Nina Power, One-Dimensional Woman, London: Zero Books, 2009. 81 pages. ISBN: 9781846942419

Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman provocatively takes the cue for its title and premise from Herbert Marcuse’s 1964 book, One-Dimensional Man. Power invokes Marcuse’s concept of a system of production and consumption that creates ‘false needs,’ flattened social relations, and an illusory sense of individual autonomy. Power frames her own book as a retooling of this critique, intended to address a much more recent rhetoric of consumerism and contemporary feminism which – in similar and new ways – creates a barrier to productive critical thinking about work, sex and politics.

Power is based at Roehampton University, part of the University of London, where she teaches philosophy. In the past year, however, she has been just as likely to be seen taking part in student protests against the recent tripling of tuition fees at UK universities, or at the solidarity camp that sought to prevent the eviction of Irish Traveller families from their land at Dale Farm in Essex, or of course, around the Occupy London Stock Exchange encampment outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. She can also frequently be found among the Guardian’s comment is free pages. One Dimensional Woman is published by the upstart Zero Books as part of a series of readable texts intended as ‘another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist.’ While this short book came out before the wave of protests surrounding the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement took hold, we might hope that its message will be more immediately understood as a result of these events. And indeed Vancouver, as the birthplace of Botox — and a city long-preoccupied with cosmopolitan surfaces and spectacle — seems its ideal target.

Photography in Vancouver during the 1980s passed through an experimental phase that destabilized the technological determinism and established perspectives of image-making in the 20th century. Against the programmatic wishes of historians of the medium, photography was put in a position to resist the false dialectic imposed on it: neither a distinct, reified museum picture, nor a common, ubiquitous document placed carelessly in circulation. Revealing how the photograph and the practice of photography itself operated as a remnant of concrete social relations and political structures, as well as an extension of an advanced and experimental aesthetic culture, the medium was forced to lose its previous consistency. In this context, photography became preoccupied with expanding the field of the photographic itself through and within its own materiality, embracing its reproductive, serial and discursive qualities.

A fragment of this history is currently on display at the group exhibition c.1983 at North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery. Artists included in the exhibition — Marian Penner Bancroft, Stan Douglas, Elizabeth Vander Zaag, Laiwan, Michelle Normoyle, Ellie Epp, Ken Lum, Kati Campbell, Arni Runar Haraldsson, (save for Ian Wallace) — answered the earlier international call for critique of the commodification of the art object through the expansion of the photographic image, a movement that found its fluid relevance in Vancouver’s nascent artist run-culture.

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.

A found public art piece on the Rize site, with the caption DEC 25. A fire, still suspect by many Mount Pleasant residents, burned down retail and artist’s studio space here on Christmas Day, 2009.

For far too long artists and other cultural producers have served as passive scapegoats for critics of gentrification, who spurn the rise of the so-called “creative class” and their role in urban redevelopment. In a recent article for eflux Martha Rosler takes a cue from Sharon Zukin, writing that in times of massive urban redevelopment, “artists and the entire visual art sector—especially commercial galleries, artist-run spaces, and museums—are a main engine for the repurposing of the post-industrial city and the renegotiation of real estate for the benefit of elites.”

Zukin’s blueprint, initiated with Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (1982), is often misunderstood as an organic and natural process. Here, artists are framed not simply as an artistic vanguard that sets the tone and beat for cultural production, but also an economic force instigating the first wave of gentrification. As the oft-misrepresented story goes, cultural producers fill-in inexpensive lofts and retail space in poor neighborhoods, making them more attractive for young urban professionals fueling the real-estate industry. Troubled by the initial identity and politics of the neighborhood—working class, poor, or no identity at all—developers latch on to these markers of indistinction and carve out a coherent, docile identity founded on the empty signifiers of consumption. While the working poor move to the suburbs and inexpensive areas of the city, the very same cultural producers who set the trajectory of the neighborhood are in time kicked to the curb as the rising cost of living moves in lockstep with the consumption habits of urban professionals.

Certainly, Rosler is correct to claim that artists are “passive” agents in the process of gentrification, yet to lay blame on cultural producers alone would miss the target altogether. As the English Urbanist Max Nathan states, “creativity and cool are the icing, not the cake.”

Any rigorous analysis of gentrification at any level requires that we chart the explicit relations of capital (represented here by developers and speculators) and the apparatuses of the state (municipal governance, city planners, police, etc.). While the state actively produces cycles of disinvestment and uneven development, it is capital that takes the advantage of buying low, sending investment into uncharted terrain. There is a mutual relationship of two forces that purposefully props up gentrification as a viable planning option for entire city neighborhoods. What is less clear within this dynamic, however, is the direct link between the rise of the passive and post-ideological cultural producer and their complicit connections to real estate speculation.