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Cultural Olympiad hits stride as London Summer Olympics near

Adding to the spectacle, 12,000 cultural events are taking place across Britain to celebrate the Games. They could also help attract future tourists.

July 15, 2012|By Joy Press, Los Angeles Times
  • Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images (pictures-001/600 )

LONDON — Every street, alley and grassy knoll here will be alive with a cacophony of ringing bells — church bells, bike bells, doorbells and a ringing-bell app downloaded to smartphones. Or at least that's the plan behind "All the Bells: Work No. 1197," a massive interactive performance art project created by artist Martin Creed to mark the start of the London Olympic Games on July 27.

"All the Bells" is one of 12,000 cultural events unfurled across Britain to celebrate the Games. The Cultural Olympiad officially launched in 2008, but activity has reached a frenzy as towns across the land mount performances and artistic spectacles. The events include a life-sized inflatable moon-bounce version of Stonehenge created by artist Jeremy Deller that is popping up all around the country and Peace Camp, an exploration of love poetry by theater director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw designed to be experienced at remote beach locations.

The bulk of performances and exhibitions have landed in London, including a Pina Bausch retrospective, the World Shakespeare Festival, the premiere of ex-Blur singer Damon Albarn's folk opera "Dr Dee" and major exhibitions of Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, David Hockney and Lucian Freud. Always one of the great cultural cities of the world, London is like an overstuffed cabinet of wonders this summer, with more attractions than any one person could possibly attend — even the director of the Cultural Olympiad, Ruth Mackenzie.

PHOTOS: London's Cultural Olympiad

Described by the Guardian as "the cavalry," Mackenzie was drafted into the job in 2010 with a mission of bringing focus to an unruly mass of events. "The good thing about coming in with two years to go is that expectations are quite low about what you can achieve," Mackenzie said last month, drinking tea in a museum cafe high above Trafalgar Square. A former head of the Scottish Opera and the Manchester International Festival, she has cropped silvery hair and a surprisingly mischievous air for someone controlling a huge arts festival.

Cultural Olympiad: An article in the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition about the Cultural Olympiad said that spending for the celebration and the London 2012 Festival is estimated at 100 million pounds, or $136 million. The correct dollar conversion figure is about $155 million. The error was discovered after the section was printed. —

Mackenzie saw the Olympiad as a chance to stage some extraordinary performances in a moment of global belt-tightening. (She estimates the spending for the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival at around 100 million pounds, or $136 million.)

"What can you do creatively that is once in a lifetime? I think Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Bolivar turning up in Raploch is once in a lifetime," she says, referring to a June concert in a small Scottish town in which Dudamel conducted a symphony made up of local children and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Another favorite example is "One Extraordinary Day," featuring Elizabeth Streb and her daredevil Brooklyn dance troupe scaling an undisclosed London landmark.

Arts festivals have been a component of the Olympics since the ancient Greeks, but there are surprisingly divergent views about how to stage these events and how integral they are to the experience. The Los Angeles Olympics Arts Festival in 1984, for example, had a catalyzing effect on the city, according to theater director Peter Sellars.

"It woke people up to L.A. as a cultural site and we were able to follow through on that in the '90s and explore the city as a cultural destination," said Sellars, who was director of the 1990 and 1993 Los Angeles Festivals, arts extravaganzas inspired by the '84 Games. "The L.A. Olympics festival redrew people's internal maps," yanking Angelenos out of their insular neighborhoods and giving local artists global connections, he said. "And it will almost certainly do that for London too."

Beatriz Garcia, head of research at Liverpool's Institute of Cultural Capital and author of "The Olympic Games and Cultural Policy," said Olympics arts festivals "are the one aspect of the Games that offers greatest flexibility to include and represent diverse communities and their voices, as well as highlight the best art and cultural offerings available, which in turn may lead to long-term economic returns such as increased tourism."

In fact, Mackenzie said she's been asked to hit a target: "This is the sixth most-visited country in the world, and Jeremy Hunt [secretary of state for culture, Olympics, media and sport] wants us to be the fifth most-visited country in the next 10 years" and surpass Italy. She added with a chuckle, "I won't be in the job in 10 years, so I'm not sure how he'll hold me to account."

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