Art & Design / 10 October, 2008

The art of the London 2012 Olympics: the Cultural Olympiad

Whilst it is generally viewed positively, the Cultural Olympiad has its critics

Olympics site hoardings along the Hackney Wick tow path

Olympics site hoardings along the Hackney Wick tow path

When the Olympic Games was awarded to London in 2005, the British bid was commended for its idea of a Cultural Olympiad – a four year nation-wide encouragement of culture and the arts which would go hand in hand with sporting prowess. Since 2005, the London Olympics have become a reality and the Cultural Olympiad was launched on the Friday 26th September with a backing of £40 million to promote cultural projects.

Not all Hackney citizens, however, are happy. One local in Mapps Café, a stone’s throw away from the Olympic park, put his point clearly: “it’s a waste of money… four years work for two weeks”. This is not the message the organisers of 2012 want to encourage, and the hope is that the Cultural Olympiad will generate more excitement among more people about the games. In early September Sebastian Coe, the person managing the 2012 team, said the Cultural Olympiad was, “to include everyone and embrace young, creative people all over Britain and leave a human legacy of skills, confidence and stunning new talent”.

Including the arts into such an inherently sporting occasion is typical of the inclusive line that the organisers of the London Olympics have taken, branding the games, ‘Everyone’s 2012’. The effects of the cultural emphasis of the games could be seen even before the Olympiad was launched, along the Hackney Wick tow path where three art works from Hackney schools (Cardinal Pole RC Secondary School, William Patten Primary School, and Ickburgh/Downsview Special School) are imprinted on the otherwise long blue site hoardings around the Olympic park.

And yet, the privilege these three schools were afforded was not extended to the graffiti artists that take to the boards and who are periodically painted over. An organiser from SPACE, the Hackney-based organisation co-responsible for organising the Hackney Wick festival, said: “it’s got to be a good thing that culture is a focus of the Olympics”, before questioning how inclusive the Games actually were. One artist, commissioned by SPACE, Jean Francois Prost, has already played with the council’s insistence on monochrome blue boards by setting up scenes around the fence, entirely painted in the same blue.

The Olympiad’s official launch was celebrated in the borough with the Hackney First carnival, the Creative Writing Inspired by Hackney Museums Collection, and the Hackney Wick Festival, among other events. The association of these events with the Olympics undoubtedly marks a change with previous more exclusively sporting Games, but questions remain about how much 2012 really is ‘everyone’s’.

The nearly exclusive focus on youth should encourage more young people to feel a part of the 2012 Olympics, but organisers will not wish to risk developing a blind spot towards older people, some of whom will be seeing their second London Olympics after the 1946 Games. The organisers have shown an enlightened edge in the Cultural Olympiad and its inclusive sentiment, but questions remain about whether the programme of events will convince cynics that it’s not simply money down the pan.

/ 10 October, 2008


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