Los Angeles is set to host the 2028 Olympics. Along with world-class competitions and celebrations, there come complex risks and opportunities for the multifaceted global population of our city. In this Designmatters course, students examine how resources and spaces are impacted when a city invites the Olympic Games into its community.
ArtCenter How would you describe this class to a prospective student?
Cedric Johnson: This course explores the social costs of hosting the Olympic Games. We examine the various criticisms of the Olympics made by activists, academics, journalists and citizens around the world. Namely, we look at the ways the build-up to the Games is usually accompanied by rent-intensifying, real-estate development; displacement of the poor; corruption and undemocratic decision-making; ramped up policing; and wasteful public spending. We also think through alternative approaches with an eye toward the kind of city we want to live in — long after the Olympic torch has been extinguished.
AC: How did the idea for this course come about?
The inspiration for this course originated during fall 2019 when I did a short residency here at ArtCenter. I was watching local news coverage that broached the subjects of Skid Row and the problem of homelessness/the unhoused within the context of Los Angeles hosting its third Olympics in 2028. I was struck by how this was a concern so soon, with the games still nearly a decade away. Why were city elites and International Olympic Committee officials so concerned? And would they be willing to do the things necessary to deal with complex and compounded problems of unemployment, mental health crises, addiction and affordable housing? That moment in 2019 jump started my thinking on these issues and became the basis for my year as a visiting professor at ArtCenter.
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So many real-world problems are brought to light through the lens of the Olympic Games — this course opened my eyes to the current state of California.Joyce OhIllustration Student
AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?
CJ: I’m an urbanist, and I’ve written about various complex problems facing urban society for the last 20-plus years. I think the most immediate influence was the Right to the City essay by geographer David Harvey. Harvey takes that phrase from another great Marxist urbanist, Henri Lefebvre, who held that the city was an oeuvre, or work of art. For both thinkers, the greatness of urban life is produced by our collective labors and, therefore, we deserve a say in shaping the character of cities.
The Olympic Games and the problems they often exacerbate in host cities provides a perfect window onto this concept. Those problems are rooted in the contradiction both Lefebvre and Harvey abhorred: a city that is made by the broad laboring classes, but controlled by political and corporate elites. This class begins the process of thinking about what urban life might look like if we, the vast majority of citizens, had more power over the direction and character of urban life. What would a more socially just city look like?
AC: What are some of the assignments and materials that challenge students to break new ground creatively?
CJ: One assignment examines a short film produced by the activist organization NOlympics LA titled, A Brief History of Swolecialism. That portmanteau combines “swole” or swollen, a vernacular description of a physically fit person, and socialism, a society where wealth is collectively owned and distributed. The video examines various working-class alternatives to the Olympics, celebrations of fitness, sport and competition that are not driven by profit-making. Students are asked to develop their own perspective on these matters, and consider what a truly democratic, popular sport culture might be.
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I hope that students walk away from the class with a keener sense of political interests and power in motion.Cedric JohnsonVisiting ArtCenter faculty
AC: What were some of the most surprising ways students responded to assignments?
CJ: For many students, these problems of the Olympics are a revelation. The Olympics are generally portrayed as universally beneficial, and whatever protests that erupt outside the athletic stadia, are quickly forgotten when the Games adjourn. One of the best reactions from students is the sense of emerging historical consciousness — the sense that these problems are the result of very specific power configurations that are local and unique, but also similar across various Olympic host cities like London, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro.
AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?
This may seem rather simple, but I hope that students walk away from the class with a keener sense of political interests and power in motion. For instance, in one class, after we had read about process of securing the Olympic bid and the various protests organized by NOlympics LA since Los Angeles was named the 2028 host city, I asked students to go back into the readings and think about the different material interests at play. We looked at where particular groups of citizens stood on this matter of the 2028 Olympics, what these different groups actually wanted, and what kind of world they wanted beyond the immediate issue of a sports mega-event. I think the benefit was both conceptual and, I hope over the longer term, valuable in civic terms as well. Sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the stuff of political life: how political interests shape public conflicts — and who prevails.