To be a Vancouverite in 2018 means living in a state of constant concern for one’s future. While the city continues to top livability and quality-of-life indexes, it’s becoming harder to feel at home in a place where housing prices have grown exorbitantly out of reach; sites of heritage, culture, and small business are being bulldozed for shiny new developments; and long-time residents are being pushed out—to neighbouring municipalities, provinces, and elsewhere—by general unaffordability and a lack of space.
It’s a grim and thorny topic that dominates news headlines, politics, and day-to-day talk, and it certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by the region’s creative set—particularly, a number of participants in this year’s Capture Photography Festival. “I think we live in a very special part of the world and many people want to come here, and there’s a struggle in what we can do,” local photographer Carolina de la Cajiga tells the Straight by phone. “We are bound by water and mountains; there’s not much land available in Metro Vancouver. And yet, many people are wanting to come.”
A Mexican-born artist who has called Vancouver home for more than 30 years, de la Cajiga is one of a handful of curators and photographers who are tackling issues of gentrification—both explicitly and inadvertently—in Capture’s 2018 iteration, which celebrates lens-based art through 90-plus exhibitions and public-art installations taking place around Metro Vancouver until April 30. (Some pieces are on view until as late as September.) Fancying herself an “illusionist” or “reinterpreter” rather than a traditional photographer, de la Cajiga will present a series of conceptual digital prints that warp and play with the region’s landscapes and structures to provoke conversation and suggest ways in which we can create more livable space for Vancouverites.
Each consisting of up to 80 images that have been manipulated, layered, or stitched together, the scenes portrayed in de la Cajiga’s work aren’t always practical. Displayed as part of an exhibition titled City in Flux: Work in Progress, Lions Gate Bridge Development: Future? shows a panoramic shot of the Lions Gate Bridge from Ambleside Beach, a row of futuristic buildings lining both sides of the water so that they obstruct views of Stanley Park and downtown Vancouver. The properties depicted here are not real, but rather have been dreamed up by de la Cajiga, who combines photographs of a development in Vancouver’s Oakridge area and of the dramatic glass-bottom pool found at a condominium complex nearing completion in Yaletown.
Aesthetically, the resulting edifices fit right in with the slew of luxury sites that have sprung up around Vancouver in recent years, but their placement so close to Burrard Inlet betrays the picture’s otherwise convincing nature. “In a whimsical way, I try to do something to call attention to the fact that all of this is happening,” explains de la Cajiga. “So I build impossible buildings in the hope that people will pay attention to the issue.”
In Cypress Bowl Development 2017, the artist employs similar tactics, photographing and editing partially completed homes on West 4th Avenue, and then presenting them atop snow-dusted trees against a modified backdrop of Cypress Mountain. Other images in City in Flux show construction workers and flaggers toiling away in their hardhats and neon vests—the prints often replicated so that they form striking five-by-five grids—to underline the role these individuals play in Vancouver’s shifting cityscape.
“They’re people that we totally ignore in general,” de la Cajiga says of the labourers. “So it’s about bringing this emphasis of ‘We don’t see them, but they’re there,’ and communicating that through repetition, repetition. You go past [a construction site] a few months later, and suddenly everything has changed.”
Since 2013, Vancouver-based photographer Larry Wolfson has had a front-row seat for such urban transformations. Preferring to highlight empty, desolate spaces in his work, the Winnipeg native began snapping sold, vacated, and soon-to-be-demolished homes when he noticed that many of the abodes in his Point Grey ’hood were meeting this fate. Wolfson estimates that, in five years, at least five detached single-family houses have been torn down to make room for new residences or developments within a two-block radius of his own dwelling at West Broadway and Alma Street. “It was a short distance from my front door to a number of them,” he says by phone. “So I thought, ‘This is a good opportunity [to photograph them]; I don’t have to go very far.’ ”
At times, getting the perfect shot—whether the subject was a deserted living space, stripped save for a 1930s black-tiled fireplace, or a yard strewn with trash-filled bags, abandoned mattresses, and piles of wood and drywall—meant trespassing onto sites or strategically scheduling shoot times to avoid being spotted by construction personnel. Even when he expanded the scope of his project to include empty homes that had sold as part of land assemblies on Vancouver’s East Side, Wolfson remained unscathed and largely undetected, aside from a few close calls involving a chainlink fence and, on another occasion, deteriorated floorboards that almost sent the photographer tumbling into the basement of a house.
“I generally would go out when the sun was out at an angle, so there would be light coming through some of the windows,” Wolfson explains. “Around my neighbourhood, I would go out at the best times because I just had to walk up the block.”
An artist whose work leans toward the still and stoic, Wolfson enjoys the nostalgia that comes from seeing a hollow, once-occupied space. Showcased in a digital exhibition dubbed Slated for Demolition—Vancouver Teardown, the pieces evoke a “melancholy of transition”, he says, a period of perturbing calmness before the excavator arrives to usher a ghost-town site into its next life. Although Wolfson now realizes that these photographs help to fuel a larger conversation surrounding Vancouver’s housing crisis, he asserts that this is not the aim of the series. “There was no political intent on my part, though I was certainly aware of it when I was taking them toward the end,” he says, “and it was something that was appearing in the news a lot.”
By contrast, curator Krystal Paraboo couldn’t have had a clearer objective when putting together The Great Big Vancouver Paradox, an exhibition at nonprofit coworking space HiVE Vancouver Society that will juxtapose the city’s green and grittier dimensions. “Vancouverites very much get behind creating the best, sustainable city,” Paraboo, who also serves as HiVE’s director of community and culture, explains in a phone interview. “But every day, when I come to work, or when I talk to people who are working with drug users in the Downtown Eastside, or when I talk to people in the First Nations community, you see firsthand that those people are struggling. And their presence essentially becomes normalized.
“So my idea was to kind of bring this under one roof, in one exhibition,” she continues. “To show that, simultaneously, not only are we really rallying in numbers to create a very progressive, sustainable culture, but…we’re also ignoring the people in these impoverished communities.”
Featuring a mix of landscape shots by Vitor Leão that show off Metro Vancouver’s tranquil beauty and a series of raw images by Emilia Wilson that offers an intimate look at the DTES, the 16-piece presentation will draw attention to the disparity between the region’s carefully conserved natural environments and the groups that remain an afterthought in our endeavour to become the world’s greenest city.
Leão’s photographs of Vancouver and the North Shore will be displayed in large formats and brilliant colour, while Wilson’s snaps of DTES streets and the folks that inhabit them will be reduced in size and shaded in black and white.
“All of that is intentional in terms of the visual-literacy aspect,” notes Paraboo. “When someone is kind of reading the exhibition, they’re going to see the grand, beautiful nature of Vancouver that’s huge…and then, bam, you’re going to have a smaller one that’s in black and white, and that’s a little controversial—that, all of a sudden, comes out of nowhere and makes you feel uncomfortable.”
Like de la Cajiga, Paraboo hopes that the exhibition will spark a discussion among Vancouverites, particularly about whom or what civic initiatives may be serving. “I want people to understand all of Vancouver, not just parts of it,” she says. “I want them to leave asking themselves, ‘Is Vancouver a really good place to live in? Are we really in one of the best cities in the world?’ I also want people to start thinking about the government and different organizations, and the processes of them determining what issues we should prioritize over others.”
Other Capture exhibitions that examine issues of urbanism and redevelopment include X2, which provides a time line of fluctuating spaces in the region by joining realistic and surreal elements, and Ghost Buses, a visual farewell of sorts to the old, rounded electric trolley buses that previously roamed Vancouver streets.
And while the artists don’t necessarily offer answers to Vancouver’s housing crisis—or to the precarious place the city finds itself in as it works to accommodate new and established residents while somehow maintaining its spirit—they hope they can, at the very least, inspire a dialogue among locals that will ignite change. “I don’t claim to have any knowledge or any idea of ‘This is what we should be doing,’ ” states de la Cajiga. “It’s a question of getting people paying attention, so we, as a whole, find a solution.”
The Capture Photography Festival presents Carolina de la Cajiga’s City in Flux: Work in Progress at the Ferry Building Gallery from Tuesday (April 10) to April 29, and at the District Library Gallery (1277 Lynn Valley Road) until May 13; Larry Wolfson’s Slated for Demolition—Vancouver Teardown online until May 30; and Vitor Leão and Emilia Wilson’s The Great Big Vancouver Paradox at HiVE Vancouver Society from Friday (April 6) to June 30.