Monday, March 1, 2010

Blame Australia: A "Circum-Pacific" Approach to Vancouver 2010

Patrons enjoying a pint at the Candahar Bar, an installation by Theo Sims, for Presentation House Gallery, at the PTC Studios on Granville Island.

Well, the Games are (blessedly) over. Let the post-mortems begin (starting with that cliché-ridden Closing Ceremonies). In fact, I’ll save mine for the time being, or at least until we get a better picture of the long-term fallout for the city (although I will admit to breathing a huge sigh of relief that Canada won the men's hockey game--not because I'm a hockey fan, but because I shudder to think what would have happened downtown had they lost). Instead, let me offer you a different sort of take, one that is excerpted from my forthcoming book, which includes a chapter comparing the Beijing and Vancouver Games, and which was supposed to be out at the beginning of this month, before Vancouver’s Opening Ceremonies. Unfortunately, it’s been delayed, but that didn’t stop my friend and colleague Michael Turner from inviting me to present on my research as part of the final day of programming at the Candahar Bar on Granville Island. Here’s what I had to say.

For his contribution to the 2006 Sydney Biennale, curated by Charles Merewether around the theme ‘Zones of Contact’, China’s most celebrated contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, created World Map, an 8-metre long, 6-metre wide, and 1-metre high installation that used 2,000 layers of precisely cut cloth to construct and fit together in the manner of a jigsaw puzzle a replica international atlas. Given the media interest in Ai’s high-profile collaboration with Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron on the design of the architectural centerpiece of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Bird’s Nest Stadium, viewers might be forgiven for initially reading World Map as a cynical marketing stunt, high-end advertising for the benign globalism of sport as trumpeted by the official slogan of the Beijing Games: ‘One World, One Dream’. However, Ai, famous for giving the finger to Tiananmen Square, has never been one to toe the official party line, even when enforced as rigidly as the Communist Party of China’s. Indeed, little more than a year later, in August 2007, Ai would publicly condemn the Olympics as a glorified propaganda exercise, criticising those artists—including his former classmate Zhang Yimou, tasked with overseeing the opening and closing ceremonies—who had agreed to collaborate with such a regime.

Ai Weiwei's World Map.

In fact, World Map is more in keeping with past works by Ai that likewise engage with the nation as at once an imaginary cultural construct authenticated by a global consumer market and as a real physical entity monitored by local government. So, for example, Ai is famous for deliberately destroying pottery from the Han and Ming Dynasties, or defacing it with bright paint and logos from Coca-Cola; and in his Map of China series he carves monumental sculptures of the ‘official’ geographical mass of the People’s Republic (including Taiwan) out of beams salvaged from Qing Dynasty temples. As with World Map, these objects’ abstract metaphysical representations of place are interrupted, challenged, and rendered mutable by an audience’s local - and very tactile - encounter with the medium of their performance: latex, wood, felt. As such, the fabric used in Ai’s Biennale piece, and the time and effort required to cut, pile, and fit it, speak to the conflicting and situationally contingent layers of history, politics, and economics that continue to circumscribe the contact zones available between nations in this age of globalisation, with China’s ability to stage a media event as extravagant as the Beijing Olympics, no less than its ability to serve as primary manufacturer to the worldwide garment industry, dependent on abundant local supplies of cheap labour.

At the same Sydney Biennale, Vancouver-based Anishinabe-Canadian artist, and Candahar participant, Rebecca Belmore, exhibited America 2006. Combining textile work with sculpture, the installation saw her stitch together by hand fragments from the flags of all the countries of the Americas in a manner that at once served as a witty comment on the United States’ diminishing geopolitical influence within the hemisphere (its flag ended up next to Venezuela’s) and as a serious indictment of the dispossession and cultural genocide of the continents’ Indigenous peoples. In Belmore’s work, ‘contact’ thus has a very specific historical referent, and to the extent that all territory in the Americas might still be considered occupied or colonised space, borders per force remain arbitrary and transferable, which makes Belmore’s opening night Candahar performance all the more resonant. Likewise, allegiance to a flag can only be defined in terms of instrumental outcomes, a point made abundantly clear by members of the Native Warrior Society and local artist Alex Morrison in equal measure. In both the original NWS photo that ran in local newspapers in March 2007 and Morrison’s equally daring appropriation and re-staging of this image, it is the clearly visible Mohawk flag in the foreground rather than the fragment of the Olympic flag displayed in the background that is meant to give VANOC and FHFN members, along with all BC residents generally, pause. For it necessarily evokes memories of the 78-day armed stand-off in Kanesatake in the summer of 1990.

Rebecca Belmore's America 2006.

The Native Warrior Society with the stolen Olympic flag, March 2007.

A performance event like the Olympics trades equally in images of global cosmopolitanism and tribal nationalism, and most often via recourse to the very emblems used by Ai and Belmore in their respective installations: a map of the world, and various countries’ individually brandished flags. As crucially, what these works also demonstrate is that it is local audiences’ embodied and place-based engagements with the different symbolic registers of the national and the global that provide both international art fairs and international sports showcases with their real drama. In other words, the ‘dream’ of worldliness is revealed to be nothing less, and nothing more, than the sum of one’s material location in the world. And it is here, I would argue, that we see the city emerge to challenge the nation as the key site of local performative inquiry and global political connection. In this respect, Vancouver’s geopolitical positioning as Canada’s “gateway to the Pacific,” in the lingo of Premier Gordo and the original Vancouver 2010 Olympic Bid Book, is key, and explains why, in making sense of the competing local/global claims of these Games, we should be looking east to Beijing (and Shanghai, and Hong Kong, and Sydney) rather than east to Ottawa.

Coincidentally, my partner, Richard, and I were having drinks on a patio in Sydney in June 2003, enjoying spectacular views of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, when our server, upon learning where we were from, informed us that Vancouver had been picked by the IOC to host the 2010 Winter Games. It seemed strangely appropriate to be receiving this news Down Under, during the antipodean winter season, with Sydneysiders huddled under heat lamps in what for us were relatively balmy conditions. Let me dwell a bit further on Sydney’s relevance to Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010, and to the local/global approach to performance, place, and politics I adopted in my research on the Olympics more generally. That relevance has as much to do with the fact that Sydney had only narrowly beat out Beijing for the right to host the first Summer Olympics of the new millennium on a controversial fourth ballot held by IOC members in 1993, as it does with disgruntled expat silver-medal-winning freestyle skiers wearing their national colours too lightly for media in Sydney and Vancouver alike, or with David Atkins, the Australian Executive Producer of the Vancouver 2010 Opening and Closing Ceremonies, failing to understand not just the place of Quebec within Canada’s national imaginary but, more pertinently, the local significance of holding the Opening Ceremonies on the eve of Chinese New Year. That is, the Olympics—the national logic of its competitive structure notwithstanding—are at once tranparently transnational, or global, in their message-making—their event brand strictly controlled by a supra-national corporation, the IOC, and an athlete’s or coach’s “franchise” loyalty as fickle as that of a World Cup player—and resolutely local in their biopolitics, with the host city registering the material effects of the administration of an Olympics’ message with more or less resistance depending on specific contexts.

In Sydney in 2003 I kept experiencing déjà vu. The Harbour Bridge reminded me of the Lion’s Gate, the vast expanse of green known as The Domain of Stanley Park. The ocean we share also gives each city a rich supply of accessible sandy beaches. Then, too, Canada and Australia’s linked colonial past, and the forced relocation of Aboriginal peoples that forms its shameful backdrop, means that Vancouver and Sydney are home to large numbers of urban Aboriginals, many of whom live in poverty and/or, by necessity, are involved in prostitution or the drug trade. The centres for these activities are the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and the Kings Cross area of Sydney, both home to controversial safe injection sites, and both subject to increasing pressures related to gentrification. As Pacific Rim cities, Sydney and Vancouver also have large Asian populations, with Chinese immigration to both cities—and attendant racist immigration laws—dating back to the nineteenth century and momentarily spiking in the years leading up to the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China. Finally, Sydney and Vancouver are both lifestyle cities with extremely inflated real-estate markets.

In fact, it is the connection between the migratory flows of the recent Chinese diaspora and the equally migratory flows of global financial capital that at last brings me to the main point of departure for my research on Beijing and Vancouver as Olympic host cities, showcasing how both cities (and others besides, including Sydney, but also Hong Kong and Shanghai) form part of an economic and geopolitical nexus of Pacific Rim property speculation and urban redevelopment. Indeed, in terms of the performance of place, and its local/global significations, one must not underestimate the relationship between ‘mega-events’ like the Olympics and what Kris Olds, with particular attention to Vancouver, has called urban mega-projects, ‘large scale (re)development projects composed of a mix of commercial, residential, retail, industrial, leisure, and infrastructure uses’, often built on abandoned inner-city tracts of land, and usually oriented around signature buildings (see his Globalization and Urban Change, 2001, p.6). The Sydney Olympic Park redevelopment of Homebush Bay has provided the model for most summer and winter Olympics host cities post-2000. Similarly, ‘mega-events’, according to Maurice Roche, are ‘large-scale cultural events which have a dramatic character, mass popular appeal and international significance’, and which are likewise designed to project a particular global image of the host city, repositioning that city ‘in the world of global inter-city and economic competition’ (see Mega-Events and Modernity, 2000, p.10).

In developing his theory of the ‘sociology’ of mega-events, Roche focuses his attention not just on the Olympics, but also on the historical legacy of World Expositions, and in terms of the specific ‘event horizon’ governing my comparison of the Beijing and Vancouver Games, it is worth contextualising my discussion a bit further by first looking back to the 1986 Expo in Vancouver (and it’s great that we have excerpts from Jeremy Shaw’s “Something’s Happening Here” poster project lining the stairwell up to Candahar) and forward to the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. Connecting both events are the ongoing UMPs that resulted from the successful host city selection process, not to mention legendary Hong Kong business tycoon and property developer Li Ka-shing’s strategic involvement in some of the more significant of those projects. After all, it was Li, chief shareholder and managing director of the property development firms Cheung Kong (CK) and Hutchison Whampoa (HW), who together with his eldest son Victor formed Concord Pacific in 1987 with the aim of buying and developing the former Expo 86 lands on the north side of Vancouver’s False Creek. In the 20 years since the sale of the land to Concord Pacific, and in particular since the Li family transferred control of the firm to Terry Hui in 1993, the area has been transformed into one of the most densely populated downtowns in North America, and has become an urban planning model for similar developments around the world. And yet this global performance of place has come at a local price, with an increasing lack of affordable housing in Vancouver’s urban core resulting in a form of enclosure that sees companies like Concord Pacific at once encroaching on and seeking to contain the social blight of the DTES, for example, through a phalanx of luxury condominium towers.

While Li’s primary investment interests in Shanghai relate to the operation of container ports in the Mingdong and Pudong districts, HW’s property development wing has sought to capitalise on the real estate potential associated with the extraordinary urban transformation of Shanghai into a global financial, high tech, transportation, and trade zone centred around the Pudong New Area Project and the Lujiazui Central Finance District. Specifically, HW has a number of grand luxury property and hotel developments currently in various stages of development throughout these areas. However, unlike Vancouver, the major development initiatives in Shanghai over the past two decades have been fueled by the economic (and political) engines of Beijing, rather than Hong Kong. Arguably it is the Chinese government’s desire to see Shanghai overtake Hong Kong as the major financial capital of Asia and, consequently, regain some of the glory of its cosmopolitan past that explains an architectural re-branding of a city now in eclipse of Tokyo as the stand-in for urban futurity in Hollywood.

A telling sign that Shanghai’s 2010 World Expo is seen within China as a showcase event as - if not more - significant as the Beijing Olympics is the fact that a clock counting down the Expo’s opening in August 2010 was installed in Shanghai’s People’s Square in February 2003, more than a year before a similar clock counting down the Beijing Olympics was installed in Tiananmen Square. Of course it was an earlier countdown clock in Tiananmen, this one ticking off the days to the transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty in 1997, that established the precedent of symbolically showcasing the future-oriented temporality of China’s emergence as a major player on the world stage. And if, in this regard, the coming out party that was the Beijing Olympics was measured in the West - as an indicator of China’s social progress - against the brutal suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen in 1989, in China the timing of the Olympics arguably had much more to do with celebrating the country’s amazing economic progress in the thirty years since Deng Xiaoping opened the door to global markets in 1978.

While no countdown clock was put in place in anticipation of Expo 86, one was installed in February 2007 in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to inaugurate the three-year countdown to the 2010 Olympics. The clock was an Omega, the official timekeeper of both the Beijing and Vancouver Games, and this is as good a metaphor as any for the compression and consolidation of the local specificities of space and time into the unreal, non-material scapes and flows of globalisation. But the well-orchestrated ceremonial unveilings of these various clocks also speak, metonymically, to the relevance of a performance studies approach to the Olympics as a mass public spectacle that, to adapt Guy Debord, obliges one to participate in an abstract construction of the world at the same time as it separates one from the concrete material conditions of the local as it is produced by that world (see The Society of the Spectacle). As television broadcast statistics consistently bear out, events like the Olympics really do focus the eyes of the world on a given city, and not just for the two weeks of the Games themselves. Whether or not those eyes all share in the dreams being sold in and by that city is another matter entirely, and in the larger study from which this talk is excerpted I examine the different local, national, and international investments and contradictions in the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics’ showcasing - sometimes willfully, sometimes not - of questions relating to urban sustainability, cultural heritage, and human rights.

For the purposes of time, let me skip over the environmental and cultural comparisons and conclude very briefly by stating that in focusing on human rights, my aim has not been to vaunt Vancouver and to single out China for special condemnation in sacrificing individual rights of public expression and assembly to the supra-political stage managing of Beijing’s collective Olympic optics. As Helen Jefferson Lenskyj usefully reminds us, the IOC, ‘an autonomous, non-elected body’, abets host cities’ curtailment of basic civic rights by insisting that organisers play by their tightly controlled rules (see Olympic Industry Resistance, 2008, p.23), including a guarantee that there will be no public protests in or adjacent to Olympic venues, or any behaviour that might be considered an affront to Olympic values (and valuation). Hence Vancouver’s Safe Streets Act, which mimics similar anti-panhandling legislation passed in advance of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 2000 Sydney Olympics; and hence the controversy surrounding Vancouver’s anti-Olympics sign by-law. Rather, I want simply to suggest that Beijing’s attempts to control not just the message of its Olympics (‘One World, One Dream’), but also their mediation (via, among other electronic channels, the World Wide Web), returns us to the special applicability of performance in highlighting a fundamental asymmetry at the heart of local and global practices of place. That is, as noted China and Pacific Rim scholar Arif Dirlik has commented, in terms of the fostering of ‘place-based consciousness’, the spatially abstracted routes of globalisation are often pitted against the concrete locations and historical roots of everyday social and political activity (see Dirlik's essay in his co-edited collection Place and Politics in an Age of Globalisation, 2001, p.15).

Thus, China’s swift and brutal suppression of the protests in Tibet, for example, was read by most Western media - and certainly CNN - as evidence of China’s failure to integrate itself successfully and fully within a global development narrative of capitalist modernity, where universal human rights necessarily follow upon economic prosperity. However, the subsequent protests against the torch relay in London, Paris, and San Francisco, among other international locales, were seen within China - and not just by the state-run news agency Xinhua - as further evidence of the West’s ongoing marginalisation and isolation of the country. As my colleague Zhao Yuezhi has noted, were China ever in fact to lift the ‘great firewall’ it has erected around the Internet, foreign web browsers might be quite shocked by what they read, with many popular - and populist - blogs trading in a nationalist discourse far more jingoistic and muscularly anti-Western than that promoted by the CCP, and playing to an impatient and expectant generation of only children coming of age with no memory of Tiananmen, let alone the Cultural Revolution. Some of these referential paradoxes were underscored for me as a result of an informal email survey I conducted in June of 2008, asking Chinese students studying at my university to compare Beijing’s hosting of the Summer Olympics with what - if anything - they had taken note of regarding Vancouver’s preparations for the 2010 Winter Games. One young woman’s response was particularly illuminating, framing the politics - and performance - of place at work in the two Olympic cities not simply in terms of differences in national temperament, but also, implicitly, in terms of a critique of neo-liberalism’s abstract prioritisation of individual human rights at the expense of ‘place-based’ considerations of new models of collectivisation, even post-Maoist ones that have resulted in the (apparently willing) resettlement of her own family:

Like millions of Chinese people in my generation, I have been waiting for the Beijing Olympic Games since I was 13 years old. Finally, I can see my home city shine on the world stage this summer. It is a feeling most Canadians will never be able to understand. It is more about … national pride and glory than having fun. It is about sacrificing individual freedom for the greater good of the country…. I am sure you know all about the new Olympic venues being built in Beijing. But you might not know that tens of thousand[s] of citizens had to move away to make the land available for the venues. My family happened to be one of them and we were honored to do so, although we had to lose some money due to the resettlement…. The difference between the Chinese philosophy and the Canadian philosophy is what the general public considers to be more valuable: individual freedom or … national pride. In China, people who fight for individual rights might gain more property and glamour, but people who sacrifice their rights for the country gain more respect. It is a fresh image for me to see how Canadian people see their Vancouver Olympics…. I saw people protesting against the Olympics on Commercial Drive, [saying] that it’s a businessmen’s money-making event…. Athletes have to advertise through sponsors to get their funding. When I ask Canadian people how they feel about winning the right to hold the [W]inter Olympics, many of them don’t even care (personal email).

What lessons might such a complexly articulated statement hold for Vancouver, where, as this student suggests, we take for granted our right to protest as well as our right to disinterestedness? And how might thinking critically about both the real differences and the complex lines of historical connection in local audiences’ responses to globally mediated sports spectacles like the Olympics in turn foster a particular politics of place that resists the universalist narratives of development (athletic, economic, social) championed by supra-national institutions like the IOC? The well-publicized rights challenges launched by Pivot Legal Society, the IOCC, Carnegie Community Action Project, United Native Nations, and VANDU on behalf of the street homeless in the Downtown East Side in advance of the 2010 Olympics offer one possible way to begin answering these questions by exposing the performative exclusions embodied within the very category of the human that such narratives are meant to uphold, highlighting some of the social groups left behind when host cities harness their particular urban aspirations to abstracted messages of Olympic inspiration: if human bodies can be engineered - via equipment vested or drugs ingested - to go ‘faster, higher, stronger’, then why can’t the places those bodies reside? Yet as women ski jumpers’ own unsuccessful rights challenge against VANOC and the IOC attests, such fundamental inequities are actually built into the very fabric of an athletic movement based on the cohesion of body and world that has for most of its history done its best to ignore over half of the bodies in the world.

Whither sport. Despite its Charter’s principled avowal that ‘the practice of sport is a human right’, the Olympic Movement remains deeply entrenched within binaries of human difference. Sex and gender are chief among them, but exclusionary divisions and categories based on race, class, sexuality, age, religion, physical mobility, and geography are just as persistent. Indeed, one of the main arguments in awarding Beijing the 2008 Olympics - that the world’s most populous nation should have the right to host the world’s premiere sporting event - seems slightly specious when one considers that most of the sports showcased at that event were invented by white European men at the height of colonialism. In the politicised spectacle of place promotion that is the Olympics, final medal tallies belie not just the unspoken story of ‘performance enhancement’, but also a long history of the global south, or the communist east, having to beat the West at its own game.

Whether art. In May 2008 Ai was back in Sydney for the first international retrospective of his work, also curated by Charles Merewether as a joint exhibition between the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and the Campbelltown Arts Centre, and meant to overlap with the 2008 Sydney Biennale. The show featured the world premiere of the video Fairytale, a three-hour documentary following from concept to realisation Ai’s invited contribution of the same name to Documenta 12. In Ai’s piece we see the process behind his invitation and facilitation of the journey of 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel in the summer of 2007, where in groups of 200 over successive one week periods, participants, having first been extensively interviewed on everything from their definition of a fairytale to whether or not art can change the world, lived and ate communally, toured the city and the Documenta shows in matching uniforms, and came together at the end of each day for various group demonstrations orchestrated by Ai. Participants acted both as spectators and performers, conventional ‘tourists’ and exhibitionary ‘specimens’, the resulting spectacle designed at once as an experiment in cross-cultural exchange through art and as a more pointed local intervention into the West’s fantasies of the history of collectivisation and social interaction in China.

A still from Ai Weiwei's Fairytale.

A more recent history of collectivisation and social interaction in Vancouver informed Althea Thauberger’s September 2008 site-specific Carrall Street, in which she threw a one-night live art spotlight (quite literally) on a contact zone in the city that runs a scant six blocks - from the red brick buildings of historic Gastown, through the strewn hypodermics of Pigeon Park, to the gleaming real estate offices of Concord Pacific on the north side of False Creek - but that in that distance maps a fraught and polarising social history relating to the ethics of livability and the politics of development in Vancouver. Working with housed and unhoused DTES residents, local service organisations, artists and theatre directors, politicians and city planners, Thauberger and her collaborators created both scripted and improvised scenes in which the roles of performer and spectator, local denizen and curious passer-by would deliberately blur on a stretch of streetscape cordoned off and brightly illuminated like a film set. For me, the piece’s plainly visible fictional scaffolding, and the highly telegraphed orchestration of its ‘scenes’ threw into relief the different performance publics (between business owners and residents, artists and activists, tourists and addicts, security guards and the homeless) that are daily negotiated at street level. In the process, Thauberger brought out in ways often obscured by abstract policy discussions relating to the proposed revitalisation of the area, the historical connections between this particular street’s past (as a tavern-lined, working-class byway connecting Vancouver’s old port to Chinatown), present (as a thoroughfare traversed on one end by visiting tourists and local hipsters negotiating both the tack and trend of Gastown, and, on the other, by the homeless, addicted, and mentally ill citizens of the DTES), and future (as a showcase street targeted for a controversial clean-up and beautification in advance of the Olympics).

Documenting Althea Thauberger's Carrall Street.

Fairytale and Carrall Street thus read as interesting comments on a showcase event like the Olympics. The dream of global cosmopolitanism is always a game where the competing national and transnational stakes and scales of what it means to be human play out in local acts of display and concealment, celebration and protest, formation and fragmentation.


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