The semiotics of protest, ethnographic violence and squatting in parking lots during the 2010 Olympic Games

0 Posted by - February 25, 2010 - Features, Installations, Performance, Policy, Public art

Protest for Housing

If anything is making its slow way out of the Downtown East Side (DTES) and into mainstream Olympic news flows, it is the issue of homelessness. The Red Tent Campaign, the Tent City Squat on a VANOC parking lot, the homeless banner strung from the Cambie Bridge (for a VANOC sanctioned 20 minutes, and time immemorial photo-op), Saturday’s national housing rally …

This was the topic of conversation at last Sunday’s Safe Assembly Newscast at the VIVO studios. Safe Assembly is a gesture to protect the critical conversation about the Olympic games. Hosted by VIVO, a media arts collective who chose not to participate in the Cultural Olympiad, the Newscasts are opportunities for those critical of the Olympics to come together and reflect on the events of protest and dissent taking place in Vancouver.

What follows is a brief summary of the gathering — topics of discussion included the housing protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery last Saturday, update from the Tent City squat, a look at the growing phenomena of Olympic fans protesting against protesters, and the potential effects of university students as shock troops of gentrification in the DTES.

Campaign for National Housing Initiative

The first speaker was Am Johal, one of the organizers of Saturday’s housing rally at the Vancouver Art Gallery. From his perspective, the rally went well. There were 500 or so gathered to call for a renewed national housing program. Canada’s federal housing program was cut in the early 1990s which apparently coincides with the emergence of homelessness as a crisis in Canada. The Red Tent campaign is asking for a national housing strategy to be reinstated.

Also part of the Red Tent Campaign is the Homelessness 2010 Hunger Strike Relay, now in its 61st week. Participants have included municipal politician Ellen Wordsworth, federal MP Libby Davies, artists Emilio Rojas and Jamie Griffiths, and most recently an 8 week old baby (who was already on a liquid diet). Each week new volunteers become the holders of the Wooden Spoon and fast for 7 days. In June 2010, supporters from across the country will board a train to Ottawa commemorating the 75th anniversary of the “On to Ottawa Trek” to demand government support for affordable housing, a living wage and accessible social programs.

The Art of Homelessness

Up next was Emilio Rojas, a performance artist with the White Pillows collective. He was speaking about his current show a Vivarium Gallery. Rojas joined the rolling hunger strike in the same week that he wandered the city with a shopping cart while reading Jack Layton‘s book about homelessness.

Emilio Rojas

At night he slept in the front window of the Vivarium Gallery. Inside the shopping cart was a hidden camera to capture the responses of people that he met along the way (whose faces were obscured in the final presentation of the video at Vivarium Gallery). Rojas wanted to document what it might be like to be perceived as homeless. When police stopped him, their first question was always if what he was doing was art. Rojas said that he felt ashamed when he told them that it was.

He said that for most of his journey throughout the city, including the areas where Olympic crowds gather in their festive throngs, he became invisible. The only part of the city where people stopped him to find out what was going on was the DTES.

Vancouver Media Collective (VMC)

Next up was the VMC, home of the unembedded Olympic media. The Vancouver Media Coop showed three videos: First, showing student opposition to the torch when it went through UBC; second, showing the rally in support of Insite preventing Harper from getting to his speaking engagement’s; and third, about the February 13th bullying by police of pedestrian supporters of a protest.

The Semiotics of Protest

Anti-protest protest sign

Local poet Donato Mancini spoke next offering an interesting analysis of anti-protest protest (APP) erupting with increasing frequency in Vancouver throughout the games. These are the angry, sincere and prankish retorts by Olympic enthusiasts aimed at visible displays of political dissent. For example, across the street from the Tent City hangs a huge banner “Build resumes not tents”; at a recent rally a woman barged in amidst the protestors shouting “get a job! get a job!”; at another rally a group spontaneously began singing “oh cannabis” and were joined by others who held up signs offering “hugs”; a sign hangs in a Commercial Drive window “I ain’t protestin’ nothing”.

Donato’s question: is protest still politically meaningful? Or has it become a self-contained form of dissent that is its own outcome – protest for the sake of protest?

Protesting against protest comes in a number of forms. One recurring theme is that political protest is a violation of their (non-protester) rights. How dare you, they ask, protest at my Olympic party? The larger problem here, according to Mancinci, is that protesting against protest it is an argument against the democratic value of protest, a kind of creeping fascism that we should pay attention to.

Another theme common in APP is that protest against the Olympics is absurd. Why absurd? Because, Mancinci suggests, the Olympics presents itself as outside of politics. A political complaint against something that exists outside of politics is rendered nonsensical. He showed a photo of a woman holding a cardboard sign that read “Being a vandalizing douchebag is not a political statement” — presumably in response to the vandalism that occurred during the Heart Attack 2010 rally. A protest against capitalism is equally absurd in a world where the end of capitalism is unimaginable.

VANOC, the IOC and others are also aware of the shifting semiotic terrain of protest. Olympic officials have been promoting what activists have taken to calling “red block” tactics – dressing up in Canadian flags, painting maple leaves on the face, singing Oh Canada in crowds and drowning out events of protest with vocal displays of patriotism and Olympic enthusiasm.

Commercialization of anti-protest protest

Another APP response came from a snowboard company with a Panda mascot that actually joined protest rallies carrying a sign that read “You say protest, I say party”. Pictures of the mascot at political rallies were then used in advertising.

Commercializing anti-protest protest

The importance of these semiotic disputes is critical. The fight has become ideological, Donato suggested, so much so that whether or not those that smashed the windows of the Hudson’s Bay are caught is irrelevant (there have been 12 arrests prompting some in the anti-Olympic movement – given the very high levels of security and surveillance being applied to activists before the throughout the games – to question who they really were). What is important are the messages that circulate in the media about these events. Interestingly, there have been more arrests for drunken brawling and public disorderliness than for protest, but the drunken brawling is all part of the Olympic fun, while the latter remains inexcusable or nonsensical, or both.

The Red Tent Campaign: Update

Up next was someone from the Red Tent Campaign who has been living at the Tent City on East Hastings. Apparently, the “red block” has been busy there, too, aggravating tenters, pissing on tents from the street, unplugging and screwing around with the camp generator, even pushing and shoving some of the tenters and supporters.

The Red Tent Campaign has come under criticism for pandering to the media, but this according to the speaker is exactly what it is supposed to do. The goal is to present an easily digestible non-threatening message to the world’s media. The campaign’s goal is to have a national housing program reinstated by the federal government.

Someone said that there are rumours that some homeless people using the red tents had encountered trouble with the police because they had become more visible. The speaker said that of course use of the tents was entirely voluntary. There was also a suggestion that the Red Tent Campaign could benefit by making links with the green narrative around alternative housing strategies – cob housing, bale housing, etc. The person who made the suggestion was invited to speak at the next Red Tent Campaign meeting.

Shock Troops of Gentrification: Community Service Learning in the DTES

Last to speak was someone from the Humanities 101 program in the DTES, a series of classes offered through UBC for local residents. There is a crisis of change in the neighbourhood, we were told. The two things that make new home-buyers in the DTES feel safe – gentrification and police presence – are the very two things that DTES residents fear the most.

On the leading edge of gentrification – after, presumably, the transformed Woodward’s building, its commercial tenants, new occupants, and the increasing prices of SROs in hotels closest to the Woodward’s complex – is something called the Learning Exchange (LE). LE is a UBC program that offers UBC students an authentic inner-city experience in the DTES as part of a community service learning program. It is a model imported from the U.S., and one that many in the room perceived as dangerous and ultimately destructive to the DTES.

In brief, every semester the LE brings in over 1,000 students who, according to the speaker, are ill-prepared and come with many problematic assumptions about the neighbourhood. The influx of students also makes the neighbourhood attractive to different kinds of businesses. And the invasive quality of students coming to the area to conduct “research” to further their own careers by studying poverty leaves a very bad taste in the mouths of many local residents and organizers. The students, it seems, are like gentrification shock troops.

The “community service” — or whatever it is, maybe parasitic visitation — has become part of how students are assessed academically. Their stint in the DTES now appears on student transcripts and plays a role in the vying for recognition and prestige in job markets and academic settings. The speaker suggested that we need a new way to describe this activity – that “volunteer” no longer applies when the context is so deeply enmeshed in career building and academic standing.

Someone in the audience suggested that there is a kind of “ethnographic violence” at work in the way academics appropriate knowledge and experience from a poor and marginalized community. The academics, because of their position in society, can transform the knowledge and experience of poverty, homelessness, drug addiction into social and economic benefits for themselves through academic careers. The people who own these experiences and knowledge are marginalized and devalued because of them.

Other interesting items discussed: the so-called “mixed” housing at Woodward’s is apparently not so mixed after all. The social housing units have their own entrance and their own elevator. Commercial units face the street; social housing units face the alley. And, the social housing does not have access to the spa and gym facilities on the top floor. What exactly is being mixed in these circumstances remains unclear.

Also, the housing kiosk on the ground floor of the Woodward’s building set up by various levels of government to help address international interest in the DTES is “dangerously misrepresenting the neighbourhood” as a beacon of positive development and transformation, according to some. Many believe that the kiosk was created to divert international media away from speaking with community organizations and local residents.

There was also a discussion about recording images of people in the DTES, often in states of crisis. Many people who participate in media projects – for instance, Lincoln Clarkes’ internationally recognized Heroines project, photographs of women heroin addicts in the DTES using the techniques and semiotics of fashion photography – later want to rescind their consent. How valid is consent from someone experiencing or recovering from severe trauma, anyways? But they rarely if ever can, and the images become a permanent record of something participants would rather remain private.

Someone pointed out that photography entered the world as an instrument and technique of control and classification — a way of documenting criminals, conducting sociological research, organizing knowledge within structures of power. Even the earliest films by the Lumiere Brothers — films originally made for display to audiences of means at World’s fairs — tended to focus on exotic others: women workers at a factory, images of locals and local scenes from the colonies.

Thus ended the VIVO Newscast, February 21, 2010.

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