This new video was premiered at the MANTIS Festival of Electro-Acoustic Music at the University of Manchester (UK) on November 27th, 2022 and will see more screenings throughout 2023. It’s a unique hybrid project that I developed with composer David Berezan during the first two years of the pandemic. It took a while to take this final form and for an appropriate title to emerge but David Berezan and I immediately took to Hydrology. I strongly advise a big screen and good sound system!
HYDROLOGY – the study of the distribution and movement of water both on and below the Earth’s surface, as well as the impact of human activity on water availability and conditions.
Work on Hydrology began during the first post-covid lockdown “re-opening” in the summer of 2020. At the first opportunity I revisited the banks of the Capilano River where I grew up in the shadow of Cleveland Dam during the 1970s. Built in 1954, the dam necessitated the downstream construction of the Capilano Salmon Hatchery in 1971 after it choked off the natural salmon spawning grounds, transforming them into one of Vancouver’s three main lake reservoirs. These were two human interventions into natural water flows and processes which I never questioned at the time. But revisting this place during climate breakdown and a pandemic had me fearing for these systems on many levels.
I set myself the task of photographing the rushing waters of the river, using slow shutter speeds paired with deliberate hand held camera movement. I then moved on to the slower moving, semi-sheltered waters around Galiano Island, the open waters of the Salish Sea and finally to the play of water over rock, flora and fauna in the intertidal zones at Cape Roger Curtis at the southern tip of Bowen Island. I learned to observe the ever changing surfaces, to identify changing palettes and how to capture the water’s movement in a way that either complimented the flow or went against it. Then came the decision to merge it all in video form.
At this point, composer David Berezan came on to the project as we’d established a relationship between his music and my photography when working on cover imagery for his CD releases in recent years. In particular, his last release on empreintes DIGITALes; Cycle Nautique presented a soundworld and way forward for this project. His interest in playing the macro and micro soundworlds of ocean sounds off of each other and our mutual interest in ambient music made this a perfect partnership.
Pacing was critical. The opening sequence uses time lapse photography to introduce the subject matter then shifts to slowing animated stills taking the viewer into less certain territory where things begin to become more abstract. I’m always interested in slowing the perception of time.
The animation is intended to confound expectation, as nature sometimes does, with the currents and flows deliberately altered. There is always something slightly off about the images in the same way we know something is slightly off about our weather patterns. Then there is also the perception of scale. Sometimes the camera is inches from water, other times a hundred metres or so. And then blending the two enhances the sense of disorientation.
Much of the colour comes from the images made at Cape Roger Curtis. The vibrant reds, greens, blues and golds come from the play of light and water on rock formations covered with kelp, mussels, algae and so forth. But the shocking and unprecedented “heat dome” weather event of June 2021 affected billions of sea creatures in BC’s tidal waters, baking them during a horribly timed extreme low tide. And it was in August of 2021 that I created several of the stills used in this production so, consequently, the tans, reds and oranges, as lovely as they are, are the result of this catastrophe; the colour of death and decay. In other words, climate change has directly affected the colour palette you see in the video.
In the end, the video is intended to beguile the viewer and stir interest in the power, beauty and predicament of our ecosystems.
VR Media is pleased to offer another in our series of video poems, visual adaptations of the work of local poets. The first ones we did featured the work of Liz Bachinsky (Nails and Lions Gate Bridge). Then we did several pieces from Catherine Owen’s The River System (currently viewable on our YouTube channel). This latest offering is a piece I did with Christina Shah after reading her work in EVENT magazine. The title struck me first, rig veda. What is that? It seemed a good fit on several levels so we arranged to nail down a location that reflected the setting and I got down to improvising, guided by the text and conversations we’d had around visual treatment. I added a subtle pulse underneath using a fretless bass and Strymon effects unit. We recorded Christina reading and I adjusted the pitch down just a hair to give it just a bit of “off-ness” in post. Otherwise I just cut it (or, rather, dissolved it) to the feel and mood I got from both the text and footage from the job site down by the “River District.”
Christina Shah on the work:
‘rig veda’ explores the shift in the urban landscape along the Fraser River delta (Vancouver, Canada) from a surprising perspective– up close and personal with the people and the massive earthmoving equipment involved in its transformation.
This area is transitioning from farmland and working river dotted with log booms and sawmills to a modern waterway studded with concrete and glass condos and light industrial business parks.
I work in heavy industry – and have great appreciation for the sheer size and power of the big rigs, for the energy and generosity of the people I’ve worked with, and for the skill it takes to do deep foundation drilling. I wanted to portray the humanity and pride of the contractors and construction workers who build these projects. At the same time, I feel some ambivalence as I observe the rapidly densifying landscape (and attendant traffic) in the neighbourhood I call home – one that used to have vacant tracts of land rife with fireweed and blackberry canes, and where I have spotted coyotes trotting along the train tracks at dusk.’
It’s been a pleasure to work with Christina and we hope you enjoy the video. EVENT is a partner publication and the link to their homepage can be found in the sidebar. Stay tuned for more of these projects!
I first came to know Hilary Peach as a writer and a poet some years ago. We became Facebook friends through a mutual acquaintance in the Vancouver cultural scene and we had published her work in the print version of Vancouver Review. I soon learned of her “other life” via a string of posts; that of a welder. I recall thinking that it was likely a bit of a rough and tumble world with few women on the ground with her and that she’d certainly have some stories to tell and a fabulous way of telling them.
Hilary contacted me last year to let me know a memoir was on the way and could I do a new portrait for it. We met up in Queensborough and spent a cold January day walking and driving around looking for suitable locations. Something, um, industrial? With pipes and things? How, exactly, do you say “fearless poet welder wit” with a portrait? I don’t know. You hang out and chat and take some photos (see above) near a dis-used railway trestle that’s part of a post-industrial landscaped parklet in a gentrified residential neighbourhood.
In any case Anvil Press has just published Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood (Anvil Press 2022) about her years working as a transient welder, travelling across Canada and the United States, working in pulp mills, chemical plants, refineries, and generating stations. She now works as a welding inspector and a Boiler Safety Officer, and continues to write. We are pleased to offer this excerpt as an appetizer. So yes, stories to tell…and a fabulous way of telling them!
Nevertheless, I was intrigued when one of the guys from Alberta told me not to go to the tool crib alone, because the guy handing out tools was “a bit weird.”
“What are you telling her for?” one of my colleagues from BC asked. “You should be warning him about her.” The guy was a bit weird, and often said inappropriate things when I went to get tools, but there were usually other people around, so it wasn’t too bad. For the first couple of weeks I ignored him. When I finally did have to pick something up at the crib while I was alone, the guy became much creepier. He said something lewd, asked me where I was staying, and leered at me over the counter.
“You know,” he said, “there’s a way that you could save a lot of money. You could come and stay with me in my motorhome.” He dropped his voice. “You could be my girlfriend.”
“Yeah?” I asked. I looked at him for a long time then leaned against the counter towards him. “But if I was your girlfriend,” I said, breathily, “you’d never get any sleep.” He smiled uncertainly.
“No?” he asked, “and why’s that?”
“Because,” I hissed, “You’d be worried. That I was going to stab you in your sleep, cut out your liver, and make necklaces out of your teeth.” The guy stepped backwards, and I exited. Later that night, a foreman came by our table in the lunch room, and pointed at me.
“I’ve had a complaint about you,” he said. “Our tool crib attendant says that you threatened him. Did you threaten him?”
“Yes,” I said.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“I said that, given the opportunity, I would stab him in his sleep and make necklaces out of his teeth,” I answered.
“Did you?” he asked. “Well good for you. Carry on.”
The decades-long shortage of skilled workers in Alberta had opened up room for women in the trades in ways that diversity initiatives and inclusion campaigns never had. There were a lot more women than in BC. My first time at the Lakes there was a fight in the lunchroom because one gal refused to work for another, who was assigned as her foreman, because they had some bad history. But I found it kind of thrilling to be in a place where there were actually enough women on the job to have a cat fight. At Keephills I was partnered with a woman who was older and tougher than me, and into motorcycles, sex, hard drugs and booze. She lived completely outside my world, and by comparison, I was a nebbish, wide-eyed girl with thick framed glasses, who brought healthy lunches. We were each other’s opposite. Every encounter felt a little dangerous, but I couldn’t help provoking her.
“Would you like a vitamin?” I’d ask, shaking the bottle, when she had a particularly nauseating hangover. “They’re for ladies over forty.”
“Fuck you,” she’d say.
One evening I was late after speeding back from a dental appointment in Edmonton and had been pulled over by the police. The policeman ran my license, and seeing that I had a clean record, let me off with a warning. My work partner had had many less benign run-ins with the cops.
“First of all,” she said, “who the fuck goes to the dentist when they’re travel carding?”
“Dental hygiene is very important,” I said.
“And second… why the fuck would the cop let you off? You just flash them big titties of yours at him and he let you go?” I nodded.
“Yup, pretty much.”
“So, what was your plan B?” She asked “You start crying?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never needed a plan B.” She shook her head.
“Sometimes…. I don’t know whether to punch you in the face, or hug you.”
“Given the choice” I said, “I think I’d rather you hit me.”
What is there left to say about Vancouver treasure Veda Hille? A gifted songwriter with a crystalline voice that has listeners anticipating every line? Sure!
Her new LP, Beach Practice, emerged from the pandemic, as we all did, with some new twists. This track struck me because I never thought I’d ever hear this kind of gauzy, smooth jazz-ish concoction from her. Or that it would work so well. It’s a dream of a piece. And the adaptation of Auden’s poem touching on themes we were all forced to consider in recent years is perfect as well. Beautiful and perfectly imperfect as always!
This was shot on location at Veda’s place, Bowen Island and Pacific Spirit Park. We hope it fits your summer vibe. Enjoy!
Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist Emily Hermant works with recycled telecommunications and data cables, stripping them down and arranging them into patterns, casting them in silicone to make colourful moulded wall hangings, or creating rippling sculptures from the wires themselves. “The materials that I’m working with have speed built into them,” says Hermant, a professor of sculpture and expanded media at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. “They have a purpose, which is to connect across these large distances to allow people to communicate really instantaneously.” Her work – on view at the Monte Clark Gallery in Vancouver from Nov. 20 to Dec. 23 – transforms these fast materials through a slow, meticulous process. “I think we’re living in this culture where things happen so quickly,” says Hermant. “The beauty about being an artist is being able to try to take some of those snapshots and slow them down.”
OMNIBUS – IN THE COMIC BOOK WORLD, A MEGA COMPENDIUM COMPRISING A COMPLETE SERIES OF COMICS. ALSO THE NAME OF SONNY ASSU’S LATEST SHOW AT THE EQUINOX GALLERY.
Sonny Assu’s new series of mixed media paintings is a richly layered confection where comics merge with traditional forms to address some familiar themes. Comics were a major part of Sonny’s teen years and combined with his exploration of the Kwakwakaʼwakw art, mythos and social structures of his heritage, a mash-up was inevitable. Omnibus is it. Playful, accessible and bursting with colour, it offers a new spin on the connections between past and present ideas of status and value, between a perennial 20th Century commercial art form and the deep traditions of coastal indigenous communities.
Photo by Mark Mushet.
These new works represent a continuation and evolution of his Speculator Boom series which touched on the comic book world’s practice of creating “collectable” comics which were designed solely to cash in among speculators. And the frequently recurring motif of the copper shield form, partially cut out and overlaying comic book spreads, makes clear reference to traditional modes of status and exchange values.
Seeing as how my last brush with comics goes back to the 1970s (with Heavy Metal and the work of Mobius) I needed to catch myself up with Sonny on this aspect of the work. “Usually, when comics are published, they are sold as single issues. Then they started making the trade paper-back, now referred to as a “collected edition”, which collects the single issues that make up an overall story arch. Some people will wait for these to come out so they can suck up the story all at once instead of waiting for the single issue publishing cycle to run its course. Then an Omnibus is like a mega-trade paperback, bringing the single collected editions together in an even bigger collection. I made the mistake of buying The Walking Dead Omnibus #1 before moving to Montreal, thinking it would be a good plane read. Fucking thing was 8 pounds! I packed it in a box!”
Briefly, the copper shield form (or “coppers”) originated in the north, in what is now Alaska, the panhandle and Northern BC. In Kwakwala, T´łaḵwa is the word for copper. Through a series of wars, trades and potlatches, the copper and it’s form would have come down the coast. But by the time of contact, it would have been deeply ingrained in Kwak society.
The shields, with their distinct “T” shape dividing three painted or engraved panels, were used extensively by the Kwakwaka’wakw, Haida, Tlighit and others (collectively known as Northwest Coastal peoples) through potlatch ceremonies and came to symbolize and confer wealth and status. Sometimes they were broken or cut to symbolize social, familial or political rifts. They would then continue their journey with parts missing, embedded with histories of rifts and healing.
The ritual use of coppers continues to this day. One of the most notable “breakings of the copper” in recent memory was when Beau Dick travelled from Alert Bay to both Victoria and Ottawa to effectively shame the government over its broken relationship with indigenous peoples. And, as Sonny tells me, “Coppers were also broken for shits and giggles. Chiefs would boast about their wealth and actively destroy parts of them to demonstrate how wealthy they are!”
Like the more speculative creations in the comic book industry, counterfeit copper shields were soon made in Victoria by white settlers. They were sold whole, imagined as perfect shield forms (like the pristine “collectors” comics) and designed to accrue value in an emerging and exploitative market indifferent to the cultural significance to the indigenous communities the forms were taken from.
Of course comics, too, are prized as units of exchange and symbols of status among kids. They often feature tales of empowerment, where forces of good battle against against myriad injustices, where characters have supernatural powers often linked to the natural world. In other words; the stuff of many a legend or origin story. Several of the comics chosen here have indigenous references built into the storylines. And those comics, when not being hoarded or designed for speculative purposes, could have unpredictable journeys and effects as they are passed around or traded.
At the opening of Omnibus. Photo by Mark Mushet.
Omnibus puts all of these pieces in a contemporary pot and gives it a good stir. It’s tempting to try reading some of the comic panels but the overlain shields, ovoid and other motifs render the works more as palimpsests, offering only tantalizing glimpses of the narratives contained within. Perhaps it’s best to enjoy them as beautiful objects conflating all of these things and take them forward in our memory as fragments that can be reassembled in the future.
Omnibus ran from September 11th to October 9th, 2021 at the Equinox Gallery
It’s been 17 years since I first wrote Global Span for the print edition of Vancouver Review, essentially an advocacy piece for loscil’s 2004 CD “First Narrows” being recognized as a kind of Autobahn-level soundtrack for local travels. Since then, Scott Morgan (loscil) has released countless works of intoxicating pulsating electronica. Any departures from the baseline sound familiar to fans have been subtle but rewarding, especially on 2016’s Monument Builders which filtered Koyaanisqatsi-era Phillip Glass through a scuffed, degraded VHS audio track enveloping the affair in a fresh, almost nostalgic air.
And the hits keep coming, even during a pandemic. Loscil’s latest release is titled Clara, and, following directly on its heels, is a limited edition photo book/CD release called Lux Refractions. The book is beautifully printed and showcases a suite of monochrome macro photographs of ice and water featuring entrapped spheres and crystal clusters seemingly suspended in space.
The second release extends the material from the Clara sessions continuing on with the kind of pulse-oriented electronica that is his usual stock-in-trade. Both sets of music are originally sourced from orchestral recordings he did remotely in 2020 in Budapest. And while there are no radical departures, the craft is top flight and the journey is pleasant and engaging. The acoustic source material is heavily processed and offers textural depth across both recordings.
“I see them as all part of the same body of sonic and visual work exploring the same themes etc. The book/CD is a bit of a spin-off project representing a deeper dive into the macro universe of ice and orchestral sounds.”
One thing notable about recent loscil recordings is how they now feel more like nascent soundtracks, not necessarily to moving artworks, but to narrative films. This can be tricky territory because every electronic artist I know who’s gone down that road has had mixed results, though the money is no doubt a motivating factor. Thankfully, these two CDs pull on the reins to keep the music squarely on the side of mutability, of being purely music for enjoyment and unexpected departures, free of narrative associations.
If I were to imagine loscil’s music in a soundtrack context it might be to parts of Annihilation, a sci-fi film from 2018 which creates an intoxicating sense of mystery around the emergence of random, fast moving, cross-species genetic mutations all contained in a zone called “the shimmer” which one of the film’s characters describes as “…a prism, but it refracts everything, including genetic information.”
But Scott is adamant that he is a creator of albums of music for pure listening…and on CD! “Clara is the full length and the main show, while Refractions offers more deep, long form drones. I guess you could say it’s a little more indulgent and meant to, essentially, be a soundtrack to the book. The cover photo from Clara is drawn from the same series as the photos in the book and appears in the book along with the cover from the Refractions CD.”
Scott and I met up on Fraser Street in the first rain of a classic Vancouver September and sought shelter in the alley behind a row of 1950s-era shopfronts. The wall behind, with its oozing mysterious organic green matter put me in mind of Annihilation. Scott was dressed for the weather. I wasn’t. But it did yield a portrait with a cinematic still quality. Scott favours black and white. I lean towards colour. Fortunately there’s room for both!
For the 10th Anniversary of the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot (aka V2.0) I thought a trip down memory lane might be in order. I’m no sports fan but when tens of thousands cram together into blockaded streets, the place is guaranteed to turn into a shooting gallery for photo journalists. Actually, the vibe was pretty good in the days leading up to the final game and I genuinely believed there would be no riot. This first section is set up as a gallery, distinct from the riot photos which follow. Click on images to enlarge!
I will add to this feature as time allows. It’s surely worth a decent essay or two. My main issue with it was that, like the first, I was appalled that it wasn’t about something worthwhile. Imagine if this kind of chaos was feared every time housing prices doubled…or any other local crisis was insufficiently addressed.
I recall from the 1994 Stanley Cup Riot (V1.0) that things really ignited when people started climbing poles and goading others. This guy is deserving of the opening spot of this spread and I’m glad he chose to do this outside the Commodore Ballroom. I call it “Rabble Yell”. If only he had an Instagram account…
Come to think of it, he deserves two spots. Where is he now?
My favourite shot from the evening’s festivities is this image of two women in a snapshot duel atop their boyfriends’ shoulders. This is before selfies were quite so prominent. What they are, in this moment, blissfully unaware of is the first teargas canister going off behind them. You can see that between them a couple have just figured this out and are making a break for it.
Some people were just having fun. But they were about to get the memo shortly after this was taken.
Wishful thinking. Looks like it had been dropped a few times.
Granville Mall was soon swept clean with tear gas. I can attest to the effectiveness of that stuff. Hot tip: Don’t use water on your eyes.
I came into the fray from Nelson after seeing a car turned upside down and a growing number of kids taunting the riot squad. Once the volley of hard objects started falling on them they understandably got the cue to charge. But it usually starts with afire being set. And who doesn’t love the smell of burning fast food garbage?
I found the ripping up and parading of trees to be one of the most depressing and barbaric acts I witnessed, and there was no mention of it in the press afterward.
And we’re off!
We ran this image in the final print edition of Vancouver Review in 2011. It was a funny, sweet scene on Seymour at Dunsmuir. Needless to say; wishful thinking.
“This is taxidermy, this is not heritage conservation.” – Donald Luxton
The following article was originally published in Vancouver Review, issue #2, in 2004. We reproduce it here because we see that façadism as an architectural “heritage preservation” approach has continued unabated and undebated in the city since it was first published. By making it available here we hope to provide a useful reference piece for urbanists, researchers and anyone concerned with the ongoing, wholesale gutting of historical architectural spaces resulting from façadist “heritage preservation” policies.
The last skinny vestige of the 1928 BC Electric Showroom rises three stories at the corner of Dunsmuir and Granville, a braced wall punctuated by Italianate ornamentation.
Its carved-stone cornice, spandrels and the grand, brass-framed windows are pinned, bolted and clamped; they look as if they’ve undergone complicated surgery. And so they have: a façadectomy. This forlorn corner remnant with its peacock friezes was shorn from the body of one of the city’s most elegant commercial heritage buildings, and will soon be attached to a contemporary live/work tower called The Hudson.
Other examples of this scene are playing out across the city—thin shells of what were once three-dimensional heritage buildings, propped up by hefty steel I-beams angling up from the sidewalk. In most cases, only one wall or corner segment remains, facing the public thoroughfare, its fancy details intact while the rest of the structure has been gutted. The gaping emptiness behind these old façades sometimes lasts for months; and the destiny of most sites is to be filled in by new structures that bear little relation, in style or scale, to their pasted-on frontage.
This “heritage” trend seems to be sweeping through Greater Vancouver, showing up not only in historic parts of the downtown but also on high-traffic arterials such as Granville Street or Lonsdale Avenue. And while façadism isn’t new—think the Scotiabank Dance Centre at Davie and Granville, or a particularly garish residential tower mushrooming out of the former Tudor Manor on Beach Avenue—the frequency with which the substance of this city’s heritage stock is disappearing is beginning to open eyes.
Certainly, there’s been no real public discussion around this trend. This could change with the visibility of developments now happening in high-profile locations. Besides the former bc Electric Showroom, there’s an unabashed façade at Granville and 15th Avenue, where the 1911 Shaughnessy Mansions have been scooped out for condos; and at the base of Lonsdale Avenue, where the 1910 Edwardian-commercial Aberdeen Block has been cored for retail space and lofts. It seems that developers are leaping on the bandwagon to benefit from the antique appeal of those frontages, and the financial perks of keeping them, while in no way investing in, or maintaining a true link to, the past. Incidentally, the buildings being reduced to façades are invariably listed on the heritage register, a compilation of the city’s (supposedly) most valuable historic structures.
If Vancouver regularly chooses to treat its heritage stock in this way, there will soon be few credible historic buildings left. And since heritage is a non-renewable resource, this could become a major problem for current and future generations. Especially troubling is the fact that, looked at from the perspective of international standards, façadism is not up to snuff in conservation circles. It’s not even up to snuff in cultural-tourism circles. If Vancouver hopes to truly preserve any of its early history—recognizing its value even though it’s only century-and-a-bit old—we’d better make sure that we collectively take stock of what’s happening.
The question is this: Do we want to become a city full of heritage tokens with little meaning, or do we want to cherish what came before for cultural, educational, and long-term economic reasons? No one is saying that we have to love the narrow colonial mindset that came along with these often-striking structures (after all, the culture that built them all but obliterated Native culture). Reducing our urban history to decorative façades, however, is nothing but a contemporary kind of narrow-mindedness.
I encountered my first freestanding heritage façade about three years ago. My partner and I were ambling away from an outdoor jazz-fest concert in Gassy Jack square, and Water Street had been blocked off to car traffic. As we sauntered down the middle of the street, we gained a better perspective than usual of the turn-of-the-last-century streetscape. I noticed light incongruously streaming through the bay windows of the Terminus Hotel, and the big beams holding up the frontage. It was the first time I’d consciously seen such a thing, and it struck me as wrong—although I later found out that fire had caused the damage. I remember thinking: What a perfect symbol of this town’s general negligence towards heritage.
Inspired by that sight, my partner took a photo of the next major example of façadism we encountered—the BC Electric Showroom—and turned it into a cheeky contribution to the 2003 Georgia Straight “Best of Vancouver” issue. It ran with the caption “Best excuse for heritage preservation.” More recently, an image of façadism turned up in the May 9 edition of The Vancouver Courier. Staff photographer Dan Toulgoet’s snap of the isolated Granville & 15th Shaughnessy Mansions frontage ran as, essentially, a standalone photo. It was accompanied by some slapdash text about the developer’s intentions, but there was no story.
So what about the real story? A bit of it played out five years ago around the controversial redevelopment of the 1929 Bank of Nova Scotia branch at Granville and Davie—an Art Deco “temple bank” designed by prominent early architects Sharp and Thompson—into the Scotiabank Dance Centre. The pros and cons show up in a 1999 document titled “Heritage Issues Raised by Dance Centre Proposal” on the City of Vancouver website. It was a particularly interesting case, because not only was the bank interior one of the city’s most intact vintage spaces—down to the cage elevator, furniture, clock, and upstairs mahogany panelling—but the new building was to benefit a needy and deserving group, the city’s dance community. On top of that, no less than Arthur Erickson was designing the new structure.
Financial considerations won out; only the Granville Street frontage was saved, the interior treasures disappeared, and the dance community got a functionally elegant, seven-storey stack of studios and offices. On today’s Granville Street, the remaining two-storey façade looks rather blocky and gray, its subtle ornamentation overshadowed by the whitish wave of glass rising above it. In this case, the cultural value of the dance centre may have helped to balance the cultural loss of the historic building (although alternate locations for the dance centre were on the table, and in an ideal world, one cultural interest shouldn’t have to win out over another). But it is curious that no significant discussion about façadism emerged as a result.
“It’s an absolute disaster,” says local heritage consultant Donald Luxton about the city-wide façadism trend. “This is taxidermy, this is not heritage conservation. It’s just, literally, a show—putting a face on something. Someone else called it ‘putting the parsley on the developer’s plate.’ It indicates to me that there’s an inadequate heritage response to the very hot development cycle going on right now. Everything is getting crunched by this massive wave of development that is quite unprecedented. I mean, we haven’t seen anything like this since about 1912.”
Luxton is a staunch heritage advocate who nevertheless sees issues from both sides in his line of work. He spoke about the situation in his office, located in the intact 1911 Rogers Block at Granville and Pender. Having worked on near-façadism projects such as the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, another former temple bank, he understands the social and economic pressures at work. But his feelings also reflect his expertise in, and love for, the province’s early architecture, knowledge that was formulated into last year’s award-winning book, Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia.
Since the city is clearly green-lighting one façadism project after another, Do we want to become a city full of heritage tokens with little meaning?
I had to ask: How and why is this happening? It turns out the answer has much to do with economic and development realities unique to Vancouver. According to Luxton, major factors are extremely high land values; huge development pressures; seismic and building codes; time-consuming city processes; rising construction costs; and the need for underground parking in new residential developments. Not that these are, in any way, valid excuses.
What remained of the 1911 Shaughnessy Mansions at 15th and Granville.
One of the most surprising victims of this current wave is Shaughnessy Mansions. It’s a watershed because, from a conservation perspective, the two apartment buildings seemed to have everything going for them. Besides being on the city’s heritage register, the handsome brick complex was a relatively big building with dense site coverage, a good rental stream, and lovely interior features including original floors and mouldings. The density could have been shifted to the adjacent property to the north, but residents of nearby Hycroft Towers opposed extra height to save their mountain views.
Because of this, the “Granville Rise” neighbourhood has lost one of its landmarks. I once saw the interior at a party in 1997, when my friend, freelance writer Jennifer Van Evra, lived there. “I remember the first time I walked in,” she recently remembered. “It was one of those rare places in Vancouver that reminded me of apartments in Montreal. It had broad hardwood floors, a deep almost-cherry colour. The window, which must have been 5 by 8 feet, opened over Granville Street on a swivel that ran through the middle. It had big, high ceilings that were at least 12 feet. The bathroom was the best part, with a big old claw foot tub and a beautiful multicoloured tile pattern on the floor—mostly off-white with burgundy and green. It just oozed character, and it just had such warmth. It was a great, great building.”
Its evisceration was a case, Luxton says, of neighbourhood concerns overriding heritage concerns, another worrisome new trend. He’s seeing a similar thing happen in another upcoming project, the renovation of the 1940 tan brick Moderne YMCA on Burrard near Nelson. “The Y wants a much more open image that’s completely at odds with the closed-down side and front façades, which are kind of fortress-like,” Luxton explains. “So basically, they’re taking out all the side walls, just keeping the little decorative front part on Burrard Street, and that’s it.”
Given the predictability of these kinds of pressures, the crux of the problem should be recognized as inadequate protection for historic buildings at the civic, or any other, level. To this day, the City of Vancouver has never officially adopted heritage standards or design guidelines. Its heritage planners may have policies, but these are applied informally as part of the review process, and are in no way binding. Obviously, their influence is minimal. “The heritage department knows it’s losing on many fronts,” says Luxton. “It had some successes, but generally the projects are all compromised—they’re just not that good.”
Things may be looking up, however, with new initiatives launched this year by the federal government, which include heritage standards, design guidelines, and conservation incentives. They’re still in draft form and can, at this point, be found only via the Historic Places website. While the text doesn’t specifically decry façadism, it looks promising in its broader take on “heritage value”; it emphasizes “character-defining elements,” which are “the materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses, and cultural associations or meanings that contribute to the heritage value of a historic place, and which must be retained to preserve its heritage value.”
Luxton sees the input of the national government in these matters as a “last hope,” given the ineffectiveness of other levels of government. It’s also high time: “We are lagging so far in this field, it’s laughable,” he adds. “We’re a very late starter—the last of the G8 countries to have heritage programs and incentives at the federal level.” Then he adds with a laugh: “And if we have Prime Minister Harper in a couple of weeks, we might not have any.”
Given that these new rules exist, Luxton finds it doubly frustrating to watch the façadism fad spreading through Vancouver. How is it, he wonders, that the new federal incentives, and the city’s existing special incentives for Gastown, Chinatown and Hastings Street, plus other tax incentives and density bonuses and transfers meant to be granted in exchange for heritage preservation, just don’t seem to be working? “We’ve got all these tools to preserve buildings, and we’re preserving the front six inches of them.”
Perhaps global standards are the most convincing argument for change—or at least a means of shaming our city into a more sophisticated take on conservation. Vancouver, of course, is not the only city ever to have been beset by façadism. A Google search brings up examples from all over the world, including the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. In January of 1999, the International Council on Monuments and Sites even held a symposium to discuss the matter in Paris. The consensus among heritage experts from around the world is clear: Façadism should only be considered as a last-ditch option, when nothing else of value remains.
Here’s a typical statement published by the Australian government: “Façadism is generally not accepted as suitable conservation practice. Façadism is not in accord with the principles of the Burra Charter [national guidelines to assess heritage development applications], which focuses on maintaining the significance of a place by retaining and conserving all elements that make up that significance. Façadism is seen as tokenism, as only presenting one side of a place’s history. Buildings are conceived in three dimensions and so they should normally be retained in three dimensions.”
“We ought not to settle for this Halloween preservation—saving the mask and throwing away the building.” – Donovan Rypkema
“We ought not to settle for this Halloween preservation—saving the mask and throwing away the building,” writes Washington DC consultant Donovan Rypkema, a specialist in preservation economics, in the spring 2001 issue of Forum magazine. He also takes a big-picture look, pointing out the conditions that encourage façadism. “First, there must be a strong enough market that a case can be made for façadomy, because it is ludicrously expensive. Second, there has to be enough surface interest in preservation for someone to recommend this solution. Third, the community’s preservation ethic cannot be strong enough to demand a true rehabilitation project.”
Another heritage advocate (and third-generation Vancouverite) concerned about our city’s dangerous slide towards preserving only the veneer of its history is John Stuart, the curator of collections for the North Vancouver Museum and Archives. Recently, he lent me his big binder of Google printouts on façadism (saving me the trouble and the paper), liberally annotated with Post-It Notes. During an interview in his cluttered warehouse office near the North Vancouver waterfront, he also shared thoughts, such as the fact that short-term economic arguments should not be dictating the fate of heritage buildings—historical, social, cultural, legal and technological considerations should also play strong roles.
An art historian, he appreciates the architectural beauty of façades, yet recognizes that they’re only a small part of any site’s story. An antique building, he adds, is as much about the people who inhabited it, and the time and context in which it was built. If we destroy everything but the exterior, he continues, not only is there a disconnection between it and the new interior, we lose any link to, or further insight into, the past. Stuart recalls seeing extreme conservation examples in Germany, where the dirt of industrial sites had literally been preserved on the walls. While nobody is saying that’s always realistic—or that plumbing shouldn’t be updated or buildings not be made earthquake-proof—limiting conservation to façades removes almost all relevant aspects of the cultural fabric.
And then there’s the huge, untapped potential of cultural tourism in our one-time frontier town. Both Luxton and Stuart referred to studies showing the growing, newly recognized value of that sector. As the Baby Boomers age, Stuart notes, large numbers of moneyed, healthy and restless travellers will be roaming the world, looking for authentic, historical experiences—including here in Vancouver. Façadism, it seems, favours the quick buck while ignoring the long-term economic benefits of what could be a collective local cultural asset.
“I think that the future of heritage conservation is in exploitation—although I’m reluctant to use that word—in the tourism business,” says Stuart. “I think that’s what people would come to Vancouver to see, based upon what I see when I go to Europe. I’m telling you, as informed tourists, people are not going to come to see a streetscape of façades. If the interior is completely divorced from the exterior, the tourists are going to say, ‘This is just a movie set, this is phony.’ Our credibility will be wiped out and the people are going to say, ‘well, there’s nothing there.’”
In the meantime, shaky precedents are being set. Developers are clearly counting on being allowed to façade more or less any heritage building they choose. In fact, Luxton points out, they may actually be targeting heritage properties because of inherent benefits: fast-tracking of development permits at City Hall; those popular density bonuses; and avoiding rezoning costs by getting a heritage revitalization agreement. Essentially, they are being rewarded for destroying the actual heritage integrity of the sites they develop. Even more ironically, Luxton points out, the remaining façades frequently get heritage protection after the fact.
The absurdities of the local heritage situation will look even more bizarre a century from now. Not only are we not maintaining heritage, but architects are also being forced into designing strangely compromised new buildings that don’t do the past or present any favours. Luxton also wonders whether anyone will bother with the upkeep of those out-of-context façades when they need attention a few decades from now. And, even more importantly, “Are we going to look back in 100 years and say, what where those idiots thinking? Didn’t they have any respect?”
The lack of respect appears especially dire when you read developer bumff, such as the pamphlet for The Hudson. It reads: “Live the contemporary lifestyle in the heart of Vancouver’s urban pulse. Where the architecture respects its exuberant heritage setting.” Say what? And this is the website text on the (sold out) Shaughnessy Mansions: “A rare example of heritage preservation of original residences in our city. A thoughtful and artistic revival retaining such distinctive features as the original brick façade, while refashioning the interiors with contemporary sophistication.”
While demolition is forever, not all façadism is bad, of course. In the case of buildings from the late 19th century, made of unreinforced masonry, it’s better to shore up the façade and replace the rest than lose the whole thing to the first tremor. Façadism can also be seen as a postmodern middle way between real preservation and modernist demolition. It certainly is preferable to losing buildings entirely, especially when the scale of the buildings and the feel of streetscape can be preserved—take a look at the success of Yaletown. But there’s no doubt that façadism will always be the least desirable heritage option.
Façadism, it seems, favours the quick buck while ignoring the long-term economic benefits of what could be a collective local cultural asset.
So, what are the answers to the current situation? Luxton suggests that Vancouver’s heritage policies and incentive handouts be changed to match the actual level of conservation—with façade projects counting for little—and that the city and its advisory bodies take a deeper, harder look at each building and situation. A bit of political will wouldn’t hurt either. Perhaps someone in charge could actually champion the idea that the past is important, and that façadism is akin to substituting the dust jacket of a book for its actual contents.
“I think we’re taking steps towards conservation but unfortunately we haven’t got out of the development mentality, and the lack of assigning cultural value and actual economic value to our heritage buildings,” Luxton sums up. “And once a building is fragmented, there ends up being very little value to it. People are starting to wonder, is this meaningful or not? I just wonder if we should be allowing it at all. I don’t think the will is there to prevent it entirely, but I think we’re just entirely too willing to let it happen.”
The disappearance of familiar landmarks seems an economic waste in the long run, and may also lead to a sense of dislocation among city residents. Research shows that heritage conservation is one of the best things a city can do to stabilize the community and give people a sense of permanence and place. Yet here we are, ensuring that our sense of history will only ever be skin deep. One entry on façadism in a UK conservation glossary states: “While it is a practice much condemned by conservationists, in fact there can be arguments in its favour, but it needs careful handling.” Perhaps our modus operandi should be extreme caution rather than rash destruction. Façadism is akin to substituting the dust jacket of a book for its actual contents.
Artist Charles Campbell explores the resilience of the African diaspora and his own roots in Jamaica
Multidisciplinary artist Charles Campbell has exhibited worldwide, often using interventions and performances to explore aspects of Black history, particularly those connected to the Caribbean. Campbell, a former chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, is now based in Victoria, where he also finds time to work for change in Canadian art institutions as an educator, writer and activist.
Campbell’s exhibition, as it was, as it should have been, was shown at Vancouver’s Wil Aballe Art Projects in the fall of 2020 and included pieces connected to ongoing projects that involve community, performance and a deep dive into Jamaica’s history and culture. His paintings, prints, sound installation and sculpture, all relate to themes of migration, where boundaries are challenged and new futures imagined.
A second project, Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos, is a new public art commission permanently on view at the Victoria International Airport. The piece features beautiful wooden vessels inscribed with the words of American sci-fi writer Octavia Butler, who speaks to ideas about paradise being connected to home. Airborne, the vessels float high above the airport’s departure lounge, which, needless to say, is much quieter than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic. Campbell’s work is immediately intriguing and invites further investigation.
“Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos,” 2020 wood and stainless steel hardware, installation view in the lower passenger lounge of the Victoria International Airport (photo by Calum Campbell)
MM: Airport commissions are a big deal. They are places loaded with opportunities to make a powerful welcoming (or departing) statement. Your piece Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos at the Victoria airport seems to fit so perfectly into the space – above the fray, an armada of floating boats. I’m wondering if you could speak about the choices you made for this. And were those choices made in light of it being in the departures area rather than the arrivals area?
CC: The passenger lounge seemed like an interesting place to consider how time operates and how we interact with it on different scales. It’s a place that’s in-between departing and arriving, one where we may flash through or spend hours.
Throughout the work’s conception, I wanted to make a piece that could hold multiple notions of time, and would unfold depending on how one encountered it. The vessels have both a push towards the past and the future – they’re ships and canoes, they’re the body of migratory birds, seed pods, they’re space ships. Initially, the array appears chaotic, but then, as you spend time with it, the pattern begins to reveal itself.
For me, the piece alludes to the moments when our seemingly random individualized actions combine to create something larger. It’s the way ocean winds become hurricanes or stardust combines in the white fleshy fruit of an apple – a swirling, unpredictable moment when multiple temporalities collide to form something beautiful, frightening, fleeting and/or eternal.
The decisions were all about getting these ideas to operate materially – tuning the toroidal array and the spacing of the vessels so the overall pattern could move in and out of focus, finding the balance between lightness and weight, movement and stillness. A ridiculous amount of time was spent deciding on the cable and bearing system the work hangs from and refining the assembly process for the vessels.
Charles Campbell, “Time Catcher: The Fruiting of Chaos,” 2020 wood and stainless steel hardware, detail of installation in the lower passenger lounge of the Victoria International Airport (photo by Calum Campbell)
MM: Parable of the Sower is written in Morse code on each of your vessels, so the work is very subtly and literally coded. Can you tell me what significance these poems have in this context?
CC: There are a few things going on here. Firstly, there is this idea that Victoria exists in a bubble and projects itself as a sort of paradise – a place outside of time, a city of gardens, heritage buildings, tea rooms, etc. Butler defines paradise as home: “One’s own people, One’s own world, Knowing and known, Perhaps even Loving and loved.” And the poem goes on to talk about how we are all cast from paradise: “Into growth and destruction, Into solitude and new community, Into vast, ongoing Change.”
So in part, the reference to Butler pushes against this idea of an insular Victoria, apart from global events. It affirms a notion of paradise that is about our connection to people and place, and the necessity of engaging with change.
The passage also touches on my own biography and that of many people who have roots in the African diaspora – the multiple migrations we have endured, how we exist in solitude or form new communities, and the forces of growth and destruction that accompany us.
In the context of the airport, I hope the poem is a sort of welcome to people being pushed and pulled by global events, an invitation to find home, and a statement that we’re embracing the changes that come as newcomers arrive in this community. For members of the Black creative community that hold Butler in such high regard, quoting her is also a way to say: “We’re here.”
MM: It’s literally above most people’s heads. How are people expected to decode these pieces for the deeper dive?
CC: The poem will also be engraved in the floor beneath the piece, so it will be legible for people who take the time to look.
MM: COVID-19 delayed the unveiling of this project. What are your reflections on the global stoppage of travel and the themes you explore?
CC: COVID drove home some of the issues I was dealing with in the piece and really highlighted how we’re connected to global events. When I was making the work I was thinking a lot about the refugee crisis and the forces that combined to produce mass migrations: climate change, geopolitics, movements of capital, information networks, racism, Islamophobia, colonial legacies, local conditions, the list goes on.
And then there is this small, West Coast airport that caters to tourists and business travellers, but is also a place where a lot of wealth and power moves through, a place embedded in its own colonial legacy, that has its own problems with racism, poverty and homelessness. I was thinking of how the forces at play in my city relate to global events, of the refugee families that disembark at YYJ to settle in Victoria and the fossil fuel exec that may board the same plane after penning a deal with the provincial government.
But still there was an assumed distance between local events and these extreme global manifestations. The fruiting of chaos was elsewhere. Now it’s everywhere. The growth and destruction that Butler talks about are so much more evident now, as are the forces of change.
I installed the piece at the height of the lockdown and the only people in the airport were my installation crew (my two oldest kids actually), myself and a raft of security personnel, all at their stations checking bags and waving wands as if all this was normal. I admit to thinking that maybe the piece is redundant now. Maybe the hurricane has already passed through.
Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy I,” 2009 mixed media on canvas (courtesy of the artist)
MM: Your Actor Boy paintings are lovely. They look like kinetic confections of some kind. They put me in mind of earlier eras of pattern making for domestic decoration. I can’t quite place it and I know there’s much more to it. They are connected to a series of really interesting and literally boundary-pushing performances in Kingston, Jamaica. Can you tell me how they are related and what we should look for in these works?
CC: I guess I should say that I spend a lot of time inhabiting my own fictions. In the trajectory of my work, the Actor Boy paintings represented a move from using motifs related to the brutality of slavery and the plantation system to images that referenced cultural resilience. Actor Boy is a character in the Jamaican carnival celebration Jonkonu, a trickster that lampoons the character and proclivities of his overseers.
The paintings repeat an image of Actor Boy produced in 1837-38, shortly after emancipation, by the Jamaican artist Isaac Mendez Belesario and turn it into a sort of blossoming floral motif. I was thinking about this excessive, raucous, creolized cultural expression as a threat to the plantation system, something that seeded revolts and a time when the slave population was demonstrably more than property, beasts of burden and units of labour.
Charles Campbell, “Actor Boy IV,” 2009 mixed media on canvas (courtesy of the artist)
They also became a vehicle for me to reflect on the times immediately before and after emancipation in Jamaica. After spending months with the image, I started imagining Actor Boy on the streets of Kingston and tried to imagine seeing present day events through the eyes of someone who embodied the hopes and aspirations of the recently emancipated slaves. That became the seed for the Actor Boy persona and performances.
The most important move was to position him not as someone from the past but from one of the alternate futures made possible at the time of emancipation. He thus became a time traveller able to move between different temporal streams and represents a whole set of possibilities that are difficult to imagine from our present perspective.
In the Kingston performances you mention, Actor Boy tasked himself with understanding and disrupting the city’s social stratification by orchestrating a series of creative engagements between “uptown” and “downtown” Kingston – geographic designations that routinely stand in for class and racial distinctions between rich and poor.
Charles Campbell, “Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago,” 2019 mat board and wood (Photo by Mateo Serna Zapata)
MM: The piece Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago strikes me as a set of maquettes for a futuristic development merged with the topography of a landscape. How did you get from the reality of a place that was a redoubt of escaped slaves to this futuristic vision? Will there be further iterations of this work? What were your decisions around scale and how the piece would be experienced in a gallery setting?
CC: When I think about the future, adherence to the systems that are failing us is not going to get us through. Black and Indigenous communities are already living post-apocalyptic lives and we need to reorient ourselves and pay heed to the experience and knowledges that we’re developing as we engage in the slow process of reconstruction.
The Maroons’ survival was predicated on their knowledge and relationship to the lands they inhabited and they were strongest when they acted as decentralized yet interdependent communities in their fight against the British. Maroonscape 1 proposes this as a model for the future. It’s scaled to appear as an architectural model, something that could be built, but it’s the underlying concepts that I want to build on, and the centrality of our relationship to the lands we inhabit.
This piece is the first in the series. Maroonscape 2 debuts at WAAP and is a soundscape that codes the birdsong of species endemic to Cockpit Country into Paradise, which is a passage from Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’m working on Maroonscape 3 now. It enlarges forms similar to those in Maroonscape 1 to a more human scale for a public sculpture garden.
I hope to turn it into a gathering place for the Black community and a space for talks, performances and workshops that can explore some of the themes and issues present in the work. The Maroons, as communities of escaped slaves, operated under a violent colonial regime and represent resistance and resilience, but the bargains they struck to retain their freedom include compromises and complicity with the system of oppressions. There is a lot to learn from and think about here and I hope to dig into these issues more deeply in future projects.
MM: The times seem to be, finally, very urgent on a global scale with environmental and social justice issues really at a “now or never” point. I worry about art that is either too subtle and coded or it all needing to become agitprop. How do you determine where to situate your work? I see direct and engaging performative work that engages community and these beautiful, inviting slightly puzzling pieces.
CC: I really admire and see the need for work that is direct and to the point, but still find myself insisting on the right to remain somewhat opaque. I often create work that tries to hold together things that can’t really be held together, and as tightly as possible.
Fundamentally, we exist in excess of our representations and can’t be reduced to our “identities” and this excess and irreducibility is the richer matter of life. Resisting the urge to be reduced to a fully comprehensible or consumable entity is itself political.
The counterpoint to this is that I’m interested in telling stories and examining, creating and shifting relationships. I see this as a process of creating meaning around the artwork. It’s the park bench where two lovers first kissed, but the park bench still eludes meaning. In these urgent times we need a space to puzzle through uncertainty.
MM: As a garden variety first-generation Anglo Scots import, I find Victoria to be overwhelmingly colonial in flavour, to the point of cartoonishness. I hope that is changing. Do you find there is fertile ground for connection around Caribbean and other histories? The Victoria News referred to you as a “world class” artist. I thought we were beyond that kind of terminology now, but in the end, does it matter anymore where we create art?
CC: I have to laugh when I hear the term “world class” – it always reads like a declaration of cultural insecurity.
The ground in Victoria is beginning to shift, but for a long time I felt there was an absolute refusal to see any of the issues I dealt with in my work as relevant to here. Victoria’s identity as a liberal, all-white, colonial enclave is breaking down though. There is some very strong Indigenous leadership here and once you start digging into colonial history, the Caribbean isn’t very far away. The Douglas and Trutch families both had slave plantations in the Caribbean, for example.
The demographics are also shifting and there is now a critical mass of people interested in tackling this place’s colonial history head on and contesting the art world’s whiteness and modernist amnesia. Some of the leaders in the effort to decolonize the arts in Canada are also based here so the conversations can be very rich, even as the city keeps projecting its colonial facade. That said, we all know that artistic opportunities are not distributed equally throughout the globe. There are centres of wealth and power and places with a lot more cultural confidence than here. For my part though, I’m happy making work here.
(A version of this interview originally appeared in Galleries West in October, 2020)