I) Vancouver’s ‘Reserve Army’

For Vancouver’s unemployed and working poor, social and economic life is increasingly precarious. Ruled by a post-Fordist economy determined by risk-finance and the micropolitical strategies of the crisis-State — flexibilization, dispersion of workers, a developer-run city hall — Vancouver’s poor confront employment, health care and housing needs with greater peril and uncertainty. While in the post war period large segments of the labour force experienced relative stability, assured employment and a regulated working day under Fordist production, the last couple of decades in Vancouver have seen a deepening of precarity.

In the contemporary labour field, precarity is understood as a general lack of guaranteed contracts, stable schedules, and secure employment, in which working time and leisure time fuse together in a mystical union. The irreverent alliance between capital and the State has historically waged persistent, running battles with labour in order to cut ties with stability, welfare and support, and for the last thirty years the balance of forces has veered in favor of profit and crisis. Submerged in the present recession, traditional labor is only a small part of the productive system within a city like Vancouver, constituting an unsubstantial rate of profit and little technological development. As structural underemployment entrenches itself, finance calls the shots from a safe distance. In Vancouver and elsewhere, the security of Fordism appears no longer the norm, but rather the exception, while precarity becomes the standard experience of life and work as such.

Made up of a motley crew, Vancouver’s precariat is its “reserve army,” to use Marx’s term for the unemployed. Temporary unemployment, underemployment and unstable contracts have become a general regime of the economy as the flexible precariat becomes the general standard for the labour field. In Vancouver precarity has historically been associated within women’s and migrant’s work (domestic or otherwise), but has grafted onto a litany of identities: low-income workers, students, unemployed, sex workers, artists, migrants, other social identities, all forced to accept the scraps of the service industry or other forms of cheap labour. Without a guaranteed living wage or income, coupled with the rising cost of rent and wholesale goods, labourers take on two or three jobs, work in flexible industries, work on short-term contracts, solicit work for temp-agencies, and not least, rely on friends and family for assistance. All the while, they attempt to construct a life at a distance from exploitation by over-paying for education, plunging deep into debt, getting drunk, or worse, retreating within the calming shelter of a veiled commodity culture and its latest consumption trends.

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.

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.