Circa 1948 — Post-War Vancouver’s Hidden Pasts, Digital Futures
Vancouver is a city old enough by now to contain ghosts from the past, ones that linger over time. These are ghosts that have survived change and have bore witness to Vancouver’s fluctuating urbanscape which has been rebuilt so many times that its skyline looks newly minted reflecting the last rays of afternoon sun over English Bay. And like nearly all cities around the world currently, Vancouver is experiencing a pacy change in its architectural landscape. The city is even quick to acknowledge that what’s left from the 1970s is looking dated by today’s standards. This was an era before Expo 86 and the advent of it’s Skytrain transit network which debuted in the mid-Eighties that contributed to shaping the modern city it has become. Now each generation breathlessly awaits to usher in their vision of the future, tossing out what used to define a place or a neighborhood in the city that the previous one knew like a good friend.
Artist Stan Douglas is one who acknowledges the value of time, place and Vancouver’s architectural heritage that have helped cultivate its urban identity, geography, and expose its vulnerability through periods of tumult and change. His recent work Circa 1948, in collaboration with National Film Board Digital Studio in Vancouver, revels in an immersive historical narrative, casting a lens on late 1940s Vancouver as part of the exhibit “Hidden Pasts, Digital Futures: A Festival of Immersive Arts” at Simon Fraser University’s Woodward’s campus in Vancouver on view through October 16. Afterwards,Circa 1948 will be on view at SFU Surrey from October 27 — November 13.
Viewers immersed in Circa 1948 are introduced to post-war Vancouver as “a rain-soaked city in the ruins of the old order and the shape of things to come. Where what is right is not necessarily what is good and where what is wrong can exist above and below the law.” Drawing from film noir and mystery radio dramas, ghosts of the city’s past come to life in this period-inspired work with Virtual Reality gaming technology.
The nocturnal world of Circa 1948 pivots between two Vancouver locations that no longer exist. The original Hotel Vancouver, “a crumbling grand hotel . . . home to newlyweds, grifters and homeless war vets,” is recreated in period detail from the 1940s swing-era with its grand lobby interior before the building was demolished by 1950. Across town in East Vancouver, the twilit Hogan’s Alley is lined with turn-of-the-century period buildings that were home to the neighborhood’s early multicultural residents. It’s a place that was populated with “immigrant workers, drifters, and dreamers” who “rub elbows with politicians and cops on the take.” Circa 1948 imaginatively recreates this diverse community before the homes and buildings from this mostly African-Canadian residential district were tore down in the 1960s to make room for the Georgia Street Viaduct. Plans for the controversial Georgia Street Viaduct — as part of a larger freeway network that would have cut a swath through much of Hogan’s Alley, Chinatown and Gastown — were finally stopped by local business leaders and community activists in the 1970s.
Vancouver’s Eastside neighborhoods — that included Hogan’s Alley adjacent to Chinatown and Strathcona — are sourly described in the short film “To Build a Better City” produced by the Central Mortgage & Housing Corporation in 1964. Screened earlier in October at The Western Front in Vancouver as part of the conference “Urgent Imagination: Art and Urban Development”, the film cheerily introduces Vancouver’s modernity by mid-century through physical manifestations of economic prosperity such as industrial plants, hospitals, apartments and offices. Combined, these components make “Vancouver’s ever-changing skyline a symbol of its civic progress.” By way of contrast, as the camera pans down from the iconic Electra residential tower built in the late 1950s to reveal modest Carpenter Gothic and Edwardian-era homes, the film’s narrator darkly comments on the aging residential building stock. “Blight,” he intones, “is death to a city, and these dwellings built with such hope and care at the turn-of-the-century are dying board by board.”
The film “To Build a Better City” rhetorically makes an argument to eliminate urban blight and decay in favor of urban renewal and newer models of social housing such as affordable apartment blocks. The film also underscores the need for renewal in order to justify a 20-year urban redevelopment plan that included the Georgia Street Viaduct and a mix of civic and commercial projects. Hogan’s Alley was identified to initiate the city’s urban renewal experiment as to reverse continued neglect, but at the same time, the demolition of the district eliminated the neighborhood character, cultural diversity and lead to the dispersal of the city’s small but vibrant African-Canadian community. Douglas rekindles an esteemed remembrance of Hogan’s Alley and its ghosts in the homes, brothels, and backyards found in Circa 1948.
The installation of Circa 1948 at Simon Fraser University offers a greater cinematic experience of the narrative. Artist Douglas and the NFB deliberately eschewed a need for VR wearables or a headset to encourage a freer immersive experience. Viewers can participate in the Circa 1948 installation inside a gray cube at SFU Woodward’s after scheduling an appointment during the installation’s run. The iOS mobile version of Circa 1948 relies on a more concentrated focus and engagement with the iPad app, and it’s best experienced with headphones.
The interior and exterior settings of the Hotel Vancouver and Hogan’s Alley beckon for exploration around every corner with glowing objects pulsing with an opportunity for further discovery of Circa 1948’s stories. Sound cues also help embellish the experience and convey ambience. Coins drop, radio communications modulate for fine-tuned frequencies, and the soft banter of voices in the shadows all combine to set the stage for the ghostly vignettes from the narrative. The stories in Circa 1948 reveal the hard-scrabble lives of Vancouver’s newcomers and residents who are down on their luck or are engaged in gambling, prostitution, and corruption in the port city. These virtual inhabitants are redolent of the corner souls and expressive pedestrians found in Fred Herzog’s pensive photographs of mid-century Vancouver, and evocatively offer a voice to their images.
Circa 1948 not only exposes the city’s past ghosts, it also reinvigorates the urban context by envisaging the city’s architectural heritage and its intersection on the cusp of socio-economic change. It’s this particular perspective on Vancouver’s modernity that attracts Douglas and informs his art, and one that is a shared thread in his previous works. The large mural-sized digital photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008), for example, that hangs inside SFU Woodward’s campus entry foyer captures a gritty scene of the Gastown Riot near the former Woodwards department store. Sparked by an unprovoked police assault against a peaceful student-led smoke-in,Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 succinctly reveals the divisive social conflict against a pivotal point of Vancouver’s Gastown in transition from Skid Row dereliction to heritage district. And by extension, the city’s troublesome history with riots is underscored in Douglas’ arresting image.
He has also meticulously documented the vacant storefronts and buildings in Vancouver’s Eastside in Every Building on 100 West Hastings (2001). This city block was once bestowed with claim to be the “gateway to one of the most contested and controversial inner-city neighborhoods in North America.” Douglas photographed each of the Edwardian-era buildings at night, then stitched together a composite 16 x 3-foot photograph that beckons the viewer to consider the image of derelict buildings and what constitutes a neighborhood. Straddling between Gastown and Chinatown, 100 West Hastings once attracted homeless and drug users leaving business owners and others to vacate from the area in the 1990s. By the time SFU Woodward’s campus in Gastown was opened in 2009, the nearby 100 West Hastings block had been part of renewed transformation, shedding away its marginalized past.
What these works have in common is a shared urgency of capturing the city’s mood, its zeitgeist, and the layout of the urban cityscape. As long-term Vancouverites know all too well, change happens briskly, but only just long enough to savor the passages of time and what came before. And as an artifact from the digital era, Circa 1948 also expresses a version of embellished memory to capture an agar-dipped moment from the city’s collective past.