Riots by Design: Resisting the London Olympics

In April 2010 I found myself in Montreal for an academic conference.  It was my first time there, and as I am wont to do in such a new place, I looked up used bookstores and otherwise roamed around the city.  In one such English-language bookstore in the city center I asked the owner if he had any books on the Montreal Olympics that were actually critical of the games.  A bit taken aback, he stated “no,” and wondered, defensively, why I was looking for such material.  I explained that I was going to be teaching a design studio entitled “Mediating the Real World,” and one of our projects would involve investigating the Olympic Games as a paragon of corporate branding and design that obliterates other valid expressions and manifestations of a popular and populist nature, so I was hoping to find readings for the students.  He apologized again for not knowing of any such work, and left me to my browsing.

When I came back to the counter, he looked at my assembled books for purchase and he re-engaged the conversation.  “You know, my wife refers to the Stadium (still listed as a tourist attraction in my guidebook) as the ‘billion-dollar toilet bowl.’  It never worked properly; the roof kept caving in.  Those games were in 1976, and we only paid off the debt on them this past year!”  Our conversation turned to the bookstores that I could not seem to find although they were listed in my guidebook just a year old, all replaced by mall outlets.  “They’re all closed.  All of them.  I’m not sure how long I can hold on.”  He clued me in to the protests that were taking place on the periphery of the city, as the police, in the name of urban renewal forces, continued to wage their war on the working class, to replace it by the much more desirable cosmopolitan consumer class of academics, college students, and white-collar professionals — the urban hip as we now know them — as witnessed in many cities around the globe.  I thanked him for his time and promised to get back to him if I found any such reading matter.  “I would love to stock those books!” he said.

Further research shows that the faulty stadium he spoke of was referred to locally as the “Big Owe,”1 and the remnants of those games are still quite evident in the city, although they currently take on a rather ominous significance some three decades later.  The Modernist architecture, then signaling a “new era” and since extended to museums and other dominant cultural spaces, can be seen as a mirror reflection of Olympic Committee propaganda that, with a few minor alterations, would just as easily describe historically similar (albeit more odiously fascistic) endeavors that blend urban renewal with a disdain for the Other, an elitist design sensibility removed from the needs of the street and of the people, marching in lockstep with the rampages of globalizing Capitalism.

This was reflected in my walks around Montreal, with its revamped and displaced downtown and underground mall, where English is bizarrely the dominant language at universities, in shops, and in street talk, in what I expected to be a French secessionist province.  The limits of this city center are marked by the buildings of the era of the Olympic Games, vast concrete sweeps of order and structure, delimiting this inner realm from the much poorer industrial zones, residential areas, and even the old city, all of which were undergoing a vast destruction as well as police oppression, as witnessed by graffiti and homemade posters I found there, in stark contrast to the clean, well-maintained urban core.

In a book I later found that same day, Olympic Industry Resistance, Helen Jefferson Lenskyj spells out this link between the Olympics and the ability of cities to “recreate” themselves at the expense of the residential poor, marginalized populations, and the working class.  She lists the results of studies done in Olympics host cities, and the trends she cites include:

Eviction of tenants from low-rent housing, particularly in Olympic precincts and downtown areas, to make way for Olympic tourists; evictions resulting from gentrification and beautification of low-income areas; significant decrease in boarding house stock; artificially inflated real estate prices; unchanged or weakened tenant protection legislation, resulting in rent increases and evictions without cause, a problem for low-income tenants in particular; the criminalization of poverty and homelessness through legislation; increasing police powers over homeless and underhoused people in public spaces; temporary or permanent privatization of public space; temporary or permanent suppression of human rights, particularly freedom of expression.2

That was Montreal.  And this is London today, continuing in this great Olympic tradition.  And this became the basis for our investigation in the classroom concerning this topic, avoiding the usual cliché design approach of “imagine the Olympics coming to your city” which only reveals design at its most devious, insincere, and tied to corporate and capitalist production of not only cultural manifestations, but of an entire zeitgeist that targets the working poor in the name of and to the benefit of elite consumer classes.  Instead we used an original framework that focused on ideas of voice, audience, communicator, venue, form, technique, and the distances and removes that result from discrepancies among them.

For example, the students were given four groups to research in terms of particular Olympic Games cities and their communicated messages: the Olympic Committee itself, the host city government, the design firm responsible for the corporate identity, and any protesters they could find.  This gave us the full spectrum of those involved, whether or not actually present locally.  The results of the research showed a complete disconnect between the imposing force of the games and those suffering from this imposition.  To no one’s surprise, the designed communication always fell on the monologuist side of those imposing the propaganda of promised urban renewal, an influx of jobs, and redevelopment programs.

In a reversal of sorts, the students were asked to come up with a brochure/poster, a street intervention, and a public performance on behalf of those protesting the games in their city.  We researched protesters’ street theater, graffiti, and stenciling, as well as the question of empowerment inherent in their work.  That is, how do they as advocates close the distance between themselves and those they are working with?  This led to research into and readings on social justice, forms of dominance and power, economic and political inequality, racism and classism, etc.  Most interesting were the parallels the students were able to draw between London and the local scene of Beirut and other cities of the region, which have seen a similar destruction of the urban fabric in the name of both Capital and a continuing colonialism marketed as revitalizing the city, mostly for the sake of wealthy tourists and foreign NGO workers as well as monied compradors.

In all aspects of their work, the students focused on their own engagement with those whose voice they were taking on.  They understood the distances of class, education, and access to information, and attempted at all times to minimize any kind of talking down to or willfully removing themselves from those they were researching.  One group (all work was collaborative and communal) used a “punk” collage/zine aesthetic, and we discussed how this aesthetic was co-opted by designers of the time and rendered toothless, looking for means to successfully revive it.  Another group used linoleum cut illustrations and stencils as techniques traditional to revolutionary artists and tied factually what is happening in London to other cities that had a similar experience.  Yet another group centered their work around a park slated for destruction to make way for the equestrian events years hence, and their intervention was designed to be activated by local residents and their children.  In all of the students’ work, no communication was allowed which did not thoroughly think through the distances and removes mentioned above, and which did not enable, empower, or otherwise allow for advocacy of those opposing the Olympic Games in their midst.

The recent events in London were succinctly summed up via one student’s recent email:

Check it out.3  Brings back Mediating the Real World . . . . the thing is, it is not just this one “death of a local man”; it is so many different issues, like taking away benefits from single mothers and raising tuition and rent, and guess where most of the money is probably pouring into: the Olympics!

What was so evident to us has so far been completely ignored by the mediated realm following as it does a game plan which requires public relations and indoctrination over any realistic appraisal of the effects of the Olympic games, as clearly spelled out in critiques such as Olympic Industry Resistance.  And so it was no surprise that CNN turned its coverage from the buildings burning in Tottenham to a beach volleyball test game, played by scantily clad women and complete with bikini-wearing cheerleaders.4  When this mediation wasn’t enough, we were witness to the mayor of London pathetically assuring investors abroad that the Olympics would indeed take place, as if this were the most pressing issue of the day.  We can only imagine what this means for local residents, now obviously at their boiling point.

In an interesting parallel, the design magazine Eye ran an article in 2005 on the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, stating:

Of all Olympic events staged in living memory, Mexico 1968 — the XIX Olympiad — is one of the most fondly and best remembered.  Not because it was the Olympiad where a woman first lit the Olympic flame, nor because more world records were broken in Mexico than in any other prior Olympiad, nor even because of the clenched-fist, Black Panther salutes of two African American athletes whose names almost nobody now recalls.  Mexico 68 sticks in the mind because the originality and cogency of its system of communication converted it into a paradigm of modern graphic and event design.5

This reading views the event of the Games as politically and culturally normal — an accepted status quo — the basic premise of which is not even questioned.  It further claims that its “innovative” corporate graphics were the single most important aspect of these Games’ relevance, while glibly sidelining any attempt from within the Games to protest or to resist.

Severely slighted are voices which, if heard, would not only condemn the Games as presenting a fascistic notion of nationality and individual accomplishment, but would further tell a story of other no less important cultural manifestations barely alluded to by the elitist article: the theft of indigenous Mexican craft by the designers of the Games’ graphics (this is referred to as “inspiration” in design education), the manifestations of the student protests then taking place on Mexico City university campuses, the continent of Africa boycotting the presence of apartheid South Africa in the Games, as well as the American athletes who raised their fists in sympathy with the Black Power movement.  These cultural manifestations are seldom recorded or celebrated, for very particular reasons; and if they are, it is often misleadingly packaged as “design history,” in an effort to relegate them to the past and make a consumable product out of activist fervor.

The fact of the matter is that there is more vital, creative, interesting, and inherently valid artworks made by those protesting the Olympic Games than by design firms working for them, and this is easily researchable and viewable (do an Internet search on “protest,” “Olympics,” and “Vancouver,” for example), leaving the design realm woefully out of touch with reality.  This distance from the street can be summed up by the recently held What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam, as well as the upcoming Design Activism and Social Change conference of the Fundació Història del Disseny in Barcelona — another Olympic city that went through its urban restructuring and is now witnessing uprisings — which without apparent irony will feature a city tour of “Anarchism in Barcelona” for attending designers.  The blog for the Barcelona conference more incredibly critiques the former conference for maintaining that neo-liberalism is a given, yet this is validated by many of the speakers in Barcelona and their connections to core centers and peripheral extensors of Capital.  A more potent and far more valid critique would be along the lines of the anarchists in Copenhagen, defacing the mural painted by artist Shepard Fairey, best known for his “Hope” painting of Barack Obama.

This reveals the truths, if you will, that came forward during our class studio: Our “design” is not divorced from the real world, nor from current events, nor from the political and economic frameworks that sustain design as an industry and practice.  Most importantly, our design is connected to those who also have a say in the matter.  In one performance brief, for example, the students humbly list as a desired realization of the project “The Empowerment of East Londoners.”  Our work is inherently political; to claim there is an objective remove is in and of itself a political statement.  Any distance between our communication and those we claim to speak for is invalid; the minimizing of this distance is paramount to any truly socially activist work.  Taking one step further, the engagement of the voice we champion requires us to reach out, teach, provide tools and means, and attempt to bring back the creativity that has been sapped from our lives by Capitalism. Finally, it is incumbent on us to point out the mimicking of these ideas by those who in fact empower Capital — Designers, Artists, the Media — and who determinedly accomplish the exact opposite of what they claim in terms of valid social awareness.

I will grant you that students have the luxury of temporarily stepping down (or pretending to step down) from their class position, and that the real world will be a rude awakening for them in many cases.  But I can attest to their active engagement with issues that otherwise would not have been brought to their attention in a “normal” design education, or for which they previously did not have the tools to grasp and dissect, due to a steadfastly ossifying academy that attempts to remain apolitical, entrenched as it is in an outdated post-modern tradition that maintains a macabre dance with those it pretends to go up against.  I would much rather they dared attempt what was recently thought impossible, using frameworks also recently considered invalid, at long last being renewed by local and now global upheavals and revolutions.  I prefer this because such approaches and the resulting manifestations thereof are grounded in life as it is experienced, in a resistance that is lived.  Students now see that activism is not an affectation, a jewel-encrusted red ribbon, a silly avatar, an online petition; that their action and inaction both matter, both have political weight.  And I think my students would agree with me when I say that designers and design instructors, more familiar with the theory end of it as debated in ivory towers, more content with the commodifying approach to it as compiled in endless coffee-table books of design porn, indeed, more comfortable with passivism than any true activism, should heed well the following dictum: “If you don’t practice, then don’t preach.”

After years of watching, discussing, and describing cities that have become inhospitable to their own residents while morphing into playgrounds for those of the cosmopolitan Wallpaper class, perhaps it is time to link up forces, make bridges.  Just as globalization sees cities interconnected and removed from their context, a grassroots resistance to this could equally take shape.  For this to happen, I would nominate the Olympic Games as the focus of attention and action, both for cities which were former hosts and those vying to stage this engine of profit powered by creative destruction.  Because it begs the question: Why do we take the games for granted?  Why is there no criticism?  In the final analysis, the Nuremburg Rallies that they mimic and the inequality of ancient Athens that they promote are nothing to celebrate.


1  “Quebec’s Big Owe Stadium Debt Is Over” (CBC, 19 December 2006).

2  Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda, SUNY Press, 2008: p. 17.

3  “London Riots,”, 8 August 2011.

4  Barney Ronay, “As London Riots, Beach Volleyball’s Maidens Set and Spike in Sight of No10” (Guardian, 9 August 2011).

5  Carolina Rivas and Daoud Sarhandi, “Linking Huichol Imagery to Op Art Gave the Mexico Olympics a Memorable Graphic Identity,” Eye 56 (Summer 2005).


With special thanks to Sara Jane Arida, my co-instructor, as well as our Design III class at the American University of Beirut, from whom we learned much.

Daniel Drennan is founder of the Beirut-based artists’ collective Jamaa Al-Yad and can be reached by email at <>.

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