Elegy of the Non-event
Stan Douglas’s depiction of police and protesters on the night of the 1971 Gastown Riot is at this point an iconic public artwork in Vancouver. The photographic mural, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008), has now sat in the atrium of the Woodward’s development in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood for almost five years—long enough to allow for a multiplicity of encounters and reflections.
Time, if not history itself, seems to threaten any last word on this work. Past events and their many layers, not to mention the inherent challenges of photographic representation, have held any definitive interpretation at bay. Despite its strong presence in the city, and the contested nature of the work’s Downtown Eastside site,1 the debate about the artwork has arguably been limited, and the relationship between the image and event has been left largely unexplored.2 It is therefore worth returning to Abbott & Cordova, Stan Douglas’s first public artwork since Television Spots (1988) and Monodramas (1991).3
Abbott & Cordova is mounted as a massive outdoor photomural behind a frame of steel and glass, resembling an oversized, backlit billboard. The thirty-by-fifty-foot image is double-sided, equally visible from both inside and outside the building. At the centre of the mural are the two cross streets named in the title, Abbott and Cordova, passing in front of what was then the Woodward’s department store. In one corner of the image a moving barricade of officers wearing riot gear pushes up against protesters; in another, a group of officers drag a demonstrator toward the open rear doors of a paddy wagon; at the edges of the scene, mounted police attempt to corral pedestrians while other protesters crisscross the street. Portraying events from the evening of August 7, 1971, Abbott & Cordova re-creates the aftermath of a “smoke-in” organized by Vancouver’s hippie and countercultural youth at nearby Victory Square. The event was organized as a protest against the city’s excessive drug laws and frequently aggressive police practices. While it began as a countercultural celebration, the gathering ended in a police riot a block away from Victory Square, at the intersection of Abbott and Cordova. Abbott & Cordova recreates the riot in its final hour; Douglas composed its image from multiple overlapping photographs taken on set at a location just inside the Vancouver city boundary, in a parking lot next to Hastings Racecourse.
According to Douglas, he modelled the mural on a famous aerial photograph of London’s 1936 Battle of Cable Street taken by David Savill,4 when, on October 4 of that year, British communists, socialists, and anarchists—as well as Jewish and Irish Londoners—clashed with the British Union of Fascists (BUF). During that event, the BUF leader Oswald Mosley attempted to lead a march of sympathizers directly through the city’s East End but was met with strong popular resistance, despite protection for the BUF by the Metropolitan Police. Savill’s photo, taken for Britain’s early-twentieth-century Topical Press Agency, captures a bird’s-eye perspective of Cable Street from a building above it. Within the frame, a barricade lies in the background as demonstrators flee the police, looking over their shoulders as they run toward the camera. While it is tempting to see Abbott & Cordova as an art-historical inheritor of the traumatic 1936 photograph, I propose instead that it is a descendant of a different depiction of those 1936 events—the festive Battle of Cable Street mural on the outside of St. George’s Town Hall in London’s Whitechapel neighbourhood, painted between 1979 and 1983 by Dave Binnington, Paul Butler, Ray Walker, and Desmond Rochfort.
Savill’s black-and-white Cable Street photograph is an intense yet haphazard document when compared to the colourful, stylistically belaboured Whitechapel painting, but both offer large compositions that testify to the gap between event and image. Like Abbott & Cordova, the Whitechapel mural operates as a commemoration of a historic conflict, carrying the anti-fascist battle of Cable Street 1936 into the realm of allegory. In place of a scene of traumatic violence, both of the works construct a rich visualization of the riots that is animated, stimulating, and theatrical. As compositions, they successfully condense multiple images of complex events in order to create a carnivalesque rendering of the past. Consider the onlookers in Douglas’s meticulously produced image: the scene contains officers, riot police, hippies, and protesters. But these primary actors are joined by a set of minor figures: older onlookers, probably retired seasonal labourers; a couple walking home from a date; a shopkeeper observing the kerfuffle; and two young boys sitting on a curb in the foreground, less than a metre from what might otherwise be imagined as a brutal arrest. The boys, who invoke the onlookers in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Adoration of the Magi (1485–1500), or more recently, Rodney Graham’s Leaping Hermit (2011), seem totally unfazed.5 It is worth noting that the couple on the street corner appears to be, in the moment of portrayal, out on the town and therefore irritated or puzzled—anything but scared—by the activities at the intersection.
It is possible to conclude that the proximity of these different figures to the central conflict between police and protesters diminishes the presence of violence in the image, suggesting instead an almost leisurely crowd. Instead of a social realist police riot, the scene resembles the busy landscape of a Where’s Waldo? book or the radical youth in Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va bien (1972) as they bounce off fumbling riot police at the checkout tills of a French supermarket. In this respect, Abbott & Cordova is a consummate social mural, bringing to mind a work like Jack Shadbolt’s About Town with the United Service (1943). Shadbolt’s mural contained more than two hundred and fifty figures painted on ten panels roughly nine by twenty-three feet, depicting a busy daytime scene on a central street during wartime Vancouver. The social mural as a form, with its saturated vernacular, is by definition a sociological compendium: it brings all character types (or “prototypes,” according to Shadbolt) into the totality of the picture. The Diego Rivera–inspired About Town with the United Service, painted on a now demolished wall in Vancouver, employed a characteristic style and perspective in its rendering of “a comprehensive picture of Vancouver.”6 Just as with Douglas’s skillful merging of multiple photographs to make his single image, Shadbolt made “hundreds” of preliminary sketches and watercolour studies to prepare for the final act of painting.7
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About the Author
Nathan Crompton is a writer based in Vancouver. He is an editor of The Mainlander, an organizer with the Vancouver Renters’ Union, and is currently completing his PhD in French history at Simon Fraser University. He has contributed art criticism to October and the Bartleby Review.