Friday, January 28, 2011

PuSh Review #7: Bonanza at SFU Woodward's

"Love thy neighbour as thyself." So, famously, reads the Biblical imperative in Leviticus 19:18. To this Sigmund Freud responded in Civilization and Its Discontents: Why? And why as myself? Since then countless political philosophers and theorists have taken the neighbour as both the ideal and the limit of social and political relations, that which figures the bare minimum of non-familial association and the impossibility of such an association ever being fully realized.

For most of us living in major urban centres like Vancouver such abstract questions can remain just that--abstract. Not so for the people living in Bonanza, Colorado, a once-thriving mining town now facing possible dis-incorporation because of ongoing feuding between its seven permanent residents. The bizarre permutations and obscure origins of these feuds are captured by the Antwerp-based collective Berlin (confusing, that), who in a series of works known as Holocene (the name of our current geological period) have, since 2003, been assembling through film, sculpture, photography, and live performance various immersive and rigorously researched "city portraits." These portraits include major metropolises like Moscow and Jerusalem, but also more remote regions like Bonanza and Iqaluit (which is also showing, in the Cordova Street atrium of SFU Woodward's, as part of the PuSh Festival).

Bonanza is an installation comprised of five film screens and a scale model of the town, complete with working street lamps and an automatic garage door on the town fire station, which also doubles as council meeting hall (or star chamber, as Mark refers to it at one point). As we are introduced to each of the residents, we discover the paradox at the heart of their respective attachments to this place, and to each other: they crave the isolation Bonanza offers and yet this isolation also binds them in a destructive form of co-dependence that has now descended into factionalism, gossip and intimidation. In a town so small, that basically means everyone is fighting.

Part of the fascination of Bonanza is its quasi-anthropological depiction of the competing spiritualities at play amongst the residents. Mark is deeply Christian and believes God means for him to stay in the town, no matter how bad things get. Richard is likewise a priest, although ministers to a congregation outside Bonanza, and so when at home appears to turn off that part of himself, perhaps explaining his predilection for sci-fi novels and generally staying apart from the skirmishes amongst his neighbours. Darva and Shikiah are new-age types who seek to channel the positive energy of the town and literally (according to them) see their surroundings in different shades than everyone else. Certainly they operate on a separate plane from Mary, who is apparently a witch, though she never identifies herself as such (she does have black teeth, though). And then there are Ed and Gail, who are just plain crackers, and whose lawsuit against the town council and its non-resident mayor, Joan, have brought the long-simmering tensions in the area to a head.

However, this piece refuses to let its audience remain at a safe observational distance. At the same time as they show how the world insistently intrudes upon Bonanza (not least in the form of the hundreds of part-time summer residents), Berlin also suggests what this microcosm of "un-neighbourliness" has to teach the world about the ethics of pluralism and cosmopolitanism and stranger-relations.

Bonanza continues at SFU Woodward's Studio T through this Saturday.


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