Protest and Mirrors: Responses to Maraya by Am Johal and Eugene McCann

By Jessa Alston-O’Connor

Taking in the Maraya project in the gallery space or on the website, a vast number of critical discussions come to mind surrounding any one of these photos and clips. In their talks at Centre A on November 24,2011, Am Johal and Eugene McCann presented on some of the lines of questioning that Maraya had inspired for them. Am Johal is a Vancouver-based writer and community social activist. Eugene McCann is professor in the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University, focusing his research on urban politics and urban development. For both speakers, the Maraya project has inspired different but overlapping avenues of questioning and exploration.

Johal’s talk focused on his background and interests in civil society, and how the Maray project made him wonder about the role–or space for–civil society, public gathering and demonstrations in Dubai. Instead of trying to speculate or speak for Dubai, he instead reflected on key periods of civil unrest that have been a thread throughout much of Vancouver’s history, and the role it continues to play.

Moving to Vancouver, this history of political activism was a strong history I already associated with what I knew of this city, bringing to mind the political activism of the ‘yippies’ in the late 1960s for instance, rallies in support of InSite, or demonstrations against the 2010 Olympics. This social history is not part of the Concord Pacific model of city building, therefore I find unpacking what we don’t see reflected there becomes even more pertinent.

Johal’s story of Vancouver began in 1922 when UBC was part of McGill University and classes and resources were stretched to the limits, he showed archival photographs of angry students demonstrating on foot and in trucks clag in signage. Numerous protests were held against the conditions and loss of civil rights in relief camps during the 1930s, the On to Ottawa movement of 1935, and the many pro-communist rallies. Johal compared how public squares in Vancouver were used for official ceremonies, parades, and municipal or national events that are intended for “societal cohesiveness”, and how these same squares and public spaces take on completely different meaning when they become sites for civil unrest.

In more recent memory, Johal highlighted the Operation Solidarity strikes of the early 1980s, when the province was on the brink of a general strike and upwards of 60,000 gathered in solidarity, from teachers and government employees to firefighters, banding together against controversial provincial labour legislation. Environmental movements like Green Peace are rooted in Vancouver and are noteworthy, as are movements for low income citizens of the city and the homeless not only with the Olympics in 2010, but also during the lead up to Expo 1986, First Nations land claim disputes and the support for projects like InSite. In reflecting on civil society and unrest here, and their messages, he left open the question “who is the civil society in Dubai?”

During the Q and A, Glen Lowry offered to partially answer that question, explaining that there had been workers organizing years back, before citizenship and immigration policies were finalized but that its illegal now. It is also illegal for non citizens to work in NGOs, which further limits the impact of that sector on society. A former employee of Concord Pacific who was send to live in Dubai was also in the audience, and he offered his insight into the view from Dubai. He pointed out that 92% of the city’s residents are foreigner, and that 1/3 of the world’s population lives within a 6 hour flight from Dubai–it is a major international hub for business, oil, and travel, and for literally a “window to the world”. Dubai wanted to change their state and liked the Vancouver model, and the project to build Dubai worked, because despite a recession, they managed to build a city in 10 yrs.

McMann’s reflective talk on mirrors, models, and Maraya offered more questions about sameness and difference for the group to consider than it did answers. He saw Maraya as a provocation to probe these questions and more. McCann musings on the concept of mirrors made me wonder about these cities of glass as mirrors fueling narcissism and paranoia, reflecting ourselves back to us: Their glass can entice like a mirage, but also exclusion and alienation: “am I being watched?” They can be cruel–“is this how others see me?”

Later, during the Q and A Johal added further to this idea of narcissism, musing that people who lived along the Seawall wanted to perform their residency by walking outside in their slippers, and that people walking by might in fact enjoy getting a peak at those who live here in this pristine urban setting.

Unpacking the idea of model cities and model designs he complicated the trend to seek out global models to manage local conditions. I appreciated this emphasis on looking at the local, what is happening here, and questioning just how well foreign models really work, or if they don’t? Why do we think a global design would fit or fix our local issues and conditions? Who do they benefit or hurt?

Is it a form of blindness, this seduction of clean lines, and less mess of people and social ills within the pristine place? McCann made it clear that thinks the Maraya project is smarter than that, but I couldn’t help but feel that the seduction for the pristine and luxurious urban living with the difficult social realities edited out is nevertheless a part of the appeal of this design for many people, not only in Vancouver but in these kinds of designs around the world.

As Johal touched on Insite, McCann also brought it in as an example of human approaches to drug issues, of the coalitions and alliances surrounding these and other social issues that disrupt the pristine city that the Maraya photographs shows. He proposed that Maraya allows us to think through which model we want to be associated with, learn from, and that learning from these decisions comes through discussion, not isolation. Together Johal and McCann created a thought provoking presentation of the social experiences and histories that are not reflected in the photographs of Maraya, and prompted the audience to reflect provocative questions about these urban models and the many facetted implications of these global designs on the local social fabric in Vancouver, and also Dubai.