Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.VT.11.3.3 | PDF

Rav­ish­ing Van­cou­ver Cir­ca 1948 Susan Ingram

Ravishing Vancouver Circa 1948: Life Writing and the Immersive Translation of Noir Aesthetics

Susan Ingram
This arti­cle takes its cues from auto­bi­og­ra­phy schol­ar Mar­lene Kadar’s expan­sive, archival­ly focused fem­i­nist approach to life writ­ing in its exam­i­na­tion of two exem­plars of visu­al cul­ture: Ivan Say­ers and Claus Jahnke’s From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing: The Trans­for­ma­tion of Women’s Fash­ion in the 1940s & 1950s exhi­bi­tion and Stan Douglas’s inno­v­a­tive­ly staged Helen Lawrence and its sis­ter project, the inter­ac­tive app and instal­la­tion, Cir­ca 1948. It illu­mi­nates both works bio­graph­i­cal­ly, explor­ing their cre­ators’ rela­tion to Van­cou­ver to bet­ter under­stand the resur­gence of noir in Van­cou­ver cir­ca 2014 as a form of trans­la­tion intend­ed to make his­tor­i­cal lessons about crime and cor­rup­tion vis­i­ble for those will­ing to see them.
Cet arti­cle s’inspire de la vaste étude fémin­iste de la biogra­phie con­cen­trée sur les archives, menée par la spé­cial­iste de l’autobiographie, Mar­lene Kadar, pour exam­in­er deux exem­ples de cul­ture visuelle: l’exposition From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing: The Trans­for­ma­tion of Women’s Fash­ion in the 1940s & 1950s d’Ivan Say­ers et Claus Jahnke ain­si que la représen­ta­tion inno­v­a­tive de Stan Dou­glas, Helen Lawrence, et son pro­jet frère, Cir­ca 1948, l’application et l’installation inter­ac­tive. Il illus­tre les deux oeu­vres de façon biographique en explo­rant la rela­tion de leurs auteurs avec Van­cou­ver afin de mieux com­pren­dre la résur­gence du roman noir à Van­cou­ver autour de 2014 comme une forme de tra­duc­tion des­tinée à créer des leçons d’histoire sur le crime et la cor­rup­tion vis­i­bles à ceux qui acceptent de les voir.

From Sep­tem­ber 17, 2014 to March 8, 2015, the Muse­um of Van­cou­ver played host to an exhi­bi­tion that staged the city’s trans­for­ma­tion in the imme­di­ate post-WWII years as it went from a war-based econ­o­my to a bur­geon­ing con­sumer soci­ety. Based on the col­lec­tion of guest cura­tors Ivan Say­ers and Claus Jahnke, From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing: The Trans­for­ma­tion of Women’s Fash­ion in the 1940s & 1950s fea­tured 85 gar­ments plus acces­sories and traced how the female expe­ri­ence in Van­cou­ver went from one of cop­ing with aus­ter­i­ty to show­ing off the avail­abil­i­ty of con­spic­u­ous­ly sump­tu­ous cloth­ing to their best advan­tage. Ear­li­er that spring, on March 19, 2014, vaunt­ed Van­cou­ver visu­al artist Stan Dou­glas had made his the­atri­cal debut in the city with the world pre­mière of Helen Lawrence, an inno­v­a­tive merg­ing of the­atre, visu­al art, live-action film­ing, and com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery that he cre­at­ed in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with acclaimed screen­writer Chris Had­dock, best known for Da Vinci’s Inquest. The cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly enhanced stag­ing of a cliché noir sto­ry set in two rep­re­sen­ta­tive areas of Vancouver—the crime-rid­den Hogan’s Alley and the toney Hotel Vancouver—was a sis­ter project of the inter­ac­tive app and instal­la­tion, Cir­ca 1948, which Dou­glas co-pro­duced with the NFB. Both Helen Lawrence and Cir­ca 1948 quick­ly made their imprint nation­al­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly.1

I had the good for­tune to be able to expe­ri­ence both Say­ers and Jahnke’s exhi­bi­tion and a per­for­mance of Douglas’s the­atri­cal cre­ation in per­son, as I also did the “Lives Out­side the Lines: Gen­der and Genre in the Amer­i­c­as” Inter­na­tion­al Auto/Biography Asso­ci­a­tion con­fer­ence held to hon­our Mar­lene Kadar in May 2017.2 Kadar’s work was instru­men­tal in expand­ing the con­cept of life writ­ing to encom­pass crit­i­cal prac­tices, begin­ning with her path­break­ing 1992 edit­ed col­lec­tion Essays on Life Writ­ing: From Genre to Crit­i­cal Prac­tice. In Kadar’s con­cep­tion, life writ­ing “is meant to be a way to see what has been over­looked and to bear wit­ness to that, to under­stand the activ­i­ty of bring­ing a life into view through a text” (Rak 542). It “hon­ors both what peo­ple do when they tell, sing, dance, per­form, paint, or write their lives and how we might under­stand the sig­nif­i­cance of those acts” (War­ley 535). As Lin­da War­ley under­scored in her touch­ing trib­ute, “Life writ­ing mat­ters, not only to those who tell their per­son­al sto­ries, but also to those who engage with them” (535). Engag­ing with Say­ers, Jahnke, and Dou­glas as Kadar­i­an writ­ers enables me to show how they were able to find an ade­quate aes­thet­ic style to cri­tique Vancouver’s glob­al­iz­ing image.

Like Pamela Beat­tie, Simona Bertac­co, and Tat­jana Soldat-Jaffe’s spe­cial issue on “Declin­ing Trans­la­tion,” my con­tri­bu­tion does not belong in Trans­la­tion Stud­ies prop­er, but rather to “trans­la­tion plus”: “trans­la­tion, that is, plus an aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline or a trans­la­tion­al prac­tice that sit­u­ates its mean­ing” (Beat­tie et al. 1). This approach to trans­la­tion helps me “explore the rela­tion­ship between mem­o­ry and mean­ing in a vari­ety of texts and con­texts across great [and also not so great] his­tor­i­cal divides” (Beat­tie et al. 5). Link­ing Kadar’s expan­sive, archival­ly focused approach to life writ­ing with fash­ion and urban­i­ty allows me to lit­er­al­ly show how From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing and Helen Lawrence/Cir­ca 1948 worked to pro­vide the bou­tique metrop­o­lis that Van­cou­ver has become with a back­sto­ry that draws atten­tion to the lines of gen­der, class, and race that con­tin­ue to mark the city’s imag­i­nary. Turn­ing a spot­light on their cre­ators’ biogra­phies, which I do in the first two sec­tions of the paper, adds to our under­stand­ing of the sig­nif­i­cance of cross­ing and the need to cross these lines, the impli­ca­tions of which form the paper’s final sec­tion. Look­ing bio­graph­i­cal­ly at Douglas’s mul­ti­me­dia sen­so­ri­um through the lens of Say­ers and Jahnke’s exhi­bi­tion reveals the his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­i­ty inher­ent in visu­al­i­ty and adds com­plex­i­ty and his­tor­i­cal tex­ture to our under­stand­ing of the con­cept of Vancouver.

Fig. 1: The From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing catalogue
Fig. 2: Helen Lawrence pro­mo­tion­al image
Fig. 3: Cir­ca 1948 pro­mo­tion­al material

Sayers, Jahnke, and the Exhibiting of the Past

From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing was designed to show how cloth­ing reflect­ed the major changes in women’s lives brought about by the blip of WWII, when women “went from being moth­ers and home­mak­ers to fac­to­ry work­ers, farm­ers, and defend­ers of the home front” and then back to being “moth­ers and home­mak­ers once more” but with a new self-con­fi­dence on the basis of that wartime expe­ri­ence (Fig. 4). The muse­um­go­er was shown an exam­ple of pre-war fem­i­nin­i­ty (Fig. 5), fol­lowed by day­time and evening attire from 1939-1946 (Fig. 6 & 7), then from 1947 to 1955 (Fig. 8 & 9), and final­ly, as the show’s cli­max, day­time and evening from 1955 to 1959 (Figs. 10 & 11).

Fig. 4: Entry to From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 5: Pre-War Fem­i­nin­i­ty – 1930s (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 6: 1939-1946 day­time (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 7: 1939-1946 evening (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 8: 1947-1955 day­time (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 9: 1947-1955 evening (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 10: 1955-1959 day­time (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 11: 1955-1959 evening (pho­to: S. Ingram)

The space for the 1955-1959 attire was much larg­er, brighter, and more glit­tery than what one might call the war room, which fea­tured a wed­ding dress made out of a para­chute, among oth­er cre­ative trea­sures (Figs. 12, 13, 14).

Fig. 12: the 1955-1959 space (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 13: war bride group­ing (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 14 war blouse (pho­to: S. Ingram)

These trea­sures came from the col­lec­tions of Say­ers and Jahnke, who togeth­er and sep­a­rate­ly have been respon­si­ble for many, if not most of the his­tor­i­cal fash­ion events and exhi­bi­tions held in Van­cou­ver over the past decades (Figs. 15 & 16).

Fig. 15: Jahnke & Say­ers prepar­ing cov­er dress 1
Fig. 16: Jahnke & Say­ers prepar­ing cov­er dress 2

Indeed, Say­ers has curat­ed dozens of fash­ion shows doc­u­ment­ing his­tor­i­cal trends; his web­site (http://​www​.ivansay​er​se​v​ents​.com), which has been up and run­ning since August 3, 2016, doc­u­ments his prodi­gious activ­i­ty (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17: screen­grab of Ivan Sayers’s homepage

Who are Say­ers and Jahnke, and what traces of them can one find in the archive that is the Inter­net? In recon­struct­ing their bio­graph­i­cal por­traits, I fol­lowed Kadar’s method­ol­o­gy and remained cog­nizant of the need to pro­ceed cau­tious­ly in piec­ing togeth­er the var­i­ous frag­ments I found. The amount of bio­graph­i­cal mate­r­i­al avail­able online sur­prised me, as did how much it informs both Cana­di­an Fash­ion Stud­ies and Urban Studies.

Say­ers was born in 1946 and came to Van­cou­ver in the 1960s from Sum­mer­land in the Okana­gan, which he describes as “a very small town with 1,200–1,500 peo­ple” (Ghe­o­rghiu). His moth­er worked as the sec­re­tary for the Inspec­tor for the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture for the Okana­gan Val­ley and “made a lot of her own dress­es,” while his father was “a labour­ing man for the most part…; he worked for the rail­road, he worked for the high­way,” but he also played in a band so “always had a tuxe­do” (Ghe­o­rghiu). Say­ers “start­ed col­lect­ing odds and sods at age 13” (Long). He rec­ol­lects his child­hood with fond­ness in the inter­views that peo­ple have con­duct­ed with him over the years:

Liv­ing with his fam­i­ly in Toron­to for a year, [he] attend­ed the children’s edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams at the Roy­al Ontario Muse­um (ROM) every Sat­ur­day before reluc­tant­ly relo­cat­ing back to the Okana­gan. “There was noth­ing like it in Sum­mer­land,” he recalls, “so I decid­ed I would start my own ROM in the garage. I made lit­tle labels for old things I collected—toys, black­smith equip­ment, pock­et watch­es, bits and pieces of chi­na.” (Long)

In anoth­er inter­view, he explains how he was “act­ing in high-school plays and start­ed scour­ing thrift stores for gen­uine cos­tumes,” and goes on to note, “I think you per­form bet­ter if you think that you look the part” (Tem­ple­ton-Kluit).

Say­ers start­ed col­lect­ing fash­ion in Sum­mer­land with “a black nurs­ing matron’s dress, dat­ing from 1931—bought at a hos­pi­tal thrift store in Sum­mer­land for five cents” and claims that his career “start­ed from that pur­chase” (Tem­ple­ton-Kluit). His col­lect­ing assumed larg­er pro­por­tions when he moved to Van­cou­ver in 1965 to study clas­si­cal arche­ol­o­gy at UBC (his first abode was a room­ing house in Kit­si­lano, where his rent was $8 per week) (Ghe­o­rghiu). He start­ed to col­lect cloth­ing “because no one was inter­est­ed in it, so it was a way for me to deal with his­to­ry in a way that didn’t com­pete with any­one else.” His first item was a Vic­to­ri­an dress, which “he bought at the Sal­va­tion Army on 12th Avenue” (Long). As he tells it, “I would charm the old gals who worked at the Sal­ly Ann—Gret and Ethel. They would hide items for me up in the attic, for when I’d come in. I’d walk out of there with giant bags of ‘old-fash­ioned items,’ all for a dol­lar. Some­times I’d even spend my bus fare, and then have to car­ry it all home” (Long). After grad­u­at­ing from UBC in 1969 with a BA in Clas­si­cal Stud­ies, Say­ers “began vol­un­teer­ing in 1970 at the Cen­ten­ni­al Muse­um (now the Muse­um of Van­cou­ver), unpack­ing and cat­a­logu­ing their cos­tume collection—something that hadn’t prop­er­ly been done since the muse­um moved from Carnegie Cen­tre to Vanier Park in 1968. Vol­un­teer work led to employ­ment, and with­in six years he was pro­mot­ed to cura­tor of his­to­ry,” a posi­tion he held for four­teen years (Long; see also “Ivan Say­ers” and “Hon­orary Board Mem­bers”). After a “philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence” with the Board, he resigned in 1991 (Tem­ple­ton-Kluit), and the fol­low­ing year helped to found what is now the Soci­ety for the Muse­um of Orig­i­nal Cos­tume with the goal of one day hous­ing his and oth­ers’ col­lec­tions in “a per­ma­nent muse­um of his­toric fash­ion and fab­ric arts” for res­i­dents of and vis­i­tors to the city of Van­cou­ver (“Home”). That goal remains unful­filled. The Soci­ety, how­ev­er, is very active in pro­mot­ing the his­tor­i­cal study of fash­ion in Van­cou­ver, host­ing live fash­ion shows, talks on top­i­cal sub­jects, ben­e­fit events for the com­mu­ni­ty, and even tours, all led by Say­ers. At the same time, he also teach­es in the Simon Fras­er Con­tin­u­ing Stud­ies pro­gram, most­ly sum­mer cours­es for seniors that draw on mate­r­i­al from exhi­bi­tions and, like his talks, aim to be time­ly (Figs. 18-25).

Fig. 18: Van­cou­ver Island Muse­ums Overnight Tour poster
Fig. 19: A Cen­tu­ry of Fash­ion in Van­cou­ver poster.
Fig. 20: Fête Noir – Lit­tle Black Dress poster
Fig. 21: Hearts & Flow­ers: A His­to­ry of Romance in Fash­ion poster
Fig. 22: The Wear­ing o’ the Green: Uncov­er­ing the Irish Influ­ence in Fash­ion poster
Fig. 23: “Wet-Coast Rain­wear” poster
Fig. 24: Silent Auc­tion poster
Fig. 25 I Can’t Believe She Wore That – Again! poster

The com­pre­hen­sive nature of Sayers’s col­lec­tion, which is rec­og­nized as one of the largest and most com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tions of his­tor­i­cal cloth­ing in Cana­da, and his pow­er and influ­ence as a col­lec­tor have affect­ed the shape of oth­er col­lec­tions, such as that of Jahnke, who was born in 1962 in Edmon­ton and came to Van­cou­ver in 1981 to study fash­ion mer­chan­dis­ing at John Casablan­ca Col­lege of Design (“Authen­ti­ca­tion”). Like Say­ers, Jahnke “was drawn to the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of all types of vin­tage cloth­ing. How­ev­er, he was forced to tweak his niche once he met Say­ers: “‘I real­ized that he had this enor­mous col­lec­tion,’ recalls Jahnke. ‘So I thought in order to not com­pete with him, I would have to col­lect some­thing com­plete­ly obscure, so I start­ed col­lect­ing just fash­ion­able cloth­ing from Ger­many and Aus­tria’” (Row­land). This col­lec­tion debuted in 1999 in the ground­break­ing exhi­bi­tion Bro­ken Threads: The Destruc­tion of the Jew­ish Fash­ion Indus­try in Ger­many and Aus­tria, which Jahnke curat­ed in part­ner­ship with the Van­cou­ver Holo­caust Edu­ca­tion Cen­tre and the Orig­i­nal Cos­tume Muse­um Soci­ety. Berg pub­lished an expand­ed ver­sion of the cat­a­logue in 2006 (Kre­mer). (Figs. 26 & 27).

Fig. 26: cov­er of the Bro­ken Threads catalogue
Fig. 27 Jahnke lec­tur­ing at the 2nd annu­al Cana­di­an Fash­ion Sym­po­sium, Muse­um of Van­cou­ver, Nov. 14, 2015 (pho­to: K. Sark)

Jahnke also lec­tures, although not as exten­sive­ly as Say­ers, and is as rec­og­nized a part of Vancouver’s cul­tur­al scene as Say­ers. Jahnke and items from his col­lec­tion were the sub­ject of con­cep­tu­al pho­tog­ra­ph­er Jeff Wall’s 2010 Authen­ti­ca­tion: Claus Jahnke, cos­tume his­to­ri­an, exam­in­ing a doc­u­ment relat­ing to an item in his col­lec­tion, which has been dis­played inter­na­tion­al­ly in var­i­ous orders. In the piece, Wall jux­ta­pos­es images of the col­lec­tor in his apart­ment check­ing “the authen­tic­i­ty of a white cot­ton shirt in his col­lec­tion by com­par­ing it to a repro­duc­tion in an anti­quar­i­an cat­a­logue of the Jew­ish depart­ment store Nathan Israel” with three oth­er images: “the cov­er of a 1932 win­ter sea­son N. Israel-cat­a­logue with Leni Riefen­stahl in an alpine out­fit on the cov­er,” a close-up of the cat­a­logue open to the page “illus­trat­ing what [Jahnke] pre­sumes is the shirt in his col­lec­tion, in the sec­ond row from the top, sec­ond from the left,” and an image of the shirt itself (Stone). It might seem odd that a men’s white shirt should be such a valu­able collector’s item, but Jahnke under­scored that the one in the pho­to­graph “still has the label N-Israel on it, a par­tic­u­lar­ly valu­able asset as it shows the item’s ori­gin” (Stone). More­over, as Jahnke explained to Wall, “men’s shirts are rare as collector’s items; they used to be worn until they were thread­bare, or too old to keep, often then they were reused as rags” (Stone) (Figs. 28-30).

Fig. 28: Authen­ti­ca­tion: Claus Jahnke, cos­tume his­to­ri­an, exam­in­ing a doc­u­ment relat­ing to an item in his col­lec­tion 1 (http://​www​.the​ge​orgeeconomoucol​lec​tion​.com/​e​x​h​i​b​i​t​i​o​n​s​/​j​e​f​f​-​w​all)
Fig. 29: Authen­ti­ca­tion: Claus Jahnke, cos­tume his­to­ri­an, exam­in­ing a doc­u­ment relat­ing to an item in his col­lec­tion 2
Fig. 30: Authen­ti­ca­tion: Claus Jahnke, cos­tume his­to­ri­an, exam­in­ing a doc­u­ment relat­ing to an item in his col­lec­tion 3 (https://​dai​l​yart​fair​.com/​e​v​e​n​t​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​5​7​5​/​j​e​f​f​-​w​a​l​l​-​m​a​r​i​a​n​-​g​o​o​d​m​a​n​-​g​a​l​l​ery)

Jahnke’s work deter­min­ing the shirt’s prove­nance as part of the Berlin fash­ion indus­try that was destroyed by the Nazis shows the way fash­ion col­lec­tors’ work can imbri­cate their local­i­ty with world his­tor­i­cal events, mak­ing avail­able not only items, but the his­to­ries they embody. That is cer­tain­ly true of the three major exhi­bi­tions Say­ers and Jahnke have curat­ed togeth­er: Women’s Fash­ion of La Belle Époque from Sep­tem­ber 2006 to March 2007, Art Deco Chic from March to Sep­tem­ber 2012, and From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing from Sep­tem­ber 2014 to March 2015. In each case the lived effects of a peri­od of piv­otal social change were made pal­pa­ble for the Muse­um of Vancouver’s visitors.

That there is a cat­a­logue for the lat­ter exhi­bi­tion is a tremen­dous devel­op­ment, as there are only scant traces of the first two exhi­bi­tions, espe­cial­ly La Belle Époque (Mur­rills). The Cura­tor Biogra­phies at the back of the From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing cat­a­logue reveal some addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion to what I was able to dis­cov­er online. In the case of Jahnke, the cat­a­logue reveals that he was “brought up in the Okana­gan Val­ley of British Colum­bia,” which pro­vides a valu­able clue about how he and Say­ers may first have met or what may have solid­i­fied their con­nec­tion in Van­cou­ver (From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing). Sayers’s biog­ra­phy is more star­tling. It claims that he “was born in Corn­wall, Ontario, and moved to British Colum­bia at the age of two” (From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing). From the online mate­r­i­al I found, I had been under the impres­sion that Say­ers was from Sum­mer­land and had accom­pa­nied his par­ents on a move to Ontario; how­ev­er, that move seems to have been a return.

What does this bio­graph­i­cal mate­r­i­al add to our under­stand­ing of Say­ers and Jahnke’s exhi­bi­tions? In the first instance, it gives us bet­ter insight into the process of their coop­er­a­tion. Sayers’s prodi­gious activ­i­ty lec­tur­ing and teach­ing in addi­tion to col­lect­ing under­scores the ped­a­gog­i­cal impulse that gen­er­ates the con­cept for each exhi­bi­tion. Say­ers knows his audi­ence. They come to his events and class­es as well as his exhi­bi­tions. They are like “the old gals… [he charmed] at the Sal­ly Ann—Gret and Ethel,” who would put away clothes for him. In fact, Gret and Ethel could be their moth­ers or grand­moth­ers (as “old gals” they would have been in at least their 50s or 60s in the 1960s). Say­ers in many ways owes his col­lec­tion to this con­stituen­cy. He is the first to admit that his best pieces have come “from old­er women who have held on to some­thing because of its sen­ti­men­tal val­ue. It might have been their mother’s or their grandmother’s. Some­times I think they are giv­ing it to me so they can pass on the respon­si­bil­i­ty of car­ing for it!” (Long).

Douglas and the Dredging Up of the Past

Fig. 31: still from Helen Lawrence

Turn­ing now to Stan Douglas’s efforts to expand our under­stand­ing of live the­atre, it is strik­ing that we meet up once again with the same type of peri­od immer­sion. The actors in Helen Lawrence appear as though out­fit­ted from the From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing exhi­bi­tion (Fig. 31). As the title of his first com­pre­hen­sive show Stan Dou­glas: Past Imper­fect (held at the Staats­ga­lerie Stuttgart and the Württembergischer Kun­stvere­in from Sep­tem­ber 15, 2007 to Jan­u­ary 6, 2008) indi­cates, Douglas’s art is char­ac­ter­ized by a revis­it­ing of past events and pre­vi­ous works, notably E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Der Sand­mann, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Karl Marx’s Cap­i­tal, Samuel Beckett’s Film, and Arnold Schönberg’s Begleit­musik zu ein­er Licht­spielscene.

The ambi­gu­i­ty of Past Imper­fect ges­tures towards Douglas’s inter­est in failed utopias, which is also on dis­play in his projects on Detroit and Cuba, but what is not cap­tured by this ambi­gu­i­ty is his immac­u­late atten­tion to peri­od detail. His restag­ing of the Gas­town riot of 1971 in Abbott & Cor­do­va, 7 August 1971 (2009), for exam­ple, “involved more than 100 actors por­tray­ing riot police, hip­pies and Mount­ed Police”:

Dou­glas and a team delved into the his­to­ry of this infa­mous inci­dent with an eye to show­ing it through a new and unlike­ly per­spec­tive, recre­at­ing the event with as much his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy and verisimil­i­tude as pos­si­ble in a pho­to­graph enact­ed on set with actors dressed in peri­od cos­tume. The set was erect­ed with metic­u­lous atten­tion in a park­ing lot of the Pacific Nation­al Exhi­bi­tion (PNE) in the spring of 2008, and includes details gath­ered from pri­ma­ry records and through inter­views con­duct­ed with liv­ing participants—police, bystanders and protesters—directly involved in the riot. The set, includ­ing a recre­at­ed façade of the Woodward’s build­ing, was stocked with detailed peri­od accents, includ­ing fac­sim­i­les of posters adver­tis­ing rock con­certs on in Van­cou­ver at the time of the riot, and such things as water­mel­on rinds lit­ter­ing the con­crete, that accord­ing to tes­ti­mo­ny, peo­ple were eat­ing on the day. (“Stan Dou­glas, Abbott & Cor­do­va”)

Douglas’s long-stand­ing inter­est in the social and polit­i­cal con­texts of art can be seen in Van­cou­ver Anthol­o­gy: The Insti­tu­tion­al Pol­i­tics of Art (1991), which he took the lead in edit­ing, and in Hors-champs, which he cre­at­ed dur­ing his stay at the Cen­tre Georges Pom­pi­dou in Paris the fol­low­ing year. The lat­ter work, “which has come to be revered in the art-film world, depicts a jazz per­for­mance he staged and filmed in a Paris tele­vi­sion stu­dio, invok­ing the rich jazz tra­di­tion forged by expa­tri­ate African-Amer­i­cans in France. The musi­cians play ‘Spir­its Rejoice,’ the 1965 com­po­si­tion by the free-jazz pio­neer Albert Ayler, writ­ten after race-relat­ed riots in Harlem and oth­er urban neigh­bor­hoods” (Kennedy).

Helen Lawrence and Cir­ca 1948 were not Douglas’s first treat­ments of the imme­di­ate post­war peri­od. In Mid­cen­tu­ry Stu­dio (2011), he “assumed the role of a fic­tion­al, anony­mous pho­tog­ra­ph­er to cre­ate a series of images hypo­thet­i­cal­ly pro­duced between 1945-1951” and “con­struct­ed a ver­i­ta­ble ‘mid­cen­tu­ry stu­dio’ using authen­tic equip­ment as well as actors to pro­duce care­ful­ly staged, black-and-white pho­tographs that painstak­ing­ly emu­late the period’s obses­sion with dra­ma, ‘caught-in-the-moment’ crime-scenes, curi­ous and exot­ic arti­facts, magi­cians, fash­ion, dance, gam­bling, and tech­nol­o­gy” (“Press Release”). As one inter­view­er remarked of “Crick­et Pitch, 1951,” which was pho­tographed in 2010 and “pur­ports to be a tra­di­tion­al vin­tage print,” Douglas’s tech­nique of com­bin­ing mul­ti­ple shots with dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy “makes Pho­to­shop look like ama­teur hour” (Fara­go).

Despite this pal­pa­ble inter­est in his­to­ry, Dou­glas, who was born in Van­cou­ver on Octo­ber 11, 1960, is not forth­com­ing about his own his­to­ry. He “dis­likes ques­tions about his own biog­ra­phy” (Kennedy), and there are very few images of him online (Fig. 32).

Fig. 32: one of the few online images of Stan Dou­glas (https://​news​.art​net​.com/​m​a​r​k​e​t​/​s​t​a​n​-​d​o​u​g​l​a​s​-​a​t​-​t​r​i​b​e​c​a​-​f​i​l​m​-​f​e​s​t​i​v​a​l​-​1​2​965)

An African-Cana­di­an whose “father was a neu­rol­o­gist, and his moth­er an admin­is­tra­tor” (Kennedy), Dou­glas grew up near UBC and went to Lord Byng Sec­ondary “with the chil­dren of pro­fes­sors and bike-gang mem­bers” (Led­er­man). He stud­ied print­mak­ing and sculp­ture at the city’s sto­ried Emi­ly Carr Uni­ver­si­ty of Art and Design in 1982 and embarked on what became a high­ly suc­cess­ful career as a visu­al artist. His online CV, which lists solo exhi­bi­tions, select­ed group exhi­bi­tions, spe­cial projects and exhi­bi­tions, mono­graphs and solo exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logues, select­ed books and group exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logues, essays and pub­lished texts, lec­tures, bib­li­og­ra­phy, awards and pub­lic col­lec­tions, totaled 36 sin­gle-spaced pages in 2016 (“Stan Dou­glas CV”), some­thing Mar­sha Led­er­man men­tions in the piece she wrote on the occa­sion of Douglas’s being award­ed the “pres­ti­gious and lucra­tive Has­sel­blad Award” (Led­er­man).

Dou­glas claims to have been drawn to Vancouver’s imme­di­ate post­war peri­od on account of the his­tor­i­cal entan­gle­ments of race and class in this tran­si­tion­al time that have tend­ed to go for­got­ten. As he stat­ed in an inter­view for The Guardian: “We know what wartime is like. We know what the 50s are like—the nuclear fam­i­ly, the sud­den call to order and moral­i­ty. But we don’t real­ly under­stand the inter­im peri­od, from 1945 to 1950. How did soci­ety go from one to the oth­er? And what deci­sions were made to change soci­ety? I was inter­est­ed in that lim­i­nal peri­od, as I always am in my work” (Fara­go). How­ev­er, giv­en that one of the prin­ci­pal set­tings of Helen Lawrence and Cir­ca 1948 is Hogan’s Alley, “a Van­cou­ver neigh­bor­hood that was home to a siz­able black pop­u­la­tion for sev­er­al decades and was demol­ished in the 1970s in prepa­ra­tion for a high­way that was nev­er built” (Kennedy), one can­not help but think that the his­to­ry of the set­ting was more impor­tant to Dou­glas than the time peri­od itself (for a read­ing of how Hogan’s Alley also fig­ures in Wayde Compton’s 2014 The Out­er Har­bour, see Ingram).

One can­not help but won­der whether Douglas’s atten­tion to this lim­i­nal peri­od was raised by its absence in the Muse­um of Vancouver’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. The build-up to WWII and the war itself are giv­en full rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a sec­tion on “Boom, Bust and War: Van­cou­ver in the 1920s-1940s” (Fig. 33). We indeed learn what wartime was like, espe­cial­ly for “Cana­di­ans of Japan­ese descent—the Nikkei,” who “built a thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ty” in “Vibrant Pow­ell Street,” but after the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor “were stripped of their pos­ses­sions and sent to internment.”

Fig. 33: “Boom, Bust and War: Van­cou­ver in the 1920s-1940s” (pho­to: S. Ingram)

After this, the muse­um­go­er then fol­lows a tech­ni­colour arrow and leaves the stark colours of that part of the exhi­bi­tion and cross­es a hall­way, where the neon signs of “Down­town: The 1950s” beck­on, envelop­ing the muse­um­go­er in post­war pros­per­i­ty (Figs. 34 & 35). The tran­si­tion is abrupt and pre­sent­ed as mirac­u­lous. How the city sud­den­ly became a live­ly, hap­pen­ing place with cabarets like the Smilin’ Bud­dha, cin­e­mas show­ing films like For­bid­den Plan­et (1956, dir. Fred M. Wilcox), juke­box­es, fast cars, and street pho­tog­ra­phers who “cap­tured count­less peo­ple out enjoy­ing the mag­ic and excite­ment of down­town,” seems not to mat­ter as much as the fact that it did sud­den­ly transform.

Fig. 34: Dolled up for Down­town (pho­to: S. Ingram)
Fig. 35 Down­town 1950s (pho­to: S. Ingram)

Helen Lawrence helps to fill the gap by telling the sto­ry of the epony­mous beau­ti­ful blonde, who is com­mit­ted to a psy­chi­atric insti­tu­tion after her hus­band is mur­dered and who arrives back in Van­cou­ver from Los Ange­les in search of a for­mer lover, who is involved in all sorts of shady deals and man­ages to stay one step ahead of her. If one search­es online for Helen Lawrence, one is direct­ed to the 1935 film Mur­der in Harlem, in which the small role of “Helen Lawrence” is a played by Helen Davis. Mur­der in Harlem is one of the 40-some films writ­ten, direct­ed, and inde­pen­dent­ly pro­duced by Oscar Micheaux, the first major African-Amer­i­can fea­ture film­mak­er, and it is typ­i­cal of Micheaux’s oeu­vre in being “an exu­ber­ant brico­lage that drew upon what­ev­er per­son­al expe­ri­ences and sto­ry­lines he felt would amount to a com­pelling nar­ra­tive com­pat­i­ble with his views about the place and con­duct of blacks in Amer­i­ca” (Bern­stein 8). In Mur­der in Harlem, “a black night watch­man at a chem­i­cal fac­to­ry finds the body of a mur­dered white woman. After he reports it, he finds him­self accused of the mur­der,” but a white man is sub­se­quent­ly found to be respon­si­ble (“Mur­der in Harlem”). A remake of Michaux’s silent The Gun­saulus Mys­tery (1921), which was inspired by the “Mary Phagan/Leo Frank case of 1913 to 1915, in which a South­ern black fac­to­ry sweep­er pro­vid­ed the cru­cial evi­dence which found his Jew­ish super­in­ten­dent guilty of—and even­tu­al­ly lynched for—the mur­der of a South­ern, white, teenage, female employ­ee” (Bern­stein 8), Mur­der in Harlem also drew on anoth­er sen­sa­tion­al Atlanta tri­al: the mur­der of Dorothy Stan­field, whose body was dis­cov­ered by a black watch­man (Green 177). Micheaux revis­it­ed this mate­r­i­al in nov­el form in his 1946 The Sto­ry of Dorothy Stanfield.

I relate this his­to­ry because Douglas’s approach would have us believe that he want­ed some­one to dig it up just as he does in his exten­sive research­ing, just as “Mur­der in Harlem… shares with oth­er Micheaux films its sug­ges­tion, through its repeat­ed and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry flash­backs, that uncov­er­ing ‘what real­ly hap­pened’ requires per­sis­tence and intel­li­gence to see beyond white ‘truths’ print­ed in news­pa­pers or offered in tri­al tes­ti­mo­ny” (Bern­stein 18). This dig­ging up of the past is pre­cise­ly the mech­a­nism that pro­vides noir with its nar­ra­tive dri­ve (Fig. 36). Noir is about reveal­ing that which is intend­ed to stay hid­den, which goes some­way to explain­ing how it has now resur­faced in Van­cou­ver aesthetics.

Fig. 36: cov­er of Van­cou­ver Noir

Noir is the sign of a desire for dis­clo­sure, a desire for the kind of rough jus­tice that is capa­ble of tack­ling issues of cor­rup­tion, when not only the police are seen as inca­pable of main­tain­ing order but the law itself is seen to be in need of polic­ing. In many ways, noir is the ulti­mate mod­ern genre, an epis­temic sign that time is out of joint and soci­ety is not just in the midst of dis­turb­ing changes, but in need of a cathar­tic change capa­ble of deal­ing with entrenched criminality.

Why Vancouver Noir Circa 2014

Douglas’s evok­ing of the imme­di­ate post­war peri­od takes on fur­ther sig­nif­i­cance when one con­sid­ers how nice­ly it mesh­es with both Jahnke’s col­lect­ing inter­ests and those of Sayers’s aging audi­ences, some of whom could have fond child­hood mem­o­ries of the peri­od (Say­ers, one remem­bers, was born in 1946, so it is not incon­ceiv­able that a good por­tion of his audi­ence is of a sim­i­lar, if not old­er, gen­er­a­tion). Hear­ken­ing back to the glam­our of the imme­di­ate post­war peri­od and the atten­tion it calls to the under­bel­ly of the city’s his­to­ry pro­vides a longer nar­ra­tive in which to sit­u­ate the changes Van­cou­ver has been under­go­ing since Sir Li Ka-shing bought up False Creek fol­low­ing Expo ’86, unleash­ing the form of mixed-use, ver­ti­cal urban den­si­ty now known as “Van­cou­verism,” bring­ing waves of first Hong Kong and now main­land Chi­nese immi­gra­tion to the city, and dri­ving up prop­er­ty prices well beyond its see-through sky­line (Cou­p­land).

The hedo­nis­tic, con­spic­u­ous approach to fash­ion con­sump­tion that marks the lat­est wave of immi­grants can be found in the pop­u­lar real­i­ty TV show Ultra Rich Asian Girls, which ran for two sea­sons in 2014 and 2015 (Fig. 37 & 38). To quote from a review of it in the Hong Kong news­pa­per South Chi­na Morn­ing Post, the show “fea­tures a group of pret­ty, Putonghua-speak­ing women guz­zling cham­pagne, zoom­ing around in Lam­borgh­i­nis and spend­ing mon­ey like there’s no tomor­row. ‘As long as we have fun, who cares about spend­ing a lit­tle bit of mon­ey,’ opines ‘Crys­tal Chen,’ in between cat­ty remarks about a fel­low diva’s nose job” (Young).

Fig. 37: Ultra Rich Asian Girls at <www​.hbictv​.com>
Fig. 38: a screen­grab from Ultra Rich Asian Girls

The styl­is­tic con­trast between the crass opu­lence of the Ultra Rich Asian Girls, on the one hand, and the ele­gant glam­our of Helen Lawrence and of Say­ers and Jahnke’s exhi­bi­tions, on the oth­er, could not be stark­er. As much as Van­cou­ver likes to imag­ine itself as the warm and fuzzy, teal-coloured, fleece-wear­ing place that Dou­glas Cou­p­land play­ful­ly depicts in City of Glass, and as much as the city begs to be asso­ci­at­ed with envi­ron­men­tal­ism (see Eidse et al.), local cul­tur­al prac­ti­tion­ers have their fin­gers on the pulse of the cul­tur­al bat­tles lurk­ing beneath the city’s post­card surface.

Indeed, once one makes the con­nec­tion between Douglas’s mul­ti­me­dia work and Say­ers and Jahnke’s exhi­bi­tion and begins to dig into the top­ic, it quick­ly becomes clear that both are part of some­thing larg­er. Some­thing about Van­cou­ver and its imme­di­ate post-WWII look seems to have encour­aged it to leap tiger-like into our imme­di­ate past. It would seem that Van­cou­ver has been hav­ing what one might call “a noir moment.” Inter­est in Vancouver’s imme­di­ate post-war peri­od that emerged cir­ca 2014 includes the Van­cou­ver Con­fi­den­tial anthol­o­gy, which appeared in 2014 and is based on Van­cou­ver Noir, John Belshaw’s ear­li­er 2011 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Diane Pur­vey. The pub­lish­er describes the lat­ter his­to­ry as argu­ing that, “Noir-era val­ues and per­spec­tives are to be found in the pho­to­graph­ic record of the city in this era, specif­i­cal­ly in police and news­pa­per pic­tures,” which “doc­u­ment chang­ing val­ues by empha­siz­ing behav­iours and sites that were increas­ing­ly viewed as deviant by the community’s elite” (“Van­cou­ver Noir,” empha­sis mine). An exam­ple of Van­cou­ver noir pub­lished in 2014 is Sam Wiebe’s Last of the Inde­pen­dents, which was inspired “in part by a quote from a Ray­mond Chan­dler essay, The Sim­ple Art of Mur­der, in which he writes about the dif­fi­cul­ty of ‘how to make a liv­ing and stay fair­ly hon­est’” (Sher­lock). One of the sto­ry strands of the first sea­son of The Romeo Sec­tion, a tele­vi­sion series cre­at­ed and writ­ten by Dou­glas col­lab­o­ra­tor Chris Had­dock, which debuted on CBC in 2015, fea­tures a noirish mur­der in which an incon­ve­nient hus­band is done away with, a theme already rehearsed in Mar­ried Life (2007, dir. Ira Sachs), with its intri­cate plot of cheat­ing, mur­der-bent spous­es set in 1949. Indeed, 2007 has already received cred­it as the year in which inter­est in Van­cou­ver noir became visible:

The high lev­el of pub­lic inter­est prob­a­bly began in 2007 with Daniel Francis’s award-win­ning biog­ra­phy LD: May­or Lewis Tay­lor and the Rise of Van­cou­ver. Tay­lor is in a way the key to the whole sto­ry because he was a wide-open-town sort of may­or and served nine terms, with him­self, the police, and the under­world in one another’s pock­ets. His neme­sis was the two-term right-wing may­or Ger­ry McGeer, infa­mous for stand­ing in Vic­to­ry Square dur­ing the Depres­sion and lit­er­al­ly read­ing the Riot Act to the unem­ployed. (Fether­ling)

In con­fronting us with uncom­fort­able real­i­ties that are nat­ti­ly clad to under­score their seduc­tive qual­i­ties, this resur­gence of noir in Van­cou­ver requires reck­on­ing with. Why do so many noir plots deal with the vio­lent con­se­quences of mar­i­tal infi­deli­ty? Per­haps because that theme res­onates with our nag­ging sense of being cheat­ed on. Van­cou­ver may have acquired a veneer of glob­al respectabil­i­ty with its bou­tique sta­tus. Its see-through sky­line may make it look all dolled up, but as Lance Berelowitz notes in Dream City, “if Van­cou­verites real­ly want to scare them­selves, they look at Los Ange­les” (Berelowitz 228). In his chap­ter on “Hol­ly­wood North,” Berelowitz enu­mer­ates “the his­tor­i­cal, social, polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic” as well as “topo­graph­i­cal, geo­log­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties between Van­cou­ver and Los Ange­les,” not­ing that “[t]he dis­par­i­ties of wealth that immi­grant cities man­i­fest are on full dis­play” in both cities and “mir­rored in the aes­thet­ic ethos of both cities” (233, 231).

Noir aes­thet­ics seem to be fill­ing a gap in the city’s his­to­ry by import­ing a cau­tion­ary tale from its big sis­ter to the south and thus pro­vid­ing a cau­tion­ary, mod­ern back­sto­ry for the bou­tique metrop­o­lis Van­cou­ver has become. Whether inter­act­ing with the Cir­ca 1948 app or react­ing to the larg­er images pro­ject­ed onto the enor­mous scrim that cov­ered the expanse of the stage in the case of Helen Lawrence, one is trans­port­ed to the past in the same way one is while walk­ing through the From Rationing to Rav­ish­ing exhi­bi­tion. Both are tem­po­rary expe­ri­ences and expe­ri­enced as such, with that expe­ri­ence now echoed in the vir­tu­al forms in which they con­tin­ue to live on. The pasts in both cas­es are con­jured in a fleet­ing way, cre­at­ing the effect that the pasts had been res­cued from the debris of his­to­ry for the short peri­od of time that the view­er could share phys­i­cal space with them.

Sayers’s and Jahkne’s col­lect­ing and curat­ing work keeps alive mem­o­ries of a Europe whose fash­ions no longer stand for the aris­to­crat­ic and bour­geois con­spic­u­ous con­sump­tion they orig­i­nal­ly did, but rather for a lost world of ele­gance, sophis­ti­ca­tion, and learn­ing, the bound­aries and lim­i­ta­tions of which Douglas’s hard-hit­ting tale of racial era­sure encour­ages us to reflect on. Tak­en togeth­er, Sayers’s and Jahnke’s inter­est in things clas­si­cal, from arche­ol­o­gy to roped-shoul­der con­struc­tions, and Douglas’s inter­est in things local, from light­ing to gauze, help us to appre­ci­ate the strug­gle their work is engaged in, and to appre­ci­ate how much work still needs to be done to trans­late across the lines of gen­der, class, and race in Van­cou­ver to pre­vent them from becom­ing fur­ther entrenched.

Works Cited

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  1. Helen Lawrence was at the Fes­ti­val TransAmériques in Mon­tre­al from May 22 to 24, 2014, at the Munich Kam­mer­spiele in Ger­many from June 18 to 27, and then at the Edin­burgh Inter­na­tion­al Fes­ti­val in Scot­land from August 24 to 26 before it returned to North Amer­i­ca, first to Cana­di­an Stage’s Bluma Appel The­atre in Toron­to, where it played from Octo­ber 12 to Novem­ber 1, and then it was off to the Brook­lyn Art Muse­um in New York, and deSin­gel in Antwerp. The Cir­ca 1948 app was launched as part of the Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val on April 22, 2014, where it was also on dis­play. The instal­la­tion then trav­elled back home to Van­cou­ver, where it was dis­played at both Simon Fraser’s down­town and Sur­rey cam­pus­es (Sep­tem­ber 18 to Octo­ber 16 and Octo­ber 27 to Novem­ber 13).

  2. It is a priv­i­lege to ded­i­cate this piece to Mar­lene Kadar and to thank Eva Karpin­s­ki and Ricia A. Chan­sky Sancini­to for their extra­or­di­nary orga­ni­za­tion­al efforts that made the IABA of the Amer­i­c­as sym­po­sium, where I pre­sent­ed much of the mate­r­i­al that went into this paper, the mem­o­rably mov­ing event that it was.