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Vancouver Report: The Remains of the Olympiad

Stan Douglas’ Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 at the Woodward’s building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the 2010 Olympics / photo Danielle Egan

Love it, hate it or continue white-knuckling ambivalance towards it, the 2010 Olympics in its closing days has us all in a surreal bubble where news of athletes using 100,000 free condoms, of skiers blaming defeat on “too much porn” and of threefold increases in booze- and assault-related injuries trumps items on faraway earthquakes.

With the games’ wrap-up just days away, even us locals feel like it’s the tail end of vacation, with too much left to do and not enough time. You’re tempted to just grab the tourist tchotchkes, get drunk and party. With heartstrings so heavily plucked, it’s probably unwise to cast inferences about uncharacteristic outbursts of patriotism. But I suspect that the constant parade of Lycra-clad athletes beamed from big-screen TVs everywhere has something to do with this hyper-aroused state.

In the midst of this 17-day experiment, many artists have been commissioned to stir our senses, like Rafael Lozano-Hemmer with his robotic searchlights constantly scuttling across the night sky. The City of Vancouver also invested in public art for the games, like Walk In, artist Christian Kliegel’s open-air theatre installation outside the downtown public library featuring films, performances and weekend karaoke parties during the Olympics and a year-long schedule of events curated by Cate Rimmer called Here You Are.

Besides the movable feast of outdoor theatrics, galleries on South Granville and in Gastown are eerily quiet. Two artist-run centres actually turned down Cultural Olympiad handouts, but they’re making use of these heady times. Vivo’s Safe Assembly offers daily gatherings collecting news and archiving the adverse impact of the games on our city. It also hosts The Vancouver [de]Tour Guide 2010, a mapping project designed to counter the Vatican-like official tourism machine.

In an act of “complicated refusal,” Artspeak not only declined VANOC funds, but also locked the door and pulled the shades—namely, the reflective blinds of Lucy Pullen’s I Would Prefer Not To. But it’s gone off-site to host a performance called Brawl, an exploration of mob mentality among sports fans and protesters by local artist collective Norma.

“The performance happened just after the [Canada versus Russia] hockey game and we were right in the middle of that,” says Vanessa Kwan, a Norma member who has been conducting her own city-sponsored project Vancouver Vancouver Vancouver in the thick of the downtown action. “You can’t help but get swept up in the spectacle. I’m not unpatriotic, but it’s interesting how jubilance is so close to violence.”

Kwan scarfs me (yes, the awarding of celebratory neckwear is now verbified, in this case involving a souvenir from Brawl asking “Who’s on First?”) and I leave her among the swarms of red to bike down to Tent Village, where local advocates have set up a temporary squat, and free red tents for some of the city’s 3,700 homeless, on a muddy lot in the Downtown Eastside. “Many of the 100 residents here would otherwise be sleeping on the streets,” says local volunteer Sozan. “Patriotism is on display everywhere, but how can we be proud of a country that does not treat all its members, especially the most vulnerable, with dignity and respect? But there is a very spirited feeling of community here. People are taking care of one another.” The trade-off is enduring media and looky-loos like me, as well as flag-wavers driving by who bellow “Get a job!”

I need some talk therapy, so I ring up Ken Lum, whose two new public art projects— from shangri-la to shangri-la and Monument for East Vancouver —poignantly distill this city’s various cultural issues. Turns out Lum’s game for a chat in a café that happens to be across the street from VANOC’s lost and found department.

“I’m kind of bemused by the public outpouring of patriotism,” Lum says. “It’s odd to see grown adults draped in the flag. I was downtown the other day and it was quite disorienting. I couldn’t recognize the city. So many people and it suddenly felt Baudelairean. When you’re an artist, you can never really be part of the crowd even if you’re immersed in that crowd. It’s not just restricted to the Olympics, which I feel is an elitist, corrupt and dubious institution with several problematic attachments to fascist figures and so on. There’s no doubt there will be a huge hangover, a fiscal nightmare. But it does provide important lessons in terms of art and politics and trauma.”

East Van has stirred up heated public debate. “I’ve had the idea for years and thought there should be some marker of public art that exists outside the downtown core,” says Lum of his lodestar to the region in which he was born and raised as the son of poor Chinese immigrants. “I’m not a Christian, but the sign is effective precisely because it’s a symbol of oppression and persecution. The East Van cross emerged in the 1940s when poor European immigrants lived on the east side and there were a lot of Catholic churches and schools; there were actually few people of visible minority like me.

“Another criticism is that it’s a gang symbol, but I knew those gangs, I was there. They were high schoolers that would mess you around for sure, but they weren’t like today’s sophisticated drug gangs worth millions of dollars.”

Lum has done numerous works in European cities where public art enjoys greater mass appeal and better funding. “Public art usually falls on the sword of accessibility,” he acknowledges. “But the public has to work too, they can’t be lazy about it and expect it delivered to them. Masses are going down to see the Olympic cauldron, which is hideous, looks like something out of the first Superman movie, [the Fortress of Solitude] on planet Krypton. People say, ‘It’s so beautiful, magnificent.’ It’s hard to criticize without coming across as a snob.”

With Vancouver walking this bizarre tightrope, it’s as if critical thought is banned from the party. “But we need to think about important questions,” says Lum. “Is it possible for marginalized people to have housing, a decent life in this city? There have been 35 years of misery in the Downtown Eastside, with people dying and developers waiting until they can turn a profit, enforcing the ghettoization.”

Perhaps our patriotic masses will join the discussion when the Olympics hangover subsides. In the meantime, a lot of people are waking up to the bang and clang of temporary venues being dismantled, wondering what the hell just happened.

Danielle Egan is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist with an interest in art, technology and bioscience. She is a contributing editor for Vancouver Magazine and The Tyee and has written for many publications including New Scientist, the Globe & Mail, the San Francisco Chronicle, Seed, Alternet, This Magazine, Jane, Adbusters and Salon. She also writes fiction and has published short stories in Taddle Creek, Vancouver Review, Maisonneuve and Kiss Machine.

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