Reading the Alleys, Writing the City

(placemaking in the margins)

So much of the work that happens in the downtown eastside is collaborative; the work of making art this way is in itself a public act (performative to whatever extent), and an ongoing one, a way of building and re-building human relations that is risky and brave and a way of living in the long moment of art, living-as-art, a practice that rejects in every way the idea of art as a commodity or as something that is different or individual or somehow separate from how we live, in the here, now, in the DTES. We are inspired in such created creative moments: in-spire (breathe deep), con-spire (breathe together). So in-conspir-acy, we can make art together, and in that action we remake all the world, and assert that this world is ours too.

I’m not discussing my own work here — rather, this is a reflection on moving through space, our neighbourhood, through time, and how I am trying to understand it as itself art: an ongoing work on contested ground in a complex historical situation.

the writing of the city

"i am nothing" in blue spraypaint
“I am nothing,” armynavy alley 2015

So let’s walk around and not go anywhere, resist planning: take to the alleys and details and the corners, re-focus to see how people insist on writing, on writing our city, constantly editing the city, right. Here, shouting in an alley: I am nothing. What a thing, what a something to say, to announce and proclaim: I am nothing.

And in doing so, in this writing the city, so we reclaim the right to the city. Which is a Something.

This insistence is all around us, everywhere, embedded in the urban environs, the things that surround us that we don’t even notice, nevermind look at real close, or consider as objects that inform how we think.

a stylized skull painted in silver on a utility pole with many old staples
a stylized skull painted in silver on a utility pole with many old staples, attributed to Ken Foster

Walking along the sidewalk, there are these poles at regular intervals. They’re made of wood and they tower above all of us, but not the towers; we’ve ripped down all the trees in the rain forest and put these fake ones along the grid for they carry power. And here, look at this one, an image of a skull, sunk deep and glinting with hundreds of rusty staples which once anchored show posters for bands long dispersed due to creative differences. But the image, the skull, is a defiant and raw memento mori remember, death! in a gentrifying urbanity that pathologically denies that core human reality.

righting the city

So much public space, after all, is written over by advertising, and directions lots of Do Nots, and cameras, glass, mirrors — and all this reaches into history.

"What are our feet doing here on haunted sacred ground?"

But people reach back. This isn’t a poster or the expression of a sudden thought, it’s very careful, care-filled: “What are our feet doing here on haunted sacred ground?” And it’s been pasted on the wall, and its maker returned and coated it again, making it as permanent and embedded as the temporary could be, just short of engraving the words into space. Again, it’s the insistence on presence, drawing attention to the history that is in fact holding up this building and all the others, and of course it will be just such insistence that one day will tear them down.

"cree pain"
Cree Pain

But this is much louder, this is the shout in the street that shouts at the streets.

This is the meaning of our city and this history, and the assertion of yours and our whole lived reality as the subjects and not the objects of history, as the makers of history who will not be part of the background, who refuse to be silent, despite all the silencing — which is so much of what the Downtown Eastside is about.

“I wish it wasn’t always the same ending to our story.”
“I wish it wasn’t always the same ending to our story.”

And these are expressions of the artistic drive, which is at the heart of what it means to be human and it is also a very human need. The work of art, which is both its making and the experience of it, has nothing to do with training or money or status — those are ways our culture has tamed art to make it irrelevant and remove from everyday life. But in our alleys! It’s here, we’re here, working together, and nameless. One person painted this figure, and someone else have the figure some words: “I wish it wasn’t always the same ending to our story.” That all-embracing our is how real and risky encounters begin. That is the generous impulse, the conversation with that person in the alley who listens to you say things you never thought you’d say out loud.

"never forget" [dinosaur]
“never forget”

These alleys, our alleys. But whose streets? Ours too. Their narratives are disrupted with a marker and a dollar-store pack of stickers. These were everywhere a few years ago: Never Forget, the dinosaur. It overflows with signification: never forget, they are gone. Extinction happens. This is only the present world. Never forget, they’re right below us. Fossil fuel. The stickers were on poles, buses, on everything in the urban build. Never forget.


Some interventions are deliberately temporary. This paste-up was assembled with pieces of paper on hoardings in Mount Pleasant — Official Mural Central — but it could only last until the next rain. But that’s OK.

This intervention parodies official discourse and looks of course like it belongs where it is and has always been there. It’s an innocuous as any other heritage plaque, a sanctioned interpretation of dominant history — yet the text:

"Already the folds had worn through, tearing long slashes in the map, names began to disappear along its tattered edges, eventually whole sections of the city tore away..."
“”Already the folds had worn through, tearing long slashes in the map, names began to disappear along its tattered edges, eventually whole sections of the city tore away…”

This is the poetry of place and resistance to those narratives, the re-interpretation of the city, and an objection to this history written by the winners. How can we have a memorial to a history that never was? how can we read this tattered map? 

And in this forest, let’s look at the trees, such utility poles. They are each, if you notice, marked, labelled, a natural resource for next week’s clearcut, numbered on small metal signs. Such utility is resisted — the relentless instrumentalization of all against all, and on other and careful small metal objects, a meditation on the natural world, on these utilized dead trees, anchored but without roots:

"This one perfect leaf.
Here, in a field of 
perfect leaves."
“This one perfect leaf.
Here, in a field of
perfect leaves.”

So I think this is the art-working that is public and serious, drenched in the politics of the way we live and inhabit space, and time too. For a long, long time, I’ve made posters. It’s a form that is more like shouting, but often in a crowd where everyone is shouting, which personally makes me want to do something else. But whether it’s a show poster, a political poster, or something that stops your heart– this is about using public space, and the act of publication to change narratives, and find a way to talk about memory and loss, and learn new ways of being in the world.

Adapted from a talk given at panel discussion, November 2017, on public art and the city at the library. Part of the Heart of the City Festival, presented by Women Transforming Cities, inexplicably.

institute for the history of possible futures

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