Cuts-weary B.C. artists wary of clash with wealthy Olympic patron

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VANCOUVER - When outspoken artist Ostwelve was offered the chance to perform during the closing ceremonies at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, it took him all of three seconds to consider.

He gave a resounding No.
Though popular for his provocative hiphop stylings, the Vancouver-based media artist says show producers simply wanted him to follow a script and bang on a drum.
"Personal sovereignty as an artist and a human being is very important to me," said the performer, known off-stage as Ron Dean Harris, 30. "That's why I had to say 'No' to some of these things. I don't want to be told what I can and can't say."
Harris' reluctance speaks to a greater culture clash between freewheeling artists - eking out a living in an era of massive government funding cuts - and their wealthy Olympic patron.
The hiphop artist said Games organizers were less concerned about free expression than putting on a show pleasing to its sponsors.
"If I don't get (Vancouver Olympic Committee) performances, it is sad. I won't lose sleep over it, but it's a sad time in Canadian history when we're supposed to show ourselves to the world but instead we're showing their agenda."
Harris rejected that gig, but he did perform at another Olympics cultural event earlier this year, and he's still waiting on a possible deal to perform during the February Games at a different venue.
Fearing he would lost the gig, he initially declined to go public.
"It's scary because they're (Olympic organizers) such a giant entity," Harris said.
But the Olympics aren't just for athletes anymore and as the Games approach, organizers have opened their substantial wallets to fund hundreds of artistic and cultural events through their 2010 Cultural Olympiad.
From modern dance to art installations, Vancouver and Whistler are seeing an explosion in arts programming in the lead up to the Winter Games.
But a fracas recently erupted when artists performing as part of the Cultural Olympiad learned they had signed an agreement with the following clause:
"The artist shall at all times refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC, the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell Canada and/or any other sponsor associated with VANOC."
Martha Rans certainly heard about it.
"As soon as VANOC does anything, it will have a negative impact. And I've seen that negative impact in my practice," said Rans, a lawyer and director of the Artist Legal Outreach, which is a project of Vancouver's Alliance of Arts and Culture.
For months she's been giving advice to B.C. artists worried about crossing swords with he-who-controls-the-purse-strings.
"Suddenly people are self-censoring, (asking) 'Can I do this?"' she said. "My response to them over and over again is 'Do it. They cannot stop you."'
Problem is, she said, artists often have little means to gain adequate legal representation. So they feel pitted against an all-powerful entity whose corporate approach can be overwhelming.
"I just know that so many people have so many strong feelings about the Olympics and would express them if it wasn't such a complicated issue - trying to make a living as an artist and feeling like this is the only money that's available," said Aja Bond, 27, a multidisciplinary artist based in Vancouver.
She's chosen to steer clear of any Games-related projects and so have many of her peers, she said, because they feel the sacrifices aren't worth it.
"People (are) aware that it is a tradeoff, that you're taking this money, but what is the cost?"
Festival organizers say the clause is a standard provision for large-scale events, meant to guide performer's decorum, not content.
"The artists chosen to participate in (the) Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad are encouraged to make bold, artistic statements and we have always made room for critical discourse, intelligent debate and informed discussion within the selected works," reads a statement by Burke Taylor, the Vancouver organizing commitee's vice-president of culture and celebrations.
Even if VANOC's intention wasn't to gag artists, it's had a chilling effect, Rans said.
"People are afraid of being sued."
It's also counter-productive, said Raymond Grant, the artistic director for the Cultural Olympiad at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 1992. It doesn't foster the harmony intended by such events, he said.
"History is replete with (a) artists biting the hand that feeds them and (b) having some negative things to say about their patrons," said Grant. "Michelangelo and Pope Julius II come to mind."
The City of Toronto, which itself hosts many large-scale, sponsored arts events like Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, hands out a standard contract directing artists to conduct programming appropriate for "general" audiences.
It also contains several provisions intended to prevent libel or slander, said Miki Stricker-Talbot, for Toronto Special Events. She said she's seen many more "restrictive" corporate contracts for artists.
While artist Harris is quick to criticize Olympic organizers, he's felt equally stifled by a less likely opponent: activist acquaintances who called him a sell-out for playing ball.
He was deluged with threats after rapping a message of cultural unity during a concert celebrating the one-year countdown to the February Games.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the photo of a native chief, totem pole and the politically-charged word "Recognize," he said he brought his Olympics protests to the stage.
"Am I going to stand on the sidelines and wave my fist with everybody else, or am I going to stand up and speak to the world," Harris said.
"Recognize. If (the Games are) going to be here, because they're going to be here...Let's look at some solutions, let's look at the next steps, let's look at how we can come together."

Organizations: Vancouver Olympic Committee, Bell Canada, Alliance of Arts and Culture Toronto Special Events

Geographic location: Vancouver, Whistler, Salt Lake City Toronto

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