Features

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CENTRE A

A GOOD NEIGHBOUR

 

To visit the new home of Centre A in Chinatown is to put oneself into the middle of things: namely, the second floor of the Sun Wah Centre, located a block away from the focal point of Chinatown’s struggle against gentrification and displacement, the controversial (and cancelled) 105 Keefer Street condo project. The move from its previous location at 229 East Georgia Street to the Sun Wah Centre happened in December, and I was fortunate to sit down with Curator of Public Programmes, Shizen Jambor, to discuss it.

Centre A was founded as a non-profit artist-run centre in 1999 by Hank Bull, Zheng Shengtian and Stephanie Holmquist in response to what they saw as a gap in the representation of Asian art and artists in the Vancouver art scene. As Jambor puts it, the founders had an interest in “carving out space for [Asian and Asian diasporic artists], especially given that how much of Vancouver’s population over the years has consisted of Asian people.” Centre A hosts art exhibitions and has a public reading space — it houses “one of the best collections of Asian art books in the country,” according to its website.

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Illustration by Rachel Lau for Discorder Magazine

This is Centre A’s third major move in its 19-year history, but Sun Wah is by far its largest and most stable home, having secured a 10+10+10-year lease on 3,300 square feet of space. Plans for the new space include a media room, a more accessible reading room, and an expanded gallery space, capable of serving as one large or two smaller exhibition spaces.

Even in the midst of moving and ongoing renovations, Centre A has maintained an active events schedule. In March, Centre A presented a pair of film screenings and talks in partnership with The Cinematheque (Surname Viet Given Name Nam [1989] and Forgetting Vietnam [2015] by Vietnamese-born experimental documentarian Trinh T. Minh-ha), and hosted the closing party for Cinevolution Media Arts Society’s DocuAsia Forum, which included Christian Abi Abboud’s documentary, Ubuntu (2017). 

However, the relocation to Sun Wah wasn’t always smooth. Centre A initially entered into negotiations to sublet a space in BC Artscape’s portion of the Sun Wah Centre. When these discussions proved inconclusive, the gallery entered into a direct lease with the owners of the Sun Wah Centre.

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Photography by Lisa Wu for Discorder Magazine

Artscape is a point of contention in art scenes across the country. Though technically separate organizations, BC Artscape is affiliated with the Toronto-based Artscape, a self-identified “not-for-profit urban development organization.” Both organizations operate in a similar way according to a July 2017 article by Andrei Mihailuk for The Mainlander: that being the conversion of “underused properties,” bought or leased with private and public capital, into spaces for “professional artists and registered not-for-profits,” to be rented out at below-market rates.

However, as Mihailuk’s piece attests, Artscape is an organization that is not without controversy in its hometown. Moreover, close involvement in large-scale redevelopment projects has become a core part of Artscape’s model of “creative placemaking.” Mihailuk gives as an example the role Artscape’s Daniels Spectrum cultural hub played in the Daniels Corporation’s redevelopment and gentrification of Regent Park in Toronto.  

This is a concern that Jambor says Centre A recognizes, and seeks to address through its programming in Sun Wah Centre. “I think as an organization we’re definitely interested in trying to make an effort to not be instrumentalized in the way that, say, [urbanist and author of The Rise of the Creative Class] Richard Florida’s theories suggest that art spaces always are,” she says.

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Photography by Lisa Wu for Discorder Magazine

Jambor continues, “I think that being here, we definitely want to try to figure out ways to not make the other people in the building feel that we don’t care about them, or that we don’t care about what they want or their interests, that we’re not trying to push them away.”

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Illustration by Rachel Lau for Discorder Magazine

To wit, Centre A has always made a point of interacting with their neighbours, even if the experience is a little uncomfortable at first. “So far we’ve had a pretty good relationship with Alfred, who’s one of the people who runs the flea market. We go and buy supplies there sometimes, and we’ve developed a rapport. But definitely coming in here, initially, there was a sense that people were maybe wary of us,” she says.

Most of Centre A’s signage and materials are translated into Cantonese, and some of Centre A’s programming in the past few years has directly responded to the immediate Chinatown neighbourhood, including 2014’s M’goi/Do Jeh: Sites, Rites and Gratitude, which featured Cantonese language classes and neighbourhood tours.

This commitment to responding to the people surrounding them is something that Centre A has learned over time. Jambor explains, “In our old space, we had Cantonese text saying ‘All Are Welcome,’ and that was in response to one of the elderly neighbourhood locals saying that, as a space, our signage wasn’t very welcoming to Cantonese speakers because there was no way of knowing what was going on in [inside].”

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Photography by Lisa Wu for Discorder Magazine

Above all, Centre A seeks to “not aggressively assert [itself] as a sterile, clean space,” explains Jambor. “I think that’s often a thing art spaces can end up doing, even if they try to position themselves as ‘oh no, we’re attentive to those things.’ At the end of the day, a sterile white box is still a sterile white box.”

Jambor trusts that Centre A won’t lose sight of its mandate and its responsiveness to its community as it grows as an organization. “A lot of our stuff is expansion and institutionalization, and making ourselves a stronger voice in the city, but I’m also interested in retaining attentiveness to things on a more local scale,” Jambor concludes.

 

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Upcoming exhibitions at Centre A include an installation by Brooklyn-based sound artist C. Spencer Yeh in partnership with the Deep Blue collective late this spring, and the fifth annual recent graduates’ exhibition in June. Centre A will also take part in the Pacific Association of Artist Run Centre’s SWARM19 in September, and will have a table at the 2018 Vancouver Art/Book Fair in October. For all upcoming programming and updates, visit centrea.org and follow them on social media.

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“CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?”

VANCOUVER VENUES

Crises are exciting, in a harrowing sort of way, and if you’ve spent any time in Vancouver, you’ll know we’re pretty good at them. Opioids, housing, losing a hockey game — you’ve got plenty of options to get your blood-boiling and your temper flared. But there’s a new crisis in town that has locals buzzing, drawing the ire of creatives, concertgoers, and business owners alike: the music venue crisis. The only problem is that we don’t have one.

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Illustration by Emma Clark for Discorder Magazine

To be fair, Vancouver has experienced some tumult recently in regards to live music spaces, and is still experiencing closures and displacement currently. The much-beloved Red Gate Arts Society is being shut down at the end of May, at the behest of perennial bogeyman and building-owner Chip Wilson (Lululemon, Low Tide Properties). So too is the Cobalt closing its doors, as the 108-year-old building has been deemed unsafe to operate by the City, and the extensive repairs needed to save the space have been consistently delayed by its owners, the Sahota family. But even combined with all the other rehearsal, performance and studio spaces that have been bricked up and bulldozed over the past decade, is this enough to consider what the city is experiencing as a crisis? The answer, per scholars and venue owners, is a cautious “No.”

Ryan McCormick is a Master of Public Policy, and a co-founder of the non-profit Safe Amplification Site Society that advocates for all-ages and grassroots art spaces in Vancouver.

“This is big money,” he says of the issues facing many local music venues today. “This is all very connected to the housing crisis and the gentrification of the city […] So you can’t just look at music venues on their own.”

McCormick isn’t the only one to feel this way. The Rickshaw Theatre’s manager and proprietor, Mo Tarmohamed, expresses similar concerns over the rising costs of running concert spaces today.

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Photography by Pat Valade for Discorder Magazine

“Now that land values have become so lucrative, no venue can create enough revenue compared to what you might get if you develop that property for its best use,” Tarmohamed explains.

However, neither McCormick nor Tarmohamed see what Vancouver is experiencing today as unusual, or even unhealthy, for musicians and concertgoers. While each sees issues and room for improvement within the overall ecosystem of Vancouver’s venues, neither feel that we are in a particularly dark time.

As Tarmohamed opines, “I really don’t want to characterize what’s happening now as a dearth of venues, because frankly, there are lots of venues around. People get fixated on the usual suspects: Richards On Richards, the Town Pump, the ‘Back in the day we had so many’ attitude […] Venues open and venues close; it’s just the reality of the way things are.”

Although McCormick and Tarmohamed find common ground on the effects that unaffordability have had on the city’s music scene, and carefully cashier the notion that we’re in the midst of a venue crisis, both express distinct opinions on what the City of Vancouver should be doing to prevent a crisis from truly happening.

“A lot of the regulations that have caused venues to close in the past are ostensibly geared towards increasing safety, or decreasing unsafe conditions,” says McCormick, citing both his own research and personal experience. “But I think the problem with that approach, without encouraging a safer alternative, is people are just going to go into hiding more and more […] So the regulations that are intended to promote safety end up promoting riskier behaviour.”

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Photography by Pat Valade for Discorder Magazine

McCormick points to the significant turnaround in the City’s attitude towards skateboarding since the 1990s as a reference point, going from a heavily policed act of delinquency to a protected and publicly supported activity. What’s more, he notes the need to empower underground and grassroots venues to keep them safe and accessible to all-ages, rather than simply fining and foreclosing them.

“In the wintertime, the City gives out free salt,” he says, making a comparison that the same should be done with music venues and safety equipment. “No one is like, ‘Let me see what angle your sidewalk is built at,’ […] It’s no-questions-asked, ‘You need this for safety, here you go.’”

While Tarmohamed agrees that less-than-official spaces need more consideration from municipal government, his position as a venue operator outside of the underground naturally shifts his focus.

“The perception of venue owners is that there’s distrust from [the City] that owners are not responsible enough to conduct their business in a responsible manner,” he says. “So, they impose a whole bunch of rules they wouldn’t on other businesses.”

In particular, Tarmohamed expresses frustration with hosting all-ages shows at venues like the Rickshaw. The lack of legal all-ages concerts in Vancouver is in no small part rooted in prohibitive liquor laws that restrict venues’ ability to allow under-nineteens into shows with alcohol present. With more and more Vancouverites being driven out of the city due to unaffordability, all-ages shows are one possible solution that Tarmohamed sees to help expand the Rickshaw’s audience and keep their lights on.

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Photography by Pat Valade for Discorder Magazine

“I’d love to have more shows that are all-ages, because, in essence, [young people] are the next generation of concertgoers,” he says. “They’re perfectly welcome to go see the Lions, or the Whitecaps, or the Canucks, where drinks are served, and yet for some reason live music has this negative perception […] because we don’t trust venue owners to police the rules.”

While the City of Vancouver did respond to our request for comment, the statement they provided is limp to say the least. Per Communications Manager Lauren Stasila: “A variety of challenges facing musicians in the city, and suggestions for how the City can better work with the music industry, have been brought up throughout the engagement process for the Vancouver Music Strategy and will be a consideration as part of the recommendations provided to council this summer.”

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Photography by Pat Valade for Discorder Magazine

Not much is known about the Vancouver Music Strategy, other than information provided in a recent press release. It’s expressed purpose “is to increase the integration and awareness for the music industry by the City,” but details of how the City will better address the needs of the industry and its members are fuzzy. What’s more, a glance at the Strategy’s steering committee leaves much to be desired. Included are the co-chair of Music BC, the Executive Vice President of Music Canada, and two members of the symphony and opera orchestras, among others. What the committee lacks, however, is any meaningful representation from independent and underground voices in Vancouver’s music scene, opting instead for the guidance of figures either tied to government directly, or artists among the upper echelon. Though the steering committee will be advised by “individual artists, grassroots organizations, [and] youth, across a wide intersection of genres and ages,” it remains to be seen what the overall impact these groups will have on the final Strategy presented to City Council.

Though it feels rash to call what Vancouver is experiencing a genuine crisis of venues, that doesn’t mean that more work isn’t necessary. Between the concerns of McCormick and Tarmohamed, and the mounting issues of unaffordability and displacement felt city-wide, the municipal government has their work cut out for them with their shiny new Music Strategy, and whatever it truly entails.