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London's Olympic Waterscape

Bradley L Garrett; Ellie Miles; Terri Moreau; Michael Anton; Amy Cutler; Alison Hess. Royal Holloway, University of London, Department of Geography

London's Olympic Waterscape from Bradley L. Garrett on Vimeo.

The water of London is a political substance. With the Olympics coming to London in 2012, the East London landscape, an area with a rich industrial history built around a series of braided waterways in the Lea Valley, is under constant construction and restructuring.

Using funding from the Olympic Creative Campus initiative, London’s Olympic Waterscape, a collaborative effort between six PhD candidates in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, set out to record these changes. The medium of film was chosen to provide an accessible platform for a range of people to voice their opinions regarding the changes to the Olympic waterscape, whether that concerned archaeology, heritage, urban planning or cultural protests. We hope that the immediate accessibility of the film will inspire greater engagement, debate and discussion around the issues facing East London between local residents, bureaucrats, academics, artists and other stakeholders.

During the production of the film we discovered that East London’s waterscape was in a fragile transitional period which was being overlooked by historians who wished to preserve the landscape before the change, and simultaneously ignored by government officials who wished to market the ‘legacy’ of the area in the post-Olympic period. In our film we aimed to capture a slice of this transitional period and wanted to focus on how the processes of change were being discussed by those concerned.

To complement the film, we created a website for the project and, on 6th June 2010, we held the first screening of the film at the Creative Campus Initiative Exhibition at Royal Holloway, University of London, in tandem with a photography display depicting our journey up and down the waterways. At the exhibit we also had photobooks on display and handed out free postcards depicting images of the area, as well as DVD copies of the film. Commentary and continued feedback is important due to the film’s interest in community responses.

While following the path of the waterways around the site, we had hoped to have more off the cuff interviews with local people using the area, but we found it strangely vacant, perhaps a by-product of the evictions and increased security over the area. What we found to record as we moved around the construction site was evidence of un-spoken voices: graffiti, security cameras, barricades, narrowboats, home-made signs and massive billboards, and always with the ongoing accompaniment of the waterways’ wildlife: egrets, coots, moorhens and mallards. As with any research project, what could be done was largely dictated by time, financial constraints and by field conditions.

When we had finally wrapped up our filming, and having collected over 13 hours of raw footage from two different cameras, the job of editing the film began. Throughout the endeavour our goal was to let the interviewees to speak for themselves and to create through their words a narrative that explored the past, present, and future uses of the East London area. This is an area which has been characterised by its waterways since the ice age, but which also has a long political history of land reclamation, in the change from raw wetlands to different systems of water supply for the movement of people, goods and waste; a continuous re-making of place. The systems were evolving, but also devolving, evidenced by the disuse of certain tributaries, locks, or overgrown areas. The impact of the Olympics is thus complex and, in some places, unpredictable - for instance, with the daily movement of building materials for the Olympic site leading to the re-opening of an old lock and thus a rejuvenation of one of the canal systems.

We kept a democratic ethic in arranging and editing the interviews, meaning that the finished film included some surprising and eclectic stories - including that of a man who once made a living fishing for a particular rare worm in the river, which he then sold on to pet shops. As we watched the footage we began to realise that as filmmakers we were now a part of the story of this place and, after lengthy discussions, we chose to incorporate ourselves into the film and highlight our own explorations of the waterscape. We all understood that in the production of academic and cultural narratives there is no possibility of uninvolved observation and wanted our film to reflect this.

Although we went into the project prepared to embrace all aspects of what was happening there, the reactions to our presence by 2012 security officials and workers was striking. The presence of a camera was sometimes treated with suspicion, an assumptive reaction considering the fact that the Olympics had funded our film. Community reactions to the heightened security had clearly inspired small pockets of resistance: shocking pink graffiti on the sky-blue hording surrounding the site which commented on these transitions and closures, erased regularly by workers. The unofficial placement of furniture along the Olympic towpaths served as entertaining viewpoints for those who wished to sit and watch the landscape morphing. Even the spaces along the waterways which were marked as public were patrolled, monitored, and regulated by the 2012 security who continually asserted their right to confront us, demanding identification and explanations. A climax to the filming process and the centrepiece of the film is an episode when we were pursued and questioned by security, after entering the waterways on a kayak. This event led to a surprising security spectacle and it left us wondering, as some people in our film suggest, whether the 2012 ‘legacies’ are for the local people who lost access to these places or for the appeasement of a more global audience.

In the end, the response we are hoping for is further engagement with the issues brought up by our interviewees as well as the issues brought up by this short explanation. We would welcome any opportunities to screen the film or speak about our experiences on London’s Olympic Waterways.

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