Saturday, January 16, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010


revision (for robert kroetsch, with apologies to laurie anderson)

during the winter of 1942, the third reich attempted a secret airborne attack on parts of southern manitoba as a dry run for a possible american invasion. the aerodynamics of parachutes are still not totally understood. in the early 1940s, the chutes often didn't open at all. still, the german high command insisted, and one hundred of the luftwaffe's finest troops were dropped over boissevain. the majority of the chutes failed to open. clipped of their wings, the solders fell like gargoyles, punching holes in the prairie snow over fifteen feet deep: a strange planting. the farmers calmly got out their snowshoes and shotguns, walked into the fields and fired down the

-Darren Weshler
section from "Free Radicals"

East Van in all its LED Glory

Here is a critical essay I wrote concerning the appropriation of the christian cross and the East Van cross.

We are worshipping a grotesque, barbaric murdering device. The icon that is the Cross, started out as a means of execution; a contraption that Jesus himself died upon. This cross has been appropriated in such a variety of ways, from commercial businesses, notorious gangs, schoolchildren, artists, skateboarders, and tattoo shops that the immutability of the symbol and its iconography has been challenged to the point where it no longer has a fixed meaning, and its interpretation is dependent on its context. The Cross has also been altered in several stylized ways to represent impressions of identity, a sense of opposition and defiance, and sets of ideals that are different from the Christian symbology of the Cross. The sign is being bought and sold, as if it has become branded, making it easily dispersible throughout the city. In a way, the cross has been distributed throughout cities since its beginning: a means of execution.

The Cross is an immediately recognized symbol, one that gets its roots well before it had any affiliations with the Church. It was used by the Romans who, “crucified tens of thousands of individuals deemed politically subversive” (Soltes 83), as a humiliating and often public instrument of execution. It was indicated in a number of representations of the Crucifixion that Jesus too was crucified due to political opposition of Roman authority, demonstrated by the inscription above his head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judaeans.” As this demeaning and barbaric vision passed, Christianity became a predominantly influential authority that appropriated the Crucifixion to become “a logical symbol of Christ,” (Soltes 83), deeming Christ’s form of death as unique to him. The word Christ is often referred to the act of being anointed (to consecrate or make sacred); then Christ “suffered and died in the most horrible manner and thus experienced human reality at its most painful” (Soltes 83), demonstrates a merging of the sacred and the profane; profane being an irreverence to that which is divine. In this context, visually the Cross exhibits this merging of opposites: a vertical beam uniting with a horizontal beam, that symbolizes the meeting of heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. The Cross, later in history, appeared in a vision that Constantine the emperor of Rome had before a battle against a pagan rival as described by Eusebius (A.D. 265-340), a historian who wrote Constantine’s biography. In his vision “the Cross appeared against a light with the words ‘In this sign you conquer.’” (Adams 151). Following Constantine’s victory, Constantine, “recognized the power of the Cross and the Christian God” (Adams 151), which led to a political divergence in an already geographically separated Europe. In Western Europe the pope was the preeminent force of the church, and in the east, the church was led by a patriarch that was endowed by the Byzantine emperor. The Christian religion had a hefty influence on Western Art at this time and provided images that were abundant in icons, symbols and signs representing their ideologies for all to see.

This influence of the Christian Church has been carried through to the twenty-first century and has indirectly led Vancouver-based artist Ken Lum to construct a large LED cross with the words East Van written inside in the form of a crossword, where the common letter “a” is shared. It will stand 60 feet tall on a silver pole, illuminated in white lights giving the illusion that it is floating in space. It will be located blocks away from the actual east/west dividing line on the corner hill of Clark and East 6th as part of the Mapping and Marking portion of the Olympic public art program. The Cross will be easily seen for kilometers in all directions, and will be especially blatant by those entering the east side from the west. The East Van cross dates back to the 1940’s and 1950’s but its direct origins are unknown. As it stands, it’s an underground tag that would be written in chalk in and around Vancouver’s East side. At the time of its origins, the cross’s “Christian symbolism was considerably more pronounced” (Ken Lum) as the demographics of East Vancouver were made up heavily of immigrants that were practicing Christians and Catholics; religions that worship this particular icon. Those living in the East Side felt marginalized from those of the west, possibly because of their economic status or their place of power in the politics of the city, so they appropriated the Cross’s use as an identifier and inscribed their signature, of East Van inside. This to them represented a set of ideologies that enforced their position on people within the city. It can be seen as a gesture of defiance, a sort of protest or opposition to the rest of the city’s authority, where East Van residents are being subversive and using the symbol of the Cross to reflect the sense of victory Christ had over the Romans. The East Van Cross will be viewed as the new division line of Vancouver “ terms of a bifurcated city” (Ken Lum), and one that strengthens the differences of east and west by segregating them into their own place, demographic, and ideology. By having the East Van Cross hover phenomenally in white light over the city harkens back to Constantine’s vision of when he saw the divine Cross in the sky. However, Ken Lum’s reasoning is that the East Van cross would “...appear sporadically on sidewalks in chalk” (Ken Lum) and to render the color accurately, white LED lights were necessary. As times in Vancouver secularized and there were apparent changes in the demographics incorporating an influx of Asian immigrants, it was possible that these “...populations likely dissipated the symbols of Christendom.” (Ken Lum). The East Van Cross can be seen as housing a double meaning, where there is this formal Christian Cross, but “...its also sacrilegious at the same time” (Ken Lum), as the words inside aren’t religious and it as a whole can be regarded as a form of vandalism.

An assemblage of East Vancouver residents find this symbol compelling and seemingly relate to it as a cultural signifier, even though the direct meaning behind it is unknown. It has been “appropriated by everyone from school children to notorious gangs” (Ken Lum); gangs who would inscribe the word “rules!” underneath the cross. This could either state that when you enter into East Vancouver, “you play by our rules” or that the “east side runs the city” (Ken Lum), which strengthens the gang’s independence, feeling of power, and domination over a certain section of the city. The possible conjuring of ideas that East Vancouver has its own set of rules different from the rest of the city, rules that could potentially be radical and revolutionary, reflect those who were crucified by the Romans for being subversive towards authority and political agendas. The fact that this cross encompasses and reflects East Vancouver has made the symbol a brand by a number of different commercial businesses including the cafe, JJ Bean. The East Van Cross at JJ Bean is framed on the side of their brown coffee bags which can only be seen after coffee has been purchased and the beans have fully enlarged the bag. However, this cross has undertaken a variety of transformations; there are angelic wings flanking the cross and a scroll at the top of the cross mimicking the inscription above Jesus’ head at Crucifixion. By using the East Van Cross, JJ Bean is saying that they are part of this East side idealism, one that sympathizes with “...artists, students, musicians, and soccer fanatics” (JJ Bean). The Cross and what it represents is being distributed on every bag of coffee in many locations that are not in the East Side like Yaletown and North Vancouver. This, in a way, makes the company a type of messenger, where they are dispersing a set of certain ideals to an array of people. This is enhanced by the wings on the cross that could be an appropriation of the wings that belong to Hermes, the Greek messenger god. The Crucifix, without the words East Van and the implications carried with the sign, are also found on their paper cups, camouflaged by its morphing into the shape of power-lines, which is merely a coincidence, as Grady, a Coffee Quality Leader at JJ Bean, claims. By rendering and incorporating such prominent religious icons such as the Cross, one that is complete with an inscription and angelic wings, shows a closer tie to the original Christian meaning of ‘the Cross’ as is common in today’s symbolic lexicon.

This once immutable symbol has undertaken a variety of formalistic transformations; changing its semiotics to where its true meaning is contingent on its context. The Cross has a fixed meaning attached to it by those who worship this religious symbol, but through the ages it has been appropriated and challenged in such a variety of ways, that its religious connotations have been peeled away. What is left is a mutable sign; an entity that can signify another entity, one that is dependent upon the viewer. The East Van Cross is “untethered to any hard substrate” (Ken Lum), so it can be propagated throughout the city and be open to interpretation. The cross has ties to the skateboarding culture; where its printed on articles of clothing and skateboards, the tourism industry; where there are t-shirts depicting the cross, next to “I (heart) East Van” shirts, and a community newspaper, called The Republic of East Vancouver who claim “Its more a state of mind than a place.” The sign is bolstering a possible negative reputation that the East Side has with the tourist industry, by heightening their profile with public art works that are representative of East Side ideals. Because Ken Lum’s cross will be erected just in time for the Olympics, thousands of tourists from around the world will see it. They will easily distinguish the east from the west because of this dividing mark, and will be able to summon their own ideas of what the Cross represents, as they have no previous affiliations with either side of the city. In reference to the skateboard culture; the commercial businesses where I found the Cross were in East Vancouver, and were advertising a sense of “East Van Pride” to the community. These businesses are identifying with the archetypal culture of East Van; where its younger, “hip” residents are lower paid students, artists or workers that live in a culturally diverse area; one that they want to keep clear of major gentrification. Gentrification could potentially force such individuals out of the city due to an overall raise of the cost of living. The cross’s sense of pride is being used as a defensive mechanism against the rest of the city, reminding others what the East Side is based on and what it represents. To loose this sense of identity would be like forfeiting it to a homogeneous culture, aesthetic, and set of ideals that has swept the rest of Vancouver.
The Cross has had numerous interpretations applied to it over time, to where its lost its immutability as a symbol and has become a sign. In a tattoo shop on Granville Street, called Next, cross tattoos are a very popular staple as far as beautifying the body is concerned. One can flip through example pages of cross tattoos and merely choose one that speaks to them and attach a meaning to it all their own. More commonly the they are not religious, but in some way identify with the Cross, claims a tattooist at Next. People who are somehow affiliated with the East Van Cross, whether they are selling merchandise with the Cross on it, or are filled with a sense of pride when they see it scrawled on a wall or floating on the corner of Sixth and Clark, appreciate it, but have no idea where the sign came from, or what it really means. As something that started out as a symbol of religious worship; an icon that represented a strict set of beliefs; society has almost been iconoclastic where the original meaning of the Cross has been defaced, or altered both symbolically and visually. And whether or not the East Van Cross has ties to Christianity, one will never know, but the interpretations will be open-ended and ongoing as it continues to be appropriated.

Works Cited

Soltes, Ori Z. Our Sacred Signs. Cambridge, MA. Westview Press, 2005

Schneider Adams, Laurie. A History of Western Art. 4th Edition. New York, NY. Mc Graw Hill, 2008.

Griffin, Kevin. “Icon rising in East Vancouver.” The Vancouver Sun. Thursday, November 26, 2009.

Rossi, Cheryl. “What lies beneath eight new city art projects.” The Vancouver Courier. Wednesday, July 8, 2009.

Lum, Ken. Personal Interview. Thursday, November 26, 2009.

The Christian Cross

Conversion of Emperor Constantine, Print, 1869

Ken Lum's East Van Cross at erected location: Clark and East Sixth.

East Van Cross on coffee bag at JJ Bean Cafe

Crosses on JJ Bean paper cup

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


He was wearing a white Disney-World sweater with Cobra tattoos wrapping themselves around his neck. He lives in Surrey and is calling women downtown for places to stay.
Night Bus to Vancouver 3:30am.

A Chinese lady practicing Qigong, or another form of touch energy on the bus. She was maniacally wiping her face, and especially her lips and mouth rhythmically with her left and right hand for about ten minutes. The old man across from her was just staring.
#16 Arbutus 7:45am.

A man was carrying a cat on his head in the new Woodwards building at London Drugs. The manager came to him demanding he take his cat outside, as pets are not allowed in such places. The man presented the manager with papers withdrawn from his jacket pocket declaring the cat as a therapeutic cat. The cat did not leave, or try to leave from the Oakland Raiders baseball cap the man had on his head. The cat was brown.
Woodwards London Drugs 9:30pm.

Sunday, January 10, 2010