Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nowhen

As per Jennifer's request in class yesterday, here is the text from my "Walking the City" movie.

Just to reiterate, I used a mini-DV camera to retrace last Wednesday two partial routes I took back in February 2009 and September 2008 as part of separate site-specific performance works in the DTES.

As de Certeau suggests, my attempts at capturing and recording a "nowhen" that has long since passed me by, was an interesting exercise in forgetting.

"It is true that the operations of walking on can be traced on city maps in such a way as to transcribe their paths (here, well-trodden, there very faint) and their trajectories (going this way and not that). But these thick or thin curves only refer, like words, to the absence of what has passed by. Surveys of routes miss what was: the act of passing by. The operation of walking, wandering, or 'window shopping,' that is, the activity of passers-by, is transformed into points that draw a totalizing and reversible line on the map. They allow us to grasp only a relic set in the nowhen of a surface of projection. Itself visible, it has the effect of making invisible the operation that made it possible. These fixations constitute procedures for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice. It exhibits the (voracious) property that the geographical system has of being able to transform action into legibility, but in doing so it causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten." (Michel de Certeau, "Walking the City," 97)

Main and Hastings—February 10, 2009/January 13, 2010
: Retracing part of the route Alana and I took when we went to see battery opera’s site-specific piece Lives Were Around Me in February 2009. We were part of an intimate audience of three that assembled at the Alibi Room at 8 pm (we arrived earlier for a dinner, which was discounted by 10%, a nice surprise). After signing a liability waiver, we began following battery opera’s dapperly dressed David McIntosh east on Alexander Street. McIntosh was a charming, if cryptic, guide (“You can’t believe everything you hear” was the one line he kept repeating); he led us to the Firehall, on Cordova, where we were eventually met by Adrienne Wong (we would also later encounter Paul Ternes), who was more talkative, although no more understandable. This was because the text of the walking tour we were taking of the Downtown Eastside was freely adapted from James Kelman’s Translated Accounts, an abstruse, Kafkaesque novel made up of monologues detailing instances of surveillance, arrest, detention, and torture carried out in an unnamed police state. The effect was deliberately disorienting, forcing us to reexamine a part of the city that has historically been overdetermined with meaning, not to mention over-policed by various state apparatuses invested in the interpretation of that meaning. However, I think in the end the text dominated too much, and that the piece was perhaps overconceptualized dramaturgically, to the point where external intrusions—that is, the very space and community where the event was taking place—seemed to flummox our guide. This was most evident at the bar we entered midway through the piece. Like any bar in that part of town, it was filled with a larger-than-life cast of characters, and while a table had been reserved at the back for us (complete with a complimentary beer each) we were sharing the space with Bobby and his friend. We soon learned both had just been released from jail and were interested in making conversation, and perhaps more (Bobby seemed to take a particular fancy to yours truly, displaying his tattoos, and offering up multiple hugs). But our guide, while polite with Bobby and tolerant of his interruptions to a point, kept telling him that she had to keep to her schedule, and consequently kept drawing us back to the tale she was telling. In other words, despite the piece being all about looking at/for/through evidence (we later had a tour of the Vancouver Police Museum, next to the Firehall, which was more than a little creepy), the material lives occupying the site in which the performance was taking place seemed ancillary to the abstract representation of various extreme scenarios of livability. To be sure, the juxtaposition of textual site and cited text necessarily prompted me to import other spaces as dramatic referents, some of which made me feel more, some less, vulnerable; none of which gave me any clearer sense of my bearings. But, overall, the performance seemed more interested in exploring the internal psychic excavation of various spatial archives (broadly and very sketchily defined) than it was in precipitating an external bodily encounter with the full repertoire of this particular place’s experiences (on the “archive” and the “repertoire,” see Diana Taylor). Nevertheless, in terms of the latter, the neighbourhood—and Bobby, who resurfaced, magically, at the end of the tour—did not disappoint. Lives were around us. We, too, had an audience. All we had to do was look.

Carrall to Cordova—September 30, 2008/January 13, 2010/August 7, 1971: Thinking, again, about the social groups left behind when host cities harness their particular urban aspirations to abstracted messages of Olympic inspiration: if human bodies can be engineered—via equipment vested or drugs ingested—to go “faster, higher, stronger,” then why can’t the places those bodies reside? This question was in part what informed my experience of local artist Althea Thauberger’s September 2008 site-specific performance event Carrall Street, in which she threw a one-night live art spotlight (quite literally) on a contact zone in the city that runs a scant six blocks—from the red brick buildings of historic Gastown, through the strewn hypodermics of Pigeon Park, to the gleaming real estate offices of Concord Pacific on the north side of False Creek—but that in that distance maps a fraught and polarising social history relating to the ethics of livability and the politics of development in Vancouver. Thauberger is known for performance based video and photographic works in which she collaborates closely with different social communities (Canadian soldiers and tree planters, US military wives, linguistic minorities in Northern Italy, conscientious objectors in Germany) to explore the dynamics of group consciousness and state control. For Carrall Street, Thauberger worked with community groups with varied interests in the area (housed and unhoused DTES residents, local service organisations, artists and theatre directors, politicians and city planners); together, they created both scripted and improvised scenes of social interaction in which the roles of performer and spectator, local denizen and curious passer-by would deliberately blur on a stretch of streetscape cordoned off and brightly illuminated like a film set. For me, the piece’s plainly visible fictional scaffolding, and the highly telegraphed orchestration of its “scenes” (I was “interviewed” by two very manic “real estate agents”) threw into relief the different performance publics (between business owners and low-income residents, artists and activists, tourists and addicts, security guards and the street homeless) that are daily negotiated at a very local street level. In the process, Thauberger brought out in ways often obscured by abstract policy discussions relating to the proposed revitalisation of the area, the historical connections between this particular street’s past (as a tavern-lined, working-class byway connecting Vancouver’s old port to Chinatown), present (as a thoroughfare traversed on one end by visiting tourists and local hipsters negotiating both the tack and trend of Gastown, and, on the other, by the homeless, addicted, and mentally ill citizens of the DTES), and future (as a showcase street targeted for a controversial clean-up and beautification in advance of the Olympics). Whether Carrall Street’s latest incarnation as a high-profile “Greenway Project” is designed to stimulate the economy of the area, as officials contend, or simply to provide more pleasant direct access from Gastown to the downtown portion of Vancouver’s famed pedestrian seawall for Olympic tourists and the affluent new residents that will hopefully follow in their wake, is open to debate. But along with the restoration of Pigeon Park’s concrete surface, the painting over of graffiti on adjacent walls, and the installation of new benches and tables, the erection of high-powered street lamps is probably a clue as to who is winning the contest between social engineering and the protection of civil liberties. And on view at the just-about-to-open SFU Woodward’s we have two new public art works that, like Thauberger’s piece, remind us there is a history to such contests: Stan Douglas’s photographic “Abbott and Cordova, 7 August 1971” (on permanent display in the interior courtyard of the building); and Ken Lum’s text-based “No Way” (on temporary display on the building’s new Audain Gallery Hastings Street fa├žade).

Victory Square, Hastings and Cambie—now/forever/never: “Cities of the dead are primarily for the living.” (Joseph Roach)

Peter

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