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Review

Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings

By Reid Shier

November 4, 2013

Review By Jill Wade

EVERY BUILDING on 100 West Hastings is a panorama by Vancouver’s acclaimed film and video artist Stan Douglas. Without exaggeration, it is a marvellous and monumental photograph of the façade of buildings across the street from the old Woodward’s building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. As a recent acquisition of the Vancouver Art Gallery, it joins works by many other photo-conceptualists, including the internationally renowned JefF Wall. Arguably, the photo-conceptual link between issues in art and society, so critical in Douglas’s panorama, is traceable not only to Wall’s photographs but to the earliest work of Iain Baxter, who taught in the mid-1960s in the University of British Columbia’s Fine Arts Department. 

While a representation of the south side of the 100-block of West Hastings, the photograph is in fact a contrived image quite unlike the panoramas of the street shot earlier in the twentieth century. No people and no traffic move along Hastings Street. Strategically illuminated rooms on three storeys are vacant, and other windows and doors are boarded up. Significantly, the 66-centimetre-by-426.9-cenimetre chromogenic print is multiperspective: there is no vanishing point. (Douglas converted twenty-one photographs into a single, almost seamless image using digital and high-resolution scanning technology.) The powerful, constructed image, surrounded by an unusually broad, white border, reveals an urban wasteland. Without doubt, Douglas, who consistently bridges the divide between art and social issues in his work, imposes this impression of emptiness on the viewer. 

Reid Shier, the editor of Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings, has transferred the idea of a wasteland to the content of the book. With its cover illustration of a section of the photograph and with its pocket insert of the whole image, this slender paperback is first of all a catalogue published in late 2002 for an exhibition of Douglas’s work at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery. Yet, by another measure, the book is a collection of essays by several authors who use the panorama’s message to make sense of today’s social crisis in the Downtown Eastside. Shier establishes the idea of abandonment in his introduction: in the 1990s, many artists and gallery owners, including Shier himself, fled when the drug culture took hold of the Downtown Eastside. 

The image of a wasteland engages all the essayists of Stan Douglas: Every Building on 100 West Hastings. The geographers Jeff Sommers and Nick Blomley characterize today’s social crisis in “the worst block in Vancouver” and the Downtown Eastside as a conflict between impoverished residents and gentrifying “settlers” aiming to “reconquer” what they perceive to be a “waste land.” In building their argument, Sommers and Blomley apply the concept of stigmatization, based upon local and theoretical discourses about “the ghetto,” and “the myth of the ‘new urban frontier,'” developed by Neil Smith to explain gentrification in the United States. Elsewhere in the book, Smith and Jeff Derksen, both cultural geographers, use the “new urban frontier” thesis to address the globalization of gentrification and its implications for cities like Vancouver. The argument for “re-conquest” is compelling and will inspire debate. Still, given the wealth of original evidence and the availability of some interpretive literature, Sommers and Blomley could enrich that argument by substantiating more fully the slow decline of the Downtown Eastside and by differentiating more clearly the “reconquest” of today from all the instances of “resettlement” since contact. The challenge for historians will be to square the “new urban frontier” thesis with the old one of Frederick Jackson Turner.

To underline the violence associated with the wasteland of the Downtown Eastside, the art historian Denise Blake Oleksijczuk, whose scholarly interest is the early British panorama, analyzes the formal “haunted spaces” of Douglas’s print and ties them to the shocking disappearance of over sixty Vancouver women since 1978. Additionally, Smith and Derksen warn of the potential for strife accompanying gentrification. Is the empty Woodward’s building, they ask, another flashpoint in the global conflict between local residents and capitalist “gentrifiers”? 

Unlike the social commentators and activists of other times, Douglas, Shier, and the essayists offer no explicit political solutions to the tragedy of the Downtown Eastside. Yet the concurrence of the exhibition of Douglas’s panorama and the publication of this catalogue with the Woodward’s squat and the 2002 Vancouver civic election is at least an implicit solution.