Will Stratford Replace Rome as the Eternal City?
In his project Memory Marathon, involving a 26-mile, collaborative walk around the Olympic zone, Simon Pope brings into collision official claims on history with the anarchy of private memory. Review by Alberto Duman
Memory Marathon is an 80-minute film of a large-scale participative event in which artist Simon Pope walked a specially planned 26-mile marathon route through the five London boroughs that will host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympics Games. Continuing a series of trademark walking and memory projects by this innovative artist, Memory Marathon is a unique collective undertaking that celebrates the enduring importance of personal memories. Starting out just after dawn from Thamesmead in South-East London, and arriving twelve hours later at the entrance to the Olympic Park in Stratford, Pope completed his marathon journey in the company of more than a hundred local residents of Greenwich, Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest.
- Memory Marathon Gallery Handout
Walking is only the beginning of citizenship, but through it the citizen knows his or her city and fellow citizens and truly inhabits the city rather than a small privatized part thereof. Walking the streets is what links up reading the map with living one's life, the personal microcosm with the public macrocosm; it makes sense of the maze all around.
- Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, London: Verso, 2001, p.176
On a Sunday afternoon in late February I walked out of Stratford Station, trying to make sense of the maze that surrounds it, the limbo in which floating, hyperreal projections - ‘Stratford, the new Manhattani- overlap with a reality in transition, subordinated to the regenerative rubric of the London 2012 Olympic Games. The hoardings of the forthcoming Westfield Stratford City, ‘the prestigious gateway to the 2012 London Olympic Games', immediately demand my attention, acting as curtains setting the stage for the future that beckons Stratford.ii Wide-angle, virtual views of glass-fronted stores populated by royalty-free citizens pitch themselves against the reality that awaits them, eager to confront it with its retail-led experiment in social engineering. Strange brands appear in these pre-visualisations of the future: ‘Abidos', ‘Mike', ‘Ross'; fictitious entities deployed as proxies for the brands expected to fill the spaces of Stratford City where ‘over 70 per cent of the visitors to the London Olympic Games are expected to pass through the scheme'. The language used by the developer, Westfield, to describe Stratford City is pragmatic at best, if not a somewhat crude reminder of the core business which will occupy such a prominent position within the Olympic Village: ‘The £1.45bn scheme will draw on a catchment population of 4.1 million people with an available weighted spend of £3.24bn.'iii Stratford City will also incorporate a state of the art digital 12-screens Vue Cinema.
Image: Still from Simon Pope's Memory Marathon, 2010
My destination today is also a cinema, the Stratford Picture House opposite the hoardings, which opened in 1997 and is ‘Fitted out to luxury standards, with stadium seating, 3D projection and, in the main auditorium, THX sound.'iv But the once grandiose sound of THX's classic crescendo is facing its own obsolescence, and the proximity of the forthcoming 12-screen Vue Cinema will cast its long shadow. The assets of the Stratford Picture House are facing an imposed revaluation, a repositioning exercise, just like the identities, spaces and future opportunities of all those living in the wingspan of Westfield.
Reflected in the glossy surfaces of the Stratford City hoardings, Stratford Picture House start to show its age by revealing the patina that inexorably descends over the urban built environment, triggered by the upscale magnitude of the new arrivals. The latent agency of memory becomes active upon the arrival of the force that will suppress it; even before the legacy of a previous urban development crystallises, a new horizon rises with the demands of a ‘world-class city'. How appropriate then, to be sitting in ‘stadium seating' for a screening of Memory Marathon, a film by Simon Pope ‘conceived and produced by Film and Video Umbrella, commissioned by the Olympic Delivery Authority and funded by the London Development Agency and Arts Council England.'v It's hard not to feel the cultural weight of this collective endeavour, and its power of delivery within the cultural life of London; a concerted effort to ‘back the Olympics'; heck, even the Archbishop Desmond Tutu was recently enlisted to back the London 2012 Olympian regeneration efforts.vi
Memory Marathon is a work of public art, and in the best of its tradition, it is a complex web of signification, an orchestrated effort blending artistic practice, oral history and urban exploration, with some rather more pragmatic and instrumental aspects such as - for example - service provision of cultural currency to its commissioner, the rather culturally bankrupted ODA. In these remarkably familiar (at least in the UK) and somewhat politically neutralising environments, the value of indeterminacy offered by the plurality of socially engaged artistic language can be far too easily purchased as a neutrally accommodating space for conflicting agendas to coexist without interference.
When somewhere in late 2009 the ODAs cultural strategists made their way into a tour of the most significant London universities to render explicit their mission, I went to witness an embarrassingly vacant and shallow presentation called ‘The Art of Regeneration' hosted by the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths. The choice of such settings seemed to suggest an occasion for the ODA to play down the populist rhetoric of forced enthusiasm and coaxed celebration we've now grown accustomed to and, instead, raise the discursive bar to the level of the academic institution which hosted them.
Actually, - albeit predictably - no sensible difference was noted; the cold dish of meaningless PowerPoint presentations was served up as if at a trade fair. The seamless fables of redemptive regeneration, the memorable event, community gains, the legacy to come, were granted no further depth of self-assessment.
What about the ‘regeneration' as a cultural/urban policy that ignores or neutralises local agents by co-opting them, [and which] produces the gentrification of peripheral or inner-city areas, and erases their historical memory, unless re-appropriated as celebration of nostalgia and consensus?vii'
This event was also the first time I heard of Memory Marathon...
It took me some forgetting to dislodge from my mind the disquietingly consonant chime between the commissioner's slogan ‘everyone's 2012' and the description of the line-up of participants to Memory Marathon as ‘reflecting the diverse make-up of those communities and the inclusive, international spirit of the Games themselves.'viii? Participation can be both the gift of socially engaged artistic practices to the socially patronising or hegemonic practices of eager commissioners or a donation with duplicitous, hidden intents. The checkered history of this overlap between socially inclusive policies and collaborative/participatory artistic practices is the main trajectory in the story of New Labour's cultural politics during its tenure, and has been the subject of heated debates, profound divisions and acrimonious splitsix
Indeed, an impression of layered ambiguity appears as one of the main characteristics of Memory Marathon as a whole project, which effectively negotiates between a foregrounded image of the participants and their memories, but also features urban landscape exploration, the endurance of distance walking, the homage to and promotion of London as film location, the gap between the montage of the film and the walk's own real time, and the overlap of all of these. But in spite - or even because - of these preconditions, some unexpected value emerges out of Memory Marathon, in the form of a slippage of reversed intentions resisting the encoding of signification impressed upon the project by the close proximity with its commissioner's and funders' agenda. ‘Memory Marathon', the website explains, ‘is a unique collective undertaking that celebrates the enduring importance of personal memories.'x Memory is the perfectly ambivalent tool; as efficient and precious a means of resistance in the tradition of alternative oral/local history as it a tool of conformity in the hands of hegemonic cultural producers looking for ways to create artificially enduring, popular narratives. But such appeal has to contend with an intractable tendency of memory that makes it a slippery territory for confrontations and an unsteady surface for tracing out vested trajectories.
It is not surprising then that many of the memories evoked across the 12-hour walk by Simon Pope and his 104 companions are vaguely or inaccurately recollected, charmingly confused or obsessively insisting on details, fixated on iconic still images exuding opacity rather than clarity. Memory evokes but also stirs up, reverses directions, messes up plots, stitches the impossible together with the far-fetched. No clear claims can be made for the emotionally repeated recollections of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics Black Panther salute as they leak out of the imposed regime of separation between Sport and Politics. Nor is any revelatory frisson experienced in allowing the memory of a Clays Lane resident to talk about his disappeared home, since the ODA knows very well that the voices who really mattered in those disputes would never allow themselves to be seen in this film. Nevertheless, with the impossibility of any ultimate ideological appropriation of memories, Memory Marathon - the film - leaves the impression that Pope and his closest production partners have astutely and generously allowed such slippery geographies of memory to be mobilised by the commissioner, ultimately planting a ricochet right at the heart of its project simply by allowing the reality of blurred individual memories to come to the fore through many participants in the project.
Image: Dorando Pietri is helped to the finish line of the 1908 London Olympic Marathon
There is no better basis for this impression than the one provided by the very last walker as she approaches the stadium next to a visibly exhausted but elated Simon Pope. This woman recounts her experience of being in Sydney Olympic stadium (one of the few ‘live' memories in a majority of televised re-runs of the event) and having her vision of the events below almost completely impaired by the sudden swarms of moths attracted by an extremely hot and humid summer night which refracted the stadium's floodlights. For all the efforts to securely bond the association between the memory of past Olympics and the already colonised future of London 2012 as memorable event and an even more unforgettable legacy, the sensation delivered by Simon Pope's film is that the official message plastered all over the project is sliding off its surfaces. The conflicting apparatus of labile recollection leveraged by Memory Marathon ultimately does more to demonstrate how memory resists easy attempts at colonisation, either through the struggle of memory against forgetting or through a self-effacing quality that saves its territory by rendering it inaccessible to anyone, even ourselves.
No doubt the ODA's cultural mission will be left unphased and straight-faced as ever by these slippages, but a small uncontrolled response has come back from their brokering of Memory Marathon: the gift of art can never be totally shrink-wrapped; even the most anxious and paranoid PR undertakings can have boomerang effects. Unless, of course, my small enthusiasm can be considered part of the intentional package...
Memory Marathon is also a transversal, eclectic and itinerant portrait of East London, its cultural memory and the recent historical trajectory of epic urban development, social conflict and transformation witnessed by its equally transformed population. The London 2012 Olympic Stadium appears at both ends of the film in half-finished stillness as if in expectation of the future events that will activate it. Framed in this way, the chosen trajectory from Thamesmead to Stratford seems to suggest an irreversible timeline for which the symbolism of the Olympic stadium - however customary in Olympic Games - functions as the point of arrival intended both as physical destination and historical trajectory for the political geography of the area.
The London 2012 Olympic stadium - as the producer of future Olympic memories - is therefore inscribed as the unquestionable horizon of East London's history of urban development over the last 40 years, the narrative that will sum up all other narratives in a sweeping redemptive stroke. Of course, many other stories and reflections impinge on this univocal perception of the Olympic Games as the pivot of East London's future renaissance, as many other stories could be used to narrate the path of London's reinvention from riotous working class city to haven for global millionaires across the Thatcher and Blair epochs. One divergent narrative among many is the documented history of Newham's earlier attempts at renewal, and the struggles between local powers, central government and previous regeneration juggernauts not unlike the ODA/LOCOG.xi
Largely dictated by the official marathon distance of 26.2 miles - an Olympic standard first established at the 1908 London Games Marathon - the journey of endurance through East London was rigorously split into equal measures of 400 metres. However, for all of the 104 participants, it was effectively a slow sprint as they were kindly but firmly encouraged to keep pace with the long distance walker on his quest to collate roving testimonials of previous Games. This keeping up to speed may have contributed to the impression that the deadpan humour and enthusiasm for snooping about the city evident in Pope's previous projects like London Walking (2001) - where he and a friend walked from East to West London - here are comparably restrained. Equally transformed by the project's demands are the experiments of recollection conducted in Pope's Memorial Walks (2007-2008) - possibly the closest reference and trigger for Memory Marathon in Pope's career. In this work, 17 writers memorise paintings of trees, then walking into the fens of East Anglia, each of them recalls the image, overlaying spoken-word descriptions onto the contrasting landscape. But the shifts from countryside to urban settings, from professional writers to ‘ordinary practitioners of the city', and from the recollection of specific paintings to Olympic moments, have all deeply altered the playful challenges set up in Memorial Walks.
Out go the tongue-in-cheek challenge to the visualisation and memory skills of the ‘experts', the surreal overlapping of landscape representation with landscape reality, the analysis of changes in the environment, the bonds developed through the distance of the walk. In come the keeping up of the schedule and route, the frivolousness and flippancy of the amateur, the awareness of being ‘on screen', the limitation in scope and breadth for the participants, the prodding of the hesitant walker, and Pope's Zen-like quality of operating smooth transitions of conviviality between very different characters across the whole endeavour.
The relatively slow speed of the marathon is suggestive of relentless changes in operation in the urban landscape, but the effect of imposing the marathon model over these exercises in walking and remembering forced a scheduled steady pace upon them, leaving the simultaneous acts of walking and remembering to contend with each other in particularly adverse conditions. This endeavour is constantly upset by the jarring interference of traffic, noise and visual distractions which have to be kept at bay for the benefit of a clear contribution, creating a heightened awareness of one's limited power to say something in the limited time available.
Whilst the deliberate overlapping of walking and remembering in the landscape has been a familiar device in Simon Pope's work, and capable of producing enchantingly revealing moments of mnemonic glitches and loopholes when applied within particular frameworks, in Memory Marathon there's almost the feeling that a walking parody of community consultation is at play. All you get is 400 metres worth of individual memories to be made collective through the distribution of the movie, orderly slots of isolated incidents stretched further by the tyranny of linearity that the editing of 26 hours into a digestible 80 minutes imposes upon the real time events.
Indeed, the tension between the prominence given to the participants' testimonials and their being filmed while in motion, turns the places they traverse into reluctant ‘landmarks', backdrops onto which the recollection of other distant times and places is projected, but without a clear relationship between the places crossed by the marathon and the individual habitus of each walker, beyond that of being a ‘Borough resident'.xii I recall only one moment in which one of the walkers makes a specific reference towards the environment they are crossing as ‘her old school', but without any time to expand on and measure the changes, or their lack, as the Olympic Memory must be delivered within the 400 metre stretch.
To plan the route of an Olympic marathon is to literally paint the image of a city, an unmissable opportunity for building or reconfirming perceptions of a site, uniquely delivered to billions of people watching on TV.
Evocative landmarks familiar around the world will provide a tapestry of beauty and grandeur to showcase Olympic athletes in the heart of London, the world's most visited city.xiii
The official route of the 2012 Marathon devised by the LDA will not concede any doubts: it will travel from Tower Bridge to Stratford via three consecutive laps around the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and St Paul's Cathedral. By contrast, the route of the London 1908 Olympic Marathon was devised by the erstwhile ‘Amateur Athletic Association'. Maybe for this reason, it went from Windsor Castle to the White City Olympic Stadium, crossing less than glamorous locations such as Slough, Uxbridge, Ruislip, Harrow and Harlesden.xiv The route chosen for Memory Marathon seems to recover both this rich British tradition for amateurish approaches to life and a taste for urban marginality. This is a London for the local commuter, not for the tourist gaze. In this sense, the presence of the LDA in the midst of the Memory Marathon's funding bodies can be thought of as the specific desire to broaden the ‘image of the city' which they constantly strive to promote.
This approach suggests another image of the city - a fantasy-league Olympic route that will never be, a culturally subprime journey into a ‘London Nobody Knows', populated by sinister cinematic references, crime history, entropic suburbs, unreadable juxtapositions, but also odd and peaceful moments - whilst still maintaining the stadium as the ultimate loci of Olympic memories and dreams.xv
This act of culturally recycling and selling one's own debris makes it possible to evoke the tragic beauty of East London for the culturally savvy able to recognise the park featured in Antonioni's Blowup, the ‘ultraviolent' estate of Kubrick's Clockwork Orange, or even the docks up for grabs in The Long Good Friday. I had a shudder when, a week after this screening, I found myself listening to the announcement of Boris Johnson for the first ever ‘London Film Day'. The boisterous and debatable opening line of which was ‘London is the world's capital of cinema', soon followed by the quixotic: ‘People don't realise it but it was in London that they shot Full Metal Jacket, a Vietnam film in Beckton Gasworks'xvi I am starting to wonder if London's powers that be are consciously suggesting forms of cultivated urban degeneration as a way of securing London's future as world-capital location for disaster movies? Beckton Alps as the ‘other' Olympic flame site for London 2012?
The race to appropriate any cultural signifier of this city in the name of conjuring up London as the ultimate Olympic world-class city - despite the tendency for these signifiers to contradict the places and local interests they supposedly represent - has reached its own heterotopia, reclaiming them as cultural treasures, places where landscapes of inequality and uneven development can be perfect sets for alienating thrillers. With these thoughts I emerged from the Stratford Picture House into a setting sun, walking to my next destination in Leyton's Langthorne Park where the future legacy has already landed. I am going to visit the local emergence of a recent urban phenomenon born out of the top-tier sponsorship deal between London 2012 and Adidas: the adiZones.
Image: A view of the adiZone at Warwall, Beckton, London Borough of Newham
Constructed in the shape of the London 2012 logo, adiZones provide a highly visible and tangible legacy from the Games. These innovative multi-sport areas, designed and developed by Adidas, the Official Sportswear Partner of London 2012, aim to inspire the local community to get involved in sport. In this way they can help councils to achieve their physical activity targets.xvii Despite being public spaces more heavily branded than Adidas' own high street shops, the sportswear manufacturer pays for only half of the cost of adiZones, with the Department of Children, Schools and Families offering match funding so that all 9 Government Office regions in England could benefit from adiZones'xviii As part of the adiZones package, local authorities are required to sign a maintenance contract of £5000 a year with Adidas for the upkeep of the Zones. This contract also includes requesting Adidas' permission to remove any adiZone and the costs of such eventuality to be borne by the local authority.
The promises built on controversial concepts such as ‘lasting contribution' and ‘legacy' central to the pledge of hosting the London 2012 Games when the bid was won in Singapore in 2005, are starting to be delivered as tangible manifestations of its programmes. In the terms chosen by the ODA arts and culture programme, Memory Marathon -the film - is described as a ‘lasting memory to be shown locally and then toured', forming ‘part of the arts and culture programme for the development of the Olympic Park and its legacy.'
Whilst defining its role in the production of Memory Marathon merely as a broker, the imprint of the ODA's cultural mission on the project intersects with far too many of its aspects to be considered secondary. The interplay of demands and concessions between the partners involved in the concept and production of Memory Marathon has delivered a troubled work, difficult to assess without internalising or suspending too many of the contingencies, conditions and appropriations to which it is subjected by direct association. The pretentious demands of self-consciously contributing to a ‘collective cultural memory' and leaving a ‘lasting legacy' can only oppress Memory Marathon's structure and potential, foregrounding the diverse and conflicting interests in the cultural partnerships that have produced its final form.
In its failure as an efficient tool for promoting consensus on the value of Olympic Games as ‘memorable events', however, Memory Marathon reveals the true character of memory in its instability and contentiousness. In the recent history of an area such as East London where urban development has often played with deliberate forgetfulness and appropriated heritage, the importance of individual memories and collective actions, before, during and after the London 2012 Games cannot be underestimated.
Alberto Duman <albertoduman AT yahoo.co.uk> is an artist, lecturer and generic ‘practitioner of the city' based in London since 1990. Recent projects include: Decoder (2009) for the Sharjah Biennial 9, UAE, London Postcards (2007-ongoing), England & Co Gallery, London, Guggenheim Walthamstow (2005). He is currently teaching Urban Studies at Middlesex University.
i The Evening Standard, 19th March 2010, p.26.
ii stratford_city_launched_at_mapic_pressrelease.pdf downloaded from: http://uk.westfield.com/stratfordcity/news/press-releases/
v Memory Marathon Gallery Handout downloaded from: http://www.fvu.co.uk/projects/details/free-to-air-sleep-walk-sleep-talk/
vi Hackney Today, 8 February 2010, p.8.
vii Symposium on Urban Regeneration, Caroline Knowles, CUCR, Goldsmiths.
viii Memory Marathon Gallery Handout, Ibid.
ix Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents', Artforum, February 2006, pp 179-185.
xi ‘By 1994 the Department of Environment (DoE) index of local conditions showed Newham as the most deprived local authority area in England (London Borough of Newham (LBN), 1994, p. 9). However, Newham claimed that the level of resources provided to the borough by central government was £20 million less each year than it should have been, given these conditions. It lost a further £25 million a year because it was still classified as an Outer London Borough-although it had all the social and economic problems being experienced in Inner London (LBN, 1994, p. 9). Peculiarly, Newham was not yet classified as an Assisted Area either.' Simona Florio and Michael Edwards, 'Urban Regeneration in Stratford, London', Planning, Practice and Research, 16: 2, 2001, pp 101-120, p.104.
xii I am using the concept of 'habitus' as coined by Pierre Bourdieu.
xiii The LDA website as quoted in, ‘From Windsor Castle to White City: The 1908 Olympic Marathon Route', Martin Polley, The London Journal, Vol. 34 No. 2, July, 2009, pp 163-178, p. 164.
xiv Ibid, p.170.