April 2008, eXponential future

  Alex Morrison
 March 9, 2007, 2008
 71" × 84"
 Courtesy: Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery and Catriona Jeffries

eXponential future
Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery
1825 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC
18 January through 27 April, 2008

In general, I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and 'l'avenir.' The future is that which—tomorrow, later, next century will be. There's a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l'avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this other known future, it's l'avenir in that it's the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival. - Jacques Derrida

X = Xo*exp(k*t) [1]

The recent exhibition eXponential future (Xf) at the University of British Columbia's Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, presents the work of eight young local artists in order to diagnose the health of contemporary art in a post-millennium, pre-2010 Vancouver. Although artists Tim Lee, Alex Morrison, Isabelle Pauwels, Kevin Schmidt, Mark Soo, Corin Sworn, Althea Thauberger and Elizabeth Zvonar are ardently anti-group, their collective presentation represents a limited range of artistic practice and potential in Vancouver.

The first work that greets the viewer upon entering the Belkin is Alex Morrison's sandwich board Contract with the People (2008). Placed in the lobby-come-hallway of the Belkin, the work slightly disrupts the comfortable relationship between the audience, the work of art and the gallery space. Even though Vancouver's gallery-going public are used to experiencing art, dematerialized or otherwise, in any possible arrangement, what is interesting about this piece is that it is placed in an in-between space within the gallery. Its location is ambiguous – the work is not situated at the gallery's desk, not exactly in the gallery's hallway and most importantly not in the large rooms where the majority of the work is situated.

Like all private signage around Metro Vancouver, Morrison's work does not merely operate as a board for the posting of information, but as a means to demarcate a spatial relationship between the urban populous and the institutions that wish to invest in the economy of messaging. In any number of configurations, the sign can operate as a means to initiate a commercial relationship, manufacture a social bond or even fabricate a political situation. Morrison's sign plays around with other local artists signage work, such as Ron Terada's Entering the City of Vancouver (2002). Morrison's piece moves beyond the city's public messaging systems that define municipal boundaries and instead investigates the private systems of communication that continuously colonize public and private space.

The corollary alternative to imposed spatial practices that bureaucratize and commodify public space, are those practices which resist that specific form of imposition [2]. This idea of reclaiming the streets is investigated in Morrison's photographic triptych Giving the Story a Treatment (Battle in Seattle) (2007). The work depicts a number of different movie sets from the film Battle in Seattle (2007), or also known in the media as the 1999 World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference (WTO) protests. Immersed within a culture of co-optation, it is not at all surprising how a large activist protest against the WTO in 1999 can be quickly acculturated and later transformed into a Paramount Pictures drama starring Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron and Outkast's Andre Benjamin. In this series Morrison's photographs aim to re-frame the cultural logic of the film industry that more often than not attempts to re-vamp any transgressive act into a nicely packaged consumable good.

 Isabelle Pauwels
 The Embellishers, 2007
 Video for television monitor
 Dimensions variable
 Courtsey: Morris & Helen Belkin Art Gallery & Catriona Jeffries

It is surprising that Morrison would adopt this form of criticism against the co-optive forces of popular culture considering that his photograph Friday, March 9th 2007 (2008) subsequently supports such acculturation. In the photograph Morrison re-creates the infamous photograph of the youth from the "Native Warrior Society" who stole the $1,600 Olympic flag on Vancouver's city hall in the memory of First Nations elder Harriet Nahanee. Instead of critically re-evaluating the nature of Olympic activism and its relation to the cultural industry in Vancouver, Morrison only appropriates the act. By choosing this form of representation he is inherently making the same choice as Paramount Pictures-producing a work which is free from criticism and consequentially easily consumable. For the Vancouver arts community, the 2010 Olympic Games is a highly contentious issue considering the pressures from the Olympic housing bubble has forced a rising cost of studio spaces, artist run centers and private galleries to reach almost unmanageable levels. The problem is further exacerbated when institutions such as the Cultural Olympiad for the 2010 Olympic Games funds exhibitions like eXponential future and all the artists in the show would rather exhibit their work then protest the very institution which is evicting artists from their galleries, studios and their homes [3].

Reflection upon Vancouver's contemporary present cannot begin without considering culture's collective past. Mark Soo and Tim Lee's subjective, and in part, culture's collective histories, weigh down upon their own practice as they attempt to make meaning in their contemporary present.

Mark Soo's that's that's alright alright mama mama (2007) depicts the very Alabama studio where audio technicians first discovered the technique to record over multiple tracks for Elvis Presley's "That's Alright Mama" [4]. Elaborating on this act of doubling, Soo composes the two images in stereoscopic 3D – a process where an image is doubled and overlapped to produce a 3D image when viewed through alternating red-and-cyan eye glasses. For the audience at the Belkin, the act of dawning a pair of Soo's 3D glasses may compel the viewer to recall nostalgic childhood memories of reading comic books and eating cereal with red-and-cyan 3D glasses. Such evocations of the just-past not only reverberate onto our collective memory banks, but as Walter Benjamin suggests, the just-past contains a latent revolutionary potential for the present to oppose our highly polished capitalist present [5]. Although Soo and his colleagues seem unlikely followers of the Frankfurt School, the resuscitation of the just-past is surprisingly refreshing.

In a very similar fashion Tim Lee has investigated his own subjective relationship to culturally distinct moments in our culture's collective consciousness. By re-enacting moments such as Bobby Orr's winning goal against the St. Louis Blues in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals, Lee attempts to engage with the problems of translation from one historically distinct moment to another, revealing the gaps, inadequacies, and disjunctures which exist from one media to another. As a young Asian-Canadian, his body is specifically evoked to challenge the historic as well as cultural legacy of middle-aged white males. Although Lee has garnered significant importance from local as well as the international art community, it is disappointing to observe little change in Lee's practice since he entered Vancouver's art community at the beginning of the millennium. To adapt this concept ad nauseum could leave his practice open to criticisms as a one-trick pony – a classification that I do not want to fully adopt just yet. We all get it that Lee has done a great job at playing and re-playing pop culture, perhaps it's time that he stepped up and started playing himself.

By far the most impressive piece in the entire exhibition is Isabelle Pauwels' film The Embellishers (2007). The majority of the work depicts the twin Pauwels sisters talking and acting over the most deadpan issues – work, neighbors, acting etc. The film is shot from the Regal, a social housing building located on the same block as the former Woodwards site – undoubtedly one of the most contentious sites in urban Vancouver. As the two sisters discuss the banal issues of the everyday, the image and sound of construction reverberates throughout the city and into the gallery space. On occasion we get quick views of their surroundings outside the window as the workers continue on their own repetitive tasks of nailing beams, pouring cement, and the other construction activity while the most banal activity occurs within the apartment. The Embellishers' attests to the anti-monumental nature of everyday life. It's easy to get swept up into the details of one's own existence while the urban landscape is slowly transforming before one's own eyes.

One could trace the lineage of Pauwels' films to other works by Vancouver artists who have treated Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) as a subject for investigation. One of the most iconic images of the DTES is Stan Douglas' Every Building on the 100 block of East Hastings (2003). Douglas' work strives to capture the street by framing it as a vacant ghost town – a place where disinvestment runs rampant and women continually go missing. Instead of representing a fictionalized view of East Hastings St. as a ghost town, Pauwels instead focuses on the lived reality of space. By occupying a building in the Downtown Eastside, Pauwels reverses the gaze back onto the vacant street of Douglas' image challenging the human absence in Douglas' photograph. Also, as an amateur film, the work also challenges Vancouver's traditional preoccupation with highly polished, technically perfect artistic films such as those of Rodney Graham and Stan Douglas. Pauwels' work operates as an alternative to this dominant paradigm and as a means to attest to the representational inadequacies inherent in each media.

Although most artists from eXponential future are comfortable with their relation to the confines of the White Cube, only one artist transgresses its boundaries and ventures outside to play with the vernacular of the everyday. On display of the main floor of UBC's Koerner Library is Althea Thaubeger's photographic mural The Art of Seeing Without Being Seen (2007). The photograph presents seven members of B.C. Regiment Duke of Connaught Armored Reconnaissance and a Public Affairs Officer recreating a training exercise on military training grounds. In Thauberger's photograph, the soldiers act confused as they realize they are being watched and an overwhelming sense of ambivalence pervades the scene. Nervous smiles cross some faces and others dawn the visage of serious combat. The photograph seems to depict the aftermath of a recent firefight as one wounded soldier is carried away from the scene behind a bullet-punctured car. As the perspective of the image leads us towards the shattered car windshield, it is almost as though Thauberger is suggesting that the shots from her own camera have inflicted the damage. In effect, the audience is implicated in this training procedure and by default, this act of war. This point is further articulated as the granite tiles of the floor from the library bleed almost seamlessly into the concrete of Thauberger's image, confusing our lived experienced with the mural's fabricated fiction.

The presentation of Thauberger's work comes at an interesting time in the University's history. From March 3rd – 7th the recently formed activist collective 'the students for a democratic society UBC' held a weeklong conference entitled Resisting the University: a Conference on Student Activism and Social Change. One of the paneled talks in the conference dealt with the Canadian Military's connection to UBC and other Canadian Universities. Speakers on the panel ardently called for a demilitarization of campus, namely: calls to stop the funding of UBC's International Relations and Political Science programs through Military dummy corporations as well as calls to stop military recruitment on campus. Similar opinions have been voiced in the 'response binder' accompanying Thauberger's work in the Library. For many students and faculty the sole presence of Thauberger's ambivalent miltaristic photograph on campus is (and I quote in no particular order) "disgusting", "confusing", "imperialistic", "pro-war" and especially "unwelcome". Although I am strongly anti-war myself, the fact that acts of war are currently taking place with no sustained activist response on campus is a cause for concern. It has not been since 2003 that such debates against war have surfaced at UBC and for that reason alone the image is welcome to shock students into reality that the Canadian military is currently planning, training and engaging in acts of warfare at home and across the globe.

[1] * = multiplication, Xo = initial value, exp = exponential function, k = growth rate constant, t = time
[2] Henri Lefebvre The Production of Space trans. D. Nicholas Smith Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1991
[3] Marsha Lederman “Protest Photo Part of Culture Fest” Globe and Mail Jauary 31, 2008
[4] Elvis Presley “That’s Alright Mama” http://youtube.com/watch?v=w2AHG2spKKU
[5] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed., Schocken Books, 1969.

Andrew Witt

Andrew Witt is an Art History student at University of British Columbia.

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