When the World Watches the World Cup, What Does That Look Like?

A writer and a designer make art to find out, with the help of 2,000 friends.

A still from 'The Time of the Game' (Teju Cole, Jer Thorp)

We still don’t know how many people watched Sunday’s World Cup final, but the numbers from the last go-round provide a clue. In 2010, FIFA claimed that 900 million people watched at least one minute of that game.

Nearly 12 percent of the world’s population, in other words, briefly focused on a bunch of dudes kicking a ball and running around. It’s a staggering collective act of attention. For those 90 minutes, people saw the same sights, experienced the same emotions. Their personal senses of time became the time of the game

What does that look like?

The novelist Teju Cole and the information designer Jer Thorp wanted to make some sense of it. With the help of artist and developer Mario Klingemann, they have created The Time of the Game“a synchronized global view of the World Cup.” The page aggregates over 2,000 different photos of people’s TVs showing the World Cup.

The photos were submitted by Cole’s more than 160,000 followers. Last week, during the first semifinal, Cole asked his followers to submit photos of their TV showing the Cup. He asked them to provide a caption: where they were watching the game, and what minute it was.

His followers obliged. Hundreds of pictures were posted to the social network, each with a hashtag marking them as part of the public event, #thetimeofthegame. So for the final, said Cole, he wanted to try something a little bigger. He recruited Thorp, the founder of the Office for Creative Research and a faculty member of New York University, to help construct the communal photographs into something more substantial.

This is what results: A fast-moving, chronological video collage of the photographs, each individual image onion-skin-like transparent, with the glowing, green TV at the perpetual center of the shot.

Cole had already been very active in World Cup Twitter conversations. It makes sense: Cole’s not only a clear football fan, but an advocate of cosmopolitanism and a more peaceful internationalism. His work often focuses on people with a complex sense of their own nationalism. His first novel, Open City, tells of a young, sophisticated half-Nigerian, half-German doctor, walking around New York City and Brussels.

Teju Cole (image courtesy Teju Cole / Tim Knox)

And speaking on Monday from Switzerland, Cole approved the many loyalties the World Cup requires of its viewers.

“The World Cup becomes this opportunity for an alternative internationalism. A lot of countries, when we hear about them, it’s terror, it’s war, poverty.”

With the Cup, “you actually have to sit there and watch men from Ghana for 90 minutes.”

But this project goes far beyond that, and Cole said it has many antecedents. In the spring of this year, he asked his Twitter followers to submit pictures of blooming flowers in their area. He dubbed them his “International Florrespondents.”

“I had done a couple of crowdsourcing experiments before that were not informational, but artistic,” said Cole.

Cole has also used Twitter to collect diverse images. Using Twitter’s collections, a feature which allows tweets to be strung together, Cole tweeted images of art about terrorism and the American War on Terror in April, after the first paintings of George W. Bush were released. The next month, he used the same feature to create TV Guide, a collection of images showing the depiction of television in art and photography.

And the images in Time of the Game, of course, also center on a TV.

Images with a TV, Cole told me, are “formally satisfying because it’s a frame within a frame. That is the real power of it. A frame within a frame is formally interesting.

“And people would also include the TV stand, which may also be a frame. Often they’ll be a window, often there is a doorway, or a picture hanging on the wall. A proliferation of frames.”

And the photos, Cole said, allow for something beyond that visual interest.

“It becomes an insight into other people’s lives in a weird sort of way. I liked all the photos, even the bad ones. There were a lot of photos with people’s feet in them. So many of them were completely unguarded insights into the lives of others, and all these strange formal elements started to coalesce around the images.”

The project, in other words, helps create a kind of common space from distributed technology of expression. Cole noted how many of the TVs in images weren’t TVs at all, but laptops or tablet screens. And Time of the Game, too, he said, was partly inspired by the recent ubiquity of the camera. He could assume all his Twitter followers, regardless of location, had a camera attached to the Internet.

Talking to Cole, I thought of the designer Craig Mod’s declaration that networked lenses are supplanting cameras. I thought also of a provocation by editors at our sister publication, Quartz: “that media are best understood as competition for attention on screens connected to the internet. Phones, tablets, laptops, monitors, television sets—it's all just glass.”

“That horrible statistic that more people have phones than have access to a toilet,” said Cole. “You turn that on its head and try to use it in a positive way. I didn’t have to say, if you have a camera.”

“It was remarkable the extent to which, just as these questions did not come up for people living in Switzerland, Germany, the United States, they did not come up for my Nigerian, or Kenyan, or Pakistani followers as well. And that is all in part because the barrier is set quite low, for this particular social thing.

“Almost as you could say in the way that the bar to entry in football as a sport is set quite low,” added Cole. ‘It’s not ice hockey. It’s not lacrosse. It’s not swimming. It’s not even basketball.”

For football, you just need something like a ball and two people willing to play.

The project, too, let viewers explore the number of overlapping languages at play—languages of all kinds.

The World Cup, at its most basic, said Cole, is just “a bunch of foreigners in baggy shorts running across a field in Brazil.

“Yet this language is perfectly legible to a young woman in Jakarta and an old man in Jedda and an old lady in Mexico City. Everyone can understand this digital language… all of this sort of makes sense.”

Indeed, the project allowed people in “overlapping non-governmental democracies” to find their unions and edges. “The democracy of football, the democracy of the screen, the democracy of the camera, of Twitter, of (I hate to admit it) English. None of these things are accessible to everyone, but each is massive enough that where they overlap, there’s a large and diverse catchment population.”

And these non-governmental democracies allow the creation of a non-governmental public space. The time, too, creates its own sense of community.

“‘The time of the game,’” Cole instant-messaged as we talked. “It becomes almost like pilgrimage time. Like ‘public time’ (I don’t know who came up with this phrase), which is the chronological equivalent of ‘public space.’”

Perhaps above all, Cole said, The Time of the Game “was an exercise of my inner Yoko Ono.”

“It is basically about finding ways to make the public space intimate, and yet to do it without going directly to Kumbaya. Under the guise of football, we actually testify to each other’s existence.”

“The football,” he wrote, “becomes a pretext for total equality among its spectators.”

Besides, Cole anticipates taking some time off from Twitter soon. The World Cup saw him tweeting a lot, and he said he was getting the internal feeling it was time to take a break.

“It’s a wonderful medium,” and his projects have been very well received there. “I’m a big fan of, ‘quit while you’re ahead.’”

Photography captures a moment. It cements a place and a time in a certain amount of permanence. Cole’s own photography often gestures at this, as many of his photographs take the name of the city where they were captured. The composite images of Time of the Game add a world of places together over 90 minutes and try to make an image of it, an infographical monument.

This is the first time Cole has worked in infographics, but he says it’s something he’s alive to, as well as “the use of found imagery, of vernacular imagery, of ‘bad’ photos.” All four hint at different futures of photography, of image-making. And from that collective, communal image-making, different kinds of personhoods can be alluded to and experienced.

The Internet, said Cole, “can be a very rough place and people can be skeptical.” The completion of a project like Time of the Game required “selflessness on the part of thousands of people.”

“I won’t say that gives me hope for humanity because probably nothing will, but it’s a positive moment. It was a good moment. We need more of that.”

During our interview, I asked Cole if he had any favorite photos submitted as part of The Time of the Game. His eight selections can be found here.