City on Edge is a thrilling photo-based exhibition being presented at the Museum of Vancouver. Over 650 images have been carefully curated from the archives of the Vancouver Sun and The Province newspapers capturing over one hundred years of mobilization by local activists, agitators, and protestors. The exhibit is co-curated by Viviane Gosselin who is Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the MOV, and retired Pacific News Group librarian Kate Bird. It is designed by Amir Ofek.
The images are projected on ten huge screens which surround the viewer. The scale of the projections means that the protestors are frequently rendered life-sized, which makes them immediately relatable for the audience. Sounds of protests and impassioned chants are being constantly streamed into the space, creating an intoxicating ambience, and making it easy to imagine oneself as part of the slideshow. Helping to round-off the exhibit are documentaries featuring local activists and academics, and two engaging multimedia installations. One of these features a digital can of spray paint with a virtual brick wall which visitors are invited to deface with their own rousing words of protest – or simply graffiti; and the second is a full-scale mockup of the steps of what could be a public square, upon which viewers are encouraged to leave messages using coloured chalk. Finally, also included is a fascinating collection of activism-related archival objects, from clever pins and placards from the 70s to (my personal favourite) an elaborately embroidered stuffed bed bug – cutting commentary on the poor state of good quality, affordable housing in the city.
The photographs are a vivid and undeniably important historical record. Intentionally uncategorized, the curation creates a strong sense of the unique overall character of Vancouver as a city. Some of the events do represent global issues like the protests preceding the ill-advised US intervention into Iraq, and the women’s march of this year; but many more are hyper-local. These include the early environmental actions which gave rise to Greenpeace, the long history of hockey-related rioting (starting with Grey Cup of 1957), protests around housing and workers’ rights, and indigenous peoples demanding their right to their land and dignity. The sheer range of issues can make one’s head spin.
Vancouver has a long-standing legacy of protest and it seems that there is always a small, dedicated minority which is passionate about activism. However, a critical mass is rarely, if ever, achieved at these gatherings. There are few photographs of massive crowds in the exhibit. It struck me that many of the protests, particularly the ones relating to indigenous issues, consisted merely of small, ragtag groups. A protest requires an audience, and a protest which is neither seen nor heard may as well never have taken place. A protest also must be disruptive - it is only by making everyday lives of the rest of society inconvenient that it can bring attention to issues outside the normal discourse. Many of the images in City on Edge dramatically portray the tension between a democratically engaged citizenry and law enforcement which has always accompanied these kinds of public assemblies. Even today, this clamping down by state authorities on the right to peacefully assemble continues to be a serious danger to the healthy functioning of a democracy.
By the time I emerged from the exhibit, my mind was swirling with questions. How many of these actions actually led to real change? How many others passed completely unnoticed into history until the exhumation of this photographic evidence? What about all of the protests which weren’t even deemed important enough for photographic journalists to visit? Are protests really the only way for marginalized people to demand what should be theirs by right? In the end, it’s crucial to remember that change always seems impossible right up until the very moment it becomes reality - but must it always be this difficult to make the democratic system work for everyone?
City on Edge will be held at the MOV (www.museumofvancouver.ca ) from September 28th ’17 to February 18th ’18). The exhibit is the companion piece to a newly released photo book of the same title, written by Kate Bird and published by Greystone Books
( www.greystonebooks.com ).