In the Vancouver of today, everything adds up to the realization that artistic creation is rendered impossible under the auspices of state sponsorship and ruling class culture. On the balance sheet of recent artistic production, the empty pluralism of public art – ambiguous text-based works, gardening, light projections, and billboard images – is found siding with the medium of the culture industry. All established means in the arsenal of artistic creation, to paraphrase the words of Alain Badiou on “militant art,” are mobilized to sing the praises of conservative institutions, while artistic novelty is inscribed within the continuity of the state.
For the last three years, there has been a broad increase in private and public support of the arts in Vancouver. This augmentation in sponsorship has stimulated the absolute amplification in the size, scale and diversity of artistic production. In the midst of a new prominence in the exercise of city-state power, the floating signifier of “public art” has been re-positioned, effectively usurping all other forms of artistic production. For all of its variations, none of them have equalled an increase in the production of advanced art in Vancouver. On the contrary, these newly-minted works are burnished as acts of urban ornamentation for the State’s new authority. As expected, public art’s existence is entirely dependent on state and corporate sponsorship. But what is of interest here more specifically is the corrupt notion of “public” in public art — a concept that is elevated at the expense to all that is “common.”
The Mainlander’s Sean Antrim sat down with their Mayoral candidate Randy Helten of Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) to talk about affordability, accountability, the arts, and Vancouver’s future. It is a tall order for a political party that does not receive corporate and developer donations to get candidates elected. NSV has been fighting an up-hill battle.
Sean Antrim: What amount of development do we need in Vancouver right now? And the reason that I’m asking this question is because many people, and the mainstream press, have criticized Neighbourhoods for a Sustainable Vancouver as being NIMBY-based. A lot of journalists have been around for a while, and in the 1990s with Gordon Campbell, NIMBY-ism was quite a problem.
Randy Helten: To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer. In fact, I don’t think anyone knows the answer. The people who know the answer are concealing the answer. Because the City has removed from public access numbers that show the current zoning capacity. It used to be up and available, but it’s gone now. My understanding is that Professor Patrick Condon at UBC has done some studies, and he’s saying that for construction within the current zoning, the capacity for additional population density is enough for decades into the future. Construction could happen without any rezoning, to fill all of the incoming population.
The City has these numbers, and in January of this year [COPE Councilor] Ellen Woodsworth put forward a motion that was passed, according to which the planning department was supposed to release the numbers of zoning capacity to council some time in February. It’s off the map. Despite repeated requests there’s been no response out of the planning department. So no one knows the answer publicly. The information is concealed. My suspicion is that if you take the West End, for example, I think in the current zoning, without rezoning, we could accommodate another 5,000 people or so. That’s just a sense, because I know the areas that are zoned right now for six stories that are currently two stories. If you take the average of all that and you look at a long term thirty-year plan or a hundred-year plan, and look at the land area in the West End and long term population goals — steady growth, not too extreme, not too rapid — the West End could accommodate several thousand more people.
Sean Antrim: That’s the way most cities do rezoning — blanket rezoning — which is doing an entire neighbourhood at a time. Why do you think we have so many spot rezonings in Vancouver?
Randy Helten: My understanding of the dynamics is that a spot rezoning allows exceptions to happen within the existing zoning. In many cases it offers huge returns to the owner of those specific spots. If you go to the old adage “follow the money” and look at who’s making campaign contributions to our elected officials, it makes sense. They’re making the campaign contributions, the officials get into power, and they have control over land use decisions. They’re supposed to regulate the land on behalf of the entire public and balance all the interests of all of the stakeholders. Both Vision and the NPA as organizations are incapable of avoiding undue influence from that private money, and that’s what we’re seeing as the results of their decisions.
At the top of the entrance to the Georgia and Granville skytrain station, the actor who played the former chief coroner of BC and mayor of Vancouver, Larry Campbell, lies in state. Elongated on a polished mortuary slab, the body patiently awaits inspection. Firmly planted at the centre of commerce in Vancouver, actively conflating power, politics and death, the whole scene is disorientating, uncanny, if not outright confrontational.
Spanning the entire north wall of the station, the picture is massive both in size and scale. Slightly larger than a typical city billboard, the body is monstrous. The photograph, subtracted from the slogans and brands of commercial imagery of its surroundings, exerts a dramatic austerity. For the passengers moving to and fro on the Skytrain stairwell, the picture appears at first out of place. The billboard both dwarfs commuters and exerts a definitive presence without them. Viewing the work from the Skytrain stairwell, your eye acquires a CSI spectacality and magnifies the body’s intense physiognomy. In the excessive attention to detail, the body’s part-objects take hold of the image: yellow-mangled toenails; sparse leg hair; a few flesh wounds (bed-bug bites?) — each atom asserts an iconic clarity. Within these moments of distraction, it becomes difficult for your eye to stake claim on the image’s totality. In the passengers’ movement, the picture demands a contradiction: a probing gaze onto the photo’s extreme minutiae yet also a skill for the fleeting glance conditioned by the stairwell’s tempo. In a matter of seconds, Campbell’s body unpacks itself piece by piece as we whirl downward to the depths of the platform.
Mounted on transparent glass, the image is a mirror onto itself, and the audience is permitted to view its reverse from the TD Plaza. From this angle, the eye is able to relax and ease into a sedate, plodding study. If it were not for Campbell’s face and stubborn hand, you could almost say the rest of the body was silently composed, patiently awaiting its public with a globular paunch, its legs elongated as though they were just there, sunbathing on a beach.
Once we are confronted with Campbell’s face, however, a different presentation unfolds. Campbell’s gaze is irreverent. As it turns out onto the plaza, and with a gesture that is more aggressive than the rest of his body, his head rejects its placement. With a wide-eyed, brow-raised, mouth-slightly-open glance, Campbell’s face is punctuated with a theatrical exclamation and an eagerness to vocalize something. Sharing a similar glance to Poussin’s ‘running-man’ in Landscape with a man killed by a snake (1648), the body wishes to declare itself, yet it is without the same horror and torsion. The hand, too, is eerily similar to the elegiac shepherd in Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (1640), raised as though it is about to gesture to the presence of an unexpected tomb. In both pictures, Ecce Homo and Et in Arcadia Ego, the hand operates as the picture’s anchor. It is the site for the body’s own contemplative absorption — a means to trace out a pensive, melancholic thought both inside and outside the frame.
We have to ask ourselves however, is this the same ‘sight of death’ that Poussin announced, or even an image ‘of death’ as one might assume? Is it not more ludic, aloof and underhanded? Without the knowledge that Campbell was the chief coroner of BC, or even the presence of a mortuary table, there are no clear markers of death.
But Thauberger is clear at this point: both work and death are conflated in the picture. As chief coroner, death was once Campbell’s work, but now death works on Campbell. But it also works on Larry Campbell’s body double, Nicholas Campbell — the actor who played the former coroner on the TV series Da Vinci’s Inquest (1998-2005) and later in Da Vinci’s City Hall (2005) — especially now when the former actor is out of work. In a weird set of intersections, the camera too assumes the perspective of the coroner, and by detaining the eye, the body appears as though it awaits dissection. But still, the picture remains unconvincing, the body is certainly more alive than dead; or in its own manner just undead, barely hanging on — a body set at the threshold of life and death.
The original edition of Vancouver Anthology, first published as a series of talks organized by Stan Douglas in the fall of 1990, has been up until now poorly circulated in bookstores and bookshelves due to its limited edition print. Its essays, on the other hand, have secured “must-read” status, gaining permanent residence in xerox centres and custom course packages for the last twenty years. At the outset, the initial premise of the anthology was rather straightforward. In Douglas’ words, as a “polemic,” the anthology sought to determine “what of the recent past persists in the present and why.” In this respect, the re-release of the Vancouver Anthology may initially appear wistfully nostalgic for the collaborative days of artist-run centres and the politically engaged art of the late 60s, 70s and 80s.
One might reasonably expect a book published at the dawn of the 90s, at the edge of the neoconservative precipice, to preoccupy itself with backward-looking melancholy, or find its contributors culling through the ruins of history to work over its remnants, possibly to uncover a contretemps useful within our own moment. But in fact this collection, written after the political miasma of the BC Social Credit Party and its ‘restraint’ years, becomes just as prescient for today’s concerns. When a city like Vancouver permanently disavows its own radical, working-class history, subjecting its memory repeatedly to the planned obsolescence of the commodity form and the forced amnesia of the history-less bourgeoisie and its white-washed academy, the work of historical memory often requires a vigorous message, if not complete electrotherapy—something that perhaps this anthology will spark.
Foucault once claimed that there are two great families of founders: there are those who build—who lay the first stone—and those who dig and hollow out. The depth and range of essays included are today indispensable: Marcia Crosby on the “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” Scott Watson on Vancouver’s “Defeatured Landscape,” and Keith Wallace, Sara Diamond and Nancy Shaw on Vancouver’s rich artist-run culture. In the case of the anthology, ‘foundational’ should also read as ‘incomplete,’ a marker of the ‘in-progress’ of a house that was never quite built.
A found public art piece on the Rize site, with the caption DEC 25. A fire, still suspect by many Mount Pleasant residents, burned down retail and artist’s studio space here on Christmas Day, 2009.
For far too long artists and other cultural producers have served as passive scapegoats for critics of gentrification, who spurn the rise of the so-called “creative class” and their role in urban redevelopment. In a recent article for eflux Martha Rosler takes a cue from Sharon Zukin, writing that in times of massive urban redevelopment, “artists and the entire visual art sector—especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums—are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.”
Zukin’s blueprint, initiated with Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), is often misunderstood as an organic and natural process. Here, artists are framed not simply as an artistic vanguard that sets the tone and beat for cultural production, but also an economic force instigating the first wave of gentrification. As the oft-misrepresented story goes, cultural producers fill-in inexpensive lofts and retail space in poor neighborhoods, making them more attractive for young urban professionals fueling the real-estate industry. Troubled by the initial identity and politics of the neighborhood—working class, poor, or no identity at all—developers latch on to these markers of indistinction and carve out a coherent, docile identity founded on the empty signifiers of consumption. While the working poor move to the suburbs and inexpensive areas of the city, the very same cultural producers who set the trajectory of the neighborhood are in time kicked to the curb as the rising cost of living moves in lockstep with the consumption habits of urban professionals.
Certainly, Rosler is correct to claim that artists are “passive” agents in the process of gentrification, yet to lay blame on cultural producers alone would miss the target altogether. As the English Urbanist Max Nathan states, “creativity and cool are the icing, not the cake.”
Any rigorous analysis of gentrification at any level requires that we chart the explicit relations of capital (represented here by developers and speculators) and the apparatuses of the state (municipal governance, city planners, police, etc.). While the state actively produces cycles of disinvestment and uneven development, it is capital that takes the advantage of buying low, sending investment into uncharted terrain. There is a mutual relationship of two forces that purposefully props up gentrification as a viable planning option for entire city neighborhoods. What is less clear within this dynamic, however, is the direct link between the rise of the passive and post-ideological cultural producer and their complicit connections to real estate speculation.
The ride from Main Street skytrain station into the downtown core of Vancouver traces a line through the city like a razor-thin scalpel. As the train drifts out from the terminal into False Creek, passengers take the place of an elevated group of observers in a surgical operating room. Watching from the gallery—attentively sometimes inattentively—commuters become unwilling observers to a surgery that all too clearly reveals the city’s scared-and-gentrified body, parsed by unsure movements above a hard kernel of class stratification. The city’s undead organs—Vancouver’s Olympic Village, Concord Pacific’s presentation centre, Rennie Marketing headquarters, Roger’s Centre, International Village—become the grossly cluttered death masks of a lifeless yet undead redevelopment process.
Above the skyline, lofted to the top of Bob Rennie’s brick-clad empire and floating amidst the sharp knives of nearly-empty condominiums, a natural sight emerges: Martin Creed’s illuminated sign “EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT.” The view, delivered in striking fluorescence, is rushed yet conceptually smooth, providing an internal connection between different strands of empire: the thoughtless naïveté of imperial management, the physical dominance of urban gentrification, and the careless hammer-blows of consumption.