Duplicity and Diptychs: The Maraya Project’s Twinned Visions of Complicity

"Maraya: Sisyphean Cart, False Creek, Vancouver." From "The Maraya Project," 2014.

The similarities between the seawall in Vancouver and the seawall in Dubai are eerie. You might not think to compare them unless you have been to both cities. From the snaking, tree-lined path to barred, white handrails and the pedestrian roundabout, Vancouver’s marina is reflected in Dubai’s, and vice versa. In 2007, artists M. Simon Levin, Glen Lowry, and Henry Tsang began The Maraya Project, which mapped duplications in the waterfronts in both cities, creating a series of interactive artworks named Maraya, the Arabic word for “mirror” or “reflection.” This year, selections from the decade-long project were published in The Maraya Project: Reflecting Urban Waterfronts (published by the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, 2022), a slim collection of essays, poetry, and photographs.

The horizontal catalogue opens with two images set side by side on the verso. As someone who has been privileged to call Vancouver home for almost twenty years, I instantly recognize the first image, an aerial shot of the False Creek marina taken over the wealthy neighborhood of Yaletown. Beside it is an image of Dubai Marina, which architecture critic Trevor Boddy describes in BC Business as “almost a perfect clone of downtown Vancouver—right down to the handrails on the seawall, the skinny condo towers on townhouse bases, all around a 100-per-cent artificial, full-scale version of False Creek filled with seawater from the Persian Gulf.”

The concept of twinned cities has its origins in “sister cities,” which emerged during the Second World War. When the English town of Coventry was bombed in 1940, the mayor sought solidarity with another Allied city that had experienced similar catastrophes, in this case, Stalingrad. Since then, the concept of twinning has developed beyond legal and social contracts to encompass commercial and cultural exchange. In the book’s opening essay, “Maraya’s Sisyphean Cart: Twinned Visions of Vancouver & Dubai,” Alice Ming Wai Jim notes that the United Arab Emirates is Canada’s biggest trade partner in the Middle East, with several multi-billion-dollar developments connecting the two, including purchases of container terminals in Vancouver and Halifax. She asks: “What does it mean to have another version of a place elsewhere?”

“Research Documents: Dubai-Vancouver.” From “The Maraya Project,” 2011.

Both waterfronts were designed by some of the same planners, architects, and engineers. Notably, Chinese Canadian architect Stanley Kwok was involved in the redevelopment of northern False Creek, an area that was previously the Canadian Pacific Railway yards, then BC Place, then Expo lands, until, with Kwok’s vision, it became Concord Pacific Place. In the late 1990s officials from Emaar Properties, the government firm that developed Dubai Marina, embarked on a tour to view North American neighborhood developments. According to Spacing magazine, Kwok took chairman Mohamed Ali Alabbar and other Emaar representatives on a yacht tour and sold them the idea of developing Dubai’s marina in a similar style. Dubai Marina was subsequently built from scratch: carved out of the coastline, with seawater from the Gulf diverted to fill an empty swimming-pool-type structure.

Maraya: Sisyphean Cart was one of the first Maraya artworks to expound on the mirrored flows of capital and the neoliberal structuring of space and social relations in the informally twinned cities of Vancouver and Dubai. Debuting in Dubai at the International Symposium for Electronic Art in 2014, two years after the marayaprojects.com website was launched, and arriving in 2015 at Vancouver’s edition of ISEA and 221A gallery, Sisyphean Cart was designed to be pulled along the seawall by residents and passersby. The low-lying cart resembled a long dolly and was equipped with a pan-tilt-zoom camera hidden among a series of “reflective mirror blocks made in the shape of recognizable landmark buildings in Dubai,” as Jim describes. When the cart is pulled, the upward-facing camera torques the skyline view into a street-view perspective. According to the project team, ‘The cart would invoke the spectre of labor—purposeful walking as a form of resistance to readily consumed images of idealized leisure—and the Sisyphean weight of this vision.’” One notable difference between the participants in the documentation photographs is that many of the cart-pullers in Vancouver appear to be dressed casually while out on a stroll, while those photographed in Dubai are in work clothes: construction gear, waiter’s uniforms, and business suits.

“Maraya: Sisyphean Cart, Dubai-Vancouver.” From “The Maraya Project,” 2014.

It is the spectre of labor that creates the most memorable documentation images for me—the stark difference between who’s pulling the cart in Vancouver and in Dubai, and the invisible labor implied in unpeopled images. Photographs of beams and scaffolding are cropped narrowly to emphasize their foundational function in contrast to the bright images of people pulling Sisyphean Cart on sunny days by the waterfront, images whose “cheerily promotional character . . . could be mistaken for a real-estate developer’s display at a condo pre-sale centre,” as Robin Laurence notes in a 2011 review of the Maraya show at Centre A gallery, published in the Georgia Straight and referenced in Jim’s essay. These images ask us who builds the marina, what holds it up and makes it real—a significant question that the catalogue addresses briefly: “Notably,” Jim writes, “what is cleared, or cleaned, from view are brown-skinned men who, hired within their home countries through employment contractors, have their passports held by the companies they work for and are therefore unable to travel outside of the UAE without permission.”

In one instance, a person taking a picture is photographed by one of the Maraya team members. Printed on the inset of a foldout page, the image features a group of five South and East Asian people posing with Sisyphean Cart in Dubai. They are wearing shirts branded with the Nando’s logo. In the center, two men each hold one mirrored tower proudly like a trophy. It is the sole image in which the mirrors are uprooted from the cart, rupturing the upward-facing camera’s remix modality that is activated by the walker’s path. This regime of visuality and reflection is finally subverted. The tower-as-trophy stance of the giggly Nando’s workers gestures toward an aspirational quality that moves The Maraya Project from the duplicity of cheery diptychs to the duplicity of complicity. This double bind brings us to the present moment when it reveals a disjunct in Vancouver, too, one between empty waterfront condos largely financed by overseas capital and the various people who stroll the seawall. Kevin Hamilton’s newly commissioned essay, “Walking to Unsettle: Maraya, Design, and Colonial Projection,” reflects on the gesture of the cart pull and updates the importance of the project: “Just as the cart’s mirrors reflect back the surroundings, the migrations and movements that make a Maraya Cart pull possible reflect the movements of people and capital that enable the whole project in the first place.”

Is it sufficient for an artwork to elicit its own contradictions, or by doing so does it become merely complicit in the very thing it is criticizing? The Maraya Project’s attempts to intervene in the complicity of neoliberalism and real-estate development are several. The catalogue’s inclusion of poetry made of fragments juxtaposed with smaller documentation photographs can be viewed as one such endeavor. Leading directly from the full-page photographs without preface or paratext, the poetry is descriptive, but also expository: “Vancouverism, another new ‘new urbanism.’ / call it False Creek. Dubai Marina. / luxury within reach. almost, anyway, for some, maybe.” Though this is didactic, it summarizes many of the project’s concerns and points out its contradictions. There are significant omissions in the catalogue that curtail its provocative possibilities, however. The text doesn’t reference the video and audio footage that comprised early Maraya projects such as the streams shown at Centre A gallery and on the project’s website. For an interactive initiative such as this one, it’s surprising that the born-digital archive of the site and the project’s early A/V feeds were not maintained or restored. This archive could have opened a critique of the temporalities that such mega-planning projects create, reify, and erase. It could also have created a living archive to be repurposed to explore timely resonances in waterfront and housing developments now.

A reflexive critique is also lacking. The index at the back of the book cites 2007 as the earliest date associated with The Maraya Project, when Levin, Lowry, and Tsang gave conference talks on the parallels between Vancouver and Dubai. Jim notes that “Maraya’s last six years of activity coincided with the build-up to Vancouver’s designation as Cultural Capital of Canada in 2011, just in time for the city’s 125th anniversary.” If The Maraya Project’s beginnings coincide with events such as an anniversary that celebrates colonial nationhood, a reflexive critique could make room to discuss the complicity of the project. Settler-colonial histories were (and are) actively being reproduced with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics—when shelters were opened, drawing criticism that the city was hiding the homeless from Olympic visitors—and more recently, in August 2022, when the police were removing tents and forcing evictions in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The Maraya Project certainly reveals connections and flows of capital and people, but what about the long history of dispossession and genocide that makes these new landscapes and twinnings possible?

What remains clear after The Maraya Project, however, is that it continues to be relevant. Walking by Georgia Street in Vancouver in the summer of 2022, I encountered yet another twinning that connects people in Vancouver to the Pacific Rim location of Hong Kong. Christopher K. Ho’s CX889 (2022) is a site-specific work that restages Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport at the moment when the British handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997. It is yet another portal of colocation, with its two ramps, two No Entry signs, and reflecting pool of water. Jim notes a trend of city-to-city-themed international exhibitions, “where urban landscapes are transformed for better or worse through site-specific artworks seeking to activate transnational connections of over-determined yet changing city cultures around the globe.” While Ho’s work offers a grounding nostalgia for those to whom the airport and handover are familiar memories or family stories, The Maraya Project offers the same discursion and inter-reference, colocating us in other Vancouverisms, such as the 2017 developer adaptation at CityPlace on Toronto’s Railway Lands (also by Concord Pacific). For people on the move—the precariat, scholars, real-estate developers, and digital nomads—Vancouverism can uncannily feel like “home.”

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