call it a construction project, not nostalgia

It’s curious for me reading these posts, participating in this fascinating project, imagining the shape of the controversy, the contrast between our un-thought expectations of what a Skwxwú7mesh-owned billboard should do and what it actually does, all the while living in Boulder, Colorado. And, having lived in Vancouver for some years with very clear memories of Burrard Street Bridge, I tend to imagine the bridge without the billboard and instead defined by the bustling commercial starkness of the street-level, running parallel to the art, decay human waste, human lives going on underneath. It – these blog posts, the Digital Natives Project – provides a little space for me to try out an experiment: think about the haunting in memory and in place and then actively re-make these memories for the present, not the past.

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Thinking through the task

So started to think about what it is that I want to say for the project. My name is Phillip Djwa. I’ve lived in Vancouver all my life, with some years out for work and school. I was born in the West Side and live (and work) in the East Side. In fact, with my 42nd birthday I’ve been on the East Side officially longer than West. I’m part Indonesian, Chinese, MiqMaq, and English. I’m quite a mix. Maybe someone like me represents the kind of diversity that Vancouver is. I’ve always noticed how diverse people are here and it is only increasing. Is that something that long time Vancouverites are afraid of or is it something they are a part of?

When I was growing up, in our neighbourhood, there were only 2 Chinese families; mine and the Yips. They came over to say hi to me within a few days of us arriving and we’ve been friends ever since. From my childhood, I remember small incidents of racism that seem so oddly out of character for Vancouver now, but maybe it was part of the growing pains. Or has Vancouver truly grown? Maybe my tweet should come out of that.

A few years back I discovered the Aboriginal connection in my family. It’s a bit tenuous (great great grandma) and I don’t have status, nor do I claim it, except that my own exploration has led me to work in native communities for 10 years to understand and be thoughtful about my work. I had lots of funny and insightful times. I sometimes travelled with a colleague who has full status but he looks very white. I look quite native and there was always a confusion around who was the “real Indian” and we enjoyed the mixup. Still, the grinding poverty, and lack of education (which was what I was doing except around technology), in so many communities made a real impact on me. The ways that work in the business world, the art world, and the social service sector all had to adjust to be even remotely useful in First Nation communities. You can’t even begin to understand the complexities of delivering a program to a community until you’ve been on the ground. The worst were funding programs that had no local presence, just sending money. You could see just how poorly they worked…

So maybe ideas around identity will be a good start on this.

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Hot Spot

I love this billboard. It’s a rare example of how a familiar sort of object can carry irony right up from its underpinnings. In this most regulated city, it maneuvers its way past being out of place, and brings the history of its location all the way up to eye level. Now, to layer messages on to it – from individual commentators – to interrupt other messages, makes this very private piece of sky public once more.

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Origins myth

The project started when I was out for a run around False Creek last winter and, crossing the Burrard Street bridge, I saw the digital billboard for the first time. I’d been using social media, twitter especially, for a little while then, including in my teaching @ SFU. And I thought – why not set up a twitter feed on the billboard, as some kind of public art project. It seemed so simple. A way to take what is already public (because with twitter especially, as compared to facebook, anyone can read your posts – they don’t have to be your “friends”) and put it in a new, different, spatialized & localized setting or medium. Plus both the sign (being located on Skwxwú7mesh territory) and the bridge (where bike lanes had recently been installed) are nicely controversial – so that was a plus. What I mean by that is that when controversies happen, there’s usually some gap between what we think should happen (native people should be noble savages, bridges are for cars) and what does happen (natives want to make money, there’s more to traffic than cars and trucks). And then, for public art not only to be located on a controversial site but in a way that is both global (through social media) and local (with respect to Vancouver’s history) – that seemed very cool.

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