In 2010, Westbank completed the hugely contentious Woodward’s development in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DES). Here, in as distinct a departure from Thater’s work as hers was from Chihuly, Vancouver artist Stan Douglas has mounted Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, a complex and epic photographic depiction of a riot that erupted on that day when Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers attacked protestors gathered in demonstration against the enforcement of laws prohibiting marijuana possession.
Gillespie’s invitation to Douglas to make a work in this contentious zone was partly based on the artist’s long engagement with the Downtown Eastside. Douglas has maintained studios in the DES for decades, and in the early 2000ʼs he began to address the area as a subject of his work. This began, ambitiously, in the creation of a sixteen-foot panoramic photographic portrait of the entire south side of the 100-block West Hastings’s Street – the opposite side of the block from the Woodward’s development – which at the time was entirely boarded up due to the malaise ignited by the escalating street market for drugs endemic on the block. A common perception however, is that the area’s rapid and precipitous deterioration in the 1990’s began when the Woodward’s department store – long an anchor of the community – closed its doors in 1993. Certainly the patina of scars that the South side of the 100-block bore and which Douglas found so evocative were directly attributable to the fact that, for over ﬁfteen years, an entire city block on the other side of the street was uninhabited.
Douglas’s idea for a commission for Westbank was thus shaped by the history of the community and the role of the Woodward’s building for and in the surrounding area. An early idea was a photographic “cross section” of the Woodward’s department store during a typical shopping day sometime in the 1950’s, with the intention of creating an archeology of the near past and showing the centrality of the store for what had been a heterogeneously large number of Vancouverites. When this idea proved unrealizable, Douglas began to focus on a topic that has long interested him: photographic recreations of Vancouver riots, in this case 1971’s Gastown Riot, which occurred in the blocks surrounding Woodward’s.
Douglas and a team delved into the history of this infamous incident with an eye to showing it through a new and unlikely perspective, recreating the event with as much historical accuracy and verisimilitude as possible in a photograph enacted on set with actors dressed in period costume. The set was erected with meticulous attention in a parking lot of the Paciﬁc National Exhibition (PNE) in the spring of 2008, and includes details gathered from primary records and through interviews conducted with living participants – police, bystanders and protesters – directly involved in the riot. The set, including a recreated façade of the Woodward’s building, was stocked with detailed period accents, including facsimiles of posters advertising rock concerts on in Vancouver at the time of the riot, and such things as watermelon rinds littering the concrete, that according to testimony, people were eating on the day.
Given this attention to detail, what is most surprising about the huge ﬁnished photograph (thirteen by eight metres), is how it manages to upset our preconceptions about what a riot should look like. Douglas has staged the action so that our gaze is drawn to the image’s edges and away from the relative absence in the photograph’s centre of any “action” (save for two teenagers running in escape from the police). Instead, the confrontations are arrayed around the image’s periphery, where mounted officers barricade groups of youths and riot police and undercover plainclothes cops manhandle others into a paddy wagon. Curious bystanders stand and gawk, apparently comfortable in their perceived risk of arrest, and in the case of two young boys, nonchalantly enjoy the drama from the curbside. Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, contains equal parts violence, voyeurism, fear and confusion, and Douglas has staged the image’s confrontations and spectatorship in a scene where the action appears everywhere and nowhere.
Through this radical composition, Douglas has created a rupture in our conception of how historical events are, as a genre, portrayed, within an historical counter-narrative of a polarizing civic event. Even prior to its debut the artwork had incited the VPD to publicly condemn Douglas’ choice to recreate the event. Now that its installed in the atrium of the ﬁnished building, it will be stimulating to track how this photograph – unique for the scale and ambition of its historical imagination – will assert itself in an ongoing and often divisive debate about Vancouver’s urban space and its built identity, particularly in the area where the development is sited, and where the impact of the presence of both artwork and building is only beginning to be gauged.