Fillip 3 — Summer 2006

The State of Refuge in Vancouver
Anne Lesley Selcer

It is the beginning, it is the home.1 It is the most literal materialization of limit, the enclosure of presence. As one takes to the city it is: at one’s back, a shell, an expression or manifestation.

It looks like this: four windows, one door, a tree, a sun in the corner. Or like this: yellow light cast onto the sidewalk, glasses clinking, heavy curtains pulled off to one side. This house is the final picture of the dream of replication, a small new world, landed. It has been bought by a man and a woman, its governance curves neatly into the convex of bigger governances. It resonates, is beautiful. It is consistent with the community centre, the school, the law. These equivalences knock together with a velvet surety.

Then, there is the rented house. This house assigns titles: occupant, landlord. It holds a staticy freedom; there are drinking glasses to be bought, houseplants. This house is tremulous. Here, futures do not have hallways or rooms. It has a gravity (a cement foundation, hinges that creak predictably) not possessed by its occupant. This house is mediated, nascent. On the gridded, tree-lined residential street, this house is slightly skewed.

Next, the rented apartment: serial, social, occasionally empty, fluxing, forgiven, divested, urbane. One of many. Eyes are upon us. We fall in, like days, like weeks, like months, like years, like curios in stacked boxes. We have no choice. We make due. We build walls, throw dinner parties. We are the populace, running noisily parallel to the social. Our money ebbs rather than grows, and this ebbing seems like the very movement of life itself.

And then there is the rented room. A two burner cookstove, one window, a bathroom down the hall. This subject, this most visible and most invisible subject, sits alone by his window. All down the street they knock together in rows of twos and fours. Behind them are the temporary homes of a caste going nowhere—a caste as staked in the sidewalk, the corner store, as the gentry is staked in the land. These window casings are the sturdiest in the city.

There is the hotel room, and all the things that money makes possible: the businessman flossing, unburdening himself, the sound of the TV news, the dissolution of place into service, the small suitcase of personal effects, the giddy, unregulated self, trespass against the family, limits concurrent with the limits of the body and the boundary of the city outside, the heroic survey from the balcony, quick and rootless niceties, disposable bottles, large, clean mirrors, a persistently dispersing social, the cleanliness of money.

At the Lobby Gallery in November of 2005, Erica Stocking exhibited Single Room Occupancy. She built a mid-level luxury hotel room in an empty space behind the gallery wall. The Lobby Gallery serves a dual function as the actual lobby of the Dominion Hotel, a boutique hotel on Abbott just north of Cordova and west of Carrall. It is tucked into Gastown—the historical district which designates itself from the surrounding Downtown Eastside with brick sidewalks, wrought iron guard posts, and marked street lighting.

During the exhibit, the only thing displayed on the gallery wall was a fire escape plan. On this plan, the door of the artist’s “Room 001” showed in pencil three-quarters the size of the others. If one could find the slim, unexpected actual door, one would step into the two by seventeen foot functional hotel room, defined as such by the spotless white duvet, the thick set of hotel hand towels, the gleaming faux vintage tap and sink, the hotel telephone, the pad of writing paper and the soft, yellow track lighting. For the duration of the exhibit, one could stay in the tiny Single Room Occupancy for $35 a night.

Refuge entered English from Old French by way of the Latin refugium, “to run away or to flee.” It shares a root with fugitive—a word that implies a position both inside and outside of the law. This is the precise position that the piece takes. In a space outside of the gallery’s circumference, but in its physical building and naming domain—inside an art hotel remade from an old SRO located just inside the lawful historic memory of old Vancouver, which is surrounded by a neighbourhood at the centre of the city yet unsanctioned by the city’s self-image—the artist built this hidden room.

The hidden room is located beyond the eyes of the law but embedded deeply within the social. It describes the most interior limits of the law with its walls. It presses protectively out against the law and is conversely constructed by it. The hidden room asserts the intolerability of the state of affairs outside. Its extreme interiority implicates these conditions as such. It can be thought of as the architecture of exception. Of course, the hidden room is a negative space. It can only be read as politically efficacious if it is read as performative, as a space that performs the necessity for its own negativity. It is not a home.

The effectiveness of Single Room Occupancy is the stillness of its voice—a critique that is positioned, rather than given. With its shape, this hidden hotel room manifests the dynamic between space and money in Vancouver. It is an unheimlich refuge, spawned by an accelerated real estate market and reflective of its distortions. The mirror opposite of Single Room Occupancy might be The Factory, lofts recently built in the formerly low rent neighbourhood of Strathcona, which sold (in a matter of days) for approximately $550,000 each. Such projects, rather than upgrading the city’s urbanity, make it more difficult for the elements which historically have marked space as urban to exist within its borders. Single Room Occupancy both mimics this phenomenon and offers it up at a low price—albeit significantly downsized and cowering at the edge of a gallery.

Here, Vancouver’s economy of scarcity is countered by a gesture of generosity. The critique uses a social voice. The artist has created a semiotically feminine space, critical of its site (its site being the type of space said to herald Vancouver’s thrust towards a total hospitality economy that, after shopping, will flaunt culture as its main asset) while flirting with it, a space evocative rather than accusatory in tone. The piece can be experienced in several ways, yet is just suggestive enough to make its point, and to make it without delimiting the boundaries of that point too narrowly. Its critique is inhabitable—and leaves all the pleasure of a tiny, perfect, hidden room well intact.

However, lest one reduce this pleasure to the most obvious pleasure a hotel room inspires, the artist added a caveat to the rental contract: only one person could stay overnight at a time. Therefore, all pleasure taken was to be taken from the room’s luxury, the occupant alone on its half-bed, left to contend with this disjunction. This is how the artist weighted her piece away from retreat and towards critique.

The refuge is a palliative space, one built to “relieve or lessen without curing; to try to conceal the gravity of (an offense) by excuses, apologies.” The refuge covers the one who lives between languages, in a teetering social, a smudge on the map; one who starts from nowhere and bears the city on his back. The refuge does not re-loop signification, it bears witness, it bears accusation. It points elsewhere. The refuge is protection from the social. It cannot be regarded clearly by an order that starts with the home.

  1. This piece was generally informed by Rosalyn Deutsche’s Evictions (1996) and David Harvey’s Spaces of Hope (2000), as well as passages from the writtings of Giorgio Agamben, Nicolas Blomley, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jeff Derksen and Neil Smith, and Rem Koolhaas.
About the Author

Anne Lesley Selcer is a writer based out of the Bay Area.

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