Metaphors afloat aboard False Creek's Deadhead

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Art begets art, or at least that’s the case with Deadhead, the floating sculptural installation currently moored at the mouth of False Creek, just off the Vancouver Maritime Museum docks.

Cedric Bomford, the chief thinker behind the project—which he built with his artist brother Nathan and engineer father, Jim—was crossing Burrard Inlet via the Lions Gate Bridge on his way to North Vancouver’s Presentation House Gallery when he gazed down and a raft of images floated up into his mind.

“I was just looking out the window and thinking, ‘There has to be a way to get onto the water down there,’ ” he remembers, reached by phone at his father’s place on Shawnigan Lake. “You can’t get to the waterfront. There’s a little, tiny path on the North Shore, but basically, it’s all controlled by giant multinational companies, private marinas, and First Nations reservations.”

The germ of Deadhead, then, was to create art that would lure people to the shore, then get them thinking about the uses of the littoral zone. Four years later, the project is that, and much more. As soon as the Bomfords set to work, they realized that it contained a lot of possibilities—and now that it’s done, still more are opening up.

The first step, though, was leisurely: a slow journey up the east coast of Vancouver Island, with stops to examine the vernacular architecture of Hornby Island, Alert Bay, and Sointula.

“We were drifting, in a way, and that was what suggested the name Deadhead: this drift of a once-used industrial artifact, like a log,” Bomford explains. “Something that was formed to be used in the industrial economy of the coast, and then was cut loose and is slowly sinking, drifting around the waterways with the potential to put a hole in something when you least expect it.”

Along the way, the Bomfords encountered whole communities, undone by a collapsing resource-based economy, that were slowly sinking back into the rainforest. “It’s a constant battle against entropy; everything is rotting all the time,” he says. Other metaphors emerged from the intertidal zone: both drifting and building, for instance, are part of the life cycle of the barnacle, whose larvae float in the current until, by chance, they find a hospitable zone and begin to construct their fortified shells.

For the Bomfords, that place was a rented barge measuring 29 by 100 feet—approximately the same size, Bomford notes, as the average East Van lot. What they created on that barge—an oddly militaristic-looking assemblage of shanties and watchtowers made out of recycled materials—would never pass code, however.

“A significant part of what we do is something that we call ‘thinking through building’, which is provisional building,” he says. “The piece that you see is literally a piece embodying thinking as a form of art, and a form of construction. So it’s more of a sketch than it is a building.”

The sketch has been controversial. “We’ve even had people swim out to it to tell us that it’s a horrible eyesore,” Bomford says, claiming that he’s not bothered by this. “I don’t mind if people don’t like the thing. If it arouses some kind of interest in the city or the place they find themselves in, then that’s great.”

More fascinating, he adds, is that Deadhead continues to provoke thought.

“We didn’t go into it with the idea that it would be something that would be finished according to a plan,” he says. “It was to be something that was in some way responsive to different circumstances, to different circumstances or conditions or whatever, and you see the potential that it could just continue to evolve forever—as long as that barge can float.”

Deadhead can be viewed through September 3, from the shore or via False Creek Ferry. Cedric, Nathan, and Jim Bomford will give a talk at the Vancouver Maritime Museum next Thursday (August 7), with an open house aboard Deadhead on August 24. For more information, visit the Deadhead website.

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