e&n: project prospectus

pdf copy available: Gordon Brent Ingram 2009 e&n essay (small)

June 2009

The Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway, commonly referred to as “The E & N,” cuts across the narrow coastal plain of south-eastern Vancouver Island. Largely built in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, there are also branches going  west and north that have been rarely used for passenger travel. Increasingly these industrial lines are in disrepair as timber and mineral resources have been exhausted. Today, the moniker of “The E & N” usually represents a single line between downtown Victoria, going north-west along the east coast of Vancouver Island, to the town of Courtenay. There is regular talk of both suspending rail service and of expanding it. But for most days for more than a half century, a two car train leaves Victoria in the morning, stops at Courtenay at lunch-time and turns around, and retraces the same route. So as well as a rail line, The E & N is a vantage point for viewing a Möbius strip of landscape processes, natural and cultural, along with all sorts of tensions and conflicts – in perpetual motion.

In the early 1990s, I began to photograph the views from this, one of the most neglected rail lines in Canada. These initial studies were part of a course offered at The University of British Columbia entitled “Visual Resources Management.” The E & N field trip was part of illustrating to students heritage landscapes from the natural and aboriginal to the industrial. Taking the day trip from Victoria to Courtenay and back also illustrated view corridors and contentious notions of “visual absorption” and the processes of turning a beautiful landscape scarred and ugly. When I returned to these studies of The E & N, I had not taken this train since I was a boy travelling with my parents. And after a few trips on The E & N, photographing took on a number of other agendas some of which were rooted in growing up in this region. A series of studies coalesced about landscape, motion, and cultural memory that I refer to as “e&n.”

In these photographs, a conversation emerged around the limits of nostalgia around environmental change and coping with the transformation, and often destruction, characteristic visual elements in the landscape. And I had done work on this last topic with Burt Litton, a visionary of landscape change at the University of British Columbia, whose focus was on the visual aspects of the logging on North America’s West Coast. In my mind, Burt’s approach to visual change remained conservative, reactive and vulnerable to being discredited. But lacking an alternative theory of documentation of and intervention in visual landscape change, I looked for the unique and characteristic and used motion to experiment with various kinds of possibilities. And the blurred motion, and the now quaint Nineteenth Century technology that built the line, invariably has relationships to Futurism[i] – and Futurism’s largely failed promises.  In hindsight, my studies of view corridors of The E&N may have owed more to Burt than I realized – and may often been more guarded and less a departure than I wanted. Burt died in 2007 before I had a chance to show him these images – but so late in time to his work in the 1970s and 1980s on visual absorption that the concept takes on a more abstracted and less cognitive pal – as the forests of the planet are increasingly stripped.

The Esquimalt & Nanaimo rail line, itself, is very beautiful and has become a strategic corridor of green space. But behind the second growth forest are the remnants of early multicultural towns in Canada, that for a time comprised the backbone of the island’s labour militancy. Most of these small towns survived for a few decades and were already in decline a century ago. Perhaps photographic imagery can best provide reminders of what these towns were – indicating that they existed – rather than monuments in the increasingly bland suburban landscapes that have been carved out of the overgrown remnants of these frontier towns. Today, the frontier is everywhere; motion becomes memory for these temporary communities that were eked out of aboriginal frontiers by a cruel industrialism with rapacious capital. In this way, infrastructure becomes art[ii] as part detour.

The construction of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway began in 1884 with 1,000 track workers many of whom were Chinese. Much of the work required hand-placing rock and was dangerous. The last spike in the main line of the of railway driven by Prime Minister John A. MacDonald at Mile 25 on August 13, 1886. The moveable bridge at Mile 0 in Victoria was constructed in 1888. On The E & N, the lines between The State and corporate initiatives have been particularly blurred. Robber-baron, Robert Dunsmuir constructed the line  through his United Colliery Company.[iii] In 1905, the Canadian Pacific Railway acquired the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway from Dunsmuir. For some years, Dunsmuir was even the Premier of British Columbia and very much engaged in the land thefts (and “land grants”[iv]) and subsidies from public coffers that allowed West Coast capitalism to quickly but erratically accumulate wealth. These days, the visual corridor of the E & N line comprises a kind of Folly garden, the excessively picturesque ruins perhaps, of the forms of land theft, frontier capitalism, and social domination that coalesced a half century into the creation of modern British Columbia.

The E & N Railway took Vancouver Island into the Twentieth Century. Now the route to the future is not so straight or clear. Every few years sees a new set of owners and goals for the line. Thankfully, there has been little new investment in the actual train cars and decaying stations. And for decades, there has been talk of a light rail service for commuters. One substantive change has been the transformation of the rail corridor from treed to increasingly cleared and suburban. And underlying theme of these studies from the 1990s has been this open up of the views, the re-creation of view corridors that had not been open for decades.

I have a curious family connection to The E & N. In 1890, my great-grandfather, Julius Pire, came with his wife, Palmyre Francois, and his daughter, Rosalie Esther, from the frontier of Belgium and France to advise on aspects of the construction and operation of the little railway. Apparently, the narrow-gauged technology used in The E & N was borrowed from lines in hilly parts of eastern Belgium. And as my grandmother was growing up, she was placed in a elite girl’s school in Victoria and every weekend Julius travelled down from Wellington to Victoria to spend time with his daughter. Palmyre was often not present, may well have remarried, and found her way to the Yukon Goldrush where she operated a salon and died of an attack of asthma in 1906. For sixteen years, Julius worked on The E&N and soon after his daughter married and his then ex-wife died, he returned to Belgium.  My grandmother never saw him again. The E & N was the one physical remnant of his presence, of her having had a father. Several times when I was a boy she recounted those memories to me of her father being part of building a train line that would bring him to her on marvellous weekends together.

In part because of my own multicultural and biracial heritages, I was fascinated how diverse and ‘edgy’ were the towns that grew up along The E&N. There were, and still are, First Nations villages that had been conquered by British gunboats less than half a century before. There were a number of short-lived towns such as Extension[v] and agricultural and fishing villages that had largely disappeared by the mid-Twentieth Century. Turn-of-the-century census records illustrate a cacophony of high transient communities of trans-culturalism, radicalism, and utopianism. For example, many of the French-speaking Belgians indicated their religions as ‘socialist.’ And there were enclaves, closer to ghettos, in every industrial towns for people of Asian and African heritages. And soon these communities faded back into the woodlands that quickly grew in the huge swaths of cleared lands. Today, The E & N can be viewed as a poorly maintained monument to the struggles for social justice that marked the Twentieth Century in British Columbia. And not long ago, some stations even still had signage for “Advice for young girls travelling alone.”[vi]

The motion and juxtapositions in these studies, this e&n, functioned to uncover, abstract and to recombine the fundamental components of the modern Canadian landscape:

fearsome landforms;

dark forests, woodlands and more open fields with a myriad of edges;

a myriad of marks of possession and transformation by aboriginal communities;

the waves of settlement and exploitation of natural resources;

the lines, barriers and corridors formed by industrialization;

markers, notions, and confluences of multiculturalism;

technologies, products and texts;

the dynamics of the landscape as subject of artist interventions versus the landscape as site for cultural production and transformation; and finally

the cultural functions embodied in social memory (and forgetting) and the related dynamics of partial obfuscation and incomplete illumination.

These studies comprising e&n evoke conversations between older forms of “straight” landscape photography; more subjective, experiential photography; and new forms of documentary of environment and community. A more local conversation is e&n‘s very pointed lack of engagement in late Twentieth Century Vancouver’s preoccupation with particularly rarefied forms of  Vancouver-based “photoconceptualism.”[vii] The cumulative framings that comprise e&n are my own shifting interpretations of localized histories and experiences rather than illustrations and allusions to more totalizing, artistic movements. Instead, the allusions in e&n are to my own interpretations of local experiences and histories. In e&n the future is chugging forwards and then backwards and then forward again. On the e&n, we rush by: everything becomes picturesque. But every representation, like historical interpretations and cultural landscapes, is layered: suspect: in progress.

[i] In my studies of futurism, I was especially influenced by the 1986 survey in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi with its catalogue published as, Pontus Hulten. 1986. Futurismo & Futurismi. Milano: del Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri.

[ii] Hal Foster. 1996. The Return of the Real: The avant-garde at the end of the century. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. page 51.

[iii] Ian Baird. 1985. A Historic Guide to the E & N Railway. Including notes on The Canadian National Railway System. Victoria: Heritage Architectural Guides in association with the Friends of the E & N. page 5.

[iv] Donald F. MacLachlan. 1986. The Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway: The Dunsmuir Years: 1884 – 1905. ISBN 0-9292511-0-6. Victoria: BC Railway Historical Association. P. O. Box 114,Victoria BC V8W 2M1. See the map of “the second land grant” on page 55.

[v] Cornelius J. Jaenen. 1991. The Belgians in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association.  ISBN 0-88798-130-5. page 87.

[vi] Ian Baird. 1985. A Historic Guide to the E & N Railway. Including notes on The Canadian National Railway System. Victoria: Heritage Architectural Guides in association with the Friends of the E & N. See page 3.

[vii] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vancouver_School and some additional quotes in Kenneth Baker. 2008. Photography with an eye for social relevance. San Francisco Chronicle (Wednesday, January 9, 2008).