Vol.6, Number 3, November 2010
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CHRISTOS DIKEAKOS WAS BORN IN THESSALONIKI, GREECE IN 1946, AND MOVED TO VANCOUVER IN 1957. HE STUDIES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, GRADUATING IN FINE ARTS IN 1970. DKEAKOS’S PHOTOGRAPHS, ASSEMBLAGES, PUBLICATIONS, AND PUBLIC ART HAVE BEEN EXHIBITED THROUGHOUT CANADA, NOTABLY AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA, THE VANCOUVER ART GALLERY, THE WINNIPEG ART GALLERY, AND THE MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART IN TORONTO. HIS WORK HAS BEEN EXHIBITED INTERNATIONALLY AT VENUES THAT INCLUDE THE ICA PORTLAND OREGON, THE MUSÉE D'ART MODERNE DE LA VILLES DE PARIS, AND THE BRISBANE ART GALLERY, AUSTRALIA. HIS WORK RESIDES IN THE PERMANENT COLLECTIONS OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF CANADA, THE VANCOUVER ART GALLERY, AND NUMEROUS PRIVATE AND PUBLIC COLLECTIONS.
> BEYOND THE NARCISSISTIC CITY: URBAN NOMADIC HOMELESSNESS IN VANCOUVER'S OLYMPIC VILLAGE SITE
Nothing in Vancouver can be taken as permanent – the foreground or background in my pictures can attest to that. I have been photographing the unstable nature and exhausted landscape of the False Creek area of Vancouver since the late 1960s. Prior to the colonial encroachment of this waterfront inlet, which cuts and separates what is now the peninsular modern downtown, this site was traditionally occupied and extensively used by First Nation peoples as a fishing and hunting grounds. My extensive project from the early 1990s, “Sites and Place Names Vancouver,” deals with the dichotomy of place of the new metropolis, and of the aboriginal cultures that precede and overlap with it as in many cities across North America but especially in Vancouver. The panoramic photo of “sturgeon fishing” in the False Creek area (Figure 2) is overlaid with a sandblasted drawing on glass, originally drawn in the 1930s by a local and well respected chief. While the drawing evokes his deep memories and the travails of catching fish that could weigh as much as 150 kilograms, the photograph depicts a large rain puddle, suggesting the old waterway partially filled in for railway expansion and “resource extraction processing,” such as sawmilling in the early days of the city. This photo-and-glass installation work can be taken as a starting point to considering the transcendental dimension to nomadic homelessness, the idea of never being at home.
From the turn of the century until the 1960s, the False Creek site provided thousands of now-vanished blue collar, soft industrial jobs; by 1986 the emptied land tracts and “defeatured” open spaces became a World’s Fair. Today this site is a monumental project of upscale eco-friendly condominiums built for the 2010 Winter Olympic Village. Architecturally, this is a lackluster and conservative, city-planned enterprise of what should have been a dynamic example of urban renewal. These images reveal many things, not the least of which is a value system in a sliding scale of opportunism. There is, however, a Vancouver tradition of early photo scanning and indexing of the late 1960s and 1970s of this defeatured urban landscape, which took on a critical discourse of urban expansion. The referencing to the earthworks and arte povera genres of material spills and piles of industrial and natural material radicalized the way we consider art, and especially sculpture. These piles of dirt and detritus now signal themes of urban anxieties, of both social and environmental distress.
The site of the Olympic Village is in close proximity to my studio, which is part of a large, still undeveloped land tract that is mostly owned by the city. It is a place where the abject boundaries of the distressed and lowly become the sites of future development, of new neighborhoods of supercilious glass towers. My photographs over a period of forty years continue to scan and picture the shrinking, underdeveloped land tracts and open messy spaces of the city, and, as Vancouver photo practice has for decades, record and picture what is now a lost city erased, with massive alterations of civic space planned for a city of uniformity
and gentrification. The framing and picturing of my experience of this part of the city – of what lies under the urban surface – offers a very different perspective from that of the urban planners who define and communicate an “expert’s” experience of my city. My intention, instead, is to provide, beneath and through the picture plane, an exploratory and perhaps even unprejudiced representation of this cultural leveling of place. In these photographs, the city looks and speaks to us through these shrinking, cracked, and fissured spaces, taking shape while constantly changing.
This picturing of the routine of urban nomadic homelessness occurred during the construction of the Olympic Village. During that time, my studio building was being converted to a homeless shelter on its main floor. There were occasions when I observed squatters, drifters, and those homeless who choose not to stay out of harm’s way in the provided safe shelters. This invisible city dwelling class1 would begin each day like the last: awakening, bundling and tidying up their gear, going out in search of nourishment, and then returning to look for a new spot with the same provisional domicile as before. And so, what at first appeared to be sites of hopelessness may in fact be sites of resistance, and the individual’s tacit independence from the mechanisms of city life; the refusal to be leveled by the city.
Abandoning one’s self to drifting through the uncertainty of life in this part of the city reminds me of what Georg Simmel mentioned in his 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” The alienated and impersonal not-at-homeness of self in the open city bears similarities to the autonomous drifter – “us” as the individuals, the drifters in the crowd. As urban citizens, the mental attitude of one to another is formally designated as one of reserve and cosmopolitan loneliness, i.e. walking alone and lost in the noise of the city. We are immersed in an overwhelmingly powerful experience, where the city becomes interiorized. The transience of things and our experience of this transience return to us in how we define a self-conscious and self-building individualism. The modern city seems to exhaust an individual’s resistance making us wanderers who nervously go about the city.
The individual underclass of drifters appearing in open spaces and abandoned land tracts is in close proximity to the site of the architectural skyline of the narcissistic city. The empty spaces and places are contrary to and a resistance against the mechanisms and control of the planned city. They haunt us with their singular existence. The idea of rethinking the city as an object of desire, of collectively dreaming or to pondering the nightmare of new topographical and open, speculative urban spaces, is where the imaginary starts.
1. A hobo was a wanderer who sought work; a tramp is a dreamer and wanderer; a bum is a drinker or doper and wanderer; and the pedlar a now extinct class of wanderers brought news, knowledge, and desired goods to the communities that he or she visited. From Henderson 2008: 76.
Henderson, Lee. 2008. The Man Game. Toronto: Viking Canada.
Simmel, Georg. 1903. “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” In Richard Sennett (ed.), Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969.