Activating Public Space: the Maraya Project Artists’ Talks.

By Jessa Alston-O'Connor
The past several months have been busy with virtual interactions and path-making on the Maraya website, diverse critical discussions during the speaker series, and public engagement with the Maraya exhibition, first at Centre A and now in the Museum of Vancouver Studio. In their Centre A salon discussion, artists Henry Tsang, Glen Lowry and M. Simon Levin behind this multi-media multi-city project came together to share their perspectives on how Maraya came to be, and where it could lead us. Does Maraya serve as a mirror onto these controlled environments, these sites of false water and glass, and may it open up space to reflect and create the kinds of cities and communities we want to live in?
Since 2007 the trio have been exploring and probing the uncanny similarities and the differences between the luxury waterfront condominium developments that have so completely reshaped Vancouver and those replicated in Dubai. Tsang explained how they traced the roots of Vancouver’s False Creek developments back to Stanley Kwok and the selling of Expo 86 grounds to Concord Pacific developers through to the explosion of Dubai as a new global city over the past decade. During seven research trips to Dubai and years of documentation of Vancouver, the artists gathered sound, video, and images to create a multi media exhibition and interactive website. They also created prototypes of future public art works in the form of portable ‘portal’ screens inside silver Haliburton cases to ideally be laid out along the Seawall offering live stream to Vancouver from similar cases set along the marina in Dubai.
Lowry brought in a theoretical approach, drawing on Michel De Certeau's 'Walking in the City" and Jane Jacobs' "the Death and Life of Great American Cities" and applying these ideas about life in larger cities like New York, Baltimore, and Chicago to our understanding of Vancouver and Dubai. Lowry pointed out that the world that de Certeau watched and wrote about does not exist anymore--since September 11th, more capital has flowed into the Middle East, and Dubai grew to "eclipse American rhetoric of excess". In fact, the tallest building in the world is in Dubai and Lowry went on to point out that most of the tallest buildings in the world since 2004 have been built outside of North America. Nevertheless, both Maraya and de Certeau’s text consider the view from above, observing the crowds below. Lowry expanded on De Certeau’s ideas about the pedestrian as someone who move through a city but is unable to read it: "neither author nor spectator, Maraya moves in this space, too". Neither the sole creators nor the detached observer of Vancouver or Dubai, Maraya invites and challenges the public to explore the kind of city we want to live in at ground level.
Lowry drew from Jacob's discussions of the role and importance of sidewalks in urban centers as demarcations of public space from private, places for people to gather, and that can attract the eyes of the community to ensure neighborhood safety. These ideas can shape our understanding of the potential of the Seawall. How might the Haliburton activate the Seawall walkway and create social interactions and connections? What kind of experiences can be created? Does the Seawall have the potential to be more than a place to rollerblade and walk dogs?
Coming back to the idea of mirrors, Levin stressed that mirrors can be a distortion that we learn from. Instead of getting caught up in the surface similarities or differences between the diptychs of Maraya, he emphasized the importance of self awareness, to see our city in the project and considering what these differences may mean. The diptychs in the exhibition are intended to visually work together, but a look closer creates anxiety–we are not sure where we are looking at, they are not the same after all. Destabilizing our comfortable complacency is key to Maraya. This is evident in the video projections on the floor and the walls, each shot from different vantage points. Levin explained that we can feel unsettled as the floor appears to move with the video projections. In doing so we are reminded of the embodied experience of the city and see it differently than usual. We also consider the privilege and perspectives of these many views, private space that complicates public space, and the distortion within the reflections of these two cities.
During Q and A it asked what steps made sure that this project was critical enough, instead of being complacent and indulging in Concord Pacific model.
This made me pause--is Maraya critical enough? Or is it celebrating these designs?
In experiencing the work, engaging on the website, and attending the speaker series, I think Maraya is indeed critical of this kind of city building, but not in an extreme way. Instead, the work opens up more questions than it can answer, invites public contributions to the project, looks at what is uncannily similar, or very different, and asks why. Even more importantly it asks if the city can be more, and if the seawall and the controlled spaces of leisure that these designs have created can be activated to offer more meaningful community connections. I look forward to seeing more of the portal prototype, and of gaining insights into perspectives from Dubai as the Maraya project is not finished with much left to explore. It asks whose ideal city this is, who can belong or is excluded? Can these towers of luxury and the seawall become sites of meaningful social engagement? In asking these questions, the work is pointing to important community and urban issues that have been omitted from the pristine designs of False Creek and the Dubai Marina. Instead of celebrating these achievements in urban planning and architecture it is a call to us, the viewer, to bring our voices and ideas to shape the city.

Maraya Project: The Seawalls of Vancouver and Dubai at the Museum of Vancouver.
February 29 to May 20, 2012.
Networked Urban Flows: Maraya = Reflection. M Simon Levin, Glen Lowry and Henry Tsang speaking on March 8 at 6:30 PM. Call MOV 604.736.4431 ext 0 for more information.