Althea Thauberger

ImagesList

Zoning what was, what will be

Rob Brownie & Annabel Vaughan
Carrall Street, Artspeak Gallery | 2009

What do we do when we do nothing, what do we hear when we hear nothing, what happens when nothing happens.1

Over the past decade, urban interventions in the form of street closures have been sporadically organized around the globe, creating sites of public protest where none had previously existed. Contentious and disruptive, organizers of these events use a variety of strategies to being to light the scarcity of public space and issues of entitlement. In the tradition of the Lettrists and Situationists, the Reclaim the Streets (RTS) network encourages communities to think critically about how globalization and car culture have threatened the social and environmental fabric of their neighbourhoods. In 1998, the first RTS event to be held in North America took place on a narrow side street adjacent to Grandview Park in East Vancouver. Barricades were erected to restrict car traffic, creating a public commons that was quickly occupied by residents, street performers, and advocates from various anarchic groups, including Food Not Bombs, and the Anti-Poverty Committee. Widely considered a success, this non-violent community-led action has inspired a culture of street appropriation throughout Vancouver. While such events can politicize a community and foster civic involvement, the prevailing effect of a street closure to rattle and re-organize ordinary perceptions of how one interacts with ad shapes the spaces we inhabit. The rationalizing forces that tend to make a streetscape mundane or alienating are disrupted, eliciting the potential for change and alerting us to our own habit-forming tendencies. Ultimately, what arise are questions regarding everyday practice in terms of the ways in which we satisfy our fundamental needs, how we move, interact, or express ourselves, and the process that tend to proscribe the way such practices are organized.

In Carrall Street, Althea Thauberger allowed for a critical study of the everyday by framing a section of public space in one of the most intensely scrutinized neighbourhoods in Canada. In contrast to a street protest that seeks to generate resistance aimed at planning policy, Thauberger’s project engaged notions of what constitutes public space and everyday practice from an aesthetic standpoint. Problematic in any examination of the “real” is how to represent those details of the street that signify an experience of a given space or refer to a sense of continuity or loss. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin declares that the method for his unfinished analysis of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture is one of “literary montage […] I need say nothing […] only show.”2 Elsewhere, he expanded on this view when he writes, “A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.”3 Montage is concerned more with the assemblage of details than the advancement of a singular, unifying vision of the past, the effect of which is to provoke the construction of a range of new and subjective interpretations of a given space in time. In his aphoristic style, Benjamin proposes that we inventory the lacunae that history discards as a means for understanding the culture of the street. Viewing the everyday of the street as an arrangement, as a montage, suits our understanding of how Thauberger staged Carrall Street. It also functions as a method for reading the work itself.

The perimeter of Carrall Street outlined a block-long section of one of the oldest streets in Vancouver. At the northern end of the block, where Carrall meets Water Street, the geographic origin of Vancouver is marked by a statue of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, a prospector, river pilot, and squatter who is attributed to be the city’s unofficial yet symbolic founder. In 1867, Deighton had the foresight to open a saloon on this site to service the millwrights, sawyers, and sailors who plied their trades along the shores of the Burrard Inlet. For decades, the economy of Carrall Street and the surrounding area supported a largely itinerant community of seasonal and temporary workers dependent on resource industries for employment. As the townsite expanded, the building typology that would eventually define Vancouver’s early heritage began to reflect the needs and practices of the transient population. Saloons, brothels, and hotels sat alongside dry-goods retailers and warehouses. These were early precursors of the taverns and low income housing units (Single Room Occupancy or SROs) that now line the street.

Traces of Vancouver’ s early growth and periodic urban decay are registered in the stark incongruences of gentrification/desperation mingles with prosperity and the homeless dwell in thresholds to studio lofts. On any given day, Carrall Street is witness to countless scenes where the everydayness of social and economic disparity is acted out in lurid detail. Shoppers carrying bags embossed with the names of boutique clothing stores awkwardly make their way around carts laden with empty pop cans and anonymous bodies wrapped in sleeping bags. A tent south end of the block, where Carrall and Cordova Streets intersect, a storefront pharmacy dispenses methadone to the addicted gathered at the entrance, while college students line up to get into a publ. Realities merge and become confused, leading us to question if we are all somehow coping, looking for a fix, and just getting by. Such scenes provide an imaginary view of what Deighton’s settlement might have looked like, where speculation, squatting, and waiting for something to happen defines the experience of the everyday.

This is the cultural context that Carrall Street was inserted into (or layered onto). What it presented was a truncated section of Old Vancouver that is already hyper-represented as both a tourist destination and a back-drop for urban renewal. While the 200-block of Carrall Street was barricaded at one end by a police cruiser, the event space was further demarcate by a series of cinematic lights installed on the rooftops on each side of the street (at the entrance to Blood Alley and on cranes at either end of the block). Bathed in a silvery fluorescence, the street assumed the appearance of a film set. Viewed from the front, the textural surfaces of the building facades, those that make the streetscape functional and familiar, had been effectively flattened. Lintels, thresholds, and entrances—all shadow casting edges—were smoothed out so that there really was no place to hide, to roll out a blanket, or to act discretely in any way without being fully exposed. Looking down the street, the rhythm and order of built edge/sidewalk/curb/pavement/curb/sidewalk/built edge—a standard that delineates access and movement—now doubled as seating on either side of a recessed stage. It was along these margins that most spectators tended to cluster, ad though a special separation from the street would clarify who was to be observed and where the action should take place. Suspended animation comes to mind as a way of describing both a space and event in the making, where everything was possible and yet nothing really seemed to be happening. Anticipation led to playful and even comical positioning of roles as we made attempts to distinguish the audience from the cast. “Are you performing? No, are you? No. Well, maybe.”

This social and architectural duplicity point to what Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as the “carnivalesque.” A term used to describe a collective subversion of those rules and regulations that govern everyday life.4 The function of the carnival is to render the familiar strange by exaggerating the tension that normally binds social relations. Another effect of this inversion is to caricature that which is imagined to be odd or grotesque about the body. As the actors and non-actors assumed their roles in turn, what bound the audience to this fiction was an ongoing reflexivity where assumptions about genuine and invented selves were constantly challenged. One actor stood in the centre of the street posing as an addict, frozen in a state of numb ecstasy. “Is he really stoned? Is he safe, even here?” We were at liberty to stand inches away from this man, this wax figure, gazing into his stare with equal measures of suspicion, curiosity, and concern. Other roles were acted out, all pronouncing the same dissonant response: the Busker, a Street Cleaner, a Man in a Hat, a Planner, the Developers, the Surveyors, the Displaced (Crowing) Man, a Native Drummer, a Woman in a Green Coat, the Drunk Trio. Historical views of the street were presented in the speeches delivered by the International Workers of the World representative on a soap box and the Housing Activist leaning out of a second story window of the Glory Hotel. “Give the people bread and circuses and they’ll be satisfied.” And there were the women dressed in period costume resembling frontier-era prostitutes. “The woman on the right lives in the area and always dresses like that.” The ambiguity of the performances, these expressions of self-as-Self or self-as-Other, carried over to the Crouds of Observers who functioned as unwitting extras in a play within a play. At times, we appeared confused and restless. As we were pulled in and out of our assumed roles as critics and voyeurs, it became clear that the distance underlying the actor/spectator relation drew attention to the extreme alienation that already defines social interaction that takes place every day on Carrall Street.

There were also the voiceless performers who relied solely on gesture to convey the everyday. A local homeless artist named Carver gave one of the stronger and more unsettling performances. Self-named for his trade, Carver stationed himself against a curb with his bicycle and bags arranged behind him and proceeded to cut into a piece of stone with a variety of tools to fashion an object that he would later sell. At times, he would interrupt his work to draw lines on the pavement, perhaps marking out his space or leaving a sign. Photographers self-consciously circled him, snapping shots in a manner that referenced both the whimsy of tourists and the formalism of the ethnographer. “Into what archive will these pictures be filed?” Elsewhere, a group of experimental dancers inscribed the street with their bodies as they drifted silently through the crowd. The length of each vector walked was determined by what stood in the way—a body or wall—resulting in a turning away to the left or right. “They capture a mood of passivity and disempowerment, like angels with clipped wings.” As if mapping lines of flight,5 the dancers connected the audience to the performers, compelling us to think critically about the Carrall Street project as an entirety, as an assemblage of cues. Like a series of Eugène Atget street portraits, the characters were distinguished as much by their actions and clothing as they were by their singularity.6 These were the archetypical figures that re-territorialized Carrall Street, creating a fleeting tableau of what was and what will be.

It was here where theatre intersected the real and imagined everydayness of the street to generate commentary about how we experience the spaces we inhabit. Thauberger maintained the integrity of the everyday—defined as that which defines reproduction—by crafting a pause where the actors and observers were free to explore the boundaries of normalcy. “The street is formless and chaotic.” The inexactitude of Carrall Street was an effect of its configuration, where numerous disconnected situations were played out simultaneously. As Michael Sheringhan, a theorist of the everyday, writes, “In the sphere of everyday life, the project allows for everydayness […] by creating a breathing space, a gap or hiatus that enables the quotidian to be apprehended.7

Critical to our reading of the Carrall Street project is the relationship that Thauberger has to her work. By inviting actors to examine aspects of Carrall Street and providing them with a creative autonomy to interpret and stage these moments, she subverted her role as the authoritative narrator. It was the egalitarian structure of the production that allowed for this naturalized unfolding of events. Paradoxically, this multiplicity of views magnified the complexity of the street while at the same time undermining our ability to define the space conclusively. The need for answerability confounded many of the spectators who remarked that the work was fragmented and unresolved. Had Thauberger asserted an overarching vision of the street onto the project, Carrall Street would have suffered the same totalizing effect that other readings of the street have produced. “It is a pathology, a commodity, a ruin, a spectacle.”

Ironically, a different type of space devoted to the everyday—a 104,00 square foot “breathing space” under nearby Water Street—served to briefly contain the venture that was Storyeum until bankruptcy forced its closure in 2006. Billed as “edutainment,” the attraction guided visitors through a series of sets where actors would re-create both monumental and everyday scenes from British Columbia’s past. This textbook narrative followed a familiar historical sequence: pristine nature makes way for native settlement; colonial expansion glorified resource development; a railway unifies a nation. This sequence culminated in the final act: a visual mosaic of individuality and social cohesiveness” entitled “BC Spirit.”8 While it is amusing to reflect upon a multi-million dollar attraction that was in the business of manufacturing nostalgia and could only be accessed by passing through the everydayness of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), of real interest here is what distinguishes these two modes of representation. Where a corporatized attempt to narrate established history failed, Thauberger’s juxtaposition of historic moments of protest and the just past succeeded as a result of proper zoning practices.9

And so the ephemeral and cyclical nature of the street directs our gaze towards this present wave of renewal that is re-writing Carrall Street. It is a street undergoing a profound shift as gentrification alters a building typology that has persisted for over a century. What distinguishes Carrall Street and the DTES from other neighbourhoods in Vancouver is that it has evolved more out of necessity than by plan. From its inception, transience has shaped an architectural and social diversity that has endured as the city has expanded outward. As economic pressures mount to accommodate the insurgent middle and upper-middle classes moving back to the urban core, the low-rent spaces that traditionally housed artists, activists, and the poor are at risk of vanishing altogether. Indeed there are revitalization projects underway hat are radically redefining what constitutes adequate, long-term housing, such as the Pennsylvania Hotel at Carrall and Hastings Streets. Significantly, the rate of building conversion for loft developments now exceeds any attempts at guaranteeing affordability. Planning schemes such as the Carrall Street Greenway—while linking the street to a network of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure that includes False Creek and Stanley Park—will further the erosion of those diverse surfaces that distinguish Water Street from Hastings Street and Chinatown. By opening a critical space that mediated the everyday of Carrall Street and its aesthetic double, the Carrall Street project momentarily illuminated the presence of such details and their subtle erasure. It would appear that within the apparent void where nothing happens, something is always happening.

 

Notes:

  1. Paul Virilio, “On Georges Perec,” The Everyday, ed. Stephen Johnstone (London: White Chapel and MIT Press, 2007), 109.
  2. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Roy Tiedemann, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Belknap Press: Harvard University Press, 1999), 460.
  3. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 254.
  4. Michael Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 89.
  5. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (London and New York: Continuum, 2004),9-10. A line of flight refers to a way out, a “means of escape from the forces of repression and stratification,” a recurring theme in both the overtly political performances Carrall Street but also in the nomadic way in which many of the itinerant characters that survive off the street manage to get by. We met two people stripping copper wire out of conduit that they pulled out of a construction site where a loft development was underway.
  6. Hans Christian Adam, Atget’s Paris (Köln: Taschen, 2001) 37-45.
  7. Michael Sheringham, “Configuring the Everyday,” The Everyday, ed. Stephen Johnstone (London: Whitechapel and MIT Press, 2007), 145.
  8. Carlito Pablo, “Activist wants homeless sheltered in Stoyeum,” The Georgia Straight (16 to 23 October 2008): 37. It is important to note that Audrey Laferriere, a local community-housing activist, organized a petition requesting that a portion of the Storyeum space be used as temporary shelter for the homeless. Presently owned by the City of Vancouver, the former Storyeum site is now available for private rental functions.
  9. Zoning is a matter of compatibility. As street theatre, the in situ experiment that was Carrall Street aestheticized the contradictions of a public space that is in a perpetual state of unease. On the other hand, the Storyeum enterprise was a kind of intrusion, an exhibition space that celebrated a view of history as unimpeded progress in a neighbourood that has been in decline for over fifty years.