I participated in a conference entitled The life and death of the arts in cities after mega events, which took place in Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, Canada, and explored the impact of the Olympics and other mega-events on cities, and particularly on the arts (particularly as major sporting events now increasingly have a cultural element). It was interdisciplinary conference which brought together academics from performance studies, geography, cultural policy studies, along with practitioners in the visual arts and theatre. In addition to conventional panel presentations, the event also included walking tours curated by local artists and curators around the site of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, with a particular focus on the role of public art. The event was co-sponsored by SFU, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL). Given the institutions involved, much of the discussion was about London and Vancouver, although presentations also addressed the 1988 Calgary Olympics, the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the upcoming Pan American Games in Toronto.
Given that many of the presentations were about the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, First Nations politics became a crucial issue, particularly in the light of a recent historic court ruling which requires consent with First Nations groups for economic development (particularly around mining, logging and other forms of resource extraction). Several presentations addressed the role of First Nations people in the Olympic Games and the Cultural Olympiad. These focused on the question of the 2010 Olympics created space for First Nations people to make their voices heard, or did this mean “inclusion” on someone else’s terms – particularly as First Nations iconography was being used to “brand” Vancouver as a unique locality?*
The role of disability arts in the Paralympics was also discussed in relation to the UK context (which included the director of the Paralympics Opening Ceremony) particularly in relation to increasing discrimination against disabled people and their stereotyping as “scroungers”.
The politics of cultural funding was also a central issue. Some of the participants argued that mega-events put their city “on the map” and gave local cultural producers international exposure whilst others, including Duncan Low (UBC) pointed to the cuts to arts funding that often resulted from mega-events, symptomatic of a wider shift towards project-based funding and temporary showcase events and away from ongoing support (as was the case in both Vancouver and London).
One of the most valuable aspects of the conference was hearing about how practitioners negotiate their involvement in mega-events and the challenges they faced on the ground, notably from artist Neville Gabie and theatre director Adrienne Wong. It became apparent that many cultural producers feel they have no choice but to apply for funding and other opportunities connected to mega-events, particularly in the context of declining resources elsewhere. However, they encountered restrictions, including lack of control over the contextualisation of their work.
Other issues raised by the presentations included gentrification and urban inequality (which David Pinder of QMUL and I addressed), Pride Houses and homonationalism (the appropriation of LGBT rights into racist and nationalist narratives), which Heather Sykes of University of Toronto explored, and the role of affect in relation to national identity, which Kelsey Blair (UBC) and others addressed. The role of activist and cultural resistance was explored in a number of the presentations.
The conceptions of the local and the global emerged as sites of struggle in relation to mega- events: do we think of the “global” in terms of aspirations to global city status and the attraction of the transnational elite (in line with a narrative about putting the provincial backwater on the global map), or could we think of alternative conceptions of the global (such as Jenny Sealey’s work with disabled artists in Rio), or the sharing of knowledge and resistance strategies? Equally, can the “local” resist the globalising and homogenising tendencies of mega-events, or is difficult to dissociate this from the “local” as a brand –in which cities must demonstrate their “uniqueness” to successfully bid to host mega-events? Who is included in or excluded from these different conceptions of the global or local?
One of the limitations of what was an otherwise very interesting and engaging event is that there (and possibly a result of the focus on London and Vancouver) was very little discussion of mega-events in the global South—where, as one of the participants argued, mega-events are more likely to be held in the future. It would have been interesting to discuss the implications of Brazil’s World Cup (which sparked widespread protest), or the preparations for the next World Cup in Qatar (for which the construction has led to at least 1,000 deaths of migrant workers), as well the point (made by Duncan Low) that countries with authoritarian regimes are increasingly bidding for the Olympics as a legitimation strategy. Also, the framework of the discussion was largely limited to liberal democratic regimes, where it can be easy to make the (liberal) assumption that there can be genuinely be space for progressive politics within mega-events, and particularly for marginalised groups to advance their interests (although how much marginalised groups actually benefitted was an issue of debate). However, what happens when a mega-event involves police repression and militarisation, or land expropriation on a grand scale (particularly within authoritarian regimes but not limited to them)? The fact that these implications were not discussed limited the conversation, and the focus on the global North limited its scope.
However, the fact that there was such extensive discussion of the Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 Olympics allowed us to at least consider the similarities and differences between the different contexts in detail – which is at least an important start for an international dialogue, and the involvement of academics and practitioners from a variety of backgrounds made for an interdisciplinary, and very fruitful discussion.
*NOTE: As a UK-based participant, I was very conscious about how differently the rhetoric of “indigeniety” gets mobilised within post-colonial nation such as Canada than in the the UK or other European nations (where it is becoming incorporated into a xenophobic narrative by UKIP and other right populist political parties).