The online documentary 51 Sprints explores the history of more than a hundred years of Olympic 100-metre sprint finals. The 51 finals not only show increasingly quick finishing times but also tell a story of emancipation and identity. The film’s initiator, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, talks about the project’s background.
How did the documentary 51 Sprints come about?
Klaas Kuitenbrouwer: The media reality of the Olympic Games fascinates me. The games are not only about sport but also, above all, about representation. The 100-metre sprint is a mediagenic component that illustrates that story perfectly. It is also very compact: we ended up with 47 Olympic sprint finals and also chose four Paralympic sprints: a total of nine to ten minutes of sport. The 100-metre sprint is also literally an image of eight figures running across a bar chart. The image of the sprint final is a kind of data visualisation.
What story do the various films of the 100-metre sprints tell?
The Olympic Games were originally “restricted to amateurs”, which meant that only those who were financially independent could take part. The games began as a meeting of white men from a limited number of industrialised countries. Even so, the Olympic Games represented the idea of universal humanity. So, the white man stood for universal man. 51 Sprints shows how other groups that differed from the standard – workers, women, black people, people with disabilities – were also given representation at a certain point. Firstly, it’s about the right to participate and then about the differences that previously dictated exclusion or inclusion and which part they play in your chance of winning.
How do you tell such a complex story using such a simple phenomenon as the 100-metre sprint?
Artist/designer Yuri Veerman and I developed a three-part concept. The story begins with an introduction about the sprint final and the symbolism of the sprinter. The second part comprises five storylines: nation, class, race, gender and body. Five ways in which the sprinter symbolises a certain group of people and represents a certain identity. The body is also an important theme now. Since the Second World War there have been sports competitions for disabled people, initially for those wounded in the war. From 1960 they were officially recognised by the Olympic Committee under the name ‘Paralympic Games’. They take place after the Olympic Games and historically were ignored by the media. Since 2008 the media attention has grown enormously and in London the Paralympic Games were almost raised to the same level. Some people think it won’t be long before Paralympic athletes are part of the Olympic Games. For the disabled athletes this will mean recognition for ‘non-normative’ bodies.
The third part of the documentary is interactive. How does the interactive component work?
We assembled an enormous amount of data about all the sprint finalists, such as origin, height, weight, education and gross national product of the countries they come from. All this data enables us to make clusters in which you can compare people from different categories. So we know that, on average, men are faster than women, but we can also extract many more averages from the enormous quantity of data. For example, you can calculate the average difference between those runners who had a sports scholarship and those who didn’t. Or you can compare runners from America and Europe. You can also calculate how much faster people from the African diaspora, for example from America and Jamaica, are than people of European origin. The viewer of the documentary can add or remove factors and thus create fictional races. It creates a purely polemical, scientifically debatable collection of results.
Alongside architecture and design, digital culture is one of the ‘disciplines’ within Het Nieuwe Instituut. How does the institute aim to relate to the digital domain? Can you say something about that in connection with this interactive documentary?
With this documentary I wanted to choose a form that is specific to digital culture. The interactive documentary is a format that belongs on the web. For me, 51 Sprints is an example of how to develop a practice further. The digital domain now permeates everything, including architecture, design and art. You could say that it’s a medium rather than a specific culture. Is Het Nieuwe Instituut consciously looking for what is particular to the digital realm and what those specific characteristics can deliver?
We’re already a bit post-digital. There is no culture that isn’t influenced in one way or another by the digital realm. So what then is digital culture? But there are interactive forms that have flourished specifically in the digital context. Interactivity makes it possible to project your own subjective reading onto what’s being shown. Obviously that’s a bit of a false distinction because even in a traditional, more static exhibition the viewer has to interpret the works, but within interactive media there’s more room for exchange.
What does it mean for digital culture that Het Nieuwe Instituut aims to approach and exhibit the different disciplines in relation to each other?
From the perspective of digital culture it’s enormously enriching to be connected with a history that predates 1984 (one of the possible dates for the genesis of the internet). There’s a lot of critical net theory but also a lot of future-oriented speculation that lacks any kind of historical perspective. For architecture and design it’s good to see that the new technological means are not just en extension of the existing vocabulary but can also raise radically new questions. Take open source, for example. That’s a phenomenon from digital culture that has inspired new developments in architecture and design. The idea that you can share designs and work on them later with others comes from the affordances of digital media. The convergence of the different disciplines enables Het Nieuwe Instituut to follow such developments critically.
Interview by Lotte Haagsma