#VanElxn: Confronting Vision’s ‘Creative City’: Evictions, gentrification, developers

Published in rabble.ca | November 19, 2011 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly visitors

Caption: Artists at Red Gate held an eviction art sale after the city closed their artist-run space -- saying the landlord would not cooperate with upgrades. Photo by David P. Ball

Three more hours to vote if you haven’t yet. Polls close at 8 p.m.

I post this so late in the day because what I want to talk about goes well beyond this election – well beyond what box you check at the polls, or whether Gregor or Suzanne become our next mayor.

I believe that the issues I have raised over the last month here on The Left Coast Post – challenging corporate power, confronting developers’ control over City Hall, supporting the goals of the Occupy movement, and solving the affordable housing crisis in Vancouver — will not be solved by Vision Vancouver, and certainly not by their right-wing rivals, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA). Perhaps they cannot be solved by anyone in power –- but I do remain confident that City Hall is a crucial place to engage in our struggle for progressive change.

I am not endorsing a list of candidates. But I’m also not advocating for strategically voting for the Vision and COPE slates, nor am I arguing the opposite. If you want radical and progressive endorsements – check out The Mainlander and The Georgia Straight respectively. And while Vision gets a few nods on both lists, the consensus is that another Vision Vancouver majority council will not solve our problems – Vision has lost some of its moral high ground. They, like NPA, are too in the pockets of the developers (read The Mainlander’s interview with Vision’s Geoff Meggs if you don’t believe me: “I think (developers) want access, and a relationship with councillors, absolutely. (…) And it’s not a personal gift, of course, right? It’s done because they want to make sure that they get a fair hearing).

It concerns me that Vision Vancouver has been allowed (by the mainstream media, mostly) to occupy the entire terrain of progressive voices this election –- despite attempts to get a word in edgewise by its electoral allies, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), who have been largely and sadly sidelined.

Today I write about the arts –- but as you can see from the interview below, it’s actually about how we live as a society, how we support communities making decisions for themselves, and how money has come to shape and control things once taken for granted –- beauty, creativity, and community.

Earlier in the election, I spoke to renowned playwright Marcus Youssef, who is on the executive of COPE. He joined the team because he wanted to Left to engage with the artist community, and to me is a truly inspiring artist and activist.

“Artists don’t include themselves in politics unless it’s about funding,” he told The Left Coast Post.

“But arts and cultural workers offer something essential to the city in terms of identity and life and social relations.”

And while Vision Vancouver’s Heather Deal told me something very similar, COPE has consistently also challenged gentrification -– the market process by which upscale developments displace low-income neighbourhoods — and fact that housing prices are rising for artists and everyone else.

“Let’s face it, the developers’ track record on delivering social housing is not good,” Youssef said. “And this city desperately needs to address that problem — artists are not separate from that.”

What of the fact that both Vision and NPA both receive the vast bulk of their donations from the very developers causing the problem? “I’m not going to criticize Vision at this juncture of an election, that’s not helpful,” he said. I understand the electoral coalition — an elected NPA would be disastrous for the city. But beyond the election, larger truths must be spoken about our system — and must be spoken clearly and courageously.

With Vision Vancouver launching its We Back the Juiceman artist campaign, a group of Downtown Eastside artists responded with a We Don’t Back the Juiceman parody. The Left Coast Post sat down with the latter group in a very noisy Main Street pub this week to talk politics, capitalism, development, aesthetics — and Vision Vancouver.

The seven artists I interviewed asked to respond collectively, not by individual name. Each un-italicized paragraph is a different person.

LEFT COAST POST: My article’s on the arts very broadly, essentially looking at the Vision promises and statements on the arts, and artists’ perspective on that. Not just about this election, but the importance of art in the city, how it relates to housing affordability and gentrification. Is it just about funding?

WE DON’T BACK THE JUICEMAN: The central issues around arts in the city is the same as the central issue around any community in the city. It’s a housing crisis in this city. It has nothing to do with funding. As the cost of space in this city is rising, we as artists can’t afford to live in it, either in terms of having a home or finding studio space or galleries being able to afford sites where we can show our work. Everything in terms of funding and public amenities is just a bandaid until we deal with the overall housing crisis in this city.

The city has a thesis called ‘Creative City.’ It’s not about supporting artists and making the city affordable for them to live in, but it’s about re-branding the city. The city has a crisis of identity, and it’s about recreating the city fabric itself to attract international investment.

In Vancouver, Vision has changed the definition of artist into an entrepreneur or creative accountant. These are the artists that Vision wants to foster in Vancouver. Creativity is lumped in with small business, not culture production. On the same platform that they advertize that they didn’t cut the arts they have advertizing that we have the lowest tax rate in the world.

LEFT COAST POST: It’s interesting that at a Vision Salutes the Arts event – I’m not one to encourage a restriction on who can call themselves an artist – but everyone I talked to was a commercial illustrator or designer, I found one painter. What do you think that says?

It pre-dates Vision. Culture is increasingly seen at the city-level as specifically tied to the revitalization of specific neighbourhoods.

LEFT COAST POST: Which ones?

Neighbourhoods with some level of cultural cache, but areas with low property values that can be transformed to generate the highest revenues to people developing it. But the key is to make the artist into the avant-garde of gentrification.

It’s a political and economic process that needs to bring in a new business model.

There’s an entirely new ontology that can be traced very easily back to the ideas of Richard Florida, where he attributes economic growth to this mythological creative class, as he calls it. He has dozens of books describing how you need to build amenities for the creative class to bring them here – because it’s the only way to make jobs in this post-recession world.

LEFT COAST POST: That is exactly the rhetoric that Gregor (Robertson) seems to be using – that you need artists in the city because companies won’t want to move here if there’s not a vibrant scene.

It’s not facilitating the artists that already live here.

Artists are easily manipulated by things like public funding. Basically what’s happened is they’ve gotten a bunch of funding and now they’re backing these politicians.

LEFT COAST POST: How?

If it’s about being able to make a living in the city as an artist, it’s really the exception for them to be able to do that. It’s not supportable for an entire group of artists to live in Vancouver because there isn’t an art market here that pays people enough to live, there’s not enough public funding for art, and we can’t afford to live in this city. There are real structural barriers to being an emerging artist in Vancouver that are not being addressed.

The people supporting the ‘We Back the Juiceman’ – maybe they are the exceptions. They have identified their interests. It’s not the art community.

Right now – in the last three years in particular, a lot of artist-run centres have been served cease-and-desist letters. Western Front is a great case. Across the street from the Western Front: high-end condos, luxury condos have gone up. In the summer of 2010, city engineers, firefighters, police officers were serving cease-and-desist letters to their door at the behest of the planning department. Red Gate – a space with 15,000-square feet of cultural space, a space for studios, bands, what have you – they were evicted.

It’s not just isolated on the level of studio space. There was a big announcement from Vision to set aside 10,000 square feet of space for artist studio space. Basically, this space has actually not new at all. It’s already been there and planned and set aside for over a year. And in that same month, we lost over 30,000 square feet of space between Dynamo Studios which is shutting down, Red Gate, Nyala. They’re replacing these artist-space studios with offices, because that’s where the new creative production in the Vision-creative-class ontology takes place. It takes place in an office and not in a studio.

In Richard Florida’s last book, he makes a direct connection in the last chapter between the rise of the creative class and inequality. He laments this. In each city where there is a rise in creativity, in this creative class, there’s an increase as well in inequality, homelessness, (lack of) affordability.

LEFT COAST POST: What’s his name?

Richard Florida. He’s a major advocate for the creative class, creative cities – he’s the urban development guru for second-tier urban centres in North America. And this is the policy that Heather Deal and Gregor Robertson rely upon.

The policing, the housing crisis, the affordability crisis – they’re not dedicating themselves to creating a liveable city. This whole thing is the greatest paradox. The city is relying upon developer money to build new spaces – they’ve relied upon this policy since the 1990s – but this is the same force that’s pushing us out of our neighbourhoods, pushing us out of our studios, pushing us out of the places we sell our art and make music – it’s a paradox.

Now public space is increasingly policed. It’s not just the liveable communities this election. It’s every single year, literally dozens of millions extra for the police, and yet every year they complain they don’t have enough money for x, y and z.

As crime rates in Vancouver and across Canada actually go down. The most embarrassing thing for me about artists backing the Juiceman, is that the Downtown Eastside has been a mixed neighbourhood for 40 years. There have been artists in studio spaces in my neighbourhood for 40 years living without displacing people. And now people who organize around housing are allowing themselves to be used by the city for a narrative that changes that dynamic within the neighbourhood. So now people in the neighbourhood actually see artists as a problem, when before they had been members of the community. And this is coming forth from people who naively are being used by Vision to support gentrification.

Part of what I would put to this group of people is: Can you back Vision and not back gentrification?

What I’m hearing is their pulling support from people based on a very narrow criteria of their existence. ‘We will give you more money for art’ or ‘We will give you this space for art’ – not seeing it connected to housing or other issues affecting artists.

It’s actually undermining support for artists in a community where for a long time there’s been an almost natural connection.

LEFT COAST POST: The Downtown Eastside?

Yeah. It’s politicizing the arts community. At the same time there are other artists who are explicitly aligning themselves with the housing struggle. It’s going both ways.

Artists, and people who produce – musicians, whatever – they find and create their own autonomous spaces, spaces of culture, spaces for them to play music, often without the support of the city. The city says, ‘We’re going to support all this new space.’ These spaces already exist. What they have to do is protect the existing communities. (COPE City Councillor) Ellen Woodsworth has called for a moratorium —

— A pause —

— A pause on condo development on the Downtown Eastside.

The logic of the creative class is completely ridiculous. You can’t legislate creativity on the level of funding or attracting people to the city. Creativity – artistic expression – is something that comes out of a community. It’s generated by people’s lives. It’s not a top-down thing. For every one artist that gets funding or new space that’s opened up, there are more artists that are having to move out of the city or their space is being closed, because they’re not able to afford being there. What the creative class strategy actually does is ramp up gentrification, and break up communities that are already creative and producing art.

It’s replacing actual artists with the spectacle of the artist which is actually the entrepreneur. The best example of this is across the street from the Western Front – where artist studios that are actually condominiums have opened up. The building is called L’Artiste.

(Laughter)

LEFT COAST POST: I asked Heather (Deal, Vision Vancouver councillor) about Red Gate and the rising costs. She said she felt heart-broken about that – it wasn’t their fault, it was unfortunate that the landlord didn’t want to do the upgrades.

What they’re looking for is not actually creativity, but in fact innovation, which is something easily deployed as a product. They want to create GDP (Gross Domestic Product), not art. Most art doesn’t add to GDP. Only particular kinds of of art add to GDP.

The types of people who put really bizarre public art in the foyer of their new building, or make their building into the shape of a leaning whatever.

In the 1980s, in the first wave of neoliberalism in Vancouver, there was talk of turning Vancouver into a finance capital of the world. And now, the exact same policies they implemented in the 1980s under neoliberal mayors, are being used to turn Vancouver into a creative capital of the world. Only one word has changed – from finance to creative.

The issue with the notion of creative art – it’s not a brand. In fact, art can’t be a brand.

The way the city – Vision – is using these artists that are backing them is as a brand. As a brand of creativity. Art is inherently not a brand. It’s actually the opposing aesthetic logic of branding. Art isn’t even just pretentious design. Art is an ethical ordering of relationships, through optics. It’s about inciting the potential for changing the way we live. To try to use it as a brand is a really scary way to position art.

LEFT COAST POST: Why is it scary?

It’s scary because it’s fascist.

Walter Benjamin said that fascism aestheticizes politics. Which is exactly what’s happening in Vancouver. As we become a heavily policed city, as politicians either break their promises or don’t even make promises in the first place – there’s an absolute absence of politics at election time. This is filled in with a new aesthetic. Obviously it’s not fascist, but it follows the logic. Revolutionary politics is the other way around – it shows how aesthetics are political. If you can locate Vision within one of those, it’s definitely the first.

LEFT COAST POST: They’re celebrating that they will maintain funding for the arts. How is that even a platform?

I would question their real support of the arts. If it’s being cut on every other level, and all they can do is maintain, it’s hard for me to believe it’s the crowning jewel of their policy to make Vancouver a more liveable place that attracts businesses.

This is a paradox – the people who fund arts in the private sector, are the ones who make huge profits from building leaky condos.

LEFT COAST POST: Why are the art enthusiasts – patrons, if you will – often developers. Does that say something about the economy?

This is almost like a second wave of neoliberalism. You have to sneak in with these progressive capitalists – whether it’s green capitalists or progressive real estate agents that love Jane Jacobs. If you don’t there’ll be resistance and you can’t get elected. That’s what Vision Vancouver is – it’s a phenomenon all across the West Coast.

Not only is it green-washing, it’s art-washing. Art-washing is the biggest political spin for gentrification. Interestingly enough, if you walk down to Pender and look at the (development marketer) Bob Rennie Gallery, the only thing in the gallery right now is a poster that says, ‘Vote for Gregor: Vision 2011.’

Personally I don’t think Vision Vancouver is good for the arts, but a lot of artists see them talking about arts at all. Any initiative that goes forward, no matter how measly it is, will have artists saying, ‘Well, fuck – that’s better than what we have now.’ A lot of people trying to make a living making art says, ‘That speaks to me because nobody else is talking about it.’

Once upon a time in this province there was a belief that you had to have non-market interventions in order to create affordable housing for the poorest, for artists, for people who are lower-middle and working class. That was how you made up for the fact that the housing market is subject to the whims of the market. That philosophy has largely thrown its hands in the air and walked away.

LEFT COAST POST: Should we have non-market intervention? What would it look like?

There’s two aspects of it – there’s finding a place to live, which is the first priority, because if you don’t have anywhere to live, on the street you can’t make art. And there’s artist space, where you go to make art. What the city has traditionally done is bought a building and charged less than market rent – it’s that simple.

When I think of Gregor (Robertson), one second he can have a conversation with you, then turn around and say the opposite. Having had a chance to talk to him, he’s not only agreeing with me, but even gives evidence in favour of my very points. A lot of even young left-wing people have been duped. There’s a pathological two-facing, which seems lacking in conscience. It’s all a game, which is not a new thing in politics.

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