Forgotten Frontiers: a talk with Christos Dikeakos at Centre A

When I first moved to Vancouver just over a year ago, I was told of a "rare bird" that I might find in the city: the Vancouverite who did not migrate here from Calgary, Japan, Portland, or Iran, but is actually from Vancouver, was raised in this place. For the newly arrived like myself, negotiating the divisive politics and deeply rooted emotions surrounding the rapid land speculation and development of Vancouver has been a tricky task. Even more daunting is to imagine the context of how this landscape even came to be. Luckily, there are those like Christos Dikeakos, for whom the trajectory of Vancouver's development has been the focus of a forty year photo-based art practice. As a part of Maraya Projects, which explores the model of False Creek's Concord Pacific Place, Dikeakos gave us an idea of what existed before the green glass towers. Through a presentation of archival images as well as his own work around False Creek, Dikeakos told us of the area's erased history that is, in his words, "beyond the colonial master narrative". For Dikeakos, there is no comparison between Vancouver and Dubai. Contesting the parallels drawn by Maraya Projects, Dikeakos drew upon the histories of the each city to argue that the link between the two sites is spurious at best. Opening his talk by playing "They Call the Wind Mariah" from the hit 1951 cowboy musical Paint Your Wagon, Dikeakos used this ditty to illustrate that the true origins of Vancouver's development is not master-planned condo culture, but good old fashioned frontierism. An image of a muddy pool at a Vancouver construction site is overlaid with a drawing by August Jack Khatsahlano, showing how the Squamish once fished for sturgeon in this same area. Traditionally inhabited by the Coast Salish, False Creek was once an ecosystem of mudflats and waterways that stretched all the way to what is now Chinatown. With the arrival of settlers, merchants, and Gold Rush prospectors, this area was filled in to build sawmills and shipping ports, the first of many changes to False Creek's environment. Dikeakos depicts not Li Ka-shing, but CPR president William Van Horne as Vancouver's original land developer, razing the forests of Shaughnessy Heights and Mount Pleasant to build the city's first affluent neighbourhoods. Dikeakos himself is an inexhaustible resource on Vancouver's history, cultivating a keen interest in the city at an early age. As a youth, he would take the bus through a downtown full of down-and-outs to sneak into the City Museum. During this time in the 1950's, Dikeakos remembers Vancouver as a mixed middle-class neighbourhood, quite different from what he calls the "gentrified, commodified" Vancouver of today, which favours high-rise buildings over public housing. Though sparkling condominiums now stand at False Creek, Dikeakos recalls that this site was once the "blue collar job market of Vancouver", the place where he worked as an Afro-haired oiler at a sawmill in the 1960s. Through sharing his own history, Dikeakos shows that the history of Vancouver is inextricably tied to the shifting and personal memories of citizens like himself. Much as the photographs of Eugène Atget give us glimpses of an Old Paris that no longer exists, Dikeakos uses the photography of WH Moore and Fred Herzog to show a Vancouver from a "near past that seems so far away now". Two images of the West End by Herzog, taken from the Granville Bridge in 1957 and 2004, dramatically illustrate the great leap from this near past to the present. The direction is, uniformly and consistently, up, way up. The economic forces behind this growth are also recorded through Dikeakos' collected archive of images. Distinctly dated advertisements for False Creek condos from the 1990s push readers to buy, buy, buy with cheesy, yet aggressive taglines. One ad reads If Only I'd Bought!, another From Sawmills to Sophistication. Dikeakos' own practice also functions as a document of the changes Vancouver has undergone. An image from the late 1960s pictures CPR tenement homes set for demolition at what is now McLean Park at Venables St. Another photograph shows old cedar paving blocks dug up around Georgia St. in Chinatown. Dikeakos pictures more recent developments as well: a flooded and decimated expanse of land from the 1985 construction of Expo '86; contaminated dirt piles from the building of Coal Harbour condominiums in 1993; a foreground of massive broken concrete slabs piled up behind a chain link fence, with Olympic Village looming in the distance. Cutting across time, these images leave us with an impression of relentless and continuous change. Nowadays, since just about every swath of land along False Creek has been built upon, the massive transformation of Vancouver's landscape, so much a part of Dikeakos' practice, has almost run its course. In this new world, a poetic memorial to Vancouver's past, made in collaboration with architect Noel Best, stands along the seawall. "Lookout" is a post and lintel structure made of sandblasted one-inch thick steel plates. Carved into its surface are silhouettes of boats and workers, pigs and portly businessmen, native wildlife and aboriginal traders, accompanied by loose, evocative text. Inscribed into the environment, Dikeakos' words, Labour Has Sweated Here and All Built and All Rebuilt, remind Vancouver's inhabitants of the many ghosts that lie just underneath the surface of their city. By Stacey Ho Click here to watch the video recording of the talk.