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Through the Looking Glass: Artist Walk in False Creek with M. Simon Levin

This past Saturday, I had the chance to take an artist-led walk through the area around False Creek. My guide: M. Simon Levin, an artist and educator whose practice is very much embedded in this placid and highly constructed environment. As a part of the Artists Walking Home public art program, Levin led a small group of us on a stroll along the False Creek waterfront, engaging participants with this site using a slew of inventive tactics. Levin's current project, a collaboration with artists Glen Lowry and Henry Tsang, is a critique of such master-planned condominium developments. Taking its name from the Arabic word for mirror, Maraya interrogates the parallel development of the Dubai Marina and its progenitor, Vancouver's Concord Pacific Place. Our first task upon meeting is to face the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre. Inside is a big black steam engine with CPR 374 emblazoned on its side. Above this relic of Vancouver's past, we see a reflection of the city's very recent present - a towering high-rise condominium. Levin asks us to look at our reflections as we peer through the windows. Passing around an image of Caravaggio's Narcissus, he reminds us of this classical tale where Narcissus is made to fall in love with his own reflection. Though in Caravaggio's composition, Narcissus is forever locked within his own gaze, Levin warns us to approach our own reflections with a degree of self-awareness. Speaking of reflections. Periodically throughout our walk, Levin brings out a hard-shell aluminum case, a tool for altering our surroundings. Inside, it is flat, with mirrors neatly inlaid into the top and bottom of the case. Peering into this gleaming portal, we see ourselves, the condominiums around us, the seawall, the underbelly of the Cambie Bridge. These familiar and everyday settings are oddly warped by the surface of the mirror; perspectives twist and tilt with the mirror's jarring angles. This portable gateway transforms the present reality of our False Creek environment into an illusory space, a mirage. Our group discusses the Roundhouse. This building, once the very end of the line for the railway, was converted into its present state by an ongoing relationship of conflict and complicity between developers and the city. This community centre was promised as an amenity by Concord Pacific, who cleaned up the site. However, the Roundhouse was ultimately completed by taxpayer dollars and the city. At the nearby Elsie Roy Elementary School, the lack of available amenities again comes up as we discuss programs for youth in the neighbourhood. It is apparent that youth were not adequately considered in the planning of this community. With a playground that was until very recently under construction and no spaces for youth made available in the neighbourhood, kids have taken over other playgrounds and parking lots in the area. Seen as a nuisance and disruption along the seawall, they are discouraged from using this supposedly public space by police. As we travel through a typical residential street in the area, Levin asks us, "Does it feel like home?" Walking along this tidy, empty avenue, I peek into a fitness centre, a compact front yard, an apartment lobby adorned with a Christmas tree, all eerily deserted. We pause in a circular courtyard with no benches or other invitations to use, entering another circle ringed by skateboard deterrents. The buildings around us with their glass exteriors lend an aesthetic to the neighbourhood that is clean and uniform. I learn from walk participants that this shiny patina is due to glass being a cheap building material. Though suitable to Vancouver's moderate climate, in Toronto, temperature fluctuations along the Lakeshore caused the exterior of another Concord Pacific building to shatter. Levin also mentions speculation that if power for air conditioning was cut in Dubai, the silicon gluing windowpanes to buildings would melt in the forty degree heat. Glass would rain upon the city. Like all new high-end urban developments, the seawall is scattered with a requisite number of public art works. Maraya artist Henry Tsang's "Welcome to the Land of Light" lines the railings of the seawall. Written in English and Chinook Jargon, a pidgin language of English, French, and Nootkan that hearkens back to Vancouver's frontier days, the piece welcomes the communities of the future with a language of the past. Nearby, Noel Best and Christos Dikeakos' "Lookout" reminds those of us in the present of what once was at this site. The artists designed two steel post-and-lintel structures adorned with silhouettes and poetic text, a memorial to False Creek's industrial and First Nations history. Bernie Miller and Alan Tregebov's "Streetlight" also touches on local history. Metal plates mounted on I-beams are precisely angled to cast an image-shadow on historic dates, like the building of the Burrard and Granville bridges. Finally, soaked for two years in an electric sea bath off the coast of Gibsons BC, Jerry Pethick's "Time Top" is inspired by traveling through time. These artworks, immersed in the totalizing amnesia of this master-planned setting, silently recall times and realities very different and very near to the present of Concord Pacific Place. Speaking of realities, another reality can be seen just across the water. On the opposite shore is South False Creek, a mixed-use community built with the debate and participation of the public. Developed at the same time as Granville Island, the South False Creek waterfront includes low and mid-rise buildings, co-ops, low-income housing, schools, park space, and a live-aboard marina. Our group takes a passenger ferry to this other shore. The waters of False Creek seem to bend out of shape through the ferry's warped windows. The glittering high-rises of North False Creek appear equally surreal as we emerge onto land, gazing across the water at this emerald city. Handing us a set of earplugs and a small mirror, Levin leads us up a tall spiral staircase and back over the water via the Cambie Bridge. As we amble across the bridge, we are to take photos of the real and the imaginary scenes around us. The mirrors are to be used in our photographs as tools of distortion and reflection. The earplugs dampen environmental noise, tuning us into the sounds of our bodies: heartbeats, footsteps, and breath. Strolling across, I take in all the activity around us, cars whizzing past, construction, and high-rises. I peer into condos and down at the seawall, surveying the waterfront with the same dizzying view-from-above utilized in the Maraya exhibition. We descend another set of stairs. Taking out our earplugs, it is suddenly very loud. Cars rush above us as we survey the rather gloomy underbelly of the Cambie Bridge. Stuck next to this ugly space is a subsidized building for at-risk women and children, included in this neighbourhood as part of Concord Pacific's development agreement with the city. As we make our way back to the Roundhouse, Levin imagines what land developers from Dubai saw in this space when they visited Vancouver, seeking a model for their own city. He pictures Mohammed bin Ali Al Abbar, chairman of Emaar, the company responsible for Dubai Marina, walking along the seawall, perhaps taking a yacht ride with Concord CEO Terry Hui. Levin envisions Stanley Kwok, developer of Concord Pacific Place, traveling to the emirate to recreate this seaside waterfront in the middle of the desert. Thinking of this impossibility, I am left feeling that this vision of the desert and my very surroundings are part of the same strange dream. - Stacey Ho

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