Friday, September 7, 2012

Great Northern Way

The romantic view of the artist -- the one advertisers, television sitcoms and nightly newscasts pander to -- has the artist working away in the studio and, if they are "good enough", exhibiting their work (paintings or sculpture) at a commercial art gallery. A related view, based on the story of Vincent Van Gogh, has the artist in a tender state (financially impoverished, mildly insane and/or under-appreciated), until his death, when his genius is revealed. A more recent variation (an update on the abstract expressionist painter of the 1940s and 50s) has the artist engaged in some form of "performance art", a la Charlotte Moorman. But it is this first view that came to mind on Wednesday while reading a story in the Vancouver Courier on the Vancouver Community Laboratory.

The Vancouver Community Laboratory, or Co-Lab, is a non-profit collective that consists of 30 members (sculptors, smiths, carvers) who require light-industrial machinery -- and space -- to make their work. Five months ago the collective, who had for years operated out of a space on the former Finning site (now the Great Northern Way Campus), was told by the Great Northern Way Campus Trust (a consortium of UBC, SFU, Emily Carr University and BCIT) that their lease, which was due to expire on August 31, 2012, would not be re-negotiated. What they were not told (why would they be?) was that the new tenant in this "light-industrial"-zoned building (has it been re-zoned?) would be a retail outlet (a commercial gallery) like the other retail outlet (also a commercial gallery) that moved into the largest part of the building a few months before.

While the Trust's president, Matthew Carter, acknowledged Co-Lab's "extremely vibrant and valuable role" on the site, he added that this new retail outlet (Monte Clark Gallery) would "complement" the retail outlet (Equinox Gallery) that it will be sharing space with, a gallery that has contributed to the "growing sense of vitality" to the larger Great Northern Way Campus site, a site whose mandate has entrenched (but not defined) that most conveniently amorphous of terms -- "digital media". (For those who came of age during the provincial Social Credit government's "Restraint" to Expo '86 continuum of the 1980s, I believe the term was "hi-tech".)

Call me romantic, but I cannot think of a better complement to an art gallery than an adjacent artist studio, regardless of whether the artists who share that studio exhibit at that gallery or not. (Incidentally, does Equinox Gallery show "digital media"? And if so, is that what accounts for the distortion dots in their digitally-transferred, blown-out reproductions of Fred Herzog's slides?) As for Co-Lab's response, one of its members, Kim Cooper, had this to say: "The mayor is looking to expand the digital media business and at the same time find a solution to more studio spaces for artists." Later she adds: "This also seems a bit counter-productive to put digital media companies into warehouses when they can just as easily work in a typical office, or art galleries that can occupy less strict zoning."

Kim is right -- the contradiction is glaring. What was "sold" to Vancouverites as a unified site helmed by four educational institutions is, like educational institutions everywhere, a Trojan Horse for market-state expansion, be that the production of "digital media" line workers for Disney (if you have not examined this corporation lately, please do) or developers looking to build new market-housing towers, like those that have now stepped east of Main (between Broadway and Prior). Next time someone tries to sell me on a new "school" in my neighbourhood, one with a focus on the arts, the first thing I am going to ask is, "Will it include a McDonald's?"

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