component of our research project is an 18-minute video essay, which is roughly divided into three, 6-minute parts: ‘the expo and the city’, ‘performing tourism and heritage’, and ‘anticipating the future’. The first of these parts situates the Expo in relation to a bird’s-eye view of Shanghai, primarily constructed though images of the old city and the more touristic districts in the city centre. This part of the video essay aims to capture the relationship of the Expo to the city of Shanghai – one of the fastest growing cities on earth, which has changed dramatically over the past century and, perhaps most especially, over the past decade.  Once again, Savaş provides a dramatic description of contemporary Shanghai that sets up the tone of the first (and third) part of the video essay:

Over the last couple of years China has been constructing “a new city” for extreme imaginations. Shanghai, as it is, challenges all the perceptions of reality. Hidden always behind the curtain of mystic fog, the city continuously transforms itself into a potential backdrop for a science-fiction movie. Recalling the metaphor for a living organism in the movie Brazil, and the multi-layered, polluted, post-humanist metropolis in the movie The Fifth Element, the new Shanghai is literally humming with the collective sound of the 10- lane highways, excessively layered road exits, thousands of air-condition units cladding the high-rise dwellings, construction machines, cranes, concrete mixers, street vendors, and the footsteps of its 19 million silent inhabitants. The mist, when combined with the air pollution, often renders it impossible to see the sun, which only sometimes hangs in the air like a phantom silver ball, but is unable to give any sense of orientation, not even the East. (2010: 16)

While the first part of the video essay  introduces the Expo and rehearses the idea that it is situated in a multi-layered city that continuously transforms itself, the second part goes on to provide a closer reading of this ‘expediency’ of culture. In updating the international tradition of display begun with the World’s Fairs of the mid-nineteenth century, Shanghai Expo 2010 was one the most spectacular celebrations of urbanism and modernity in history. Widely celebrated pavilions attracted attention through their impossibly stunning architecture. Other pavilions did so through their use of expensive state-of-the-art technological pyrotechnics. And yet, the architecture and design of many participant countries seemed surprisingly unspectacular, displaying their cultural capital in rented spaces and in pre-built structures, speaking softly from the periphery of the Expo site and lost in the cacophony of pervasive messages. This section of the video essay aims to capture how the language of tourism defined the visitor experience. There were ‘must see’ pavilions, continually recommended in the media, ‘souvenirs’ were the items to shop for, and the ‘Expo Passport’ – which was stamped upon exit from pavilions – stood as the event’s iconic collectable. Touring ‘countries’ and crossing ‘national borders’ were among the most memorable experiences for many visitors. Countries projected their identities in different ways; indeed, a complex process of contested ‘imagineering’ took place between countries that represented the future and those that displayed an exotic past. But where the cultural exotic was once presented as the ‘other’ of empire, today it seems self-invented. Intriguing questions about post-colonial identities and twenty-first century orientalism thus remain ever-present in Shanghai.

The third and final part of the video-essay concentrates less on national pavilions (and their exercises in national branding as expedients to expand international trade relations with China) and more upon offering a reading of how corporate, local government, and non-governmental pavilions provide a common vision of the future for humanity – including projections of life in Shanghai in 2050. In most cases, the economic and/or environmental predicament of a world on the brink of catastrophe is rendered silent. The Expo is a place for learning and practicing an ‘anticipatory futuring of the self’ (Bennett 1991: 37), but often the construction of the future as an object of fear works to obscure the present and to limit other possibilities for the future.

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‘Shanghai’ means ‘the city above the sea’, a name that comes from the first settlement village built over an alluvial plain on the Yangtze River Delta. While Shanghai today continues to rise from the sea, China has come to see itself as a country ‘above the world’. Expo 2010 was an accurate reflection of this perspective. From the top of the China Pavilion, at the very centre of the Expo, the world is laid out at its feet. From almost every corner of the Expo site it was possible to see the Chinese Pavilion residing above.

The Expo’s Better City, Better Life theme seems steeped in a curious combination of acute awareness and stubborn denial of the challenges ahead for humanity. And yet, it simultaneously expresses a lack of certainty (or knowledge, or consensus) about how it might be possible to address these challenges. Our short video essay on Shanghai Expo 2010 is offered up as a device through which to think about how this event and its site work as a condensed articulation of the contemporary world and its many contradictory challenges and changes. Following Karen Barad’s call, it uses its form as a tactical move towards performative alternatives to representationalism, shifting the focus ‘from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality to matters of practices/doings/ actions’ (2003: 802).

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Barad, K. (2003), ‘Posthuman performativity: towards an understanding of how matter comes to matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28.3: 801–831.

Bennett, T. (1991), ‘The shaping of things to come: Expo ’88’, Cultural Studies, 5.1: 30–51.

Grech, J. (2006), ‘Practice-led research and scientific knowledge’, Media International Australia, 118 (February): 34–42.

Haseman, B. (2006), ‘A manifesto for performative research’, Media International Australia, 118 (February): 98–106.

Julien, I. (2010), Ten Thousand Waves. 9-screen interactive installation. Online (accessed 7 October 2011).

Rosi, P. (2005), ‘Media review: Ursula Biemann’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 6. 2: 177–186.

Savaş, A. (2010), ‘A total escape from reality: Shanghai Expo 2010’, Shanghai Expo 2010 Turkish Pavilion Catalogue, pp. 13–22.

Togan, İ. (2010), ‘The early Turk and Tang China’, Shanghai Expo 2010 Turkish Pavilion Catalogue, pp. 27–30.

Yúdice, G. (2003), The Expediency of Culture: uses of culture in the global era, Durham: Duke University Press.

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Video Credits

Creative Production: Juan Francisco Salazar

Executive Production: Tim Winter, Juan Francisco Salazar

Camera: Sally Leggo, Rob Leggo, Juan Francisco Salazar, Tim Winter

Editing and Postproduction: Juan Francisco Salazar, Benjamin Rojo, Sally Leggo

Sound Design: Benjamin Rojo, Juan Francisco Salazar

The CCR Shanghai Research Team: Ien Ang, Hart Cohen, Scott East, Hilary Hongjin He, Rob Leggo, Sally Leggo, Cameron McAuliffe, Brett Neilson, Willem Paling, David Rowe, Louise Ryan, Juan Francisco Salazar, Tim Winter.