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Andrew Witt & Graeme Fisher
In Search of a Present Tense
Art in the Domain of Monopoly-Finance
Andrew Witt & Graeme Fisher
In Search of a Present Tense
A project of the STAG Library and The Mainlander
Today Vancouver is conceived as a monopolizable totality, everywhere placed in circulation for consumption and contemplation. As every square-inch of the city becomes privatized for Vancouver’s capitalist class, the balance of forces veers in favor of profit, enjoyment, and the preservation of crisis. At present, entire neighborhoods are being up-zoned, renovated and reappropriated to make way for a new luxury-based lifestyle, marking the city with the stark class divisions of uneven development. Openly described as a ‘dual city,’ Vancouver is culturally divided into east and west, at the same time as every neighbourhood is carved up between the ‘young & affluent’ and the city’s low-income residents.1 Beating with the mercurial blood of surplus value, the pulse of the city is tightly constricted by the developer-monopoly tourniquet — a tried and true apparatus of monopoly-capitalist development that equilibrates the terms of supply and demand in order to keep housing prices impossibly high.2 At this conjuncture, the contradictions of Vancouver are approaching a maximal level of intensity. Looking towards contemporary art in this city, everything adds up to the realization that true artistic creation is rendered increasingly impossible under the auspices of state sponsorship and ruling class culture. On the balance sheet of recent artistic production, the empty pluralism of public art – ambiguous text-based works, gardening, light projections, and billboard images – is found siding with the medium of the culture industry. All established means in the arsenal of artistic creation, to paraphrase the words of Alain Badiou, are in the process of being mobilized to sing the praises of conservative institutions while inscribing artistic novelty within the continuity of the State. In the upheaval of redevelopment that ensues, traditional civic monuments are rendered too fixed and cease to function as the legitimate mode to represent the glories of the State. Public art leaps in to fill its place, adapting itself while drawing on the same impulse of previous monuments of old: to affirm the existing order of things while filling a vacuum left by the absence of militant thought, class consciousness or political engagement. As Vancouver seeks out a new monumentality, divergent forms of aesthetic practice recede into oblivion. The famous expulsion of the lyric poets from Plato’s ideal city would be utterly foreign to the contemporary Vancouverite. The historical possibility of the utopian city has shifted radically with the conversion of Empire along a more covert diffusion. Previously, the utopia of the colonial mind was remote, inaccessible and located at the most distant edges of the known world, like Eldorado or Shangri-La. The mythic dimension of these places was secured in timeless permanence by their monumentality, which by a kind of socio-spatial dreamwork, concretized the consensus of a received power. The relative autonomy of these places has today been strangled out by the militarily-enforced expansion of markets, the reduction of trade barriers and the corporatization of everyday life. Their potential for the timeless disintegrates as information technology dissolves the remote3
Woodward’s Demolition (2005)
ness of the utopian city into the ou-topos of global tourist space. In turn, the periphery no longer conforms to the edges of a map but to those areas that resist in some capacity the control of the market-state nexus: Chiapas, Waziristan, San Vicente de Caguan, Mogadishu, Exarchia, Morro dos Macacos, Complexo de Penha, etc. In order to become a Great City, the city-state must constantly be policed against non-state actors at the same time as its identity must constantly be regenerated to prevent it falling back into genericity. Instead of awaiting lonesome travelers, cities themselves have launched into global circulation. There could be no more confirmation for us than the construction in Vancouver of the ‘Living Shangri-La’ tower in 2008, today functioning as a palace for the rich and an international destination luxury hotel. The Creative City In her study of public art in New York city during the 1980s, Rosalyn Deutsche pointed out that the intensified talk of ‘the public,’ ‘publicness’ and ‘public art’ was accompanied by the accelerating privatization and redistribution of land-use throughout New York. Rather than belonging to an alternative logic, public art was deployed as an extension of the neoliberal project of class consolidation and restoration. Situating ‘the public’ through an art with supposed universal appeal was a means to provide these developments in New York City an atmosphere of democratic legitimacy. As Deutsche writes: “Wholescale appropriations of land by private interests, massive state interventions that de-territorialize huge numbers of residents, and inequitable distribution of spatial resources by government agencies insulated from public control: these acts governing the shape of New York’s landscape require a legitimating front.”3 Most recently Vancouver has experienced a broad increase in private and public support of the arts. This augmentation in sponsorship has stimulated the absolute amplification in the size, scale and quantity of artistic production. In the midst of a new prominence in the exercise of city-state power, the floating signifier of ‘public art’ has been again re-positioned, effectively usurping all other forms of artistic production. For all of its variations, none have amounted to an increase in the production of advanced art in Vancouver. On the contrary, these newly-minted works are burnished as quaint objects of urban ornamentation for the State’s new authority. As poor and working class neighborhoods are razed, developers are forced to allocate $1.8/sqft of production costs for buildings over 100,000 sq ft. to either build cultural space, or contribute to the city’s Public Art reserve. This funding arrangement, while only a variation on historic public patronage, is in fact symptomatic of a wholesale transformation of Vancouver itself. This cultural tax actually operates as a “sleight of hand” subsidy to developers. The culture industry begets the political economy that gives it its wings.
‘Living Shangri-La’ (2008)
City of Vancouver advertisement (2011)
Mark Dahl (untitled) altered postcard (with philosophical rhetoric) (2011)
According to the most recent Demografia Report, Vancouver is the most unaffordable city on the continent and the second most unaffordable city in the world.4 All the while tax cuts, price fixing and bail-outs continue unabated. One significant marker of this transformation is reflected in the housing market, as freshly created wealth is poured back into the housing bubble. The bubble has been successfully maintained at the cost of the nationalization of $125 billion dollars worth of toxic assets by the federal government.5 The reality has hit most Vancouverites hard: rents are far out of proportion with incomes, and the difference continues to grow. People cannot afford to live in their own neighborhoods, and increasingly, nowhere else in their city. This makes it particularly difficult for artists to work in the city since they have to pay exorbitant rents both to live and to make art. Even when artists are able to scrape together enough money to afford dwindling studio space, they are confronted with the constant threat of eviction. The list of evicted arts spaces in Vancouver has steadily lengthened: Red Gate, Or Gallery, Richards on Richards, WRKS DVSN, Hokos, Helen Pitt, (the list goes on). Artist-run centres are in a desperate state. In Vancouver, the reproduction of inequality is an entrenched characteristic of the culture industry itself. These symptoms have not stopped the ruling municipal party, Vision Vancouver, from placing culture in the diadem of its crown. In the global arena of ideas, the primary architect of this particular strain of sophism is Toronto-based urbanist and ‘Creative Class’ ideologue, Richard Florida. In Florida’s work, creativity is broadly re-defined to match the self-regarding ideas of savvy entrepreneurs and ‘creative’ accountants. Under his definition, the traditional sense of ‘creative workers’— artists, writers, filmmakers, etc., which by no means constitute a class in themselves— is vastly expanded to include an entire petty-bourgeoisie of ‘creative types’. The creative class is comprised of a whole range of sociological groups that are not involved in art at all, but are otherwise known as knowledge-based workers: dentists, bankers, financials speculators, nurses, real-estate marketers, designers and so on. ‘Creativity,’ then, is effectively whatever you want it to be, without any distinction between abstract expressionism and high-finance derivative trading, or even, no-wave musicians and dental surgeons (except for the fact that both go to great lengths to pull your teeth!). Cultural producers, instead of operating as enemies of the class relation, are converted into a class as such. In the midst of the entrenched stagnation crisis of late capitalism, which pits cities and regions against each other in a footrace to steal minor parts of the financial apparatus, distressed economies can only be floated to the surface by creativity. “Creativity,” as Florida has posited, “is now the decisive source of competitive advantage.”6 Closer to home, this line of thinking has been laid out by one of Florida’s cheerleader’s, Pier Luigi Sacco, who in 2007 produced a report for the city entitled “Power of the Arts: Creating a Great City,” with recommendations
Occupy Vancouver (2011)
to the City of Vancouver regarding the future of its economy.7 The report argued -- as the title implies -- that a ‘great city’ is defined by the extent to which it captures the largely untapped ‘power’ of the arts. In other words, to produce a unified identity attractive to local malcontents the state must try to capture the cognitive energies of its populace. Sacco writes, “The real issue now is involving the entire local community, in all its parts and diversity, into the challenge of innovation and the creation of a new type of industrial atmosphere.”8 ‘Innovation,’ here, functions as the cipher in a process that collapses ways of being and forms of life into the overriding errancy of the market. This ‘atmospheric’ re-industrialization is an apt metaphor for the integration of capital into every sphere of existence, in which the machinery of extraction is as ubiquitous as the air we breath. Labour, traditionally understood, becomes less “socially necessary” as flexible work patterns blur. As a greater number of workers are put in reserve by the dictates of a stagnating economy, capital begins to regard entire communities and localities as a resources for perpetual extraction. Its primary target: ‘culture’ as a future source of revenue. Sacco’s text points to an impasse which he dare not name: the prolonged crisis of late capitalism itself. The urgency which compensates for and interiorizes the crisis of ever-decreasing real production clearly places culture as the privileged mode with which to naturalize the ongoing processes of financial speculation, rent extraction and the reconfiguration of the labour market. In this instance, creativity must always be reduced to its socially productive force if it is to stand convincingly in the place of its old foe, work. The artist has been factored into the production-line even as the factories proper have continued to vanish from our hemisphere. As Hito Steyerl has remarked, artists are re-imagining themselves as the shock troop workers of our time.9 In the service of what is not a question that is asked often. We find real estate speculation in Vancouver matched by an equally speculative culture. Just as the financialization of capital accumulation leaves the commodity behind (M-C-M’) by making profit off money itself (M-M’), the artist, avoiding the fraught relations of art-object production altogether, accrues cultural capital directly without mediation. Other artists have gladly joined the ranks of image management consultancy and focus group with their pseudo-science quackery. With the continued socialization of aesthetics (or rather the de-socialization of everything else) artists make themselves available as a specialist for hire, with novel services and participatory experiences on offer. Their role is essentially the same as the romantic artist-genius of old, but with a twist: whereas once the avant-garde’s speciality was to seek out the holes in the system in order to tear them larger, now the artist uses these same skills to suture 7
Pier Luigi Sacco (2007)
any opening before anyone takes notice. Interdisciplinary practice, with its multiple audiences and scenes, is transformed into a glorious mechanism of networking, further interlocking different modalities into an undifferentiated space. Sacco continues: “In the best observed cases, it is culture that works as a ‘system activator,’ the element that spurs the local community to interiorize the challenges of radical innovation. Actually, culture becomes the social grammar through which the discourse of innovation is spelled out.”10 This spelling lesson, which Sacco imagines is given by art, no doubt highlights its managerial function. The State must ensure that creativity is fundamentally integrated into the mechanisms of value and by the same token divorced from any shred of resistance that would disrupt the investment cycle. Above all, art must be drained of any content of what we would regard as creation proper. When Vancouver initiates its plan to become the “most livable city in the world,” first it implements funding increases to the police department, and then to a smattering of fleeting art festivals.11 This shift in funding in fact clarifies the administrative function of State sponsorship, acting through diligent constraints and a bland uniformity that maintains artists in perpetual precarity and, in effect, ideological subservience. The fundamental insight is that the ‘Creative City’ does not correlate to an increase in the creativity of its populace. In fact, the creation here is the re-creation of the city itself, producing enormous profits for those who own it. There is increasingly little relation between art, city-state, and the people who live in the city itself, except as bodies to be displaced, shuffled around, or suppressed. Sacco makes this clear: the problem of Vancouver is primarily ontological: it must homogenize the disruptive multiplicity of its voices and harmonize by force if necessary. Only by this leap into great homogeneity can the city appear as a total image. As a result, our relation to the city is reduced to the safe, heavenly realm of spectatorship, while our lives are held hostage by its excess. City Hall has supplemented this process with a heady cocktail of rock bottom corporate taxes and a proliferation of festivals, all in a digital media entrepreneur incubator. According to the Vision Vancouver website, “by eliminating red tape, and creating a tax system that works with our creative business people and artists, Gregor Robertson and Vision Vancouver will ensure that our city fulfills its creative potential and becomes a centre of innovation in North America.”12 Of course, this change in the city’s image will take more than PR manipulations, it requires the re-articulation of the city fabric itself. Just as the buzzword of ‘creativity’ has moved in lockstep with massive wealth consolidation elsewhere (in the form of revitalization projects and harsh austerity measures in Michigan for instance13), this re-articulation is being written large across Vancouver as the province-city-developer nexus 8
Vancouver Police Department | Riot (2011)
actively demolishes the existing affordable rental and social housing stock. Huge swaths of developer owned land, blighted from disinvestment, will lay dormant until city hall provides the prime moment to cash in by selectively ‘upzoning’ vulnerable working-class districts. Increased funding of public art for the new exclusive but culturally-bereft neighbourhoods that result is the natural corollary to state-sponsored development and ‘mixed income’ projects encroaching into impoverished areas. The old is fashioned in new clothing. Dissatisfied with the city’s generic status and geographic marginality, Vancouver has launched into an imaginary program to remake itself anew. State power seeks to jumpstart international investment by remodeling itself after global financial centres. According to Mayor Robertson, Vancouver is set to become “the greenest city in the world by 2020.” After the 2008 financial crisis, less risky forms of investment were heralded as safe, secure and unassailable forms of profit in contrast to highly combustible, fickle, and riskier forms of financialization. At the time of their announcement, none of these claims were particularly novel. Proceeding after the 2008 Financial Crisis, Vancouver was not alone in its objective to become the greenest city in the world. In July 2009, London Mayor Boris Johnson promised to transform London, word for word, into the “cleanest and greenest city in the world.” In and amidst these two crises -- financial and environmental -- other cities followed suit: New York, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Berlin, Stockholm and others, all asserting similar campaigns and policies, and in separate occasions both London and Vancouver were to claim that their Olympics were the “greenest games ever.” Semantically, the Vancouver’s new “Green Capital” plan was intended to operate as a double entendre. The stress, however, was on the money-capital of “capital accumulation” while firmly situating this new form of monopoly capitalism at the territorial centre of the new green global economy. The primary goal of the policy docket, in contrast to more general statements on sustainability, was to champion Vancouver as “The Switzerland of the New Green Economy.” In this formulation, the city was intent on grounding capital against the internal crises of capitalism. Imaginatively conceived as its European double, Vancouver was also positioned in-and-against Switzerland. By rebranding itself “The Switzerland of the New Green Economy,” Vancouver was imaginatively conceived as a safe place to park capital. Throughout media tours and press conferences, Mayor Robertson would continually boast that the city was not hindered by the same encumbered tax system: “Vancouver has the lowest corporate taxes in the G8.” To put things bluntly, the primary goal of Vancouver’s “Green Capital” plan was to consign and re-capture the entirety of the environment to the 9
throws of capitalism’s value form. State Funding and its Discontents At this historical juncture, a select number of lavish grants for public art have encouraged individual production to align with the symbolic legitimation of state and private enterprise. During the Cultural Olympiad, unprecedented sums were offered by the city at the same time that provincial and federal grants dried up. If it wasn’t clear enough at the time, these deep-pocketed granting programs have since that time uncovered their jaundiced face, functioning on the level of outright bribery meant to dislodge collectivity, political action, and its adjunct critical practices. With a wink and nod, arts grants functioned as hush money, or worse yet, as consent for redevelopment of entire neighbourhoods. All the while, aesthetic production has been levelledout, with artists in turn conforming to the established conditions imposed by state sponsorship. Public art, in this form, blindly sought to anchor place, reflect the spirit of the Games, and above all mystify the social cleansing brought on by the ensuing redevelopment blitz. In the same vein as the Cultural Olympiad, the last couple of years has seen the rise of artists adorning state and private gentrification projects with an air of cultural propriety. At present, the utilitarian aspect of culture has firmly declared its presence with commissions such as Grow, a project curated by Barbara Cole of Other Sights for Artist Projects and administered by artist Holly Schmidt. Materially conceived as a community garden space for the Southeast False Creek area, Grow was also comprised of a planned program of talks, walks, and craft workshops. Planted kiddy-corner to ‘Habitat Island’ (the city’s own artificial projection of its pre-contact self ), Grow was assembled from a bricolage of industrial materials and garden boxes. According to Schmidt, “The objective of this program is to explore Vancouver’s expanding identity as a sustainable city through the site of SEFC.”14 Caught in the paradoxical bind of a grant application which no longer corresponds to reality, Schmidt aligns her installation word for word with the City’s self-serving discourse of ‘sustainability,’ regardless of the sustainability of the site (economic or social). It is hard to have a quarrel with a community gardens, but by adopting the logic of the development, Grow disarms the project’s possibility to confront the contradictions of the site, and consolidates a cohesive identity for the city that dissolves all political disputes. Accordingly, the project facilitates the investment of cultural capital into the transitional land with a set of signifiers for civic participation – “public forum,” “teaching tool,” and “creative laboratory”– at the same time as it disregards the failure of the SEFC project to reach any of its goals whatsoever. In doing so, any disjunctive relationship to the Olympic Village, which actually could produce an aesthetic or political intervention, is foreclosed.
Holly Schmidt Grow (2011)
By extension, the project’s supposed site-specificity comes to reside entirely within the self-same site of the State, or more precisely: nowhere. Schmidt’s practice is founded on fostering an informed dialogue concerning the crisis of food sovereignty, yet the conversation remains at the level of a high dining menu of vegetable exotica. Actual sustainability is not on hand. Instead it is perennially put on display. The original promise of the work of art, like the Olympic Village itself, is illusory. Quoting Adorno: “All it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu.”15 Mass hunger persists with the rise of these culinary arts. Effectively drained of content, the project begins to take the look of a temporary marketing platform, as mobile and fleeting as the freshly-pressed shipping crates and super sacks from which it was constructed. The quaint nature of the project is just the other side of social cleansing. As a sublimated extension of the early avant-garde, social practice preserves a commitment to social engagement, but eschews its anarchic impulse for sabotage. By collapsing the possible meaning of participation to the lowest common denominators of modern anomie, and by limiting the bonds of collective articulation of possible solidarities to the limited span of a project (usually a few months at most), it effectively reinforces the absence of a collective stake and becomes a visage of social amnesia, renouncing the social memory of an art founded on irreverence and opposition. So long as social practitioners consider their work as an extension of the service industry, they will inevitably be put into the service of class restoration. In this scenario, artists will no longer attempt to produce the commons or create communal forms of life. Instead, according to the latest Parks Board policy, they will simply seek to “expand the opportunities of the experience of art in everyday life” -- an experience that, sapped of any kernel of militancy, can only be understood as the everyday life of capitalist domination.16 Public Art When assessing the current public artworks of the city, one can discern two types of monumental public sculpture: one that resuscitates iconicity from consumer culture, and another that constructs material abstraction from the legacies of non-representational sculpture. The resuscitation of these two forms, presented for instance by the Vancouver Sculpture Biennale, confronts us with the false dialectic of today’s sculpture-making. On one hand, there is the deployment of glossy materials in the empty satisfaction of commercial iconography. On the other, there is a reassertion of the refined and heroic materials of the industrial revolution that had grafted onto advanced sculpture in the inter and post-war period 11
Yvonne Domeng Olas de Viento (2010)
— chrome, steel or glass. Abstraction in contemporary sculpture has been repositioned along these lines, surrendered to the abstraction of money, with flowing volumetric formalism standing-in for an equally contentless metaphysics of capital flows. Deceptively attached to the ground by its weight, these sculptures conform to the touristic structure of the Biennale. Ultimately they will be sold and removed from their temporary placement in the city, returning to the global purgatory from which they came. No longer posing any threat to the dominant regime of visibility, nor with any connection to the spaces in which they are situated, the only content of these sculptural abstractions is its list of corporate owners. Here, the object of consumer culture either adopts the playful grandeur of Walt Disney wish-fulfillment, or acquires a dimension of ludic detachment from the object’s cause of fetishistic desire. Once we have glanced at the bigger history of of art over the last fifty years, we can say with confidence that the exceptional inflation of the cultural readymade does not lead to the envisioned liberation from the object’s shackles. Against this naive hope, the readymade ultimately affirms the rule of the commodity culture all the more. It is now concretized, situated everywhere, especially within those illusory spaces where the city seeks amnesty from the ubiquitous, proto-totalitarian nature of Gastown’s tourist platform. Almost a century removed from Duchamp, the readymade becomes less and less the challenge of object-relations and more the distinguished affirmation and total integration of the artwork into the political economy of the commodity. To cite Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, artists still compelled to resurrect the readymade in the mode of Vancouver Biennale are like those who having “encountered Duchamp’s urinal in 1917 would have proposed to exhibit a kitchen sink the next year, fully convinced that they had become a radical artist overnight.”17 The iconic commodity-form and industrial space begin to mirror one another just as they are generalized into the built environment. In Vancouver in particular, the condominium is exemplary for being both an abstract articulation of space punctuated by chrome, steel and glass, as well as being a standardized, reproducible form. Conversion of single room occupancy hotels into luxury ‘microlofts’ takes this process to new heights. Confronted with this conflation of public art and the commodity form, advanced art becomes severed from its wayward path. In particular it is released from the element that Plato expelled from the ideal city: ‘divine terror,’ in which the artist seeks to produce a new world ex nihilio. Instead, state sponsored art produces its own promise of happiness, yielding to the disinterested 12
Rodney Graham Aerodynamic Forms in Space (2010)
spectator who transits placidly through the pre-formulated spaces of the city. When Myfawny MacLeod evoked the “unending terror” of The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) in her large scale SEFC sculpture, it was in the hope that her work would channel the same affective response as Hitchcock’s unnerving film. MacLeod’s Birds tower over the setting as emblems of what she has called an “artifice of the natural.” Utilizing the familiar qualities of the domesticated house sparrow, MacLeod’s Birds are even more vulgar and lewd in their unnatural enlargement. Yet in the end MacLeod’s sculpture shares the same fate as their territory, the Olympic Athletes Village. Similar to Holly Schmidt’s attempt, both art and site are drawn onto the same terrain of an unrealized potential and failed destiny.
‘Micro-lofts’ at the Paris Block (2012)
Initially, the Olympic Village was designed as a sustainable, mixed-income housing complex capable of offsetting the surge in real-estate prices and displacement associated with the 2010 Olympics. The original development called for two-thirds affordable housing, with a full half of that set aside for those who need support through deep core housing. ‘The Village’ was set to be an inclusive, socially sustainable community that Vancouver could be proud of. Now the project has turned into its nightmarish opposite: an exclusive, luxury complex for the rich, sitting partially empty to control supply and maximize profit, but also ironically because the site requires extensive repairs due to shoddy construction. The Athletes Village cannot provide the kernel of social organicism that MacLeod would critique, since it is positively not the community it was envisaged to become. After many broken promises, it is just like every other parcel of land in Vancouver—an opportunity for real estate speculation; a piece of lance handed over to the rich. MacLeod’s Birds are not the objects she claims so much as their mirror image: a facsimile of terror. Punctuating the morbid silence that characterizes this absolutized space, one hears the muted play of well-dressed children who use the sculptures as their personal jungle-gym, while their parents, in a gesture of distantiation, impatiently eat a scone from Terra Breads. Although the Birds in their profanity attempt to intervene into the mobilization of Nature by the state, in the end they capitulate to the site and are converted into the uncompromising idols of a false promise. In their celebratory monumentality, they can only mutely confirm and sanctify the processes which facilitated their creation. The site can only naturalize the artifice of kleptocracy. As such, MacLeod’s Birds are unfortunately reduced to a mere simulation, a collection of images glued together from Marlin Perkins’ archive. Their inflated iconography, when made visible from the condo’s perspective, is certainly not the “return of the repressed” — the traumatic disruption of one’s social and psychic identity through the encounter with the uncanny — but rather the designation of the sanitized global arena through which the propertied class alone can navigate.
Myfawny MacLeod The Birds (2010)
The Museal City In the same moment that public art comes to surrender to the commodity form, the city itself starts to resemble a museum. To quote the Vancouver Biennale website: “The Vancouver Biennale is a biennial public art exhibition that brings sculptures, new media, and performance works by celebrated and emerging international artists to Vancouver area public parks, beaches and urban plazas, transforming the city into an open-air museum.”18 As we have seen since Expo ’86, the format of the world exposition has been generalized throughout the city, a process exacerbated with the arrival of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The city has become a massive Crystal Palace,19 where Marx is said to have chronicled the specious characteristics of the commodity-form. The result of this transformation is a city that permanently positions itself as though it is on display, making its wares legible to capital. At this juncture, art is less and less an ambitious act of everyday life, or even an exceptional field of creation, but rather a substance subjected to bureaucratic supremacy, equal in content to the most banal forms of distraction. For the city’s “Mapping + Marking” project headed-off during the Cultural Olympiad, the museification of the city was produced on demand, seamlessly contained within the circuits of the commodity form. Two projects sponsored by the city are exemplary: Geoffrey Farmer’s Every Letter of the Alphabet (2010) and Paul Wong’s 5 (2010). As signaled by their titles, both works claimed to index every possible configuration of a domain, linguistic or sensorial. This encyclopedic space is conceived as co-extensive with the spaces of the city. Standing in his recently renovated space of 1875 Powell St, Farmer would utter this uninspiring statement: “In my mind I am imagining that people might come here on the weekend, that they might say, oh lets go check out, ‘Every Letter of the Alphabet;’ then grab a coffee, and then go to value village, and then go up to the drive. That it could be a little expedition. I want the space to be an experience, that there’s something for them to look at, but also they could browse, and spend some time. That’s something we’re trying to create.”20 Infused with parasitic inertia, art becomes a continuation of the capitalist dérive, where one moves from one high glass storefront to another. The linguistic shuffling of signifiers that constitutes the piece appears as a strategy borrowed from the recuperative economy itself, which, like the tax-exempt 14
Karl Marx at the Crystal Palace (1851)
redevelopment of a heritage building, or the thrift store that Farmer mentions, remobilizes junk back into the economy for profit. During the exhibition, Farmer’s “three word show” publicly solicited three word text pieces, later to be assembled and hand painted on wooden signs. In selective contexts, the anonymity and collaborative nature of the piece served to produce humorous, mind-bending responses. But the ambiguity and ironic distancing that generally determined certain pieces such as “I’m loving it,” “We Are Oh,” “Stalin was pleased,” “Red Green Blue,” failed to add up. The potential for such collaborations is ultimately suffocated by the space’s discursive cacophony. In the absence of a semi-coherent narrative you are left to wonder what the stakes of the project are beyond a free-floating play of text and sign. Moving on an analogous terrain, Paul Wong’s 5 fits the regulatory movements of Farmer’s museum city, this time granting a false aestheticization to the empirical world.21 5 is framed as a supreme aesthetic experience of the city. Dictated by the elective affinities of the five senses, Wong maintains that there is no difference between art and practical life. Yet Wong’s aesthetics of an administered life does not transform existence according to the ideals of truth and justice provided by a truly liberated sensation and collectivity. On the contrary, it guarantees the myth that the state has always-already realized the promise of a “good life” by ensuring every sensual and aesthetic possibility in advance. Under this rubric, it makes sense that part of Wong’s project takes the form of a tourist charter bus, entitled ZOOOOOM, that takes viewers on a moving audio/visual tour of the city’s glorious presence. This story about the city’s glory is a very old one. The Latin phrase found on British Columbia’s coat of arms, “splendor sine occasu,” literally translates to “splendour without diminishment,” or “beauty without end.” From its founding, the Province and the City are positioned along the transcendental continuum of the divine. A work of art whose sole purpose is to consolidate the weekend experience of the city reminds us that -- in the presence of splendor sine occasu -- origins do not discontinue what they initiate. There is an intimate connection between the city and its creation, since it is a continuous creation of the unending governmentality of its own spectacle. In the Vancouver of today, glory is sustained in the everyday rituals and practices that monumentalize the City, embodied in its countless ceremonies, celebrations and public appearances. This is where the insatiable search for super-profits by the developer-monopoly, grasped alongside the city’s quest for surplus enjoyment and modelled on the commodification of nature through the condo-view. This is precisely how Wong’s 5 remains a faithful duplicate of spectacle’s “practical life,” transforming the terrain through slight displacements. This phenomena is described succinctly by Hito Steyerl, who 15
writes in e-flux (detourning Hans Ulrich-Obrist) that, “if contemporary art is the answer, the question is, how to make capitalism more beautiful.”22 Placing Resistance to the Side In this moment of class war instigated from above, public art is asked to do whatever it takes to invest a sense of conclusion in the present and its immanent future. If a residue of class antagonism persists in the work, it is displaced to ‘dialogues,’ roundtables on ‘Vancouverism,’ and any form of gathering capable of exhausting the tattered tropes of civic engagement. The continued irrelevance of the academic, petite-bourgeois public sphere and its mode of experience — its desire for mild, unfocused conversation and centrist consensus — has required a constant adaptation, development and redeployment of cultural practices in order to shelter our identity from the onslaught of precarity and the complete proletarianization of everyday life. The eternal present of struggle and autonomy is literally obscured, occluded like the moon during an eclipse, while art and its criticism is subordinated to the grueling schedule of unremunerated labour, art fairs and “conferences on conferences.” Take for example the recent conversation held at the Western Front hosted by Instant Coffee and Other Sights. The event, entitled ‘The Future is Floating,’ was prompted by developer Rize Alliance’s recent rezoning application for the corner of Broadway & Kingsway, up the street from the Western Front. The event’s blurb was enough to make you to spit venom: We have decided to create an opportunity for creative thinkers to respond to the situation by putting our resistance to one side, to positively imagine a better future. We are pooling our speculative skills to riff on the possibility of economic and other forms of diversity, a different definition of sustainability: to use our critical and problem solving skills without a pre-determined agenda, and without the intent to come to conclusions.23 According to Other Sights, by means of a strange calculus, the attempt to imagine a better future is equivalent to putting resistance to one side. Not only should critics disarm themselves, they should also enjoy their assumed impotence. Political action is disavowed and dismissed, while the fictitious consensus of the political arena is upheld. The immobility of speculative fortunetelling mires the present situation. Imagination and a collective will inspired by class struggle is put under erasure. Rather than being sutured to a real unfolding situation, critical thought is found always-already looking off to an imagined horizon. Here, recourse to speculation proceeds from the desire to prolong the discussion indefinitely and to expunge criticism from everyday life. Two symptoms have become 16
Rize Alliance slogan
dominant: a refusal to feel out a given situation for weak links, as well as as a deafness to the logic of objective enemies (in this case developers and a developer-backed city hall). Under this rubric, it becomes clear that the art solicited by Other Sights is only intent on advocating for an administered, future-oriented subjectivity devoid of any content whatsoever. The exhausting dance of survival that most cultural producers are now forced to endure forever requires one to disavow all suffering, schizophrenia and neurosis. In a desperate drive for survival artist-run centers are increasingly pandering to the dictates of real estate-drunk, picture-buying class; or assume the same stature of developers themselves. Take for example the argument espoused by another ‘Future is Floating’ panelist, Brian McBay, Executive Director of the artist run center 221a. McBay adheres to the mandate of the ‘productivist aesthetic.’ Yet Productivism for McBay is purged of all art historical referents. His productivism is not an adherence to some vestige of soviet productivism, but a productivism geared to the dictates of the market. In McBay’s words, 221a is fashioned to function as a “real estate developer.” In a word, this farcical statement reveals the true colours of contemporary artistic creation. In his essay “Dismantling Modernism: Notes on the Politics of Representation” (1976), Allan Sekula addresses what he sees as the dangers of this form of overdeveloped bureaucratism in current strands of contemporary art: Modernism, per se (as well as the lingering ghost of bohemianism), is transformed into a farce, into a professionalism based on academic appointments, periodic exposure, lofty real estate speculation in the former factory districts of decaying cities, massive state funding, jet travel, and increasingly ostentatious corporate patronage of the arts. This last development represents an attempt by monopoly capital to “humanize” its image for the middle-managerial and professional sub-classes (the vicarious consumers of high culture, the museum audience) in the face of an escalating legitimation crisis. The newly minted professional-productivist artist are praised as the vanguard of artistic culture. A week later, when McBay would later restate his position for the Vancouver Art Gallery at the conference “Unlikely Architectures: The Futures of the Creative City” (24 April 2012), VAG curator Bruce Grenville applauded 221a as an exciting new model for artist-run centres. Amidst this transformation of the collective imperative towards corporate culture, true artistic creation is streamlined to fit the dictates of the market and its institutions, increasingly justified in being distinguished by the embarrassing stigmata of simple ornamentation. The Everyday Life of Commerce The last century’s desire for artists to turn their backs to the museum, to 17
Tangential Vancouverism at 221a (2012)
merge art and life, and to challenge the institution of art has today often operated as a means to re-ground the alienating effects of capitalism and regenerate inner-city neighborhoods. Traditional avant-garde strategies of transgression, refusal and anti-aesthetics are evacuated along with the withering away of collaborative artist-run culture, deskilling, and the other deferred practices of the 60s and 70s. At this moment, we are confronted with a real problem: how is one to compete against the culture industry, when all strategies of resistance appear acculturated and irretrievable? What are we to do with the intersection of official politics and state art in Vancouver at the moment when these two surpluses — surplus value and surplus enjoyment — intersect? Today, if the ambitious acrobatics of negativity, criticality, or historical subtraction are forgotten, the hazy marks found on the balancing scales of the ego take their place. When artistic creation is no longer measured by its exceptionality, nor by its commitment to equality, justice or resistance, a work is measured instead by its ability to elicit some emotive, visceral content. Feelings of happiness, melancholia, or guilt become interchangeable. Vitalism and narcissism have returned with a vengeance, and if one gets depressed by the torpid remarks of your peers, all the better. During our prolonged moment of blurred relativism, art criticism has lost a sense of itself, too: there is now no difference between good and bad works, true or false ideas. Dispensing with all forms of critical judgement, all that remains is the persistent shell of arbitrary taste (vestiges of an imagined ruling class still haunting the hollowed vaults of the Vancouver Art Gallery). To quote Hal Foster on contemporary criticism: If Kant asked, “Is the work beautiful?” and Duchamp, “Is it art?” we tend to wonder, “How does it affect me?” Where we once spoke of “quality,” as judged by comparison with great work of the past, and then about “interest” and “criticality,” which are more socially synchronic than artistically diachronic in emphasis, we now often look for pathos, which cannot really be tested objectively or, when experienced as trauma, communicated with others much at all. One person’s punctum is another’s yawn.24 Taking stock of the situation, the ego reigns supreme and the cult of heroic individuality accumulates a surplus of affect, all the while artistic production becomes the trash heap of hyper-individualized identity formations. If art seeks to secure the unbridled rites of private property, it is to make us learn to disavow the characters of unrest, loneliness, pain, surveillance, governmentality, exclusion, as well as those innumerable yards of linen that make up the modern metropolis. A snapshot of the last three years of cultural production in Vancouver might 18
Byron Peters and Julia Higgs C.O.V. (2010)
Raymond Boisjoly All that was, will always have been, somehow never again (2010)
at first appear to tell a different story than the one painted so far. In response to the ramification of administrative aesthetics, there has also been an increase in the volatility of its image-bank, in the form of a return to an explicitly politicized art. It might appear that at this moment of global strikes and occupations, renewed political consciousness corresponds to an equally advance artistic production. Gone are the minute details of individual consumer malaise, replaced with an invocation of the emancipatory potential still situated in everyday life, or summoned by the force of collective action. In Endlessly Traversed Landscapes (2010), a bus shelter and billboard poster project curated by Marlene Madison and Natalie Doonan during the Olympic Games, presented a collection of images that opposed or complicated the claims of the 2010 Games. The trope of antagonism, however, was found scattered in every which way. As we currently scramble blindly out of the haze of the Olympics, what is distressing is how political antagonism was — and still is — channeled through its material support. Endlessly Traversed Landscapes project reminded us that when politics is siphoned through an overly-established ad-space — the technical support of a flattened, elongated image — the works becomes less and less an intervention in the visual field of total-capital and more and more a paired-down semblance for the unresponsive, twirly-eyed spectator of the nationalist charade. For the curator of Endlessly Traversed Landscapes, it may appear sufficient to quote Guy Debord and rely on the politics of appropriation to substantiate the project’s criticality. But as Doonan would also admit, Endlessly Traversed Landscapes lingered in the realm of mimesis, reflecting back the absent message of advertising. In this case, the billboard’s technical support becomes the ideal fulcrum for state sponsored art to pose as self-reflexively critical. Under this rubric, art has no outside, succumbing to the remote-control uniformity of the spectacular industrial apparatus. The contemporary relevance of Debord and the practices of detournement, or even the dérive, de-evolves to a sound bite deployed strategically for a grant application. The peculiar call for art to “transgress,” “misbehave,” or “disrupt” the everyday life of commerce — to quote the words of VAG curator Kathleen Ritter at a talk given at Langara College in 2011 — is also often accompanied by an unspoken proviso: that the fundamental coordinates of the system do not change.25 Against the deterioration of medium specificity, contemporary art is said to still make use of its technical support — the ad-space of the billboard for example — to which it makes a recursive reference as a form of self-reflexive self-criticism. But today, when everyone is compelled to be ‘critical,’ self-critique often regresses to knee-jerk reaction. Projects founded on the principles of ‘radical critique’ appear more disingenuous and flimsy than committed and rigorous. Critique is tinged with left-wing melancholia that frames capitalism as the unsurpassable horizon of our time. The histori21
Kevin Schmidt Nelson at Expo Boulevard (2010)
cal project of emancipation is forgotten, or worse, treated with nostalgia. Alternative modes of production — either an operational strategy of organization or an in-operational mode of sabotage — are occluded in place of a wispy notion of resistance. If read ungenerously, these practices return to the city in the form of imagistic white-noise. Situated within the uncompromising ad-space of Vancouver, the Situationist imperative is purged of contagion. Rather than being generated from the relentless questioning of either Capitalism or the State, political concerns are addressed by anticipating class antagonism in advance, proceeded by a series of regulatory practices in order to defuse or channel opposition. As a rule, grant based public art must strip itself of any trace of violence to the situation (that which invokes divine terror) in order to adhere to the illusory consistency of the situation.26 In doing so, the artist’s work is rendered ‘merely interesting,’ abandoned to the contemplative shore of Spanish Banks or Third Beach. Under the city’s present configuration, bus shelters and billboards become a preferred means of deflating politics and advanced aesthetics onto a hollowed-out technical support. This serves equally true for Bitter and Weber’s Sign for the City, Joe Sola’s Joe Sola is Not Making Art, Doupé and Whitman’s Adorno and Nose, and Anna Ruth’s Sensory Maps. Concerning Bitter and Weber’s Sign for the City, the work uncovered a suppressed history of resistance, systemic institutional racism, forgotten cultural works and producers, as well as working-class narratives. Most often (and we are speaking generally here) the problem with history is that it is all too easily relegated to the factual and anecdotal realm, and accordingly, one is abandoned to consider the mystified, unchanging historical panorama of that which does not change.27 Against the statist encyclopedia and its drive to over-contextualize, it is not a matter of merely referencing, citing, and remembering oppressed moments in history. Rather, the predicament in question concerns the very structure of presentation and the multiple techniques of witnessing that enables subjects to possess history in their own moment. It means pitting the eternity of struggle and the singularity of its self-affirmation against the drive to blandly historicize, over-contextualize and live out-of-time — outside the present rather than imminently beyond it. “To possess history,” as Walter Benjamin challenges in his often-misunderstood Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), is to stroke history with the eternal kernel of the present — “to transform it anew,”28 in his words. To possess history is not to shelter it in clouds of archival dust, but to commit history to violence, delivered in the form of a forceful subjectivity that rips the past out of its immobile context in order to destroy it, making it “citable at every moment.”29 This form of citation does not endlessly catalogue past incidences of struggle. To think one’s own discontinuity with the current 22
Althea Thauberger Ecce Homo (2012)
situation is to incorporate one’s very being into an exception. What matters is the possibility of tearing the past from its stable representation, activating an unrealized project still located in our own moment, recognizing that the ‘failures’ of the past constitute the possibility of the present. In their defense, it becomes Bitter and Weber’s prerogative to resist the pacifying effects of any official history. By moving partially away from their project’s reduction to its technical support, Sign for the City was extended as a pocketsized calendar. Within its book form, the text was minimal and its blank pages adopt an undeclared prominence. Through its Mallarmeian expediency, the text unfurls a void that asserts a modest anti-monumentality. By channelling this minimal disruption, Bitter and Weber’s calendar affirmed the possibility that history — and political struggle itself — contains an aleatory inconsistency. In opposition to any weak thought that attempts to speak to “the uncertainty of the future,” Bitter & Weber recognizes that the egalitarian contingency of worlds lies within the efficacy of every political sequence — an either/or, a yes/no decision of any sequence of truth. To build-off of Susan Buck-Morss in her foundational Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (2009), we should frame any universal truth as singular, but understand that it is also “a continuous process of inquiry because it builds on a present that is moving ground.” History is unpredictable and contingent because, as she continues, “it keeps running away from us, going places we, mere humans, cannot predict.”30 Under the watchful eye of the void and the egalitarian contingency of an actually unfolding political sequence, Bitter & Weber’s calendar exposes the possibility of a collaboration with the masses who are and make history unpredictable. Just before the installation of Bitter & Weber’s calendar piece, another public text-based work appeared, hung at the Vancouver Public Library. The work, addressing a different sort of contingency, is Raymond Boisjoly’s Contingent Matters (2011) -- six banners installed at the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library. With fragments such as, “with memory of all it would leave undone,” or “in the face of all it could have become” the piece, in its totality, hinted at the unencumbered unpredictability of worlds. However confusing or banal they may at first appear, there remains something liberatory within the text. In the twists and turns and verbal play, there is a suggestion of an unhindered contingency: that nothing is necessary except the necessity that nothing is necessary. “It was now there again to be made real,” another banner reads. In this sense, the real of thought is proposed as a fissure in reality that undoes the bonds of the world. ‘Thought,’ in its most emancipatory and activist sense, undoes the bonds of an established world. Herbert Marcuse once claimed that “the truth of art consists in its capacity to shatter the monopoly of constituted reality 23
Raymond Boisjoly Contingent Matters (2010)
(that is of those who constituted it) and to define what is real.”31 What is real, in effect, is an operation produced by its own contingency, counterposed to a reality that necessitates the existing state of things. Marcuse states further, “in this break, which is the conquest of the aesthetic form, the fictitious world of art appears as the true reality.” Thought at its limits -- as proposed by Boisjoly -- is a “hope against hope and whatever else.” Against the mode of an empty campaign slogan from yesteryear (Obama), this double negative of hope against hope constitutes a contingent response of rebellion (or whatever else) to the idea that hope is the limit-point of the present. Ou-Topos One of the more conflictual practices to address is that of Holly Ward. Ward is an artist who is consistently at pains to evoke historical referents of utopia in her practice. Whether it is her geodesic dome at Langara College Pavillion (2010), the large-scale CBC neo-constructivist poster, or the most recent exhibition at Artspeak, Persistence of Vision (2011), a profaned utopia can be seen everywhere. Ward’s Pavillion -- a geodesic dome installed at Langara college -- functioned as a platform for events and exhibitions for a few months in 2010. Conceived as a space for speculative thinking, the dome fulfilled the institutional requirements of her residency by situating itself firmly under the tutelage of the university. However radical and necessary the content of these presentations, participation within this loaded space, already limited by Pavilion’s short timespan, was slanted towards the fixed roles of student and teacher, performer and audience, within a space historically sutured to the productive, technocratic apparatus of capital. A university discourse begets the university form. The exhibitions of art, on the other hand, presented “artworks that function as generative, reflexive tools that orient us towards our collective future”32 without describing what that future might mean. Futurity without an emancipatory project that orients it too often fixes the necessity of an artificial telos, grounding to the immobile imagination of the consumerist present. Utopia, in this case, is left to float in the sea of warm feelings and little else. In this way, Pavillion inadvertently reproduced the intangible structure of the university, where thought is permitted insofar as it rejects putting radical ideas into practice. In another work, Persistence of Vision presented at Artspeak in 2011, conflict and dissensus were similarly obfuscated in a series of decontextualized posters that evoked more soft-focused notions of progressivity and criticality. “Better Abodes on Other Stars,” “Disappearance of the Merely Factual,” “Building on Hollow Space,” “Production of the Waking Dream,” were a handful of slogans that made it onto her candy-coloured posters, whose vague airing of possibilities seemed a little more starry-eyed than realist. Ambiguity here 24
Holly Ward Persistence of Vision (2011)
Holly Ward Pavillion (2010)
emerges as the stand-in for the radical openness and inconsistency of an actually unfolding political sequence. Channeled through the material support of the poster, the concept of utopia is trivialized to a mere referent, rather than composed of the cleaved substance resonating throughout the given state of things at any given time. In the naively-optimistic blog Vancouver is Awesome, Ward claimed that utopia is “peaceful.”33 In this formulation, utopia is the site of non-contradiction from which class and social antagonism are evacuated. Ward says: I think the ideal, which is utopia, it’s peaceful. It is not necessarily something that is loaded with contentious issues, which is why it always remains hypothetical in real life and the real world where there always are contentious issues and that’s just the reality. Ward’s pavilion became the site of a deferral in which the utopic moment of antagonism is no longer grounded in the structural weakness of the situation, instead latching onto the clutches of an absent image. Art is streamlined to correspond to an administered identity-formation, while its pavilions become myths of a diluted gratification and erased antagonism. As Jeff Derksen is right to claim in his essay on Ward in her exhibition at Artspeak, the project of utopia is an embodied, everyday occurrence -- a concrete instance.34 For Ward, however, the concrete is channelled through a textual masquerade. In Persistence of Vision in particular, the work is not tuned to the embodied experience of an axiomatic politics, that is to say, a politics that cuts across the rigid organization of places in Vancouver. Rather, the idea of utopia is transmuted into a cursory report-back on someone else in some faraway country — in this case to Egypt and Bahrain — and whose language is reduced to a set of dislodged quotes poached from Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope (1995). Utopia is framed as that-which-has-just-happened; or, that-which-hashappened-a-long-time-ago; or even, that-which-may-become; but above all, never that which is happening in the here-and-now. To put it differently, a committed recourse to utopian thinking in Vancouver must evaluate the concrete conditions of any moment: the specific “there is” of contemporary politics. To complete this thought -- the presence of a concrete utopia in Vancouver marks all that is coming to pass in the present. Force and torsion are the only terms that utopia understands. Without them, the idea of utopia dissolves into a textual waltz plunged back into historical time. Certainly politics is not just about sit-ins and molotov cocktails, just as aesthetics is not merely about the expansion of sensory possibility. Politics, no doubt, includes the long, slow process of supplementation that follows any 25
Clint Burnham reading at Pavillion (2011)
political event — political meetings, door-to-door pamphleting, never-ending email correspondence, and all those other banal activities whose purpose is to carry-forward a political sequence. Under these terms, politics disregards any vitalist principle that places activity on the side of fluctuating sensations and other affective responses. It places activity on the side of a set of axioms — justice, equality, truth — that displaces feelings of anxiety, terror or despair. From this perspective, it is possible to discern in Ward a concern for the effective discontinuity scintillating in the world. Against the world’s apparent closure and finitude, Ward seeks to show how that-which-has-no-place-to-be (utopia) comes to make its own place. We must be determined to say, and without an ounce of mysticism or messianism, that ‘emancipatory politics’ is the very name that clears room for that which was formerly placeless. One should always remember that these formerly-placeless, agitated moments are always-already there within the situation at hand, [...] like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.35 Utopian or not, this is how politics operates: it dislocates from one time the possibility of another. ‘The utopian’ recommences the search for a presenttense. This search for another time is one that labors to distinguish the old from the new — a time that integrates the ruination of the old order in its very being. It is a time that is unconcerned with the technocratic consensus of our long neoliberal moment, indefinitely telescoping into the distance. Informed by the embodied practices of utopia in Vancouver -- in the here and now of Vancouver’s overdetermined metropolis -- it is clear that the work of struggle resides directly in the present, within the unbearable contradictions at hand. If one accepts the thesis that the city is now a monument for social reproduction of the commodity-form, we should add with equal weight that it remains the space of encounters: it breeds antagonism, collective resentment, as well as self-affirmation when any number of people come together in opposition to the dominant ordering of the world. Against the drive to sustain the status quo, politics is the name of the movement that seeks the permanent abolition of the existing state of things. The city in its current form is most certainly the site of this precise struggle, where the regime of private property is met with the people’s ability and capacity to cooperatively construct something new outside the logic of exploitation and its barren self-interest. 26
Vancouver Riot (2011)
In Search of a Present-Tense In a time when it has become doxa for the work of art not to address anything outside itself, and especially not to analyze the contradictions structuring the larger historical context, it is fitting that new developments on the scene witness a re-emergence of cultural solidarity with oppressed and exploited classes. For the tenured almost-retired professoriat, the stakes are low enough for it to not matter. Isolated in their Shaughnessy mansions, they seek comfort in their neo-colonial fortifications while lecturing on Henri Matisse. That is why the city’s haute intelligentsia feels so comfortable using conflict as a distant reference. In a strange turn of events, a worker’s riot is something you can curate or re-enact just when the city is about to burst into flames.36 In Vancouver, politics simply becomes something you talk about over a cocktail at the Waldorf, with no chance of reveling in the rapturous vengeance of actualizing a rebellion. Another fictive detour might be useful here. Take for example the irreverence of the penniless Simon Tanner in Robert Walser’s recently translated The Tanners (1907).37 After arriving an hour late at the bank where he is employed as a thankless clerk, Simon is fired by the bank’s director. Simon responds with a tirade that sends the director reeling: [Simon Tanner]: “… I am glad to be leaving you without a reference letter in hand, for a reference from you would only remind me of my own cowardice and fear, a condition of sluggishness and relinquished strength, of days spent in idleness, afternoons filled with furious attempts at escape, evenings dedicated to sweet but pointless longings. …” [Bank Director]: “Young man, you are far too hot-heated!” The director said. “You are undermining your own future–” [Simon Tanner]: “I don’t want a future, I want a present. To me this appears of greater value. You have a future only when you have no present, and when you have a present, you forget to even think about the future.” In one way, this scene can be read as a typical “prefer not to” moment as immortalized on the pages of Herman Melville’s Bartleby (1853).38 However, Walser’s subject is not sacrificed in the realm of a non-decision, but instead is determined to move through the punctuations of a liberated present. Simon Tanner lives in perpetual novelty. When all exits appear barricaded by spectacular society, Simon Tanner shows that one has to make their way by walking it; or, when there is no exit, one should walk through walls. To put it simply, it is not enough to merely recognize, identify or carelessly dismiss a utopian moment. Surely, it is not enough to make art out of it. To be equal to the subject at hand, one must incorporate oneself into the concrete consequences of the rupture itself. It comes down to sharing these cuts 28
Vancouver Riot (2011)
and ruptures, communizing each evental sequence. Or, to put it differently: a political subject must come to know and to incorporate what it means to think and live under the conditions of specific transformations in both politics and art. This can only come about from within the situation itself. At some instances, these unprecedented encounters may occur in a flash, as in the encounter with the dint of Jameson’s diseased eyeball. Alternatively, they may oscillate in the dialectic of negation-subtraction-affirmation, embodied in the defiance of Robert Walser’s unemployable figure. Such defiance cannot come from somewhere outside the situation — from some fantastical, unimaginable space of leftist speculation. The challenge is to mark within the present the discontinuity gleaned from the old world, giving support to the continuity of a new sequence. Of course, when poverty persists throughout Vancouver, we also have to think the fetters of the situation: to think what is old. But the secret answer to these questions — What is novelty? What is it to Live? — lies in the fact that there exists a realm of art and politics that can only be affirmed, rather than merely acculturated. The interval of any event is the spatialization of verbal time: an enjambment, a caesura, a pause — nothing short of an art as a temporal being. An art that is eternally searching for a present-tense point by point. In other words, an art that holds true to a new sequence capable of bearing the consequences extracted from the effective disruption within this world. Against the logic of the given situation and its two-faced bribes, all those forms of contemporary art that have triumphantly earned such a name as “art” (and not culture) have done so because they initiated a new time. Its foundational cut is neither located in the past nor the future, but exposes the liberated-now of the present in all of its novelty.
Stan Douglas Abbot & Cordova 9 August 1971 (2011)
Endnotes: 1 Pier Luigi Sacco, who will be introduced later, describes the dilemma of the ‘dual city’ as the tense standoff between a “culturally active but relatively low income” East, and a “economically affluent but culturally limited” West, but this analysis neglects the concerted and systematic effort to both (1) displace residents of poor and working class neighborhoods with blanket upzonings, police quotas and ‘frontierist’ and exclusionary businesses, and (2) prevent or destroy the diffusion of social housing or supportive services to other neighborhoods. 2 The thesis on monopoly capitalist development in Vancouver is found in a forthcoming book by Maria Wallstam, Sean Antrim, Tristan Markle and Nathan Crompton. Shorter essays on monopoly-finance can be found at The Mainlander: <www.themainlander.com>. 3 Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996). 4 Robert Bruegmann, 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2012 <http://www.demographia.com/dhi.pdf> (August 12, 2012). 5 Ralph Surette, “Canadian Banks: Even the Americans are agog at our fiscal virtue” <http:// rabble.ca/columnists/2010/06/canadian-banks-even-americans-are-agog-our-fiscal-virtue> (August 12, 2012). 6 Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class: And how it’s transforming work, leisure, community and everyday life, (New York: Basic Books, 2002). 7 Pier Luigi Sacco, The Power of the Arts: Creating a Great City, <http://www.plancanada. com/powerofthearts.pdf> (August 12, 2012). 8 Pier Luigi Sacco, Power of the Arts: Creating a Great City, <http://www.plancanada.com/ powerofthearts.pdf> (August 12, 2012). 9 Hito Steyerl. “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy.” E- FLUX #21. October 2010, <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/politics-of-art-contemporaryart-and-the-transition-to-post-democracy/> (April 27, 2012). 10 Pier Luigi Sacco, Power of the Arts: Creating a Great City <http://www.plancanada.com/ powerofthearts.pdf> (August 12, 2012). 11 Canadian Press “Vancouver no long most liveable city,” <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ british-columbia/story/2011/08/30/bc-vancouver-livability.html> (August 30, 2011). 12 Vision Vancouver <http://votevision.ca/creativity-and-innovation>. This statement was taken from the Vision Vancouver website before their reelection campaign of 2011 that sought to mobilize the ‘artist/cultural producer’ grouping far more overtly against the conservative NPA. See two contrasting websites: <www.webackthejuiceman.ca> and <www.
wedontbackthejuiceman.tumblr.com>. 13 For an excellent account of the mobilization of creative class ideology, see Jamie Peck, “Struggling with the Creative Class.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Vol 29.4 December 2005 740–770. <http://www.brynmawr.edu/socialwork/GSSW/schram/ peck.pdf>. 14 Holly Schmidt, “Grow: An Art + Urban Agriculture Project” <http://grow-urbanagricultureproject.ca/ > (Janurary, 12, 2012). 15 Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). 16 Vancouver Parks Board. <http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Parks-Art-Policy-2003.pdf> (August 7, 2012).17 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “The Curse of Empire” Artforum, (2005) <http:// www.thefreelibrary.com/The+curse+of+Empire.-a0136387357> (August 15, 2012). 18 Vancouver Biennale <http://vancouverbiennale.com/>. 19 The Crystal Palace was constructed for the one of the first world Expos, the Great Exhibition of 1851. As Georgio Agamben has written, “It is probable that Marx had in mind the impression felt in the Crystal Palace when he wrote the chapter of Capital on commodity fetishism....Without the identification of this immaterial center – in which “the products of labor” split themselves into a use value and an exchange value and “become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social” – all the following critical investigations undertaken in Capital probably would not have been possible.” Giorgio Agamben, “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle”, in Means without End: Notes on Politics, pp.75-6. 20 Geoffrey Farmer,”Every Letter of the Alphabet” former City of Vancouver website. <www. vancouver.ca> (April 4, 2012).21 <http://5.paulwongprojects.com/> (August, 12, 2012) 22 Hito Steyerl. “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy.” E- FLUX # 21. October 2010. <http://www.e-flux.com/journal/politics-of-art-contemporary-art-andthe-transition-to-post-democracy/> (August 12, 2012) 23 Other Sights for Artist Projects, “The Future is Floating” <http://www.othersights.ca/thefuture-is-floating/> (August 23, 2012). 24 Hal Foster, “September 11 (MOMA PS1)” Artforum, January 2012, 211. 25 Kathleen Ritter, “Situations: Contemporary Perspectives on Public Art” Other Sights for Artist’s Projects and Langara College Centre for Art in Public Spaces 2011 Speaker Series,
(October 5, 2011).26 Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” <http://www.scribd.com/ doc/12200144/Benjamin-Walter-Critique-of-Violence> 27 Alain Badiou, Logics of Worlds: Being and Event 2, (London: Continuum Press, 2009). 28 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” <http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm> 29 Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays on Philosophy, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). 30 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2009). 31 Herbert Marcuse, Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, (New York: Beacon Press, 1979). 32 Holly Ward, <http://hollywardpavilion.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html>. 33 Anne Cottingham “The Opening: Holly Ward” Vancouver is Awesome <http://vancouverisawesome.com/2011/06/16/the-opening-holly-ward/> (April 6, 2012). 34 Jeff Derksen, “For Now” Artspeak <www.artspeak.ca/postscripts/Postscript43-HollyWard. pdf> (April 4, 2012). 35 Fredric Jameson. “The Valences of History: Making History Appear.” Valences of the Dialectic, (London & New York: Verso, 2009).36 Gabe already wrote a great explanatory footnote for his one. 37 Robert Walser, The Tanners, New York: New Directions Book, 2009. 38 Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener” (1853) <http://www.bartleby.com/129/> (March 25, 2012).