How to sell a little country BIG!

ALEXANDER ROSS January 1 1967

How to sell a little country BIG!

ALEXANDER ROSS January 1 1967

How to sell a little country BIG!

With a revolutionary "magic lantern" that shows a dazzling 560 pictures a second, movies that hover mysteriously in space, a $5,000,000 art-treasures collection, and assorted other wonders, Czechoslovakia will make its Expo exhibit a socialist showcase with capitalist sell-sell-sell

ALEXANDER ROSS

Prague

"WHAT I’M WAITING FOR,” says the world's greatest stage designer, “is the moment when everything’s set up in Montreal. We've worked for two years on this display, and now at last I press the button, and—nothing happens!” This is Josef Svoboda talking: stage designer, socialist millionaire, world citizen, nonstop genius, one of the great men of Czechoslovakia, and just now he’s making a mild little joke about his country’s $10 million pavilion at Expo 67. Svoboda is a little groggy. He’s spent most of the previous night racing back from a conference in Munich in his grey Mercedes, he hasn’t had time to shave and now, back home in Prague, he’s got to start briefing the 11 photographers who will shoot 30,000 color slides for the most fantastically ambitious magic-lantern show in the history of the world.

What Svoboda’s doing for the Czech pavilion is really too complicated, and too visual, to describe in words. Take the colored-slide show, for instance. Picture a movie-sized screen, divided into 112 squares. Each one of these squares is actually a hollow cube that slides in and out of the wall to add to the illusion of depth. Inside each cube are two slide projectors which flash their images on the side of the cube that faces the audience.

Now the show begins. Instantly, you’re bombarded with noise and images. Within each cube, the slides flash by at the rate of five every second. At one instant, you see a single, full-screen picture—a man welding a pipe, say. An eyewink later, the screen explodes into a close-up patchwork of the man’s hands, seen from 112 different angles. Another heartbeat and you see his face, again from 112 different angles. You’re seeing 560 separate pictures every second, and the show goes on for nine minutes—an incredible input of visual information which, Svoboda hopes, will hit his audiences with the physical impact of a roller-coaster ride.

Svoboda’s visual gimmickry will be all over the fair. In one section of the Czech pavilion, he’s installing a wondrous “factory” — a darkened room crammed with 36 movie screens, huge mirrors and flashing lights, all designed to recreate the “feel” of a roomful of machinery. On He Ronde, the fair’s amusement section. he’s building a laterna magika theatre, a Svoboda innovation that combines film with live actors and dancers. For his “factory” he’s developed one movie screen that looks

like a globular cobweb. When spun fast it disappears, so that the image projected on it appears to be hovering in space. If the final effect of all this is as dazzling as he hopes, Svoboda’s innovations won’t merely be 1967 sideshows; they may actually hasten the demise of the flat-screened movie theatre.

Svoboda is only one of an estimated 2,500 Czechs, from headwaiters to experts on Gothic art, who are involved in their country's presentation at Expo 67. And Czechoslovakia is only one of approximately 70 countries rushing to complete their pavilions in time for April’s opening ceremonies. Clearly, it is a massive international effort. But what is it all fori Why are these countries spending $225 million in Canada this year?

The answers are as diverse as the countries exhibiting at Expo 67. But a close look at one such national effort, the Czechoslovakian pavilion, reveals a few motives that probably apply to most exhibitors. For one thing, it gives small countries a big chance to remind the world that they still exist. It can also become an occasion for national self-evaluation— for if you’re going to show yourself to the world, you must first decide which self you want to show. Finally, and most germanely, world's fairs are good business.

For all of these reasons, Czechoslovakia is treating Expo 67 as big news. They’re involved and they’re excited—more so, 1 suspect, than many Canadians. The kids in every primary - grade art school in the country are busy making little ceramic toys for Expo. They’ll be given away, tens of thousands of them, to children who visit the Czech pavilion. About 250,000 Czechs have bought tickets on a state-sponsored Expo 67 lottery. The grand prize, worth $14,000, includes a new Skoda sedan and a trip to Expo. Czech newspapers, which are permitted some discretion about not printing dull news, consistently choose to play Expo on their front pages. And when Canada’s ambassador to Prague, Malcolm N. Bow, spoke late last October to students at the University of Bratislava, their questions after the speech centred around only two topics: Canadian

hockey and Expo 67.

This grassroots flavor has characterized the Czech effort from the start. The external design of the pavilion was the subject of a nationwide architectural competition. More than 600 industries and organizations were in-

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CZECHOSLOVAKIA

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After 20 years, people come first

vited to suggest what to put inside it. About 40 art restorers and historians were involved in choosing the five million dollars’ worth of art objects that are being shipped to Montreal.

Czechoslovakia is a nation of craftsmen, and hundreds of them are involved in some aspect of the pavilion. In the Bohemian village of Duchcov, for instance, restorer Josef Nemec and six colleagues have spent the past year peeling a priceless Renaissance frescoe off the ceiling of an old church, restoring its faded colors, and preparing the 189-year-old panels for shipment to Montreal. In the countryside peasant craftsmen have created hundreds of charmingly unsophisticated paintings and statues to illustrate old Czech folktales and historical incidents. The best will be used to decorate one of the taverns in the Czech pavilion.

In Prague, a designer named Gonumil Eliash is building an intricate glass fountain that will weigh more than five tons — probably the largest glass construction ever produced. In a cluttered animation studio in downtown Prague, puppeteer Jiri Trnka is building a fairyland castle out of cardboard and foam plastic that will be big enough to fill a barn, and populating it with several hundred hand-carved puppets. At the jewelry institute in Turnov, senior students have been working for a year on a replica of King Wenceslaus’s crown. The original was deemed to be too valuable to let out of the country, but the replica, made of real gold and real jewels, will be almost as good.

“We don’t like calling it a copy,” says Vilem Havelka, chief of the Czech Expo bureau’s display and public-relations departments. “It’s a treasure in its own right.”

Since no one will see the pavilion until it’s completed next April, it’s hard to predict the total effect of all this effort. But if past performance is any guide, it will probably be one of Expo’s most talked-about presentations. The Czechs won the gold medal at Brussels in 1958 (this victory was a major factor in the government’s decision to invest so heavily in Montreal) and the planners in Prague now look back on the 1958 fair as a sort of minor dress rehearsal for Montreal.

But regardless of how the public judges it, the Czech pavilion will unquestionably be an accurate reflection of the country’s national character, its status in the world and the achievements—and perhaps even the failures —of its people. Both are readily apparent to Western visitors to Prague.

It is really a crazy and quite wonderful city. The apartment shortage is so desperate that most young married couples are forced to live with their in-laws. Yet the government is spending millions of crowns restoring the façades of several thousand historic downtown buildings, with scarcely a murmur of dissent from the populace. Western publications are banned from Czech newsstands — and yet. the evening I arrived in Prague, there was old Henry R. Luce of Time-Life Inc. prowling around

the lobby of the Alerón Hotel. It is the proud boast of Czech industry that they can make anything from a needle to a submarine — but you might have to try five or six shops before you find the right size of needles. All the usual socialist curiosities are still in evidence: Soviet Astronaut portraits in shop windows, a sophisticated secret-police network, street vendors who are employees of the ministry of light industry.

At the same time, there is a very matter-of-fact acceptance of Western influences. No one seems to think it odd, for instance, that a mediocre jazz pianist can make a better living than a doctor. Or that teenaged prostitutes should throng the bars and hotel lobbies. Or that Tennessee Williams, Murray Schisgal, Edward Albee, Chris Barber, and Tom Jones should be presented in Prague, all in one ordinary week.

What it all seems to add up to, at least as far as smaller countries such as Czechoslovakia and Canada are concerned, is that the cold war is almost finished. After a shameful sellout by their Western allies at Munich, after seven years of Nazi atrocities, after a traumatic Communist takeover, after nearly a decade of Stalinist repression and another decade of cautious thaw, Czechoslovakia has very quietly succeeded in rejoining the rest of the world. This does not mean a rejection of Czech ties with Russia, nor a renunciation of the basic doctrines of socialism. But it does involve cultural liberalization and a sweeping campaign to purge the economy of the endless absurdities it inherited from the Stalin era. Starting this year, Czech factory managers will have the freedom to produce only as much or as little as they feel they can sell. They’ll even have the revolutionary right, subject to all sorts of cautionary restrictions, to fire workers they don’t need.

No butterfat and lathes

“What’s happening,” one foreigntrade official told me, “is that we’re shifting from a production-oriented economy to a phase where the consumer comes first. After 20 years, we’ve beaten the problem of producing enough to live on. Now we’ve got to start worrying about producing what people want.”

This change is reflected in the Czechs’ approach to their pavilion. Instead of proletarian posters and charts on butterfat production, the pavilion will stress the cultural values and the traditions of craftsmanship that have been part of Czech life for several centuries.

“We had a hard time resisting pressure from some of the old-line bureaucrats,” says Vilem Havelka. “They wanted to fill the place up with machinery. We kept telling them they’d bore people stiff. North Americans take production for granted. You’re not going to impress a Canadian by showing him a lathe.”

Instead, they’ll be telling the industrial story in the brilliant multiscreened displays devised by Svoboda

CZECHOSLOVAKIA continued

What’s the use making trouble if you can’t change anything?

and by Frantisek Cubr, chief architect for the pavilion's interior. To get across the idea of progress in the textile industry, for instance, they're projecting a film onto the finely strung fibres of a huge jet loom. To illustrate the proposition (which most Western girl-watchers in Prague would dispute) that Czech fashion is among the world's best, they've devised a fashion-show format that will involve more mirrors and movie projectors than girls. And to symbolize the sophistication of Czech heavy industry, they've mounted a five-ton turbine rotor in one wall, so delicately balanced that it will spin as lightly as a tricycle wheel. It's virtually the only piece of machinery in the whole pavilion.

The very cleverness of all this seems to illustrate another aspect of the country: for all their wittiness and visual flair, the Czechs have learned to play it very, very safe. Czechoslovakia has no angry artists. There is no writer who questions his country's basic social values, as almost every important writer does in the West. There is no abrasion. Things are bad, the Czechs keep telling you, but they're getting better. And what's the use of making trouble when you can't change anything? One Czech analyzed it for me by describing his countrymen as “a nation of Schweiks,” referring to the famous fictional soldier who endured prodigies of injustice with an inexhaustible, doltish optimism. Perhaps, as the architect Cubr says, “it’s got something to do wdth national survival.” As a small country surrounded by more powerful neighbors, the Czechs, like the Swiss, have had centuries of practice in making themselves inoffensive. And just as the outstanding Swiss contribution to international culture is said to be the cuckoo clock, it may be significant that Jiri Trnka, one of the country's most revered contemporary artists, specializes in making cute little puppets.

They are, however, exceedingly charming puppets. You'll find them not only in the Czech pavilion, but also in the pavilion called Man and the Community where a pageant designed by Trnka will illustrate “work and leisure.”

All of these projects—the pavilion, five restaurants, the laterna ma^ika theatre on lie Ronde and Trnka’s work in the theme pavilion, will cost Czechoslovakia nearly $14 million— roughly one dollar per Czech. ■ Whyarc the Czechs spending so much?

The answer, which critics of Canada's $80 million Expo “deficit” ought to consider, is that they fully expect to get it all back again. The Czechs have thousands of products, from crystal goblets to Jawa motorcycles, that they must export. But because it has been closed to the West for nearly a quarter of a century, Czechoslovakia is largely an unknown country.

"What is our image in the West?” asked one official from the foreign ministry. “I'll tell you: it's no image at all. This country used to be worldfamous for its glass, for the Skoda

works, for its beer, for its scenery, for its castles. Today, if you ask someone from the West about Czechoslovakia, they can't tell you a thing.” The Expo pavilion, and the Czech trade centre opening in May in Montreal's Place Bonaventure. are designed to remedy the problem. Canada sold roughly $35 million worth of wheat

and industrial goods to the Czechs in 1965 and bought only $16 million worth of goods in return. Bycreating an attractive image at Expo and afterward, Czechoslovakia hopes to make the imbalance less severe.

But for Czechoslovakia, and for most of Expo's national exhibitors, that strange but potent intangible

known as “prestige” is an equally powerful inducement.

“We are a small country,” says Miroslav Galushka, commissionergeneral of his country's Expo corporation, “and the world tends to forget that we exist. That’s why we welcome world exhibitions. We have no bombs, we have no sputniks, we make very little important news. So Expo gives us an opportunity to stand up and wave our hands and say, ‘Here we are! Look at us.’ ” ★