Snaps of Summer

A holiday Monday with sunshine like this called me downtown to walk Stanley Park with a friend. The Rose Garden was in bloom so I snapped some pics of that as well.

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Afterwards, I explored Robson Street and enjoyed this patch of public space set up with picnic tables and an outdoor piano at the intersection of Robson and Bute. Great for people watching!

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Here’s a piece of public art at Robson and Jervis called Jasper.

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From the Vancouver Biennale website:

Jasper is a whimsical sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist John Clement. His trademark steel spirals with bold primary colours invite children to touch and play. The turns and loops of Jasper challenge the inherent properties of rigid tubular steel and the result is an implied movement with the sense of twisting right out of the ground.

Whenever I walk by this sculpture it reminds me of balloon animals popular at children’s birthday parties. Or my coil bike lock. No one was playing on it at the time but I like public art you’re invited to touch. If public art is meant to bring art where people are (because not everyone goes to art galleries), I appreciate works that call for different forms of engagement rather than the traditional “looking only”/observer-observed relationship. That being said, some public art provokes more thought than others and while the form is fun, I find the content strongly lacking in this piece. I think good public art brings form and content together in striking ways. What about you?

Hope everyone is enjoying the Canada Day long weekend!

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Time to Let Go

Ever since Disney’s Frozen took the world by storm (catch the pun?), I cannot hear the words “Let it Go” without thinking of the Oscar-winning pop anthem that many have earmarked as the theme song for their life, or at least their year. So when I came across this Vancouver Art Gallery offsite exhibit on West Georgia Street between Thurlow and Bute, the tune was instantly running through my head.

Time to Let Go by Babak Golkar. 2014.

Time to Let Go by Babak Golkar. 2014.

 Time To Let Go. Yes. I don’t know if it was the words or the still water or the ancient terracotta vessels sitting atop burlap sacks, but something about this site was extremely arresting. It looked participatory, but without reading the description, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know how to participate.

My friend looked for the description and informed me, “You’re supposed to shout into them and release your emotions or do whatever you want!”

IMG_7857Really? Release my emotions? I looked around. There weren’t any people walking by, but there were plenty of cars sitting at stop lights whose passengers could easily see me through their windows. I didn’t want to embarrass myself or anything because, you know, that’s the absolute worst thing that can happen in public.

But the other part of me really wanted to participate. I’m glad my curiosity overtakes my shyness at moments like this. I went up to one of the pots and said something quietly. My voice echoed several times inside—a deep echo that made me feel like I was speaking into the womb of the earth.

IMG_7856I look around again. The cars had moved on, and now there were new ones sitting at the light. The world would go on whether I screamed into the pots or not. Armed with this confidence-boosting realization, I gave the pot a high-pitched yell, short but noticeably louder. It didn’t seem like anyone could hear me as the vessel contained the sound so completely. I turned around and asked my friend if she heard me though, and she nodded. I smiled. For all my nervousness about being heard in a public space, I actually wanted to be heard. (Now I didn’t belt out “Let it Go” at the top of my lungs or anything, but I still think someone should take advantage of that opportunity!)

IMG_7855There’s something about being given permission to scream that is extremely liberating. And not just screaming on top of a mountain or in a field of wildflowers because it’s safe to do that, but to scream in the city—now that’s different. It’s no accident the offsite exhibit is placed on a major downtown street hemmed in by commercial buildings, condos, and hotels. Vancouver itself is a hemmed-in city, mountains on one side, ocean on the other. And don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely beautiful. Yet cities in general, and downtowns especially—with their pace, their noise, their busyness, their commercialism, their competitions, their comparisons—can gradually squeeze up on all your edges until the pressure becomes so intense you burst like the cork off a wine bottle. Where is there a safe space to step away from it all and tell the world how you really feel?

IMG_7858I can’t help but think the terracotta vessels are a reference to ancient Greco-Roman days, when life was a little slower and technology wasn’t so all-consuming. The absence of technology in this installation stood out to me in a positive way. We don’t need gadgets to help us unwind. We don’t need gadgets to make a statement. Babak Golkar’s work invites us to rediscover what each of us has been equipped with since birth to respond to our ever changing world: our voice. Are we OK with using it?

In this installation I was interested in screaming as a release but also a gesture or a form of contestation. We tend to let go in private, not in public, and that letting go has to do with exposing our vulnerability, which here is reflected, not only by the action of participants through engaging with the works and screaming into the vessels, but also through the use of terracotta as a fragile medium.

Offsite, located at the heart of downtown Vancouver surrounded by high-end residences, hotels and commercial buildings, offers a large potential for public engagement and it is this inherent gesture of offering to public that TIME TO LET GO… takes up and expands on. The site provided an opportunity to make a work that is acting as a context, a sort of a platform for public to be expressive and experience vulnerability in a public place, and be OK.

We live in a time that systemic conditions are overpowering our basic human conditions. Systems that once were consciously man made now exist firmly in constative modes. In these kinds of systemic entanglements, this project would pose, is there any room for active and reflective thinking and affective criticism? Are the systems muting us in effect?

The Library as Colosseum

Vancouver is often critiqued for its boring architecture. As a young city born in 1886, it doesn’t have the same rich architectural history, as say, places like London or Rome. Much of Vancouver’s skyline is homogenous: seafoam green and glass office buildings. Hence, the title of Douglas Coupland‘s ode to Vancouver, City of Glass.

The Vancouver Public Library is an exception to this rule.

For the city’s most important cultural building, architect Moshe Safdie takes you back to 1st century Rome, to the days of the Colosseum. The Vancouver Public Library is an oval- shaped building adjoined to a federal office tower with retail and service facilities on the ground floor. (It was mentioned here as one of the top 8 beautiful libraries in Canada). Windows flood the space with light. “Drawbridges” or walkways connect the book stacks with study carrels that line the oval perimeter, offering each seat a spacious window, much better than the library I talked about here.

Ironically, the Vancouver Public Library alludes to the past and yet its form is decidedly postmodern. Built in 1995, it plays with history divorced from context, as postmodernist architecture often does. What does a Colosseum and a public library have in common?

Architectural critic Trevor Boddy answers “shameless populism” in the book Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City.

Yet is populism so bad, especially for a civic institution designed to serve the public? And considering the public library was the result of a rare competition where the public had a say in the winner, this building was democratic from the start.

Regular public events and art installations happen in and around the building, contributing to an engaged civic and cultural space. The human installation, “Sometimes I think, I can see you” was presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival earlier this year. Writers were set up in the atrium of the library with laptops connected to a large projection screen where passersby could read the spontaneous fictions the writers created about their surroundings – fictions that might include you or I or whoever happened to be in that space at that particular time. Public spaces like library atriums are great places for people watching as it is. Argentinian artist Mariano Pensotti amplifies their voyeuristic quality by recording the thoughts of strangers as public text for all to see. I spy with my little eye . . .

Here’s a sample of what this poetry/prose in motion looks like, performed in a Buenos Aires subway station:

Given the 21st century context where traditional publishing companies battle with e-books, closing prominent presses (most recently Douglas & McIntyre in Canada) and threatening the future of libraries, the Colosseum reference is not so out of context. The printed word is struggling to survive, to find a place to call home. Maybe Moshe Safdie’s vision for the building was more prescient than he knew: futuristic more than historical. Maybe the texts do fit the context. Maybe the words do fit the picture.

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What’s Your Connection?

What does the expression “up in the air” connote for you? According to the Oxford American dictionary, it means “still to be settled; unresolved.” If air suggests uncertainty and unsettledness, then its opposite, the ground, suggests, well, the idea of settledness or, quite literally, groundedness.

Up in the Air also refers to a movie that came out in 2009 starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. I watched this movie while preparing to defend my Master’s essay because it dealt with a space that I critiqued for its homogeneity and fleeting social interactions. With all the discussion by a number of urban theorists stating that airports represent the new public space of the 21st century with the potential for diversity, I pushed back a bit against this glowing report. Are airports really dynamic public spaces like the traditional public spaces of city squares, parks, and piazzas? For one, most airports are privately owned (or leased to private corporations who oversee its operation), and for two, the experience of being subjected to rigid check-in and security procedures while under constant surveillance seems a far cry from a free and democratic public space.

I admit I took a liking to the film Up in the Air because it offered a pretty realistic commentary of our interactions in a globalized society, and also because it echoed the sentiments in my essay (ah yes, what a reassurance to know that Hollywood was backing me up!) Despite the seemingly public space of airports that bring diverse people from different spaces and time zones together, this social meeting of diversity tends to be rather illusory. At one point, someone says to George Clooney’s character (Ryan Bingham) over the phone: “You’re awfully isolated the way you live.” He responds, “Isolated? I’m surrounded” as he looks around his 21st century office – the airport. But he is isolated and looking for connection, as the end of the movie makes clear (warning, there may be some more spoilers – I probably should have stated this before I wrote the previous sentence, sorry).

To relate it back to the title, the movie suggests that a perpetual lifestyle of literally living and working “up in the air” isn’t sustainable or desirable. There exists even in Ryan Bingham – the quintessentially casual, commitment-free modern businessman “living between the margins of his itineraries” – the desire for eventual grounding. Unfortunately, this grounding never occurs because he fails to operate by – or rather, keep the rules of temporary, casual airport relationships while the woman he’s interested in does (this is not meant to give her credit as by keeping these relationship rules, she compromises other ones, like the marital ones with her husband).

Having flown back and forth multiple times between Vancouver and Ottawa during my university years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in airplanes and airports. Sure, I’ve had some good conversations with my armrest companions, but I haven’t kept in touch with any of these strangers. In fact, I barely remember them (apart from one woman I would later work with at City Hall, but those repeat meetings have been the exception). The connections I made were short, sweet, and most often, solely concentrated at the beginnings and ends of the flight – especially four-hour ones.

The conversation often begins with the polite and obligatory introductions: So where are you headed?” “What brought you out here?” “Do you travel for work often?” “What do you study?” “How long are you visiting for?” and ends with an attempt to wrap up this strange aerial relationship you’ve shared with a stranger by way of some friendly yet neutral conclusive statement: “Oh look, we’re here.” “Wonder what the weather’s like.” “Don’t you just love flying into Vancouver?” In between, in all that air space, is a lot of people watching movies, listening to music, reading books and playing Sudoku. At the end, everyone exits the aircraft and the physical proximity and common destination that brought you together lets you go because you have finally arrived and your status is no longer “up in the air.”

George Clooney cleverly narrates a typical airport interaction in play-by-play format you can watch here.

Transitory space, transitory encounters

I’m not saying airport interactions can’t be meaningful because they’re short or because they’re with strangers (sometimes the best conversations are with people you know you’ll never run into or answer to again), but is this type of interaction really the future – or present – of a city’s public life? The portrayal of air culture in Up in the Air doesn’t offer much optimism in light of this potential reality.

Other popular media supports this transitory depiction of airport culture. In Douglas Coupland’s sci-fi novel PlayerOne set entirely in an airport, one character takes a taxi to an “airport hotel cocktail lounge because she has learned in Internet chat rooms that this is where people go to have flings. A ‘fling’ is a human term to describe a zero-commitment, most often non-procreative, one-time-only sexual act. People in and around airports are usually experiencing a reduced sense of identity, and travelers like to flirt and experiment sexually in ways they would never do in their everyday environments.”

Given these portrayals of airports in recent fiction and film, do airports constitute the new public space of our time? Are they really that social? Maybe you have a cool connection story or maybe you don’t, but, in any case, I’d like to hear about your airport experience!

In the Name of What?

I picked up a book in New York called Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places by sociologist Sharon Zukin. The title is a take-off of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I’ve mentioned a few times already on this blog.

Zukin analyzes the latest selling feature of urban spaces in today’s city – authenticity. We visit certain places in the name of authenticity. Authenticity has become an experience more than a characteristic, and can be said about objects and places as much as about people.

Some New York places that Zukin mentions as offering this experience of authenticity are Union Square and the East Village. Despite the gentrification these areas have experienced over the years, these spaces with their small-scale restaurants and boutiques package a local, hip, and bohemian flavour for middle-class consumption. As Zukin says, people gravitate to these places to “inhale the aura of a radical, intellectual, and artistic past . . . An authentic experience of local character becomes a local brand.”

Reluctantly, I admit that this describes my attraction to these places. I say reluctantly because who wants to confess to being part of the phenomenon that helps destroys authenticity by consuming it? Yet the chance to inhale or soak up an authentic experience of local culture explains my visit to these places, and perhaps even my desire to buy a “local” or “authentic” book about New York while in New York, and not just from anywhere in New York, but from The Strand – an independent bookstore known for its rare and out-of print books located in the East Village, of course.

I was pleasantly surprised to read Zukin including herself as a consumer of the “local,” seeing that academics can sometimes think they’re immune from the critiques they often give. She lives near Union Square and frequents its bustling Greenmarket that operates four days of the week. Reflecting on the park, she comments: One “like[s] to think [it is] an endless arcade of possibilities, reflecting and refining city dwellers’ creative ability to shape their own, spontaneous social space. Yet this high degree of face-to-face sociability hides a paradox, for the public space of Union Square is controlled by a private group of the biggest property owners in the neighborhood.”

That was news to me, and something I wouldn’t be able to guess just by looking at the park, which has the appearance of a very public space. But that’s exactly the illusion. Zukin states that “the vitality of Union Square is really a sign of the city government’s defeat by the public’s expectations.” Why a defeat? Because this so-called “public” space is actually privately owned. What’s the advantage of private ownership? Safety is a big reason – privately hired security guards and cleaners keep the park open and accessible to multiple users – but not all users. Zukin notes that control strategies in the park exclude certain groups, usually homeless people, street vendors, or street artists who have no other place to go. This relates to my previous post “Whose Space is it Anyway?” about my experience in Victoria a few months ago.  In the name of a clean, safe space for the public, the public gains a space that paradoxically isn’t so public.

In the name of safe space. Talking about “safe space” reminds me of a sign that I photographed at the entrance to the Occupy Ottawa movement that was setting up camp around mid-October.

The sign declares that this park is a safe space based on inclusion, diversity, and lack of discrimination. Being a former literature student, I love thinking about words and the implications they have. Going back to Zukin’s book, this park though – or any park for that matter – has the potential to become “safe” in the way that Zukin is using when she talks about why people generally like the safe and privately-managed space of Union Square Park. When she says the public gains the use of a clean, safe space (while simultaneously losing control over it) – this same “safe” does not imply diversity, but rather, the exclusion of diversity. Safe in this context means safety from the threat of danger and difference, from risky interactions with the “other,” from people sleeping on park benches and from walls covered in graffiti, which lower property values and detract from businesses in the area.

In her own words, “Privatized public space, in other words, tends to reinforce social inequality. Exclusion of some social groups from public space weakens the diversity of experiences and contacts that define urban life. It makes the centers of cities more like the premier privately owned public space of our time, the suburban shopping mall: clean, safe, and predictable.”

That’s a comparison I didn’t expect and which, quite frankly, scares me. I fear the day that parks, which are the epitome of public space, come to mean “safe” in the way that suburban shopping malls are viewed as safe – because of their sterility and exclusion of certain social classes. As I have not been the first nor the last to observe, The Occupy Movement seems a little shrouded in mystery as to what they are naming or claiming, but their occupations of public spaces at least speak to the importance of claiming the right to space that is safe insofar as it is truly public.

Whose Space is it Anyway?

“I am twenty-one years old, my name is Ripley Bogle and my occupations are starving, freezing, and weeping hysterically.”

Apart from seeing and walking by homeless people on the streets with the occasional offering of a granola bar, chocolate muffin, or whatever I have on me at the time, my closest interactions with them up until this past week were through literature. The eponymous narrator of Robert McLiam Wilson’s novel Ripley Bogle takes the reader on a convincing tour of London through the eyes, stomach, and feet of the homeless, based on the author’s own street experience. “Here you are in beggary. Fun? We’ll see,” says Ripley Bogle as he goes on to acquaint us with poverty’s meanest and dearest friends: Hunger, Agony, Boredom, Coldness, and Exhaustion.

Much of my learning has been through books, through school, through a formal education. This past week I had the opportunity to experience an education of a different kind towards the homeless.

In a volunteer capacity, I helped conduct interviews with numerous homeless people about their experience living on the streets. I couldn’t even make up some of their stories even if I tried. They were shocking and sad. After spending some time with these people and listening to their stories, I began putting human faces to the terms “poverty,” “homeless,” “marginalized” – concepts that had previously been abstractions.

Apart from the many battles these people fight, the one that became very evident to me, mainly because of the following incident that happened, was the fight for space in the city.

One place we conducted these interviews was on the outdoor steps of a church – which I assumed was a perfectly valid place to sit seeing that there wasn’t a bench nearby – but apparently not. A police officer drove up, got out of the car, and informed us we were not allowed to be sitting on these steps. A sign on the church also indicated this, which I hadn’t seen. These steps were private space and we were illegally using them. As a result, we did the rest of the interview standing next to the steps.

After a strong warning, the cop left. The homeless we were with told us afterwards that they would have gotten a ticket if my fellow interviewer and myself hadn’t been there.  That saddened me and made me realize the lack of space that exists for the homeless in the city.

Where do they go when they don’t have a space and they can’t use seemingly public spaces like outdoor steps for basic human acts like sitting or sheltering themselves from the rain? Who gets to say who uses which space in the city?

If they’re not even allowed to sit peacefully on the steps of a church, a place typically regarded as a sanctuary, where in the world (or rather, the city) can the homeless go?

What’s more, if the homeless aren’t even made to feel welcome outside of churches, how much more inclined will they be to step inside these churches, something I hope my church realizes as talk percolates about erecting a fence around our disused steps. I always thought (and told them) the fence was a bad idea, but now I have a clearer picture why – not thanks to literature, but to life.