Steffanie Ling and Jannie Leung sit down for a discussion on the insidious nature of art-washing, raising political consciousness in the face of neoliberal capitalism, and strengthening the emerging alliance between cultural workers and community organizers in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
What follows is a personal essay written by a long-term resident of Belvedere Court, Sean MacPherson. The Belvedere is a rental apartment in Vancouver that has recently been in the news following a wave of efforts to evict, intimidate, and coerce the residents into leaving their homes. In response, tenants have organized – with the support of the Vancouver Tenants Union – to protect their right to housing and preserve Vancouver’s vital affordable rental stock.
Vancouver Mural Festival, at the core of its structure, does not represent a culturally diverse or marginal perspective as you might expect from a mural festival. Instead it is the initiative of a group of predominantly white men who have built alliances, not with the everyday people of Vancouver, but with real estate developers, Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) and the City government.
While arts and culture aren’t bad things, governments and developers have increasingly instrumentalized them as a way to stimulate market value in marginalized and working class communities. Under intense pressure by the City to develop, BC Artscape is the latest wolf in sheep’s clothing making an incursion into Chinatown.
In Vancouver, there is no image of nature that is not at the same time an image of private property. Possession structures the visual culture and economy of the image. Whether this image is a meticulously crafted photograph for a condo advertisement staged in False Creek, or a self-portrait posed for at the top of Grouse Mountain, almost always the photograph is invested with an inflated sense of status, projection, and desire. And regardless of whether the image circulates on Instagram or Twitter, Grindr or the gallery system, the image is strictly that of appearance, never perceived as the product of labor or violence. Its value is measured by likes, dates,♡, second dates, re-posts, and most importantly, in the context of real estate, the inflation of the property’s price-tag. The possession of nature goes hand-in-hand with nature’s commodification.
In the central rotunda of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Alison Yip has constructed a mural of a ruined gazebo. Rendered in trompe l’oeil, Yip’s Gazebo (2016) is a scene sensed at twilight. Occupied by skunks, foxes, overgrown weeds, garden tools, and a raft of mythological figures, her vision is steeped in a strange mingling of dream, nature and everyday domesticity — reminiscent of the murals in Robert Altman’s unnerving film, 3 Women (1977). In one panel, the side profile of a figure is composed from an array of cleaning tools; another pictures a long garden hose snaking across a lurid yellow ground, spurting water erratically. Yip’s gazebo is no west coast arcadia, where nature is imagined to exist in a harmonious relation to its subjects. In fact, the central figure of Gazebo is the veiled goddess Themis, the blind goddess of Justice, whose furtive presence suggests a persistent and speculative haunting.
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.”