No Art After Pickton
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.
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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.