Monday, September 17, 2012

Vancouverite or -itis

Dear ______,

Nice to hear from you. I had heard you were considering a move to Vancouver. How is it that you have been here a year and we have not (yet) run into each other at an opening or a reading?

I am sorry you find Vancouver “cold,” its cultural ecology "difficult to penetrate.” Did you have expectations?

More than most cities of over a million people, the percentage of Vancouverites born and raised here is low. Unlike Paris, where “Parisian” status is based on your family’s history (seven generations, is it?), the “Vancouverite” is someone who comes here, usually between the age of 14-40, with an idea of the city already in mind, only to discover that what you thought you were interested in (Culture) is elusive, and what you thought you were indifferent to (Nature) is seductive. The conflict that results is one that is struggled with, and that struggle is the motor that both drives and defines the Vancouverite. So when you say you have come here, only to find the city “cold,” what you might be experiencing is not only a previous version of yourself, as visitor, but the perpetuation of a cycle that has what you thought you were coming to -- and what you found instead -- in conflict.

Bear in mind my theory comes from someone who was in fact born and raised here, the child of an immigrant Chinese national (my father was born in Shanghai and spent his formative years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp) and a Scottish-German mother whose family moved to Vancouver (from Saskatoon) during the Second World War, when she was four. Yes, I am a Vancouverite too, but perhaps less entrenched than Vancouverites of Chinese descent, those whose grandfathers (great- and great-great-) came here in the mid-1800s to work on the railroad -- Vancouverites such as the artist Ken Lum, whose grandfather, Lum Nin, came to “Gold Mountain” (the name for the North American west coast) to make his fortune. But even before that, the Salish of today, who have grown up in a place re-named by the Canadian Pacific Railway after an English sea captain who, in the late 18th century, parked his boats in Burrard Inlet. That some of us acknowledge that we are on unceded First Nations land at openings and readings is important to who and where we are. I am saddened that you find the practice "pretentious."

Some other things to be mindful of. First, it was not until recently that many Vancouverites came to value the local history. Prior to that, Vancouver was always about the future: what is going to happen, and how might that be capitalized on. This was true of those who came here in search of our region’s natural resources (furs, gold, fish, timber), or, in the case of Lum Nin, railroad work, and continues today as real estate speculation. It was only during the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 2007 Fred Herzog photography exhibition that many Vancouverities became interested in what happened here between 1953 (when Fred arrived from Germany, via Central Canada) and Expo ’86, when the next resurfacing began. As for those Vancouverites who remain indifferent to the local history, many of them are under 35. This is a problem less particular to Vancouver than one that has always plagued young people: a narcissism that has them indifferent to History -- because they are not (yet) part of it.

Which leads me to a definition of the Vancouver artist. Until recently, the Vancouver artist was someone who attended art school here -- and stayed. I say “until recently” because Emily Carr University’s ongoing de-emphasis on local (Western art) historical practices in favour of a synchronic view of art made with emerging digital technologies, has shifted the conversation from what is particular about the city’s aesthetic development to the universality of digital-based businesses like the Walt Disney Company, with whom ECU has ties. Prior to Ian Wallace’s retirement (Wallace lectured on contemporary art at ECU for 25 years and influenced the teaching styles of Jeff Wall, Ken Lum and Kelly Wood), local artists graduated from institutions with an interest in the local art historical conversation, a conversation that was, contrary to popular belief, dominated not by the photo-based work of Wallace and other artist-teachers (Lum taught at UBC until the mid-2000s; Wall taught at SFU and UBC from the late-1970s to the mid-1990s; Marian Penner Bancroft, who began teaching at ECU in the 1980s, remains a faculty member to this day) but by an awareness of that work as a consequence of a particular historical development -- just as a generation who are now in their 40s (Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Jungen, Stephen Shearer) were encouraged by Wallace and others to explore the installation-based work of Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy, because their work seemed headed in that direction. Until recently, much of the local conversation had been played out through the city’s artist-run centres and, I would argue, would not have distinguished itself outside of Vancouver had the city a commercial gallery scene as large as those in Montreal and Toronto (the same applies to a writing scene nurtured not by big house branch plant publishers based in Central Canada but by small, state-subsidized local independents). And that is yet another aspect of the (historic) Vancouver artist: someone who made work not for the art market but in dialogue with -- and for -- their peers.

But for those artists who were not schooled here (not "skilled" so much as introduced to the local conversation), there are those who have explored the local history and made from it their work. Two artists who come to mind are Alex Morrison, who undertook extensive research on Gastown and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby), and Althea Thauberger, whose monumental Carrall Street (2008) alludes to the emergence of film and television production at roughly the same time the neighbourhood in which her work is “set” (also Gastown) had transitioned from a home for seasonal resource-based workers to a catch-all for mental patients irresponsibly "de-institutionalized" from facilities in the Fraser Valley. That the work of these artists received a fair degree of local support speaks to a) an emerging interest in Vancouver's histories and b) an appreciation of those who came here to dig wells, not demand of its waters their reflection.

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