Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 restages conflict that shaped our city


Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971
By Alexander Alberro et al. Arsenal Pulp Press, 224 pp, hardcover

This slender but amply illustrated book addresses a monumental photomural, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, located in the atrium of the recent Woodward’s development in our city’s Downtown Eastside. Created by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, who is internationally renowned for his complex and challenging film and video installations and still photographs, the work appears to draw its subject from the Gastown Riot, at which police violently broke up a peaceful countercultural demonstration.

Cinematic in its scale and production, the photomural depicts riot police, mounted police, and undercover cops clashing with hippies, while area residents and visitors look on. Douglas frequently uses his art to reimagine pivotal but often misread or obscured moments in history. The Gastown Riot, he argues, “changed the character of the Downtown Eastside for decades”.

A scholarly but mostly accessible publication by an international flock of academics, this book addresses not only the elaborate creation and multiple meanings of the mural but also what the publisher calls “the politics of urban conflict” embedded within it. Included is an interview with Douglas by art historian Alexander Alberro, along with essays by Nora M. Alter, Serge Guilbaut, Sven Lütticken, and Jesse Proudfoot. Their subjects range from the impact of digital compositing technology on the ways we conceive photography and film in general and Douglas’s work in particular, to the idea that viewers of the mural are also performers who “participate in its collective staging”.

In his fascinating and provocative essay, urban geographer Proudfoot provides a social history of the DTES and addresses issues of “class, class struggle and the politics of representation”, while lodging the book’s most pointed political criticisms. He is the only writer here who challenges the gentrification that the Woodward’s development represents. He also argues that, in mainstream attitudes toward the DTES, a distinction is made between “the deserving and undeserving poor”. It’s a distinction that has had a significant impact on “the political discourse of the Downtown Eastside”—a discourse that includes Douglas’s extraordinary photomural.

(A footnote to a footnote: essayist Serge Guilbaut cites a feature article I wrote about Douglas’s work, which appeared in the Straight on December 30, 2009. One of the quotes Guilbaut attributes to me, however, is a later, online comment, posted by a reader.)

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