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November 06 2011

London 2012 festival: 'It's going to be amazing'

Two years ago the Cultural Olympiad was floundering. Has new boss Ruth Mackenzie turned it around? She talks mass bell-ringing, Barenboim and beaches with Charlotte Higgins

Last year, when Ruth Mackenzie was appointed director of the Cultural Olympiad, the very concept was at a low ebb. No one seemed to know exactly what it meant. The early planning seemed bogged down in impenetrable jargon about Olympic "themes" and dead phrases such as "celebrating youth and diversity". While worthy, these had the kind of committee-speak tang that is the enemy of good art. As one commentator put it, after attending the glossy, self-congratulatory launch in 2008, "it felt like we were all bathed in a warm vomit of inclusivity".

Mackenzie was the cavalry, brought in to give the Cultural Olympiad – which, should you still be in the dark, is the arts programme that will accompany the games, and which has been running, in various forms, since 2008 – a fresh start. She would have to be a sprinter: the opening ceremony might have been two years away, but that was still a hideously short time frame in which to pull together a coherent cultural programme for 2012. Mackenzie's appointment was greeted with relief, however: if anyone could pull it off, it was this former boss of Scottish Opera, Chichester Festival theatre and Manchester international festival. Like her or loathe her (and the arts world seems split, her nickname in some quarters being The Childcatcher, after the villain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), she is regarded as effective.

"Did I have time to spend two years doing research, which any director of any festival would expect?" she says crisply when we meet at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "No, I didn't. But there are merits in being decisive. There was no time to linger."

And in many ways – judging from the launch on Friday of her London 2012 festival – Mackenzie does seem to have pulled it off. The festival, running from 21 June to 9 September, will be the climax of the Cultural Olympiad. If all goes well, it will bring some much-needed focus to a rather inchoate programme that has risked lacking a binding identity.

To create the festival programme, Mackenzie and her team examined the work already in development, extracted the good stuff (such as Big Dance week, which saw 1.2 million people dancing in London last year) and quietly dropped the rest. She also opened her contacts book, inviting major international artists to make work that would form the high points of the festival; she cherrypicked projects being run by other institutions and drew them into the festival programme. For example, Tate Modern's regular Turbine Hall commission, which next year is by the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal, will be regarded as part of the festival.

The problem, perhaps, is that the definition is still somewhat baffling. The festival is not the same as the Cultural Olympiad – there are plenty of Cultural Olympiad events that will happen next summer that are not part of the festival. Nor is the festival, despite its title, a London thing: it will be UK-wide. Some events that are part of other festivals – such as the Southbank's festival of the world – will also be included in Mackenzie's London 2012 festival. Confused? Don't worry, says Mackenzie. London 2012 festival events will be identifiable through branding, a pink ribbon, that she says will give them the imprimatur of quality. "We encourage people to feel that if there is a pink ribbon on it, it's like a critics' pick: trust us, it's going to be amazing."

Wisely, she has ditched the idea of connecting the programme too closely to the sporting events. The only two Olympic "themes" she has dreamed up are the idea that the artists are "exceptional, gold-medal talents, capable of producing something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity"; and the notion, as a loosely applied metaphor, of the Olympic truce, which in the ancient Greek Olympics was a downing of weapons between the frequently warring Hellenic nations for the duration of the games.

And so, bound together by Mackenzie's curatorship, the London 2012 festival does now have a certain coherence. It is recognisably her taste, whether originated by her or not. She has a bracing (and to my mind commendable) penchant for the European avant garde; there is serious work of all stripes; and contemporary music that is anything but lowest-common-denominator. So Birmingham will see the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey's new epic choral work Weltethos, under Simon Rattle; there will be a strand devoted to the work of composer George Benjamin; Daniel Barenboim will bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms; theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create a series of installations on Britain's beaches; and there is the already announced Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal retrospective planned for the Barbican in London.

Offsetting all that is more populist fare: David Hockney at London's Royal Academy, a celebration of Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough and Chichester; and, presumably, the pop and comedy elements of the festival, which are to be announced next year. Skirting between the two extremes are some intriguingly eccentric works, such as Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. (Yes, Creed wants everyone in Britain to ring something – church bell, bike bell, doorbell – simultaneously to celebrate the opening of the Games.) Mackenzie hesitates to sum up the "tone" of the festivities but, if anything, she says, they will have a certain humour and wit: "There's something about the surprise and quirkiness of them – about being funny as well as touching."

Will the London 2012 festival feel like a festival? As Mackenzie herself says: "Most festivals are in fields or cities; this one is in an entire country." Good festivals involve audiences sharing a stream of thought or experiencing a sense of place. They create a feeling of "festiveness" and a certain camaraderie between audiences and artists. Mackenzie has worked to disperse London 2012 into all parts of Britain, from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Gateshead to Margate. But that geographic generosity could cost her the coherence she wants, as most people are unlikely to get to any but a few events.

Mackenzie counters: "One of our offers is, we bring the events to you: we make sure there are amazing events all round the UK. You will feel a festive spirit in quite a few of our major cities. There is no doubt that there will be a critical mass of cultural events in London, and it's going to feel like it's absolutely at the centre of a festival – that goes for Edinburgh, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Birmingham, Stratford, too. What you can't do is have one festival club, you can't, and that's a sadness for us. Would it be easier if it was all in one city? Yes. But if we're to offer 10m free tickets or free places at events – well, you just couldn't do that in one city."

Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen

And what – to use a dreaded piece of Olympics jargon – does Mackenzie want the legacy to be? It's partly, she says, about using the strength and power of the Olympic brand to tempt audiences to take a punt on events they wouldn't normally go for. "I don't want to sound pious, but I believe in the quality of these artists. I believe that if you have the chance to see David Hockney or Robert Wilson's Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen, I think you will be amazed. I really do. I think you'll remember it; I think it will shape the way you think."

There are more tangible ends in view: the government, for example, has set targets for increasing cultural tourism to Britain once the games have finished. Mackenzie is also keen to raise the cultural stakes for subsequent Olympics, not least Rio in 2016. "If we are lucky, we will change the way future Olympics see their cultural festivals. I don't mind if Rio is better than us: I would like us to be the best yet, but I would be pleased if they were better than us."

The sheer scale of it all prompts more questions. At the latest count – and new projects are still being added – there were more than 1,000 events in the London 2012 festival, and many times that in the Cultural Olympiad as a whole from its 2008 inception. Will there be enough audiences to go round? And will 2013 be a terrible cultural letdown, arts organisations having exhausted their energy and budgets on big Olympic projects? One thing's for sure: far from there being nothing much to see next year, the UK is going to be awash with big ticket arts events. The danger, perhaps, is not cultural impoverishment – but cultural overdose.


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August 29 2011

Ai Weiwei attacks injustices in China in magazine article

World-famous artist accuses officials of denying people their basic rights and describes Beijing as a 'city of violence'

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist held by the authorities for almost three months earlier this year, has attacked injustice in China in a passionate article fuelled by his own experiences of detention.

He accused officials of "deny[ing] us basic rights" and compared migrant workers to slaves, describing Beijing as "a city of violence" and "a constant nightmare".

But one of the most powerful passages describes how people "become like mad" as they are held in isolation and how detainees "truly believe [captors] can do anything to you".

His remarks, in an article about Beijing published on the website of Newsweek magazine, are certain to anger Chinese security officials. They come days after it emerged that China is reportedly planning to give police legal powers to hold some suspects for up to six months without telling their families. Campaigners say the move would legitimise and potentially increase the number of secret detentions.

Ai's own 81-day detention caused an international outcry. It was the most high-profile case in a sweeping crackdown that saw dozens of activists, dissidents and lawyers held earlier this year.

State media said he was held for economic crimes and released in June "because of his good attitude in confessing" and a chronic illness. His family and supporters believe he was targeted due to his social and political activism.

The 54-year-old artist is not able to give interviews but confirmed that he had written the article. He described it simply as "a piece about the place I live in".

Ai's bail conditions reportedly prevent him from discussing what happened to him in detention, although a source gave Reuters a detailed account of events, which included more than 50 interrogations.

The restrictions are also said to ban him from using social media – although he sent a brief flurry of angry tweets recently about friends who had been enmeshed in his case – but not from writing.

"The worst thing about Beijing is that you can never trust the judicial system," he wrote in the Newsweek article. "It's like a sandstorm … everything is constantly changing, according to somebody else's will, somebody else's power."

He went on: "My ordeal made me understand that on this fabric, there are many hidden spots where they put people without identity … only your family is crying out that you're missing. But you can't get answers from the street communities or officials, or even at the highest levels, the court or the police or the head of the nation. My wife has been writing these kinds of petitions every day [while he was held], making phone calls to the police station every day. Where is my husband?

"You're in total isolation. And you don't know how long you're going to be there, but you truly believe they can do anything to you. There's no way to even question it. You're not protected by anything. Why am I here? Your mind is very uncertain of time. You become like mad. It's very hard for anyone. Even for people who have strong beliefs."

The artist described the capital as two cities. The first was one of power and money, peopled by officials, coal bosses and the heads of big companies who help to keep "the restaurants and karaoke bars and saunas … very rich". The second was a place of desperation, he wrote, calling migrant workers the city's slaves.

Ai, who helped to design the "bird's nest" national stadium for the Olympics – but publicly turned on the games before they began – said none of his art represented the capital.

He added: "The Olympics did not bring joy to the people."

He also warned: "Beijing tells foreigners that they can understand the city, that we have the same sort of buildings …

"Officials who wear a suit and tie like you say we are the same and we can do business. But they deny us basic rights."

Ai described people giving him quiet support when he went out last week, for example patting him on the shoulder, but only in "a secretive way" because they were not willing to speak out.

He said people told him to "either leave, or be patient and watch how they die. I really don't know what I'm going to do."


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January 10 2011

The Rio brand

Brazil's motif for the 2016 Games is a politically correct damp squib, like too many others before. If only the politicians would let designers do their thing

At midnight on New Year's Eve, Rio unveiled its logo for the 2016 Olympics in front of 2 million revellers on Copacabana beach. And I was there. Well, I was on Copacabana beach. To be honest I had no idea that there was a logo ceremony taking place – it was too crowded and I was having too good a time. And even if I'd known about the launch, I wouldn't have bothered threading my way towards the stage. For an Olympic logo? Frankly, for design inspiration I'd have been better off contemplating my flip-flops.

Surely it shouldn't be like this. The launch of a global mark ought to incite a smidgen of anticipation, not just a world-weary roll of the eyeballs. In practice, the bathos, the controversy ("it looks like such and such") followed by the recriminations and possible national embarrassment, are all too predictable. The reason why no one takes Olympic logos seriously as design is because the standard, with precious few exceptions, has been so low. But before we look at why that is, let's give Rio 2016 a fair appraisal.

The first thing to say about the logo, designed by Brazilian design firm Tátil, is that it has spadefuls of that most important quality in any Olympic branding: inoffensiveness. With its ring of multi-coloured figures hand in hand – reminiscent of Matisse's painting The Dance, as others have pointed out – its most obvious message is "togetherness in diversity". On top of that, this being Rio, it also communicates joie de vivre. Already that's a handful, but the designers didn't stop there. The green, yellow and blue colour scheme mimics the Brazilian flag. And if you look at the shape of the logo you'll see that it evokes Rio's most famous natural landmark, the Pão d'Açúcar, or Sugarloaf Mountain. What we have here is a semiotic Where's Wally?

In fairness, the shape of the logo has a three-dimensional, MC Escher-ish cleverness. But it's cheapened by the way the colours fade into each other, and by the brushstroke-effect script beneath it. What is it with this mandatory brushstroke effect? It all began with Josep Maria Trias's bold, and appropriate, use of it for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics but it's been hanging around like a bad smell ever since: in Athens, in Beijing and, most embarrassingly, in Sydney. Sydney's logo, with its boomerangs and Opera House, looked like it was designed by a nursery school class. It is somehow in the nature of Olympic logos to be condescending. They don't credit people with the maturity or the intelligence to find meaning in something dignified and abstract. Their stock in trade is the literal and the faux-naif.

Does the Rio logo need to try and do so much? Does it signify multiple meanings or is it simply inscribed with indecision? I asked one of its designers, Fred Gelli, to tell me the one essential quality that it communicates and he replied "passion and transformation" (alright, I admit, it was a tough question). But there is a clear reason why these designs always come out so wishy-washy, and that's because the brief is near impossible to fulfil. Gelli, whose design emerged from a competition between 139 Brazilian practices, says: "We were asked to transmit Olympic values and attributes, to reflect the local culture, to project the city and country's image, to assure universal understanding as well as be current until the actual Games, along with many other considerations." Is that all? I'm surprised they weren't also asked to make it reveal the word Beelzebub in moonlight.

It's very simple: good design requires a good client. The problem is that municipal Olympic committees tend to be risk-averse, micro-managing and aesthetically stunted, with a far lower sense of where the lowest common denominator is than does the public justice. It follows, therefore, that as the awareness of branding's importance has grown in the politicians' estimation, so the quality of Olympic logos has declined.

The canonical piece of Olympic branding was created by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Games. Aicher's logo was bold and abstract, and did not sink to an easily digestible representation of German national identity. There was no red, yellow and black colour scheme. Why should there be? The Games are not about a single nation. But much more important and memorable than the logo was Aicher's system of pictograms depicting the different sports. These were hugely influential, not just in subsequent Games but in sports centres all over the world. This is a case of how an Olympics can be a catalyst for meaningful design. It may be the only case.

Even better than Aicher's logo, in my opinion, was Lance Wyman's identity for the Mexico City Games in 1968: a bold and unapologetic op-art-inspired graphic. And it is in that striking vein that the good Olympic identities have followed. I think of Ivan Chermayeff's logo for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, and in the same year, the red snowflake for Sarajevo's winter Games.

Is it a coincidence that the best Olympic logos have often denoted Games that are remembered more for political incident than sport? The enduring image of the Mexico City Games in 1968 is of the African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists in a Black Power salute. Munich, of course, was marred by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by terrorists, and part of the Sarajevo Olympic stadium had to be turned into a cemetery. Perhaps these events make the logos seem more historic than they would otherwise – but you could equally argue that the logos are strong enough to support those memories in a way that the more insipid recent designs are not.

Compared to the politically correct designs of Sydney and Rio et al, the London 2012 logo has a certain edgy panache. At least it has the balls to be brash. But having blamed clients earlier, one has to admit that sometimes the designer just gets it wrong, and London's mark is one of those cases. Yes, it evokes London in its punky choppiness and nu-rave fluoresence, but in an inauthentic, embarrassingly try-hard way. This is a problem with big branding agencies such as Wolff Olins, authors of the 2012 logo: they are often as susceptible to design by committee as the Olympic committees themselves.

The Aicher and Wyman days are over. No longer are art directors with a singular vision given the responsibility they need to create something unique and memorable. There are too many boxes to tick now; the whole process has been health-and-safetied. Politicians believe that the branding is too important to leave to designers. They really ought to loosen up – you never know, they might get themselves a decent logo.


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October 09 2010

I have seen the Olympic future and – this may surprise you – it works | Rowan Moore

The plans for Stratford promise better times for East Enders. If only they could be rolled out across Britain

For years now, journalists have been shuffled into darkened rooms, where ministers and mayors flash pictures before them in improbable greens and blues, depicting a part of east London that is currently mostly brown. To a taped soundtrack of pious hopes from diverse locals, they proclaim that this new Jerusalem really, truly will arise from the mud, among some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. They are describing the new homes and districts that are supposed to be the "Olympic Legacy", the ultimate justification of the £9bn cost of the 2012 Games.

Last week, it became possible, for the first time, to believe them. You could imagine that, around the park that is being created for the Olympics, something like the iridescent computer images might come to pass and that it might work roughly as promised. The homes could be places where people would want to live, the Olympic Park might attract visitors and there might be some meaningful connection with the existing neighbourhoods around the edge of the 250-acre site.

In a week when housing benefit cuts threaten what one Tory called "the Highland clearances", the expunging of the poor from more desirable urban areas, here might be a place where people of different incomes could still coexist. The site of the Games could be that rare thing, a new-built town that works. It could be a model other British cities could follow.

The reason for hope is not the renaming of the Olympic Park after Queen Elizabeth, as a regal companion for nearby Victoria Park, nor the classically educated fluff that Boris Johnson turns on on these occasions. Nor that the minister that was once Tessa Jowell is now Jeremy Hunt. The essential ingredients are more realism, less greed, more patience and more thought.

Previous plans showed little but massive apartment blocks, supposedly like the vibrant courtyards of Barcelona but as similar developments have shown elsewhere, in practice lacking the climate, charm and street life of Catalonia. These would have backed on to the existing two- and three-storey houses of surrounding areas like oil tankers next to dinghies. Their true purpose was to pack in as many housing units as possible, to raise money as quickly as possible. This is because the land on which the legacy will be built was bought by the public purse, additional to the £9bn spent on the Games, and the Treasury will want it back.

The new plans show many more houses, arranged in a typical London pattern of terraces and squares, generally four storeys high, with gardens. The number of proposed new homes has been reduced from 10,000 to 8,000, in addition to the 2,800 already being built for the Athletes' Village. It's not revolutionary but it is sane, as both estate agents and locals told the Olympic Park Legacy Company, which is charge of developing the Olympic site, that more family homes were what were wanted. In 2009, 80% of new homes built in Britain were one- and two-bedroom flats, many of them warehoused in ugly towers. The balance needs to be corrected, even if some things that look like houses in the legacy will contain more than one home. It is unlikely that affordable housing will run to four-storey townhouses for a single family.

Most crucially, the Legacy Company has won the government's agreement to pay the Treasury back slowly. Its model is the great estates that built much of London, such as Grosvenor and Cadogan, and, like them, the Legacy Company will remain the freeholder indefinitely. This means it will have an interest in maintaining the quality of the place, rather than seeking the highest bidders for land at the earliest opportunity. Most regeneration projects do the latter, which means that a predictable band of volume house builders move in and do their usual mediocre stuff. Whatever guidelines there might be to achieve good design and planning are difficult to enforce.

There are other outbreaks of sanity. This is a plan for 20 or 30 years, which means some parts of it will not be built on for a long time and temporary uses are intended to stop vacant plots blighting the whole. The Legacy Company also knows that the Olympic Park at the centre of the site could, like many well-meaning bits of green, degenerate into a zone of needles and graffiti. It is planning to give people positive reasons to come to the park, like water sports on its river and canals and cycling around the Olympic Velodrome. Architects outside the usual glum ranks of "masterplanning specialists" have been hired to consider the ways the new development will connect with the existing.

Some of these plans are still little more than good intentions and there are still problems to be resolved. The southern end of the site remains a car crash of steel-framed egos, where the gigantic stadium will meet the "largest public art project in Europe", the Anish Kapoor-Boris Johnson-Lakshmi Mittal vanity project known as the mutant trombone, twisted testicles or, officially, the ArcelorMittal Orbit. To stand in the shadows of stadiums is rarely pleasant when they are empty – try it at Old Trafford, Wembley or the Emirates – and it's not obvious how this will be different.

At the northern end of the site, the vast hulk of the Olympic media centre is likely to stand empty for a long time. It was supposed to be a "creative hub", attracting major media companies, but it is served only by a single, sleepy train station. The plans could go further to encourage bottom-up as well as top-down development and they could start with letting local businesses colonise parts of this behemoth at low rents.

Optimism is a dangerous habit when writing about regeneration, so often do the extravagant promises of regenerators disappoint. If the districts around the Olympic site succeed, it will be with the help of huge investment in the park, in the decontamination of land and, over the years, many new train lines to Stratford, including a Eurostar stop and the Jubilee underground line. The site is also blessed with potentially beautiful waterways and proximity to central London.

To make a place like this work should have been possible without staging an entire Olympic Games, the main benefit of which has been to force politicians to take regeneration seriously. As this is the most looked-at piece of development in the country, they don't want the embarrassment of it going wrong. Andrew Altman, the chief executive of the Legacy Company, would not have found the Treasury so amenable to deferring repayments if this had been anywhere else.

But the Olympic Legacy should be more than a model village sustained by unfeasible levels of political benevolence. The country is supposed to need about 3 million new homes and you can't hold the Olympics every time you want build 10,000. The real benefit of the Games would come if the methods developed there could be transferred to other, less blessed places.

Rowan Moore is the Observer's architecture critic


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April 03 2010

The Orbit: £19m for a 'piece of string'? It could turn out to be a bargain

Anish Kapoor's Olympic tower will be a draw during the Games. But after that?

The success of Britain's best-loved piece of modern public art, the Angel of the North, has been a boon to the nation's sculptors. In every district, especially those scarred by an industrial past, councillors point towards Gateshead and ask: "Can we have one of those?"

Certainly, this question seems to have driven London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to celebrate the 2012 London Olympics with "something to arouse curiosity and wonder". Or perhaps he is looking beyond Antony Gormley's Angel, at the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. The result is the £19m, 115-metre, ArcelorMittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor, "a loop of string arrested in mid-fall", in the words of our architecture critic Rowan Moore.

So will it achieve Johnson's dreams? Our willingness to invest in public art is hugely attractive. So is our love for it. The last two decades have seen great improvements to our public spaces and the Olympic Park in Stratford should add further magic. Public art, despite sponsors' attempts to brand it, can stand as symbol to our beliefs and ambitions.

Of course, not all attempts have had happy endings. While Mark Wallinger's Ebbsfleet horse is eagerly awaited, Manchester's B of the Bang, its steel shards falling at disconcertingly inopportune moments, failed.

It is almost impossible to predict what will work, but something that speaks to our shared sense of culture seems a good bet. That the Orbit is part of that great shared endeavour of the Olympics gets it speedily from the starting blocks. It is clearly designed as a spectacle to draw people. It will achieve that, at least during the Games themselves. And after that? Too often, these sites fall into disrepair. Johnson will need to ensure the new park matches his ambitions.

And if not? Well, Kapoor's Orbit will still be worth a visit, for it will allow us to climb to the top and look away.


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