Three Reflections of Maraya: Artist Talk with M. Simon Levin, Glen Lowry, and Henry Tsang

Closing a month-long series of public programming, artists M. Simon Levin, Glen Lowry, and Henry Tsang came together this past Saturday to discuss their ongoing artistic venture, Maraya Projects. Inspired by how the development model of Vancouver's Concord Pacific Place was exported to Dubai, each artist gave a different take on the project, approaching Maraya through the fields of urban and political studies, psychoanalysis, and sociology. The product of five years of collaboration and seven research trips to Dubai, the talk laid out the scope of the project, underlining its many entry points through photography, video, social media, an online platform, public programming, and a billboard/bus shelter campaign. The talk also revealed that a novel sculptural intervention - a video portal secured in an aluminum Zero Haliburton carrying-case - is also in the works. Acting as a link between Vancouver and Dubai, the carrying-case portals will be left along the seawall at Concord Pacific Place for pedestrians to discover. Using classic texts by Michel de Certeau and Jane Jacobs as a starting point, Glen Lowry spoke on how the urban experience has now expanded beyond these authors' conception of cities. De Certeau's "Walking in the City" compared the unified view seen from the height of a towering skyscraper to the experience of street life at ground level. De Certeau described the voluptuous, God-like pleasure of viewing the city-from-above, the city itself as a text that eluded legibility or authorship or spectator. However, while de Certeau's vision of opulence and excess stems from standing on the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre, Lowry points out that the view that de Certeau writes from no longer exists. American extravagance and pre-eminence on the world stage has now been eclipsed. Today, Dubai's 160-storey Burj Khalifa is nearly double the height of the WTC. Jane Jacob's Death and Life of Great American Cities also hearkens back to a bygone era. At the time of its writing, cities were seen as full of dangers and degenerates, as sites of racial tension and anxiety. Jacobs saw sidewalks as crucial to the regulation of behavior in the city, creating public spaces where strangers could interface. Neighbourhoods were fostered by sidewalks, bringing people out into the community and keeping eyes on the street. They became integral to a living, dynamic civil society. However, in the condominium developments examined by Maraya, city sidewalks are replaced by 'seawalls' and 'marina walks' which, though meant for leisure and filled with attractions, are often underused and empty. By presenting Maraya across various platforms and allowing space within the project for the insights of others, Lowry sees Maraya as reviving Jacob's conception of the sidewalk as a meeting place, public space, and community network in a present where space is increasingly privatized. Coming from another perspective, M. Simon Levin used an image of Caravaggio's Narcissus to illustrate his thoughts on conscious and unconscious ways of looking. In this classical myth, the goddess Nemesis punishes Narcissus for disdaining the love of others, causing him to fall in love with his own image. Unable to part with his reflection, Narcissus dies. Levin describes this myth as a warning against being unaware and lacking self-knowledge. Much as the object of Narcissus' love was at once himself and an illusion, Levin sees Concord Pacific Place and the Dubai Marina as a reflections of our most selfish desires, projected onto the environment. However, do these cultivated and costly landscapes represent an ideal that is sustainable or an illusion? Unlike Narcissus, Levin asks us to approach this question with some degree of self-awareness. To invoke this self-awareness in viewers, Maraya employed strategies of 'embodied looking' for their exhibition. Levin explained how the artists chose to destabilize the comfort of the typical gallery experience by projecting most of their video on the floor, or displaying video in ground-level Zero Haliburton cases. Gallery visitors, forced through looking down to bow their heads and strain their necks, become conscious of their own body and gaze. They are required to share the same vertiginous top-down view as not only de Certeau, but Rodchenko, a penthouse owner, a high-rise construction or domestic worker, Nadar, a master planner, or perhaps even God Herself. Levin asserts that this disorientation of view and of body pushes us to question the dream worlds presented in Maraya. Henry Tsang closed the talk on Maraya with some thoughts on marinas, seawalls, and shopping malls, spaces that - though used by the public - are really privately owned. Pointing out that the public does not have any right to these areas, Tsang questioned who is endowed with the privilege of being in such spaces, and which nasty, tent-pitching, economically-disadvantaged types have outstayed their welcome. The trend of master-planned developments, he argued, does not benefit the inhabitants of a city. Really, they are the ones who are left behind as city builders compete to capitalize on new and exclusive complexes. As city land is increasingly privatized, so-called public space is neutralized, becoming a site of leisure, recreation, or - as Tsang phrased it - the domain of small dogs. Referring to a recent PR stunt at Concord Pacific Place, Tsang commented on how amenities are now set by contests instead of by policy, promoting a passive, watered-out form of social engagement. Looking to David Harvey and Jürgen Habermas, Tsang asked us to consider how the rise of neo-liberalism has affected our ability to act in places we live in, arguing that the public sphere is not just for small dogs. Rather, public space should foster cultural production, work, engagement, and social change. As these spaces slowly disappear from our cultural landscape, Tsang calls on us to understand the cost of this loss to our autonomy, to realize that something crucial is at stake. - Stacey Ho (


(1) Comments


Sun, 2011-12-04 22:53

was great to see hear about the inspiration for this show