As Londoner Gareth Hague commented in this space in early July, the pomp and national pride that usually marches in during every Olympic cycle has been supplanted by ridicule, aggravation, and protest, thanks to an Olympics that is, as the New Statesman put it, “suffocated by sponsors.” The angst that the denizens of London have been carrying around with them for years, ever since the Olympic Committee awarded the Games to the city, has reached critical mass with the opening ceremonies just days away. On Monday, a man jumped off Tower Bridge, and lived, in a show of solidarity with cab drivers protesting the ban that will prohibit them from certain roads, which they believe will result in horrible traffic congestion and a loss of fares.
Of course, protest is nothing new to the Olympics. The Independent ran this piece about the history of dissent inspired by the Olympics. During a previous London Games in 1908, Irish athletes boycotted because England refused to grant Ireland independence; at the 1968 Mexico City games, during a medal ceremony, Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrust their clenched fists in the air in the name of black power and equality, an act that has become iconic. As The Independent piece explains, “London is keen to avoid the kind of international ridicule heaped on China in 2008 when no one turned up to protest at the three parks in Beijing where demonstrators were authorized to gather during the Games . . . authorities claimed the reason no protests were held was because all grievances had been settled in the run-up to the Olympics.” So everyone from animal rights activists to anti-mining groups have been ratcheting up activity in the capital as the Games near, making their voices heard and bringing unwanted attention to certain corporate sponsors.
With so much attention and anger directed toward this year’s Games, there is no shortage of clever and incisive visual riffs on some of these issues. Banksy has been up to his usual brilliant tricks, subbing a missile for a javelin and launching a pole vaulter over a barbed wire fence. My buddy Noma Bar has been knocking out Olympic-themed illustrations for the likes of ESPN, which ran a story about sex in the Olympic Village.
The retro-chic, snark-witted Shoreditch store Maiden has sold out of tote bags poking fun at the commuting nightmares and “fat American” families in town for the games.
Marshgate Press has released The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London’s Olympic State:
Artists, writers, film makers, academics, photographers, and activists intervene in the dominant discourse, language, and images of regeneration and the Games. The book examines both the political economy of the mega-event and the silenced history of Lower Lea valley, making a powerful case against the politics of erasure and the corporatization of urban space. Issues of land grab, displacement, military urbanism and exceptional measures of legal protection are explored through essays, images, poetry, fiction and installations. . . . In doing so, they have challenged a key element in the production of consensus around the Games: the division between those who may speak and those who may not, between that which can be discussed and that which cannot.
I don’t know much about local London politics, but in speaking with friends there, I hear that the tension is very real, and has been building for quite some time. Now that the Games are upon us, more and more people are focusing on the aftermath, as is evident in projects like this one that examine what happens to Olympic Villages once the athletes have departed.
Today, it’s hard to deny just how ludicrous the measures organizers and sponsors are taking to keep all eyes on the sanctioned corporate messaging, and I do really feel for Londoners who have to deal with countless disruptions. But since I do love swimming, and appreciate the talent possessed by all the competing athletes, I’ll inevitably end up watching some of the Games, though the visual protests will remain in my mind—which, of course, is the true power of visual communication.
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