The Uncanny Expo Milano 2015

Randall Honold

Computer game designers describe the “uncanny valley” as the place where the look of animated creatures becomes disconcerting to us. We’re okay with caricatures or extreme realism, but the narrow in-between can be downright creepy. Recall that well before the printed circuit, Sigmund Freud described the uncanny as the “strangely familiar,” which, once we start becoming aware of it, seemingly haunts us at every turn.

I was in an uncanny place recently, a place both not real enough and all-too real at the same time: Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Its intention is to be an axis mundi for sustainability. However, the genius loci of the place isn’t represented by the classical figure bearing a cornucopia, drinking bowl, and snake; instead, awaiting the visitor are twenty-first century symbols which perhaps reveal more than intended by expo organizers.

I had never been to an expo. One of the first gifts I can remember receiving though – as a four-year old – was a commemorative coin from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. My godmother brought it back just for me and I can still see its golden shine and feel its raised-line image of the Unisphere. It was a coincidence that my spouse and I were going to be in Italy this summer, and since Milan was on our itinerary, I figured why not check out the expo? Before leaving I had seen news reports about protests and read an article here and there reviewing the event (and this one appeared after my return) so I had a general sense of its context, contradictions, and controversy. I expected meh and got it aplenty. But it also delivered moments of disbelief, engagement, frustration, and hope. Not to mention awesome artisanal gelato flavored with single-source chocolate from the Ivory Coast, and a bar of ginseng soap from that most exotic of places to an American – North Korea. It was, overall, a singular experience of the ecological uncanny – a strangely familiar experience of neoliberal flat-world claims colliding with environmental realities.

A few riffs, pics, and recollections:

You still see graffiti like this in a lot of places around Milan, months after the protests that took place on the opening day of the Expo, May 1. (Protesters got an unexpected two-fer with this falling on May Day; it’s open to speculation whether corporate sponsors were sticking it in the eye of the counterculture or oblivious to the valence of the date.) Other popular images include the raised fist of solidarity against the expo and equating event organizers with Mafiosi.

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Milan was a pioneer in urban bike sharing with their “BikeMi” system. And thousands of residents are moving about the city all the time on their own bikes. So, naturally, I figured that biking to the expo would be the way to go. I asked the concierge about a rental for 10km trip from my hotel to the grounds but the shop he called refused, worried they’d lose their asset because there wasn’t a safe place to park it there. I found this perplexing, but when I exited the train stop – newly built for the expo – and headed toward the main entrance, I saw it was true. This is the inexcusable solution intrepid bikers had to resort to:

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I visited on a Tuesday, which I didn’t expect to be the day of the week with the highest attendance, but I was surprised when I entered and observed an approximately one-to-one ratio between staff/guides and paying guests. The situation inside the huge Zero Pavilion – a kind of introduction to humanity’s relationship to food by way of dioramas, jumbotrons, and interactive kiosks – was the same. Were the reports of dismal turnout I’d been reading true? Or were people ending it all here, like Edward G. Robinson in “Soylent Green,” in front of moving images of “nature?”

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I also puzzled over plastic livestock all apparently heading out the door…

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…but on the midway their meaning and destiny became clear.

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To do justice to all the participating nations’ buildings alone would take at least three full days; I admit I spent only five hours at the whole expo. The countries are grouped mainly by the predominant types of food produced there. “Fruits and Legumes,” for instance. But India, the world’s largest producer of legumes by far, aspires to a higher status than its cluster-mates Benin, Guinea, and Kyrgyzstan. Thus its pavilion stands apart. As do the structures that represent China, the U.S., and, of course, Italy as home team. The organization is loose, in other words. It all makes for randomized stroll, as if following a world map put through a blender. To my inexpert eye the architecture commonly displays vernacular elements (Qatar); often conveys emerging or power or aspirations thereto (Kazakhstan); sometimes pulls out all the stops (Angola); and occasionally fails at ground level despite its thematic ambition (South Korea’s is supposed to look like traditional ceramic cookware):

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National pride is everywhere expressed primarily through food, secondarily through energy, and after that anything counts. The French have a lingerie display. Indonesians perform dance routines, the Czechs blast europop, and the Dutch exude cool charm with their caravan food trucks. The tension between sustaining the whole earth and rational use of the one world’s resources is omnipresent, to wit:

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The inside of the model supermercato looks like any other high-end grocery, alas:

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And there were people actually buying food to take home! Mind you, it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the nearest exit was a 45-minute walk away, and out the door was going fresh dairy and meat, frozen convenience food, etc. Incomprehensible.

It was at about this point that I began to search for redemption. Like an oasis came the Iranian pavilion. It’s a lovely, modest, light structure that shelters garden plots of herbs essential to traditional Persian cuisine. Rice, spices, and cookware are for sale. They got it just right.

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Then I found, tucked away in the “Islands” cluster, the poignant Maldives display. It’s a lone room, silent, with photographs of indigenous undersea life and island culture. The message was obvious: all of this beauty will be gone soon, when the rising oceans inundate the lands. Nothing more needed.

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Heartened, I trekked to the Slow Food section, what I wanted to see most of all. Nearly off the map at the far end of the park – marginalized in every sense – are its three open-air, destined-for-reuse, wooden structures. Resembling the shelter buildings we see in U.S. public parks, they housed a library, performance space, café, and meaningful displays that summarize extraordinarily well the effects of mechanized agriculture on the earth and its citizens.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how slow food was anomalous yet central to the expo – perhaps the most uncanny experience of my day. I sat in the library for a good while wondering again: Who is this expo for? Are any hearts and minds being changed? What can the already the converted (like me) get out of it? Is this venue the right medium for these messages? Can it scale? Could it travel? Does ROI as a measure even apply here, and how would it be calculated? It was sitting here that it occurred to me the concept of the “uncanny” might be the best one to capture the experience of Expo Milano 2015. The expo’s sensual excesses reminded me that the uncanny comes to us aesthetically, today. It’s there, haunting us, in the what’s always around us – plants, animals, water, air, sunlight, fossil fuels. We coexist with these familiar things so intimately that, strangely, even though they touch our lives in multiple ways every day, we don’t pay attention to them.

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I got up and headed to the exit thinking, if nothing else, I want a big fat corn dude at my side from now on.

 

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