Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Flaneur audio tour of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, London

Legacy was a word that was banded around endlessly about the Olympic Park and the 2012 games as a whole. The Olympics were, we were told, going to regenerate East London  through sport and through the creative businesses that would flock to the Lea Valley. Flaneur is an audio tour that was commissioned for the new Queen Elizabeth Park and I took it some three years after the games had finished, at a time when this legacy should already be manifest. How did the rhetoric match the reality?

To enter the park I had to first past through the belly of the beast; Westfield. I'm no fan of malls and this one is a true behemoth. I simply cast my eyes down and kept marching till I reached the other side where this billboard caught my eye. It's text is quite typical of the positive sounding claims made about the games and it's legacy which, when you stop to examine them, start to become vague and problematic. If 'over a third of all London artists [sic] studios are in east London' that would put the other two thirds in North, South and West London. That is not so startling a statistic really. This ad also seems to either claim that East London is a capital city, when it is just one part of a capital city, or else their point is that the arts community in East London is larger than any other capital city's. How this claim was arrived at I can only guess, and what's more, I rather suspect it is out of date. From what I see, artists are deserting London in their droves right now, forced out by unaffordable rents. Neighbouring Hackney Wick, which used to have a thriving gallery and studio scene, has been decimated by the arrival of the games. These sorts of vacuous billboards proliferate around the Olympic Park and were a good preparation for the audio tour that followed.

The starting point of this audio tour, which can be downloaded for free, is just beside the RUN sculpture. There seems to be a thing with the Olympics of using imperatives, ASPIRE and INSPIRE being the most overused and under-realised of them with sport participation in the UK plummeting post-Olympics. Inspire a generation my ass. But what of the art?

The walk is very short; it runs to a little only 20 minutes in length. Even though it was so brief, it did not however fly by quickly as it never really got into any real substance or develop into anything with a sense of purpose. Rather, it felt like it was more or less an extended advert for a property developer with an ambient soundtrack added. The music  sounded like it had been lifted from a 'Deep Forest' relaxation CD with a chello stuck on top to give it a more artsy sound and the narrator, while aspiring for a breathy sensual sound, never quite managed to completely shake off the harsh nasal tones of a station announcer informing you of a rail replacement bus service. Sound effects were added, such as birdsong, but there were in fact no birds in this part of the park, so this only masked the sterility of the area rather than contributing substantially to the audio tour.

The tour talked about homes for both humans and for animals. Here I should make it known that, as a result of the London games, I lost my home in 2012. I was made homeless by a housing association and social housing provider, Poplar Harca and Phoenix Housing, in order that they could settle homeless people in my flat and qualify for some Olympic grants. That is the level of insanity that was prevalent back then and which is whitewashed over in this work. The original Olympic bid said affordable homes would be an integral part of it but these homes failed to materialise. Indeed, Newham Council have been moving people out of the borough and even out of London entirely, redeveloping council estates and reducing the availability of affordable housing. To ignore all of this and simply celebrate the flogging off, on the cheap, of the athletes' village to the likes of the Qatari royal family, is either inexcusable ignorance or downright misrepresentation.    

The tour took us to the River Lea which was described as being massively improved as a result of the games. I know the area from before 2012 and I beg to differ. Yes it was a mess before; it was a toxic industrial dump that had been swallowed up by nature. You might stumble across an old fridge or an unusual, even rare plant, there was no telling what you'd find, it was a genuinely mysterious place. What's more, the river flowed just fine along the navigation channel along which boats still pass. The stretch of the river flowing through the Olympic Park was, and still is, decorative, not functional. What the narrator failed to say is that the changes brought about by 2012 have poisoned other parts of the river in order to create this showpiece. What's more, there was much talk on the audio tour of dramatically cleaning up the area, of 'repaying a debt', yet the cleaning process was only ever superficial as there was found to be too much noxious waste on the marsh. This waste included nuclear contamination from the old nuclear reactor on Marshgate Lane, and thorium dumped before controls were put on nuclear dumping at the start of the 60s. The contamination is still preset and the best the Olympic Delivery Agency could do was to put a thick plastic sheet down while the deeper problems were buried in the rush to make the site ready for the Summer of 2012. I recently heard about a debacle surrounding cycle bridges over the river, quite possibly those pictured above, which were built, moved, demolishing and rebuilt for completely contradictory reasons, according to a friend of mine who lives in the area. He told me he thought it was a case of the contractors ensuring they squeezed every last penny out of the budget. All this is, of course, great material for an audio tour and was, also, completely absent in Flaneur.

The commissioners were probably happy enough with this audio tour, after all it played to their vanity, but as a piece of art it is, quite frankly, dreadful. This is not unlike the other privatisation deal glossed over into a public improvement tour that I reviewed in Bath, but Flaneur does not even have the kitsch appeal or variety of voices that feature on the Bath Spa tour. The level of research here would appear to be no greater than the recycling of the Olympic Park's press releases. As such, this is bland PR dressed up as art which finishes, appropriately enough, with a single word imperative: ascend. Taking this tour is like reliving the doublespeak of 2012: aspire = work for free, inspire = give us more money and ascend = now go home.

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