Althea Thauberger's Carrall Street
We used the whole street—all the street people and all the signs around the area—in the materials....We called it “intellectual property” because you had to have a brain to figure it out.1
Here there is no darkness, into which thought can withdraw....No illusion is possible in this light. Incessantly and mercilessly, it brings us back to reality.2
On the night of 30 September 2008, on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side (DTES), artist Althea Thauberger presented Carrall Street, a piece completely defined by light, for Artspeak gallery. According to press materials, the project consisted of a “site-specific performance” and a public forum. Thauberger did not merely present a performance—she also tapped into a rich mesh of metaphors, historical references, and current problems by illuminating this public space. For three hours, a block of one of Vancouver’s oldest streets was flooded with bright, film-set lighting. With permission from the city, the artist had vehicle traffic blocked and the street filled with paid performers, invited participants, interested observers, and random passers-by to, as the press release states, cast Carrall Street as “a stage, or zone of illumination where the roles of participant and spectator blur.” With this piece, Thauberger hoped to bring about “unforeseen interactions...resulting in a destabilized form of community theatre that reveals the street’s history, its current successes and stresses, as well as its future.”
Despite Thauberger’s overt references to cinema and filmmaking, Carrall Street was not actually recorded as a film or video. Instead, documentation of the one-night event took the form of photographs, memories, and conversations. Therefore, it seems important to give some account of what happened, however subjective and partial.
When walking around the city, I tend to avoid film sets, which regularly fill Vancouver’s downtown, because they disrupt the streets with loud generators, rude walkie-talkie crews, obstructive tents, and off-putting floodlights. Walking to Carrall Street on the night of the performance, I had the familiar impulse to avoid the site. Since I knew the set was part of a staged event, however, I wandered past the police at the end of the block to check the spectacle out more closely. From the start, it was obvious to me who the paid performers were. (Attending the forum days after the performance confirmed my suspicions.) Some of the actors were overtly theatrical. While some were lying in the street, others danced. A woman in a nurse’s uniform strolled around carrying a giant syringe. A bald man handed out business cards and offered to buy souls, our “most useless asset,” he said. Presumably charged with the task of playing specific urban types, a few actors performed more “naturalistic” roles such as that of a harried businesswoman or an obnoxious bar-goer. Despite their familiar roles, the characters were clearly actors, which created a tension between their ostensible goals (to blend in) and the effect they had (standing out). In addition to the actors, Thauberger invited other members of the Vancouver community, some of them public figures, to sit at bars lining the street and to engage in debates about local issues, which the performance hoped to raise or accentuate.
The spectators were, by and large, members of the cultural community, an amorphous category consisting of artists and curators as well as teachers and students, critics, and various other arts professionals. Also present were many “members of the neighbourhood,” which, in relation to the DTES, is frequently used as a euphemism for people coping with poverty, homelessness, serious physical or mental health issues, and general social marginalization. One of the most interesting aspects of the evening was the fact that a number of these people seized upon the opportunity to commingle with spectators, including a savvy pair of panhandlers who successfully worked the crowd for money in between extended conversations. At around 9:30 p.m., the performances crescendoed somewhat abruptly when a young man climbed onto a milk crate and shouted a Wobbly-inspired speech on jobs. Afterwards, an old man leaning out of a second floor hotel window condemned politicians for allowing such squalid housing conditions to exist in the city. He told a tale full of Dickensian images of rats and dying children. (I learned later that both speeches came from material drawn from the city archives.) While these two men yelled and gesticulated, most of the crowd listened quietly. The other performers issued little bursts of support, but the support felt scripted, too.
Looking back, I wonder what reaction, if any, Thauberger hoped to elicit from the audience. Intentionally or not, the speeches felt like curious artifacts. While they referred to local history, they were not specific enough to elicit our urgent attention to conditions today. They were too full of clichés to be moving. Whoever wrote the speeches failed to take dramatic advantage of the differences and similarities between the DTES’s past and present situations.
I don’t think Thauberger intended these speeches to be the climax of the evening. However, this overt drama seemed to draw everyone’s attention away from the more interesting interplay between the diverse conglomeration of Vancouverites. When the speeches concluded, the evening began losing momentum, and many spectators left. Those performers who remained proceeded to repeat their material. I began to feel as if I was an extra on a movie set, playing a small role while waiting for the next dramatic action to take place. Carrall Street, as an event, officially ended when Thauberger had the lights switched off, the cops removed nearby traffic barriers, drivers reclaimed the roadway, and the street became itself again.
Cinema is the artistic child of theatre and photography. Theatre, while heavily reliant on image and spectacle, is dominated by the visions of writers. Language is central to its form. Photography, on the other hand, is defined by surfaces and split-second flashes. Cameras capture images by writing them with light. Thauberger was trained first as a photographer, and her work displays a tendency to favour surface over story. That is, her strengths lie in her ability to highlight surface and form, not language and narrative. So, while much of the framing of the piece seems to point towards theatre, the most compelling elements of the work refer to film and photography. Therefore, I feel compelled to ask questions about the ethics of representing a neighbourhood that is so often represented, and often in very problematic ways.
By illuminating Carrall Street, the artist temporarily transformed everyone there into a more cinematic, perhaps more self-conscious, version of themselves. The hired dancers, out-of-town curators, casual bar-goers, residents of the neighbourhood, and others passed through the light and were made more highly visible for one evening. They were also made to look. Thauberger could not help but highlight appearances over other aspects of people and place when her use of light was so spectacular and temporary.
Social activist and journalist Jacob Riis took some of the first flash photographs in the 1890s when he documented the poorest people and the most decrepit slums in New York. He used photographs to force civic debate on the causes of poverty. He took the images to shame those who made their fortunes exploiting residents of the slums. Although activists, journalists, and artists have been using images as Riis did for the last hundred years, it is debatable if the flash of a camera is still a good way for starting conversations. In this image filled society there are many reasons to doubt that visibility necessarily brings about action, understanding, or identification with others.
In earlier works such as Songstress (2000) and Murphy Canyon Choir (2005), Thauberger trained her camera on awkward and earnest-looking women singing emotional songs they had written. In the cool light of the gallery, it is hard not to squirm with discomfort while watching them emote their way through ballads that obviously mean something to them but play like ersatz Sarah McLachlan. Arguably, the most compelling aspect of Thauberger’s practice is her willingness to make people uncomfortable, ethically and aesthetically.
With _Carrall Street_—which left me feeling annoyed and full of questions—were her intentions as idealistic and naïve as the press release would have us believe? Were the performance elements intentionally stiff and dull? Was she honestly trying to create a community-building moment of carnivalesque freedom? Why did she want to shine more light, both actual and metaphoric, on that particular neighbourhood?
To get a sense of what the artist hoped for, I looked again at the press material. Carrall Street, it suggested, along with its subsequent public forum, was meant to provide “a platform for conflicting political positions and present possibilities for reflection on familiar, deadlocked issues.” This emphasis on dialogue and social space recalls Nicholas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics.” According to the French curator and critic, relational artists primarily create situations rather than objects. They make opportunities for people—different publics—to come together in some fashion. Physical objects such as photographs, installations, sculptures, and texts often serve as the documentation of a poetic/political action rather than the primary focus. The function of relational work, Bourriaud contends, is, “to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real.”3 Thus, these artists potentially upset ingrained power dynamics between artist and audience, producer and consumer, expert and amateur. Different groups come into working proximity as peers or collaborators. While this idea inspired many and provided a way of articulating how artwork might play an activating role in the social sphere, many others, such as Claire Bishop, have voiced doubts about this characterization of these artists vis-à-vis democratic action. In a 2004 essay, Bishop argued against the supposition that by simply fabricating communal events such as dinners or walks, artists facilitate new ways of meaningful political being. For her, antagonism and discord characterize democracy, and their contentious coexistence guarantees its ideals. As an alternative example, she examined artists Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra. These two artists work collaboratively with different groups, but their work often highlights the art world’s general non-alignment with people in the lower strata of the globalized world. They show the breaks between the working poor and the critical art world rather than presenting opportunities of feel-good togetherness. The work of both artists evokes discomfort and even anger rather than a sense of conviviality in their audiences. As Bishop writes, “the work does not offer an experience of transcendent human empathy that smoothes over the awkward situation before us, but a pointed racial and economic non-identification: “this is not me.” The persistence of this friction, its awkwardness and discomfort, alerts us to the relational antagonism of Sierra’s work.”4
Bishop asks many questions that could easily be asked about Thauberger’s practice in general and Carrall Street _specifically. The one I would most like to get an answer to is, “what _types of relations are being produced, for whom and why?”5 To this I would add yet another question, posed by artist Isabelle Pauwels in a talk presented in conjunction with the Vancouver Art Gallery’s WACK! exhibition: “What happens when you re-theatricalize a street (by turning on the lights) that is already so theatrical to begin with?”
To present a site-specific work like Carrall Street with-in Vancouver involves lots of artistic risk. The piece addressed a range of difficult topics, and with it, Thauberger attempted to engage diverse “publics.” The local art community is close-knit, which is to say not very big, nor, by extension, especially diverse, but it is an audience highly educated, well informed, and critically engaged.
Many within the Vancouver arts community have written expertly on the development, gentrification, and representation of Vancouver broadly and the DTES specifically. By staging her project within that contested neighbourhood, Thauberger inserted herself into the most charged space in the city, and perhaps in all of Canada, in an attempt to shift the collective conversation.
There is a rather tired lament in circulation that Vancouver never gets to play itself in movies. But, in contrast to this lack of mainstream cinematic representation, Vancouver plays a starring role in the work of many visual artists: Jeff Wall, of course, but also others like Fred Herzog, Stan Douglas, Ian Wallace, and Rebecca Belmore. Artists seem compelled to address the DTES. Pain in this neighbourhood is photogenic, frequently because the people experiencing it here have little privacy. Images of decaying buildings proliferate in art studios as demolition companies obliterate them in reality. Images of worn-out people and buildings have become a sort of edgy counter-trend to the sterile images of Yaletown or Stanley Park that city boosters circulate. Indeed, a certain kind of view of the neighbourhood has become so harmlessly kitsch that Rennie Marketing Systems advertise the very contentious Woodward’s condo project as “an intellectual property.”
In addition to engaging with the more mainstream Vancouver art community, Thauberger tried to address some of the very socially active artists, activists, and advocates working within the DTES community. “It’s funny,” commented critic and poet Clint Burnham a few years ago, “how people only worry about community art for poor people....You never hear anyone saying let’s start a mosaic project in Kerrisdale or Rosedale. No one’s collecting oral histories in Westchester or running a poetry storefront in Shaughnessy.”6 One finds the word “community” completely overused in relation to a certain kind of representation. Communities in need need community artworks, while well-off communities can choose art that they desire. Sometimes, interestingly, the elite, who consume art, want work that deals critically with communities in need, perhaps because it reflects an ideal of engagement and criticality. A recent example of this phenomenon is Ian Gillespie (one of the Woodward’s building developers), who commissioned Stan Douglas’ staged photo of the 1971 Gastown Riot, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, (2008).
I can’t help wondering what Carrall Street would have been like if Thauberger had illuminated the street where John Furlong, the VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) chief executive, lives. Or set up lights in front of developer Bob Rennie’s house. As a collector, Rennie is a huge force in the art community, and both Rennie and Furlong control projects that have a far greater influence on the face of the city and on the DTES specifically than any individual at _Carrall Street _that night. Yet, their neighbourhoods are rarely the subject of representation, and few people in this town would recognize them by sight. Wealth can often buy protection from bright lights and scrutiny.
While I appreciate her willingness to take chances and use parts of the real city as her material, too many aspects of Thauberger’s piece sent contradictory messages. Because movie sets are extremely hierarchical situations, imitating one seems entirely the wrong way of bringing different people together for a dialogue. Because declamatory theatre reproduces well worn spectator-performer relationships it is a poor way of generating unexpected meetings. Finally, because harsh lights emphasize surfaces and semblance it is the wrong tool to use to uncover invisible histories and stories. Light is used by the state and industry, and personal dialogue often starts away from these lights in the shadows of bedrooms and alleyways. Carrall Street was clearly an open-ended construction, however, there are times when artistic openness actually becomes incoherence. The irony is that “failures” sometimes generate better conversations than “successes.” And, I applaud Thauberger for adding something to the ongoing civic dialogue. If anything, the piece may serve as a new starting point. In this instance though, it is not the art that should be the focus of the conversation but the life this work is taking from. On this, I think I am in total agreement with the artist: the forces that make and remake Vancouver’s Carrall Street need to be seen.
- Bob Rennie, quoted in Monte Paulsen, “The long walk home,” BC Business Online, 1 March 2008, “http://bcbusinessonline.ca/bcb/top-stories/2008/03/01/ long-walk-home?page=0%2C3”: http://bcbusinessonline.ca/bcb/top-stories/2008/03/01/ long-walk-home?page=0%2C3.
- Jules Michelet, Le Peuple (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), 100.
- Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les Presse Du Réel, 1998), 13.
- Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (fall 2004), 79.
- Ibid., 65.
- Clint Burnham, “No Art After Pickton,” Fillip 1, Summer 2006.