Fabricating the Creative City: Public Art’s New Terrain (Part 1/3)

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.”

In her study of public art in New York city during the 1980s, Rosalyn Deutsche pointed out that the intensified talk of “the public,” “publicness” and “public art” was precisely accompanied by the accelerating privatization and bureaucratization of land-use throughout New York. Rather than belonging to an alternative logic, public art was fastened as an extension of the neoliberal project of class consolidation and restoration. Situating “the public” through art and the flexible appendages of the creative class was a means to provide the uneven development of New York City an atmosphere of democratic legitimacy. To quote Deutsche: “Wholescale appropriations of land by private interests, massive state interventions that de-territorialize huge numbers of residents and inequitable distribution of spatial resources by government agencies insulated from public control: these acts governing the shape of New York’s landscape require a legitimating front.”

Woodwards Demolition September 30, 2006
Woodwards Demolition September 30 2006

In Vancouver, entire neighborhoods are being upzoned for higher-density to accommodate a new luxurious-lifestyle. As poor and working class neighborhoods are razed, developers are forced to allocate $1.8/sqft of production costs for buildings over 100,000 sqft. to either build cultural space, or contribute to the city’s Public Art reserve. This funding arrangement, while only a variation on historic public patronage, is in fact symptomatic of a wholesale transformation of Vancouver itself.

Dissatisfied with Vancouver’s semi-peripheral and generic status, while no longer finding it sufficient to maintain traditional modes of capital accumulation, the city has launched itself into a program to remake itself anew. Instead of being situated as a backwater locale of resource extraction, State power seeks to jump start international investment by remodelling itself after global financial centres. In a bid to become a “World Class City,” Vancouver actively transforms into an international terminus of capital-accumulation the world-over. Today, the city is increasingly marked by the stark class divisions of uneven development. Described as a “dual city,” Vancouver is physically divided at the same time as every neighbourhood is carved up between the “young & affluent” and low income residents. At this conjuncture, the contradictions are approaching a maximal level of intensity.

This model of redevelopment has been laid out by Pier Luigi Sacco, who in 2007, produced a report entitled Power of the Arts: Creating a Great City, with recommendations to the City of Vancouver regarding its future economy. Sacco wrote at the time, “The real issue now is involving the entire local community, in all its parts and diversity, into the challenge of innovation and the creation of a new type of industrial atmosphere.” The name for this enforced, horizontal integration into the productive forces of the metropolis has been dubbed the “Creative City.” Its primary target is “culture” as a future source of revenue. Sacco continues: “…in the best observed cases it is culture that works as a ‘system activator,’ the element that spurs the local community to interiorize the challenges of radical innovation. Actually, culture becomes the social grammar through which the discourse of innovation is spelled out.”

Pier Luigi Sacco

The high tenor notable in Sacco’s text points to the unsaid impasse to which he gestures: namely, the prolonged crisis of neoliberal capitalism itself. The urgency necessary to interiorize the crisis clearly places culture as the privileged mode with which to naturalize the ongoing processes of financial speculation, rent extraction, union breaking, and the outsourcing of labour. We find real estate speculation in Vancouver matched by an equally speculative culture. In this instance, creativity is always reduced to its socially productive force. The artist has been factored into the production-line even as the factories proper have vanished from our hemisphere. Their role is essentially the same but with a twist: whereas once the avant-garde’s speciality was to seek out the holes in the system in order to tear them larger, now the artist uses these same skills to suture any opening before anyone takes notice. Interdisciplinary practice, with its multiple audiences and scenes, is transformed into a glorious mechanism of networking, further interlocking different modalities into an undifferentiated space.

The fundamental insight is that the “Creative City” does not correlate to an increase in creativity of its populace. In fact, it is a city which outright creates itself—and of course, at enormous profit to those who own it (with increasingly little relation to the people who live in it). Hence the problem of Vancouver is primarily ontological: it must homogenize its inherent multiplicity and integrate by force if necessary. Seeking to produce a unified identity attractive to international investment, the state must try to capture the cognitive energies of its people. The primary strategy has been to collapse culture into the errancy of the market. As a result, our relation to the city is reduced to the safe, heavenly realm of spectatorship, while our lives are held hostage by its lack of measure.

Marc Dahl – “(untitled) altered postcard (with philosophical rhetoric)” (2011)

City Hall has supplemented this process with a heady cocktail of rock bottom corporate taxes, a digital media entrepreneur incubator, and a proliferation of festivals. According to the Vision Vancouver website, “By eliminating red tape, and creating a tax system that works with our creative business people and artists, Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver will ensure that our city fulfills its creative potential and becomes a centre of innovation in North America.” Of course, this change in the city’s image will take more than PR manipulations, it requires the re-articulation of the city fabric itself. Just as creativity has moved in lockstep with massive wealth consolidation (revitalization projects, austerity measures, and funding cuts), this re-articulation is being written large across Vancouver as the province-city-developer nexus actively demolishes the existing affordable rental and social housing stock. Huge swaths of developer owned land, blighted from disinvestment, lay dormant until city hall provides the prime moment to cash in by selectively ‘up-zoning’ vulnerable working-class districts. Increased funding of public art for the new exclusive but culturally-bereft neighbourhoods is the natural corollary to state-sponsored development and “mixed income” projects encroaching into impoverished areas.

At this historical juncture, a select number of lavish grants for public art have encouraged individual production to fleetingly align with the symbolic legitimization of state and private enterprise, at the same time as studio space throughout the city has been drastically reduced and artists are displaced as a result of renovictions and rent hikes. During the Cultural Olympiad, unprecedented sums were offered by the city (at the same time provincial and federal grants dried up). These deep-pocket granting programs uncovered their jaundiced face: they acted as mode of outright bribery meant to dislodge collectivity, political action, and its critical practices. With a wink and nod, arts grants acted as hush money, or worse yet, as consent for redevelopment of entire neighborhoods. All the while, granting programs leveled-out aesthetic production, and artists in turn conformed to the established conditions imposed by state sponsorship. Public art, in this form, blindly sought to “anchor place,” reflect the “spirit” of the games, and above all mystify social cleansing brought on by the ensuing redevelopment blitz.

The last couple of years in particular has seen the rise of artists adorning state and private gentrification projects with an air of cultural propriety. At present, the utilitarian aspect of culture has firmly declared its presence with commissions such as Grow, a project curated by Barbara Cole of Other Sites for Artist Projects and administered by artist Holly Schmidt. Planted kiddy-corner to Southeast False Creek’s Habitat Island (the city’s own artificial projection of its pre-contact self). Grow is assembled from a bricolage of industrial materials and garden boxes. According to Schmidt, “The objective of this program is to explore Vancouver’s expanding identity as a sustainable city through the site of SEFC.”

Holly Schmidt – “Grow” (2012) – screen shot of project website

Initially, the Olympic Village was designed as a sustainable, mixed-income housing complex capable of off-setting the surge in real-estate prices and displacement associated with the 2010 Olympics. Yet the original development 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 its opposite: an exclusive, luxury complex for the rich, sitting partially empty for the lack of buyers but also because the site requires extensive repairs due to shoddy construction.

In order to consolidate a cohesive identity for the city that seemingly dissolves all political disputes, Schmidt aligns word for word with the discourse of power. Caught in the paradoxical bind of a grant application which no longer corresponds to reality, Grow disarms the project’s possibility to confront the contradictions of the site by adopting the logic of the development. Accordingly, the project facilitates the investment of cultural capital into the transitional land with a set of signifiers for civic participation –“public forum, teaching tool and creative laboratory”– at the same time as it disregards any disjunctive relationship to the Olympic Village, which could actually produce an aesthetic or political intervention. By extension, the project’s supposed site specificity resides entirely within the self-same site of the State. All good intentions aside, the piece barely allows any critical discourse whatsoever, forever reducing any conversation to a high dining menu of vegetable exotica.

Real pleasure, actual sustainability, is not available; instead it is perennially put on display. Mass hunger persists with the rise of these culinary arts. The original promise of the work of art is illusory. To quote Adorno, “all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.” Effectively drained of content, the project begins to take the look of a temporary marketing platform, as mobile and fleeting as the freshly-pressed shipping crates and super sacks from which it is constructed.

As a sublimated extension of the early avant-garde, social practice preserves a commitment to social engagement, but eschews its anarchic impulse for sabotage. It reinforces the absence of a collective stake and becomes a visage of social amnesia, renouncing social memory founded on aesthetics of revolt. As the old story goes, the historical avant-garde’s project of fusing art and life has today organically established itself within the culture industry. Artists no longer attempt to produce the commons or create communal forms of life. Instead (according to the parks board policy) they simply seek to “expand the opportunities of the experience of art in everyday life,” which, drained of any anarchic/communist content, can only be understood as the everyday life of capitalist domination.
Check back next week for Part 2/3, “Fabricating the Creative City: The New Monuments.” The authors would like to thank the participants from the Wednesday Night School for productive and challenging feedback.