Althea Thauberger "Ecce Homo" (2011)

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.

renniegallery

Recently Britain-based artrepreneur Martin Creed [1] brought his band into town to kick off a May-to-October exhibition [2] under the auspices of condo king Bob Rennie. This essay focuses on the Creed-and-Rennie performance at the 17 May 2011 Emily Carr and Rennie Collection Speaker Series [3].

Martin Creed started off his solo evening in the art school spotlight with tortured musings: “I just feel like a wanker, you know … It’s much more difficult to wank in public.” A little later: “You can’t talk … I’ll try and be fast … Ah, fuck!”

Further ramblings included: “I didn’t know what I was doing … It wasn’t making me feel good.” And: “I was trying not to decide what I was doing.” And: “If you walk away and have a reason you can take that with you.” This last, for me, was the most interesting thing I heard from Creed. But the kicker is, will Bob Rennie fork out art cash for that non-object?

Eventually Creed set his sights on dialogue and asked for questions or comments. After a few exchanges, he fell into a back-and-forth with a woman who pursued the nature of his relationship with another artist that he had collaborated with. Creed seemed to use the topic to veer off into repetitive put-on. If that is what he was trying to do, he lacked two of the requisites: stellar status and youth. Stellar is much more than a decade-old Turner Prize. Think Bob Dylan for contrast.

One theme that slipped in and out of Creed’s meanderings was making distinctions and separations amid the flux of experience. Creed did manage to describe the satisfaction of taking a shit and believing that the result was not himself.



This week, Downtown Eastside residents rallied at the abandoned Pantages Theatre on the 100 block of East Hastings, and painted its facade with slogans like “100% social housing here.”

The Pantages Theatre and adjacent properties (158, 138, 134, 132, 130 East Hastings) have been bought up by developer Marc Williams, of Worthington Properties (for the company’s *interesting* history, read this and this). Last month, the City granted Williams’ request to begin demolition of the heritage building. Development permits have been issued, and Williams will be presenting his plans for a condominium complex to the Development Permit Board on August 22nd 2011.

Downtown Eastside housing advocate Wendy Pederson says a condo development next to the Carnegie Centre would be “like a bomb in the middle of the low-income community.” The Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council has identified the Pantages as one of ten sites to be bought by the City for social housing before the 2011 municipal elections.

It should never have come to this. Williams and the City failed twice to come to an agreement on saving the Pantages Theatre and to bring in other partners to create social housing in the surrounding abandoned buildings.

In 2008, Williams, the City, and the Province devised a plan to save the theatre and build social housing. But the deal fell through at the last minute on Sept 30 2008, shortly before the municipal election.

The preservation project languished under Vision Vancouver’s leadership. In Dec 2009, a disillusioned Heritage Vancouver, which had identified the Pantages as the city’s most important threatened heritage site, announced it would abandon its campaign to save the building.

On Mar 22 2010, City Council met in camera, to discuss purchasing the site. City staff recommended not purchasing the site, and Vision caucus supported this decision.

Over two hundred people packed themselves into the still-empty Salt building at the Olympic Village on Sunday afternoon. They were there to hear from the City and developers, and to have their say about the 26 story luxury tower planned for Broadway between Main Street and Kingsgway. Most of those who attended were property owners in the area, with a few renters in the mix. Several business owners, renters, and concerned citizens from outside of the neighbourhood were also present.

The sentiments expressed in the room were almost unanimously against the project. Most of the discussion seemed to focus on the height of the building. The development is twice the allowable density for the neighbourhood at an FSR (floor to space ratio) of 6.44, compared to the current zoning FSR of 1 and the allowable FSR of 3 for the neighbourhood. Concerns about the height are focused on several issues in particular. A tall building will set a precedent for the allowable height and density in the neighbourhood in the future. Many attendees claimed they didn’t want a “Yaletown-sized tower” in their neighbourhood, and that this tall building in particular will block sunlight from hitting the well-used streets to the North and East of the development.

The most problematic effect of the tower will be on the affordability of the neighbourhood. It is increasingly difficult to find a reasonably priced place to live in what has historically been a working class neighbourhood. As Mount Pleasant is one of the few remaining “affordable” neighbourhoods in the city, many residents are faced with leaving the city altogether, and Mount Pleasant is their departure point. A luxury tower built without a comparable amount of affordable rental housing built in the neighbourhood would have the effect of increasing property taxes and rents in the neighbourhood.

Another serious problem with the consultation was the social representation at the meeting. Mount Pleasant, in addition to being a working class neighbourhood, houses many immigrant families. A 2008 report by the PIVOT Legal Society was very explicit about the problems faced by immigrant families who rent in Mount Pleasant. It notes the difficulties that many families have with the intimidating prospect of organizing against gentrification. It also highlighted the phenomenon where, in wituations where home ownership opportunities do arise in the neighbourhood, the families who already live there cannot afford them, and they are taken up by usually young white families from wealthier Vancouver neighbourhoods. The presentation by RIZE on what the finished development will look like confirmed that this is the demographic the project is marketed towards.