Wednesday, June 10, 2009

What's Happening Here?

The Bid, Plan and Reality Workshop on the 2010 Winter Olympics organized by my colleagues in Urban Studies at SFU took place this past Monday at Harbour Centre, and certainly yielded some interesting conversations. If I was a little disappointed by the unexamined boosterism and general rewriting of civic history by Gordon Price (former city councilor) and Brent Toderian (current Director of Planning at City Hall), I was nevertheless convinced that the members of the first panel—Frances Bula (former Vancouver Sun reporter and freelance urban affairs critic), Nathan Edelson (former city planner), and Jim Green (former city councilor and consultant to the Millennium Group, who are overseeing the construction of the Athletes’ Village)—were sincere (if, perhaps, somewhat naïve) in stating that their support of the Games stemmed from their belief that the event could bring about an end to homelessness in the city. At the very least, as they pointed out, the agreements established between various stakeholders regarding this issue during the bid process (the Vancouver Agreement and the Inner-City Inclusivity Statement, in particular) did at least get the three levels of government (federal, provincial, an municipal) on side on this issue for the first time.

On the subject of how the Olympics do or do not help cities prioritize issues of concern that they are already facing, Professor Andy Thornley, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Visiting Fellow in Urban Sustainability and Development in SFU’s Urban Studies Program this week, made an interesting point: mega-events such as these can be ways for municipal governments to jump-start planning projects—and, as importantly, attract appropriate investment from the private and public sectors alike—that might otherwise get bogged down in years of bickering and bureaucracy. While I’m not sure this was the case regarding homelessness in Vancouver, and while it seems to me that for every victory on that front as a result of the Olympics (SROs saved, low-barrier shelters opened) there continue to be opportunities wasted or eroded, it is sobering to consider how the development imperative has been absorbed into urban governance as a way of advancing at times competing or contrasting social agendas. (In this regard, Dr. Thornley made a point that “Red” Ken Livingstone was on side from the beginning with London’s 2012 bid as a way of advancing his plan for redeveloping the Lower Lea Valley area of the city.)

As for myself and my fellow speakers on the arts and culture panel, Duncan Low (former executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre and current graduate student in Urban Studies at SFU) and Irwin Oostindie (Executive Director of W2), we were far lass sanguine about the benefits of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad as they might contribute to any possible arts legacies for the city. Duncan and Irwin put things much better than I did, but for what it’s worth I include my remarks here. I’d also like to draw readers’ attention to the fact that the SFU Urban Studies Olympics Outcomes Project will be holding another symposium on the 2010 Games this October 22-24, also at Harbour Centre. This time, the urban impacts of the Vancouver Games will be placed in a more comparative global framework, while still paying attention to local legacies. Check out the Urban Studies website for more details. And now for what I said on Monday:

As most here likely recall, Vancouver’s original Olympic bid promised five years of Olympics-related cultural programming beginning in 2006 and leading up to a five-week Arts Festival beginning in mid-January 2010 and running through the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Soon after Robert Kerr was finally appointed as the program director for Vancouver and Whistler’s Cultural Olympiad, in mid July 2006 (with most arts programming in the city already set and prime venues booked), it was announced that this ambitious 5-year plan was being scaled back to three, with the Cultural Olympiad officially beginning in February 2008. Even here, however, the liaison between VANOC and arts and culture groups in the city was less than ideal, and in the confusion surrounding application procedures and deadlines that first Olympiad mostly ended up piggy-backing on previously programmed events. In other words, between the bold goals announced in Vancouver’s bid regarding Olympics-related culture and the struggle to implement a plan to achieve—however modestly—at least some of those goals, a sobering reality emerged to most cultural workers in the city: they could expect a temporary—and, to be sure, much-welcomed—increase in funding in the short term, but on the question of possible longer term cultural legacies and strategies for putting in place more sustainable sources of funding for local artists and arts and culture industries, VANOC has been deafeningly silent.

For me, this question of temporality is key, especially for the ways in which arts and culture are integrated within and/or coopted by the Olympic Movement. As Raymond T. Grant, the artistic director for the 2002 Olympic Arts Festival in Salt Lake City, put it to a meeting of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce in 2005, the organizing committee of an Olympics Games is solely focused on planning for the two-week event itself; in fact, nowhere in the IOC’s charter does it state that an organizing committee has any responsibility to deliver any legacy from an Olympic Games. Now that is not to say that, in formulating its bid, said committee doesn’t trumpet a rhetoric of social, environmental, and cultural legacy; but the reality is that such a future-oriented temporality de facto becomes the primary responsibility of the host city. Which is why we perhaps see a disconnect between how VANOC and members of Vancouver’s arts and culture community approach the “eventness” of the Cultural Olympiad, which we might frame in terms of a (globally) productivist vs. a (locally) sustainable model. That is, whereas the performance model of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad as it has been conceived by VANOC seems to be all about producing or subventing specifically sanctioned events that are confined to the temporal and spatial logic, or governmentality, of the larger mega-event and its influx of tourists they are ostensibly serving, local cultural groups and producers are, I would argue, more concerned about forging more durable associations between producers and audiences joined in mutual endeavor and creative experimentation about what the arts can or should do to stimulate and reinvigorate public debate about how the arts should be funded and managed civically, provincially, and nationally. As Grant put it to his Whistler audience, “the legacy of the Games in Salt Lake City was little more than a photo album to offer to our world visitors. And this despite a $101 million dollar surplus!”

While Pierre de Coubertin, in founding the modern Olympics in 1894, declared culture to be “the second pillar of the Olympic Movement—equal to sport,” it has mostly played the role of second fiddle. This has much to do with questions of visibility and profile, as well as both the expansive definition and unformalized structure given to questions of cultural presentation by the IOC. For example, the budget for culture—as outlined in Vancouver’s own bid book—is meant to cover not just arts festival programming leading up to and during the Games, but also educational programming, the torch relay, and the opening and closing ceremonies. Additionally, the IOC mandates no specific requirements in terms of cultural programming beyond a broadly multi-disciplinary mix of national and international artistic representation of “the highest calibre.” The rest is up to individual organizing committees, and in Vancouver’s case that seems to have translated into a rather ad-hoc approach, one that has for the most part followed Sydney’s lead in closely linking cultural representation and inclusion to First Nations participation and visibility, but that arguably has failed to emulate Sydney in terms of liaising with and soliciting the participation of local performing arts producers and administrators, whether as VANOC board members or as members of the creative team charged with bringing off what, in terms of a media spectacle that, at least since Rome in 1960, is specifically designed for television broadcast, the most important moments of artistic and cultural display: the opening and closing ceremonies.

The Vancouver ceremonies’ executive director is the Australian David Atkins, who produced Sydney’s 2000 Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Leaving aside the grumbling in many quarters about the marginalization of high-profile Quebec talent like Cirque de Soleil, lemieux.pilon 4d art, and Robert Lepage (all of whom were involved in talks with VANOC at one stage or another, and all of whom eventually walked away as a result of creative differences), what struck me when Atkins’ creative team was announced in April of this year was the distinct under-representation of local Vancouver talent. The Choreographic Director, Jean-Grand Maître, is from Alberta (by way of Quebec); the Design Director, Douglas Paraschuk, has spent 21 seasons at Stratford; the Music Director, David Pierce, is from Calgary; the Costume Designers, Dean and Dan Caten, are from Toronto; the Lighting Designer, Bob Dickinson (no relation), and the Sound Designer, Bruce Jackson, are both American. Then again, given that the $20 million the federal government has promised towards the opening and closing ceremonies is apparently contingent on their message “adequately reflect[ing] the priorities of the Government and help[ing] to achieve its domestic and international branding goals” (there is much talk about the ceremonies playing up Canada’s current combat role in Afghanistan), perhaps a Crystal Pite or a Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald or an Owen Underhill is glad to be out of the mix.

It is worth noting in terms of visibility and profile, that starting with the first Olympic Arts Festival, in 1912, and continuing until the Melbourne Games in 1956, the cultural programming was actually competitive—artists, like athletes, competed for medals in various categories of the plastic and performing arts. However, as Beatriz Garcia and Andy Miah note, an expanding international base of artists and disciplines, along with routine problems relating to the comparison and judgment of different artworks and styles (the cultural equivalent of figure skating scandals in the Winter Olympics), led to the decision to substitute the competition structure with an exhibitionary and festival one. This led to a consequent diminishment of the status and relevance of the Games’ cultural programming, a problem that has only been steadily exacerbated by the lack of media coverage given to this programming; with accredited journalists and licensed television broadcast networks totally focused on the athletes and sports events, they rely on pre-recorded segments relating to the arts or local urban colour (in our case expect the requisite exposés of the DTES—already inaugurated by Dan Rather) rather than engaging with the actual cultural amenities and atmosphere of the city itself. This, in turn, creates problems in terms of attracting additional sponsorship funding for arts and culture related events—whether for the temporary “live sites” around the city during the Olympics themselves, which are still well short of their targeted sponsorship goals, of for longer term endowments for financially and socially sustainable legacy projects. Consequently, as Garcia and Miah also note, the Cultural Olympiad has always occupied an historically awkward position in the Olympics organizing committees’ corporate management structures. Organizing committees know they are mandated to address culture in some way, but generally prefer expedient, media-friendly event solutions that broadcast well globally rather than the more difficult, time-consuming, and costly planning and prioritizing of cultural policy and a vision of the place and role of the arts in the city that accounts for the very different needs and expectations of local audiences. Which is why, since Salt Lake in 2002, so much money has been spent on programming around medal ceremonies—this is what will play well on TV.

The idea of the Cultural Olympiad, first introduced in Barcelona in 1992, as a multi-year showcase where art and performance can take centre stage, and where local audiences especially can partake of and benefit from unique programming opportunities, is thus always already compensatory, an understanding of culture and performance as something that needs to be compressed and packaged for quick and easy consumption within a delimited period of time, rather than as a valuable resource that, among other things, is involved in documenting and commenting on the transformation of the social space in which it is produced (including the transformations wrought by a mega-event like the Olympics). To that end, I think it is important to talk about some of the actual performances and exhibitions that constitute the archive of Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad in the lead up to 2010. It is very likely that all the world (and all that we) will remember of 2010 are those images we see on TV of the opening and closing ceremonies and the medal presentations; but several local visual artists have already begun intervening in this project of civic memorialization to remind us, from a present anterior position, of what, in the future, and what from the past, we may be in danger of forgetting.

To this end, let me very briefly reference a material encounter with the recent urban development history of Vancouver that is, I believe, on display in the year-long poster project undertaken by artist Jeremy Shaw as part of Presentation House Gallery’s contribution to the 2009 Cultural Olympiad. Called Something’s Happening Here, the project sees Shaw employing a similar appropriative aesthetic to an artist like Alex Morrison (whom I talk about at greater length in my forthcoming book). Specifically, Shaw takes promotional materials and souvenir ephemera, along with news articles and archival photographs, associated with Expo 86 to create street-style posters that have been distributed across the city of Vancouver since late February 2009, and that will continue to appear through to the beginning of the 2010 Olympic Games. Something’s Happening Here (the title is taken from an Expo-era poster, but also deliberately recalls the first line of the iconic Buffalo Springfield protest song, "For What It's Worth") is, at the PHG website explains, “intended to open a discussion on how global events like Expo and the Olympics impact on the creation of civic space through an architectural legacy of buildings and monuments, and significantly, how such events live on through a collective civic memory. In redeploying images that invoke a recently bygone era, Something’s Happening Here affects a momentary, recuperative snapshot of Vancouver’s history on the cusp of a new moment.”

As markers of past actions that also serve as announcements of a forthcoming event, Shaw’s posters return us to the question of temporality by materializing time as a span that can be re-enacted. The question then becomes, in this context of mega-events and civic memorialization (where time and space get collapsed, often unthinkingly, through a “once in a lifetime” mentality), whether we want things re-enacted in precisely the same way. And here, I would argue, that Shaw’s posters perform an action akin to the temporal documentation of video art. In other words, they function as evidence, in this case linking, through their very materiality (mounted on construction site walls and street lamps, they will be successively ripped down or plastered over), one showcase event to another by, among other things, asking us to consider what of our city we might in the interim have likewise torn down, or covered up. Or even failed to build.

And here I will use the example of Shaw as a largely photo-conceptual artist to leave you to ponder the deepening quagmire around the future site of an expanded Vancouver Art Gallery. You will recall that Gordon Campbell stunned many in the city when he announced, in May of last year, that in addition to BC Place getting a new roof post-Olympics, the VAG would be relocated to North False Creek, on the site of the current Plaza of Nations. This despite the Gallery’s own stated preference for the former Greyhound bus depot at Georgia and Beatty, across from Queen Elizabeth Theatre; the new site’s lack of proximity to downtown and the consequent public transportation difficulties; and the wisdom of locating an art gallery next to two sports facilities, a casino, a Costco, and several residential towers. Not to mention, as Frances Bula has recently noted in her blog, that Campbell, despite having long ceased to be Mayor of Vancouver, seemed to have vaulted over the city in making a side deal with the development company that owned the property. Flash forward to last week, when it was announced in the news that the Gallery, having done a feasibility study, would likely take a pass on the site, owing to all of the reasons cited above, plus the added costs that would come with building on landfill. Campbell’s original announcement, as so many of his do, made for a great photo-op: look what cultural opportunities we’re creating as a result of the Olympics!

In reality, however, there was no legacy planning or foresight involved here. Had there been, Vancouver would have, from the very beginning, followed the example of Turin, which consciously identified arts and culture as the most significant legacy that would be provided from the Olympics in helping it to make a transition from a post-industrial car manufacturing city to a service-based and creative economy. And they did so not by resting on the laurels of their historical cultural patrimony (something that Vancouver, in any case, could not do), but by consciously rebranding themselves as a contemporary art destination. Vancouver, as a globally recognized centre of photoconceptual production, and as the largest city in a province whose own traditional resource economy has long since collapsed, had the same opportunity. And incorporating a discussion of where and when to re-site the VAG (with its collection of Jeff Walls, and its current exhibitions showcasing the work of Andreas Gursky and Stan Douglas) into the bid discussion from the very beginning would arguably have been a catalyst for the creation and revitalization of an artistic corridor that could have (and could still) take as its starting point the west, rather than the east, side of the Queen E. Indeed, the postal sorting plant at Georgia and Cambie, as many have noted, offers a stunning modernist space that would be able to accommodate, unlike the VAG’s current location, not just a far more sizeable chunk of the gallery’s permanent collection, but also the original large-scale formats of Gursky’s best-known photographs (which have been controversially re-sized for the current VAG show). What’s more, with its relative proximity to the DTES, a new VAG on this site would arguably, in combination with the new Woodward’s development, be a major force in helping to regenerate this area outside of the constraints of a boom or bust, have or have-not real estate market.


1 comment:

heatherlatimer said...

Hi Peter,
I was just catching up on your blog after a long absence and wanted to say thanks for posting your paper from the Bid, Plan and Reality Workshop. I enjoyed reading it. Jeremy is a good friend of a friend and I have passed on the link to your entry.


ps- On a totally different note, if you haven't checked it out already, you might also like his band, circlesquare.