Learning from Vancouver -- In dialogue:Bik Van der Pol and Urban Subjects
Vancouver has increasingly developed and manifested itself as a unique model for other cities. Yet, Vancouver does not often play itself; it frequently stands in for metropolises. Correspondingly, as the image of Vancouver has become familiar globally through film, an image of urbanism based on Vancouver has, and continues to have, a perplexing impact on urban planners throughout the world.
At this moment of smelly Olympic exceptionalism, Vancouver is being broadcast world-wide, carefully framed by its mountains and the oceans. In grabbing their “beauty shots” of Vancouver for establishment shots and cultural interest sections of their broadcasts, the global media enters into the long politics of representation. This image of the city shines a light on the natural setting, the Vancouver Model, the sustainable city, and the tolerant multicultural city while painting the Downtown Eastside and the people who make it the political centre of the city as shadowy, “troubled” and in need of urban renewal.
What is the backside of these images that create a specific type of imagination outside the city — and what is the impact on everyday lives. What effect does urban planning and the imagination of developers have on constructing public space and a public imagery? How does this distort the potential of ‘building a community’, when the building of communities is increasingly becoming a global experience. What does it mean to experience space and the representation of space?
For In dialogue: Bik Van der Pol and Urban Subjects have been working together intensively, thinking Vancouver spatially and through linked yet specific moments; moments in the past and the future that articulate a change in the space and experience of the public sphere.
Bik Van der Pol
I confess I care emphasizes the growing limitations of the public realm. The brown box in the gallery of the Western Front is the creation of a space for forms of public speech that have been shut down in the Olympic moment (the present!). This box is a discursive vehicle. It accommodates one, or two, or three people, and can be closed off from the inside, creating an intimate space. But, the box is fully wired for sound — everything discussed is recorded. Unlike the increasing types of surveillance I confess I care allows a choice to speak up and speak about, either individually, or in a dialogue with others, about the issues at stake in the city: the impact of urban developments, the excess of shrinking public space, limitations of civil rights and how this is experienced by citizens in their daily live. Does one accept this all, as a state of exception, trusting that it will all return back to normal once the air is cleared of the Games? I confess I care draws upon a public that is not passive but that is willing to become an active participant. In that sense they will disappear as general ‘public’; they will become articulated. The recordings made in the box will be transcribed to text to appear as part of a publication after the end of the show, as a sort of bid book and rem(a)inder of this specific moment, activated by the public.
Paralleling I confess I care, the installation devised by Urban Subjects grabs two historical moments in the dialectic of the production and closure of public space in Vancouver and one speculative future moment. The historical moments exist as grainy archival photographs. Premier Bill Bennett and labour leader Jack Munroe stand on the patio of Bennett’s house in Kelowna just after they have shaken hands to seal a deal “that would end the most massive protest in the province’s history”. This late-night meeting on November 13, 1983 lingers as the betrayal of “Operation Solidarity”, a coalition of unions, community groups, students and activists, as it moved toward a general strike that was to counter the initial move in the game of neoliberalism in B.C. Hours of archival research did not churn up the specific image of Bennett and Munroe shaking hands, yet that image is dramatically burned into social memory. The second archival image is of Herbert Marcuse as he speaks to 1,300 students at Simon Fraser University on Tuesday, March 25, 1969. Marcuse was on campus in the wake of the November 1968 student-takeover of the administration that the RCMP ended; he was invited by radical professors and the Department of Politics, Sociology, and Anthropology that was purged following its push to democratize the university. At the time, Marcuse, a leading public intellectual, theorized everyday life within a “totally administered society”. But he was also a theorist of the transformation of society, which of course was what the students were looking to grasp as well.
Perhaps these two images can represent the dialectic of closure and possibility in the public sphere in Vancouver as well as materially marking events that speak to our present moment of mega-event exception.
The futuristic aspect of our installation is the opening sentence of a work of speculative fiction, Heads of the Town Down to the Streets, set in an imagined Vancouver after the 2010 Olympic Games: “When the International Olympic Committee troops did not pull out of the city after the games, Vancouver should have erupted into civic war…”.
Painted on the far wall is an emblem of an urban imaginary, or of the future imagination of a city. This colourful abstract emblem comes from a 1970s kinetic graphic from Venezuela that Urban Subjects discovered while doing field research in Caracas. Drawn from the cover of a book of a radical publisher, the emblem captures the optimism and openness of radical urbanist thinking and is a graphic counterpoint to the tightening up of the public sphere and public imagination in Vancouver today.
WE THANK: Jennie Cane, Alissa Firth-Eagland, Andrew Lee, Johan Lundh, Simon Fraser University Archives, Simon Fraser University Special Collections, Carolyn Soltau (Research Librarian, News Research Librarian, Pacific Newspaper Group Library), UBC Library: Rare Books and Special Collections, Wayne Weins (photo credit for Herbert Marcuse at SFU), and Jerry Zaslove.