Urgent Imagination examines relationship between art and urban development

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      At and around the Western Front until October 31

      If you’ve walked or cycled around Mount Pleasant recently—particularly in the vicinity of the Western Front—you may have been startled by the number of high-end condominiums colonizing this former working-class neighbourhood. More startling still, and more controversial, are the condo towers planned or under construction near Vancouver’s oldest artist-run centre.

      Such developments, however, are not occurring unremarked. Mounted on the wooden façade of the Front is a suite of large text works that ironically reference the feel-good marketing of new condos in this city. Big, bright signs declare “Togetherness”, “Livability”, “Enviable”, and the intentionally ambiguous “SOLD OUT”. (The Front readily acknowledges that it was recently awarded $1.5 million in a community amenity deal connected to a controversial condo-tower development at Broadway and Kingsway.)

      Also installed on the Front’s façade is a huge, inflatable sculpture of an earthworm, dangling vertically from the rooftop. More earthworms—in the form of a close-up, colour photograph of the real, wriggly critters on a bed of brown muck—are featured on a mock development-permit-application sign around the corner. Other artworks, including painted panels and posters, are located in and around the building and through the ’hood. Welcome to Urgent Imagination.

      Drawing its title from a talk by the brilliant Guatemalan-American artist and architect Teddy Cruz, Urgent Imagination examines the relationship between art and urban development. Admirably curated by the Front’s executive director, Caitlin Jones, it has been conceived in two parts, the first being the art on view in, on, and around the Front. The second part, a two-day conference which took place on October 2 and 3, posed a number of probing questions across a range of social, economic, and “spatial justice” issues.

      Both parts of Urgent Imagination consider how artists might exercise greater agency in shaping the ways our cities are planned and built, and both explore creative ways around entrenched power structures. (The truly remarkable proceedings of the conference will be posted at urgentimagination.front.bc.ca/.) Too often, it seems, visual artists are commissioned to make “public” artworks that are mere decorations for ugly, unimaginative, and overpriced condominium towers (developments that likely have displaced low-end renters). Just as with our city’s community-consultation process (dubbed during the conference as “nonsultation”), artists’ participation in such projects occurs at a distant remove from the decision-making nexus of power—developers, high-end investors, and globalized hypercapitalism.

      In London, U.K., however, two architectural cooperatives, Architects for Social Housing (ASH) and Assemble, have devised successful ways of inserting a social conscience and DIY strategies into the urban-development process. Members of each collective spoke at the conference, and Assemble also produced a two-panel artwork, The Good, The Bad and The Allegory, for the exhibition. Riffing on The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a suite of 14th-century frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, Italy,

      Assemble’s painted panels present us with simplified pictures of two quite different Vancouvers. The bad-governance model is a monotonous scene of identical glass towers interspersed with construction cranes, golden arches, and motorways crowded with cars and trucks (i.e., pretty much what Vancouver looks like these days). The good-governance model is lively and heterogeneous, a messy yet utopian imagining filled with variously sized, shaped, and coloured buildings and complemented by parks, gardens, green energy, public transit—and farms.

      Also at the conference, members of the Vancouver artists’ collective Other Sights for Artists’ Projects spoke about Slow Dirt, their inflatable sculpture and photo-billboards based on the image of the earthworm. Here, the lowly creature that transforms organic garbage into nutrient-rich soil is a metaphor for what urban development could be, a process both enriching and incremental. It also functions as an example to artists who seek to slow the development process down by “creating friction”.

      The cultural research collective Urban Subjects presented a scholarly and stimulating paper that ranged across a number of spatial-justice issues, including the “mega-events”, such as Expo 86, that have driven Vancouver’s growth and development. Their scholarly paper and their poster project use historical, European examples of socially responsible “minimum” housing to critique the exploitative local concept of “micro-lofts” and to draw our attention to the truly villainous shift of housing—a basic human need—from use value to exchange value.

      Kudos to Urban Subjects, and to the other participants in Urgent Imagination, for reminding us “how truly fucked up this is”.