Driven by shock, revulsion and a deep sense of shame, Metro Vancouverites drifted downtown after last year’s Stanley Cup riot. They cleaned up after the louts, and they scrawled bathroom gra ffiti-sized bits of philosophy onto the plywood boards that had been installed over broken glass windows of businesses such as the Bay and Future Shop. “Humanity is an ocean,” read one of the countless messages. “If a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
A year after the riot of June 15, 2011 – sparked by a Vancouver Canucks’ Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final – 15 of these boards are installed at the Museum of Vancouver. The exhibition, Reading the Riot Boards, adds to the canon of cultural response to riots in Vancouver, works which include theatre pieces and one of the city’s most provocative works of public art.
“Great art happens where there’s a real sense of a large question and a large feeling of mystery and a large question of ‘Who are we?’ ” says playwright and director Amiel Gladstone. “And I think the riot happening in the middle of our city by our own citizens really raises all of those questions.”
The MOV immediately recognized the importance of the so-called riot boards, seeking to acquire them for its collection within a week of the incident.
“It was kind of a no brainer,” says Hanna Cho, MOV’s curator of engagement and dialogue. “It quickly became apparent that these would be really special, and part of Vancouver’s history.”
There are earnest messages from a Grade 6 class (“There is always next year. Why riot?”); notes in other languages; a drawing of the instantly-viral kissing couple inside a big red heart.
And one riot board declaration – “Creativity is the only solution to destruction!” – rings true for a number of Vancouver-based artists.
Writer and actor Kevin Loring ( Where the Blood Mixes) saw an opportunity to explore Vancouver’s riot mentality in his commission to contribute to Pi Theatre’s Visions of Vancouver project, part of the commemoration of the city’s 125th anniversary. Loring created a short audio play (recorded live before an audience and available online) that looked at the riot from a number of perspectives, including a teenage hockey fan, a police officer, an immigrant who takes her two young sons downtown to watch the game, and a woman who joins the frenzy and steals a bunch of designer handbags.
“It was a group event, it was a mob event and I really think the only way to really [express] that is to have those four characters speaking about their own experience separately as though they’re being interviewed, but finishing each other’s lines and at some places saying the same line in unison,” Loring said from Banff this week, where he’s attending the Banff World Media Festival. “To get that sense that it’s a communal thing. It was a group thing. And we were all a part of it.”
He titled his play The Thin Veneer, and as Loring wrote it, he kept coming back to the same image: “I liken it to the Leviathan; it’s like a million-pound monster with 10,000 eyes looking at itself doing this thing. It’s that group monster that when people get together as these masses, they behave as one large monster taking over the city.”
This is not the only theatre work to emerge in the year since the riot. Gladstone was involved in the creation of the play #ThisismyVancouver just weeks after the riot with a student group at Arts Umbrella, and a staged reading of Mark Leiren-Young’s Basically Good Kids, written after the Penticton riot, which occurred during the Okanagan town’s 1991 Peach Festival.
“What was really both scary and compelling was how apropos it was,” says Gladstone, of Basically Good Kids, in light of the Vancouver riot a decade later. “It was so right on.”
But probably the most iconic riot-related artwork in the city is Stan Douglas’s magnificent Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. The large-scale photo mural is installed at the SFU Woodward’s building in the Downtown Eastside, steps from the intersection referenced in its title.
“The photograph has produced an image of something that could easily be forgotten,” Douglas says in an interview published in the book Stan Douglas: Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971. “It consolidates hearsay into a picture that will hopefully produce more hearsay and a conversation about history – as opposed to the way that, for instance, a sculpture of a general on horseback is supposed to do, but doesn’t.”
Indeed, when it was installed in 2009, the work – one of four in Douglas’s Crowds & Riots series – re-ignited discussion of the 1971 Gastown Riots, sparked when police moved in on what by all accounts was a peaceful hippie “smoke-in” organized by the local alternative weekly, the Georgia Straight.
In a way, it’s a billboard advertising history. Abbott & Cordova was carefully constructed on a purpose-built set by an artist far-removed from the event it depicts: Douglas wasn’t there and says he doesn’t remember the riot, which occurred almost four decades before the work’s 2009 installation.
The riot boards, on the other hand – granted: artifacts, not art – were created in the immediate aftermath by a generation that thrives on – demands, really – immediacy and the ability to chime in on a conversation.
Cho sees the boards – the museum has 76 of them – as a physical manifestation for the social media generation. “This became a very literal translation of that behavioural urge to express something,” she says. “This was Vancouver’s Facebook wall, in some sense.”
Reading the Riot Boards is at the Museum of Vancouver until Sept. 23. A panel discussion ,“Is this Vancouver? Reflections on the 2011 Hockey Riot Boards” – in which Kevin Loring will participate – will take place Friday at 6:30 p.m.