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The Vancouver Biennale Blue Trees Site in Richmond, B.C.

Clayton Perry

There's nothing like a milestone birthday to get you asking the Big Questions. Vancouver marks its 125th anniversary Wednesday with a birthday bash headlined by local rockers 54-40. Beyond that, though, it's more of a ponder than a party, with events and exhibitions examining the culture of Vancouver and aiming to create a meaningful dialogue.

Digital Natives

Like so many baseball-going birthday celebrants with thoughtful plan-ahead companions, the city of Vancouver is celebrating its big day in billboard style, with messages flashed on a sign at the southwestern end of the busy Burrard Bridge. But this is more art than celebration: an exploration of the city's charged history through Twitter-length messages. The billboard - on Squamish Nation land - becomes a venue for artistic and literary exchange between native and non-native communities.

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The city-commissioned installation, called Digital Natives (referencing both the aboriginal involvement and those who've grown up with digital technology), displays 10-second text messages created by invited artists and writers, in between beer, car and radio-station ads.

"If you lived under this bridge you'd be home by now. #gentrification," reads one message.

Some have been translated into aboriginal languages including Kwak'wala and Squamish. Mid-month, new messages - some from the public - will be added.

"It's a combination of the poetic and the political," says writer Clint Burnham, co-curator of the show.

"It's reminding people that there's also a history that's much older than the city of Vancouver."

The Blue Trees

Goodness knows we love to hug our trees in these parts, but Australian artist Konstantin Dimopoulos has been painting them - blue. The Blue Trees is his call to action against the destruction of old-growth forests. Brought here by the Vancouver Biennale (which runs until the end of April), Dimopoulos has been painting trees in three suburbs, in an effort to ignite discussion about global deforestation.

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"We've got enough toilet paper," Dimopolous says. "We don't need to lose forests."

Dimopoulos says even in environmentally conscious Vancouver, urbanites can forget the plight of the forests.

He uses "biologically safe pigmented water" - a wash so safe, he'll put it on his tongue. The blue - he calls it " Avatar blue" - gradually comes off with the rain.

Dimopoulos, who has also installed The Blue Trees in Melbourne, is as much an environmentalist as he is an artist.

"If when I leave, I leave a forest behind, that's my ambition. Rather than a sculpture, I'd prefer to leave a forest."

WE: Vancouver - 12 Manifestos for the City

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The Vancouver Art Gallery is presenting a smart examination of the city's cultural life organized around 12 manifestos: demonstrate, see, listen, detour, move, remember, occupy, activate, use, consume, choose and speak.

The Goodweather art collective imagines a Vancouver where city planners leave an old-growth tree at each roundabout.

In another room, visitors hear songbirds, then put on headphones to watch a video of the city being used as a giant drum.

For WE: Consume, clothing designer Natalie Purschwitz documents her year wearing only items she produced - right down to her socks and underwear.

Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, authors of The 100-Mile Diet, had the names of the local foods they ate (including cabbage, celery, crickets) painted onto a wall - using locally sourced, vegetable-based paint.

Critical Mass, the monthly Friday rush-hour bicycle ride through downtown, is documented in You Never Bike Alone. Anyone who's been stuck in a Critical Mass-induced traffic jam will find the manifesto's sign above the video ironic: "WE: Move."

Shopping Carts

They're a fixture in Vancouver: people pushing around shopping carts brimming with stuff. Photographer Brian Howell became interested in the phenomenon while shooting the city for a pre-Olympic project.

What he learned was that these people aren't necessarily homeless, but rather entrepreneurial treasure hunters who dive through the city's dumpsters and then sell their finds from their carts.

"There was this whole retail component, like perfectly folded pairs of jeans like you would see in the store," says Howell, whose exhibition Shopping Carts opens at Winsor Gallery on Thursday.

Howell approached about 45 binners, bought their carts and the contents (the binners set the price, averaging $25), drove them to a studio and photographed them intact.

"The fact that it was kind of born out of the Olympics is very interesting," he says. "This was a time of excitement and implied prosperity, and I think for me to see people still scrounging around to get through their day at a time when people were spending $2,000 on a hockey ticket was compelling."

Vancouver Sometimes Plays Itself

Tom Cruise as Mission: Impossible's Ethan Hunt darts through the streets of Vancouver. But alas, Vancouver is playing Seattle. Or Bangalore.

Metro Vancouver, the third-largest film and TV production centre in North America, has become very good at standing in for other places.

Film crews glue leaves onto trees, paint fake signs and hang American flags in order to transform Vancouver into Somewhere Else.

It's enough to give a city an identity crisis.

Enter the Waldorf Hotel, which this birthday month begins the Monday night film series Vancouver Sometimes Plays Itself, with rarely seen movies such as Larry Kent's pioneering 1964 feature Sweet Substitute and Robert Altman's That Cold Day in the Park (1969).

Researcher Elvy Del Bianco has spent more than a year identifying Vancouver-shot-and-set films. "When you take these [films]as a whole, it's not necessarily a very flattering portrayal of the city," he says. "It certainly runs counter to this branded image, the West Coast leisure lifestyle kind of thing. ... I keep looking for a happy ending, and there are a few, but it's rare."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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