Cultural Olympiad 2500 words

Cultural Policy Project

Hackney, 2012: ‘Creativity’, the Cultural Olympiad and Regeneration in East London

This project focuses on an analysis of the forthcoming London 2012 Olympic Games. It argues that, as a legacy of New Labour cultural policy (Murdock, 2003), such a major cultural event has, as an important part of its remit, the ‘regeneration’ of post-industrial areas of east London. This is introduced, firstly in the context of Raymond Williams’ definition of ‘cultural policy as display’ (McGuigan, 2004, p.5; Ahearne, 2009), and in the context of the ‘mega-event’ (Roche, 2000). While this focus on regeneration could be seen to have benefits for the area, there has also been opposition from various perspectives, including businesses, environmental groups, free speech campaigners and local residents. These debates will be outlined and discussed. The main focus then will be on the ‘Cultural Olympiad’ as the cultural wing of the Olympics, and specifically, how discourses of ‘creativity’ are produced and mobilized as a way to justify and legitimate particular models of urban development. This leads to a debate on the position of ‘creativity’ in culture and cultural policy more generally, and the project concludes with a consideration of the conflict between ‘official’ models of creative culture used in the marketing of place necessary for urban regeneration schemes, and grassroots or theoretical oppositions to this approach.

In his outlining of the scope of cultural policy study, McGuigan points to the distinction made by Raymond Williams between ‘cultural policy proper’ and ‘cultural policy as display’ (2004, p.5). The London 2012 Olympics can be understood in the context of William’s definition of ‘cultural policy as display’, used by policymakers to, as McRobbie argues, “achieve a governmental project of national aggrandizement” (2000, p.255). She goes on to explain this as a model of culture both as industry commodity and as marketed ‘lifestyle’ subject to the language of what she defines as the ‘new managerialism’ (p.255). More specifically, the Olympics can be understood, not only as ‘display’, but also as part of a tradition of ‘mega-events’, as defined by Roche:

Large scale cultural (including commercial and sporting) events which have a dramatic character, mass popular appeal and international significance…important elements of ‘official’ versions of public culture.
(2000, p.1)

Roche analyses the relation mega-events can have to issues such as cultural citizenship, inclusion and exclusion, and definitions of public culture, locally, nationally and globally (2000, pp.1-26). Relating to these issues is the use of the ‘official’ nature of the mega-event as a remit for large-scale urban regeneration projects. Ward, writing on the rebranding of post-industrial cities for example, argues that “the hosting of major sporting or cultural events” is vital to the creation of a more tourist-friendly image for areas previously seen as off-limits to tourists and dangerous ground for property developers (1998, p.186). The 2012 Olympics have, as a major part of their mission statement, the brief to regenerate areas of post-industrial East London – mainly the boroughs of Hackney and Newham, which have been rebranded as “the Lower Lea Valley” in Olympic literature (London 2012, 2010a):

The London 2012 Games offers a unique opportunity to revitalize the Lower Lea Valley, transforming one of the most underdeveloped areas of London into a benchmark 21st century urban environment…We can ensure that the games are remembered…as a catalyst for the regeneration of one of the most underdeveloped areas of the UK. (London 2012, 2010a)

The language used here is deeply ideologically loaded, implying that a primitively ‘underdeveloped’ area is in need of ‘revitalising’, and that this development can take place according to a model of linear and uncontested progress. As Murdock has argued, this use of culture as a driving force in economic regeneration is a founding element of New Labour cultural policy (2003, p.15). McGuigan traces the foundations of such policy further back, “GLC inspired policies of public cultural investment to achieve economic regeneration and urban renewal were pursued enthusiastically by a number of local Labour administrations from the 1980s onwards” (2004, p.43) He goes on to argue that such contexts came to change the very language of cultural policy, providing an increased focus on the reasoning of the market, on corporate image-making, branding and the deregulation of cultural services. It thus became “virtually impossible to think outside of” a context where a major cultural event would inevitably function as the agent of multinational capitalist development (p.43-44).

On one hand, this could be seen as providing positive benefits for the area. Roberts and Sykes for example outline the potential benefits to an area during processes of urban regeneration:

The task of ensuring the effective regeneration of an urban area is of fundamental importance to a wide range of actors and stakeholders, including local communities, city and national government, property owners and investors, [and] economic activities of all kinds. (2000, p.19)

On the other hand, however, it also raises a lot of problematic issues. One of the points that Roche makes about the effect of mega-events is their “institutionalization” of sites (2000, p.94). This creates the risk of alienating local and diverse communities from such ‘top-down’ methodology of delivering a Government-sanctioned ‘official’ public culture onto an, actually, already culturally thriving area. Ever since their announcement, the 2012 Olympics and their accompanying remit for generation, have been criticized from a range of perspectives, creating debates across the media. There has been protest from businesses – 308 companies were forced to close down by the London Development Agency and then not fully compensated for the fees incurred (GB Staff, 2005). Some people have protested against the spiralling cost of the games, and the effect this has on the council tax of local residents (Belam, 2009; Lavelle, 2007). Some have argued against the failures of the Olympic delivery Authority to pay a ‘living wage’ to workers (Belam, 2009), and others have campaigned against the negative effect development is having on environmental heritage (Fugueur, 2007). It seems ironic that an event legitimated primarily as promoting sport, fitness and health has as its main food sponsors McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Cadbury (Hope, 2008). Analysing this selection of media reports, citizen journalism and local activist research, it is clear that the Olympic Authority’s claims to ‘revitalize’ an ‘underdeveloped’ area are not as simple as they make out. The oppositions outlined above suggest a general fear of ‘regeneration’ actually entailing the expansion of multinational companies, an accordant rise in property prices and the loss of public space, affordable housing and cultural activities that already exist in the area. Media reports also suggest a sense of censorship of any opposition to the Olympic ideology. Tessa Jowell was reprimanded for speaking out against the food sponsorship deals (Hope, 2008), and local author Ian Sinclair was banned from hosting a book launch at a library in the borough because of his supposedly ‘anti-Olympic’ views:

It seemed a diktat had come down from above that I was a non-person and should be barred from the library for the crime of writing an off-message piece on the Olympics. The essay responded to…the destruction of the Manor Garden allotments, the eviction of travelers, and the famous ‘legacy’ revealed as nothing more than a gigantic shopping mall in Stratford. (Sinclair, 2008b)

Against this wave of opposition then, the London 2012 Olympics mega-event as display of cultural policy must find ways to promote, justify and legitimate its remit as agent of regeneration for East London. Interestingly, one of the ways in this has been done is through a specific promise of ‘cultural’ legacy and the creation, alongside the programme of sporting events, of the ‘Cultural Olympiad’. This is formulated as a way to “showcase the UK’s arts and culture to the rest of the world” (London 2012, 2010) and so as a way of marketing the UK, and London in particular, as a cultural capital. It is described in spectacular terms, “the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and modern Olympic games” (London 2012, 2010), and premised on emotive and abstract concepts of ‘inclusion’ and, fundamentally ‘creativity’. Firstly, its valorization of inclusion can be seen through the use of language in its marketing materials, which focuses on the sheer quantity of people involved, “millions of people all around the UK” (London 2012, 2010), rather than any quality of experience. It also uses visual imagery attempting to iconographically represent notions of ‘diversity’ by including people of different races, genders and physical abilities (Fig. 1). Secondly, its focus on ‘creativity’ is evident in its main aim “inspiring creativity across all forms of culture” (London 2012, 2010).

How discourses of ‘creativity’ are produced and mobilized in the interest of urban regeneration is an intriguing aspect of cultural policy. Cunningham outlines how New Labour policies specifically emphasized the importance of ‘Creative Industries’ through the Creative Industries Task Force in 2001 (2002, p.1). He quotes the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith, who argued that “the creative industries have moved from the fringes to the mainstream” (p.2). Mark Fisher, from a different perspective, has argued that creativity is no longer associated with the radical and oppositional fringes of society, but is actually a fundamental organising feature of capitalist society, indeed ‘pre-corporated’ into desires, which go to benefit the market economy at the expense of personal satisfaction (2009, p.9). Cunningham argues that there are difficulties in defining exactly what is meant by ‘Creative Industry’ and how this differs from definitions of ‘Cultural Industry’ (2001, pp.1-5). While this may be true, it could be argued that defining creativity in cultural policy is less important than mobilizing it as a desirable yet actually quite abstract concept. Richard Florida’s extensive analysis of the ‘Creative Class’ for example (2004; 2005) suggests replacing traditional class distinctions with ones based on creativity rather than socio-economic or educational factors:

I substitute a measure of creative occupations for the typical education-based measure of human capital…creative capital measure performed better than the less specific human capital at predicting innovation and growth (2005, p.6)

Florida’s analysis clearly views ‘creativity’ as playing a positive role in society and his analysis creates a clear hierarchy. The ‘super-creative core’ suggests the desirable “highest order of creative work” (2004, p.69), while the negatively defined “squelchers” are those who put a block on creative activity (2005, p.21). Importantly in the Olympic regeneration context, Florida’s analysis relates specifically to space and theories of urbanization. The places people are drawn to, he argues, are the sites of creativity (2005, p.3). This offers one suggestion of why creativity becomes such an important concept in the branding exercise for east London. ‘Creativity’, however, is also a contested term. According to Florida’s definition, it suggests a type of work that boosts economic growth. Angela McRobbie offers a different view, arguing that discourses of creativity have been used to manipulate people, determined to be part of the ‘creative industries’, into working long hours for little pay or benefits:

[Workers’] commitment to notions of personal creativity provides them with a utopian idea of breaking down the distinction between dull work and enjoyable leisure. If paid employment is no longer ‘secure’, then self-employed but ‘creative’ insecurity is often more appealing that uncreative job insecurity in a large company or corporation. (McRobbie, 1999, p.27)

In McRobbie’s analysis, the promise of ‘creativity’ no matter how empty or vague this may be, or in whose interests it operates, is desirable enough to “spellbind” (1999, p.134), and this offers another suggestion for why it becomes a vital part of the legitimating ideology of the Olympic redevelopment scheme.

The Cultural Olympiad is not a new invention but has been used in previous Olympic Games including, for example, the Barcelona Games of 1992. In this case, the former External Affairs officer of the Cultural Olympiad Organisation Board described it as a strategy for “cultural tourism expansion” (Dodd, 2004, p.179). In this context, according to Dodd’s argument, it allowed for the development of a distinctively ‘local’ Catalan culture, which could resist the cultural and linguistic imperialism of the Spanish mainstream (p.180). In London 2012, however, the opposite appears to be the case. Consulting literature and media relating to the project, it is very difficult to find any local support for the initiative, and there is a sense of frustration and alienation on behalf of local and national cultural practitioners, summarized concisely by Levine:

As a collective of artists…we directly oppose the Cultural Olympiad at every level on the basis that it aims to co-opt the work of artists to whitewash the crimes of the 2012 Olympics and manufacture an appearance of acceptability at the expense of (primarily grassroots) arts activity throughout the UK. (Levine, 2009)

This summarises neatly the feelings that the institutionalization of mega-events outlined by Roche (2000, p.94) can have a negative effect. Levine goes on to point that £10bn of the costs for staging the Olympics is being redistributed from arts funding, leading to his conclusion that the Cultural Olympiad is merely a cover for what is, actually, a destructive event for culture. By its nature, funding specific projects by application to an Olympic fund, it also faces accusations of bias and censorship, as it would, presumably, only choose to sponsor cultural events that were in its own interest, leaving no space for critical debate around the way in which regeneration is taking place. As Levine argues, “artists and art organizations are compromising their integrity desperately trying to incorporate irrelevant Olympic themes into their work in the hope of receiving financial support” (Levine, 2009). This, along with the attempt at restricting views which disagree with official policy outlined above, makes the use of ‘creativity’ in Olympic cultural policy seem deeply ironic.

A conflict emerges then, between officially sanctioned uses of the concept of creativity, and creative culture, which are suppressed in development. As Selby has argued:

Urban tourism practitioners manipulate historical and cultural legacies in order to attract capital, in the process emptying them of their original meaning…particularly the conflict that may arise between their experience of the city and the official version of place marketers. (2004, p.50)

This conflict is evident in popular opposition to Olympic regeneration policy and attempts to use creativity as a weapon against it. The We Sell Boxes We Buy Gold project is one example of cultural resistance to official narratives. Here, an archive of interviews and personal testimonies produced in recordings of people walking around the Olympic site, provides an alternative narrative for how the Olympic site could be developed, emphasizing an everyday personal relationship to the space against the perceived ‘institutionalisation’ imposed by cultural policy (Garrett, Duman and Rosen, 2009). Murdock opposes one version of ‘creativity’ with another, which is produced by a shared common voice and offers ‘real change’ through a grassroots model of “social authorship” (2003, p.43).

Narratives of cultural policy will always be contested, multiple and fragmented. The attempt by New Labour cultural policy to universalize a particular set of interests based on the linear progression from an ‘underdeveloped’ post-industrial area, to a ‘regenerated’ site of big business, luxury apartments and private corporate sponsored land represses a host of alternative narratives, which remain in its wake, as expressed in the haunting sound recordings of the Boxes for Gold project What is particularly interesting, in this case, is how discourses of creativity are mobilized as a way to legitimate models of regeneration. Creativity, as Florida has argued, is desirable, seductive and has economic benefit (2004, 2005). It can also mask exploitation (McRobbie, 1999). On the other hand, it could be used as a way to resist official narratives of development (Garrett, Duman and Rosen, 2009). Debates, contestations and redefinitions of what creativity is, or could be, is a vital element in the redefinition of cultural policy, not only for the Olympics, but for future Governmental policy as a whole.

2615 words


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Fig 1: Images of ‘inclusion’ and ‘creativity’ from the Cultural Olympiad marketing material, [accessed 3rd May 2010].