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Art and Anarchy

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Issue: 59 Section: Arts Geography: West Vancouver Topics: protest, 2010 Olympics, Art

April 9, 2009

Art and Anarchy

Artists give the Cultural Olympiad the middle finger

by Sarah Berman

A drawing by Gord Hill on display at Art and Anarchy. Photo: Jay Black

VANCOUVER-As thousands of Canadian performers prepare for Olympic Ceremony auditions, a group of Vancouver artists is spreading the word. The F-word, that is.

With posters that simply read, “Fuck the Cultural Olympiad,” a recent underground art exhibit asked audiences to challenge the 2010 Games. The week-long show called Art and Anarchy used art to uncover the many perils of the looming "five-ring circus."

David Cunningham is a street performer and anti-poverty activist in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He is an organizer of Art and Anarchy who believes community art is being co-opted to disguise capitalist plunder.

“The only opportunity [the Vancouver Organizing Committee, VANOC] has to represent itself in the Downtown Eastside is to give money to artists,” Cunningham explained. “This creates a facade of progressiveness, where they can claim to be investing in the community.”

VANOC is responsible for organizing the 2010 Games and by 2010 they will have 1,400 full-time employees. The organization's management and board of directors is composed of lawyers, former cabinet ministers, former olympians and corporate executives.

According to Cunningham, small-art sponsorships create an illusion that VANOC is helping Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. In reality, housing promises have been abandoned, the cost of living is rising, and millions of taxpayer dollars have been frittered away—all for the sake of the 2010 Games.

In the basement of the historic Tellier Towers at 16E Hastings, Art and Anarchy showcased a rousing collection of sculptures, carvings, drawings, jewelry and photography. One sculpture—fashioned from spare lumber, chain-link fence and old propane tanks—was once used as a barricade during a tent city protest.

Among the artists’ ranks was Gord Hill: a carver, comic illustrator and vociferous Olympic resistor. He chose to exhibit a selection of black-and-white drawings distributed during anti-Olympic protests. “Most of them were used in posters or leaflet graphics,” he explained in an e-mail to The Dominion.

Hill said artistic expression has the potential to unite and educate a creative community that might not otherwise seek out information. “Art contributes to a culture of resistance, which is what we’re trying to build,” he said. “It’s a way to engage people and get them thinking about the issues.”

The art in Art and Anarchy challenges the audience to become more aware of their surroundings, because the effects of the Olympics are all around them on the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Cunningham observed, community art is sometimes used as a physical barrier, to divide and disguise parts of the neighbourhood. “As we move closer to the Olympics, art is being placed over fences. Art is literally being used as walls.”

Thousands of artists are currently being recruited to participate in the Olympic opening ceremonies and many existing events and rising talents have been brought into the pro-Olympic fold, thanks to funding from VANOC.

First Nations rapper Ostwelve performed as part of the One-Year Olympic Countdown Celebration in February. Though he later stood by his decision to perform in protest, Ostwelve reflected on some of the hardship he faced.

“I’ve heard both sides of the story and seen friendships and life-long connections shattered by the twisted politics of the Olympics,” he wrote in a statement posted on his Facebook page after the performance. “People I considered to be mentors and friends have called me a sell-out.”

Ostwelve maintains he didn't perform for the money, but rather to criticize the 2010 Games on a world stage. “I was surprised to be able to perform there as I felt that my messages of struggle and resistance were well known,” he said. “I never did the performance for money and have always had plans to give that money back to the community.”

While Art and Anarchy is highly critical of government funding and Olympic sponsorship, Cunningham acknowledged Ostwelve’s struggle. “We just want artists to see the strategy behind their funding,” he said. “If you’re going to take the money, recognize there are larger political forces at play.”

Sarah Berman is a Masters student of journalism at the University of British Columbia and a reporter for Megaphone Magazine in Vancouver, where a version of this article was previously published.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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