A second and, for me, more disturbing aspect of the Olympics arts funding is that it came with requirements to censor content that would be critical of the Olympics. I'm told that gallery directors who accepted the funding simply signed the pledge and then ignored it. I haven't heard of any enforcement measures. Could any gallery directors or artists who accepted funding please tell us more about content restrictions and their impact?
In the case of some artists—writers and performers, it seems—the restrictions on content were flagrant. That's why Brad Cran, city of Vancouver poet laureate, refused to contribute to the Olympics. From his blog:
As Poet Laureate I was offered time on one of the celebration stages where I would be allowed to read poems that corresponded to themes as provided to me by an Olympic bureaucrat. One of the themes was “equality” but since VANOC had blown the chance of making these Olympics the first gender inclusive Olympics in history by including a female ski jumping event I didn’t think they would appreciate a reading of the one Olympic poem I had written on equality: “In Praise of Female Athletes Who Were Told No: For the 14 female ski jumpers petitioning to be included in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.”
In fact a reading of this poem would violate a clause in the contracts that Vancouver artists signed in order to participate in the Cultural Olympiad:
“The artist shall at all times refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell and/or other sponsors associated with VANOC.”
In an odd deviation, Olympic-funding contracts for visual art organizations did not contain such a clause. But at the Contemporary Art Gallery, where Seattle's Western Bridge director Eric Fredericksen curated a show on the competitive aspect of group exhibitions, one work was very nearly censored—which only activated the piece, the artist says.
The piece is Holly Ward's Operation Podium, a sculpture of cases of Pepsi stacked in the shape of the 1968 Olympics podiums—where Black Power activists raised their fists. Anyone who comes into the gallery can tear into Ward's sculpture and take a Pepsi.
Meanwhile, the Olympics are sponsored by Coke. You're not allowed to drink any marked beverage except for those sponsoring the Games at Olympic venues. Is the gallery, by taking Olympics money, an Olympic venue? What's an Olympic art venue supposed to do, anyway? How can the rules of an Olympic venue be made apparent and open for scrutiny—you know, art-style?
Ward's piece—titled Operation Podium because that's the name of the security detail working the Games—almost didn't go up, she said in a phone conversation yesterday. There was nothing in the CAG's contract explicitly controlling content, but something called "ambush marketing" was prohibited.
"The week before it was supposed to open it got hung up," she said. "Basically VANOC had concerns that this was ambush marketing, and because I had been looking at the term and doing a bit of research on what ambush marketing was and was not, I said, 'Well, if you’re going to say that this is ambush marketing, before we pull the piece—because it was down to the wire and it was very close to being censored—let’s sit down with lawyers and actually look at the legalities of pulling this piece. And apparently a couple of corporate lawyers and some Cultural Olympiad employees who were advocating for the piece argued in a room for an afternoon."
"I think that’s actually what made it an interesting piece. I’m not invested in the act of giving away Pepsi, of course, and as far as sculpture goes, it’s a really simplistic piece of sculpture. But the fact that this whole process went on around it and that it was so contentious when anyone can go to the store and buy Pepsi right this moment but in fact you can’t bring a can of Pepsi into an Olympic event. There’s a total blackout on anything that is not specifically part of the sponsorship agreement within the Olympic venues, so there’s the question of whether the gallery is an Olympic venue once it’s accepted money from VANOC in any way."
So, basically, go have a Pepsi, on Coke. Gold medal for most informationally nutritious soft drink of the 2010 Games.™
Thank you, VANOC, and thank you, Holly Ward and Eric Fredericksen. There are many other works in the CAG show (up through February 28), too, having to do with competition (the exhibition changes over the run, as the artworks mess with each other), the Olympics, and the "Free Speech Zones" VANOC originally proposed in order to limit protests—zones that were, after protests, renamed "Safe Assembly Areas."
Silly civil liberties. Be young! Have fun! Drink Pepsi!