Remaking the Riot


The Gastown Smoke-in of 1971 began as a peaceful demonstration against Operation Dustpan, a campaign of police harassment directed against “undesirables” in the Downtown Eastside, and grew into a full-blown police riot that remains a dark memory in the history of Vancouver.

Abbott & Cordova, 1971 is the title of a photographic image of the riot made in 2009 by Stan Douglas, a photographer and visual artist who lives in Vancouver. The construction of the photo­graph required the construction of a simulated intersection (in a rented parking lot), with streets, sidewalks and storefronts, and 700,000 watts of tungsten light. After an arduous casting process, performers were fitted for period costumes and hairstyles. The shooting went on for three nights. The final enormous image (8 × 13 metres), a composite of some fifty images, now hangs in the atrium of the recently renovated Woodward’s building at Abbott and Cordova Streets; the north wall of the building is represented in the photograph, one block from the epicentre of the riot.

Stan Douglas says: “A lot of conventional public art uses a plaque to explain why something that would normally be found in a museum has been placed out of doors, or what some man on a horse accomplished in this or that particular location. Such works become subordinate to their explanation. In contrast, I wasn’t interested in the image conveying a single message. I was more interested in facilitating a conversation between people about a historical event, a series of historical events. In that sense, even the book in which this interview will be published is very much part of that conversation. And I’d rather something as multivalent as a book pry open the photograph, or elaborate the discussion about the photograph, than a single plaque that reads: “On this spot, on August 7, 1971, Police Beat Up Some Hippies.”

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