Wednesday, January 26, 2011

PuSh Review #5: City of Dreams at the Roundhouse

City of Dreams opened last night at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre. It's a collaboration between Londoners Peter Reder (a theatre artist) and Tom Wallace (a sound designer) and several local artists brought together by Urban Crawl, a local company led by urban geographer and artistic director Caleb Johnston that works across disciplines to produce art that prompts "physical and social dialogue."

The piece is a performative installation that the audience watches being built from the ground up. Six performers draw a map of the city of Vancouver on the stage floor using hundreds of found objects (twigs, bricks, sand, shells, etc.). This is accompanied by a soundscape made up of various sounds (wind, rain, First Nations drumming and song, construction, steam engines, car horns, etc) and excerpts of oral testimony from different periods of the region's history (referencing, among other events, the fire at Hastings Mill in 1886, the riots in Chinatown in 1907, and the interurban railway that used to run from downtown all the way to Steveston). The work progresses slowly and at first the piece can seem quite static, but once you realize what's happening (Oh, that's False Creek! Hey, there's Stanley Park!), and you start to recognize various landmarks and locate yourself in relation to the map, there is a steady accretion of meaning, and the installation becomes incredibly compelling.

As we move forward in time, objects get added or removed, boundaries shift, and the map starts to change: a colonial settlement rises on a First Nations burial ground, two fingers traced through sand signify the building of the CPR, a dotted line to the east signifies the Trans-Canada highway, False Creek gets filled in, and so on. Most evocatively for me, the transformation of downtown is signified by first flipping horizontally-placed bricks to a vertical position, and then by replacing many of these with square glass vases. With each significant addition and transformation to the map, a small tea light candle is lit to mark the site, if only as trace or outline or memory. And, in this regard, an equally riveting aspect of the show is the delicacy and solemnity and grace with which the six performers silently go about their work building the map.

As with 100% Vancouver, the result is a stunning new way of looking at Vancouver, and, fittingly, the audience is invited to tour the stage at the conclusion of the piece.

City of Dreams continues through this Saturday, and is accompanied by a free exhibition called "Counter Mapping" curated by Johnston, in which several local artists rewrite, disrupt, and experiment with new ways of being in and moving through our local urban landscape.


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