Poetry's spatial and aesthetic relationship to power

A conversation with Nicholas Perrin

Olympics protest in Vancouver, February 2010
Olympics protest in Vancouver, February 2010

Jules Boykoff

Whenever I went to Vancouver in both the run-up to and the aftermath of the Olympics I always sought out Nicholas Perrin for thought-provoking analysis, deep thinking, and good cheer.

Nicholas deftly blends creativity with brass-tacks organizing in ways that forge solidarity and hope. He is an artist, poet, and cultural activist who studies and works in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. A former member of the Kootenay School of Writing, Nicholas currently curates a series titled Imminent Future with a collective of friends who began working together during the Olympics. He is also a member of the Lower Mainland Painting Co, a conceptual artwork and research initiative seeking to situate shifting forms of value and the modes of labor and negotiation through which artists work and dialogue amidst broader social forces and struggles. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, he teamed up with Cecily Nicholson and Am Johal to create the “Safe Assembly Project” at the VIVO Media Arts Centre during the Olympic moment in 2010.

JB: What was the thinking behind the "Safe Assembly Project"? And what role did poetry play?

NP: I have a hard time assigning a substance to Safe Assembly. It was a project, a temporary collective, a series of events and programs. I think the important thing to highlight is what it wanted to do: intervene into the cultural framing of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

A couple years before Safe Assembly began to take shape, it’s host the artist-run VIVO Media Arts Centre decided to opt out of taking funding from sources administered by the various arms of the Cultural Olympiad (the arts and culture sidecar that comes in tandem with the sporting spectacle.) I can’t really speak for the specific conversation behind this decision, but the general idea I get is that, in considering programming, the political clarity of non-association with the Olympic project in the build-up to the games was valued over funding opportunities. VIVO went against the trend of every other arts centre in Vancouver, and chose to emphasize the construction of some authenticity instead of the opportunity to jump scales.

Safe Assembly’s relationship to poetry actually comes out of the first event I helped organize at VIVO in August of 2008, the Positions Colloquium. This five-day marathon gathering of poets was framed around concerns of positionality and ideology in contemporary poetics. Kika Thorne, VIVO’s curator at the time of the Positions Colloquium and in the build-up to the Olympics, invited me to help organize their programming during the two weeks of the Games as a way to continue our shared investigation into the difficulties of taking a position in contemporary art. During the weeks of the Olympics, poetry also played a big part in our programming and conversation. Beyond the numerous Vancouver poets attending and reading at events, Roger Farr and Steve Collis organized a group of programs under the title ‘Short-range Poetic Device’ for the Safe Assembly pirate radio station; poets Donato Mancini and Ivan Drury gave incredible presentations of their research into anti-protest protestors and the emergence of Canadian nationalism during the Games; and Cecily Nicholson played a central role in the organizing of our community forums, “The Evening News”.

In terms of cultural worker types, the poetry community made a big contribution to the Olympic protests here in Vancouver. During the protest that took place outside of the opening ceremony (5000-7000 strong), it was a group of poets who held the front line against the cops with the Black Bloc, the Vancouver poet laureate (not exactly a radical formally or politically) turned down funding so he could speak out against the effect the games were having on the city, and there were a number of other collective poetic interventions and publications around the city resisting the Vancouver Olympic rebranding effort. Safe Assembly was set up to provide a base for a lot of this work at VIVO, along with daily seminars, on and off site performances, radio programming, and public forums.

Perrin at Olympics protest

Perrin (in yellow cap) at Olympics protest in Vancouver

JB: One thing I found striking about resistance during the Olympics moment in Vancouver was a willingness among activists to rupture the well-rehearsed dichotomies that tend to fracture solidarity. When I interviewed you back in August 2010 you discussed the quandary of accepting Cultural Olympiad funding, which alienated many artists and activists who saw such funding as a synecdoche for cooptation. At the time you dubbed it a “societal Stockholm Syndrome where arts organizations forge an affective allegiance with their captors as a strategy for survival.” Yet, you also talked about the work of Skeena Reece and others who accepted Cultural Olympiad funding and then proceeded to subvert the five-ring machine. Could you please expand a bit on this “Stockholm Syndrome” and “the difficulties of taking a position in contemporary art” vis-à-vis the “the Vancouver Olympic rebranding effort”?

NP: Yeah, I’m actually not sure about what you’re calling the ‘rupturing of activist dichotomies.’  It did seem to many of the folks that I was around that something like that was called for…  at least for me the purity of condemnation and physical blockade that is possible for a G20 or World Bank/IMF convergence didn’t feel apt in the context of the ideological cocktail of the Olympics… a more complex positioning was called for. At least rhetorically, the Olympics fuel themselves off of the best intentions of the global middle class. And I was interested in offsetting the actual material practices of the Olympic institution and it’s social effect on host cities against these intentions. But rather than lean through the contradictions at play here, I think the general tendency was to overcompensate, double down on either the side of anti-colonial/capitalist critique or consumerist euphoria, in an attempt to present oneself as coherent. I’m entirely sympathetic to the activist side of this. In the over-simplified economy of mass-media soundbytes that one inevitably pushes off of when addressing the Olympics, complexity tends to get boiled down to how any dissenting position deviates from whichever-network’s construction of what their audience is supposed to feel. So if amplifying a specific message is something you’re concerned about, you do have to formulate and tighten your own clarity lest others do it for you. But it’s sad how this discursive corralling gets internalized. It’s easy to end up over-identifying a cause with old-school conceptions of class-consciousness and lefter-than-thou-isms, which don’t often give life to a struggle beyond providing a simple rhetorical starting point.

I had nothing to do with this level of organizing, but I think bottom-lining the movement with “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land,” beyond having a depth of ethical radicality too often overlooked in the concerns of the labour-left, completely throws a wrench in the logic of the media landscape I’m referring to above. The dismissal is politically legitimate at the same time as it is pragmatically impossible, forcing the recognition of an entirely other frame through which to read the Olympic project, and cutting through the spectacle and mystification it embodies as a kind of crown jewel in our ahistorical cultural logic. It’s such a solid and (for North American cities) uniquely Vancouver decision to ground the Olympic's protests in relationship to the anti-colonial movement, that it was doubly disappointing when this critical foundation was deployed as if to authenticate the movement beyond the reach of critique: as if speaking for indigenous elders or being of indigenous decent somehow made a measured investigation of protest tactics irrelevant. This normative over-emphasis on the symbolic stakes of "authenticity" avoids testing one’s strategies against their results on the ground. And discursively it's analogous to the logic that the Vancouver Olympic Committee deployed by touting their endorsement of “the four host nations” as a marker of aboriginal legitimacy for the Olympic project in BC, which is actually still unceded Coast-Salish territory.

It’s a minor critique amidst all of the amazing organizing work done. But it sets up how complicated the question that you’re asking is. For me, cooptation is a false criteria. But this does the opposite of let us off the hook. The symbolic power of "purity" or "authenticity" to transform our ways of life may have died with a prior era of sub-cultures. But ideologically, that just means we're deeper in the shit. There's no straight path out. So to counter this confusion, my understanding of a radical-cultural practice is actually in the process of getting parred down. I keep coming back to the word "testing"... to counter the contemporary orgy of communication we need to develop commitments to testing our symbols and institutions and practices and lives against one another and mostly themselves. Generally we've lost all criteria for establishing values or social measurements of justice. Now that most institutions with any relationship to the State are making the transition to a post-democratic form, this problem of assessment has less to do with issues of representation than it does with the re-imagining of pre-representational concepts like space and the social in ways counter to the predominant market logic. The Olympics, which represent the fantasy of capitalism to the world while contributing to the loss of resources, affordable housing, and public space in their host city, are ripe for this type of work.

“Art”, when producing meaning and concepts through models of individualistic expression, or circulated in economies designed for such models, generally has both a political and aesthetic relationship to power and capital that for the activist side of me is politically embarrassing and boring. But this position, when taken up as a tension that has implications on both the aesthetic and socially formal levels, opens up a potential to work with subjective and ideological repositioning that isn’t possible at the depressingly static albeit often necessary barricades between social blocs where protest generally functions. Put simply, I think "artists" should be concerned with using the particular privilege of their conservative and antiquated monopoly on public expression to create work that explores being both on the losing side of capital at the same time as being (at least) culturally implicated in its excesses. How can we (not just artists) make the implications of this actuality emotionally tenable for a broader than impoverished public? The Olympic project is of course self-consciously working towards the opposite effect in its collapse of corporate brand logic and the fetishization of amateur competition "without violence". The Stockholm Syndrome I was talking about in 2010 was my assessment of Vancouver Art's failure to respond to the implications of their role in the whole affair. The vast majority of public artists and cultural institutions ignored the tensions between the Olympic project, surviving economically in the city, and pushing forward a socially situated formal aesthetic project.

The Cultural Olympiad wasn’t so much the problem as it was the thing that made the problem momentarily legible. Vancouver, like many second-tier urban centres, is art-washing gentrification by jumping on the Richard Florida/Creative Cities bandwagon.  The Olympics themselves were very much about dropping a progressive brand over the top of intense antagonism and social justice issues in Vancouver, which is failing to deal with a housing crisis and quality of life issues in the sections of the city that rank as the most impoverished urban areas in Canada. The Cultural Olympiad functioned to roll Vancouver’s world-class art community into this mediating spectacle, and forego the challenge of taking up the subjective problems of identity and everyday life that false-front cultural events like the Olympics perpetuate in their dissociative effect upon the spaces we live in.

As an example, the two most popular Cultural Olympiad projects to come out of the community I’m referring to we’re what I’d call “post-ideological” social spaces. Both bars. One was positioned literally at the forefront of gentrification in Vancouver (which was massively ramped up by the development momentum that always accompanies the Olympics), actually above one of the contracted out housing projects in the Downtown Eastside. This housing space is home for Vancouver’s poorest, many of whom deal with severe mental health and addiction issues. The Art project, however, was loosely framed around addressing Seasonal Affective Disorder in the rainy Northwest, and positioned this contested area of the city as a pleasure destination for tourists and the “creative class”. The other project was a temporary Irish pub located in the premier tourist district of the city, which positioned itself as a sort of meta-café for intellectual discourse and self-reflection almost ready-made for a cosmopolitan moment such as the Olympics. In a moment when the overall housing crisis in Vancouver is being exacerbated by state funding cuts to cultural programs, and artist-run centres are being forced out of their permanent spaces by the inability to cope with rising rents, I thought the spatial opportunism and naivety at the root of these projects was disappointing.

But both spaces did have some more critical programming, and it was actually in the Irish Pub that I saw one of Skeena’s two performances during the Olympics. Skeena is one of my favorite Artists right now. She did the work of finding a way to pull some shit very much at odds with the intentions of the gag order that came with taking funding through the Cultural Olympiad. The piece that I was present for was a performance wherein, playing an indigenous “nurse”, she went about diagnosing and then “decolonizing” individual members of the audience. It was fantastically uncomfortable to watch her patients grapple with what her examinations revealed about how they understood themselves as colonizers. It was subtle, not positional in the way that “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” was positional. But completely radical in the way it dropped the floor out from beneath the position that the participants felt they held.  And the “affective allegiance”, so to speak, was entirely confused. She neither played her part as “citizen”, nor her part as the other, i.e. the “native princesses” on display during the opening ceremonies.

Nicholas Perrin in red-stripe action