The City That Grew Up, Between the Mountains 
and the Sea

I was thirteen when came to Vancouver in the summer of 1969. It was a small city with low buildings and a quiet downtown. Having lived in Toronto, then Regina, I was accustomed to relatively uninterrupted horizons and being able to “see” the rest of the world from where I stood. When my family moved here, I began to feel a profound sense of isolation which seemed to come from the constant sight of the mountains which stood between me and the rest of Canada. The veil of grey that hung over the city for long hours on most days further delineated my perception of a restrictive space. This memory made me think about how “place” has shaped my predilections as a designer, and also what effect Vancouver, as a place, has had on its creative community as a whole.

Vancouver is arguably one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Its situation on the west coast of Canada, with the Pacific Ocean, Coastal Mountains and a temperate climate, is the envy of almost every Canadian. Its ancient history, steeped in the trade, politics and spirituality of Tsleil-Waututh, Tsawwassen, Musqueam and Squamish First Nations has deeply impacted the culture, sensitivities and artistic output of the city. It almost seems as if the disruptive style of artists in the sixties, seventies and early eighties was channeling the anger of Indigenous Peoples around the loss of, and impacts to, their traditional territories.

Its prominent placement on, and involvement with, the Pacific Rim permeates every aspect of life in the city. Listening to voices on the street, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean and Punjabi are often heard more often than English. These cultures influence the creative output of the city and cross-pollinate with established forms.

The nature-driven celebrity of Vancouver has attracted the motion picture, technology and creative industries. With this has come a demand for housing, infrastructure, services and cultural investment. Mercuric growth is a challenge for a civic government to manage. The tax base grows quickly, but so do demands on budgets. The responsibility for city councils and city managers becomes more onerous as their performance is scrutinized by a well-educated population. Not only do they make decisions on funding for the arts but, through their community planning, they ultimately decide whether or not artists can continue to live and/or work in the city.

Vancouver’s contemporary artistic community has always appeared to have maintained a certain swagger. Since my days in art school in the 1970s there has been a confidence, perhaps even defiance, in the mood of artists. As a collective, there has not appeared to have been a “contemplative” personality in Vancouver’s creative community. It is more one of acute awareness and questioning. It is driven by activism, intelligence and empathy. Dr. Scott Watson, Head and Professor at the Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia, comments on this in his article “Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos, and Squats”. “In the 1960s, it was asserted that this city led the nation in experimentation and the embrace of new ideas in the arts”. He speaks of Vancouver’s “West Coastness” as tying into the “counter-culture of consciousness raising” rising out of California (Watson). There has been a long-time fetishization of the city, its residents, and its backdrop in Vancouver’s art. Fred Herzog’s documentations of life and moments in the city in the fifties and sixties feel almost sentimental in their voyeuristic insights into Vancouver’s early days. Jeff Wall and Ken Lum of the Vancouver School created work that continued to collect visual data about the changes in the city. Their work maintained a critical edge as if to say, we’re watching….

The Value of Art: A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

There is a posture to fine art that implies that it is only art if it is elevated to a place where few will see it, and even fewer will understand it. Art’s aura, as described by twentieth century cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, is the cult value and relative distance that make it unattainable. How does the fact that it seems just out of reach for most of us make it more valuable? And why does the value of art seem to be intrinsically tied to this inaccessibility, rarity and exotic nature?

The Audain Art Museum opened in March 2016 in Whistler’s Upper Village. This is a not-for-profit institution founded on major donations from Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa. The building, designed by Patkau Architects of Vancouver, takes delicious advantage of its forested location and mountainous “nest” with gorgeous views from its walkways. It boasts “one of the world’s most important collections of Northwest Coast masks”, two dozen Emily Carr works and a collection of impressive works by E.J. Hughes on loan from Jacques and Margaret Barbeau. I was able (I will avoid saying “privileged”, even though privilege was exactly what it was) to view the museum with a group under the guidance of Chief Curator, Darrin Martens on a recent Saturday. It is a relatively small, but impressive collection of about 200 works.

James Hart, The Dance Screen (The Scream, Too), detail. Photograph by Casey Hrynkow.

I came away with a feeling of discomfort that I am having trouble resolving. I have less of a problem with this new collection than I do with how it came to be collected and how and where it is being displayed. The works in the Audain Museum cover British Columbia art, from time immemorial to present day, within a narrow window of one collector’s tastes. Everything from Nuu-chah-nulth masks of well in excess of 100 years old, to works barely one year old, made by Rodney Graham. The majority of this collection most recently belonged to one family. They had the wealth and the knowledge to accumulate the works that are now the backbone of the Audain Museum. These pieces were kept in the the private homes and offices of a small group of people until the Audains decided to make this collection a legacy to the public. It is a noble gesture. And if I posit that one of the implied roles of the wealthy is sprinkling bits and pieces of their good fortune down to the common folk, then this is indeed a grand gesture. The ecology of art in western society runs on this top-down feeding of the system, and it also makes it less available to the rank and file. This particular museum is located an hour and a half by car from Vancouver, in Whistler, to be “found” by those who have a level of education that arouses them to seek it out, in a destination known for its expensive accommodations, restaurants and sporting pursuits. And, of course, there is an $18 admission fee to pay. This art is elevated by its inaccessibility, its rarity and its exotic nature. Some of it had been purchased directly from the artists, some (in the case of First Nations art) from other collectors who may originally have acquired it nefariously and then moved it up the value chain through barter and sale.

When we view this art we see it, consciously or unconsciously, through a lens coloured by perceptions of exoticism, rarity and wealth — perhaps even envy. This isn’t unique to the Audain Museum, but the choices that were made in this modern setting do nothing to turn the tide of elitism in art circles in our culture. The true accessibility of art in our society is a discussion worth having.

Sonorousness: Hearing More

On hearing Andrew Czink, Ph.D candidate
in Graduate Liberal Studies at SFU
Contemporary piano concert”    
May 15, 2016  

When I know I’m going to be challenged by music, I feel like I might as well settle in, buckle up, and try to let go, to just see where it takes me. On a rainy night last week at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, I sat deeper in my plastic folding chair, closed my eyes and allowed myself to be completely present in the moment.

When Andrew Czink spoke to our small audience on Monday night, it was clear that he thought about music in a much more transcendental way than I ever had. He opened up his talk by explaining that, as Christopher Small says in his book, Musicking, music is not a sheet of notes. It is a verb. It is “a sonorous practice”, meaning that it does, and should through its hearing, include all of the sounds that an instrument makes in producing a note, both intentionally and otherwise. The strike of a bow against the neck of a violin, the fingers sliding over the fretboard of a guitar, or the wooden clack of a hammer on the short, high note of a piano. It is the nature of the instrument and how it is handled by the player. What Czink plays is what he dubs “structured improvisation”. The piece he was to perform has, he says, no written notes. But he knew every sound it was possible to make in it, and some that might surprise even him.

Like having the wind knocked out of you, the first few moments of this piece were jarring, even stunning, in their volume and atonal dissonance. And then after the introductory assault, Czink froze over the keyboard, arched and waiting – waiting for the buzz of the strings and the hum in the wood of the piano to not only subside, but to become utterly silent. It  had to have taken at least twenty seconds for that silence to finally descend. The silence, held for a moment, was defining and dramatic. What followed was a continued warping of the sounds of what one expects to hear from a grand piano. There were 2-inch bamboo poles striking each other, rocks tumbling and eddies of wind. In a more musical vein, the piece broke into something reminiscent of the Bulgarian folk songs sung by Kitka, complete with verbal chatter in between sung phrases. Sometimes the voices drowned out the melody and sometimes the reverse was true. At this point, it occurred to me that Czink must be becoming physically exhausted. He was striking keys so fast and so hard, it seemed inconceivable. The sound went from controlled to frantic and back again and, ultimately, calmed like a Vancouver rainstorm, orderly in its rhythm, then disorganized and loud, then once again aligned and rhythmic. Symbolically, as the piece ebbed it sounded like a train, gliding into a station, complete with metal wheels on metal rails, brakes protesting.

Andrew Czink’s composition is experimental and fresh. It might not seem focussed through any familiar lens. It is a full-body experience meant to expose the hearer to sound and music in a new way. It can make us think about the edges beyond music, the places where music pushes us and sears itself into our memory. It’s worth a listen, with an open mind.