Friday, February 21, 2014

The Brits in Greenwich - time to rename the 02?

This week's BRIT music awards took place on the Greenwich peninsula, with Beyonce, Prince, Lorde, Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers,the Arctic Monkeys and many others appearing on stage as performers and/or givers and receivers of awards. But you would never have got a sense that, like Leonard Cohen, Jay Z, Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen before them, these world-renowned singers and musicians were actually in a corner of South East London, a place once of marshland and riverside industries. Instead we were just told we were in 'the O2 Arena' or plain 'O2'

Corporate sponsorship of music venues is now not uncommon. Brixton Academy for instance has been successively branded as the Carling Brixton Academy and now the O2 Brixton Academy. But it has still very much maintained its identity, and is generally referred to by most people as just the Brixton Academy. With the Greenwich arena, O2 have gone a stage further so that the name of the venue is identical to the name of the sponsor. All traces of locality and place have been erased entirely. This seems to be a very deliberate strategy - in Dublin docklands the venue now on the site of the redeveloped Point Theatre is now named 'the O2', while in Berlin Friedrichshain there is the 'O2 World' arena.

The French anthropologist Marc Augé coined the term 'non-places of supermodernity' to describe spaces such as airports, motorways, supermarkets and leisure arenas. They are are 'non-places' in the sense that they appear to exist without reference to history or identity - functional spaces dedicated to the circulation of bodies for a single, prescribed purpose, they are anonymous to the extent that one airport, motorway or indeed O2 arena feels much the same as any other anywhere in the world.

None of these venues is owned or even run by O2. Greenwich and Berlin are both run by Anschutz Entertainment Group, the US-based sports and entertainment giant, while Dublin is run by its main global competitor, Live Nation. What O2 has done is to purchase the 'naming rights' to these venues.

The name 'O2' is itself a brand - the telecommunications company originally established by BT was bought out by the Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica in 2005. Paradoxically, its association with music venues has been so successful that it has arguably erased its own identity. I think a lot of people, when they hear the name 'O2', now think of music venues rather than phones (I do certainly).

I suspect that people will be making and performing music at the Greenwich peninsula site long after it has ceased to be called the 'O2' and probably long after 'O2' ceases to exist. So whatever the official name, lets start calling it a name that has some reference to its place in the world, at least the 'Greenwich O2' or maybe 'the Greenwich Dome' as some people do still refer to it. A small step to reclaiming it as a place rather than a 'non-place'.

Pharrell in Woolwich

The TV screening of the BRITS  featured short clips of fans being surprized in their daily life by their idols, including Pharrell Williams popping into a children's dance session. As reported in the Newsshopper, this took place  earlier this month at a Theatrebugs class at the Clockhouse Community Centre in Woolwich, where Pharrell fan Queen Allen was running a session.

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