RIHA Journal 0312 | 31 May 2024

The Making of (Post)Colonial World’s Fairs

Coping with the Duress of the Past in Today’s Representational Work

Alexa Färber

This article explores the agency of (post)colonial professional self-positioning through globalised forms of representational work. It deepens our understanding of the constraints and duress from the colonial past involved in the making of (post)colonial world’s fairs by analysing representational work related to the Moroccan contribution to Expo 2000. It shifts the perspective from the aesthetics of Expo contributions to the process of making aesthetic objects for such a world’s fair. Stressing the specific limited and intensified temporality of representational work in the historical context of world’s fairs allows for insights into the aspirations of those who are engaged in this mode of project work. Taking an ethnographic perspective onto the working context in the Moroccan Expo office, I will show how the daily practice allowed for a certain 'neverthelessness' when facing the duress of the colonial past, as described by Laura Ann Stoler (2016). Finally, the Moroccan contribution to Expo 2000 will be briefly discussed with respect to later and as yet unrealised pavilions.

1 Title of the magazine accompanying the art project "The Great World’s Fair" on the former Tempelhof airfield, Berlin, organised by raumlaborberlin & Hebbel am Ufer, 2012 (courtesy raumlaborberlin & Hebbel am Ufer)

[1] In the summer of 2012, the architecture collective raumlaborberlin, in collaboration with the experimental theatre Hebbel am Ufer, opened the "The Great World’s Fair" on Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin and proclaimed: "The world is not fair" (Fig. 1).1 Working with a number of emerging and established artists, the organisers of this "world’s fair" aimed to address urban and local controversies. With 15 "pavilions" (site-specific art installations), they wanted to participate in and re-energise the debate on the future use of the immense and historically significant inner-city area of Tempelhofer Feld, including its monumental former airport building constructed during the Nazi era. With this project, the architecture collective wanted above all to emphasise that "urban development with and for large-scale events is no longer timely [sic] and has usually taken place without regard for the history of a city and its inhabitants".2 Aside from that local context the claim of the art project, disguised as a world’s fair, was nevertheless universal: "The world is not fair!"

[2] Given the famous history of world’s fairs as large-scale urban events it does not come as a surprise that their representational structure was neither equal for nor fair to all participants. During the 19th century, world’s fairs quickly became agents of modernity, proclaiming progress as a universal 'fate', and thus reproducing inequality. Their "geographically and culturally construed meta-narratives of supremacy were an integral feature of capitalism under the condition of colonialism".3 We can easily discern the semantic affordance of modernity as universal progress from their themes and titles: be it "Industry of all Nations" (London, 1851), "New Technologies" (Paris, 1878), or simply "Modern Life" (Brussels, 1897), "A Century of Progress" (Chicago, 1933/34) or "Man in the Space Age" (Seattle, 1962). The racialised representations that were realised within these material-semantic landscapes consisted of dominating and exploited societies, competing nations and dictatorships, corporations and amusement areas. Only in the 1980s were the semantics of progress more obviously questioned, with predominantly mediating and environment-related topics. Compared to their predecessors, they may lose their 'dramatic' attire and correspondingly, according to Fred Nadis, their 'appeal'.4

From analysing the aesthetics of Expos to researching representational work

[3] The first world’s fair in Germany, Expo 2000 in Hanover,5 which serves as a focal point for this contribution, had been given the rather vague motto "Man – Nature – Technology". This trinity of concepts refused to follow a simple ideology of progress. On the contrary, 'nature' was proclaimed the unavoidable reference point for 'mankind' and 'technology'. This approach was underlined by an important "thematic area" that raised issues about the world’s sustainable future (with exhibitions on "Basic Needs", "Environment: Landscape, Climate", and the "Future of Health") and numerous specialised events focusing on these concerns.6 Did these balanced claims of Expo 2000 – or indeed its successors, "Nature’s Wisdom" (Aichi, 2005), "Better City – Better Life" (Shanghai, 2010), "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" (Milan, 2015) or "Connecting Minds, Creating the Future" (Dubai, 2020) – show a way out of the unequal and unfair representational structure of such large-scale events, anchored as they were in imperialism and realised by colonialism? What kind of representational agency has been offered by world’s fairs in the post-colonial era, especially to independent participants?

[4] Ann Laura Stoler insists, in her comprehensive research on the structural presence of imperial history in today’s societies, that colonial power relations endure in multiple ways.7 Although Stoler’s argument relies on more existential areas of life, I would like to borrow her notion of "duress" in order to consider the lasting effects of the imperial history of world’s fairs and their colonial representational order. I am particularly interested in how, long after independence, a former colony such as the Kingdom of Morocco engages with the balanced ideology and integrative internationalism of contemporary world’s fairs, such as the Expo 2000 in Hanover. Morocco has a long history of contributions to universal exhibitions (since 1867) and a rather competitive engagement. Its participation in world’s fairs has therefore distinguished itself from, for example, other Arab8 or African9 contributions in that it constructed an individual pavilion or stand, such as at Expo 2000. Morocco also stood out in terms of its high level of investment and expenditures (Sevilla, 1992),10 and excelled with respect to its high-profile locations (at Shanghai in 2010, its stand was close to the Chinese contribution), and the winning of medals (Aichi, 2005; Shanghai, 2010).

[5] This self-positioning involves, as I will demonstrate, diverse processes of comparative scaling that simultaneously structure and individualise the "collective"11 that can be perceived as "Morocco". Such self-representation, making possible this complicated spatio-temporal collective, is what I call representational work.12 Representational work in the context of world’s fairs happens in negotiation with the host organisers, combined with speculation about the future visitors; it is above all the result of the participant’s assessment of their expectations for a world’s fair, and subsequently which (state) organisation will implement them (e.g. a ministry of tourism, economy, culture or foreign affairs, or other corporations). Exploring the day-to-day practice of representational work, the main interrogation of this paper is whether the cultural legacies of colonialism are inscribed not only in what is being re/presented, but also in the way in which such a temporary representation is realised.

[6] In my ethnographic study of almost 20 years ago,13 I understood these strategies of representation as "mimicry", referencing Homi Bhabha’s work on colonial authority and the creation of a "third space" of aesthetic articulation.14 However, the persistence of these powerful effects was clearly perceptible in Morocco’s final contribution to Expo 2000. This was obvious to those who developed the country’s participation in Expo 2000, as I also witnessed in my fieldwork in Rabat/Morocco. Thus I would like to complicate insights into the duress of the imperial order by analysing above all the 'making of' a (post)colonial contribution to a (post)colonial world’s fair. In order to do so I examine the representational work that brings into being such an aesthetic contribution, which I deem to be project work. Stressing the specific limited and intensified temporality of representational work as project work offers insights into the expectations of those who are engaged in this mode of work. In this case it showed that it was less the aesthetic product of the work that counted and more the experience of their engagement and where it could hopefully lead. Therefore in this article I want to shift the perspective from the aesthetics of an Expo contribution to the 'making of' aesthetic objects for an Expo.

[7] I will first trace project work back to the historical context of world’s fairs and show its intrinsic relation to the ideal of the entrepreneurial self. As an illustration of project work in (post)colonial times, I draw on my fieldwork in the Expo office in Rabat. Second, I will develop the concept of representational work as project work and clarify the ethnographic perspective it encompasses. With insights into the broader working context of the Moroccan Expo office, I will show how complicated the relationship between representational work and representation is in the daily working practice, in other words, the relationship between the making of a project and the outcome of the project, in this case the pavilion at Expo 2000. Finally the Moroccan contribution to Expo 2000 is briefly discussed with respect to later and as yet unrealised pavilions, in order to explore the agency of (post)colonial self-positioning and today’s Expos as an "interesting laboratory for observing competing politics of identity"15. However, the main argument of this article is concerned with analysing the daily practice of professional self-positioning through globalised forms of representational work.

Traces of the future: entrepreneurial selves and project work at world’s fairs

[8] With its project "Great World Expo – The world is not fair", a collective of architects like raumlaborberlin may denounce urban development through large-scale events and, particularly, the promise of progress of capitalist Modernism; yet it does not escape the usual economic conditions for creative work in the cultural sector. Project work is deeply inscribed into late Capitalism. It is characterised by a limited and intensified temporality, in which the idealised separation of work and leisure time once introduced by Henry Ford is nevertheless suspended. It is realised in teamwork and is ideally characterised by low hierarchies, which in turn allow working relationships and private relationships to coincide.16 Thus, raumlaborberlin also work together as colleagues and friends, they work on many other projects at the same time and develop future projects from the currently ongoing project. After all, project work carries with it a concept of creativity that is anchored and retrievable in the subject, and at the same time learnable and plannable.17 The creative exploitation of emotions, the analysis of defeats, and the moderation of conflicts as individual experiences are all inscribed into the idealised anthropological figure that emerges from this project work as the "entrepreneurial self".18

Glimpses of project work at a 19th century world’s fair …

[9] Both the idealised entrepreneurial self and project work as a real working condition can be traced back to the world’s fairs of the 19th century. The popular Revue illustrée, in which various authors commented on the Exposition universelle de Paris de 1889, included a depiction of architect Charles Garnier (1828–1898) that is telling in this context (Fig. 2). The drawing decorated the end of an article by Émile Goudeau (1849–1906). Goudeau, himself a vibrant personality with various writing assignments, emphasised the entertainment value of the 1889 world’s fair (which celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution) and how it consumed the time of everyone involved.19 This also seemed to apply to Charles Garnier, who is depicted as a somewhat confused exhibition organiser. With difficulty he holds in one hand a potential model of his exhibition "L’histoire de l’habitation humaine", committed to the educational mission of the 1889 world’s fair.20

2 Architect Charles Garnier depicted as exhausted exhibition maker in the Revue illustrée, 4th year, vol. 8 (1889), no. 92, p. 244

The drawing’s theme is the thin line between success and failure as subjectified in Garnier as the exhibition maker (architect, conceiver, organiser, and developer). An independent "maker" such as Garnier should be concerned about this conflation. Any possible overload and therefore the failure of a project could lead to a loss of credibility and, as a consequence, a loss of follow-up projects. As with any great undertaking, even if self-assessment and overestimation are a prerequisite for its initiation, the modern exhibition maker needs to take care to reconcile the high demands with an ultimately successful realisation of his project. Charles Garnier’s portrait is, in my view, an early representation of exhibition making and how to deal with the challenges to the imagined entrepreneurial self in a project work such as a world’s fair.21

[10] This suggestive visualisation of the 'excessiveness' of project work in the context of exhibition making also points to the fact that we know little about the day-to-day practice of making a world’s fair.22 But we have hints as to the project-related intensity of creative work, which was apparently already valid for Garnier in the context of world’s fairs and is recurrent in the realm of cultural production and beyond. Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, for example, points out the multifaceted tasks that faced the makers of Mexico’s national contributions to the world’s fairs of the late 19th century, when "politicians and technocrats […] simultaneously were poets, writers, and historians – at best, truly men of letters; at worst, picos de oro (silver tongues), as historian Luis González characterized them".23 Being responsible for the 'form' or 'style' of imagining the nation, how exactly did they 'manage'24 this simultaneity of political, technocratic, poetic, and literary practice? How did these poly-professionals of a world’s fair integrate their work on an exhibition into their everyday lives as politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals and artists? Was it one project alongside others that gave shape to what Tenorio-Trillo believes in the case of Mexico to be a "postcolonial nineteenth-century nationalism"?25

… and at a 20th century Expo

[11] During my fieldwork in the office of the Commissariat Général (CG) in Rabat for the contribution of Morocco to Expo 2000, I also witnessed the multiple commitments of different contributors, and in some cases excessiveness in the way they related to the Expo project. In the sober rooms of the CG’s office in a well-situated neighbourhood in Rabat I could observe how the architectural project slowly took shape, how communication offices competed for contracts, how experts from universities and ministries or the chamber of commerce added their knowledge or interests to the project.26 However, it was with the office manager that I was able to develop the most insightful working relationship. The brainstorming sessions, the exchange of news, but also the competition for information and the best ideas, gave me an impression of how project work was lived in Rabat and what kind of tensions this work produced in situ.

[12] Mr. Haddad27 was a ministerial official on secondment to work for the Expo project. He fully embodied the tension of self-fulfilment and self-exploitation, which is crucial for creating the intensity and excessiveness of project work. The specific temporality of work, the way in which private and professional social relations intertwine, as well as the evaluation of possible failure and the projection of the future gain of this experience were all very present in his working practice and the way in which he reflected on it in everyday conversations. For the office manager, this temporary work "about the Expo", as he said in an interview, should provide a maximum of experiences to learn from, a motivation for all work he had done up to that point:

So, every experience has given me this ability to work on horizontal things [i.e., on things that broaden my horizon, editor’s note], to become more and more interested, to find myself in an everyday life where it was a matter of researching information, a matter of completing what I knew; to understand what I knew, to understand what I had to do to place it in a more global context, namely Morocco – the transformations that are underway, whether political, social, [or] economic.28

From the point of view of my interlocutor, his position as office manager and assistant to the Commissioner General offered him the opportunity to escape the daily routine of a ministerial official, albeit only for a limited period of time. On several occasions, he distanced himself from the work in the ministery, which seemed too repetitive and technocratic to him – "I don’t learn anything anymore, every day is like the next, you know, in the administration you don’t learn anything, you are only exploited. And that’s not interesting." But his work should be interesting, and that was what the project in the 'Expo office' promised to be.

[13] The motivation gained from an 'interesting' job, which went hand in hand with a professional flexibilisation29, whereby knowledge gained by experience was a major resource, was echoed by other collaborators on the project as well.30 The labor-intensive conditions and the benefits of working for the Moroccan Expo project – the very temporality of their commitment – allowed for a self-distancing attitude towards their regular work but also towards the outcome of their current work. This leads me to the issue of the specific conditions of world’s fairs as representational work.

The multiple commitments of (post)colonial representational work

[14] Project work, as described above, was undertaken more precisely as what I define as representational work.31 In my dissertation on Expo 2000 and in particular on Morocco’s path to Expo 2000, the concept of representational work helped me to approach the everyday depths and inconsistencies of the making of a world’s fair. Representational work opens up a research perspective on national self-representations at world’s fairs and, above all, on the working practices from which these self-images emerge. In other words, the term is suitable for describing representation as the result of a specific day-to-day work within the "exhibitionary complex"32, both as a performative format of representation and as a practice that modulates the given representation (in this case, the exhibit) and is modulated by it. In the context of a world’s fair, representational work as an everyday practice emerges within the above-mentioned conditions of time-limited and intensified project work. From this ethnographic-praxeological perspective, the result of a representational work – the pavilion as the representation of a nation, for example – cannot be distinguished from the mostly interdisciplinary, temporary teamwork, where a role model such as the entrepreneurial self has an impact on how the project is evaluated, what expectations are associated with the work, and how success and failure are experienced.

[15] At the core of research that evolves from this perspective are professional representation workers and what they do: they are professionals working in international Expo management, for the inviting nation as well as for the participating nation. Their working relations are multiple, temporary and more or less intense. Exchange revolves around the project, whether before, during or sometimes after. Not everybody is involved at all stages of the project in these exchanges.

Multiple commitments beyond the built representation

[16] My ethnographic research in Rabat and Hanover in the years 1999 and 2000 gave me insights into how the given structure, legacy, and local German version of the world’s fair in 2000 was perceived, interpreted, modified, and affirmed in the representational work of the Moroccan Expo office. In Rabat I was taking part in the day-to-day representational work and was welcomed as an intern who was simultaneously conducting research for her PhD on "how the Kingdom of Morocco becomes a pavilion on the Expo 2000".33 The core group of the Moroccan Expo office consisted of five people: the Commissaire Général (a Secretary of State in the Ministry of Agriculture and at that time the designated Moroccan ambassador to Germany); the office manager (an agronomist, office manager in the Ministry of Agriculture and assistant to the Secretary of State); two accountants; and a part-time advisor on economics and international fairs. In addition, the Rabat office had eight permanent advisors. Two of these, both trained ethnologists, were civil servants from the Ministry of Culture and responsible for museums and cultural heritage. There were two geographers from Mohammed V University of Rabat, one an expert on migration and tourism and the other on water and sustainable development. The fifth permanent consultant was a political scientist and anthropologist from the University of Casablanca who specialised in religious social movements. The other advisors participating in the regular thematic meetings were a musicologist, a representative of the trade association, and a representative of the architect’s studio (either the architect himself or his assistant). Almost everybody had contributed to Morocco’s evolving civil society in recent years, whether in the realm of environmentalism, family and women’s rights or the representation of minorities (e.g. the Berber population).34 Their commitment to the social question encouraged a certain esprit militant (militant spirit) in the office, during meetings held there or on visits to collaborators.

[17] The meetings and their official minutes revealed the extent to which the team’s discussions in the run-up to the fair were structured by interpretations of existing geopolitical hierarchies. Knowledge gaps were acknowledged as differentiating an ignorant general public from a reflective and smart guest country. These at least were the ideas contained in the guidelines written up mainly by the office manager.35 He explained in the same interview:

But above all else: How does Morocco want to be perceived? Because this question is very amusing. If it were France, I wouldn't have cared. If it had been Spain, well, good; but because it is Germany! Why? Because Germany is better than the others? No, I didn't say that. Well, the French know the Moroccans better, we know them better and there are matters that they sometimes know better than the locals ["les nationaux"]. This human rights affair with Serfaty36 and the others. And also in economic matters. But the Germans ... that is a blank sheet. Do you agree?37

The Moroccan team’s perception of Germany as a "blank sheet" therefore meant that the self-representation of Morocco was developed – at least from the office manager’s perspective – from the assumed prior (non)knowledge of the Western/German "Other". Yet this can only explain one dimension of a much more complicated and also contingent scaling process.

[18] If in the formative time of world’s fairs "the creation of a national image was undertaken by those with power in reference to other national images, because only through this globalization did these images make sense",38 the "comparative spectacle" ("spectacle comparatif")39 of a world’s fair has grown more complicated in (post)colonial times. It consists of multiple scales of self-enactment that are not absorbed by each other: the scale of international relations and the country’s own national self-location therein; the scale of the local opportunities offered by the host country, which results in a self-positioning in the world’s fair terrain with strategically chosen or accepted temporary neighbours; the scale of public and internal calendars of events, which entail diverse performative formats to help achieve different goals for the national participation. These multiple self-positionings culminate in an architectural space that represents the participating nation on a miniature scale;40 yet this space only stands for certain aspects of the goals associated with the overall participation of a country.

[19] In the spirit of this relational understanding of the represented self, the Moroccan project was developed with regard to different scales based on considerations of the country’s future global, international, and regional positionings, be it economically, culturally or socially. One of the participating academics expressed this multiplicity of expectations when talking about how he tried to introduce academic concepts into the thematic section of the stand at Expo 2000:

Well, there is a personal challenge, which consists of getting a little bit out of my theoretical working framework and working [instead] towards communication. That is an important thing. But there’s also this idea, not only in view of an international exhibition, but perhaps also, if this theme [of the exhibition] can eventually be reproduced in Morocco later, that if it can travel within the country, then the stand, what is shown at the world’s fair, can be shown in Morocco as a travelling exhibition, that would be extremely good, because that would be a basic means of communication with people. After all, what we are currently experiencing in the country is a lack of communication. A huge backlog in communication.41

The high profile geographer had a clear idea of the scale needed for his Expo project to bear fruit. He understood that there was no chance of integrating these concepts into the pavilion itself, since the reaction to his 'seductive' proposals was rather ambivalent in working meetings: "Yes, séduisant, seductive as an idea, but they said, 'But concretely, how can you do that?' It’s a seductive idea when you talk and think in a group, but to bring that into a pavilion?"42

[20] The great motivation I witnessed in situ was only partly related to the preparations for the pavilion and its corresponding programme. I even observed a lot of internal criticism if not downright pessimism about the quality and relevance of the Moroccan Expo project. Although my interlocutors expressed excitement about the way of working (together) in the project,43 they were skeptical about the success of their contribution, such as for example having an impact on future economic investment in Morocco or an increase in tourism. Nevertheless they did, when necessary, work 'day and night' – like the office manager who produced numerous, carefully elaborated protocols and papers. And even though these were only sporadically consulted by the other collaborators, he told me that he sacrificed weekends and worked to the edge of exhaustion to prepare them. This "neverthelessness" resonates with the decisions taken regarding the architectural project, the focal point of this national self-representation at Expo 2000, which I will describe as compared to subsequent pavilions in the next section.

Representing duress

[21] The architectural renderings of the future Moroccan pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai show a compact building constructed from cubes of different sizes (Figs. 3-4). The irregular facade has the allure and colour of an earthen material. There are no windows except in the cube on the top. This structure is arranged around an inner court with a couple of trees. One of the images shows a gangway that supposedly connects the bottom with the top, leading around the courtyard. It is no coincidence that the building’s absolutely sober, almost impermeable external appearance resembles the external appearance of Morocco’s contribution to Expo 2015 in Milan (Figs. 5-6): The same architectural office, Oualalou + Choi, designed the building. These impressive constructions (in Dubai, 1,500 qm; in Milan, 1,300 qm) and their ambivalent, fortress-like allure clearly reference 'vernacular' architecture and claim 'authenticity' from the Berber kasbah.44 Its appearances exude warmth (colour), soberness (non-ornamental), rootedness (material), and strength (volume/height) that, one could argue, meets the fantasies of an expected European public in Milan. But it is also a composition of diverse traditional architectural elements bridging the far West of the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula, so as to inscribe itself into a shared Arab aesthetic heritage for an Arab public in Dubai.

3 Architectural rendering of the 33 meers high Moroccan pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, by architectural studio Oualalou + Choi, Paris (courtesy O+C, Paris)

4 Architectural rendering of the Moroccan pavilion for Expo 2020 in Dubai, courtyard with ramp winding its way up from the ground floor to the top floor along the courtyard facades, by architectural studio Oualalou + Choi, Paris (courtesy O+C, Paris)

5 Moroccan pavilion at Expo 2015, Milan, by architectural studio Oualalou + Choi, Paris (photo © Luc Boegly)

6 Interior of the Moroccan pavilion at Expo 2015, Milan, by architectural studio Oualalou + Choi, Paris (photo © Luc Boegly)

[22] Twenty years earlier, when preparing to participate in Expo 2000 in Hanover, the opposite architectural gesture was voted for: a colourful, shiny and seemingly light construction that played out all sorts of ornamental decoration. Only the "museum" had an explicit entry and exit, whilst all other areas – a café, a street, a square, and the information area with its section of a riyad structure – were open, to be crossed from all sides and in all directions (Figs. 7-9).45 This composition of elements articulated in diverse ways an underlying self-positioning as a connecting country: as a bridge between Europe and Africa, as a geographical link between North and South, as a cultural transition between East and West, as a land between Orient and Occident. These multiple situations of 'inbetweenness' as well as the oscillation between 'tradition' and 'modernity' formed the framework for the self-representation of a hybrid, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country with the motto "roots of the future".46

7 Architectural rendering of the Moroccan pavilion for Expo 2000, Hanover, by architectural studio Jamal Lamiri Alaoui, Rabat (reprod. from Expo 2000-leaflet)