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.

Anyone who witnessed on 19 April 2011 the seven hours — all morning and all evening — that Vancouver City Council spent cobbling together last-minute amendments to Vancouver’s Street and Traffic By-law (reference Agenda Item 1) should have an excellent idea of how bureaucracy cannot cope with freedom.

More than two weeks earlier on April 7, the issue of “Structures on Streets for Political Expression” had already eaten up an entire afternoon. By one well-placed account, the contentious report first appeared online and available to the public at 1:30 pm on Tuesday April 5. Report presenter Peter Judd made several apologies for the lateness of a document that the City had had more than five months to prepare. The public had only 48 hours of lead time. The five speakers heard on that first afternoon included Clive Ansley, legal representative for Falun Gong, and Micheal Vonn of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Despite the generality of the bylaw amendments proposed, the report to council (amended version) made clear a desire “to align with direction provided by the B.C. Court of Appeal in the matter of the Falun Gong.” The elephant in this bylaw closet was the ongoing protest outside the Chinese consulate on Granville Street. The bylaw amendment itself adopted a cumbersome and much vaguer designation to generalize its effect and coverage.

Habitat 67, on the shore of of St. Lawrence seaway in Montreal, was originally designed to be an affordable community. Similar to Vancouver’s Olympic Village, Habitat 67 has since been sold off to the private market and is now considered a ‘failed dream‘.

The Olympic Village was initially designed as a mixed-income housing complex capable of offsetting the displacement and surge in real-estate prices associated with the 2010 Olympics. The original development plan called for two-thirds affordable housing, with a full half of that set aside for those who need support through social (“deep core”) housing. The Village was set to be an ‘inclusive’, socially sustainable community that Vancouver could be proud of. Now, the project has turned into the opposite – an exclusive, luxury complex. Today, few would argue that the Olympic Village has been a success for Vancouver.

A brief look at the history of South East False Creek shines some light on why we have the Village today. The land upon which the Village sits was once an industrial zone, but starting in the 50s and 60s there was increasing industrial disinvestment until eventually the land fell out of use. Taking advantage of unused urban space to create room for people to live, in 1970s the City actively consolidated multiple lots and rezoned the area for housing. The City then remediated the soils and made other public investments.

Vancouver historian Michael Barnholden has written that there are at least two recurring themes in Vancouver’s political discourse. The first is a theme of revision, where low-income and working-class lives and stories are erased from the history of the city. The second is a history of criminalization, where the poor are associated in the political imagination with crime and police control. A truly contemporary example of the use of these two motifs occurred today in a Globe and Mail article on the conversion and upscaling of the American Hotel.

In the coming weeks, the American is set to open with almost 50 market-rate apartment units and an entrepreneurial “izakaya-themed” bar below. The project at 938 Main Street will establish the building as part of trendy developments extending the “Crosstown” area beyond Chinatown South. The Globe piece, written by Frances Bula, sets out in journalism’s formulaic terms to booster the development. Most notably, the article gives a vivid documentation of the history of petty crime and drug trafficking at the American hotel, and it is in light of this dark past that a bright, “revitalized” future is posed for the American.

Yet in all of its emphasis on crime, Frances Bula fails to mention the biggest crime of all: the illegal eviction of all low-income tenants from the hotel in 2006. In contrast to the “grunge” of the city, Bula chooses to write exclusively for the quasi-artistic retail bourgeoisie, making it “hard to mourn the American Hotel and its bar that died in 2006, unless you were into super-cheap blocks of stolen cheese, cocaine, motorcycle gangs, grunge or all of the above.” The list excludes the low-income history while at the same time making it so that if the history were to be included, it would have to do so only by being inserted into a predetermined list of crimes. But for a moment let us remember – mourn – the true history of the American Hotel.

[caption id="attachment_1702" align="alignnone" width="614" caption="Photo by Blackbird"][/caption]

B.C. Housing has declared that by the end of the month at least five shelters will be closed throughout Vancouver.* According to the province, the closures are justified because the Station Street housing project has opened this spring. Station Street contains 80 already-full units of housing, but is apparently enough to compensate for the couple hundred people who will be made homeless when the shelters close.

It is significant that Station Street is being used as a basis for closing shelters, because as a perpetually-delayed project Station Street is at the heart of the Vancouver housing crisis. The construction of the Station Street housing was promised in the 1990s but killed by the BC Liberal government when elected in 2001. After one full decade of a freeze on the construction of social housing, combined with frozen welfare rates and a frozen minimum wage, Station Street will not be capable of housing the vast number of people made homeless in these past years.

Grassroots activism has won social housing above the new library to be built on the 700-block of East Hastings. The development will now include 20 units of family social housing for single mothers and their children. The City of Vancouver’s March 22 media release and press conference announcing the new housing made no mention of the tireless activism that made the housing possible. But the truth is that the City preferred not to build the housing, and had to be pushed every step of the way by residents to make it a reality. Activists held a party of their own to celebrate their housing victory (see Murray Bush’s wonderful article).

“One of the most important things is for us to celebrate our victories,” said Beth Malena at yesterday’s Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) general meeting. Malena told a crowd of 100 DNC members that the housing victory wouldn’t have happened without them. “The City gave zero credit to you all. They probably don’t want to remember that they needed to be pressed to do something that’s such a no brainer.”

The library struggle

Indeed, City Council had to be dragged, practically kicking and screaming. In the summer of 2010, DNC members Fraser Stewart, Rene Belanger, and others collected 1,500 signatures for a petition supporting social housing above the proposed library. The petition was presented to the Library Board and City Council, and the latter passed a motion to “explore the possibility” of housing on the library. But by Oct 7 2010, City staff asked Council to vote against social housing on the library.

It was clear to activists that very little effort had been made by the City to “explore the possibility” (see this letter to Council). Over 50 housing supporters came to the Oct 7 Council meeting to make their case. See here for the video.

The City already owned the land, but Councilors claimed that there was no money to build the housing above. Infamously, Gregor Robertson claimed “there is no money in the drawers” (this was only months after deep cuts to business taxes). Furthermore, Councilor Geoff Meggs argued passionately that it was so urgent to begin building the library that we could not wait even a few more months to secure funding for social housing. As a last resort, housing advocate Wendy Pederson of the Carnegie Community Action Project asked that, at the very least, the material foundations of the library be built such that they could support possible housing in the future. Council voted to proceed with a stand-alone library, with the caveat that the City manager could have an extra month or two to secure funding for housing.

DNC member Dave Murray told the Vancouver Media Coop that after the meeting “we were so let down, they voted 9-1 against us. I remember walking away very depressed thinking that was that.” But activists did not give up. On Oct 21st, a demonstration was held outside the proposed library site, where kids and their parents demanded both books and housing. The next day, activists confronted the Mayor and Councilors at a $500/plate fundraiser lunch with the business elite, demanding that real action be taken to build housing on the library.

For the last few years the City has repeatedly claimed that there is no money for housing. As the Mayor said last October when rejecting social housing above the Strathcona Library: “we don’t have the money in the drawers…we have real limitations and uncertainty in the economy and city books in terms of what we can do.”

The reality, however, is that Vancouver has the lowest business taxes in the world. This surprising fact is complimented by another little-known fact: City Hall controls a multi-billion dollar fund it could use to develop social and affordable housing, called the Property Endowment Fund.

The Property Endowment Fund (PEF) was originally created in 1975 and was valued at around $100 million. It holds all of the city’s long-term land leases – for example, the parking lot on which the Vancouver Art Gallery hopes to construct its new building, at Cambie and Georgia. The Fund was initially created by the centre-left municipal party TEAM (TEAM was the result of a similar left-wing split that spawned Vision out of COPE). TEAM created the Fund in order to hem an NPA policy of selling city owned properties and then shifting the sale over to the operating budget in order to decrease taxes. The PEF was a strategy to stop the dead-weight loss of city land holdings while creating funds to “support the City’s public objectives.”

Today, the board of the PEF is comprised of the Mayor, two Councillors, the City Manager, and the Director of Finance. Minutes to meetings of the board have, in the past, not been available to the public. However there have been both successful and unsuccessful Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests for documents of the PEF board.  There have been several calls by City Councillors to make this fund more transparent. COPE Councillors Tim Louis and Ellen Woodsworth have both spoken out about the fund’s lack of accessibility. However, secrecy remains the status quo. This has led to wide speculations and criticisms of its value and current use.

In the mid 2000’s it was proposed by some that the PEF should be used in ways outlined in its mandate: to support the City’s public objectives. For a long time the city has desperately needed more social housing and the current Council has done next to nothing to stop homelessness. In the mid 2000’s, NPA mayor Sam Sullivan quashed proposals to use the PEF for progressive initiatives, instead arguing to “restore sustainability” to the Fund. What he meant was to maintain a profitable fund that adds a few millions dollars to the City’s operating budget to keep down our low business taxes.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the Property Endowment Fund is estimated to be worth almost $3 billion. The fund is rarely itself discussed, but has a tendency to loom over municipal politics. It was discussed briefly in 2010, when conservative blogger Daniel Fontaine of city-caucus filed a Freedom of Information Act request for PEF board meeting minutes, of which there were none in 2009. The revelations of the FOI were significant: the PEF board had not met that year.

Right now, the Fund is managed in secret by the Real-Estate division of the City government. The holding of such a large fund is not only an internal conflict of interest, since councillors can directly affect land prices by the powers of rezoning, but also a public conflict of interest, because while the people of Vancouver have prioritized housing affordability as a number-one issue, the fund makes the city into a real-estate speculator, helping to further push up the property values that make our city so unaffordable.