On with the show

What exactly is the point of the Cultural Olympiad?

What exactly is the point of the Cultural Olympiad?


Celebrated ballerina Uliana Lopatkina makes her Canadian debut with a dance performance at the Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver. ((Cultural Olympiad))

One of the most infamous performances in Vancouver music history happened at Expo 86. The world’s fair featured a showcase of local music talent, and the first act onstage was the Vancouver punk group Slow, which had been labelled "brilliantly out of control" in Expo bumf. But the band’s performance evidently offended some fairgoers; management panicked and shut off the power on stage. Unable to play, Slow singer Dan Anselmi and bassist Stephen Hamm expressed their displeasure visually: by pulling down their pants.

'[Cultural Olympiad organizers] said, ‘We want edgy. That’s why we want you. Go nuts.' We recognized at the end of the day, it is the Olympics, and there will be some compromise.'— David Bloom, playwright and co-director of theatre company Felix Culpa

"I thought about throwing a monitor into the crowd, but that would hurt someone, so I thought, ‘What’s the next best thing I could do?’" recalls Hamm. "We weren’t brilliant, but we were out of control." The termination of the Slow set — as well as the rest of the so-called Festival of Independent Recording Artists — prompted some young fans to protest so raucously outside the on-site studio of BCTV that they forced the cancellation of its 11 p.m. newscast. (According to Hamm, the station was forced to run a movie instead: Rock ‘n Roll High School.)

With the 2010 Winter Olympics coming to the city, Slow’s onstage confrontation with Expo’s authorities serves as a reminder of the potentially volatile relationship between culture workers and the mega-funded global events that try to engage them.

Along with sport and environment, culture is one of the three pillars of the Olympic movement, and to deliver on that mandate, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) has sponsored the Cultural Olympiad.This $20-million showcase actually began in 2008, but culminates in February with an exhausting array of performances, including sets by musicians like Joni Mitchell and jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton; a rock opera based on the life of Haida artist Bill Reid; the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8; a public poster project including visual artists like Sonny Assu and Ken Lum; stand-up comedy from Shaun Majumder and Nikki Payne; and dance performances by Uliana Lopatkina and STREB.

"We have a created a multi-disciplinary festival that celebrates the state of the art of Canadian culture from coast to coast and its connection to the world," says Robert Kerr, the program director of the Cultural Olympiad. Kerr says that Olympiad producers have partnered with 150 different local organizations to develop and deliver programming. "The Olympics is a multinational gathering for sports, but culture as well, and as host nation, we have an extraordinary opportunity to share our cultural fibre with the world."

A number of Vancouver theatre companies are involved in the experimental theatre project Hive. ((Cultural Olympiad))

Many artists share this excitement. "For me, it’s an amazing opportunity offered to artists to have an international audience in their own home city," says painter Gordon Halloran, who participated in the Cultural Olympiad at the 2006 Games in Turin. For 2010, Halloran has a VANOC-sponsored installation outside the city in Richmond, which is not technically part of the Olympiad. "It’s a hugely economical way to present your work."

While there has been no issue taken with the breadth and quality of the artistic talent featured, some local artists perceive hypocrisy in throwing such a lavish celebration of culture in a province that has drastically slashed its arts spending. These critics paint the Cultural Olympiad as window dressing, a token gesture that makes the spending of $178 million for a new skating oval and $365 million for a football stadium upgrade more palatable.

"I still think [the Cultural Olympiad] is great, but there have been more drastic cuts in the past six months than in any other time I can recall," says painter and photographer Colleen Heslin, who cites the closing of the longstanding Helen Pitt Gallery as a victim of these funding cuts. "It’s hard to see it being unrelated."

Heslin’s own downtown gallery, The Crying Room, became a point of contention last December when an anti-Olympic mural outside the space was ordered removed by city officials. While public scrutiny led the city to reverse its decision, some artists felt it offered a glimpse of the authoritarian face of the Olympic behemoth. In November, the local theatre companies involved in Hive, an experimental theatre project included in the Cultural Olympiad, took exception to a clause in a contract they were expected to sign that required them to "refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks" about the Games and its sponsors.

"[Cultural Olympiad organizers] said, ‘We want edgy. That’s why we want you. Go nuts,’" says David Bloom, playwright and co-artistic director of the theatre company Felix Culpa, which is involved with Hive. "We recognized at the end of the day, it is the Olympics, and there will be some compromise."

Bloom says the issue was resolved amicably after Hive organizers and VANOC hashed out new wording for their contract. "We make a really strong distinction between people in charge of the cultural work at VANOC, who are people with an understanding of the arts community, and the powers-that-be in the provincial government, whom I have no faith and trust in whatsoever."

Vancouver city officials originally ordered an anti-Olympic mural by artist Jesse Corcoran removed from the front of the downtown gallery The Crying Room. The city later rescinded the order. ((Colleen Heslin/The Crying Room))

The issues of arts funding and censorship are addressed by some of the work on React 2010, an online forum created by the Alternator Artist Centre in Kelowna, B.C. A video piece by Brian Gotro, for example, mixes in onscreen statistics about budget cuts with Olympic images and television static.

"We’re staying away from being a place of protest but instead, want to create an open discussion and include more variety," says Jennifer Pickering, a co-curator of React 2010. "It seems that anything that’s not celebratory or supportive of the positive aspects of the Games and its implications isn’t being heard."

Kerr stresses that the arts cuts are unrelated to Cultural Olympiad funding.  "The majority of the funding from the Olympiad budget comes from VANOC sponsors.  The government of B.C has provided funding to dozens of arts organizations who are participating, but we have not received any direct support from them. We are separate and distinct from the B.C. government and any funding decisions they’ve made."

You could argue that the adverse reaction to the Olympics reflects the cranky, anti-institutional impulse associated with artists in general. They would probably be angry no matter what Olympic organizers tried to do. But some of these concerns tap into the mixed emotions felt by locals in general about the direction the city has taken since, well, Expo 86.

Video artist Paul Wong, who is staging five site-specific events in Vancouver between February and March, appreciates this one-time logging town’s heightening sophistication.

"We’re a city that’s growing up, and I love it," says Wong, whose events have been sponsored by VANOC but aren’t officially part of the Cultural Olympiad. "The old boys network never paid attention to me. The new people come to town, they want something to do, and they find me and look at my work with a new eye."

Slow bassist Stephen Hamm admits to disliking the Olympics, but that wouldn’t preclude his involvement if he were asked to participate in the Olympiad. "I’d do it — I got bills to pay," he says. "But getting naked is not my style anymore."

The Cultural Olympiad 2010 runs from Jan. 21 to March 22.

Kevin Chong is a writer based in Vancouver.