Embodied Approaches to the Imaging of the City
Curator / Author: Tarah Hogue
Featured Artists: Guadalupe Martinez, Emilio Rojas, Igor Santizo, David Semeniuk & Sarah Shamash
Presented in partnership with Balcone Arts Society // September 16 2014
In 1972, Michael de Courcy, along with artists Taki Bluesinger, Gerry Gilbert and Glenn Lewis, undertook a photo-mapping project, entitled Background / Vancouver. The artists planned three walking loops around the Greater Vancouver area (including through West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster). The three trips took place simultaneously on October 30, 1972, beginning and ending at Victory Square. The resulting photographs were presented sequentially in an alphanumeric grid with titles by Gilbert (who was also a poet). The 360 photographs acted as a conceptual 360 degree view of the city at a specific moment in time that the viewer could navigate in multiple directions, creating multi-layered and plural narratives.
Made toward the end of the lifespan of Intermedia, an interdisciplinary artist collective that was active from 1967-72, Background / Vancouver documented sites of importance to the group, including “artist's studios, living and meeting places, exhibition venues etc." 1 In her essay, “Expanded Consciousness and Company Types”, Nancy Shaw describes the project as attempting to “document the banal and ephemeral aspects of Vancouver from the point of view of three very active Intermedia artists intent on recording their surroundings." 2 Shaw points to the ephemeral, event-based and collaborative nature of much of Intermedia's activity (despite the recognition of authorship of Background / Vancouver with de Courcy) and emphasizes the goals of expanded consciousness, social activism and education that were antagonistic toward the contemporary postwar society and its prevailing artistic traditions. In 1974, de Courcy was able to produce a large-scale silkscreen of the grid with funding from the Canada Council and the Vancouver Art Gallery, cementing the project’s importance in the history of Intermedia’s often sensory-based (and undocumented) projects.
The move toward documentation from the sensorial projects of the 1960s is discussed by Scott Watson in the catalogue for Intertidal, an exhibition of Vancouver art and artists that was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (MuHKA) in Belgium in 2005. Watson argues that the importance of subjective consciousness in early photo-conceptual projects – in which can be included Intermedia's Background / Vancouver but also Jeff Wall's Landscape Manual (1969) and Christos Dikeakos' Instant Photo Information, BC Almanac (1970), to name two further examples – led artists to an examination of the city wherein the indexical quality of the photograph relates the journey through the landscape, which was often undertaken in a wandering, spontaneous way and included recording the artist's personal thoughts or experiences. This indexing takes on a specific tendency in the “defeatured landscape” wherein images of the city reveal the “economic forces at work in the production of both [culture and landscape]” 3 through, as Watson describes in another essay, “a built environment of seemingly endless interchangeability and instability with the “natural environment." 4 This line of thinking presumes the logic of the city to have an a priori formalism and a generic structure.
Watson hesitates to cite “the city” or “the city in conflict with its natural surroundings” as a thematic that connects the work of Vancouver artists or as being a definitive quality of Vancouver art in general. 5 The picturing of the city in later practices of the eighties, he argues, takes up the defeatured landscape in a wholly different way with technical mastery and large-scale production favoured over the artless repetition and discardability of earlier projects.6 These later works, he describes, “are often presented as unique, and claim the “aura” of painting,” are made specifically for the high-art market, and avoid any representation of fragmented subjectivity.”7 The appearance of the defeatured landscape in the eighties should therefore not be seen as a continuation of its earlier iterations, which often sought to critique the status of the art object and its circulation in capital.
It is this discussion of the defeatured landscape that I would like to compare with three recent projects that utilize photo-documentation and mapping strategies (among others) in working around the subject of the city and its social, cultural, economic and psychological geographies; ThisPlace / Vancouver (2012-13) by Guadalupe Martinez, Emilio Rojas and Igor Santizo; Perimeter (2013) by David Semeniuk; and Hastings Glean (2014) by Sarah Shamash. While not wishing to posit causal relations between artistic practices, this comparison may reveal how conventions in the structure of the projects, which involve walking/driving through the city and documenting that experience, acknowledge, resist and critique previous works that take the urban space as their subject.8 The projects under discussion each work toward forming their own urban semiotic through a self-conscious use of multiple technologies that further complicate the narrative of the defeatured landscape. Following Trevor Mahovsky, this text attempts to create a community in text rather than one that is necessarily “physically grounded in Vancouver and given its logic by that place. Rather this Vancouver is a product of the selection and the concomitant erasure that occurs in any process of representation." 9
ThisPlace / Vancouver is a retrospective project that was initiated following the launch of de Courcy’s Background/ Vancouver project website (http://www.michaeldecourcy.com/background-vancouver), which created a renewed interest in the 1972 perspective of the city. Artists Martinez, Rojas and Santizo added a fourth path that intersected with the original three routes traveled by the Intermedia artists. On October 30, 2012, forty years to the day from the original project, the artists began their journey that started and ended at Victory Square, traveling as far east as Simon Fraser University and as far west as the University of British Columbia, where a performance was enacted in the Japanese Nitobe Memorial Garden (Enlarging Circles, 2012). A reunion lunch took place at the Naam in Kitsilano with de Courcy, Lewis and grunt gallery Program Director Glenn Alteen. The route passed through West Vancouver and North Vancouver and traversed 41st Avenue at its southern-most edge. The mode of transportation was a donated smart car and the route was largely planned using Google Maps10 but was also spontaneous – unfolding in the process of performance.
The performance resulted in an exhibition of de Courcy’s project alongside new collaborative work by Martinez, Rojas and Santizo at the grunt gallery from May 10 - June 8, 2013.11 The exhibition included a series of programs – artist talks, discussions around social cartography and a sound walk – that activated the project beyond the gallery space. Further, in May 2013 an interactive project website was launched (http://thisplace.grunt.ca). It documents the 1972 and 2012 routes using Google Maps, by locating photographs, video and audio on the online map of Vancouver and allowing users to upload their own content. These elements considerably extend the life of the original performance and its documentation, opening the project to further participatory and collaborative opportunities.
Process is evident everywhere in the gallery installation and web project, which raises the issue of collaboration and its questioning of authorship that Shaw points to as being central to artistic endeavors on the West Coast since the sixties.12 Where de Courcy planned the routes that were executed by his collaborators,13 Martinez, Rojas and Santizo undertook planning and execution in dialogue with one another, working in and through the productive tensions that collaboration entails. The website's participatory element allows viewers to further question how Vancouver, as a place, is made, though currently this aspect of the project has been under-utilized, suggesting the necessity of structured parameters and focused invitation for meaningful engagement to occur in projects such as this.14 This is made more acute due to the relative longevity of the project's presentation on a dedicated website compared to earlier participatory art projects that were event-based and ephemeral, oftentimes without much documentation. The role of documentation has shifted because of the contemporary ubiquity of photographic images, making the presentation of photography alone inadequate to reflect the complexity of lived experience, which the exhibition is conscious of in its use of multiple modes of image delivery.
In the 2013 exhibition, an inverted map of Vancouver is constructed from collaged maps donated by artists and friends. Also included on the map are found images of sites and objects, natural and man made, from around the world as well as artists and artworks pertinent to Vancouver’s cultural community. The map, in this instance, becomes a record both of the research/thought process as well as the multiple and often conflicting histories and bodies that are mapped by and onto the city. An image that reads “YOU ARE ON INDIAN LAND SHOW SOME RESPECT” is placed near an image of an ancient Mayan pyramid, suggesting narratives of time, land claims, displacement, migration, colonization and cultural heritage. The map itself is made up of maps of many places, themselves inverted, perhaps from different times, denoting Vancouver as a city that is evolving, layered, unique yet similar, embodied and in process.
Another composite map in the form of a newspaper insert connects the project more specifically to the Latin American heritage of the artists. A map of Guatemala is overlaid with a map of Vancouver, contrasting language, mapping strategies and land use patterns. This is especially evident in the map's key or legend area, which is placed over the grid-like structure of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, showing Oppenheimer Park and the industrial development along the coastline. These boxes remain faintly evident beneath the larger-scale map of Guatemala’s land features and elevations, populated areas (marked in zones) and winding roads. Published in La Revista, a Spanish language newspaper produced in Vancouver, the map recalls the insert into the March 8, 1974 edition of the Vancouver Sun of de Courcy's Background / Vancouver photo-mural as a fifteen by twenty-four inch collectable that accompanied a text by critic Joan Lowndes (http://www.michaeldecourcy.com/background-vancouver/archive.htm) More than that, however, it points to the immigrant experience(s) of the city by Martinez, Rojas and Santizo that position the artists' responses to de Courcy's original project in a particular manner.
The photographic process or the method of image delivery by technological means is also an important element of the exhibition. In the room following off the main gallery, known as the Media Lab, is the installation Anachronic Darkroom (2013). Developed photographs and prints of negatives from de Courcy's project, many of which were edited out of the final selection, hang from wooden clips on string as if they have just been developed and left to dry. The room is bathed in red light as if the viewer has just entered a darkroom. On the Media Lab's work table sit three photo-enlarging apparatuses, which have been converted into projectors that screen videos made in Google Maps of the routes traveled by the artists in 1972. Essentially web-based reenactments of the original performances through the technology of surveillance, the videos act as a contemporary lens into the experiential nature of the performance, which is omitted in the final work. The darkroom thus makes the processes of selection, erasure and representation at work in photography and the archive apparent in the mixture of contemporary (digital) and vintage (analogue) forms of technology.
The installation is hyper-aware of the multiple histories it inhabits, giving the viewer the uncanny experience of repetition, contrasting the contemporary lived experience of the city to the single frame photograph. The viewer is often made aware of this aspect of looping when viewing both the web project and exhibition. A phrase that begins “LOOPING BRINGS THE PAST AND FUTURE TOGETHER IN THE PRESENT TENSE IS THE WAY I WRITE TO TALK ABOUT THE WOUNDS OF THE PAST AND THE TRAUMA OF TIME MARKS IN THE BODY...” is applied to the wall beneath the collage in the gallery and is echoed in the installation's sound component and performance Enlarging Circles (2012), in which Martinez and Rojas slowly unwind a roll of paper by walking backward from their starting point, standing nose-to-nose in the middle of a bridge, until the delicate material finally breaks apart only to be reconstituted as the performance is shown in reverse through a digitally edited loop. The location of the performance in the Nitobe Memorial Garden, with its careful attention to the authenticity of plant choice and placement as well as the reflection of symbolic and natural forces, makes palpable the connections between Japan and Vancouver. The bridge where the performance takes place is itself meant to signify “a bridge over the Pacific,” calling attention, once again, to the multiplicity of place.
Perhaps this is the defeatured landscape re-featured, populated with the stories of immigrants, displaced populations, people of different gender identities, classes and races. Through the use of looping to constantly refer to the past, both in time generally and to de Courcy's project specifically, the artists of ThisPlace / Vancouver move from an urban semiotic of repetition and discardability to a recognition of the city in process, becoming itself through the actors that inhabit it, are marked by it and who push against it.
Although employing less of a participatory element, David Semeniuk's Perimeter (2013) is a photographic series that similarly utilizes Google Maps in the planning of nine walks around the perimeter of the city, though this aspect of planning is less evident in the final product than in ThisPlace / Vancouver. Undertaken with collaborator Alice Campbell between February 3 to April 7, 2013, the walks began arbitrarily in the northeast corner of the city at New Brighton Park, in view of the Port of Vancouver, the Iron Worker’s Memorial Bridge and the nearby Cascadia grain elevators. Semeniuk photographed the outer edges of the city, skirting places inaccessible to the public because of industry or private property. Other boundaries included in the project are less obvious, such as the transition between Vancouver and the University Endowment Lands, or the small wooden stake demarcating the Musqueam Indian Reserve from the nearby multi-million dollar properties in the Southlands neighbourhood. Issues of class, private property and accessibility circulate throughout Perimeter.
The series was presented at the Gam Gallery in 2013 in conjunction with the inaugural Capture Photography Festival, and the installation involved a unique method of presentation. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer stood between two different media for the reproduction of the photographic image: on the left were framed, limited edition glossy photographs, and on the right, large plotter prints in unlimited edition mounted on panels. Plotter printing is used for printing vector graphics, using a pen to draw lines based on x and y coordinates. This technology is most often utilized for architectural plans, technical designs for machines and so on. The resulting images have a highly textured surface created by the hatching movement of the printer, which is generally inefficient at producing areas of solid colour, leading to variation between prints of the same image.
The viewer is thus spatially and conceptually located between images that claim to represent the world truthfully (something more akin to the document image of the defeatured landscape) and images that privilege surface, texture, allude to cartography and the art historical concept of the grid. As pointed to by T'ai Smith, the plotter prints represent the matrix of the half-tone print, being the technology through which photography enters into reproduction. The exhibition is therefore more thoroughly entrenched in the development of the technology itself rather than in questions of representation alone, shifting between epistemology (ways of seeing) and ontology (ways of being).15 The shifting structure of the image form closely parallels its subject-matter, which asks how the city's physical boundaries reflect the active process of defining civic identity.
Many areas of the city were inaccessible to Campbell and Semeniuk on their walks, such as the land occupied by Port Metro Vancouver or the Musqueam Indian Reserve, the latter of whose borders are accessible to the general public but not traversed by Campbell and Semeniuk by conscious decision. During the walking performance and documentation, slippages between the routes planned on Google Maps and the decisions made about what areas may or may not be appropriate to enter along with other factors that may have affected movement, point to the totalizing tendency of mapping systems in theory and the lived experience of moving through the city with its stoppages, debates, compromises and re-routes.16 As in ThisPlace / Vancouver, the walk unfolded in process and through the various tensions that emerged in encountering the city. The decision not to cross into Musqueam territory, for example, was meant to respect the sovereignty of the people and the territory while simultaneously acknowledging (in both the decision-making process and the photograph of Musqueam Reserve Marker) the continuing colonial history that shapes our interactions with this border.
In this photographic series, images of domestic spaces and possible domestic spaces (an opening in a chain-link fence leading to some unseen secluded site) are juxtaposed with images of industry and leisure as Vancouver's economy transitions from an industrial to service-based model. The evidence of the walk's embodied experience of the city's socioeconomic diversity becomes evident through these juxtapositions. It is the performance of walking, with its continual negotiations with the urban space that most closely links Semeniuk's project with the defeatured landscape images of the 1960s, though there is a greater self-awareness of the artist's role in this process. This is evident in the dialectical pairing of images of liminal spaces whose reading by the viewer depends on their contrasting qualities, disrupting the urban semiotic of endless interchangeability as discussed by Watson. This is also true of the juxtaposition of plotter prints and glossy photographs, the latter of which are in conversation with later images of the defeatured landscape in the considered framing of the scenes, positioning the work in relation to the history of photographic practice in Vancouver in order to show how the city is actively defined by its perimeter.
The lived socioeconomic, cultural and psychological geographies of the city are similarly evident in the work of Sarah Shamash. In Hastings Glean (2014), the artist traveled along East Hastings Street from Cambie to Clark, an area recently dubbed the Hastings “corridor” – “a descriptor reserved for major arterials where development is reshaping the entire look and feel of the surrounding neighbourhoods.”17 Selecting materials from her walk such as bits of detritus from nature as well as the street's inhabitants, Shamash brought them into the studio to be photographed as singular objects dramatically lit against a white background. The photographs are presented in a grid alongside a single channel video shot from a car driving along Hastings, offering two perspectives or entry points into the character of this area and the changes it is currently undergoing.
The objects photographed include a cheap cigarette pack that reads “For sale on native territories,” a torn pawn shop receipt, an empty syringe package as well as a coffee cup lid from Tim Horton's (recalling its upscale cousin Starbucks). These items elicit associations to the economic and racial demographics of the area along with its ongoing problems of addiction, mental health issues and homelessness. The additions of a browning maple leaf and a seagull feather call up further images of the coastal landscape and official narratives of Canadian identity that do not map neatly onto the subjectivities that these objects imply. One is tempted to wonder how this collection of objects might be read by the outsider, by the non-initiate to Vancouver, its particular relation to the Downtown Eastside or its representation in an international art market context.
The video is shot with a slight upward tilt, mostly removing the sidewalk and its occupants from the scenes. Though not unpopulated, this omission and attendant focus on the passing architecture is reminiscent of Stan Douglas' Every Building on 100 West Hastings Street (2001), a monumental and seamless digital panorama of the buildings at night without a single person on the street. The effect is uncanny, and studying the image today is a startling reminder of the rapid development of this block alone, located across from the renewed Woodward's building that houses the Audain Gallery and another work by Douglas, the equally monumental photo-mural Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2010).
In Douglas' work, the city is presented, in part, as a façade, a set that calls attention to Vancouver's moniker as “Hollywood North,” utilizing the technology and aesthetic of film and high-end commercial photography.18 Could Every Building on 100 West Hastings be considered in relation to the reappearance of the “defeatured landscape” in which the scene is “posed” to draw forth the abstract qualities of what has been constructed”?19 Shamash similarly employs the aesthetic of film, though it is film as document rather than as cinema as the camera captures its own imperfect and blurred movement across the cityscape. Once again we see the artist exploring this aspect of lived experience, foregrounding the way in which the abstractions of capital shape the city's surroundings in a concrete manner and, more importantly, the embodied process of navigating this. Douglas specifically edits out lived experience in 100 West Hastings Street while Shamash brings this into focus through her own editing and framing.
Shamash's work insists on the specificity of the locale through her studied look at both objects and architecture, which contrasts the notion of the defeatured landscape as a pre-existing formalism. Instead, and following the Brazilian geographer Milton Santos, many of Shamash's projects take the form of experimental mapping, examining how “geography is constantly devised, organized and transformed based on socio-economic factors.”20 This distinction between a pre-supposed order and one that is constantly made and re-made by shifting flows of capital and people is significant, as it counters the homogenizing tendencies of the former. Shamash achieves this by utilizing the documentary mode of image-making (in contrast with seamless, high-end photography), on the one hand, and bringing objects that are essentially trash into the studio, on the other.
The title of the multi-disciplinary work is particularly apt here, for the notion of gleaning can apply to many aspects of the project: from the role played by the camera to the performance of the artist when collecting objects to be photographed as well as the relation between the historical activity of gleaning and the contemporary necessity of survival for residents of the Downtown Eastside neighborhood. The viewer's own experience of the work is also a form of gleaning.
One is reminded of the 2000 Agnès Varda documentary The Gleaners and I (in French: Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, "The gleaners and the female gleaner"), which opens with a look inside the French language encyclopedia, the Nouveau Larousse illustré, at the entries for “gleaning” and “gleaner.” An historically female activity of gathering after the harvest, the definition is often accompanied by an image of Jean-François Millet's 1857 painting, Des glaneuses. The documentary plays on the mental image of bending and picking and its associations with (largely feminine) labour and the lower classes to look at contemporary forms of rural and urban gleaning, including dumpster diving or picking non-food items that can be recycled for shelter as well as art.
Contemporary gleaners live off the waste produced by society and are themselves often considered the cast-offs of urban populations, which is evident in a city such as Vancouver. Shamash's gleaning is of an artistic sort as she stoops to collect items that offer a portrait of an area undergoing gentrification. Gleaning is a form of labour that does not obliterate the realities of lived experience for lower income populations and in fact politicizes it – as Millet's painting did when it was first exhibited – revealing how the affluence of a city such as Vancouver is predicated on the same forces that perpetuate the problems faced in the Downtown Eastside.
In this way, Hastings Glean, as in Perimeter and ThisPlace / Vancouver, take up similar critiques of dominant systems formed by the flow of capital as explored in the work of artists such as Douglas and Wall, though do so through different strategies. Ideas of seamlessness and theatricality (i.e. staged scenes) are (in part) eschewed – or contrasted – by the use of documentary strategies, which recall, at least cursorily, early photo-conceptual projects of the 1960s and 70s, positioning the recent projects under discussion between these two instances of the defeatured landscape. The document (and I hesitate to use this word too forcefully, as I realize its loaded meaning) serves, as it did in earlier projects, to critique the status of photography as a high-art commodity. When used in conjunction with other strategies, including sound, performance, participatory elements including programming and web presentations, and a subsequent examination of the form of image delivery (as in Anachronic Darkroom and Semeniuk's plotter prints), the document forms part of a complex view of the city that moves toward ontological questions of being: how the city comes to be as well as how we come to be in and through our relationship to the city. Fundamentally connected to this is the way in which documentation technology – both of mapping and image making – both limit the experience of the city and fail to limit it.
Following the importance of ontological questions, the performative elements of walking and driving are evident to varying degrees in the final projects but nevertheless play a central role in their conception and execution. A sense of embodiment and of process is achieved through a sustained engagement with how technology mediates everyday experience, or our experience of the city more specifically, which is analogous to how the city itself both affects and reflects the lives of its inhabitants. The relation of these projects to the defeatured landscape is thus a revisionary one, acknowledging the active processes inherent in forming a civic identity and the way in which lived experience conflicts with or contrasts such metanarratives.
The Portfolio Series is financially supported by Vancouver Foundation, The Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation and SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. We at Balcone Art Society and Decoy Magazine are very grateful for this assistance and for the ongoing support of our audience members and volunteers.