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Courtesy www.http://theartofdissent.net

I was fortunate to attend the Olympic Art Review conference last week, held at Queen Mary, University of London and chaired by curator and ex-Liverpool Biennial director, Lewis Biggs. I’ve written about it for the Guardian Culture Professionals Network here, but some additional thoughts about it follow that I couldn’t fit into the formal write-up.

It was programmed to discuss the Art in the (Olympic) Park commissions within a context of critical debate on the process, activity and legacy of the art programme for London 2012.

Speakers included Sarah Weir, who was instrumental in getting art on the agenda of the Olympic Development Authority back in 2004, when she was director of Arts Council’s London office, and who eventually led on the 40 or so Olympic Park art commissions. “This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done” she said.  Without her, all the bridges, underpasses and security fences would be concrete and grey.

Dr Beatriz Garcia was another contributor, giving a fascinating overview of the history and politics of the role of art and culture in Olympic events since 1912. She suggested that the reason Olympic events have become “such a clash of narratives” is threefold:

1. It has become a lucrative global brand, with massive vested interests.

2.Participation and delivery is embedded within the very particular values, protocols, charter and symbols of the modern Olympic “movement”.

3. The city host needs to achieve local ownership to retain meaning and claim legacy.

What became clear very is that the Olympics is taking place on contested ground, literally and metaphorically. This was illustrated brilliantly by the presentation from artist Dr Hillary Powell, on how the arts community in Hackney Wick and other boroughs surrounding the park have come together in a Salon de Refuse Olympique.

Since 2007, locally-based artists made small but perfectly formed interventions around the 3m tall, eleven mile long perimeter fence, for example, Point of View, “the London Olympics’ first public viewing platform” – a set of six steps aligned with the fence, allowing a view over it. It stayed in position for 60 hours before being removed by ODA officials. In response to the increased CCTV surveillance, artist Jim Woodall made a “counter-surveillance” control room aimed at the Olympic border.

Other projects, of which there have been many, make reference to the displacement of 1500 residents, 200 businesses and 5000 jobs in the process of assembling the land needed to build the Olympic Park. In one project, Powell has metaphorically bottled the spirit of the area by making annual vintages of Sloe Lea Gin since 2008, with depleting stocks year on year as the sloe harvest reduces in the area.

In collaboration with Dr Isaac Marrero, Powell has gathered these examples of “small voices of dissent that were easily wiped out” into a substantial book, The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London’s Olympic State. This book collects texts and interventions that unpack “the mega-event consensus” by “challenging the physical, legal, economic and symbolic structures that fuel the Olympic machine”. It deserves to be widely read, and the associated body of work taken seriously.

For me, it is this type of activity and the critical engagement that underpins it that gives a strong response to the question “why are artists important?” There are several answers to this, but one of them has to be: They’re important because they inject opposition and challenge into local and public discourse that is sometimes overwhelmed by propaganda, acceptance and lethargy.

Formal write-up for The Guardian Cultural Professionals Network is here.

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