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….