What Paths Are We On

What Paths Are We On
Reflections on the interactive Maraya website
By Jessa Alston-O’Connor

At the opening reception for the Maraya exhibition at Centre A, artist M Simon Levin explained to the audience how the Maraya project asks the question "What kind of cities do we want to live in?" Glen Lowry, another member of the artist trio along with Henry Tsang likened the similarities between Vancouver and Dubai to a kind of “bleeding of one city into the other”. As a user of the Maraya website, these questions inspired me to consider just how do the thousands of Maraya images at our fingertips invite us to complicate these questions of cities and the bleeding and blending of Vancouver and Dubai?
As users we are invited to play and engage with thousands of images on the Maraya website, images taken of Vancouver and Dubai over several years from a seemingly infinite number of vantage points. In playing with the images on Maraya it is as though the photos have been scatters across the floor for us, ready to be cropped, blended and rearranged in any and every way. Keeping in mind the ideas brought up by Levin and Lowry, what kind of city do these images reflect? What meaning can be made from bleeding two distinctly different cities together?
What struck me immediately as I selected, manipulated and blended the photos on my paths were how few people were captured in these photographs. Certainly there are a number of photographs of pedestrians on the sea wall or sidewalks, but the vast majority of the photos that have come through the photo stream for my paths have been devoid of people. Among the silent glass towers, most of the people that do appear seem insignificant and miniscule. The majority of images I have seen focus on the architecture, the industrial construction equipment building the next tower, empty terrace tables and the brilliant teal blue of the waters.
If this sampling of images from these cities were to offer possible answers the question 'what kind of city do we want', then Vancouver and Dubai seem like places where achievement in architecture, urban planning and infrastructure are central. People as individuals are not the focus and the experience of these city designs on an intimate, human scale are peripheral to the shimmering urban vistas. These photographs do not reveal who lives here, or who has been exclude–it is left up to the viewer to fill in these gaps. This leads me to wonder how the tiny people scattered through a few of these images navigate such spaces as individuals, spaces that were created for thousands to live the dream for a luxurious life of urban excitement and relaxation? What is the impact on community when its citizens are anonymous and invisible? How does community form among the thousands living hidden inside identical glass towers and the public space offered is controlled, manicured, and landscaped leisure space created for the residents, instead of by them. When it came to photographing people living and moving through the spaces in these photographs, in many ways the photographs in Maraya project bring our attention to this anonymity among neighbours. These photos demonstrate how a cityscape tells the stories of the buildings, fences, cityscapes and the seaside walkways, but not of the people who live here.
In blending and overlaying image after image in my paths, I noticed how quickly my eyes stopped seeing Dubai and Vancouver as separate; what mattered more was complimentary shapes and lines to being brought together, or my use of color to form relationships between photographs. The cities very literally bled into on another in the paths I created, becoming almost indistinguishable from one another. The similarities between so many of the photos has brought markers of place into sharper focus– 2010 Olympic signage, signs in Arabic, palm trees and mountain views visually jump out from the paths among a sea photos of identical buildings.
What makes each city unique, if on the surface it looks so similar? The interchangeable nature of some of the photos also raised questions for me about place–where is here, when here is so similar to there? What is it about these cities that make them unique, or is uniqueness not as important in these newer models of 21st century urban living? Is this the city we want, or whose idea of an ideal city is this? How is community created in these urban environments, or has the definition of community changed over the past few years along with the changed city sky lines of both Vancouver and Dubai?
As we play with the images on the Maraya Project website, we do much more than simply select and manipulate photos of water and glass–we create visual, metaphorical photo montages that complicate these questions of urban living, community, and globalization. Through the website we pose more questions than we can answer alone and so it is through our image montages, discussions and input from each other as we move along these paths that we can explore these two cities as a way to better understand the places we live in.