The Maraya Project Send-Off

The Maraya Project Send-Off
By Naomi Horii

As a closing public program to the recently-past exhibit at Centre A, artists Glen Lowry, M. Simon Levin, and Henry Tsang with many members of the Centre A community gathered before the holidays for an artist talk to reflect in depth the ideas behind the Maraya project. It was a kind of send off to what the artists plan to be the project’s new beginnings. I don’t attempt to cover the evenings’ lively discussions, as there were many points of interest leading you in tangential directions. Just go to the Maraya website, and you will see what I mean. Each of the artists presented a thick and juicy bite of project.

One I want to bring to focus here though is M. Simon Levin’s investigation on the concept of mirroring. Using Caravaggio’s painting of Narcissus and Echo, Levin looks at subjectivity / objectivity with idea of yearning as it relates to the idea of space. Members of the audience had insightful comments and questions to Levin’s Lacanian discussion about ‘city-thinking’ as we imagine what a city ‘should be like’ in the surface-reflection of Dubai-Vancouver developments. One member of the audience asked the artists how they deal with the dangerous echo-and-loop of narcissism in the Maraya Project itself— and how to move beyond the ‘surface sheen’ of the project. Another member commented on the spatial-temporal performances of history in various waterfront locations of the city: Stanley Park versus Maraya’s focus in Yaletown. With this in mind, artists and members of the audience looked at how settler or military versus indigenous history and culture is performed on the two Vancouver waterfront public leisure walkways. Time ran out quickly and after the talks there were still many discussions. Later, I asked Rita Wong, and Ashok Mathur, two of many present at the talk, to respond to the question, “What struck you as an interesting moment or point during the artist talk, or what strikes you in general about the Maraya Project?” or to respond in any way they liked.

Here was Rita’s response:

“I was struck by Simon's retelling of the Narcissus and Echo story as a way of thinking about art, and specifically, the Maraya project. In particular, I return to an ambiguity that arises: does art play the role of Narcissus, reflecting the human ego back to itself, or does it play the role of Echo, a wild nymph trying to connect with a beloved, but unfortunately ignored? I could see, and have seen, both scenarios play out, generally. In terms of the Maraya project, one of the things it reflects is a view from above, a question as to whether this is the joint future of Vancouver and Dubai, designed for those who can afford to live there (to keep seeing a world made in their own image reflected back to them), but inhospitable for those who can't afford it and perhaps for those who previously lived in these spaces.

A much longer part of False Creek's history has been as a home for Coast Salish peoples who lived with and on the salmon, salal, sea asparagus, wild cabbage, oysters and clam beds in or near the waters of Senakw, the village that was here (see Lee Maracle's short story, "Goodbye, Snauq" on this). The Maraya project makes me think as much as about what's missing as well as what's there now. The loud absence of biodiversity reminds me of David Abram's suggestion that "we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human." Perhaps we as a society have a long way to go yet, before we mature into humans who are good neighbours for one another and for other forms of life. A cool eye reflects this back to me and asks how people might respond to reinvigorate such spaces. When the view is framed from above by the privileged, what happens to the diverse forms of life and cultures that remain, often struggling or excluded, on the ground? What processes of collective dialogue, redistribution of wealth, and collaborative action will strengthen social and natural capital? In a time of global warming and ocean rising, meaning and wealth cannot be measured in money only, but need to take into account forms of resilience and community building that actively care for the ecological commons we share.”

I shared Rita’s response to Ashok Mathur, and he responded and wrote a post on the Centre for Innovation in Culture and the Arts in Canada (CiCAC) blog, which I invite you read it in full here in a post called, Contemplating Maraya

I’m thinking about a few things, all fittingly reflective, as I ponder the Maraya project. First, I want to keep front and centre Rita’s reminder to consider the absences all too often made invisible by a material present – when we look at a landscape, urban or architectural, how do we keep in sight what is no longer or differently ‘there’? Second, I want to remain mindful of Glen’s warning about the dangers of simply recirculating images that conform to what he calls a ‘knee-jerk’ criticality that sanctifies the position of the artist-as-social-critic. Both these positions are integral to an understanding of what the Maraya project is, and also to the portals it can open for us. The position of the artist/creator as a social conscience is one that haunts us, even as we recognize the value of a gaze that is (apparently) without economical or political investment. Of course, this is rarely the case, as within any socio-political ideology, we stake claims, stick by them, or move through choppy waters as these positions change (or change us). But the artist-as-voyeur, objective observer, presents a journalistic fallacy, and worse, suggests the possibility of a disinterested notetaker who records and then spells back the simple truths of this act. It seems inescapable that we are, to considerable extent, our own stories, if not the centrepieces then significant waystations along the narrative.

What I am trying to point to here is that Maraya – let’s call it the activity of the project rather than the creative process as the former does not ascribe any intentionality, which is important in this case – can work on multiple levels. Just, as Rita points to, it can record an absence almost palimpsestically by recording the ‘newness’ afforded by a space-once-something-else. In such a case, this activity does not necessarily exceed the documentary, attempting to encapsulate a moment in history through image-making. It is left to the critical viewer to understand – to add to – the project by seeing downward-focussed photographs as a sign of progress, inhabitation, degradation, capitalism gone wild, etcetera. But the relative lack of agency imposed by the documentary style can also do something else – like the journalist who insists on recording the present moment without implicating the journalistic gaze, replete with binary perspectives and value-laden ideologies, the ‘straight up’ photograph can also lend itself to and blend itself into an existing status quo.

In circuitous fashion, this brings us to an old thorn, the notion of the social responsibility of the cultural producer. That is where Maraya becomes so interesting. Does the project present a tableau and gaze upon it with marvel? Clearly not. But nor does it emulate One Ride with Yankee Papa 13, an undeniable surface of inquisition and evident criticality.

Certainly we have shifted from the almost pornographic photojournalist revelation of the Vietnam war to a space and time that is ultimately more complicated, infused with exponentially greater amounts of information, and nuanced by such radically different and competing forces that even trying to understand the idea about a place is a challenging political act. Perhaps there is where we must begin to engage with what Maraya suggests to us. Far from Tolstoy, what we are presented with are the disturbing and yet enticing possibilities that the familial is not easily blocked off into categories of satisfaction and difference, but rather is a stack of undulating options that progress and recede from our line of sight in patterns, insisting that we explore the absences and presences that we already envision, and those we do not yet see.

Thank you to Rita Wong & Ashok Mathur for your thought-provoking responses, and thank you Henry Tsang, Glen Lowry, and M. Simon Levin for facilitating the insightful discussions. It will be interesting to see how “the activity” of the Maraya Project unfolds in the years to come.