While at home in New Jersey for the Christmas holiday I happened to pick up my Mom’s copy of Archaeology magazine and read an article on an exhibition of monumental Olmec sculptures. The heads, which were created 1400-400 BC, depict the faces of the Mexican civilization’s rulers. Why create such large representations of power? Because physical line of sight was the only way to view these images and larger physical presence represented greater power.
Three thousand years later, monuments of power were still viewed “in situ”. For example, the well-known Arc de Triomphe was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon in 1806 to commemorate those who died in his wars, and in the revolution. Situated in the center of the capital city, the monument would have drawn maximum attention. Unlike with the Olmec heads, citizens are commemorated in the monument, but only as tools of Napoleon’s imperial ambition.
A hundred years later, at the beginning of the broadcast age, the architecture of power could be created for broadcast. The Triumph of the Will, Hitler’s grand propaganda film of 1934, used a modern style of classical architecture and phalanxes of adoring citizens to project Nazi power. In the vast crowd scenes of the film (still above), crowds of citizens extend the scale of boulevards and stadiums but individual identity is effaced by uniforms and synchronized movements so the only qualities conveyed are military discipline and devotion to the fascist regime.
What will the architecture of power of the networked age look like? It is in many ways too early to tell, but the 2010 monumental human sculptures created for – but not by – the global environmental organization 350.org give a glimpse of the future. Meant to convey the importance of climate change mitigation and environment protection, the photos were designed and carried out by volunteers around the world. Some, like the Indian elephant above, do use human beings as part of their architecture, but the image conveys the environmental values of the volunteers, not one imposed from above.
Also, rather than being disseminated through traditional broadcast media, the images are social media-friendly, posted on Flickr with a Creative Commons license to facilitate sharing. These images are not designed to be viewed in the physical site of their creation. In fact, they could only be seen in their entirety from the air. They are also imperament, created only to be captured in a digital image that can be shared through the network. The original “monument” may last no more than a few hours.
The transition of monumental architectural depictions of power from leader focus to citizen focus, from authority to self-determination, from permanence to impermanence, and from physical to virtual viewing is another illustration how the digital network is changing human society.