Riot Act

Great public artworks call out to the passerby. Masterpieces begin a conversation. Stan Douglas’s new mural depicting the 1971 Gastown riots, now suspended in the atrium of the redone Woodward’s building (steps from the site of the actual riots), will strike up more conversation than any other artwork in town. Hanging midair at the heart of the city’s new melting pot, it depicts some of the hundreds of hippies who suffered police brutality after convening at Maple Tree Square one summer day to protest undercover drug squads. Officers charged the crowds on horseback and beat protesters with batons. It’s an embarrassing scene of misconduct that the police have tried hard to put to rest. The finished work is a massive reminder though, stretching 50 by 30 feet. The title Douglas gave it, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, is dry and prosaic enough to register his interest in historical rigour. In fact, he spent six months researching historical details (“I wanted to know what was right, from the signage down to the garbage can”); then there were six weeks of pre-production (building the elaborate street set); three days of shooting; and two months of post-production. The final computer file cost $550,000 to create and, after construction costs are considered, the price is over $1 million.  

We often think of photographs as moments of witnessing. But what Douglas has delivered to the city is a moment of re-witnessing, reassessing. As Vancouver steps toward the 2010 Games, when its citizens will be more policed, more monitored, more scrutinized than ever, this mural insists we have always had the temerity to watch our watcher.