Art & Culture
February 26, 2010

Box Art

From Gladys We:

“My vote for the best piece of public art is this piece … an inukshuk made out of shipping  containers, kitty-corner from the Richmond Oval. I think it’s an interesting updating of the inukshuk theme  – with a B.C. economic twist.  The photo is by Tony Nathan.”

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Yesterday, prompted by a release from Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s office, the media went after the transportation story.  It’s the dog that, up to now, hasn’t barked: no major screw-ups, and general agreement that things have gone well on the transportation front. 

In fact, the City’s plan – 30 percent reduction in traffic, 50 percent reduction in capacity to downtown, no venue parking – has worked spectacularly well.  And TransLink has performed with remarkable flexibility and stretched itself to the limit.  

So now what?

“You now have a public that sees the possibility,” said (SFU City Program director Gordon Price).

“We just conducted the greatest controlled traffic experiment in North America.”

But despite the optimism now, TransLink is about to return to barely adequate service and a probable new round of bickering between cities and the province over how to fund the system.

“Here’s the embarrassment – now they cut it all back,” Price said.

“They dock the third SeaBus. They can’t proceed with the frequent transit network. They can’t do what they say they want to do that we could do and that we know works.

“Maybe now a new political consensus will emerge that not only can we do it, we must do it.”

As BC Local News reporter Jeff Nagle notes, “the genie is out of the bottle.” 

Mayor’s Council Chair, Peter Fassbender of Langley: “I’d like to believe we’ve developed a transit spirit that says this system can work and it can deliver so let’s find a way to move it forward on the foundation we’ve built in this short period of time.”

But Transportation Minister Shirley Bond is sticking to her marching orders:  “She’s ‘pretty comfortable’ with the existing set of property, fuel and other taxes plus fares to fund TransLink….  The debate, Bond said, will be about ‘how much should taxpayers, who are actually served by transit, contribute.’ ” – i.e. let the mayors squeeze the property taxpayer ’cause there ain’t gonna be no move on vehicle levies or road pricing from us. 

The only person more missing in action is Gordon Campbell, who as ex-Vancouver Mayor and GVRD Chair, would have been front and centre on this issue.  As Premier, it will be up to him if there is to be any real legacy from the spectacular transportation success of the Olympic experience. 

Otherwise, the only debate we’ll be having is how much we’re cutting back.

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February 25, 2010

One of the legacies of the Games will be the public art that has animated our public spaces – and our skies.  In the case of Vectorial Elevation (below), we’ll at least have memories and images.  (Already I’ve heard suggestions that we try to raise the funds to keep the spotlights intact, to be used, like the Olympic cauldron, on special occasions.)

But not all of the works deserve a space on the podium.  Here are two works, fortunately temporary, that I think deserve recognition for being not just provocative – that’s art’s role if not responsibility – but for being off-key and, worse, badly placed.  Two of them were on the Vancouver Art Gallery.

A Modest Veil, on the Georgia Street side, covering the north face of the gallery, is Michael Lin’s gigantic floral, meant to reflect “domestic comfort and warmth.”

I assumed, when I first saw it, that it was actually the wrapping that would be dropped at an auspicious moment to reveal a far more interesting work behind.   The Art Gallery plaza needs all the help it can get, and it doesn’t get any from this.

Worse, though, is Cue –  “an outdoor screen illuminated for more than 20 hours at a time, with 89 different video works from 79 artists, adding up to 667 minutes.”   

Can’t say that I’ve spent five of those 667 minutes watching anything on the screen that justified much more of my time.  But what really annoys me is that the screen and hoarding appropriate one of the great public spaces of this city – the gallery steps, the best people-watching place in Vancouver and usually the stone bleachers for the spontaneous performances in front. 

Now that this part of Robson was closed, there was enough room to accommodate both passers-by and audiences , or would have been if the screen had been placed somewhere more appropriate – like on the north-side of the gallery!

The winner, if that’s the right word, of the lead medal is regrettably a permanent installation at the entrance to Stanley Park.  Rodney Graham’s Aerodynamic Forms in Space is “a nod to the location’s nearby seaplanes as well as the toy model planes seen with children and adults on the park’s grounds.”

I find it trivial and awkward – but that’s my opinion; your take may be different.   But again, this is a work that’s badly placed, a lost opportunity for a singular site.  And unfortunately permanent.

Not to end on a negative note, this is just one of eight city-c0mmissioned projects, not all yet installed but one of which has already achieved  iconic status.  I saw Ken Lum’s Van East Monument last night when whizzing by on SkyTrain – and knew right away that it was aptly titled.  It’s a landmark with a great backstory.

Here’s a Courier story on this and other works in this series.

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February 23, 2010

The Games are still on, but it’s not too early to pass out some honours in a few categories.  Like the best piece of Public Art (Light Division).  An easy decision, this one.

Vectorial Elevation – “an interactive artwork that allows participants to transform the sky over Vancouver, Canada. Using a three-dimensional interface, this web site lets you design huge light sculptures by directing 20 robotic searchlights located around English Bay.”

Huge international coverage too.  The PBS News Hour gave detailed instructions on how participants could design their own light show and watch it live on the web.  Better to be in Vancouver, though – from the Upper Levels Highway to East Vancouver, it animated the sky.

Other categories and nominations welcome.

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Vancouver moments while cycling around the peninsula:

Like, street hockey among the daffodils.

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But where are the cyclists?

Biking is still the fastest way to get around, there’s valet parking close to Games events, the weather is perfect – and while numbers are up slightly, it’s nothing like I would have expected.  A week ago we cycled out to the Pacific Colliseum along the Adanac for pairs skating, only to find only a dozen other bikes in the secure parking.   

So why aren’t people cycling more?

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A rock balancer displays his craft along the False Creek North seawall.  

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The latest False Creek ferry dock is open at the southwest corner of David Lam Park – and they’ve built a sturdy waiting pavilion next to the Erickson.   It says: we take these little ferries seriously enough to keep you out of the rain while you wait.

And the new Sea Star Children’s Centre nearby says: we take child-care seriously too.

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Sorry, but the Yaletown Park at Nelson and Hamilton is still a bust.

Even on a perfect day, when the docks of Yaletown are overflowing and the streets are full to bursting, this hard-surfaced open space attracts only a handful, who really don’t have anything to do.  The children can’t play safely, the undulating surface discourages the toss of a frisbee or ball, people don’t hang around.  The trees don’t even look happy.

But we’ve never looked better.

I mean, better dressed.  Maybe everyone looks good in red and white, especially when the shirts and jackets are athletically cut, they’re new, they’re clean, and they serve as the informal uniform of the multi-racial young.  And as the French know well, everyone should wear scarves

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Probably the quietest place downtown is the Olympic Village .  Hardly a soul along the seawall (and why is it fenced off anyway?).  The streets and squares seem empty from a distance. 

But hey, I suppose a quiet, protected place is exactly what the athletes want – and as the final days approach, things will liven up.

Anyone experienced it first hand?

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As a combination of engineering and art, these pipes from the district heating plant next to the Cambie Bridge are brilliant.  The heat is tapped from the sewage main that lies unerneath, and the tops light up to indicate the amount of energy being used.  One thing though: can’t we paint the pipes something a tad more exciting than industrial gray?

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It didn’t get a lot of publicity, but the streetcar collided with a vehicle at a level crossing.   No evidence of damage, though.  I’m told Bombardier technicians worked through the night to get it back in service within hours, looking as good as when it arrived from Brussels, to which it will return.   But not without a lot of people wanting something just as good for Broadway – or any other part of the region that’s demanding something more than infrequent service by diesel bus.

Another curious phenomenon: check out the number of tourists on this truck:

Two.  And that’s not untypical.  How come?  Have people converted so much to walking and transit that traditional ways of getting around – especially by car – have been discarded for a different kind of freedom?

This, folks, is the entrance to Granville Island on a sunny Sunday afternoon – a view of empty asphalt probably not seen since 1977. 

Amazing.  Will this change the debate over how we allocate road space after the Olympics?  Never again can anyone argue that we can’t remove car lanes without creating traffic chaos.

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One significant improvement has been the information panels, providing not only directions but also, critically, an indication of how long it takes walk  to other destinations – say, 15 minutes from BC Place to the cauldron.

Kudos to the Streets Department in Engineering and to the graphic designers for the new kiosks –

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February 19, 2010

There will be at least one iconic image that will come out of Vancouver’s Olympics.  It’s a nice touch that this image actually includes an icon.  And a fence.

This has instantly become one of the great case studies in urban design.  What were they thinking?  I mean, literally.  What went into their thinking when they designed the cauldron and the public spaces around it?  Did they think about people taking photographs?  Did they think people would even show up?

Was it discussed, or was the design process mainly about security and traffic movement?  Because that’s the way it looks.

What they clearly didn’t expect – who did? – was that so many people would show up wanting to be there.  So many, in fact, that the crowd would be its own phenomenon.

They have come by the thousands, to line up for hours, to spill down the stairs and along the seawall, up the ramps and along the railings, to jam the sidewalks on all the blocks leading to the cauldron.

It’s like Times Square.

Or at least the Times Square before they closed Broadwa y to traffic.  The Times Square where four and a half times as many people as vehicles were squeezed into 11 percent of the space.  Where the car was the priority, and so many people on feet was a problem.  You could see it in the barricades that lined Seventh Avenue to keep people from spilling into the street.  Just like here.

This controversy over the cauldron and the fence is not about the security.  That was thought out.  That could have been been the priority even as a solution was found to accommodate the thousands who wanted a clear view, as close as possible.  What seems to have happened is that they simply didn’t think about it.   The success of this public space, the space beyond the fence, came as a complete surprise.

And that’s not to blame VANOC.  In an endeavour of this scale, not everything can be anticipated.  It’s what you do in response that counts for the future.  

Anyway, they’ve done one big thing so well that it too has come as a bit of surprise.   More later.

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February 17, 2010

Question: why is there no securtity at cultural events?  Why, when attending a Cultural Olympiad event at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, do we not have to go through airport-style screening?

Not that I’m suggesting it.  But isn’t it odd that a target as attractive to a terrorist as any crowd at a sports event – and arguably more vulnerable – isn’t subject to the same level of security?

The reason, I’d suggest, is that we’re always fighting the last war.  Because of Munich and Atlanta, we accept the constraints for access to the public spaces at Olympic Games that were previous targets.  Just as we now take off our shoes at airports.  But since no one has set off a bomb in a theatre – yet – we accept a level of risk that requires, in another context, a billion-dollar expenditure to avoid.

The public seems to have reached its limit of tolerance, though, with the chain-link fence that cuts off access, physical and visual, to the cauldron at Jack Poole Plaza. This morning I see they’ve sliced a gap in the fence for cameras, and allowed people an unobstructed view from the adjacent rooftop to the west.

But really, why not just two rows of Jersey barriers and some Mounties?  Isn’t it worth the risk?  And if zero or minimal risk is the only acceptable option, then why, I ask, do we leave balletomanes and symphony goers as soft targets?

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Coverage begins to pick up on the green theme.

First, the announcement that the Olympic Village was “awarded LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Tuesday, certifying it as the greenest, most energy efficient and sustainable neighbourhood on Earth.”

Yup, on Earth.   “As far as we know there’s nowhere comparable in the world,” Gregor Robertson said.

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