Strategies Inverted: Artistic Tactics
and the Creative Class
Curator / Author: Bopha Chhay // Featured Artists: Alex Grunenfelder & Angela Henderson, Jamie Hilder and Sydney Hart
Presented in partnership with Balcone Arts Society // July 14th 2014
Alex Grunenfelder and Angela Henderson, Frank Rogers Diversion, 2013. Steel, concrete, asphalt, earth. 0.11 hectares. View of site from East 1st Avenue. Photo: Angela Henderson
"Building a city depends on how people combine the traditional economic factors of land, labour and capital, but it also depends on how they manipulate symbolic languages of exclusion and entitlement. The look and feel of cities reflect decisions about what and who should be visible and what should not, on
concepts of order and disorder, and uses of aesthetic power. In this primal sense, the city has always had a symbolic economy."
- (Sharon Zukin. The Culture of Cities, Blackwell, 1995)
In a recent talk titled Neoliberal Urbanism: artful alternatives, (1) economic geographer Jamie Peck discussed the relationship between neoliberal urbanism in Vancouver and urban studies theorist Richard Florida’s discussion of the rise of the ‘creative class,’ detailing how aptly this term corresponds to a
Similarly, poet and critic Jeff Derksen has argued for the necessity of cultural and artistic critique as a method to counter this idea of “the creative city.” (2) In his book The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida defines the ‘creative class’ as the key to urban regeneration. In order to reap the economic benefits of this class (where occupations range from artists, designers, actors, film crews to nurses and scientists), Florida has proposed that cities implement a program of policies tailored to achieve a ‘creative city.’ (3) The relationship between capital and art is clear; civic policies, and the attendant instrumentalisation of art, contribute to the shaping the city. Peck and Derksen argue, however, that it is necessary to ensure that creativity maintains critical agency, as opposed to being co-opted for urban policy. How do we, as artists, destabilise the instrumentalisation of art, governed by private interests, that drives the ‘creative class,’ in order to ensure the full potential of our critical agency?
While the idea of the creative class has been incorporated into municipal policies as a means to regenerate disenfranchised areas, these policies have used the idea of ‘creative’ and ‘art’ for economic aims. The works of the artists within this Portfolio Series consider the ways one might engage a form of artistic critique in a city that is quick to instrumentalise the idea of ‘creativity’ within its marketing rationale. In responding to this instrumentalisation, this project asks, how have artists used political and economic conditions as a framework for resistance? What forms of resistance, and what tactics have artists deployed against the idea of the creative class?
The works presented within this series provide an artistic critique in response to the idea of ‘the creative city’ through the recuperation of the political and economic strategies being imposed upon them. Jamie Hilder’s performative intervention, Downtown Ambassador, highlights artistic labour as a form of critique and political action; Frank Rogers Diversion is an act of civic subversion by Alex Grunenfelder and Angela Henderson into forms of navigation, using wayfinding signs as signifiers of alternative labor histories in Vancouver; Sydney Hart’s video series Lease and Headquarters explore tensions between still and moving digital images, which look at the rhythm of changes in land use in Vancouver, as well as how our experience of urban space is increasingly mediated by online mapping and the influence of web companies, many based on the west coast of Canada and the United States. In their direct engagement with the urban environment of Vancouver, it is important to note that within this Portfolio Series, each artwork takes place outside of the jurisdiction of the gallery or an institution, while engaging the city directly through both virtual and physical spaces.
Jamie Hilder’s Downtown Ambassador (2008) is presented as documentation of a wider project that seeks to investigate different types of knowledge production within the city.
The role of Downtown Ambassador is here used as an interventionist strategy to foreground how private, commercial interests are projected and inscribed within public space. Upon first encountering this work, there is an unsettling air to Downtown Ambassador. The documented components are almost forensic in their presentation; the affidavit, the 4-screen video similar to that of surveillance footage and the uniform display signify a certain authority. These austere components present evidence towards a case. Delivered with poise, his well-measured artistic coordinates point to a series of questions about the ways we inhabit the city. To begin this work, Hilder undertook training with Genesis security, a company that ran the Downtown Ambassadors Program, a private security and hospitality firm operated by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). Between 2006 and 2009, the civic government provided financial support and the firm has since also been funded by commercial businesses. It was additionally endorsed and ensured support by the Vancouver Police Department. The mandate of the Downtown Ambassadors program outlines the responsibility for hospitality, information assistance and crime prevention service to the general public. (4)
Jamie Hilder, Downtown Ambassador: Uniform, 2008 - 2010.
Hilder went on two 8-hour shifts before he decided he could no longer work as an employed Downtown Ambassador. During this brief stint of employment, he was able to obtain a uniform and had one tailored based on the prescribed outfit. Over the course of a year, Hilder inhabited the role of an unsanctioned Downtown Ambassador, only partially fulfilling the responsibilities of the original role, intentionally delivering a poor performance - providing information to tourists, and avoiding other aspects such as crime prevention and security. During one of his unsanctioned actions at the steam clock, Hilder was confronted and questioned by an employed Downtown Ambassador, who contacted the Vancouver Police Department upon figuring Hilder was not an official Ambassador.
Hilder remained confident that he was not carrying out anything illegal as he had consulted lawyers prior to commencing filming. However, Hilder was quickly arrested, an incident which revealed the active security role of the Ambassadors and complicity between the DVBIA and the VPD. (5)
Operating in locations frequented by tourists, Stanley Park, the Convention Centre, Robson Street and the steam clock in the Gastown district, Hilder provided information that veered from the well-worn script of Vancouver’s sites and sights. Hilder offered alternative interpretations of histories that remain invisible or otherwise misrepresented. For instance, the steam clock in the Gastown district (with the commonly attached prefix ‘historic’), where clusters of people gather awaiting its hourly whistle, was in fact purchased in 1977. The misrepresentation of the historic nature of Gastown is also manifest within the false cobblestone streets. Stanley Park is another area that is often misinterpreted, through the lack of acknowledgement of the eviction of First Nations, Chinese labourers and workers from the park or the use of monumental symbols in a tokenistic manner, such as the Totem poles at Brockton Point and the Inukshuk at English Bay. (6)
Jamie Hilder, Downtown Ambassador, 2008 - 2010.
The form of video through which these actions were presented is significant in that the city and the particular sites become foregrounded. The concept of a set, or a staged intervention alludes to the way touristic experience of the city is continuously predetermined through a particular narrative, giving way to the space of the city as being prescribed and, in some ways, sterilized. Our willingness to buy into certain myths of the city distorts the lived reality. The staging and presence of Hilder’s camera suggests a form of surveillance, of being watched and having one’s activities and movements judged as appropriate or inappropriate, a further and perhaps inverted dimension of the surveillance tactics used by the Downtown Ambassadors. Certain experiences of the city are encouraged by the DVBIA, while activities such as taking shelter and sleeping in a vestibule are not and lie in the way of the constant accumulation of capital.
In conceiving the project, Hilder questions who gets to represent the city and what effects do these representations have on policy and everyday life? He mentions the Downtown Ambassadors’ policy of recording conversations, which
occurred between the Ambassadors and tourists, or business owners and the way this information was logged upon the conclusion of a shift.
Hilder refers to the quantitative nature of the administrative aspect of this type of labour as being part of the ‘statistical city’ and the way information is used to regulate behaviour and influence policy, encouraging the city as less of a place for living and more of a place for business. (7)
Through subversive tactics of camouflage, Hilder’s Downtown Ambassadors has turned the gaze toward the agents of surveillance and revealed how highly regulated public space can be, as determined by civic policy and the complicity of organizations in discriminating against those who do not comply with the interests of business and profit. (8) The claims of a narrative of a collective experience of the city are quickly disproven through Hilder’s actions as an unsanctioned Ambassador.
Jamie Hilder, Downtown Ambassador: Special Advertising Section for
Public Art Dialogue, 2008-2010.
Alex Grunenfelder & Angela Henderson
The Frank Rogers Diversion (2014) is located at a site adjacent to the forthcoming Great Northern Way campus, a new media centre, which is a joint venture between educational institutions Emily Carr University of Art + Design, University of British Columbia and the
British Columbia Institute of Technology.
Neighbouring organizations also include several galleries that have recently relocated to the area, now commonly referred to by developers as the ‘Creative Quarter’. Inconspicuous in their nature, the Frank Rogers Diversion signs are difficult to immediately identify as an intervention. They are well integrated into their environment, occupying a piece of land that, through development of the surrounding area, has become a redundant overgrown byway, partially obscured by an advertisement announcing upcoming architectural developments. These interstitial spaces that sit on the margins of the production of capital are often sites for potential resistance. As placeholders situated amongst the overgrowth, the brambles and weeds, they remind us that the site is layered, and its histories can be dense and confusing. We know very well that histories of contestation of site and territory are often obscured in favor of development and progress.
Alex Grunenfelder and Angela Henderson, Frank Rogers Diversion perimeter walk, 2013. Steel, concrete, asphalt, earth. 0.11 hectares. Image: Angela Henderson and Alex Grunenfelder
Taking as their material common wayfinding road signage, the artists have installed three signs commemorating Frank Rogers, a union organizer and political activist who was a member of the fisherman’s, longshoreman’s and railways workers union and a member of the first socialist group formed in Vancouver, the Socialist Labour Party. Rogers rallied for workers rights in the fishing industry and led a strike in 1900. In 1903, the staff of the Canadian Pacific Railways went on strike and were backed by union allies. In an incident with few clear details, Rogers and others went to investigate a gathering near Cordova and Abbot Streets, in the process they were shot at, and Rogers later died from gunshot wounds.
He has long been considered a labour martyr. (9)
Installed without permits, Frank Rogers Diversion indexes hidden histories and the labour disputes that surrounded the fishing, logging and railway industries of the early 20th century in Vancouver. The work considers how cities publicly commemorate and elevate certain histories, while overlooking others due to contentious or unwelcome political agendas. It offers an opportunity to reflect on the histories and labour disputes that exist almost as shadows of the recent past through naming this spectral figure and the associated political memory. It raises questions about the ideas that underlie processes of placemaking, by drawing attention to the ways we publicly commemorate key historical figures in an acknowledgement of the legacy of certain histories. The act of naming is a process that claims territory and, in most cases, declares histories that belong to the victors but by creating signage that commemorates a union organizer and political activist, we are provided a reminder of the previous and ongoing contestation of sites and territories in Vancouver. Often place names, street names, and civic monuments are renamed as an act of reconciliation.
Frank Rogers Diversion signifies the changes in land use of the False Creek Flats, and points to a convergence of histories and the previous dominant industries of fishing and logging against the backdrop of more recent industries of media, technology education. A new banner on the building of Emily Carr University of Art + Design reads, ‘Creativity is Our Greatest Natural Resource’.
Passersby might be prompted to reflect on particular histories amidst the fast changing economic land-use of the False Creek Flats. Likewise, they may also be prompted to consider the Frank Rogers Diversion and its reason for being. Grunenfelder and Henderson’s intervention into the area of the Great Northern Way campus through the placement of common yet unauthorized wayfinding signage, not only alludes to history of labour union organizers but also to the way artists and activists through their process and actions have shaped the city through unsanctioned activities.
Alex Grunenfelder and Angela Henderson, Frank Rogers Diversion sign post, 2013. Steel, concrete, asphalt, earth. 0.11 hectares.
Photo: Alex Grunenfelder
Sydney Hart’s Lease (2014) is composed of a series of photos taken of a luxury condo development in Vancouver and an abandoned house in Lithuania, edited to reflect a distributed experience of architecture as mediated through digital images.
The two works within the series induce an overwhelming sense of estrangement and simultaneous exhilaration. A visceral effect is conjured through the pace of the images and alludes to an embodied experience of the constant dynamic of demolition and construction in Vancouver. These short looping works never allow our attention to settle. We are granted glimpses of architectural features, geometric in form, a staircase, brightly coloured fragments of street furniture, or public art, building foundations and newly constructed window frames. Both works are conceived for the format of the web, lending themselves to being viewed on mobile devices, technology that we commonly rely on to navigate through the city.
Sydney Hart, 01Lease. 2013, Digital video. 0:46 loop.
Sydney Hart, 02Lease, 2014. Digital video.1:09 loop.
In contrast to Lease, the series Headquarters (2014) is edited at a pace where the image resolution is adjusted slowly to reveal the slightest change. In 94025_1 the viewer is forced into a sustained engagement whereby the image becomes estranged from the viewer on a number of different levels. The slow change in dpi resolution and the gradual dispersal of the image from the site proper becomes a starting point to draw out multiple disconnections from a material reality. This process of abstraction in the form of removal suggests both the circulation of images online (the lower their resolution the easier they are to circulate) and the degrees of distanciation between physical site and digital representations.
As with Frank Rogers Diversion the series Lease and Headquarters indicate the predominant and changing land use patterns in Vancouver. Jamie Peck points out Richard Florida’s “the three T’s of Technology, Talent and Tolerance”10 as key to Florida’s redevelopment schemes in instigating ways to create a climate attractive to ‘creatives’. Since the 2000’s, Vancouver has seen an increase in IT companies being established and relocating branches, including Microsoft and Hootsuite. Low corporate taxes have encouraged IT companies to maintain campuses in mid-size cities that are seen as desirable places to live. These companies fulfill two of the three T’s, Technology and Talent, (10) that Florida argues are conducive to sustaining a ‘creative city’ incubator.
The opportunities of the IT industry in Vancouver have become deeply implicated in strategizing new ways to market a desired lifestyle. Similarly the marketing slogans of condo developers take on the air of self-help affirmations that enable a proposed sense of ‘creative’ freedom. For example, an upcoming development called Framework on East Pender Street stakes the claim of providing ‘A New Cultural Framework’ and the new Rize development on Main and Broadway has shrouded itself in slogans such as ‘Be Unique and Embrace Individuality’. These seductive forms of lifestyle and the potential for ‘creative potential’ dissolves space into a lifestyle commodity.
However, Florida’s concept of the three T’s does not make an attempt to consider local politics. Maybe the third T, Tolerance, should be key to renegotiating Florida’s packaged program of the ‘creative city’. In San Francisco and more recently Seattle, there has been an increase in activism and actions against IT companies. Over the past couple of years, Twitter relocated to the SOMA district of San Francisco as part of a city incentivization to attract employees who wanted to be ‘closer to the action’. Their blatant disregard of the area, which maintains multiple SRO’s, has seen a huge number of long-term residents having to relocate due to unaffordable housing prices.
Sydney Hart, 94025_1, 2013. Digital video. 4:50 loop
Sydney Hart, 98109_1, 2014. Digital video. 1:30 loop
Seattle is increasingly becoming home to major IT corporations such as Amazon.com and Expedia, and activists have drawn the relationship between the increased presence of these companies with rapid gentrification and unaffordable housing. Hart’s 98109_1 of the Headquarters series, focuses on one of the new Amazon.com buildings at its new South Lake Union Campus in Seattle. Having been granted permits to develop its new campus, the sudden revitalization within the area has seen accelerated gentrification. The activist group Counterforce has claimed that Amazon.com is rupturing the community fabric of Seattle in their lack of concern for the community into which it has relocated. Here we see that the virtual reality can often be far removed from the material reality. If we consider these few examples from Seattle and San Francisco and their relationship with creative IT corporations, there is the sense of the lived reality of Florida’s idea of the ‘creative city ‘ as ostracizing parts of the community, namely those who do not fit the desired demographic of the ‘creative class’.
The works within the series consider the significance of artistic critique in the production of cultural value in Vancouver in ways that challenge political and economic ideas around the ‘creative city’. These tactics of artistic critique as forms of resistance and intervention, work to maintain a sense of artistic agency in their ability to reveal the way civic policy and processes can determine a material reality of the city and to illuminate invisible histories or systems that remain obscured or exist in the shadows. Not only do these artistic tactics resist a kind of instrumentalisation by their subversion of codified practices of the city, but they also create a sense of urgency and the need to provoke the memory of place. The desire for change comes with the ability to reveal that the discriminatory policies, which advance the agenda of the creative city, are primarily in the pursuit of the constant accumulation of capital.
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.