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Two Talks

Two talks: Eugene McCann's Mirrors Models and Movements; Am Johal's Civil Unrest and the City: Spectacle and Social Justice. Last Thursday, Centre A hosted two presentations by Am Johal and Eugene McCann, part of Maraya Projects, an exhibition, website, and series of events by artists M. Simon Levin, Glen Lowry, and Henry Tsang. Taking a cue from a diverse range of movements, projects, and organizations such as the Depression-era On to Ottawa trek, Vancouver's Insite program, and even Maraya Projects itself, the speakers examined the fluidity of history and ideas as forces of social change. Juxtaposing video, oral narrative, and archival photographs, Am Johal's talk on civil unrest and society building constructed a history of popular public demonstrations within Vancouver that stretched from the early 20th century to the present. Eugene McCann used Maraya's critique of master-planned urban development models as a starting point to talk about models, both positive and negative, and how they shape geography and shift according to contexts. In an effort to actively distort history, Johal's talk linked together a stream of images from a disparate selection of recent and historical Vancouver demonstrations. He put forward that within the context of this city, with its lack of institutionalized legislation and infrastructure compared to municipalities such as Toronto, there is a greater possibility for dramatic social change. By agitating in the public sphere, demonstrations, which he framed as PR tactics, shift the balance of power and alter the course of history. Though these political actions often exist outside of state sanction, if sustained they eventually coalesce into institutionalized organizations, such as NGOs, that take root in civil society. And civil society itself, Johal argued, is the driving force behind history. Clearly inspired by the city's unique relationship with industrial unionism, Johal revisited many early struggles in Vancouver. Images of post office sit-ins, sandwich board advertisements for public meetings on Hastings St., demonstrations against Asian-discrimination, and rallies on the old Cambie Street Grounds evoked a deep-rooted struggle for equality and worker's rights in Vancouver. Especially moving was a dramatic recollection of starvation and police brutality by Al Dugas, who as a seventeen-year old relief camp worker participated in the 1935 On to Ottawa trek. Johal linked this history to a longer tradition of protest in Vancouver that addresses not only labour, but ecology, land development, poverty, and First Nations rights through organizations and movements such as Greenpeace, Operation Solidarity, activism against Expo '86, and the Clayoquot Sound logging protests. Recent images from the Insite court hearings, Olympics protests, and Occupy movement were also included in Johal's radical lineage. Analogous with this turbulent timeline, Eugene McCann depicted Maraya as yet another form of political provocation, arguing that the project simultaneously points at and critiques master-planned models of urban development. He expanded on Maraya's ideas in a talk presented under the themes mirrors, models, and movements. Playing off the word m'raya, Arabic for mirror, McCann explored how mirroring functions as an illusory device, flipping reality backwards so that one's flaws are glaringly visible. The effects of the mirror were described as alienating, exclusionary, narcissistic, and cruel. He argued that a disruption is implied in Maraya's reflection, one which disturbs our readings of the polished images of Concord Pacific and Dubai Marina. Drawing together ideas around models and movements, McCann outlined how urban models are transported and translated from city to city. He described these models as trends in urban development that promise economic success and an enhanced quality of life to a city and its citizens. Municipal leaders, designers, developmental planners, and activists all look to models across locations to shape and envision their cities. Maraya itself is a depiction of one such model, the slow-released master-planned condominium complex, inspired by Hong Kong, and transported from Vancouver to Dubai. Other trendy models such as 'the Barcelona model' or Charles Landry and Richard Florida's 'creative city' propose that the secret to building a successful city involves bringing together the right elements, a premise that negates the fact that cities are built by and made for people. Congruent to this alienating approach to city planning, the photos exhibited for Maraya Projects depict the human figure as a tiny negligible creature seen from a distant top-down perspective. However, McCann pointed out that models need not only measure success by competitive achievement on the global market. He cited Vancouver's Insite safe injection facility as a positive urban model. Based not on capital but saved lives, Insite is also a moving and mutating model, one borrowed from drug programs in Frankfurt and Sydney. With a precedent set by the new Supreme Court ruling, this model can now be translated to other Canadian cities. Models, then, imply that there is more than one path to take, and more than one place to learn from. However, when asked which model Vancouver should base itself upon, both Johal and McCann agreed that a single model could not address all the problems and complexities of an urban metropolis. Rather than seeking a comprehensive solution in urban development, a more productive and realistic tactic is to address the local: examine the problems specific to individual cities, and address issues within the context of their own history, politics, and environment. - Stacey Ho (http://staceyho.com)