A new outdoor installation has appeared at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s OFFSITE sculpture garden located outside the Shangri-La luxury hotel in Downtown Vancouver. Perched next to Georgia Street and easily viewable from a car window, Kota Ezawa’s Hand Vote (2012) is a 3-D cut-out of a 2-D image depicting a regular parliamentary meeting with hands raised in a ritual act of voting. In the brief write-up for the piece, the Vancouver Art Gallery has stated:
“In light of recent events in which demands for societal reform have become apparent both in Canada and abroad, Ezawa’s portrait of democracy could not be more timely.”
Prior to exploring how Hand Vote recapitulates other public works currently on show in Vancouver, we should pose the obvious question: what disavowed event is the VAG pointing to when speaking of “recent events”?
The Global Occupy movement and the Arab Spring are of course the events that come to mind. More specifically, we are reminded of the occupation of the VAG’s North grounds in the fall of 2011. The question is slightly thwarted, however, when we recognize that Occupy Together, and the Arab Spring before it, were not generated by vague calls for social reform. On this point we should be careful not to mince words: the popular movements of the past two years sought to strike a fatal blow to a system of extreme wealth and inequality. The movements in the Middle East, Europe and North America were precipitated by the desire for the wholesale transformation of society itself. To grasp Hand Vote therefore – or as Hegel would say, to seize the concept with our hands – we should investigate the temporal-specificity of the piece.
It is worth remembering that at the time of the initial occupation of Art Gallery grounds, local politicians were in the midst of a municipal election. By the time of the arrival of election in November, the democratic imperative to support established power was made clear. When COPE, the traditional working-class party of Vancouver, capitulated to the neo-liberal Vision, all traces of the democratic pretense of choice were discarded: only disorientation itself was presented as a true choice. Through the acrobatics of false opposition and negativity, the vote was allowed to function as it was intended: a strictly statist operation carried out as a means to secure the one single, ossified guarantee – that nothing unexpected may be permitted to happen whatsoever.
Occupy Vancouver’s response to this deadlock was clear, with signs like: “Gregor Robertson or Suzanne Anton? — No, thanks! — Both are worse!”. A chant was even performed: “Vote for Suzanne! Vote for Gregor! — Rennie still gets in.” It was obvious to the members of Occupy Vancouver that no matter who would end up “losing” the election, the elite of Vancouver — especially developers and marketers like Bob Rennie, Ian Gillespie, Michael Geller, Terry Hui and Michael Audain — would win. The “losers” would not be the mere parties that come and go in all-too-many guises, but rather the renters who today make up a 52% majority of Vancouver in the midst of a world-class housing crisis. In heated times, the establishment always takes the opportunity to call for small-sized reforms — in this case to counter-balance Occupy’s insistence on systemic change with flattened calls to vote for developer-controlled municipal parties.
At our present conjuncture, the ritual of the democratic vote persists as a parliamentary fetish that occupies the Master Signifier of the word ‘democracy.’ Raising your hand, placing some name in a ballot box, or even resisting to do so, may fill you with warm feelings, political sentiment, careerist ambitions, and it may even convince you that those who vote are somehow participating in politics — that ‘the excluded’ are somehow ‘included’ in civil society. From its very origins, however, modern politics is constituted by the expropriation of popular power by the state. Regulatory in its nature, the state incorporates the excluded only through the mechanism of re-representation (the ‘excluded’ are certainly not part of the Mayor’s affordability ‘task force,’ even if they are the ones truly effected by the housing crisis that the task force claims to deepen). The rite of the popular vote is the most symbolic representation of this, existing at the level of a passive procedure to displace antagonism by other means.
Post-election, Occupy’s critique of Vision Vancouver has quickly become reality: in these short months in office Gregor Robertson has fired his planner to appease developers, and speaks in Spacing Magazine of “leveraging city lands […] to maximize opportunity.” These mystifications translate into selling Vancouver’s commons and social housing stock to pay for upper-class housing. One just has to look to Vancouver’s social housing bastions, existent or formerly planned: the demolished Little Mountain, the bailed-out Olympic Village, the disappearing social housing units in the DTES and the currently-threatened Heather Place for confirmation. For the residents and allies in the DTES, they call it upscaling and gentrification; for renters across the city who are displaced, there is a new moniker: renovictions. For the former residents of Little Mountain and the potential residents of Olympic Village – they call it outright theft.
By definition, the modern state entangles, controls, administers and instructs civil society from its most exhaustive presentations all the way down to its most inconsequential gestures. Emancipatory politics, on the other hand, exists as the cessation of this state, not approved by semi-annual ceremonies of consent. Elevating the vote to the level of a parliamentary idol only affirms the conservative abandonment of emancipatory projects founded on the direct mobilization of the exploited and the oppressed. The calls to get organized fall on deaf ears to those mystified by parliamentary democracy, for the dissatisfied there is no choice but to get organized.
Against the ruthless march of the propertied class, emancipatory politics is instead the insistence that the answer to the problem is quite clear: trust the people. Emancipatory politics is what abolishes the existing state of things by organizing, occupying and fighting back. Only to the multiplying managers of the crisis would it appear that the vote is the only option. Here we should return to Occupy Vancouver.
When it was not shrouded by the obscurity of its “illegality” – an admittedly obscure notion fabricated by right-wing pundits and left-wing reactionaries – it sought to bring clarity to the situation by targeting the property elite of Vancouver; by naming names; stating that the upcoming election was a real-estate scam; and pointing to the fact that the Canadian Banks were just as culpable in the 2008 Financial crisis as their American counterparts. These were the same Canadian Banks who were bailed out $125 billion in 2008 in the form of a massive purchase of unstable mortgages and toxic papers held by the private banks. For those who occupied, reform was a remnant, if not an afterword.
But turning to a critique of Occupy Vancouver more specifically, rarely was there any moment where the hand vote, or twinkly-fingers, generated anything at all. For weeks at the beginning of the occupation, the General Assembly at Occupy was obsessed with constructing models of consensus so that precisely nothing would happen. A week into the protest, when the General Assembly was still discussing the ideal form of consensus building, the 150 odd members of the General Assembly broke off into small groups to discuss what model of consensus that they liked best — this conversation continued a week later.
Frustrated with the overall mood of inactivity that plagued Occupy Vancouver, a few members of the break-out group broke-off from their smaller group and formed a “Direct Action Committee” — their goal, to plan a march, entitled: “Run on the Banks.” The march was not planned, or decided upon by any vote, but decided upon by the general will of the people. It was not an act of putschist vanguardism, but directly aligned to the collective ethos of the Occupy movement, affirming acts that sought to further delegitimize a system of profits that continues to reproduce misery and servitude. By marching on the Canadian Banks — RBC, TD, CIBC, Scotiabank — Occupy Vancouver sought to bring the crisis home to the 1%. Occupy Vancouver not only wanted to take hold of space, but also produce a barricade in time: in order to produce a scission in the duration of the given situation. The method available: unlimited human strike.
Certainly Kota Ezawa’s Hand Vote is a portrait of a people not with folded arms, waiting for politics to fall into their hands. But neither is it convincing as a portrait of social change, and certainly not of a people who are willing to throw every molecule of their being into the struggle against the propertied class. However graphically subtractive the images are composed, the people still appear as senior bureaucrats, as though they are seated in the UN security council, and certainly not the diverse rabble that constitutes the contemporary forms of the commune. The bureaucrats, like in any good Stalinist tribune are captured at the moment of unity, an imagined ordered consistency — concealing the fundamental lack and antagonism that makes up politics.
At the foot of the Shangri-la, certainly the well-dressed bureaucrats are only present to manage the disaster and do everything in their powers to guarantee that crisis is only prolonged.
Compare Kota Ezawa’s Hand Vote to the Oakland Commune’s house-of-cards, neo-constructivist sculpture. On the 25th of October, Occupy Oakland was cleared by over five hundred police officers with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets. The day after, over a thousand protesters marched through downtown Oakland determined to retake their site. After fierce battles with the police, the crowd again was dispersed with more tear gas, flash-bang grenades and rubber bullets. During prolonged skirmishes it was at this moment that the OPD shot Scott Olsen, an Iraq War Veteran with a tear-gas canister. While he was on the ground bleeding and people had assembled to help him, the police lobbed a flash-bang grenade right in his face — Olsen suffered a broken skull that required subsequent brain surgery.
Determined to take back the square the next night, members of the Commune returned to the plaza with no police in sight. In its stead, a steel fence surrounding the lawn where the Occupation had previously set up camp. Calls to “tear it down” overwhelmed pacifist calls for patience and capitulation. The next morning city officials were met with the product of the general will.
To tear down a fence and have the natural elements of its previous use rendered obsolete becomes the subtraction necessary for the inundation of aesthetic possibility. If the monument is that which the victor builds to invest a sense of conclusion in the immanent-future, the anti-monument must preserve the eternal present of struggle through acts of aesthetic inauguration. To quote a friend: “what else remains of the victor if their enclosures are torn down?”
One of the many myths of the city-state fiction is that seeks to fix the realm of politics to the space of a fictitious consistency — a manufactured consensus — or to realm of a select few: celebrities, bureaucrats, speculators, developers, and their mayors. No doubt, to affirm this point is the place of a reactionary opinion that resorts to revisionist obfuscation.
When Capital is initiating the greatest offensive since the 1980s, it is apparent that its state and parliamentary powers are ever more paranoid. At this uncomfortable moment in history when both, Capital and the State, are losing greater legitimacy through policies of planned austerity, structural unemployment, and widespread inequality, their apparatuses, too, are assaulted from all angles. Their paranoia is warranted. Forever bandaging its decomposing corpse, political power masquerades around town as virile, courageous, and especially in control. Yet, if we look hard enough — unflinchingly — we can see through the tattered gauze.
It is no wonder why the contemporary state is frantically utilizing all established means in its arsenal to remonumentalize its own anxiety. From Althea Thauberger’s undead portrait of Nicholas Campbell in Ecce Homo installed at the entrance to Canada Line in Granville Street, Stan Douglas’ redemptive representation of police force in Abbot & Cordova, and most recently, Kota Ezawa’s Hand Vote found in the Sculpture Garden of the Shang-ri La – what we have is a clear displacement of anxiety onto an imaginary representation of an established power.
Beyond the general drive to instill the uneven development of Vancouver with an air of cultural legitimacy, there is more at stake in each work’s content. In a paradoxical turn of events, the Hand Vote might confirm the unconscious desires of the VAG: it may announce a manifestation of voluntary servitude and the restitution of civil society’s archaic laws. This is part of the history that the vote has only confirmed: the legislated collusion of the representatives of the excluded with the ruling classes of Vancouver.
Against the VAG’s declarations, wholesale change will not take place by raising your hand in a room, just as putting someone’s name in the ballot box will not disrupt the status quo. When there is widespread capitulation to the powers of the rich, there will be those like the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vision Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department who will tell you otherwise.