Foggy Connections: The Archive and The Port

By Jaclyn Guse

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While Artist Mathew Buckingham speaks to the physical and metaphorically changing landscape of port cities in his video “Obscure Moorings”, curator Cate Rimmer creates a bridge of historical relevance to our own city through “The Port”. Established in 1964, the port of Vancouver (now known as Port Metro Vancouver) has grown to be Canada’s largest and most diversified port, and is at the heart of our city’s bustling economy. Black and white photographs of Vancouver’s port beginnings, obtained from the Vancouver Archive collection, are adhered to the walls of the first room in the gallery. Gazing here and there, curator Cate Rimmer’s selection mimics Buckingham’s film, by providing only fragments of the port-city narrative. Placed without regard to chronology, and lacking obvious signage (a list of the works is available upon request), viewers are asked to interact with the snapshots organically.

Snippets into daily 20th century Vancouver waterfront activities, the allure here is the foggy connection to our port-past. Photos of sea-men frolicking in bars, on strike picketing for better working conditions, and posing with the crew on the decks of work ships are placed alongside each other, family-album style. A reflection of the times, my particular favorite is of the smiling Chinese bartender “photo-bombing” the grim, mustached men in uniform in Interior of a Bar Room circa 1917.

Bar room 1917

Sleekly blown up, printed on high resolution paper, and placed on the sparse, white walls the photographs lose a bit of their authentic touch and seem more like displaced objects of curiosity in the contemporary art gallery. Some have been altered and edited; even my favourite is cropped down to cut out the other two Caucasian barmen.

The timeworn materiality that is lost in the archival prints is made up for with the model ship stationed in the center of the room. The “S.S. Prince George” has been gathering dust for decades, originally shown at the Marine Club in 1956 (a social club for merchant seamen that closed in 2007), and more recently in the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Though you still can’t touch the artifact, the proof of time is evident on the model, as visible layers of grime encapsulate the decks of the ship.

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As the first-point of interaction in the exhibition, “The Port” acts as an introduction to Buckingham’s film, and as a reminder of the changing tides of our history. The gloomy mood of the old sailor based on Herman Melville’s “Daniel Orme” is pitted against the young man’s quiet contemplation and discovery in “Obscure Moorings”, and as I descended the installed wave-seat after the film I felt a mixture of empathy for both of them. Waiting for the elevator down to the main floor, I catch a glimpse of the “S.S. Prince George” standing alone, a metaphorical monument to our own Daniel Orme, and considered our future as a port city. Just as the archival images framed my experience of the film, the film changed my view of the archive. It was no longer factual, but began to seem more poetic.

The residual dust may be collecting on the ships model, but the reality of port-cities is stronger than ever, creating vast social, political and ecological impacts. How will our contemporary port city to be reflected in narrative 100 years from now? “The skyline is changing day by day” the radio declares against the crashing of waves in Buckingham’s film, a reminder of the dialogue between the past and the present that makes up our own experience of our consumerist-driven metropolis.

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