Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

No Art After Pickton
Clint Burnham


On May 7, 2005, and as part of the exhibition Picturing the Downtown Eastside, 1 a panel discussion took place in the old Or gallery (at 112 West Hastings) on the subject of the role of art in the Downtown Eastside (DES). Jeff Derksen was the panel facilitator, and speakers included Lorna Brown, Sharon Kravitz, Irene Loughlin, Irwin Oostindie, and Jeff Sommers. Derksen, a poet associated with the Kootenay School of writing who teaches at Simon Fraser University (SFU), kicked things off with remarks on the importance of a cultural front, one concerned with the critical as well as community. He spoke of the city, and this neighbourhood as well, as a site of production, linking gentrification with the globalized movement of production and capital flows. Post-Fordist micro production, he argued, is often ignored as the bourgeoisie trumpets the “Vancouver achievement” (advantage) of view corridors and commodified space.

Lorna Brown, who has been a member of many artist-run initiatives including from 1999-2004 the director and curator of Artspeak Gallery, provided a genealogy of artist-run centres and their funding streams (patronage). In particular, Brown pointed out, contradictory demands from municipal funders (which tend to be instrumental) and federal streams (more traditional mantras of “excellence”) have nonetheless left such centres more concerned with exhibition and access than with production. Sharon Kravtiz, who has designed and run various street-level community art projects out of the Carnegie Community Centre and with other groups in the neighbourhood, provided details on the protocols of working with the disenfranchised via art production often of the lowest materials, without ever being certain of art’s role in this social therapy. She also situated her work in terms of progessive theorizing on poverty and addiction under capitalism (especially the work of retired SFU academic Bruce Alexander).

Irene Loughlin, who has worked with poet Bud Osborne and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), stressed the healing function of art making practices, albeit with the proviso that, although a resident of the neighbourhood over the past decade, she increasingly finds it difficult to make art about the DES. Irwin Oostindie, currently director of the Gallery Gachet, spoke on the connections between art and gentrification. Jeff Sommers, an urban geographer, historicized the DES as a containment zone over the past century, first for the working class and late—only after business pressures in the Downtown core began shifting drug users and sex trade workers towards the DES. The discussion was lively, indeed went on for almost four hours, and demonstrated both a felt need for thinking past binaries of elite art versus community art (or guilty artists and self-righteous community workers) and a wealth of social and cultural capital in the room and indeed in the neighbourhood.


It’s funny how people only worry about community art for poor people. Oh right, the civic galleries are community art for the rich. But 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 (or maybe that’s SoGr’s role). Plus why is it, or what is it, about art or making it that is so good for people that it’s become this utilitarian, um, practice (I hate saying that, it makes me feel like a dentist-golfer)?

The role of art in the DES seems to be a contradictory one of the artist-run scene providing the farm team slash subculture of art for producers (Bourdieu) (thus the artist-run scene itself is schizophrenic: both a way for the art stars to “keep it real” and for the rest of us to keep having some funds coming in) and the various production and exhibition grassroots groups that range from the artworld parallelism of Gallery Gachet and desmedia to the hard-won earnestness of Carnegie and Portland Hotel projects. (Add in the less affiliated artists who wander in and out of these various funding streams, and the non-funded galleries and spaces which continue to emerge in Strathcona, Chinatown, Gastown).

The contradictions are symptomatic of a conflict between government protocols around professionalism (hence artist-run centres tend to employ and show trained artists; note that non-funded spaces will still cater to the same class demographic, albeit younger) and the regional location ensured by those same funding sources’ paucity (spaces tend to be located in dingy areas, from the DES to, what is it, West Queen West From the Mission to Marcy). Thus “locals” in the ‘hood aren’t of the same class (and race) as the clientele. The result is usually liberal guilt on the part of the art world combined with paranoia engendered by the odd actual violent situation. The lowest moment is when these structures of experience get articulated in some lame political way, as in feminist complaints about safety in bad neighbourhoods, countered with macho claims/desires for keeping it real (both women and men are on either “side”). This was the reason the Or Gallery had to move: ironically, we tough guys were wrong, as the missing/murdered women case over the past few years has made evident.

That range of artistic production (projects and outlets and venues) needs a more thorough investigation: even if to disconfirm or delegitimize the notion that the DES continues to be the origin of the Vancouver school of photoconceptualism. A local intellectual once wrote a paper on the cash flow of the drug trade in the neighbourhood, demonstrating that it had a healthy economic balance sheet: a similar analysis would trace the representations of the neighbourhood as a semiotic capital flow. If, as I once argued, Jack Shadbolt was the crack dealer of modernism, than perhaps post-photoconceptualism is the crystal meth of the 21st century (cheap, fun, addictive).

The social conditions of art in the neighbourhood noted, the utilitarian use of art as social therapy and advocacy medium (which is anathema to many aesthetes, not least Paul Delany, judging from his recent whining in the Vancouver Review about Da Vinci’s Inquest and Nettie Wild’s Fix —they like junkies too much!) actually raises new questions about ontology. Perhaps it’s only me, but for too long now I think we’ve been distracted by the ontological deconstruction of art (Duchamp, Warhol, Danto—the end of art) and the vagaries of institutional critiques as artistic strategy (I think it makes better sense in the cool hands of a Ron Terada rather than the hot hands of a Hans Haacke). Like, the idea that suddenly what art is is in question, which it is and has been for a while but it shouldn’t be news anymore. And it’s less hey let’s critique the museum than thinking about post-exhibition (or maybe not post, maybe just “not-exhibition”).

But these questions of ontology etc. also get a fresh working in this context. For if artistic projects like the chalk project Sharon Kravitz organized in front of the Carnegie in the summer of 1995 work—and they do (we’ll discuss what this means in a minute)—then what we have to determine is what is it that’s making such a project a beneficial experience for street addicts. It’s partly basics like being treated with respect by the staff and artists etc. (though we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re always angels or that no one else around is decent). It’s partly about doing an end-oriented task that is “positive” (this is getting tautological) because it’s creative. For the chalk project it was probably also about expression—writing on the sidewalk, getting it down in words. The talking cure. And I do think that’s a big part of it.

But the irony in much community art is that the masses being helped are actually doing stuff that in other contexts is either exploitation or bureaucratic indoctrination (to use extreme language: I mean ideology). For example, the work of making a mosaic: consumers or clients are doing the same “work” that friends of mine used to do working at the Sid Dickens tile factory. Or taking a poetry class (as I’ve taught): the street-involved are just sitting through what rich kids sleep through or call “gay” (actually that was a North Delta football player who somehow made it into UBC). Not exactly: since the street people doing the mosaics participated in the designing of them—but still, the cynic in me wants to call them focus groups.

I’m not saying that community art is some condescending exploitation of the poor (or, better, the non-artists) under the guise of doing better. Sure, some of it is—but the dilemma whereby community art practices model (is the verb transitive or intransitive now naturally, it is both) bureaucratic functions is both banal and tragic. It is banal in the sense that you should try to have decent meetings when getting things done (but even those benign rituals take on disproportionate weight with a room full of people); it is tragic in the sense that it raises the question if it is possible to engage in ways that have not been co-opted (or done better) by the imperialist-capitalist hegemony.

Or perhaps I should take a Hardt and Negri approach, and see the capitalist method as owing to our grassroots approach (just as, in Empire and Multitude, they see Keynsianism or globalization as actually responses to, and caused by, political activism of the multitudes, the always-already international); that is, it isn’t depressing that when DESers help a designer do up a mosaic it’s like a focus group helping Toyota design cupholders—rather, corporate practices are themselves attempts at managing human capital. And this finding leads, then, to the question again of what is it about art—or if it is art—that’s doing the social therapeutic work.

I said above that I would get to the question of whether such projects work. When they do, they take a great deal of effort: but anyone with experience will tell you that they often wonder themselves. For while cultural capital is a symptom of economic capital, it isn’t a two-way street: you always lose money when you try to exchange back and knowing about Malcolm Lowry or doing a painting didn’t keep Terry Johnson (1959–2004) or Andrew Sharpe (1956–2005) alive.

#_Picturing the Downtown Eastside_, 112 West Hastings, Vancouver; April 30 to May 29, 2005.

Editors’ note: Robert Pickton is a Vancouver area farmer who has been charged with the murder of 27 women who have gone missing from the Downtown Eastside. Almost 100 women, primarily sex trade workers, often Aboriginal, have gone missing over the past 15 years from the DES. Pickton’s pig farm in Port Coquitlam, a Vancouver suburb, was the subject of an intenstive forensic search in 2002-2003, with DNA evidence resulting in charges being laid against Pickton.


About the Author

Clint Burnham teaches at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. His latest book, The Only Poetry that Matters: Reading the Kootenay School of Writing, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2011. His art criticism has appeared in Artforum, Fillip, and the Times-Colonist, and he has lectured at the Art Institute of Chicago, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam), and the Carnegie Community Centre (Vancouver). He lives in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver.

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