Olympics hangout for independent media offers tools, discussions and dance blowouts

"Look," says Mark Smith, who is in Vancouver from Toronto to experience the Olympics. "It's cauliflowering."

Smith is pointing to his computer screen, showing me an unfolding analysis of Twitter activity during the opening ceremonies. An online application on his laptop maps the tweets of, among others, VANOC and W2 Community Media Arts, the social media hub in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside where Smith and I are standing.

One way to read the data on the Smith's screen is that VANOC, for all its money and power, can't keep up with W2's Twitter-tech savvy. Tweets launched from W2 are far outstripping those with VANOC hashtags, and the various 140-character angles on the Games clearly are more diverse.

Complete with a computer lab, a legal observers station and a gallery space/conference room, W2 is a red-hot node of influence and information, providing a space for non-accredited journalists, writers, tweeters and bloggers to expand the Olympics overview past the corporate hype.

Splicing and dicing

Placards dot the minimalist, white-walled space, announcing W2 participants like Fearless City Mobile, CJSF, Momentum, or Jonah B Lewis. I find my way to the centre's tiny editing room, fully wired for splicing and dicing, and am pleasantly surprised to find no hard glares while peering at the screen of Paloma Friedman from Maisonneuve Magazine.

Friedman explains that every visit has given her an opportunity to meet someone interesting and get a tip on what stories need covering. She describes it as an "interactive community" primarily employing Twitter to find audiences for "unpolished, on-the-ground" journalism.

On my way downstairs to the gallery, where one of the many daily conferences are being held, I run into Olivia Brennan, who is working for Kinney Tang and the GoldenFilmstrip Entertainment Group Ltd. She is taking some of her first steps into video production and eagerly recounts a tale about residents of the tent village dancing late into the morning the night before. Brennan speaks of being struck by the contrast between the privileged celebrations of the Cultural Olympiad and the raw spontaneity of a homeless shuffle.

She is just getting warmed up, literally. The editing room is too hot, she says, and in need of a big fan. But Brennan is impressed by the supportive community at W2 and the resources available.

Critical debate on arts and society

Running downstairs, late for the conference on the state of the arts in B.C., I arrive in time for a synopsis about the 90 per cent budget cuts by a panel that includes Irwin Oostindie (executive director of W2), Amir Ali Alibhai (Alliance for Arts), Jennifer Pickering (React, Jonathan Middleton (Artist-Run Centres and Collectives Conference), and Greg Younging (UBC, formerly of the B.C. Arts Council).

The attendance is sparse, with only about 15 people in the room, tweeting and tapping on their Apples and Blackberries. Lianne Payne, administrative director at W2, mentions that they are facing some challenges with these conference programs as the journalists, busy with the myriad of happenings, have been less than reliable in signing up.

Some highlights in the discussions: The contradictions between a projected one-night cost for the opening ceremonies ($38-40 million) and B.C.'s dwindling arts budget ($3.5 million); B.C.'s lack of a cultural policy; the idea that the arts are considered frivolity; and the fact that arts are an investment which yield a return of $1.36 per each dollar spent, according the B.C. government.

The discussants are highly critical of branding of First Nation's issues, like the commodification of the Cowichan sweaters or the Inukshuk logo (now a trendy tattoo request at Adrenaline on Granville Street), and the lack of attention given to the Stolen Sister's campaign.

The United Nations initiative to protect the intellectual property of indigenous groups hasn't achieved what it might, notes Younging, and the selective use of First Nations artwork and imagery during the Olympics give an incomplete picture." A facade is created by showing individuals art without showing the reality of peoples living conditions."

'There's a community upsurge, unfunded'

Isis Benevolent, communication coordinator for CJSM, finds the information-hungry atmosphere at W2 intense, but also inspiring. She wants more people to be aware of grassroots artists and to see them sharply juxtaposed to high-profile Olympic performers, and W2, she says, is helping that to happen. "The Cultural Olympiad has triggered a huge explosion of arts and culture ... there's a community upsurge, unfunded."

W2 is also organizing a barrage of local and international poets, story tellers and artists to collaborate in evening readings and performances, and hosts evening music and dance parties fairly often in the 24-hour-a-day space to provide an outlet from the onslaught of Olympic stimulation.

Lianne Payne mentions that these events are an important part of the fund-raising support process, making up one aspect of the grant subsidies that have been driving W2 up to this point. There has been a show nearly every night during the Olympics, from world music, to DJ dance parties, to spoken word poetry nights. Many events are streaming directly from the website. The programming has been relentless and will continue past the you-know-what, so stay tuned.

Ghost of McLuhan

As I'm writing this, I catch a few moments of poet Sonnet L'Abbe's reading on the broadcast feed of the W2 site. She is the author of Killarnoe.

"Organelles dwell in the light of consciousness, in the light of consciousness, organelles... you are the organistic unfolding..." I look around at the various people in the room interacting with machines creatively, and wonder what Vancouver's resident sci-fi cyberpunk William Gibson would have to say about these energized cyborgs.

Another famous name comes to mind. When Marshall McLuhan coined the "global theatre" in the early 1970's, an update from "global village," he anticipated the death of individualistic, print media and the rise of what he called "electronic interdependence" and tribal collectivity. His spirit surely inhabits W2 and its resident cybertribe.

// Kevin Murray

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