Vancouver loses its identity in The Backlot

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      The Backlot
      At the Belkin Satellite until April 1

      I hadn't sat in one of those high folding chairs before, the kind you would see on a film set. Or maybe they're just the kind of chair you'd think you would see on a film set. Still, I climbed onto one of a pair in Jacob Gleeson's mixed-media installation After the Gold Rush. The furniture is set up, along with two small video monitors, inside a tent, and each monitor features long shots of what look like East Side buildings in a state of picturesque decay. Actually, they're false fronts in what was a kind of backlot and film studio, near Victoria Drive and Hastings Street.

      It's all a game of make-believe, Gleeson suggests—fake dereliction near a setting of real poverty, prostitution, and crime. At the same time, his work is a fake bit of movie set in the middle of a city swarming with the real things—the real things being fake things, the innumerable sets employed by the local movie industry, an industry composed almost entirely of foreign productions pretending to take place in any North American city other than Vancouver.

      Gleeson's installation is part of The Backlot, a smart and lively take on the effects of the foreign film industry on our civic self-image, as interpreted by an array of emerging and established artists. The show is curated by Sophie Brodovitch, a master's candidate in UBC's critical and curatorial studies program. It includes a movie-prop newspaper box (with papers) by Geoffrey Farmer, architectural models by Angus Ferguson, photographs by Roy Arden and Matthew Robertson, films by Mark Lewis and Corey Adams, and a video and text work by Anne Ramsden.

      Brodovitch's contention (and she should know, having spent five years working in the film industry before returning to academe) is that Vancouver has “masqueraded” for so long as some other place that it no longer knows itself. What most movies shot in this city take advantage of, she said in a recent interview with the Straight, are the immense stretches of blandness and banality that could be anywhere else. At the same time that the local tourism office attempts to market what is most distinctive here—the natural setting of mountains, oceans, and forest—the local film office promotes what is most anonymous. What's really for sale to Hollywood, The Backlot shows us, is not so much our topographic diversity as our generic sameness. This place has become Everyplace and therefore no place at all.

      Brodovitch has anchored her thesis in a little local art history, specifically in an aspect of the work of Vancouver's internationally renowned photo-based and media artists. Although prompted by quite different motives, Jeff Wall and company anticipated the current film situation by resisting the grand touristic vision of Vancouver. (For more on Wall's transplanting of Vancouver to America, see below.) Instead, they have shot their unsettling narratives in what fellow Vancouver artist Ian Wallace (quoted by Brodovitch in her curatorial essay) characterized as the “defeatured landscape”.

      The example included in the show is Arden's Landfill, Richmond B.C., a large-format chromogenic print of piles of dirt in a nearly lifeless setting. A few spindly, leafless trees in the foreground and some greenery on the dispirited horizon tell us little about the subject's natural setting. Arden's image includes a couple of chewed-up kitchen chairs, some heavy machinery, and a former tree, severed of its limbs, serving as an improvised power pole. There's something gruesome about that maimed and dismembered tree, stranded in nowhereness like a mutilated corpse, a symbol of our war against nature. Landfill gives us a defeatured landscape if ever there was one.

      A different approach to place and production appears in Ramsden's 1990 Urban Geography. Originally created as a seven-monitor video installation, it is incarnated here as a single monitor and six framed prints of image and text. The video follows a fictional filmmaker and her driver as she scouts locations around Vancouver, some of them distinctive (Stanley Park, the North Shore sulphur piles, the grounds of the Museum of Anthropology) and some of them generic (a long street of faceless shops, fast-food outlets, and strip malls; a salvage yard filled with old sinks and bathtubs). What the work brings home to us, through a strategy of fragmentation and failed communication, is a condition of alienation. The filmmaker finds herself estranged from what should be a familiar place and, consequently, from her story and her coworker.

      The weird thing is that when I was sitting high up in the director's chair in Gleeson's installation, I felt unaccountably powerful. Some virus of lordliness infected me and contaminated the place, transforming us into something and somewhere else entirely.