Infrastructure Versus Aftershock: Keren Zaiontz and Peter Dickinson on Performance, Global Mega-Events, and Human Rights

June 26, 2014

In the history of scholarships and awards here at SFU, the prestigious Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship has been awarded to only two scholars: in 2012, to Dr. William Mortenson of the Department of Gerontology and, in 2014, to Dr. Keren Zaiontz, of SFU’s English Department. Zaiontz’s field is Performance Studies and Theatre and she has published on such topics as the global politics of performance during the London 2012 Summer Olympics. She explains that the core research interest of the Banting Fellowship is to “think about how contemporary performance can help us better understand human rights and social justice issues strictly beyond a judicial context.”

Zaiontz has an impressive track record. Since completing her PhD at University of Toronto’s Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies, she’s held a research fellowship with the School of English and Drama, University of London, Queen Mary (2012-2014) and was a participant in the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard University (2014). In addition to a monograph, Theatre & Festivals, underway for Palgrave Macmillan’s Theatre &… Series, she has also held a lecturer position in the Department of Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies at Roehampton University.

At SFU, Zaiontz will be working primarily with Dr. Peter Dickinson of SFU’s English Department. Dickinson, who has also published about global and local politics in the context of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, provided “incredible institutional support while I was putting together my nomination,” says Zaiontz. Dickinson recalls: “We both do performance studies and it’s a smallish community still in Canada but there was this other more immediate research context… I was introduced to Keren as someone who was doing important work on performance in the London 2012 Olympics and she had read my book chapter on Vancouver 2010.”

The research intersections between Zaiontz and Dickinson are striking and provide much of the foundation for their co-organized conference “The Life and Death of Arts in Cities after Mega Events,” to be held at SFU Woodward’s from August 13th-16th.  Zaiontz herself performed in the London Paralympic Opening Ceremonies as “Whirler 254,” and in her writing takes on the question of the “inside” vs. “outside” politics of performance and audience. Similarly, Dickinson’s book World Stages, Local Audiences examines global politics and audience/event relationships—particularly in a chapter comparing performances of cultural and national identity that were reinforced during such mega events as Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics and Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics.

Zaiontz’s position as both insider and outsider was key to her ability to examine the complicated politics of London 2012. While performing as “Whirler 254”, she was also teaching at Queen Mary (University of London), located a few tube stops away from the part of East London where much urban development was happening as a result of the games. Zaiontz explains how it was “a very strange time in terms of the ascendance on the one hand of disability arts within the Cultural Olympiad, and on the other hand the fact that there were these massive austerity cuts being made to independent living of people who are disabled in the UK.”

Unlimited Festival, London 2012

One example Zaiontz gives is how London 2012 supported such arts infrastructure that founded the Unlimited Festival, “a disability arts festival that involves artists from across the UK.” These kinds of initiatives were “very much at odds with what was actually happening to the lives of disabled people,” says Zaiontz. She explains how the Paralympics were sponsored by Atos, a French Information Technology group that the “Tory government had also hired to scrutinize disabled claimants and their sole remit was to strip down the number of disabled claimants accepting different welfare claims to maintain a basic quality of life.”

Another group Zaiontz followed during London 2012 is The Belarus Free Theatre, whose performances spoke directly to human rights issues. During the 2012 Olympics, the company participated in The Globe to Globe Festival as part of The World Shakespeare Festival. As Zaiontz explains, they were “invited to perform King Lear and chose to perform in Belarusian, which, under the repressive Lukashenko regime, has assumed a secondary (denigrated) status to Russian. It was an extraordinary moment for the BFT because they are banned from performing in their country and yet here they were representing Belarus, in Belarusian, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival.”

Ultimately, for Zaiontz, this example demonstrates how “how contemporary performance weighs in on human rights and their abuses within national and international festival contexts.” How performance “weighs in” and how mega events influence infrastructures are likewise important questions for Dickinson, and his work on Vancouver’s theatre and performance context, mega events, and local human rights issues. Dickinson explains that while his research is not “focused on human rights per se, it does have an activist bend to it and the local context of Vancouver informs these questions.”

In addition to human rights issues during mega events, a connected factor is how the events themselves impact cities and arts infrastructure in a number of complicated ways. Dickinson explains that infrastructure during mega events can be created in the form of building stadiums and implementing transit systems, and in Vancouver this dates back to Expo 1986—the mega event that created Vancouver’s False Creek neighborhood, once an industrial area. Dickinson goes on to note that the flipside of this is also the way mega events like Expo or the Olympics also become an occasion to “brand a city for global consumption and capitalize on that post-event, in terms of tourism”, or pursue “regenerating” or “revitalizing” neighborhoods which can be read “as a euphemism for social engineering and gentrification.”

Zaiontz and Dickinson

This question of how mega events impact infrastructure versus how they create aftershock is yet another intersection that Zaiontz and Dickinson share in their research and—to be sure—a topic that the August conference directly aims to address. “The Life and Death of Arts in Cities after Mega Events” conference brings together a number of speakers, artists, activists who were involved in both the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Dickinson says they want to build on the congruencies of the mega-events rather than “erase the differences between the two cities: winter versus summer, [London as] a huge cosmopolitan city versus our West Coast Canadian city,” and that a follow-up conference is planned for Spring 2015 in London.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver this summer, academics, artists and activists, Vancouver-based and otherwise, including a range of indigenous activists and artists who participated in and/ or protested the games, will contribute to the “Life and Death of the Arts” conference. Attendees and speakers include Robert Kerr, who directed Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad, Other Sites, which commissioned a site-specific work called “The Games are Open”, Neville Gabie, the former Olympic artist-in-residence during London 2012, Jenny Sealey with the UK company Graeae, and Urban Subjects, a collaboration between Vancouver/Vienna based artists Sabine Bitter, Jeff Derksen and Helmut Weber, who’ve worked on artists representations at Olympics and expos in Kyoto and Barcelona. Dickinson explains that artist walks have also been commissioned with Vanessa Kwan, Barbara Cole, Lorna Brown, Adrienne Wong of Newworld Theatre, and potentially SFU’s own Alana Gerecke. Zaiontz and Dickinson conceive of the conference, and the artist walks especially, as a way to get out into the city and—as Dickinson puts it—“see how they tell another kind of story by walking the city…and looking at the development that is a result or consequence, looking at sites that tell and develop a counter-narrative.”