Yang Fudong’s highly-stylized, black-and-white film, Fifth Night (2010), best resembles a state of purgatory. Threadbare proletariat, ripped at the collar, drag themselves through a movie set that imitates a Shanghai city-square. Although the setting is dated to the 30s and 40s with vintage cars, plaid suits, and tramways, the temporality of the film is indeterminate. More like a nightmare, the film resists any historical specificity. Wandering nowhere in particular, Yang’s actors appear as they are imprisoned in a world not of their choosing. Not one of them possesses the capacity to speak. Dirtied by soot and grease, their bodies are marked by nights of labour and slowed by fatigue. Commanding an insubstantial weight, their poverty is extreme: they even do not own their own exhaustion. Despite their poverty their stature is monumental and their faces oscillate between the reserved and the searing. Counterposed to the rambling labourers, two elegantly dressed upper-class women are admixed with the setting. Despite their class position, they share the same countenance of the laborers: melancholic, distraught, wistful. Isolated from one another, each character treats their surroundings with a good mix of suspicion, contemplation and disbelief. Ultimately caught in solitude, these characters trawl themselves through the square with hesitation, or at times, stumble backwards in shock.
Juan Manuel Sepúlveda’s film, Every Image calls for its Redemption – Matter is not created nor destroyed (it only changes form) (2012) sets off from the Zacatecas community a couple of months after a blockade at Goldcorp’s Peñasquito mine in Mexico. Installed outside the entrance of the SFU Audain Gallery for the MFA exhibition Apparitions (2012), the installation format is peculiar and unconventional. The installation, split in two, begins with an interview with a rural ejidatario (communal land owner) who gestures without sound as he drives his truck through the Mazapil city centre. His body mimes a testimonial address, but the sounds that emit from the installation’s headphones are instead the ambient everyday noises found on any Vancouver side-street: a bus moves along an electric-wire; indiscernible shouts and murmurs ring along the sidewalk; police sirens annoy without end; footsteps advance down a hall with added weight and resonance. Yet from the truck ride, the sequence quickly moves from intimate address to the unending descent down a craggy dirt road towards the Peñasquito mine.
It’s nice that people are rising to the defence of the CBC, which has genuinely been in the Harper government’s crosshairs from day one. But I find the rhetoric of this Reimagine CBC project perplexing and more than a little problematic. Its primary mission is clearly to rally Canadians behind the CBC as the Conservatives proceed to slash the much-loved Crown Corporation’s budget. The campaign has undertaken a “crowdsourcing” effort to address some of CBC’s deficiencies and channel the institution into the 21st century. But the overall tone of the project is much more laudatory than critical, and this prismatic “reimagining” actually amounts to little more than a tepid request that the government reverse the cuts and the CBC tweak its programming strategy.
EDITORAL INTRODUCTION | From the start, Vancouver has been marked by a history of racism against Chinese and Asian immigrants, a fact which few commentators can overlook (although not few enough, as this article demonstrates in its sharp critique of Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk). Part I of this three-part essay by Nathan Crompton reaches into contemporary Vancouver to find that despite the passage of time, original assumptions and archetypes of race and class have proven indispensable for an ongoing history of scapegoating – a history that has, according to Crompton, reached a peak in today’s discussion of housing in Vancouver. Far from signaling the simple break away from the city’s colonial past, the mystical real-estate economy proves fertile grounds for the re-capitulation of the time-tested logic of political scapegoating. This three-part essay is sure to have an impact not only for its use of historical and empirical research to blow the lid off assumptions that Vancouver’s housing crisis can be explained by Asian capital, but for its direct critique of household politicians and commentators. From Sandy Garossino to Gregor Robertson, few are spared in this militant clarion-call to move beyond the present by clearing out the skeletons of history.
At different points throughout the 125 years of its history, colonial Vancouver has blamed its problems on others. The relation between “citizens” and “foreigners” underlying the identity of Vancouver has been at times explosive – as when anti-Asian riots attacked Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Flashpoints occurred again in the 1880s, the 1900s, the 1930s, the 1970s and 1990s, always with the same result: to draw up new lines of exclusion and discrimination while deepening the political disorientation of the times. At other moments the relationship has been segregated but passive, embedded in the habits and rituals of the city. Today, when it is assumed that xenophobic movements could not gain the same momentum as 100 years ago, the penchant to blame “foreigners” for local problems continues. In an assessment of contemporary Vancouver, Henry Yu once asked presciently, “is Vancouver the future or the past”? If the question reads like a riddle, it is because the answer is equally uncertain. As extreme-right movements today pick up momentum in Europe and elsewhere in the context of financial crisis and long-term economic stagnation, it is now more than ever that we should examine global and local histories of racism and xenophobia.
Fin de siècle Vancouver
There was recently a telling moment when Vancouver Courier columnist Mark Hasiuk used his column to target Vancouver school board trustee, Allan Wong. Hasiuk attacked Wong for a motion put forward at the school board calling on the province to incorporate the history of British Columbians of Chinese descent into the regular provincial curriculum. Curriculum changes were not needed, according to Hasiuk, since there is already too much Chinese Canadian history taught in the secondary curriculum. Hasiuk moreover mocks the Head Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Canadian Pacific Railway as a “holy trinity” in both the curriculum and cultural memory of Vancouver.
Today Vancouver is conceived as a monopolizable totality, everywhere placed in circulation for consumption and contemplation. As every square-inch of the city becomes privatized for Vancouver’s capitalist class, the balance of forces veer in favor of profit, enjoyment, and the preservation of crisis. Beating with the mercurial blood of surplus value, the pulse of the city is tightly constricted by the developer-monopoly tourniquet — a tried, tested and true apparatus of monopoly-capitalist development that equilibrates the terms of supply and demand in order to keep housing prices impossibly high.
Nina Power, One-Dimensional Woman, London: Zero Books, 2009. 81 pages. ISBN: 9781846942419
Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman provocatively takes the cue for its title and premise from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man. Power invokes Marcuse’s concept of a system of production and consumption that creates ‘false needs,’ flattened social relations, and an illusory sense of individual autonomy. Power frames her own book as a retooling of this critique, intended to address a much more recent rhetoric of consumerism and contemporary feminism which – in similar and new ways – creates a barrier to productive critical thinking about work, sex and politics.
Power is based at Roehampton University, part of the University of London, where she teaches philosophy. In the past year, however, she has been just as likely to be seen taking part in student protests against the recent tripling of tuition fees at UK universities, or at the solidarity camp that sought to prevent the eviction of Irish Traveller families from their land at Dale Farm in Essex, or of course, around the Occupy London Stock Exchange encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. She can also frequently be found among the Guardian’s comment is free pages. One Dimensional Woman is published by the upstart Zero Books as part of a series of readable texts intended as ‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’ While this short book came out before the wave of protests surrounding the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement took hold, we might hope that its message will be more immediately understood as a result of these events. And indeed Vancouver, as the birthplace of Botox — and a city long-preoccupied with cosmopolitan surfaces and spectacle — seems its ideal target.
Photography in Vancouver during the 1980s passed through an experimental phase that destabilized the technological determinism and established perspectives of image-making in the 20th century. Against the programmatic wishes of historians of the medium, photography was put in a position to resist the false dialectic imposed on it: neither a distinct, reified museum picture, nor a common, ubiquitous document placed carelessly in circulation. Revealing how the photograph and the practice of photography itself operated as a remnant of concrete social relations and political structures, as well as an extension of an advanced and experimental aesthetic culture, the medium was forced to lose its previous consistency. In this context, photography became preoccupied with expanding the field of the photographic itself through and within its own materiality, embracing its reproductive, serial and discursive qualities.
A fragment of this history is currently on display at the group exhibition c.1983 at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery. Artists included in the exhibition — Marian Penner Bancroft, Stan Douglas, Elizabeth Vander Zaag, Laiwan, Michelle Normoyle, Ellie Epp, Ken Lum, Kati Campbell, Arni Runar Haraldsson, (save for Ian Wallace) — answered the earlier international call for critique of the commodification of the art object through the expansion of the photographic image, a movement that found its fluid relevance in Vancouver’s nascent artist run-culture.