October 2007, CONTEMPORARY PUBLIC ART AT VANCOUVER LIBRARY
As swarms of tourists infested Vancouver for another summer on white pristine cruise ships from across the West Coast, Boeing 747s from Asia Pacific, and gargantuan Lincoln Navigators from around the Americas, it was unquestionable that Vancouver’s art scene relied on not one but multiple productions of mind-numbing, populist, corporate funded, public art.
When public political consciousness is at the brink of near demise, Vancouver’s most popular and influential institutions have transformed into blockbuster movie theatres. Its very streets overflow with painted orcas and grizzly bears that act as debased tokens of local ornamentation; and so-called “International Biennales” on modernist sculpture are placed on the city’s affluent seawalls, which can provides a detailed map of the history of gentrified land throughout Vancouver.
Besides being utterly disgusting, intellectually dangerous and actively productive to the urban spectacle of consumption, such blockbusters and other comical attempts at public art actively discourages any critical contemporary art to be planted or bloom in the minds of the public.
It is cynical to think that any change should occur when the same artistic paradigms annually repeat themselves in a cyclical nature. With no foreseeable prospect for change, cynicism cannot completely take over as there still remain small and relatively unknown alternative public spaces which resist the populist artistic paradigm.
One of the far most interesting (but still relatively unknown) alternative public art projects which has come to an unanticipated end is Group Search, the collaborative artistic project organized by the Vancouver Public Library Curatorial Initiatives Program.
Opened to the public for the first time for SWARM 2006, Group Search included mostly up-and-coming Vancouver artists, who produced site specific works, interventions, bookworks, performances, and interactive digital practices on Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch.
When initiated in September 2006, artists of the mould of Marina Roy, Kathy Slade and Jillian Pritchard collaborating with Dan Starling were invited by curator Lorna Brown to engage critically with the Library’s collection, its display practices as well as its public space. Group Search’s programme was later expanded upon in January 2007 when the works of Antonia Hirsch, Laiwan and Mark Soo were also included in Group Search’s programme.
To the non-Vancouverite, the out-of-place looking coliseum that is Vancouver’s Main Library is anything but a mere book depository where knowledge is produced or exchanged.
On any given day, 5000 patrons enter the Library’s large glass doors and partake in a various actions, happenings and performances which often do not involve books.
The Library’s public comprises of a diverse milieu of folks representing the entire range of social-economic standing, intellectual capacity and ethnic diversity. When the public converges within the Library’s space they are bombarded by images, stimuli and situations amidst library stacks, espresso bars, and ESL students.
Unfortunately for the public the Library has not been open for the last number of months. Since July 26th a civic wide strike has halted numerous municipal services as diverse as residential garbage pick-up to Vancouver’s library services, including its Group Search curatorial initiative.
When the Library was open however, it was appropriate that in all this profusion of activity Group Search encouraged the public to drift, wander and get lost amidst a commercialized environment of perpetually revolving escalators.
And it was in this very environment that the bookworks of Marina Roy thrived. Marina acted as a gardener in the library collection planting critical seeds within the Library’s public space. She worked as both interventionist and collaborator with the public and its communal property. Her practice involved altering and actively affecting change to books which were influential to her own practice. Since the books were of public property, readers were suggested to borrow the texts and continue Roy’s interventionist practices.
Like most challenging contemporary art, the normative boundaries that clearly demarcate the situated position of Roy, the text’s author, the audience and especially the art work were made strange by Roy’s insertions and the collaboration with the public.
What was specifically inspiring with Roy’s work was her suggested reading list. A particular favourite was Martha Rosler’s Decoys and Disruptions (2004), which outlines the role that activism, audiences and photography play within the realm of contemporary artistic practice. For this reader, Rosler’s work provides valuable insight to Vancouver’s artistic community and the contemporary necessity to fuse artistic and activist practice for the development of a critical public political consciousness. Rosler’s work is especially pertinent today as the inequalities between the haves and have-nots are amplified as Vancouver attempts to assert its commercially brandable image before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
A different conception on the library’s collection was stimulated by the work of Dan Starling and Jillian Pritchard. Their collaboration attempted to re-presents the temporary book exhibitions that are ubiquitous throughout the library’s transitional spaces. These temporary exhibitions are often based on seasonal calendar events as diverse as Wimbledon and the Hungarian Uprising. As a collaborative effort, Starling and Pritchard meticulously re-created the red display wall from the Library in their studio, where they held their own “temporary” book exhibitions. After their exhibitions were set up, they photographed their work and later hang their pictures on the 5th floor of the library where a temporary exhibition was intended to sit. When Starling and Pritchard’s photographs were hung on the 5th floor of the library, their work often disrupted the ritualized performance of library staff and public who interact with the displays on a daily basis. Since the works were photographs, the public could only interact with the books on a purely perceptive level and were denied access to their tangible nature. The work puts forth the argument that our reality has become increasingly mediated by a profusion screens and simulations, a world were the “real” has jettisoned from reality.
When Group Search was initially conceived, the project was confined to the library site itself. Yet for a three month period from November 2006 to February 2007 Antonia Hirsch’s photographs, entitled Anthropometrics (2006) were displayed on the windows of the gallery walls and around the streets of Vancouver. Hirsch’s photographs individually depicted six people in seemingly obscure situations against non-descript walls making ambiguous bodily expressions. From the excerpt provided by the Group Search pamphlet, the viewer is told that the strange solitary figures are actually attempting to convey measurements of quantification through the limits of their bodies. For Hirsch, such practice reveals the implicit connection of our bodies and the social-spatial practices that determines their meaning.
Since Hirsch’s work was intentionally plastered around the streets of Vancouver in the guise of advertising posters, it remains unclear whether her work attempts to critique the official strategies of institutional marketing or perform the exact opposite. When it comes to advertising specifically, it is often difficult to criticize the medium with the same means that may reinforce its legitimacy. For any artist, it is a dangerous tight rope to trapeze.
One of the more unsuccessful pieces to come out of the Group Search project was Mark Soo’s upside-down Lamp, After UNDP Human Development Index (2006). Influenced by the 2005 United Nations Development Programme Report on global literacy rates that rated the least literate to most, Soo was inspired to construct a work that illuminated the contradictions which exist between global capitalism and the public’s right to universal education. Soo’s upside-down Lamp intended to illuminate the ironic fact that one of the least literate countries in the world can actually distribute a light bulb all the way around the world, but can fail in providing a right to literacy for its own residents. The upside-down idiom is a psychological play often deplored by conceptual artist to convey the essential irrationality of the world. Yet Soo’s privileged musings on literacy, art and commerce seem out of place as the sculpture failed to communicate with Library’s audience. When the Library was actually open, the majority of the library-going public passed by the work completely oblivious to its existence, let alone its message. For a work that attempts to reveal the contradictions of global literacy, it sure does a good job shadowing that fact from the public.
A creative piece that actually engaged critically with the public while the Library was still open was Laiwan’s Call Numbers: The Library Recordings (2006). Laiwan’s work attempted to re-interpret the idea of the Library’s collection by transforming its on-line catalogue database into a musical device. By allotting each specific search (based on author/title/call number etc.) on the Library’s database with a special stylistic, tonal, tempo and music style, Laiwan allowed the public to discover how the Library collection could “sound” instead of being searched out or possibly read. Even though the Library is currently on strike, you are still able to listen to each recorded piece at Laiwan’s own site http://thelibraryrecordings.eciad.ca/. Laiwan’s musical compilations are a testament to how the internet today, still remains one of few remaining bastions against the commodification of public knowledge and space - even though the opposite appears to be true.
 If you had missed the first ever “blockbuster” King Tut’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970 don’t be too sad because if you’ve seen Vancouver Art Gallery’s Monet to Dali exhibition the two were presented and based on the same premise. If you missed the Monet to Dali show as well, it’s not that big of a deal because the VAG will hold another populist exhibition next summer.
 These local totems comprise of gaudy sculptural works of Grizzly Bears and Orcas throughout the Downtown Vancouver core
 Please see http://www.vancouverbiennale.com/locations.html. The Map can provide a detailed description of the location of the priciest condos in Vancouver. These areas consist of the massively redeveloped Coal-Harbour and North and South False Creek seawalls.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief