The Undercurrent: Resurfacing Artistic Discourse on Urban Space in False Creek

by Renée Mok

The barge floated just out of reach. It looked like a child’s dream, a pirate ship, or a wooden fortress docked in Heritage Harbour. From the shore you could see a maze of makeshift walkways and railings that rose into a tower. People don’t often swim in False Creek because the water isn’t clean. It has a smell. I would never have dreamed of it before, but I admit I was tempted. I stood on the beach and watched people jump into False Creek just to climb that tower.


Cedric, Nathan and Jim Bomford, Deadhead, 2014
Photo courtesy of Other Sights for Artists’ Projects

Deadhead, a large-scale sculpture by Cedric, Nathan and Jim Bomford, was constructed out of salvaged materials and moored around Vancouver’s False Creek in the summer of 2014. Produced by the artist collective Other Sights for Artists’ Projects and curated by Barbara Cole, Deadhead challenged perceptions and experiences of public space. Residing in False Creek among lavish yachts and leisure boats, Deadhead evoked aspects of the waterway’s past as trade route and industrial port: mounted on a cargo ship representing False Creek’s history, it also introduced artwork within a highly regulated space. Its presence encouraged viewers to consider who controls Vancouver’s waterways and what changes have influenced this body of water.

False Creek was once a tidal pool and destination for freshwater streams filled with shellfish and salmon; its flats were home to several Coastal Salish communities. Natural resources and access to the water made False Creek a catalyst for industrial and urban development. For over 50 years artists have drawn from the dramatic changes in this area to raise critical questions about public space in Vancouver.

Curator Scott Watson has described how in the 1960s, “Vancouver artists and many of their contemporaries felt the need to witness and register the dramatic changes to cities occurring at the time.”[1] For example, Background/Vancouver (1973), an analogue photomap by artists Michael de Courcy, Taki Bluesinger, Gerry Gilbert and Glenn Lewis, captured this transformational period. Many of their photographs feature Vancouver’s shorelines: for instance, the image Surreal shows piles of debris along Coal Harbour against the backdrop of the hazy Vancouver skyline, the construction on the shore hints at the eminent development across the water. Similarly, the image Dirty Window shows False Creek from atop an apartment building near Sunset Beach, directly followed by Stay the winter, an image of an empty lot waiting to be developed. Meanwhile, Maple and Mudflats capture the community of squatters who rejected urban space to live “off the grid” on the water’s edge of the North Shore. The images demonstrate change to the physical landscape, but also shift in the culture towards urban growth and independence.


Taki Bluesinger, Michael De Courcy, Gerry Gilbert and Glenn Lewis, Background/Vancouver, 1972
Photo courtesy of

In 2012, Vancouver artists Emilio Rojas, Guadlupe Martinez and Igor Santizo revisited Background/Vancouver. Following their predecessor’s pathway, they created a collaborative map that intersected their ideas with the original photomap. Exhibited at grunt gallery, This Place/Vancouver (2012) brought Vancouver’s hidden histories and social identities to the surface. The corresponding website invites people to follow the paths taken by the different generations of artists and to contribute their own pathways and stories to an interactive archive of the city’s narrative.

Urban renewal in Strathcona during the 1960s and the redevelopment of the flats in the 1980s prompted artists to create work that further questioned the politics behind urban development. Also – and perhaps more importantly – these works reimagined public space in False Creek. In his historic Street Scans (1969), artist Christos Dikeakos documented the changing shoreline as he moved, by automobile, through the changing cityscape. Reminiscent of Ed Rusha’s deadpan photo books, Dikeakos’ images display the flat, unaltered landscape allowing the audience to freely interpret the spaces represented. He later revisited this work adding the names of lost First Nations villages and wildlife in False Creek Car Scans (1992).


Christos Dikeakos, False Creek Car Scans, 1992
Image courtesy of The CCCA Canadian Art Database

In a recent reiteration of this gesture, Dikeakos photographed traditional Musqueam territory for a series of exhibitions called ??sna??m, the city before the city, which celebrates Musqueam historical landscape and living culture. Displayed in the windows of the YVR skytrain station overlooking traditional Musqueam territory, Passage Ways (2015) effectively resurfaced the buried past and the drastic changes that have occurred over time. The images illustrate the resilience of Musqueam culture whose complex histories, questions of land rights, and recognition of their historical burial grounds, have been unearthed in response to urban development in Vancouver.


Christos Dikeakos, Passage Ways, 2015
Photo courtesy of Capture Photography Festival

In a durational public project directly in False Creek’s Olympic Village, artists Folke Köb­ber­ling and Martin Kalt­wasser created The Games Are Open (2010). Also produced by Other Sights, it addressed the planning of international-scale events and its impact on development in the city. Vancouver is known for being a “green” city and the construction of the Olympic Village claimed to be environmentally conscious. The bulldozer sculpture was made from the “eco-friendly” wheat board used to protect the high-end appliances and countertops installed in the condominiums for the Olympic athletes’ 2-week stay, which would end up as a waste. The bulldozer, intentionally created out of this material, gradually decayed and became a space for growth. Since the 2010 Olympics, the piece has decomposed, becoming fertile soil in which a rogue gardener now plants flowers, fruits and vegetables. The Games are Open thus rejects the Olympic Village’s regulated structure, allowing for artistic freedom and natural growth to be visible in False Creek.

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Folke Köb­ber­ling and Martin Kalt­wasser, The Games are Open, 2010
Photos courtesy of Other Sights for Artists’ Projects

Public art provides individuals with opportunities to reinterpret the city, whereas community public art invites people to participate, voice their opinions, and make changes in their communities. According to the study, Community-Based Public Art, by SFU Harbour Centre and Vancouver Parks and Recreation, community public art “can inspire, strengthen and empower the individuals of that community to be more actively involved…more responsible for building community foundations, exploring new avenues and encouraging participation in others.”[2] For instance, in Richard Tetrault’s Guardian Spirits (1989) the community created scarecrow-like sculptures in the Strathcona Community Gardens to speak out against development in their neighbourhood. While Marian Penner Bancroft consulted members of the community, the Parks Board and the School Board to locate and install markers to identify historical streams in her Lost Streams of Kitsilano (1994). The markers identify lost streams and educate the community about the cause of its disappearance and the names of plants and wildlife that have disappeared because of the lost waterway.


St. George Rainway Project, St. George Rainway Mural, 2014
Photo courtesy of the Tyee

The St. George Rainway Project (2012) is one example of a community public art project that identified a lost stream and generated positive change in the community. An initiative that advocates for the redesign of Mt. Pleasant around a historic stream that once ran into False Creek, the project reimagines a living community space along a rainway that now runs down St. George Street. Locals and neighbours were invited to collectively create a sidewalk chalk mural, while learning about the hidden stream and the goals of the project. Similarly, the False Creek Watershed Society’s Community Mapping Project (2009) invited individuals from the community to learn the history of False Creek, tell their stories and contribute to a map of combined experiences. The project addressed problems with past development and attempted to restore the area’s natural resources.

Laiwan’s recent project, Fountain: the origin and source of everything (2014) was a photographic mural that captured False Creek and the Georgia Viaduct from a moment in history. The image, a film still from a CBC program Summer Afternoon, offered a perspective of historic Chinatown in 1956. Displayed on the WALL at CBC in downtown Vancouver, Fountain also invited its audience to reimagine what lies beneath the constructed city – the city’s past and future and the poetry of change. Like many projects in Vancouver, it highlights the importance of water the city’s physical, social and cultural health. The mural and its online component bring forward the history of the area, creating new sources of conversation. The image shows an unrecognizable Vancouver landscape, a landscape altered with the passing of time.


Laiwan, Fountain: the source or origin of anything, 2014-2015
Image courtesy of the artist

With the False Creek flats and the Georgia Viaduct in the early stages of redevelopment, these artworks remain relevant in weaving together diverse narratives of False Creek and documenting the history of changes. The Georgia Viaduct is another symbol of the city’s history: built to transport land to fill the railway terminals, it led to the destruction of the historic Hogan’s Alley and remains a structural reminder of the unsuccessful plan to build a freeway through the city. In the fall of 2015, the City of Vancouver announced its plan to take down the Viaduct and develop the remaining area around False Creek. The city is currently inviting community consultation on major planning projects in the city. To contribute your thoughts on urban planning in the False Creek flats and around the viaducts visit:

These public art pieces – both community and artist-based – focus on urban space to expose history, advocate for change and point toward the effects of urban development on the citizens and cultural landscape in Vancouver. Deadhead explored the history of the port and the use of waterways, while This Place/Vancouver charted intergenerational perspectives on urban change. These works provide new perspectives and understandings of the city that may not have been considered before. At a crucial moment in the city’s planning, they also have the potential to inspire individuals to become involved in the reimagining of the city, to be critical of the decisions being made, and to consider how Vancouver will be shaped as a result. The social impact of such projects may be small – like the rogue gardener planting new life in the decomposed bulldozer – to large community initiatives like the socially-engaged St. George Rainway project, which continues to strive for change. It seems like now is a good time to pay attention to urban development and speak up about the type of city in which we’d like to live.

[1] Watson, Scott. “Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos, and Squats – Vancouver Art in the sixties,” in Intertidal: Vancouver Art
and Artists. Ed. Dieter Roelstrate & Scott Watson, 30-49. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia.

[2] Pulvermacher, Cindy. Community-based Public Art: Strengthening our communities. 1996.


Cole, Barbara. “Köbberling & Kaltwasser: The Games Are Open.” Other Sights for Artists’ Projects Association. 2014.

“Christos Dikeakos.” The CCCA Canadian Art Database, accessed April 2016.


“Lost Streams of Kitsilano.” Presences du Litteraire Dans L’Espace Public Canadien. Accessed April 2016.


Mastai, Judith. Art in Public Places: A Vancouver Casebook. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1993.

Pulvermacher, Cindy. Community-based Public Art: Strengthening our communities. Vancouver: Simon Harbour Centre, 1996.

Rojas, Emilio, Igor Santizo, Gudalupe Martinez. “This Place Vancouver.” grunt gallery. 2012.

“Street Mural.” St. George Rainway Project. Last modified 2014. Accessed July 2015.

The False Creek Watershed Society, “The False Creek Watershed Society.” Accessed July 2015.

“The Future of Vancouver’s Viaducts,” City of Vancouver. Last modified 2015. Accessed August 2015.

Vancouver Economic Commission, “History,” Accessed July 2015.

Varty, Alexander. “Metaphors afloat aboard False Creek’s Deadhead,” The Georgia Straight, July 30, 2014.


Watson, Scott. “Urban Renewal: Ghost Traps, Collage, Condos, and Squats – Vancouver Art in the sixties.” In Intertidal: Vancouver Art

and Artists, edited by Dieter, Roelstrate, and Scott Watson, 30-49. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia.