Olympic torch run (Mexico City) is the sixth component in a body of video work generated for my PhD research project, The paradox of failure: sport, competition and contemporary art, in which I set out to restage a 50-year-old swimming race from the 1968 Mexico Olympics: the final of the women’s 400 metres individual medley.
Wearing the same white running outfit that I had worn in Lighting an old flame, and again holding aloft a multi-coloured cardboard Olympic torch, I restaged the experience of being an Olympic torchbearer running through Mexico City. Central to this work was the premise of restaging the work twice – to further plumb the research possibilities – but this time on location in Mexico City.
We decided to take advantage of Avenue Paseo de la Reformer, a main arterial thoroughfare, being closed to traffic on Sundays. It was teeming with walkers, runners and cyclists – and me, panting and sweating in the thin Mexico City air. Dodging runners and cyclists, I ran past an unfolding series of monuments dotted along La Reformer. This is a city long on memory and big on spectacle, but I still don’t know what the locals made of the sight of this old gringa running the length of La Reforma with a fake Olympic flame. But then, there was this kid on a bike who stared at me as he rode past with his mum. I didn’t really spot him until I watched the footage later. He looked puzzled – no, it was more than that. He looked perturbed – and he knew I didn’t belong.
Evocative of Barthes’ punctum: sting-like, a speck, a cut, “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me),” the boy’s stare brought about an odd shift in perspective. Unexpectedly reframed through his eyes, I was abruptly returned to my outsiderness and my out-of-timeness. This change in frame is also articulated by philosopher Slavoj Žižek in his definition of the event, describing it as “something shocking, out of joint, that appears to happen all of a sudden and interrupts the usual flow of things; something that emerges seemingly out of nowhere, without discernable causes, an appearance without solid being as its foundation.” Indeed, this may be how I suddenly appeared to the boy – as a kind of effect or, to borrow again from Žižek, a “rupture in the normal run of things,” as a perplexing encounter-turned-public-art event in his everyday experience.
“The happenstance nature of everyday encounters in the public realm,” writes academic Mick Wilson, “… has sought to prioritise the contingent coming-into-being of a temporary public, clustered around the event of an artwork.” And yet, the event of this artwork was slight, unspectacular. For the public, there was no real indication that an artwork was taking place – unless they happened to notice me and the ever-present video camera. Except for a few, it seemed that the majority of people swarming around me weren’t very interested in what was unfolding – seeing me, perhaps, but not really taking much notice, which I found curious. In turn, this caused me to reflect further upon the nature of this restaged torch run as an event, and as a temporary intervention into this public space and its unfolding line-up of civic monuments. It made me smile to think of myself as a kind of roving, embodied public artwork, my ageing fleshiness as a “small, fragmentary, counter-public moment” against the solidity and solemnity of the civic monuments and statues dotted along this stretch of La Reforma.
Here, the ephemeral and durational quality of my fleeting performative gesture is in stark contrast to the immovability and fixity of the monuments – as Anna Dezeuze puts it, “contingent, almost accidental, hovering on the borderline between structure and chaos, order and randomness, appearance and disappearance.” Heightening an inherent uncertainty, this description perfectly encapsulates what I was experiencing – the precariousness of restaging the torch run with a fake cardboard torch while being subsumed into this throng of walkers, runners and cyclists, all heading in the same direction along La Reformer. The difference, of course, was that I was an ageing – and in that environment, foreign – woman running with a fake Olympic torch, caught in an oddly uncertain oscillation between authenticity and inauthenticity.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982), 27.
Slavoj Žižek, Event: Philosophy in Transit (London: Penguin Books, 2014), 2.
Mick Wilson, “The Event,” in One Day Sculpture, ed. David Cross and Claire Doherty (Bielefeld, Germany: Kerber Verlag, 2009), 24.
Anna Dezeuze, Almost Nothing: Observations on Precarious Practices in Contemporary Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017),