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False Creek: Public Art and / versus Real Estate Marketing | Collective Memory and / versus historical editing | Cultural production and / versus heritage markers

Since the first cities, public space has been a mash-up of art and advertising, fun and high culture, and remembering and forgetting. Many of the cultural (and political) stories and messages of communities, especially their elites, are transmitted through how public art and memorial works fits into and transforms adjacent urban space. So the environmental, designed and cultural textures of public sites tell us a great deal about unresolved social contests in particular neighbourhoods: between community versus private and corporate interests; between different kinds of and strategies for multiculturalism; and between a host of agendas for remembering (and forgetting) various episodes of local history and bits of heritage.

The network of outdoor spaces around False Creek constitutes a kind a matrix of public life into which the entire western side of the city connects and, while often lovely, embodies a set of ongoing debates and dilemmas around the roles of politicians, developers, artists, historians, planners, and designers in neighbourhood life. So the public art and space along the inlet tells us a great deal about Vancouver’s ambiguous and contradictory relationships to public space, collective memory, and contemporary culture.

The north side of False Creek has the densest set of permanent outdoor art works, constituting a sort of linear sculpture park, both within Vancouver and in the entire country. But the south side of False Creek does not have very much outdoor (or indoor) art, at all. And few people enjoying these spaces have noticed the disparity. Unlike Seattle, with its celebrated Olympic Sculpture Park, the closest Vancouver has to a dedicated space for outdoor art is along False Creek. So what happens on both sides of the inlet in the coming years should be of concern for activists and professionals of both for contemporary art and democratic urban space.

Ever since I was a young boy and my father took me on a walk on the east side of the Burrard Street Bridge to show me the industrial operations being dismantled around Granville Island telling me how ‘clean’ it would eventually all be, the False Creeks has invoked scepticism for me. Even back then, I had a feeling that the clean-up process would be too thorough and get rid of a lot of people and memories. Of course, a lot had already been destroyed and forgotten around False Creek especially the Musqueam and Squamish village of Snaaq, any signs of which were carefully obliterated in the creation of the berms at Vanier Park. And Expo 86 was the excuse to destroy a neighbourhood of workers living in residential hotels now occupied by Yaletown towers. Yet after all of the processes of community obliteration, the last two decades have seen the funding and construction of public art (along with apartment units) dealing with themes of local history, on the northern side of False Creek, at rates and densities never before seen in Vancouver and rarely in other parts of world.

A decade ago, an arc of very uneven public memory emerged in the public art on the north side of False Creek from the AIDS Memorial in the west to the Marker for Change, the only large-scale memorial to the victims of the 1989 massacre at Montréal’s École Polytechnique, to the east. In 1999 while I was one of the urban designers working in the City of Vancouver public art advisory group, I wrote a paper on this space or ‘trail’ of historical memory and presented a discussion at the University of Barcelona.*  A few years later, Irwin Ostindie, at the time working at the Gallery Gauchet and who today is involved with development of the W2 media site at the Woodward’s Building, explored the implications of my work on the almost spontaneous emergence of this arc of public memory for the future of Vancouver.

The public art along the north side of False Creek is quite an achievement in Canadian cultural life. At times, a relatively effective but poorly funded municipal public art programme has been remarkably successful at supporting both the careers of contemporary artists and coordinating the installation of public art works as beautiful and thought-provoking points of neighbourhood engagement. But nearby, formulaic and now dated public art has been used by developers, sometimes cynically, to market otherwise bland condos. Some of the public art and memorials (with the lines between the two categories of public ‘interventions’ increasingly blurred) along False Creek celebrate aspects of history and heritage that has almost been forgotten in much of the rest of the city. Yet nearby, other markers effectively sanitize or obliterate controversial and unresolved of pasts communities, events, and experiences. There are the beginnings of conversations, etched in public space, around both the importance of individualistic artistic production and works, on one hand, and marking more collective and historical experiences, on the other hand.

All this dissonance in public space, even if historical memory is used and scrambled a bit, can be fun and is often a pleasant backdrop for a walk or bicycle ride. For me, there are spots along False Creek that make me feel at home but there other stretches that make me queasy, a bit anxious. Like the enigma of so much public art on the north side and so little across the inlet, public art in False Creek embodies a series of over-lapping tensions and dialectics: sites for truly public art and versus contemporary-looking decorum for marketing real estate; sites of collective remembering versus historical editing that contributes to forgetting; and installations the result of individualized artistic production versus markers of history and heritage that have typically been the results of complicated, collective projects. My central argument about the outdoor art around False Creek is that rather than a resolvable set of tensions, this landscape of doubt embodying questions of a cultural “and / versus ” is what makes the assortment of predictable, already boring architecture interesting and for those unlucky enough to have over-invested in those neighbourhoods, liveable.

What makes the art and markers from the 90s and 00s around False Creek so important to any new policies for public space and art in Vancouver is that they run counter to a century of obliterating public memory. But a string of interesting, site-based art works, no matter how fun, well-researched, and even historically engaged cannot make up for those community deeper losses. While public art is increasingly useful for marketing the so-called ‘World-Class City’ it can never be used, at least not for more than a decade or two, as a substitute for a deeper acknowledgement of obliteration of communities and cultural spaces. And as the mould darkens the lustre of so-called ‘Vancouverism’ any uniqueness of and achievements about the communities along False Creek will be much more about how we develop local dialogues for truth and reconciliation that are played out in public spaces, rather than about repetitive and already dated towers.

While enjoying the new art work around False Creek, I have been exploring some larger questions about how public art can contribute to community memory, on one hand, and edit, re-invent and even obliterate the historical knowledge and experience of ‘public-ness’ of a neighbourhood on the other hand. I have been working with a second set of questions of how outdoor art can contribute to both the public-ness and democratization of some sites, on one hand, and conversely can be part of the effective privatization of formerly public places. Two other sets of questions begin to emerge in a broader examination of the spaces of outdoor art around the inlet. What obligations, if any, should artists, who produce site-based outdoor works, have for acknowledging and engaging with local history – especially of the actual sites they are effectively transforming? A fourth question is around the ethics of the effective use of public art for marketing real estate – especially when few artists can afford high real estate prices the inflation of which the creators of the pieces along False Creek have effectively contributed (while often having effectively subsidized the installation of works in order to get their work seen and acknowledged for the sake of continuing their careers).

Two of the more subtle works of public art along False Creek move me the most. Welcome to the Land of Light, Henry Tsang’s 1997 sculpture is the only piece of public text in the city in Chinook. A century ago when my father was growing up in Kitsilano, he lived in a bilingual world where speaking Chinook was necessary for interacting with both native and settler cultures. When I was very young, my father tried to teach me Chinook but I refused. Now I take great pleasure in visiting Tsang’s work and showing it to friends. A five-minute walk to the east, is Lookout completed in 2000 by Christos Dikeakos and Noel Best. For photo-based Dikeakos, Lookout is his only sculptural work. The work occupies a strip just above the walk and bikeway and provides reminders of the First Nations and early industrial communities that were on False Creek. Dikeakos relates how it was almost a fluke that the piece was constructed and that their historical focus was respected, “Our project was selected after a popular American public art sculptor dropped out. He had a generic maritime theme without any specific historical or heritage angle…Some city officials were adamant about providing ‘Rain Shelters’ and using the entire site. The idea of pure sculpture was compromised by their demand so we made the most basic shelter two walls and a glass roof that makes a response to the style of high rise architecture within the vicinity.”

The art we see today along the inlet is already a relic of the political, economic and cultural dynamics of the (pre-Olympic) 1990s and 00s. The entirety of that public space of conversations about collective remembering and forgetting will soon be another artefact. The coming months will see the installation of a few more outdoor art works along False Creek around the Olympic Village partially guided by a 2007 strategy developed by Seattle-based public artist Buster Simpson**, who more than a decade ago had a work of his own installed on the north side of the inlet. Because of Vancouver’s high level of indebtedness in paying for so much of the 2010 Winter Olympics, along with the ongoing provincial and federal cuts to the arts, and a slowing in condo construction, that for more than any other city has been Vancouver’s major strategy for funding outdoor works, it may be another generation before we see much new public art along False Creek – especially on the south side. And as much of the built environments along False Creek prove to be far less sustainable and resilient than they could have been for the times when they were designed, as stronger storms and higher sea levels require costly retrofits, and as pressures mount for inserting affordable housing, advocating for more social resources for public space and art will be more challenging.  Any more art along False Creek will require new, more engaged and passionate public conversations about art, memory and place.

Gordon Brent Ingram is an environmental planner and designer based in a studio on Vancouver Harbour. Most of his projects and teaching appointments are overseas.

A condensed version of this essay was published in the second issue of Vancouver Public Space Network’s journal, PubliCity as Ingram, G. B. 2009. False Creek dichotomies: Public art, marketing, and memory. PubliCity (Vancouver) 2 (The Art of Space issue): 13 – 15 and is available here as a PDF: ingram-g-b-2009-false-creek-dichotomies-public-art-marketing-and-memory-publicity-vancouver-2-the-art-of-space-issue-13-e28093-154


*  Gordon Brent Ingram 2000. Contests over social memory in waterfront Vancouver: Historical editing & obfuscation through public art. on the w@terfront – art for social facilitation (University of Barcelona) 2 (January 2000). A PDF copy of this article is available here: ingram-2000-contests-over-social-memory-in-waterfront-vancouver

**  See Simpson’s ‘Southeast False Creek 2007′  ‘Masterplan’ is downloadable at

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