The State of Refuge in Vancouver
This text appeared originally in Fillip 3, in slightly longer form:
At the Lobby Gallery, Erica Stocking exhibited Single Room Occupancy. She built a mid-level luxury hotel room in an empty space behind the gallery wall. The Lobby Gallery serves a duel function as the actual lobby of the Dominion Hotel, a boutique hotel on Abbott Street just North of Cordova and West of Carrall. It is just tucked into Gastown—the historical district which designates itself from the surrounding Downtown Eastside with brick sidewalks, wrought iron guard posts and marked street lighting.
During the exhibit, the only thing displayed on the gallery wall was a fire escape plan. On this plan, the door of the artist’s “Room 001” showed in pencil three quarters the size of the others. If one could find the slim, unexpected actual door, one would step into the two by seventeen foot functional hotel room, defined as such by the spotless white duvet, the thick set of hotel hand towels, the gleaming faux vintage tap and sink, the hotel telephone, the pad of writing paper and the soft, yellow track lighting. For the duration of the exhibit, one could stay in the tiny Single Room Occupancy for 35 dollars a night.
Refuge entered English from Old French by way of the Latin refugium, “to run away or to flee.” It shares a root with fugitive—a word that implies a position both inside and outside of the law. This is the precise position that the piece takes. In a space outside of the gallery’s circumference, but in its physical building and naming domain—inside an art hotel remade from an old SRO located just inside the lawful historic memory of old Vancouver, which is surrounded by a neighborhood at the center of the city that is unsanctioned by the city’s self-image—the artist built this hidden room.
The hidden room is located beyond the eyes of the law but embedded deeply within the social. It describes the most interior limits of the law with its walls. It presses protectively out against the law and is conversely constructed by it. The hidden room asserts the intolerability of the state of affairs outside. Its extreme interiority implicates these conditions as such. It can be thought of as the architecture of exception. Of course, the hidden room is a negative space. It can only be read as politically efficacious if it is read as performative, as a space that performs the necessity for its own negativity. It is not a home.
The effectiveness of Single Room Occupancy is the stillness of its voice—a critique that is positioned, rather than given. With its shape, this hidden hotel room manifests the dynamic between space and money in Vancouver. This room is an unheimlich refuge, spawned by an accelerated real estate market and reflective of its distortions. The mirror opposite of Single Room Occupancy might be The Factory, lofts recently built in a formerly low rent, artist-heavy neighborhood, which sold (in a matter of days) for approximately $550,000 each [circa 2006]. Single Room Occupancy both mimics this phenomenon and offers it up at a low price—albeit significantly downsized, and cowering at the edge of a gallery.
Here, an economy of scarcity is countered by a gesture of generosity. The critique uses a social voice. The artist has created a semiotically feminine space, critical of its site (its site being the type of space said to herald the city’s thrust towards a total hospitality economy that, after shopping, will flaunt culture as its main asset) while flirting with it, a space evocative rather than accusatory in tone. Its critique is inhabitable—and leaves all the pleasure of a tiny, perfect, hidden room well intact. However, lest one reduce this pleasure to the most obvious pleasure a hotel room inspires, the artist added a caveat to the rental contract: only one person can stay overnight at a time. Therefore, all pleasure taken is to be taken from the room’s luxury, the occupant alone on its half-bed, left to contend with this disjunction.
May 15, 2014
It’s been difficult for me to think cogently about what is going on in San Francisco right now, even when armed with some years of study about these very processes. I do not believe “gentrification” fully describes it. San Francisco was already the second most expensive place to live in the US (now it is the first) and the gentry  already occupies most of its space. This is more like a hyper acceleration of a process already in high gear, something else, which is us and which is not us—and which uses our city, our beautiful streets, our homes as its object.
The turn of my literary studies began with the literal spatial dichotomy of the place where I studied: my University was on a hill, in the clouds, far off from the streets below which contained at their very center “the poorest postal code in North America.” My thinking initially formed around the architecture of writing by M.M. Bakhtin which described a tight, inextricable relationship between the two opposite poles of power. It led me to a citywide conversation amongst mostly artists, also obsessed with working on our city. Jordan Strom, the founding editor of Fillip, welcomed the piece reprinted above. I post it here today having read a story about Section 8 evictions. Says Giorgio Agamben, “What my research has shown me is that sovereign power has been based since its origins on the separation between naked life (the biological life that in Greece took place in the home) and life as politically defined (which takes place in the city). Naked life was excluded from politics and was at the same time included and captured by its own exclusion: in this sense, naked life is the negative basis of power. . . . In opposition to this view, what we have to do is to conceive of a politics of vital forms, that is, a life that cannot be separated from its form, one that will never be naked again.” Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, with its complicated history of divestment, its aging resource economy workers, its First Nations survivors of brutal residential schools, its open drug use and prostitution, is an exception– as much as a downtown turned into a checkerboard of construction sites to be filled with mostly unoccupied tall glass towers is an exception. Yet I sense limits in anagrammatic thinking right now. I am not sure there are legible sides which can be explained through spatial metaphor: the city/and the university, or the agora/and the oikos, or the the square/and palace, or even city hall. Governance is everywhere. The political happens on the level of the transaction.
While it is crucial to know the details of how the current situation affects individuals, our moral outrage, empathy, and disbelief are unshared by those with power and money, and that is their right, by law. Levinas’s ethical face scrolls by everyday in Facebook’s newsfeed; representation has become democracy’s decoy. Our situation is different than Vancouver’s, we mostly do not have international investors razing historical buildings to put up glass and steel facsimiles of a brave New Urbanist world. Rather, we have people bullying other people out of their homes, massive rental corporations formed in the wake of massive foreclosures, rent-backed securities. The regions have different styles of deregulation. Common to both cities (and most cities now): international real estate investment, “home” being distorted into capital- yielding commodity, resources shifting upward, people sifted to the periphery, total remake of space, the denuding of human life.
1. “One by one, many of the working-class quarters of London have been invaded by the middle classes—upper and lower. Shabby, modest mews and cottages—two rooms up and down—have been taken over, when their leases have expired and have become elegant, expensive residencies. Larger Victorian houses, downgraded in an earlier or recent period—which were used as lodging houses or were otherwise in multiple occupation—have beem upgraded once again. . . . Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.” Ruth Glass, London: Aspects of Change (1964).