Fabricating the Creative City: In search of a present-tense (3/3)

Fabricating the Creative City’  is a three part series commissioned by The Mainlander. In Part 1, the authors pried into Vancouver’s rendition of ‘creative city’ ideology and its particular relationship to public art. In Part 2, ‘The New Monuments,’ the authors mapped the local state’s search for a new type of public sculpture, interwoven with the urban plan and built form of the city. Part 3 concludes with an extended meditation on the distressed relationship between art and politics in the contemporary conjuncture. The running thesis of the series is that the work of art at the creative city is not any singular “work” per se, but the production of the City as a total work of art.

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.

From this perspective, what are we to do with the intersection of official politics and state art in Vancouver at the moment when these two surpluses — surplus value and surplus enjoyment — intersect. If one accepts the thesis that the city is now a monument for social reproduction of the commodity-form, we should add with equal weight that it remains the space of encounters: it breeds antagonism, collective resentment, as well as self-affirmation when any number of people come together in opposition to the dominant ordering of the world. Against the drive to sustain the status quo, politics is instead the name of the movement that permanently demolishes the existing state of things. The city, on the other hand, is the site of this struggle, where the transformation of the regime of private property is met with the people’s ability and capacity to cooperatively construct something new outside the logic exploitation and its barren self-interest.

Placing Resistance to the Side

In this perennial moment of class war instigated from above by Vancouver’s ruling elite it becomes public art’s sanctioned task to invest a sense of conclusion in its immanent future. Class antagonisms are displaced to roundtables on ‘Vancouverism’ that exhaust the tattered tropes of civic engagement. The tyranny of the bourgeois public sphere and its mode of experience — its desire for mild, unfocused conversation and centrist consensus — has required a constant adaptation, development and redeployment of cultural practices in order to shelter identity from the onslaught of precarity and the complete proletarianization of everyday life. The eternal present of struggle and worker’s autonomy is literally obscured, occluded like the moon during an eclipse, while art and its criticism is subordinated to the grueling schedule of unremunerated labour, art fairs, openings and “conferences on conferences.”

Take for example the recent conversation held at the Western Front hosted by Instant Coffee and Other Sights. The event was prompted by developer Rize Alliance’s recent rezoning application for the corner of Broadway & Kingsway, up the street from the Western Front. The event’s blurb is enough for you to spit venom:

We have decided to create an opportunity for creative thinkers to respond to the situation by putting our resistance to one side, to positively imagine a better future. We are pooling our speculative skills to riff on the possibility of economic and other forms of diversity, a different definition of sustainability: to use our critical and problem solving skills without a pre-determined agenda, and without the intent to come to conclusions.

Indeed, not only should we be quiet and place our resistance to the side, we all must enjoy our symptoms! No agenda or conclusions?–Great. How about fighting against evictions, rent increases, austerity measures and a developer controlled city hall? Why are we content with living with inequality and then resort to speculative fortunetelling, imagining some other moment outside the continuum of class struggle. Like we said in our previous posts, we find real estate speculation in Vancouver matched by an equally speculative culture. Critical thought is no longer sutured to a real unfolding situation, but instead, is always-already longing to look-off to an imagined horizon. Recourse to speculation proceeds from a refusal to feel out a given situation for weak links, as well as a deafness to the logic of objective enemies — developers and a developer-back city hall — and possible alliances.

A Rize Alliance motto – “There are no problems only opportunities”

Looking to the broader collective horizon, contemporary art solicited by a state-backed institution like Other Sights has confirmed the total instrumentalization of an administered, future-orientated subjectivity devoid of any content whatsoever. Trembling with fear and hunger, artistic creation is streamlined to grant applications, effectively turning away from a collective imperative. The exhausting dance of survival that most cultural producers are now forced to endure forever requires one to disavow all suffering, schizophrenia and neurosis.

Discipline and Publish

In the midst of these symptoms, one of the more conflictual practices to address is Holly Ward’s. Ward is an artist who is consistently at pains to evoke historical referents of utopia in her practice. Whether it is her geodesic dome at Langara College (Pavillion), the large-scale CBC neo-constructivist poster, or the most recent exhibition at Artspeak, Persistence of Vision (2011), a degraded utopia can be seen everywhere.

Ward’s Pavillion (2010), conceived as a space for speculative thinking, fulfills the institutional requirements of her residency at Langara College, a transitional space that has historically been sutured to the productive, technocratic apparatus of capital. Pavillion thus reproduces the intangible structure of the art-school university where it appeared, where thought is permitted only insofar as it rejects putting radical ideas into practice, opting instead for incessant productivity. Along these lines, we could say that if the birthplace of the prison heralded the statement, Discipline and Punish, certainly the birth of the university/college is accompanied by the phrase: Discipline and Publish

Ward’s pavilion became precisely the site of an endless deferral in which the utopic moment of antagonism is no longer grounded to the structural weakness of the situation, but instead, latches on to an absent image. Art, as a utopian referent, is streamlined to correspond to an administered identity-formation, while its pavilions become myths of a diluted gratification and erased antagonism.

Holly Ward – Persistance of Vision (2011) – Artspeak

In Artspeak’s Persistence of Vision, conflict and dissensus are similarly obfuscated in a series of decontextualized posters that evoke a vague notion of progressivity and criticality, where ambiguity emerges as the stand-in for the radical openness and inconsistency of an actually-unfolding political sequence. Channeled through the material support of the poster, Utopia is trivialized to a mere referent, rather than composed of the cleaved substance within the given state of things. In the naively-optimistic blog Vancouver is Awesome, Ward claims that utopia is “peaceful.” In this formulation, utopia is the site of non-contradiction from which class and social antagonism is evacuated:

I think the ideal, which is utopia, it’s peaceful. It is not necessarily something that is loaded with contentious issues, which is why it always remains hypothetical in real life and the real world where there always are contentious issues and that’s just the reality.

Excluded too, is the specific wager, contingency and actuality that accompanies any political sequence. One should not lose sight of the point that a utopian sequence is always an embodied everyday occurrence, in other words, a specific concrete project. For Ward, however, the concrete is channelled through a textual masquerade. In Persistence of Vision in particular, the work is not tuned to the embodied experience of an axiomatic politics, that is to say, a politics that cuts across the rigid organization of places. Rather, the idea of utopia is transmuted into a cursory report-back on someone else in some faraway country — Ward’s referents in Persistence of Vision were to Egypt and Bahrain — and whose language is reduced to a set of dislodged quotes poached from Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope (1995).

Utopia, then, is framed as that-which-has-just-happened; or, that-which-has-happened-along-time-ago; or even, that-which-may-become; but above all, never what is happening in the here and now. We assert that any recourse to Utopian thinking must evaluate the concrete conditions of any sequence, the specific “there is” of contemporary politics. To complete the thought, the presence of a concrete utopia marks all that is coming to pass in the present. To put matters bluntly and in opposition to Ward, force and torsion are the only terms that Utopia understands. Without it, utopia dissolves into a textual waltz plunged back into historical time.

The saving grace of Ward’s project, however, is its search for the exception hidden within the situation. Certainly politics is not just about sit-ins and molotov cocktails, just as aesthetics is not merely about the expansion of sensory possibility. Politics, no doubt, includes the long, slow process of supplementation that follows any political event — political meetings, door-to-door pamphleting, never-ending email correspondence, and all those other banal activities whose purpose is to carry-forward a political sequence. Under these terms, politics disregards any vitalist principle that places activity on the side of fluctuating sensations — the feeling you get from mass hugging for example — and other affective responses. It places activity on the side of a set of axioms — justice, equality, truth — that overcome feelings of anxiety, terror or despair.

From this perspective, it is clear that Ward is concerned with the effective discontinuity scintillating in the world. Against the world’s apparent closure and finitude, Ward seeks to show how that which has no place to be (Utopia) comes to make its own place. We must be determined to say, and without an ounce of mysticism or messianism, that ‘emancipatory politics’ is the very name that clears room for that which was formerly placeless.

One should always remember that these formerly-placeless, agitated moments are always-already there within the situation at hand. Take for example, the concluding lines in Fredric Jameson’s “The Valence’s of History: Making History Appear,”

[…] like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.

Utopian or not, this is how politics operates: it dislocates from one time the possibility of another. ‘The utopian’ recommences the search for a present-tense. This search for another time is one that labors to distinguish the old from the new — a time that integrates the ruination of the old order in its very being. It is a time that is unconcerned with the technocratic consensus of our long neoliberal moment, indefinitely telescoping into the distance. Informed by the embodied practices of utopia in Vancouver, in the here and now of Vancouver’s overdetermined metropolis, it is clear that the work of struggle resides directly in the present, within the unbearable contradiction.

What is the state of deferred action?

The last century’s desire for artists to turn their backs to the museum, merge art and life, and challenge the institution of art has today often operated as a means to re-ground the alienating effects of capitalism and re-generate inner-city neighborhoods. Traditional avant-garde strategies of transgression, refusal and anti-aesthetics are evacuated along with the withering away of collaborative artist-run culture, deskilling, and the other deferred practices of the 60s and 70s. At this moment, we are confronted with a real problem: how is one to compete against the culture industry, when all strategies of resistance appear acculturated and irretrievable?

Vancouver Sun Billboard – “Chocolate Strike” (1947 – 2012)

Today, if the ambitious acrobatics of negativity, criticality, or historical subtraction are forgotten, the hazy marks found on the balancing scales of your ego take their place. When artistic creation is no longer measured by its exceptionality, nor by its commitment to equality, justice or resistance, a work is measured instead by its ability to elicit some emotive, visceral content. Feelings of happiness, melancholia, or guilt become interchangeable. Vitalism and narcissism have returned with a vengeance, and if one gets depressed by the torpid remarks of your peers, all the better.

During our prolonged moment of blurred relativism, art criticism has lost all sense of itself too: there is now no difference between good and bad works, true or false ideas. Dispensing with all forms of critical judgement, all that remains is the persistent shell of arbitrary taste — vestiges of an imagined aristocracy still haunting the hollowed vaults of the Vancouver Art Gallery, protected by a 6” membrane. To quote Hal Foster on contemporary criticism:

If Kant asked, “Is the work beautiful?” and Duchamp, “Is it art?” we tend to wonder, “How does it affect me?” Where we once spoke of “quality,” as judged by comparison with great work of the past, and then about “interest” and “criticality,” which are more socially synchronic than artistically diachronic in emphasis, we now often look for pathos, which cannot really be tested objectively or, when experienced as trauma, communicated with others much at all. One person’s punctum is another’s yawn.

Taking stock of the situation, the ego reigns supreme and the cult of heroic individuality accumulates a surplus of affect, all the while artistic production becomes the trash heap of hyper-individualized identity formations. If art seeks to secure the unbridled rites of private property, it is to make us learn to disavow the characters of unrest, loneliness, pain, surveillance, governmentality, exclusion, as well as those innumerable yards of linen that make up the modern metropolis.

A snapshot of the last three years of cultural production in Vancouver might appear to tell a different story than the one painted so far. In response to the ramification of administrative aesthetics, there has also been an increase in the re-politicization of its image-bank — a return to an explicitly politicized art. It might appear that at this moment of the resurrection of the truths propelled by an advanced art, artistic production corresponds to an equally advanced political consciousness. Gone are the minute details of individual consumer malaise, replaced with an invocation of the emancipatory potential still situated in everyday life, if not produced by the force of collective action.

In Endlessly Traversed Landscapes (2010), a bus shelter and billboard poster project curated by Natalie Doonan during the Games. The trope of antagonism, however, was found scattered in every which way. As we scramble blindly out of the haze of the Olympics, what is distressing is how political antagonism was — and still is — channeled through its material support. The Endlessly Traversed Landscapes project reminded us that when politics is siphoned through an overly-established ad-space — the technical support of a flattened, elongated image — the works becomes less and less an intervention in the visual field of total-capital and more and more a paired-down semblance for the unresponsive, twirly-eyed spectator of the nationalist charade.

For the curator of Endlessly Traversed Landscapes, it may appear sufficient to quote Guy Debord and rely on the politics of appropriation to substantiate the project’s criticality. But as Doonan would also admit, Endlessly Traversed Landscapes lingered in the realm of mimesis. In this case, the billboard’s technical support becomes the ideal fulcrum for state sponsored art to pose as self-reflexively critical. Under this rubric, art has no outside, succumbing to the remote-control uniformity of the spectacular industrial apparatus. The contemporary relevance of Debord and the practices of detournement, or even the dérive, de-evolves to a sound-bite that you deploy strategically in your grant application.

The peculiar call for art to “transgress,” “misbehave,” or “disrupt” the everyday life of commerce — to quote the words of VAG curator Kathleen Ritter at a talk given at Langara College this past year — is also often accompanied by a unspoken proviso: that the fundamental coordinates of the system do not change. Against the deterioration of medium specificity, contemporary art is said to still make use of its technical support — the ad-space of the billboard for example — to which it makes a recursive reference as a form of self-reflexive self-criticism. But today, when everyone is compelled to be “critical,” self-critique often regresses to knee-jerk pseudo-critique. Projects founded on the principles of “radical critique” appear more disingenuous and flimsy than committed and rigorous.

Alternative modes of production — either an operational strategy of organization or an in-operational mode of sabotage — are both occluded in place of a wispy notion of resistance. If read ungenerously, these practices return to the city in the form of imagistic white-noise. Within the uncompromising ad-space of Vancouver, the Situationist imperative is purged of all contagion. Rather than being generated from the relentless questioning of either Capitalism or the State, political concerns are addressed by anticipating class antagonism in advance, proceeded by a series of regulatory practices in order to defuse opposition.

As a rule, grant based public art must strip itself of any trace of divine violence in order to adhere to the illusory consistency of the situation. In doing so, the artist’s work is rendered merely interesting, abandoned to the contemplative shore of Spanish Banks or Third Beach, where the panorama of Vancouver’s creative destruction is on purview. Under the city’s present configuration, bus shelters and billboards become the preferred means of deflating politics and advanced aesthetics onto a hollowed-out technical support. This serves equally true for Bitter and Weber’s Sign for the City, Doupé and Whitman’s Adorno and Nose, and Anna Ruth’s Sensory Maps.

Concerning Bitter and Weber’s Sign for the City in particular, the work uncovers a suppressed history of resistance, systemic institutional racism, forgotten cultural works and producers, as well as working-class narratives.

Most often (and we are speaking generally here) the problem with history is that it is all too easily relegated to the factual and anecdotal realm, and accordingly, one is abandoned to consider the mystified, unchanging historical panorama of that which does not change.[1] Against the statist encyclopedia and its drive to over-contextualize, it is not a matter of merely referencing, citing, and remembering oppressed moments in history. Rather, the predicament in question concerns the very structure of presentation and the multiple techniques of witnessing that enables subjects to possess history in their own moment. It means pitting the eternity of struggle and the singularity of its self-affirmation against statist drive to blandly historicize, over-contextualize and live out-of-time — outside the present rather than imminently beyond it.

“To possess history,” as Walter Benjamin challenges in his oft-misunderstood ‘Theses on the Concept of History,’ is to stroke history with the eternal kernel of the present — “to transform it anew,” in his words. To possess history is not to shelter it in clouds of archival dust, but to commit to violence, delivered in the form of a forceful subjectivity that rips the past out of its immobile context in order to destroy, making it “citable at every moment.”[2] This form of citation does not endlessly catalogue past incidences of struggle. To think one’s own discontinuity with the current situation is to incorporate one’s very being into an exception. What matters is the possibility of tearing the past from its stable representation, activating an unrealized project still located in our own moment.

Bitter / Weber – “Sign for the City” (2011-2012)

In their defense, it becomes Bitter and Weber’s prerogative to resist the pacifying effects of any official history. By moving partially away from their project’s reduction to its technical support, Sign for the City expands as a pocket-sized calendar. Within the book form, the text is minimal and its blank pages adopt an undeclared prominence. With a Mallarmeian expediency, the text unfurls a void that asserts a modest anti-monumentality. By channelling this minimal disruption, Bitter and Weber’s calendar affirms the fact that history — and political struggle itself — contains an aleatory inconsistency. Yet in opposition to any weak-thought that attempts to speak to “the uncertainty of the future,” Bitter & Weber recognize that the egalitarian contingency of worlds lies within the efficacy of every political sequence — an either/or, a yes/no decision of any sequence of truth. To build-off of Susan Buck-Morss in her foundational Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (2009), we should frame any universal truth as singular, but understand that it is also “a continuous process of inquiry because it builds on a present that is moving ground.” History is unpredictable and contingent because, as she continues, “it keeps running away from us, going places we, mere humans, cannot predict.” Under the watchful eye of the void and the egalitarian contingency of an actually unfolding political sequence, Bitter & Weber’s calendar exposes the possibility of a collaboration with the masses who are and make history unpredictable.

In search of a present-tense

In a time when it has become doxa for the work of art not to address anything outside itself, especially not to analyze the contradictions structuring the larger historical context, it is fitting that new developments on the scene witness a re-emergence of cultural solidarity with oppressed and exploited classes. For the tenured almost-retired professoraristocracy, the stakes are low enough for it to not matter. That is why the city’s untenured professoriat, too, feel so comfortable using conflict as a distant reference. Or, in a strange turn of events, a worker’s riot is something you can curate or re-enact, just when the city is about to burst into flames. Representations are so calming and interesting since their lie is on full display. Politics becomes something you talk about over a cocktail at the Waldorf, instead of reveling in the rapturous vengeance of actualizing an insurrection.

Vancouver Riot (2011)

Another fictive detour might be useful here. Take for example, the irreverence of the penniless Simon Tanner in Robert Walser’s recently translated The Tanners (1907). After arriving an hour late at the bank where he is employed as a thankless clerk, Simon is fired by the bank’s director. Simon responds with a tirade that sends the bank director reeling:

[Simon Tanner]: “… I am glad to be leaving you without a reference letter in hand, for a reference from you would only remind me of my own cowardice and fear, a condition of sluggishness and relinquished strength, of days spent in idleness, afternoons filled with furious attempts at escape, evenings dedicated to sweet but pointless longings. …”

[Bank Director]: “Young man, you are far too hot-heated!” The director said. “You are undermining your own future–”

[Simon Tanner]: “I don’t want a future, I want a present. To me this appears of greater value. You have a future only when you have no present, and when you have a present, you forget to even think about the future.”

In one way, this instance can be read as a typical “prefer not to” moment, immortalized on the pages of Herman Melville’s Bartleby(1853). However, Walser’s subject is not sacrificed in the realm of a non-decision, but is instead determined to work, point by point, toward the construction of a liberated present. No doubt, when all exits appear barricaded by spectacular society, Simon Tanner shows that one has to make their way by walking it; or, when there is no exit, one should walk through walls.

To put it simply, it is not enough to simply recognize, identify or carelessly dismiss a utopian moment. Surely, it is not enough to make art out of it. To be equal to the subject at hand, one must incorporate oneself into the concrete consequences of the rupture itself. It comes down to sharing these cuts and ruptures, communizing each evental sequence. Or, to put it differently: we must come to know and to incorporate what it means to think and live under the conditions of specific transformations in both politics and art. This can only come about from within the situation itself. At some instances, these unprecedented encounters may occur in a flash, as in the encounter with the dint of Jameson’s diseased eyeball. Alternatively, they may oscillate in the dialectic of negation-affirmation, embodied in the defiance of Robert Walser’s unemployable figure. Such defiance cannot come from somewhere outside the situation — from some fantastical, unimaginable space of leftist speculation. It is the subject’s role to mark within the present the discontinuity gleaned from the old world, giving support to the continuity of a new sequence.

We have written elsewhere that an exceptional example of this practice is the photographic work of Marian Penner Bancroft. They recall that the act of poetry and photography is the exposure of a cut — the production of an interval in the structured ordering of the world. Similar to any interval, it appears only to disappear, and the subject — either a collectivizable body or a series of artistic works — is the very substance that incorporates this gap and its consequences into the present. As an intervention, its strikes a diagonal in the two orders: the old order and the consequences spurred-on by a new sequence. The subject is said to be this gap, with an efficacy measured by its ability to traverse the existing order from a point traced-out by an exposed contingency. Fidelity to this trace marks the unbound and infinite nature of politics and art.

Marian Penner Bancroft – Two Places at Once (detail) (1986)

Of course, when poverty persists throughout Vancouver, we also have to think the fetters of the situation: to think what is old. But the secret answer to these questions — “What is novelty?” “What is it to Live?” — lies in the fact that there exists a realm of art and politics that can only be affirmed, rather than merely acculturated. The interval of any event is the spatialization of verbal time: an enjambment, a caesura, a pause — nothing short of an art as a temporal being. An art that is eternally searching for a present-tense point by point. In other words, an art that holds true to a new sequence capable of bearing the consequences extracted from the effective disruption within this world.

Against the logic of the given situation and its two-faced bribes, all those forms of contemporary art that have triumphantly earned such a name as “art” (and not culture) have done so because they initiated a new time — one in which its foundational cut is neither located in the past nor the future, but exposes the liberated-now of the present in all of its novelty.


[1] Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event 2, London: Continuum Press, 2009.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays on Philosophy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.