Fight for the city

Photo courtesy of the Real Fight for Beauty

For weeks now Vancouver has been covered in ads urging us to “Fight for Beauty,” promoting a so-called exhibit downtown. With bus shelters ads, google ads, youtube ads, and countless full page newspaper ads, this one of the most prominent marketing campaigns the city has seen in years. But what is really behind this supposed fight for beauty?

The ubiquitous slogan and magenta-coloured ads are a project of Westbank, a giant local and international development company run by Ian Gillespie. As the corporation behind projects like Woodward’s, Vancouver House, and the just-approved 57-storey luxury tower at Burrard and Nelson, Westbank is remaking Vancouver’s skyline.

Given the wall-to-wall publicity, I decided to go check out Westbank’s “Fight for Beauty” myself. I dropped by on a rainy Saturday afternoon, taking my kids along after their swimming lessons. The exhibit is set up in a tent between the Shaw Tower and the opulent Pacific Rim Hotel. When we arrived, a valet was parking a Lamborghini.

Rather than anything culturally or artistically significant, what I found was a sterile and surprisingly small-scale “exhibit” that is little more than thinly-veiled PR for the developer. Many of installations are simple photographs or scale models of Westbank’s developments. Each piece is accompanied by rather anodyne audio explanations, many of them narrated by Gillespie himself. Sure, there’s a Shane Koyczan poem mounted high up on the wall, and a few sublime designs by the likes of the late Bing Thom. But the artistry, and the artists, are co-opted in this fight for corporate branding and profits – talent and beauty are subsumed by the banality of late capitalism.

The first piece is neon-lit poetry that reads as self-parody:

When did we say yes to beauty being

discarded deleted and demeaned?

Where is the agreement

that beauty is optional –

Not urgent for us to thrive?

Since when have we learned

the price of everything yet know

the value of nothing?

Westbank’s exhibit is not really about art or beauty; it’s an exhibition of power and money, which debases the real struggle for beauty of artists and other creatives in Vancouver. Westbank and its CEO have been significant donors to and supporters of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson. In 2011 Robertson even held an election campaign fundraiser and press conference in the Fairmont Pacific Rim, which is also owned by Gillespie.

The whole PR offensive also erases or obscures the real damage that Westbank’s development agenda has had on Vancouver neighborhoods. To help fill out the real picture, artists and other concerned residents are taking creative action. Local web developer Melody Ma has put together a parody website, The Real Fight for Beauty (therealfightforbeauty.ca):

“Through ‘Fight for Beauty’, Westbank is co-opting the arts for PR purposes, while artists are being economically and physically displaced in Vancouver due to unaffordability perpetuated by real estate development companies like Westbank.

‘The Real Fight for Beauty’ offers a glimpse into the world and real fights in Vancouver that ego-centric real estate developers are ignorant of. It is an attempt to express the evolution of how developers are taking over Vancouver and share the journey of regular people rising up to fight against “big brother’s” agenda. The exhibition describes the enormous grassroots effort Vancouverites continue to pour into the ongoing real fight for beauty and affordability in their neighbourhoods, while Westbank astroturfs.”

The website includes links to videos of artists decrying Westbank’s hijacking of culture and to articles explaining the impact of some of the company’s numerous luxury developments around the city.

As far as I’ve seen, Vancouver’s mainstream media outlets have yet to publish a critical word about the “Fight for Beauty.” Humiliatingly, several publications have run reviews like they would any other pop-up art exhibition. This speaks to the kind of “triumph of advertising” Theodore W. Adorno warned of in both the media and cultural industries. With the city’s remaining print dailies and weeklies so dependent on Westbank’s advertising dollars, how likely are they to publish an expose of the hand that feeds them?

Indeed, a story published in the Vancouver Sun Oct. 19 that included criticism of Westbank’s high pre-sale prices for a new condo development at Joyce Station was promptly removed from the Sun and all other Postmedia websites.

The ugly truth is that big developers have far too much power over our city, and so much money to burn that their political influence extends into the realms of media, culture and the arts. We don’t have to say yes to people in this city being discarded, deleted and demeaned. We can and must fight back. The real fight for beauty is the fight to take our city back from big money.

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