In Vancouver, there is no image of nature that is not at the same time an image of private property. Possession structures the visual culture and economy of the image. Whether this image is a meticulously crafted photograph for a condo advertisement staged in False Creek, or a self-portrait posed for at the top of Grouse Mountain, almost always the photograph is invested with an inflated sense of status, projection, and desire. And regardless of whether the image circulates on Instagram or Twitter, Grindr or the gallery system, the image is strictly that of appearance, never perceived as the product of labor or violence. Its value is measured by likes, dates,♡, second dates, re-posts, and most importantly, in the context of real estate, the inflation of the property’s price-tag. The possession of nature goes hand-in-hand with nature’s commodification.
In the central rotunda of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Alison Yip has constructed a mural of a ruined gazebo. Rendered in trompe l’oeil, Yip’s Gazebo (2016) is a scene sensed at twilight. Occupied by skunks, foxes, overgrown weeds, garden tools, and a raft of mythological figures, her vision is steeped in a strange mingling of dream, nature and everyday domesticity — reminiscent of the murals in Robert Altman’s unnerving film, 3 Women (1977). In one panel, the side profile of a figure is composed from an array of cleaning tools; another pictures a long garden hose snaking across a lurid yellow ground, spurting water erratically. Yip’s gazebo is no west coast arcadia, where nature is imagined to exist in a harmonious relation to its subjects. In fact, the central figure of Gazebo is the veiled goddess Themis, the blind goddess of Justice, whose furtive presence suggests a persistent and speculative haunting.
2013: THE YEAR OF EVICTIONS
After the predatory spectacle of the 2010 Olympic Games, a state of precarity and relentless eviction has become the norm in Vancouver. A landmark example was the closure of the Waldorf Hotel, and since then casualties have piled on top of each other like a sea of ivory in an elephant graveyard: VIVO Media Arts Centre, the Junction, ROYGBIV, Nowhere, Spartacus Books (temporarily reversed), to name just a few. Although each case is different, these evictions are a result of a pernicious mix of excessively high rents, restructured state funding, profit-driven renovictions, and an apathetic city council who turns a blind eye to slumlords and developer greed while maintaining an absurd regulatory protocol for cultural space.
“That the world is out of joint is shown everywhere in the fact that however a problem is solved, the solution is false.” – Theodor Adorno
After years of political negligence, a failed architectural proposal, and prolonged economic recession, the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) is finally getting a new building at Larwill Park. A good dose of public elation, institutional relief, and civic boosterism has accompanied the announcement. But situated squarely within the double-edged contradictions of cultural production and presentation, the new VAG might be less a rebirth than a last gasp. To complicate matters, a wild spate of developer-city-state evictions of artist-run spaces have recently exacerbated the fierce symptoms of Vancouver’s rapid gentrification. And with the surprising yet decisive re-election of a BC Liberal majority at the provincial level, coupled with unilateral corporate control at the municipal level, the political and aesthetic status quo appears practically guaranteed. The VAG’s announcement in the context of ongoing neoliberal reforms and much decried cultural fragmentation and displacement, may yet be a “kiss of death” for Vancouver — sweet at contact, but fatal in the long run. Viewed critically, the announcement seems more sobering than joyous, more foreboding than fortunate.
Pick up any new condo ad and you get the sense that Vancouver is perpetually stuck in summer. Sun-drenched landscapes open up to lush green fields counterposed with calm waterfront scenes. Condo towers reflect on the water like huge unimposing spaceships. The North Shore Mountains complete the frame. In this reflective landscape, nature merges with its setting. At nightfall, the reflective gleam of condo towers shimmer on the Burrard Inlet, always delivering a garish constellation.
In this great real estate fiction, Vancouver comes into being as an Elysian idyll. Leisure is aplenty in this vision of the afterlife: cycling, kayaking, jogging, wine-drinking, yoga — whatever your heart contents. Weekends extend into the weekday as a waking-dream outside the day-to-day drudgery of the wage-relation. The city is endowed with a sense of grace and visual impunity. The wish-images of the future merge with death mask of its afterlife, perpetuating a present without history. Nature is imparted to the people as an unencumbered fiction.
I.) In a time of periodic riots, enthusiastic uprisings and the rejuvenation of mass mobilizations of the oppressed, a new rebellious subjectivity has re-emerged onto the scene. For a moment in recent history no future appeared for this class of the excluded, because a common collective present was held captive by the rule of profit and the logic of disempowerment. Today, however, a new rebellious class is emerging that is recommencing a history of struggle. Simultaneously destructive, dynamic and creative, this project has advanced the capacity to unlock and forward a formerly inexistent possibility: a universally viable project for emancipation outside the regime of dispossession, acculturated lifestyles and callous self-interest.
II.) Contemporary emancipatory politics makes room for that which was formerly inexistent. The examples of this form of subjectivity are as numerous as they are brilliant: indigenous councils in Bolivia; the emergence of Syriza, the Coalition of Radical Left in Greece; tenant organizing from Shanghai to Vancouver; weekly student demonstrations in Quebec. In these instances, the new lexicon for political consciousness is immediately produced, formed through occupations, strikes and grassroots organizing. From the perspective of the struggle, the terrain of politics has shifted both at the level of praxis — in terms of the novel invention of new organizations and movements — but also with the medium of thinking the political conjuncture and its contradictions through mass mobilization. For those who have made it their priority to side with mass politics, the assumed inevitability of the class relation no longer appears inevitable. The long twilight of left-wing melancholia that has tainted potential militants with cynical nihilism and pious self-righteousness has lost legitimacy, insofar as greater numbers are determined to throw every molecule of their being into the dawn of communism’s rebirth. The historical project of emancipation is no longer held in by the seal of obsolescence, or worse, treated longingly with nostalgia. If there is any sort of critique of the market that has gained relevance, it is a critique sutured to an emancipatory project that is intent on abolishing the class relation and the existing state of things.
Yang Fudong’s highly-stylized, black-and-white film, Fifth Night (2010), best resembles a state of purgatory. Threadbare proletariat, ripped at the collar, drag themselves through a movie set that imitates a Shanghai city-square. Although the setting is dated to the 30s and 40s with vintage cars, plaid suits, and tramways, the temporality of the film is indeterminate. More like a nightmare, the film resists any historical specificity. Wandering nowhere in particular, Yang’s actors appear as they are imprisoned in a world not of their choosing. Not one of them possesses the capacity to speak. Dirtied by soot and grease, their bodies are marked by nights of labour and slowed by fatigue. Commanding an insubstantial weight, their poverty is extreme: they even do not own their own exhaustion. Despite their poverty their stature is monumental and their faces oscillate between the reserved and the searing. Counterposed to the rambling labourers, two elegantly dressed upper-class women are admixed with the setting. Despite their class position, they share the same countenance of the laborers: melancholic, distraught, wistful. Isolated from one another, each character treats their surroundings with a good mix of suspicion, contemplation and disbelief. Ultimately caught in solitude, these characters trawl themselves through the square with hesitation, or at times, stumble backwards in shock.