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Squatting in ‘Vancouverism’: Public art & architecture after the Winter Olympics 2/3

PDF copy of this article: ingram-2010-squatting-in-vancouverism3

Ken Lum’s from shangri-la to shangri-la, 2010 site-specific installation, Vancouver, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

part 2 of 3

fragment of Stan Douglas’s “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971″ (2009) Inkjet in Laminate Glass photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

Public art and community memory under Vancouverism

So how can public art and community memory fare in a zone of state subsidized real estate speculation for the generation of private space (largely for the middle class)? The cultural centre-piece at Woodward’s may tell us where arts production and artists can fit in to landscapes of real estate inflation. Stan Douglas’s “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″[i] is a massive photographic installation that uncomfortably extends the parameters of photography, public art, and monumental art in general. “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 is an exceptional achievement in the Vancouver-based artist’s rich body of work – and perhaps his most ‘public’ in it being permanently installed outdoors and indoors in a strategic site in the neighbourhood. And how has Douglas brought a discussion of history back to one of the most strategic historic neighbourhoods in Canada in terms of early multicultural alliances and labour activism?

More than in any of his other works, Douglas aligns with Mexican political muralists of the early Twentieth Century with a re-creation of police violence, at the Woodward’s block, four decades before. But rather than a painting, this work is a massive, backlit photograph, almost a homage to the stage historical reconstructions of Vancouverite Jeff Wall, that is installed on both side of the same wall. And given the different lighting between the outdoor representation of the heavily constructed photograph and the indoor luminescence over the course of a day and event, that duality, in itself, adds to the discussion of the importance of and critical interpretation of recent urban history.

More of a departure in the canon of murals is the examination, in “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971,” of the relationship of police violence, which Douglas linked in a short public comment on January 15th, to the subsequent decline along Hastings Street (an area now facing rapid gentrification due to the Woodward’s redevelopment). The 1971 police riot was reconstructed by Douglas on a set at the Pacific National Exhibition. The scene of the police violence and resistance to it was certainly not celebrated in the iconography of the mural as heroic. Instead, the youthful bodies being bundled off by the police come to symbolize how the old Downtown of Vancouver, a multicultural public sphere, was effectively abducted and depopulated. The deep greys, blacks and browns suggest other uses of history, of the melancholy of lost opportunities. In this way, this double-sided photograph is a stark departure from a long cannon of political murals that while celebrating resistance to violence of states, oligarchies and capital have rarely looked as closely at the damage and impacts of social conflict. and state repression. The oppressed don’t really triumph here but those sufficiently broken and who have survived might one day qualify for a paltry amount of subsidized public housing. There is no romanticism in “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971.” The result is stark and, for a North American city that has been less able than many to confront its history of police violence, almost embarrassing. “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ is a reminder that the panopticon gaze of contemporary culture is upon the Woodward’s complex even if there are hints of a movie set in Douglas’s muralism.

fragment of Stan Douglas’s “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971″ (2009) Inkjet in Laminate Glass

photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

There are two constraints on the credibility of “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ that reflect the limits of Douglas’s work. Like much of the historically based pieces by Douglas, ‘Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971′ is short on historical research and thin, verging on cliché, on theory. Given all of Vancouver’s moments of activism and repression, in the 1970s alone, serious questions remain about the relative importance of the police riot at Abbott & Cordova, adjacent to the site of the mural, on the 7th of August, 1971. And the link between this particular police violence, the progressive impoverishment of the neighbourhood, and the journeys and hardships of the over several thousand of its current residents who are effectively homeless remains poorly researched. Police violence clearly did play a huge part in the decline of the neighbourhood in that period but most of the abuse was hidden and did not involve a well-documented riot. In this way the 7th of August 1971 riot becomes more of a distraction, a surrogate for broader knowledge and clarity. What took place in that decade and what followed was the dismantling of one of Canada’s earliest crossroads for multiculturalism and working-class activism. The evacuation of what was only later labelled the ‘Downtown Eastside’ was partly because a range of previously ghettoized ethnic groups finally had the economic clout and human rights protections to move out into the less expensive suburbs while the white working-class that were left either bled into Vancouver’s middle-class – or remained in the neighbourhood because of institutions such as unions, coops, and subsidized housing along with related jobs. The demographic vacuum that resulted was only partially a result of police violence.

fragment of the exterior face of Stan Douglas’s two-sided “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971″ (2009) Inkjet in Laminate Glass, with reflections of one of the Woodward’s towers to the right and the Simon Fraser University Harbour Tower on the right, photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

What does give “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ credence is that this was on one of the last ‘police riots’ in a long history of violent altercations largely initiated by the forces of the City of Vancouver and public knowledge of these events have largely been erased. And curiously, there were no representatives of the City of Vancouver Police at the January 15th unveiling even trying to distance themselves from the old violence or even suggesting there was some kind of ongoing process of truth and reconciliation. Instead, the historical conversation about police abuse in the neighbourhood has been truncated (while violence against the most vulnerable continues today). While big and shiny, “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ says something about history, as if public memory were a commodity to be reworked as part of marketing edgy real estate, there is little acknowledgement of the economic cycles and restructuring that could one day see impoverishment of incoming residents especially as a housing prices, for the units in Woodward’s, may not remain so high.[ii]

The other somewhat ‘Vancouveristic’ contradiction embedded in “Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971″ is the erasure in the tableau. All of the discernible faces in the mural are of European heritages. Douglas has effectively whitewashed Vancouver’s old multiracial downtown. Perhaps he was anticipating the new demographic resulting from the redevelopment. The August 1971 episode took place in the decade when this same neighbourhood, formerly a major centre for multiculturalism within Canada, was largely emptied of people of colour – with most except the elderly leaving happily. The violence portrayed in the reconstructed photograph as historical record was against young white people. This particular police riot was a relative exception – in targeting so-called ‘white, middle-class kids’. The tableau does not even suggest, let alone reference, the century of white supremacist riots on the same streets, the forced relocation and urbanization of aboriginal communities (sometimes into and sometimes out of this neighbourhood), the deprivations forced on Chinese Canadians, the 1942 deportations and effective erasure of Japantown, and the vicious police entrapments and harassment of Indo-Canadians – all within three blocks of the site of the mural. The violence against white youth in 1971 was a historical after-thought for the City of Vancouver that eclipsed a century of daily police violence against people not of European heritage. For viewers with heritages not European, the effective racialization of ‘Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971′ can be confusing and discomforting. Perhaps this error is the result of both Douglas’s aversion for critical historical research, while engaging in monumental art about historical topics funded by developers, combined with his growing up in the elite West Point Grey, when his was one of the few African-Canadian families.[iii]

A closer look at the 15th of January, 2010 unveiling of the Stan Douglas mural, “Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971,” photograph by Gordon Brent Ingram

[i] The plaque below the inside manifestation of the work states,

“Stan Douglas

Abbott and Cordova, 7th August 1971


Inkjet in Laminate Glass.”

[ii] Murray Dobbin. 2009. Why Canada’s Housing Bubble Will Burst (’The largest sub-prime lender in the world is now the Canadian government.’). (Vancouver). 22 Oct 2009.

[iii] Stan Douglas, personal communication (at a dinner party), 1993, Vancouver.

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