Acts of Spatial Decolonization
On Occupation, Settlement and Ownership
Published: July 5, 2015
Curator / Author: Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte
Featured Artists: Andrea Creamer, Gabrielle Hill & Charlene Vickers // Presented in Partnership with Balcone Arts Society
In its most basic delineation, occupation is not a political act, it is not an action laden with the intrinsic meaning of being contestational or, on the contrary, oppressive. Simply put, occupation is the “the action of filling or taking up space.”(1) However, taking up space is not a simple thing. If we understand space as both a product and as a producer of social relations, then taking up space amounts to taking a position in the socio-economic system that regulates space and our relationship to it. Occupation, even before it becomes synonymous with an “action of taking or maintaining possession or control of a country, building, land” or with an “action of occupying a work place, public building, etc., as a form of protest”(2) is not inconsequential.
In British Columbia, where the majority of the land has not been the subject of treaties, taking up space, as a settler, is also synonymous with taking space away. Occupation, in this case, amounts to taking a position in the ongoing processes of colonization. In the city, where land and what stands on it is delimitated, partitioned, appraised, bought, sold, zoned, rezoned, built upon, developed, planned, and controlled, taking up space is, de facto, an act of taking position in the system that regulates the urban environment. Occupation, in this case, is synonymous with contributing, via varying degrees of participation, to the weaving of the urban fabric.
Home is Elsewhere
“You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” This phrase, apposed in bold sans serif vinyl lettering in various sites of the DTES by artist Andrea Creamer, makes visible the sub-text that underscores urban public space—and in particular that in the DTES. Placed next to park benches, alcoves or other elements of the urban architecture, the text points to specific spaces that could be used as temporary dwellings, but negates the possibility of using these spaces as such. Effectively, the public grounds in which Creamer has intervened, are subject to regulations that prohibit their use as temporary home either through the omniscient authority of municipal bylaws or through the targeted use of “hostile architecture.” While it mimics the prescriptive character of these regulatory mechanisms, the statement that Creamer has, in the manner of a graffiti artist, inserted in the urban environment is not an imperative. In fact, it almost reads as an apology, and one might be tempted to precede it by the introductory phrase: “I’m sorry but…” What this apologetic tone denotes is that “home” is a relative concept, and that occupying space is inevitably connoted to privilege, or the lack thereof. To this effect, it is interesting to note that the presence of Creamer’s work in public space is itself not sanctioned. Like the issue it speaks to, Creamer’s work, through its furtive character, stands in multiple grey zones. In addition to hinging on illegality—some may argue that the artist’s work defaces public property—it is situated, both literally and metaphorically, in interstitial spaces. Her interventions sit between art/not art, visibility/invisibility, public/private, and representation/action, and the signage she leaves behind as a result of these interventions is located in spaces with unfixed identities and functions.
The work is intended for multiple audiences and, while it may catch the eye of the passerby that encounters it, regardless of their status, it will be received differently depending on that passerby’s subject position. The work acts as an over-imposed interpellation, but the statement’s “you” calls upon distinct sets of addressees. It will address “you” differently if “you” happen upon it during an afternoon stroll or if “you” are confronted by it when the time comes to elect an area to occupy till morning. I have argued elsewhere that “the manner in which the furtive artist ‘abandons’ her work into the world calls for the simultaneous abandonment of a ‘proper’ reading of the work. As the artwork is catapulted into the urban environment without the safety net of the ‘art label,’ it elicits unpredictable receptions from unsuspecting viewers [free trans].”(3) However, in the case of Home is Elsewhere, the very strength of the work resides in the fact that it speaks to different sets of viewers by directly addressing them. Doing so, it unhinges the incidentality of its own reception, only to further illustrate existing disparities between the different users of the spaces it has infiltrated.
Occupy Anishinabe Park
Occupy Anishinabe Park 1974 is a single-channel video that artist Charlene Vickers produced as an expanded document of a series of in
situ performative interventions. The video presents a slideshow of photographs of the artist walking in downtown Vancouver—from
Chinatown to English Bay—while carrying a large faux-birch sign on which “Occupy Anishinabe Park 1974” reads in bold red letters.
These images are interspersed by clips in which Vickers is shown carefully forming balls of wet earth, in front of a neutral studio-like background.
The work makes direct reference to the events that took place in the summer of 1974, in Kenora, Ontario, when the Ojibway Warriors Society (OWS) led a 39-day occupation of Anicinabe Park. In July 1974, the OWS organized a conference of the Ojibway Nation and “a day after the conference ended, news spread that one hundred fifty members of the Ojibway Warriors Society were armed and would not leave the park until it was ‘liberated Indian territory.’”(4) Effectively, Anicinabe Park had been sold to the City of Kenora in 1959 by the Federal Government without consent of the Ojibway Nation, who held claims to the territory. Almost two decades later, the park’s occupation had the objective to reclaim the land, but it also served as a pressure tactic to bring forward social justice claims. Notably, the occupation brought international attention to mercury poisoning of Northwestern Ontario waterbeds, which had devastating effects on populations of neighbouring Reserves—the sound of running water that is played as an audio loop in Vickers’s video serves as a reminder of this particular battle.
Occupy Anishinabe Park 1974 transposes the memory of this particular historical event onto the Vancouver present. The occupation of Anicinabe Park is an event rooted in a particular site, but it is also one with a historical weight and symbolic reach not limited to that site. The artist produced the work in the wake of the Occupy Movement, and the work, through its prominent use of the “Occupy” imperative-turned-slogan, can be read as dialoguing with this movement. For Vickers, the actions accomplished in the process of realizing Occupy Anishinabe Park 1974 served as means to make her presence, and more specifically her presence in Vancouver, known. Walking the streets brandishing an occupation sign is, if anything, an act of affirmation. But the particular sign brandished by Vickers (re)activated an earlier instance of occupation, one that is related to the artist’s personal heritage. Originally from Ontario, Vickers is an Anishinabe artist who has lived in Vancouver for the past 20 years. Her personal history at once connects and distances her from the events, community and land at the core of the 1974 Anicinabe Park Occupation. In this light, Vickers’s work can be read as an act of replacement through displacement. Occupy Anishinabe Park 1974 displaces history only to resituate it in another (personal, geographic, historical) context.
This process, much like the occupation of Anicinabe Park, can be understood as an active assertion of self-definition. In this sense, Vickers’s use of the “Anishinabe” spelling on the sign she carries, as opposed to the “Anicinabe” spelling that is used in the park’s official appellation, is significant. “Anishinabe” is the self-attributed name that designates the Odawa, Ojibwa and Algonquin First Nations of Ontario. The artist’s use of the “Anishinabe” spelling can be read as a further reclamation of the land and assertion of self-determination. It is also meaningful that this reclaiming gesture is accomplished in Vancouver, the place that the artist has elected as home. Is this a call to arms? An invitation to (re)occupy Vancouver? The Anicinabe Park occupation is credited as having “signaled a new era of more contentious, even violent, relations between the Canadian state and Native groups,”(5) and sparked a wave of Red Power manifestations across the country. Accordingly, Anic/shinabe Park can be re-appropriated as a symbol of resistance, as a space where the potentiality of occupation was actualized, and as a moment that can be re-enacted. In the same way as occupied portions of public space all over the world became stand-ins for Wall Street as symbol of capitalism during the Occupy Revolution, Anic/shinabe Park can stand in as a territory to be reclaimed, as a space to de-colonize. Vancouver can be a place to start.
The braiding of grass, strands of hay and other lengthy and malleable vegetation encountered throughout the industrial area of East Vancouver is a performative gesture that artist Gabrielle Hill repeatedly executed in the process of realizing the series Braided Grass.(6) These actions and their outcome, although deliberate, were encountered unexpectedly by passers-by. Through these acts, the artist accomplished gestures of care for the land as she delicately arranged vegetation tufts sprouting amidst the concrete and the built environment. Braided Grass, as a work encompassing both action and document, serves as an insertion of a feminine indigenous subject in the city, both literally—the artist is a Cree-Métis woman—
and symbolically through acts of intimacy with the land.
As a furtive act, Hill’s environmental braiding is a mode of (re)claiming space—here, an industrialized and urbanized terrain. Through it, she not only asserts her presence in this space, she composes her relationship to that space. In this relationship, the concept of space makes way to the concept of land—a slip denoting intimacy and a difference in the very conception of territory. The gesture is one of braiding the land, like one would braid
a loved one’s hair or one’s own mane. Through it, the artist’s body enters in direct contact with the land amidst industrialized and urbanized sites. The encountered braids are traces of intimate interventions, and, as oddities in the industrial environment, serve to signify connection to the land. In this sense, the work is an affirmation of presence: presence of the artist, presence of the land, but also presence of the indigenous (female) subject. Yet, as documents, the grass braids inevitably become markers of absence: they show the past presence of the artist, allude to remains of the land, and reveal indigeneity by pointing to its erasure. The ephemerality of these documents serves to reinforce the work’s materialization of absence. The grass braids are a fleeting imprint of the artist, an attempt to untangle, for a moment, embedded layers of colonization.
Settlement is a key concept, if not a requirement, of colonization. Effectively, the “placing of persons or things in a fixed or permanent position” has been a time enduring formulae for “peopling or colonizing a new country.”(7) It is not without irony that the term settlement, in this dual definition, implies both the permanence of location as well as the impermanence of dislocation. In this framework, dislocation is a necessary step of relocation, and relocation becomes the cause of dislocation.
A quick overview of BC’s history posits its current demographics as an outcome of influxes of settler populations that have come to inhabit the area, beginning with early colonial settlements more than 200 years ago and spanning through more recent immigration waves and inter-provincial movement.(8) The city of Vancouver is of course, at the heart of this movement, and if it is considered a young city it is not in reference to its population’s median age.(9) Most have called it home going only a few generations back or only a few years back.(10) In the 125-odd years of its official history as city, waves of different presences in the city have cohabitated and/or superseded one another.
The use of the term “host” in reference to Vancouver’s Indigenous communities renders explicit the settler status of most (current and past) Vancouverites as it positions them as guests in a de facto host-guest relationship. But the accuracy of this relationship is questionable, both semantically and actually. To be more accurate, we might say that this relationship is one in which guests have, to say the least, overstayed their welcome and effectively dispossessed the hosts.
Stanley Park Ghost Train
Stanley Park is incontestably a landmark of Vancouver, yet it is also a site whose history testifies to the processes of dispossession and cultural erasure that accompany colonization and urbanization. The foregrounded beauty of the park’s sights and hundred-year-old trees casts a shadow on the not-so-picturesque history of the park, which is, amongst other things, laden with the (violent) eviction of Indigenous and Chinese families that lived in the area when it was officially converted, in 1988, into the park we know.(11) Stanley Park Ghost Train is an installation that documents Gabrielle Hill’s journeys through the park and its history. The work comprises multiple sculptures that the artist produced as an outcome of her explorations of and encounters on the site—some incorporating found objects and tourist memorabilia.
In the manner of a secret code, the individual sculptures and objects that compose the installation point to the park’s unofficial history: that which was purposely left out of visitors’ guides, and that which developed through the park’s idiosyncratic narratives. Shells laid out on the ground allude to the middens dug up to initially pave the Park Drive Perimeter Road circling the park, but are also testament to the longstanding occupation of the site by First Nations Peoples. The mock-up of a house being chopped up is indicative of the expropriation techniques that were used during the site’s initial survey.
A portrait of poet Pauline Johnson, who was influential in shaping some of the park’s history—she notably named the Lost Lagoon—looks up at a caricature of the artist, which she purchased from an outdoor drafter. A papier-mâché walking stick, plastic plants and a faux rock garden complete the scene and give additional cues as to the park’s little known history and the artist’s interpretation of its present. In the work, a play between documentation and representation becomes a bittersweet comment on the simulacrum that underscores the park, both its history and present-day experience. If the park acts as a nature refuge in the city, its history positions it as a non-organically constructed space. To this effect, the false photograph of the Brockton Point Totem Poles that Hill has placed atop a block of found Styrofoam can be seen as the crux of the work. This piece not only questions the authenticity of one’s experience of the park(12), it points to the inherent misrepresentation that yields from a history of colonial dispossession and its present day actualization.
Variations and Traces of Ancestral Selves
Charlene Vickers’ ongoing series, Variations and Traces of Ancestral Selves, is a collection of mukluk boot sculptures made from beer boxes and traditionally adorned with beading, fringes and flower-patterns. The work speaks to the fact that, in Canada, colonial processes have not only entailed the appropriation of Indigenous land, they have also involved cultural displacement and dispossession.(13) The labour-intensive processes that the artist has engaged in in the production of these works can be seen as a form of cultural re-appropriation. The stitching together of pieces of cardboard and their meticulous beading, allows the artist to connect to her cultural heritage while challenging its (mis)representation in the Canadian vernacular. Effectively, if Vickers’s process can be assimilated to a labour of love, the material that she has chosen—beer box cardboard—is an open challenge to enduring colonial stereotypes (notably the “Drunken Indian”) and to the commodification of indigeneity and of the land.
Vickers’ boots, at first glance, appear to be made from hide, and have the shape and size that one would expect from mukluk footwear. However, the boots are unusable as boots—the cardboard, however robust, is bound to tear from use—and the prominence of corporate beer logos unsettles the possibility of entertaining a fetishized rapport to the objects. Effectively, the work’s materiality induces viewer discomfort as connections are drawn between icons of both drinking and Indigenous cultures. Further, Vickers’ use of beer boxes comments on processes of recuperation of the land through the use of the picturesque as branding strategy. As such it addresses a long-standing tradition in Canadian art that connects the depiction of landscape to the forging of identity—albeit here manifested in “lower grade” media, i.e. advertizing. Vickers’ work points to the fact that imagery of the land is prominent in branding strategies used by Canadian beer corporations. Coors Light, Labatt’s Wildcat, Okanagan Spring, Cariboo, and Kokanee are examples of brews that resort to marketing strategies evoking the Canadian wilderness, some even using nomenclature derived from Native languages.(14) On the one hand, the sculptures, as representations of traditional Indigenous artifacts, challenge indigeneity-as-simulacrum: indigeneity that is easy to package and to sell. On the other hand, the sculptures, as re-appropriations of packaging loaded (no pun intended) with patriotic representations of the Canadian landscape challenge the land-as-simulacrum: the land that serves to package and to sell.
Ownership is a concept that implies at once possession and responsibility. The two logically go hand-in-hand. “The fact or state of being an owner” and of having “legal right of possession” over something naturally lends itself to “being or feeling responsible for solving a problem, addressing an issue,”(15) particularly if that issue pertains to that which is owned. However, the connection between these two concepts is broken when it comes to processes of colonial land acquisition and to inorganic processes of urban development. Following through on the implications of ownership, proprietorship of the land should entail a sense of responsibility for the land, and proprietorship of space in the city should entail responsibility for the communities that have organically fostered and been fostered through this space.
Land claims have particular resonance in relation to ongoing Indigenous struggles in Canada. However, understood as declarations of desired control over areas of property, land claims can serve as an expanded concept to think through the multiple implications of ownership and how it manifests, here, in this day and time. In a post-colonial urban environment like Vancouver, the concept becomes intertwined with claims on participation in the city’s life, transformation and definition. Underscored by the recognition of Indigenous territorial rights, “land claims” materialize through the competing interests of various user-groups and use-values, and are exacerbated by growing class divisions, the regulation of public space and recurrent processes of marginalization. Beyond the opposition of fundamental values—preservation of the land/communities versus development /growth—claims for visibility and for sustained existence clash with those voiced by global capital.
Waste Lands/Monument to Piazza Italia
Gabrielle Hill’s series of site-specific interventions and sculptures titled Waste Lands brings into visibility ephemeral spatial occupation and points to modes of ownership derived from actual use rather than proprietorship. In 2012 and 2013, Hill produced a series of site-specific interventions in the semi-vacant space that is the CN rail yard located east of Strathcona Park and delimitated west by Glen Drive and south by Terminal Avenue. This space is one with which the artist has forged a long-term relationship. It is a site that she frequented as a teenager and young adult, a space that became an anchor point of her youth in East Van. Today, when the artist speaks of this space, her description denotes intimate knowledge of its life: the comings and goings of pedestrians who take it as a short cut; the exchanges and bartering at the core of parallel economies that it has fostered; the accumulation of detritus as testament to its activities; and the refuge that it serves as for some. As a terrain vague the space is, literally and figuratively liminal: it is a non-space that divides neighbourhoods, an anonymous space that serves both official CN business and under-the-radar activities.
As an intervention, the artist used discarded material found on-site to spell the phrase “How long hav I known you” in the space. These words are derived from Tsleil-Waututh leader Chief Dan George’s “Lament for Confederation” speech, which he gave on the event of Canada’s centennial celebration in 1967. The speech brought into question ownership of the land on which the city of Vancouver is erected. Inserted into the CN terrain vague, these words can be read as alluding to the multiple types of ownership that are superimposed in the space: ancestral ownership, legal ownership, use-derived ownership and appropriation. As a second intervention in the space, the artist repaired a makeshift sidewalk that is used by those who travel through and occupy the space. In both cases, the interventions testified to Hill’s relationship to and care for this space, and by extension, for its users.
In a second instance, Waste Lands materialized through a series of sculptures, which were shown in a solo exhibition at Sunset Terrace in the summer of 2014. The exhibited assemblages were made from found materials the artist collected from the CN rail yard and the neighbouring Clark Drive Plaza, but also from the former Senáḵw Reserve (Kitsilano Reserve, located under the Burrard Bridge)—all of which more or less constituting interstitial spaces. These works pay tribute to the parallel, and equally interstitial, activities that take place in the aforementioned spaces by re-purposing objects and materials that stand in as traces of these activities. The re-purposed materials act as documents of lived ownership of theses spaces. Accordingly, the artist’s appropriation of found materials furthers the re-appropriation at play in the current uses of these spaces. Effectively, processes of industrialization and urban development were causes for the radical transformation of the land and the eviction of First Nations People in the areas that Hill has invested as part of this project.(16) Presented in the gallery, Hill’s Waste Lands sculptures serve not only as indexes of life of/in these spaces, but also points to its inherent fragility. Hill’s assemblages precariously hold together in the gallery and induce a sense of pathos. The presence of the human body is hinted at by the works: assembled objects found by the artist in “waste lands” were used for particular purposes before being discarded, and the scale of the sculptures, scattered around the gallery, emulates the human figure. Arranged as hanging bundles, found blankets, which one can easily picture as repulsive and filthy in situ, are reminiscent of the universal human need for comfort and warmth.
Waste Lands, in its multiple iterations, testifies to Hill’s engagement with the anti-monumental and with gestures of care as both conceptual and material frameworks. These ideas are also resonant in the photograph Monument to Piazza Italia, which the artist produced in 2013 after directly intervening in the Plaza Angelo Branca (also referred to as the Clark Drive Plaza, or as Piazza Italia by the artist). Named after an important Italian-Canadian Vancouverite, the plaza was built in the mid ’80s with other such monuments along the Expo Line. The site, in which once throned a statue of Christopher Columbus—not so ironically the father of colonization in the Americas—has long become derelict and has been appropriated for its interstitial qualities by transient users. Monument to Piazza Italia is a photograph of the site, taken at night. In it, the plaza and its empty pedestal are brightly lit by spotlights, which time has rendered obsolete. At first glance the image appears banal, but the photograph documents an involved process by which the artist momentarily revived the site by fixing the spotlights’ electrical wiring and connecting the system to a generator. If the gesture can be assimilated to one of care for the space—restoring, if only briefly, part of its lost splendor—it is also one by which the artist staged the space and shed light (literally) on its lived reality. In the photograph, the plaza’s arched shape becomes a proscenium for the life that unfolds in that space, of which graffiti, detritus and syringes are some documents. If interstitial spaces have the quality of being invisible, what the gesture at the core of Monument to Piazza Italia does is illuminate, albeit for a moment, the very interstitiality of this space. Doing so, the work stages not only the space, but the active (re)claiming of this space by its users.
Andrea Creamer, Colonial Realty, 2013. Mixed media sculpture.
Colonial Realty is the title of a sculpture realized by Andrea Creamer in which a dozen placards hang from a white self-standing wooden post. The sculpture, in both shape and content, borrows from the real estate vernacular and imitates the lawn sign that advertizes desired spatial transactions. But Creamer’s sign, akin to a spiraling weather vane, consciously induces confusion. Here, contradictory qualifiers of space are juxtaposed and reveal the dichotomous ways in which space is conceived of within a mercantile mind frame. “Public” opposes “private,” “for rent” opposes “for sale,” “lost” opposes “found.” Amongst these dichotomies, “free space” stands as a ubiquitous concept as it strays from the logic of the market and the imperatives of property. It comes as no surprise that the work was produced and shown in Vancouver, a city governed by real estate development, obsessed with property values, and financed by global capital. To this effect, it is notable that the qualifier that sits atop the others in the work reads “stolen.” This can be understood as a direct reference to the fact that the city of Vancouver is built on unceded territory: a reminder that monetization of the land through real estate transactions is tinted by questions as to the legitimacy of these very transactions. The work’s title is not without irony. If the sculpture draws its name from the particular fence post that artist has used (the Colonial fence), it is also a comment on the fact that colonization is perpetuated via the vertical and horizontal striations of the city and the fluctuations of property values.
In the context that Colonial Realty foregrounds, free space can be but an oxymoron. In the intervention titled Free Space, Andrea Creamer wheat-pasted, in downtown Vancouver, posters that mimicked spatial advertisement signs and that read “Free Space.” A portion of the posters was deliberately left blank. Perhaps this is an invitation for passersby to contribute their thoughts as to which spaces should/can be free. Perhaps it is a question as to the very possibility of free space.
The idea of space as free is one that underscores the works presented in this portfolio. There are many definitions of freedom, but here, we begin to understand free space as space without constraint, as space that is independent, as space that transforms organically: a decolonized space.
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.