Olympic Mascot Mayhem: a conversation with photographer Jay Black

0 Posted by - March 6, 2010 - Blog, Conversations, Visual art

Jay Black & Olympics Mascots

Jay Black’s photographs of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic mascots first caught my eye down at the W2 Culture + Media House in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. They are at once poignant and playful, and seemed to be a well thought out and cohesive effort to tell the story of the concerns people had about the Olympics using the plush toys. I interviewed him and discovered that really, the photos had been completely spontaneous, merely play done to fill time. Despite the protest-like nature of the photos, Jay also had a positive experience with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The following are excerpts of my interview with Jay in which he talks about his inspiration for each of the photos.


My first use of an official 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games mascot was in a 2008 set titled Quatchi’s dream comes true. According to the Vancouver 2010 “Meet the Mascots” webpage, Quatchi is a shy young sasquatch who dreams of becoming a world famous hockey goalie and enjoys photography and meeting new friends. It occurred to me that I could introduce a hockey playing friend of mine to him to help make him famous while I took photos of the event. A few weeks after I’d uploaded the shots to Flickr, I noticed an added piece of text on Quatchi’s official bio page. Now, in addition to photography and making new friends, he also likes having others take shots on him. It told me they had a sense of humour about what I was doing, so I felt encouraged to continue.

More recently, I spoke with local Games Organizing Committe (VANOC) marketing executive Bill Cooper and asked if he would be fine with me selling prints of my 2009 mascot spoofs in a local gallery. He said their concern was with distribution and that as long as I wasn’t selling prints through a nationwide chain gallery then they would be fine with it. That’s how you came to find my work at W2. Not sure if Irwin [Oostindie, W2 Executive Director] has sold any prints. I’ve donated all proceeds to the Perel Gallery there so if you like what you see here and want a matte, dry-mounted print for your office, e-mail W2.

During the Games, I went to a Flickr meet up at the Yahoo! Sports Studio in Yaletown with Kris Krug who introduced me to two IOC staff who were there to launch their new Flickr group. As we shook hands I asked if they traded pins. One handed me a metallic, speech bubble shaped pin bearing the Olympic rings and the engraved words “I’m a fan” on its face. In return, I gave each of them a 1.5” anti-Olympic activist badge and we shared a chuckle. My intent was to remind them their group was one of thousands on Flickr where freedom of expression is respected by the ownership. They received the badges I offered with slightly surprised smiles but in good humour. That meant the world to me.


Quatchi: A Sasquatch's Gotta Eat

I was bored on a sunny September day off work and stopped in at the Megaphone Magazine office on East Hastings to ask Sean Condon [then Editor-in-Chief] if he needed any shots for upcoming stories. He said he was okay for the time being, but I had Quatchi in my backpack and decided to take him on a tour of the Downtown Eastside and put into practice a few ideas I had held in mind since 2007 when the plush toys were placed on the market. So I pulled out the doll and my civic flag which he wore as a blanket and scouted locations that would reflect images I had grown accustomed to seeing on the street. The photos I took that day have received praise from both Olympic supporters and resisters, so I’m pleased Sean didn’t have anything for me to cover that day.


Miga: About Face!I was at work that day, at a community centre that has an ice rink, and was about to take my supper break. It was late July, and the hottest day on record in Vancouver, so I’d planned spend it in the rink where new ice was being built for the season ahead. I cut through the lobby on the way and noticed a container into which parents were encouraged to deposit war toys and comic books, the final contents of which would be used in the creation of a piece of pacifist art.

A news story I’d read that morning the ballooning security budget for the Games came to mind as did the fact one of my coworkers had a plush Miga doll in her office. I wasn’t sure how the work would unfold but I sensed then that I had the raw materials to create something fun. I grabbed my camera, Miga, a handful of action figures and toy military vehicles and went to the rink. Because it was so hot outside and the ice not quite its final thickness, the rink’s compressors were kicking butt, but not strongly enough to keep a mist from rising above the surface. I set up the toys and shot the series with the intention of creating art, but it was also just a way to kill time with play in a cool place on a very hot day

While creating these works, I don’t envision an end product as something to aim for. It’s more like play that I record with my camera. I often don’t know how things are going to turn out, but in the end I have these pieces of art and people on both sides of the Olympic debate seem to enjoy them. That makes me feel good.


Sumi: STOMP!

It occurred to me early on that Sumi’s name sounds the same as “sue me,” so when [Olympic Resistance Network Members] Chris Shaw and Alissa Westergard-Thorpe sued the City of Vancouver over inconsistencies between its Olympic By-law and guaranteed Fundamental Freedoms under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, this “animal spirit” mascot came to mind. I attended a press conference outside the law courts where the plaintiffs stated the basis for their case, but when I arrived home and started uploading the photos to Flickr it looked a bit boring. Knowing the By-law’s restrictions on civil liberties were IOC demands, I thought it might be interesting to find out how Sumi – as an Olympic symbol – might react if presented with a hardcopy of the Charter. I purchased a plush Sumi at the HBC [Hudson Bay Company]-based Olympic Store (I know, I know … but artists need their supplies!) and then stopped in at the People’s Law School for a copy of the free document.

While walking home, I considered variations on the theme. A nice closeup of his foot stomping across the Charter was an automatic. I noticed a wonderful synchronicity in Sumi being the only plush mascot with a Vancouver 2010 mark sewed to the bottom of his foot, especially as he was the only official mascot left to subvert. Sometimes everything just falls into place, as they say. At home, I cleared my desk, set up and took the photos, and uploaded the set along with the press conference series. It gives political cartooning a greater portion of the space devoted to telling the story than you’d find in a newspaper and more entertaining for the viewer than staid columns of text on grey newsprint.

Muk Muk

Mukmuk Spurns Supporters, Joins Black BlocDuring the Games, after the anti-Olympic activist convergence had ended and the Olympic Tent Village being largely ignored by local mainstream media, some folks rallied in a lighthearted protest urging VANOC to grant Mukmuk official mascot status. He’d always been the outsider, a sidekick condemned to cheer from the sidelines but never actually participate in sports like Quatchi, Sumi and Miga do. I considered how Mukmuk might feel about these well-meaning folks and their spirited advocacy of his plight. The result was Black Bloc Mukmuk, a spoof reflecting the social exclusion underlying the sidekick’s story. As well, I felt a need to break some of the tension in the air over the split in local activist circles over the use of a “diversity of tactics,” i.e., an acceptance of destructive behaviour, in protesting the Games. The shot of Black Bloc Mukmuk kicking over the mascot-stickered Canada Post toy mailbox became my most viewed photo on Flickr during the Games, going microviral via social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

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