Too Fun City

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Last spring, an Economist article declared Vienna, Geneva, and Vancouver to be “mind-numbingly boring” cities. The concept is well worn. The author of the article doesn’t claim to be making some grand statement on Vancouver. Nonetheless, Vancouverites responded explosively. A lot rests on our city being desirable. There’s a looming sense that somehow this matters. Even in local artistic communities, defined by a sort of rejection of the placid kind of fun that Vancouver offers, musicians and artists and label-heads are quick to reject the title “No Fun City.”

If our conviviality status seems to be in question, festival culture is Vancouver’s primary means of rebuttal. Its summer itinerary has come to churn out everything from the Khatsahlano Festival to last year’s Burrard Bridge Yoga Day non-event, from the Vancouver Jazz fest to the celebration of Steveston’s fishing industry. These events draw respectively on a corporate pseudo-spiritual appeal, a celebration of music’s “gentrified” genre, and a selective and whitewashed heritage eliding a legacy that extends from internment camps to overfishing.

From our vantage point, at the tail end of summer, it becomes apparent that these seasonal events run in tandem with a deeper, underlying urban process. Festivalization is a form of shorthand, describing the way cultural celebration and fun latch onto a politics of space and image. All the more so in a city where cultural spectacles and images have gradually become a substitute for social reproduction. Value becomes ascribed according to the image of a place as culturally significant. Yet the reality is that the deterioration of place cannot be remedied with these kinds of fiscal-cultural injections, and more often than not these celebrations exacerbate the problem they claim to address.

Vancouver: The City of Everything

The paper trail which emerges, especially after the City received the Olympic nomination in 2003, shows a policy of urban revitalization, urban growth, and capital accumulation based around an affective strategy of new venues of cultural celebration. The Olympics represented a particular shift in gears, a renewed focus on image-making founded in a certain version of environmental awareness, multiculturalism, and an idea of Vancouver as a centre of Pacific and Aboriginal Culture.

Vancouver ought to be everything to everyone: quiet Cascadian paradise, bustling cultural metropolis, one hand in nature and the other in urbanity. However, the shuttering of the Broadway-inspired Performing Arts Centre makes evident that Vancouver is not New York. And yet its aspirations only multiply. Vancouver will have world-class casinos with high-roller tables while also showcasing local artists. Long-term residents will love the indie darlings play in Chinatown. You’ll be able to sip third wave coffee nestled between Vietnamese bakeries.

Published in the wake of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, The City as Image Creation Machine [1] is a text that thinks about the ways in which Vancouver’s specificities are codified into a series of entrepreneurial pitches. For the current model of urban governance that prioritizes investment, Vancouver must be a dynamic and versatile city while also being “a unique, marketable product” (44). This contradiction unique and yet widely marketable has some serious implications. In order to be everything at once, Vancouver is constantly refashioning itself, whitewashing and erasing its origins while stitching itself together from other available parts.

The Production of Fun

Cities need to be fun to draw creative industry. Fun is operative in every development pitch and political platform. NPA and Vision snip at each other over arts budget expansions, though the conception of art seems inextricably tied to laxer liquor laws, longer patio hours, and compost bins at block parties. Investment is implicit in city-image marketing based on pleasure and enjoyment. And over the past decades, there’s been a whiplash transition from a production-oriented city to one oriented around potential creative labour.

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Gregor Robertson’s most recent economic plan, for instance, puts the city’s burgeoning tech industry front and centre. The obvious name to invoke is Richard Florida, the influential geographer who has made a career proselytizing the economic advantages of multicultural, gay-friendly cities full of boutiques and cafes cities with high-bohemian allure. Investment in the arts is, ostensibly, a good thing. But the popular enthusiasm girding these policies doesn’t add up when measured against the actual outcomes.

This latching of public sentiment onto urban strategy is a focus of an essay by Jeff Derksen on Vancouver. According to Derksen, Florida “carjacks creativity as an economic resource.” More generally, Derksen’s work is useful for thinking about the way critical approaches to capitalist modernity have been subsumed by neo-liberal urban strategy, under the two loci of “creative” and “sustainable” solutions. Festivals themselves are often marketed as alternative, or an alternative to something. But as Derksen writes: “When these themes are not grounded in equity and justice, they become programs for the city and extensions of the new spirits of capitalism’s answer to the artistic critique of urban life.”

Today, in our Richard Florida epoch, festivals are a rarefaction of cultural and social processes in the interest of a city’s vitality. Festivalization is framed as an emotive ‘Yes’ to art, multiculturalism, the youth, alternativity, etc, dislocating those concepts from their bound places. But for all its fun, festival culture produces displacement and profit-seeking, neither of which are creative or sustainable.

How does culture become valuable for entrepreneurial city planning? The concept of Monopoly Rent explored in David Harvey’s The Art of Rent [2] is useful for thinking about cultural image-making in Vancouver. Tourism might seem the most direct route for making money off of location-specific culture, but the creation of demand through scarcity raises the stakes higher and perhaps closer to home. “Monopoly rent,” Harvey writes, “arises because social actors can realize an enhanced income stream over an extended time by virtue of their exclusive control over some directly or indirectly tradable item which is in some crucial respects unique and non-replicable” (94).

The sources of that enhanced income stream are things like property value, or value ascribed to investments and commodities that bear a certain Vancouver sheen, thus warranting a higher price. That “sheen” needs to be concentrated in the form of a homogenized culture sold back to consumers. The image of Vancouver culture developed in order to extract a Monopoly Rent will always veer towards whatever is most profitable or universalized and comes at the expense of non-mainstream or counter-hegemonic forms of cultural expression.

Vancouver’s Alternative Image

The Vancouver Sheen has been, since at least the 60s, vaguely rebellious. We’re sold an alternative city, a frontier town that challenges the status quo with a laid back attitude and an adventurous vitality. It’s something like the neo-liberal rhetoric of “disruption” and the “radical ideas” of the tech world. Festivals themselves, in Vancouver or otherwise, often engage with similar rhetoric, a secretion of free samples and energy drink sponsors. And in the spirit of the block party, the everyday space of a park, or a busy road is transformed into a space of event. Almost as a simulation of a protest, festivals feel emergent and impromptu and rebellious, with a hole in the place of dissent.

The veneer of alternativity also leaves much to be desired in terms of accountability. In art communities, in music scenes and the like, abusers often operate freely owing to the guise of alternativity, and alternative spaces are not necessarily held accountable as safe spaces. Alternative energy is easily channelled into consumerism and violence. The disaster of Woodstock 99’ is a characteristic example. In a more recent context, Montreal’s Osheaga Festival was the site of two separate incidents of violence this summer, involving the date rape drugging of a festival-goer and the physical assault of an artist by festival security guards. Festival organizers were obstructive in both cases.

However, community action against this alternative immunity is shifting the conversation. Here in Vancouver, the oppressive climate of these spaces is increasingly being brought to light. Anti-oppressive and decolonizing discourses are becoming more common, even while they have yet to congeal into clear and accountable practices. Culture, particularly alternative culture at this moment, is beginning to come to grips with its own internal violence. This matters, because it is a violence perpetuated according to hegemonic models of power that art and culture supposedly transcend.

Re-branding the Local Context

Vancouver’s aggressive image-making process is saturated in layers of contradiction. More than an indication of what the city imagines as a profitable investment, the onslaught of summer festival and cultural celebration offer a glimpse into an emerging set of strategies and policy imperatives, particularly the role of festivals in a city-making process that has become increasingly centered on specific neighbourhoods.

 Kitsilano, for example, is historically Vancouver’s counterculture neighborhood. Having gone through significant gentrification, it’s now one of the city’s high-bohemian areas. The Khatsahlano Block Party, which provides mileage for alternative musicians and local storefronts, is a sort of nexus into the countercultural, hippie-oriented past. The festival may promote artists and local merchants, but perhaps it’s more potent as a cultural event which augments property value: a neighbourhood amenity to be mentioned in a realtors pitch, or listed when describing reasons to invest in West 4th (whose merchant association organizes the festival).

At the same time the festival has appropriated Chief August Jack Khatsahlano’s name, displaced along with his community from the Squamish reserve in 1913 located on Kitsilano. Violent displacement reiterates itself in the contemporary neoliberal context. As such, celebration and festival must hide their function as place-making strategies in order to be salvaged as a cultural activity.

The conception that a neighbourhood needs to be preserved by becoming a tourist hotspot or entrepreneurial enclave belies the fact that these are gentrifying and colonial processes which erode a neighbourhood’s character, populace, and ability to reproduce itself as a community.

In Gastown, the redevelopment of the Woodward’s complex, a landmark site transformed under a social mix mandate, was marketed as a revitalization project, incentivized by multi-year tax exemptions for developers, and came at the expense of Single Room Occupancy (SRO’s) in the surrounding area. The transformation of the area around Woodward’s new condos, new boutiques, new gourmet restaurants testifies to the agglomerating effects of policy directed at the creative class, masquerading as a revitalization of the community. The ameliorative gestures were admittances, speedbumps. A pair of new art spaces in the Woodward’s building didn’t offset the hundreds of artists who lost their studio spaces and homes as the result of the development.  The new building did, however, keep Woodward’s iconic spinning W a replica fitted with sustainable LED’s as well as a large scale mural by Stan Douglas, arguably paying homage to the pre-history of the creative class.

The centre of Vancouver isn’t the only area subject to these policies. Whalley is another site undergoing intense redevelopment, where festival and urban amenities are the means of that gentrification. Host to the Live Van stage during the 2010 Olympics, Holland Park has seen many renovations over the past decade, with developments often subsidized by monied corporations. These are more than culture producing festivals they’re value producing and this value is incurred at the expense of local communities. Within a culture of festivalization, contradictions emerge and these can only be expected to accelerate if the City answers “yes” to the CBC’s trial balloon, with their recent article asking Is it time to rebrand Surrey as the city of festivals?

Location-specific branding efforts, the kind of property inflations that deem Surrey the “city of festivals,” are key for understanding the insertion of culture into the flow of real estate capital. What the City of Vancouver has branded “Little Saigon” for instance, despite and because of the preserving gesture of the city’s new designation of the Kingsway Corridor, is experiencing a heavy process of whitening and commercial redevelopment. What’s missing from the cute banners along Kingsway is Little Saigon’s history as the landing spot of refugees from the Vietnamese war. A neighbourhood becomes “Little Saigon” a culturally significant plot of land through both a discursive quip and a material process of displacement.

Festival Culture and Summertime

There’s a great metaphor here for the politicization of the ostensibly non-material. The song of the summer, camping plans, road trips and so on, are as much a part of capital processes as art itself. For many cities, the summer has become centred on a celebration of culture.

We were originally interested in the festival atmosphere Vancouver takes on in the summer. Cascadian spectacles like Pemberton, Sasquatch, and Shambhala and so on market themselves as a return, coupling two unassailable concepts: the transcendent experiences of nature and art. These events mobilize another logic integral to Vancouver’s imagination, because it’s not just about unadulterated extravagance. As Harvey writes:

The dilemma between veering so close to pure commercialization to lose the marks of distinction that underlie monopoly rents, or constructing marks of distinction that are so special as to be very hard to trade upon is perpetually present. But, as in the wine trade, there are always strong discursive gambits involved in defining what is or is not so special about a product, a place, a cultural form, a tradition, an architectural heritage. (108)

Vancouver can’t sell itself too much. It holds itself to certain cultural parameters, reinforcing the socially conscious city beyond being a playground for the rich one with a commitment to saving the Happy Planet, protecting the coastline, etc.

Perhaps this focus on shared spaces of fun, wherever it comes from, is irrevocable in a climate of constant displacement. It’s simply identity formation in capitalism: what is your weekend cultural amenity? But the material and valuable practice of culture are left to grand abstractions. There is a fundamental disconnect between people and space in settler-colonial logic, of which festivalization can be described as a symptom.

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Jonathan Kew is a section editor at Discorder Magazine. He also programs and produces with CiTR 101.9FM. In May 2016 he released Roadside Attractions, an audio-documentary tracking the history of amateur PSA and sound-art production at CiTR.

Josh Gabert-Doyon is a writer and photographer currently studying at UBC.

[1] McCallum, K., Wyly, E. K., & Spencer, A. (2005). “The City as an Image-Creation Machine: A Critical Analysis of Vancouver’s Olympic Bid.Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 67.1, 24-46.

[2] Harvey, David. (2002). “The Art of Rent: Globalization, Monopoly and the Commodification of Culture” Socialist Register, 38.1, 93-110.