Review by Sophie Nield. Royal Holloway, University of London . Published online 20th November 2013 in the Routledge Contemporary Theatre Review.
Described by its editors as ‘a monument to dissent’ (p. 8), this rich collection of short essays, interven- tions, photographs, art works, and documentation of the several interventionist forays into the site of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games produces less of a linear narrative than a montage of response to the arrival of the Olympic Park into the environment of East London. The book is organised into four interconnecting parts. The first, ‘Incursions’, examines the legal, economic, and other structural framings of the London Olympics. It does not form a ‘theory’ section through which the remainder of the book is read: rather, forms and modes of contribution are balanced throughout the collection in a critical dialogue that builds and accumulates. Nevertheless, this section draws useful parameters for the ground ahead. The second section, ‘Excavations’, digs down into the site itself, as it is overwritten and erased by the car parks and stadiums of the Olympic behemoth. ‘Displacements’, the third section, tracks the communities who found themselves moved on and out to make way for London 2012: allotment holders, canal boaters, and other residents whose own site- located ecosystems were radically disrupted by the slow river of tarmac. The final section of the book, ‘Aftermaths’, considers the Olympic legacy in a markedly different tone from the event’s own rhetorical obsession with its afterlife. It is necessarily a shorter section than the others, but offers a for- ceful and angry elegy.
What connects these contributions is that they are ‘in disagreement over […] the mega-event and its imprint’ (p. 8). There are a number of important themes that loop though the collection: issues of legality and the state of exception created by the Host City Contract and the London Olympic and Paralympic Games Act 2006 (which granted an extraordinary range of powers to the organisers of the Games) are outlined in a compelling opening contribution by Isaac Marrero-Guillamón, and are considered further in the work that follows. The collection also remains carefully concerned for the residents and people of the Lower Lea Valley, and with its self-designated responsibility to make a monument to what was there before the Games came.
In particular, I was struck by how resonant so many of the site interventions were with memories of divided Berlin. The image of the wall repeats throughout the collection, and the association is unmistakeable. Mark Wayman’s contribution, ‘An East London Border’, is a fascinating photo-series depicting the boundary of the Viewing Park, which echoes formally much of the documentation of the Berlin Wall. Vicky Richardson’s ‘Point of View: The London Olympics’ First Public Viewing Platform’ discusses the Office for Subversive Architecture’s installation of a blue staircase alongside the blue Olympic wall, which enabled spectators to climb up and look over to the ‘void inside’ (p. 10). (The platform was removed by the Olympic Delivery Authority after two days.) The image invokes, simultaneously, the strange viewing platforms that offered vantage points into East Berlin for curious westerners, and also the staircase at the end of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show, in which the limits of reality are reached and a door opens into something strange, new, and entirely unknown.
There is a clear sense throughout the book of the connection between the privatisation of space and the privatisation of the image. This is a set of concerns gaining traction in security studies at the moment, and the reading of the interplay of visual- ity and discipline through the Olympic site is productive and illuminating. Alistair Siddons’ savagely satirical text ‘London 2012 Brand Protection: What You Need To Know’ is only marginally distant in tone from the edicts that were being issued by the authorities at the time of the Games.
The Art of Dissent has been beautifully produced, which feels appropriate for a collection so concerned with materialities. The overall tone becomes, eventually, elegiac, as the contributions work to reconstruct spaces, sites, and communities that are gone. Ben Campkin’s essay on Stephen Gill’s ‘Buried’ project foregrounds the practice of conceptual archaeology as the artist buries documentary photographs and books, interring the evi- dence of the occupation in the land itself, haunting, as Iain Sinclair has observed of his work, the places which haunt him (p. 112). Appropriately, the book closes with a piece by Hilary Powell on the image of the ruin, but the ruin in reverse: all that was there before it was ruined by the glass and gloss and steel of the Olympic legacy (p. 286). Powell invokes films of destruction spooled out in reverse, with explosions accelerating backwards, and towers rising out of their own ashes. On a recent visit to the (currently mothballed) site, I was reminded of another index of monumental hubris, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son- net about a broken king, Ozymandias (1818). The poem was referenced, perhaps with irony, in the official closing ceremony of the 2012 Games, although the landscape lost is not that of the Olympics, but of what it erased. Of that, no thing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level car parks stretch far away.
© Sophie Nield