For the past six years, Centre A has been located in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at the intersection of Hastings and Carrall. Last year, just one block over, the Audain Gallery opened within Simon Fraser University’s new downtown campus. The campus is housed in a building also renamed last year as the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts after the university accepted a $10-million donation from a mining company that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has flagged as being involved in human rights violations in Guatemala. At this point, the neighbourhood’s contentious gentrification post-Olympics seems equal parts inevitable and self-parodying; one would rather believe that “Goldcorp” was a name dreamed up by movie producers, but it’s not.
Centre A and the Audain Gallery have self-consciously located themselves at the centre of that gentrification with an exhibition from Seoul-based duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (YHCHI). A collaboration between Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge, YHCHI’s work consists of text-based videos—usually black text on white—with carefully synchronized, often jazz-based, soundtracks. The duo was one of the first to successfully capitalize on Internet distribution of digital media art in the late 1990s.
The part of the exhibition on view at Centre A, which closed on October 21, consisted of two videos produced prior to the artists’ arrival in Vancouver, while a third video, made over the course of their stay, was presented during a salon event at the centre.
The two videos exhibited at Centre A (now viewable online) table a number of reasonable criticisms against the hypocrisy of arts institutions casually experimenting with community engagement. The text, flashing in and out of sight at a speed that engages the entirety of the viewer’s attention, raises questions relevant to the artists’ dilemma: Why would anybody ask artists to comment on social problems? In a neighbourhood they’ve never visited? Whose characteristics they’ve learned about primarily through Google?
And in an odd but tastefully transparent twist, the curator is a subject of the work, with regular references in the text to the process of working with Centre A’s Makiko Hara. YHCHI is openly suspicious—not of the gallery itself, but of a socio-political structure that would have to resort to commissioning artists to be social activists. “Are you desperate?” the video repeatedly asks.
In the two exhibited videos, these questions are abstract. There is a radical shift in tone in the third video (also now viewable online) as the artists try to contextualize them against their experience in the Downtown Eastside. The text becomes narrative, composing vignettes of the volatile day-to-day in what they dubbed “the most shocking neighbourhood we’ve ever been.” A pimp yells at a woman through her window, and threatens to kill the artists for looking at him. A man yells belligerently from the back of the Hastings Street bus, which they call “a theatre of the oppressed.” On the way from their hotel to their opening, they are confronted by a series of police barricades near the gallery; a woman has fallen to her death from a sixth-storey window.
The videos seem to establish a contrapuntal model for navigating the artists’ role in social community: on one hand, there’s a very honest skepticism about their ability to make work that is both site-specific and relevant; on the other, there’s a sense of awe at having entered a community with its own kind of governance, its long-time population under imminent threat of displacement, and where accidental violent death is still a shocking but not irregular occurrence.
A final video in the series shows at the Audain Gallery until November 5, after which it is also due also be posted on the YHCHI website.