Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 169: A Conversation About Urban Choreography — with Justine A. Chambers, Alana Gerecke & Annabel Vaughan

Speakers: Paige Smith, Melissa Roach, Alana Gerecke, Justine A. Chambers, Annabel Vaughan, Audience Member 

Paige Smith  0:03  
Hey everyone, I'm Paige Smith and you're listening to a special live event recording on Below the Radar. Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Please enjoy the following recording from a conversation about urban choreography with Alana Gerecke, Justine A. Chambers and Annabel Vaughan. Together the panelists explore the accumulation of living archival gestures generated by the interactions between moving bodies and built space, an evolving assembly of lost gestures. Enjoy the conversation.

Melissa Roach  0:33  
Hi everybody. Welcome to a conversation about urban choreography. We're really excited to have these panelists with us today. We've got Alana Gerecke, Annabel Vaughan, and Justine A Chambers. And I'm really excited for this conversation. I just wanted to do a few housekeeping notes. We are on the lands of the, stolen lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. That's where we are today. And we do have all-gender washrooms on this floor, if you go back down the hall towards the elevators. And we are going to be recording this session tonight. And there will be a conversation piece to it after. So without any further notes, I will pass it over to Alana.

Alana Gerecke  1:26  
Thank you so much, and thank you everybody for coming tonight. This is like, I'm giddy to see bodies in a room together. And not just screen heads. It's such a treat. So we're here today, having a conversation about urban choreography. And we're thinking of this as, really, just a conversation that is open to folks who want to be in the room and maybe contribute towards the end when we open it up, or throughout if something is burning. So that's our expectation, and that's what we're coming here with. So I'll introduce myself. My name is Alana Gerecke, and I am a scholar, and an artist, and a mother, and an uninvited guest on the stolen lands of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, where I've been working for the last two decades. I hold a PhD, which is technically in English, but really in performance studies where I looked at site-based dance and urban spatial politics with Peter Dickinson, and went from there to do a postdoctoral fellowship, a Banting Fellowship under Laura Levin looking at kind of expanding the idea of site-based dance and looking at colloquial versions of choreography and public space. So like, protest, that sort of thing. And right now, I've got, I'm working with a Shadbolt Fellowship in the Urban Studies Department at SFU, and also a artist-in_residence at the Dance Centre. So kind of straddling those two worlds and thinking about movement and choreography in public space.

Justine A. Chambers  3:11  
Thanks, Alana. My name is Justine A. Chambers. I actually never say the A out loud, so I that just felt really strange in my mouth. I'm a dancer and a choreographer, art maker. I also started working here at the SCA in September, as a term lecturer, so I'm also an educator. My practice lives in many places, I make work for the stage, and make work for the city, and for the gallery, and to read, but I really hold the body, my body as the centre of the work, not the body, my body at the centre of the work that I do. I really like to think about how choreography can be empathic practice. And I'm thinking with Alana a lot just about the movement of our bodies through the city. I'm thinking about state choreographies. I'm also mostly just concerned with how our bodies are already moving together, in public space and private space. And really like to think about spend a lot of time sort of pondering what the accumulated archive is of any particular body, and like to think about dance and choreography as a place to hold that archive instead of books, or records that hold a singular perspective. So I really like to think about the multiple, and multiple forms of archival practices that are embodied. I think that's probably enough about me right now.

Annabel Vaughan  4:46  
Thank you. And I'm Annabel Vaughan. I am an architect, and just recently came back to the West Coast. I grew up in Toronto, spent half my life there, and then came out here and spent another half of my life out here, and then went back to Toronto, and am happily back on the West Coast. Decided to move during the pandemic, which was interesting. And it's delightful to be in an audience, it's kind of trippy. I want to give thanks to the Musqueam Squamish, and the Tsleil-Waututh, who continue to put up with us as we learn how to be guests in their territories. I'm grateful for their patience, and continue to strive to shift my own frame of reference, take responsibility for the crimes of my people who came before, and dismantle and decolonize the structures I come into contact with. It's an ongoing piece of work, and it's something I'm committed to. My practice is kind of a strange one, I'm reluctant architects, but I engage with it. But I'm really interested in the edge condition and that—I'm very conscious of the fact that buildings create the public realm, and that the intersection between the public and the edge of the building is a really fascinating, liminal space that is charged and has so much potential. I write, I teach, I curate, I design, I think, I play, I do all sorts of things in the city. But mostly, I'm really interested in the sort of spatial praxis of the city, and was invited by Justine and Alana, and am entering into a conversation that I am very curious about.

Alana Gerecke  6:42  
So, a bit of backstory on kind of what where this comes from. Justine and I each have our own trajectories, which we've just kind of gestured towards in terms of thinking through movement, and bodies, and public space, et cetera. And that kind of started to dovetail in 2016, with a talk actually here. So this is like a BA. And we from there kind of kept, we were just really curious about how our overlapping but different skillsets could kind of feed the question and exploration around moving through public spaces, and how how choreographies are inbuilt in urban design, how we're invited to walk in certain directions, face certain orientations, which then brings us into relation differently with different buildings and people, et cetera. So it was really exciting. We've looked at this in a few ways kind of straddling dance practice, social practice, writing practice. And we've had a little pet project that was seeded for me as I was reading through Migrations of Gesture, Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness write a beautiful book that explores gesture, and in it, they quote, Theodor Adorno, who laments the loss, that technology brings in terms of our gestural vocabulary. So, he's talking about the advancement of like, door hinges, for example. So moving to like, a refrigerator door that you have to slam with force, or a car door that you have to slam with force. And he's lamenting the loss of the nuance of engaging with, like, an intricate system, and kind of that negotiation and hesitation that takes place if you're, like, turning a window latch, rather than the slamming a window shut. And so that just kind of seeded a little pet project that I really wanted to explore around like, what, just to pick up on that inquiry, what does it mean for this subject, for our bodies, that we let go of a series of gestures that are no longer required or elicited in everyday life? And is there something there, like, if you believe that the way that we move through the world really shapes our engagement with the things and bodies around us? Then might there be a site of inquiry there, in terms of gestures that we no longer use, that have been phased out of vocabulary? Or, thinking less temporally and more spatially, gestures that kind of belong to one specific location and not to another, et cetera? So how does that, how does gesture migrate across bodies, because that's precisely what it does? How do objects invite different gestures? And what information is contained in those gestures? So with that, we developed a project that we're calling Lost Gestures. And we're at this point, it's like, a year of research. So we're thinking about how to explore the embodied archive, to pick up on Justine's idea there, how to explore different bodies, different knowledge holders, and different gestures that we might not recognize as lost, that we might just not see or feel anymore. So, we're thinking about methodology still, but we do have a plan to engage with a series of knowledge holders just to think through those lost gestures, and a range of knowledge holders, including Annabel, and people with expertise in design, designing those everyday urban objects that we're so curious about. So...

Justine A. Chambers  10:43  
Yeah, and I think it's important to talk I mean, just to take a second to loop back for just a second, that the archival process I think for, like, what's gotten lost sort of resides with the object. You know, when we go, in my mind how I understand it, is that it's like, oh, the doorknobs are, there's this kind of doorknob, and this kind of doorknob, and this, and then the way it gets... What gets catalogued is the object that creates the gesture, and I think we're really interested in making, like prioritizing the gesture that gets lost versus the object. And then also thinking about, you know, knowing that the grip is like this, because of the object, but like, what's the force of the grip? So we're also like, looking at the force of action, which I think is sort of maybe a little bit more the Erin Manning thing about the minor gesture, right? Like, what's the force of the gesture, instead of the gesture itself, and so that we're trying to archive action. But, and all of those things. Annabel, I don't even know when I met you Annabel, it was a long time ago, it was long enough ago that you just circle in my mind. And when Alana and I were thinking about this project, we thought, oh, you know, to really do a fulsome approach to really give the right attention, we actually need to bring people in who can deal with the objects, and/or the buildings, because the gestures wouldn't only just be with opening and closing a window, but how we approach a building right, is also a gesture. So, we just really felt it was important to bring people who have an expertise that we don't, and Annabel, for me, in particular felt like the right, a right person, or someone—basically, I've been curious about Anabel for a really, really long time, and I use our projects to hang out with people I want to spend time with. That's really me being maybe too real and honest, but it's true. But I feel like Annabel really thinks about the social implications of the built space, which for me really is in line with choreography as empathic practice. And not only that, but also the sociology of a space, and how that affects what gets built, or what gets broken. You know, what gets shut down. So, that felt like—and also we were lucky enough to go for a walk with Annabel last—was that just last week? 

Alana Gerecke  13:07  

Justine A. Chambers  13:08  
That was just last week. So much has happened in a week! 

Alana Gerecke  13:10  
Yeah, right? Yeah, last Monday. 

Justine A. Chambers  13:12  
Holy smokes. And the walk is a walk through from Carrall Street, sort of from shore to shore, from Park over here. And so it's something all, there's something about Annabel's interest in this particular space, this particular area, where a lot of our working has happened, our thinking together, our meeting. I live in this neighborhood, I live three blocks away, I work here. So there's something also about locating the research here, and that research that Anabel, like this really incredible, full considered. Sometimes even funny, the way you present your research, like, it's just there's a storytelling attached to it that I just feel like it's really necessary. If you're going to be here in this particular area of the city, there's an obligation to understand what has happened here. And it just felt like the right fit, you know? Also, I believe in intuition as a science. So, I think that has a lot to do with why Annabel felt like a great person to bring in and I've always wanted to to pick her brain a little bit more. But yeah, it's really, for me, about the social implications, or the sociology of a space, which felt like she could speak to the research that I'm interested in, and the research that Alana and I are interested in together, and the research that Alana is on about on her own. So yeah, and what I'd like to do is invite you, Anabel, to take us on a little trip for your slides and thoughts.

Annabel Vaughan  14:46  
Okay, so, I didn't follow the format, I missed the email. [laughs] So I took this on, I'm gonna take us on a trip. I'm going to take us on a trip, but I was thinking about gesture, and in relation to buildings, and it's a really hard thing to think about. And it elicited a really great conversation with my child, who is not a child anymore, but is a man in the world who rock climbs, and we had this great conversation, but I came across this great definition while I was looking around at things from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The word is zeno. It's kind of a, I don't know if you've ever stumbled across it, but it's kind of a, like an Urban Dictionary, but more poetic. Zeno, the smallest measurable unit of human connection, typically exchanged between passing strangers, flirtatious clients, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidence, moments that are fleeting and random, but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate the symptoms of feeling alone, which to me really resonated as we're coming out of the pandemic, and we're beginning to sort of be in relation with each other again, which is really, you know, like, we've all got the six feet apart, dance, or some of us do, some of us don't still, but you know, now we have these other moments. But what I thought I would do is just show you a few slides that basically—oops—are things that to me kind of embody gesture in the built form, or the city, and I think are things that I think about within this context of this conversation that I've been asked to enter into. So this is the BC Electric Rail Building. This is the building that is at Carrall and Hastings, it's on the way. Always gonna, I'm gonna get this wrong, the south west corner. This is from 1912, and this is a building I have spent a lot of time with, I did my thesis on it, and was fascinated by this building, it used to house the streetcars? The streetcars went through the building, as you can see on the bottom of it, and the train went beside it, there's a gap that you can just see at the edge of the photo. And I love the way that buildings have these traces of use, and that there's this forensic architecture that needs to happen to unpack their histories. But there is this thing that happens to these buildings. This is the building today. It's got light form in it, it's right across from Pigeon Park. And you can see how closed the building is, and the fact that this, like, it just shuts itself down. It turns its back on the city. And what is a really civic and incredible space, like building the—streetcars used to go through the bottom of this building. So when you're in this space, it actually exists at the scale of the city, which is a really beautiful thing, walking into a building that exists and you walk into an atrium space that exists at the scale of the city, your body does a different thing than if you walk into the stairwell of a parkade, or you walk into a hallway. And I think about that experience of the sort of the way in which the body crosses that threshold. But there's a really interesting thing about Hastings Street, because it's closed itself down and there are millions, not millions, hundreds of examples up and down Hastings Street. Here they are side by side, you can see the different read of the two buildings. This is, I tried to find another photo, but this is the only one I could find. This is a Fred Herzog photo of Hastings and Columbia. And it's, sorry, I don't have the date of this one. It must be, it's in the 50s sometime. This is it today. And there they are side by side. And the thing that is so beautiful about the image on... that side... is the depths that the street enters into the building because of the openness. You can walk, like, you can see, and visually see in. And there are all these hotels along Hastings that used to have a similar lobby space, and the street when there was this sort of edge condition that that moved into the building that was quite beautiful. And I like those traces, it... They're gone now, right? The neighborhood has put on armour, and sort of turns its back to the street for a whole host of reasons. This is another thing that I love, and this is another Fred Herzog photo it's in. It's called Chinatown Stoop. The boy perched on the granite edge of the building, the granite foundation that is holding up the building, that is outsized and creates this little lip that we perch on. And these, these moments of perching against the edge of a building happen all over the place, and they're quite beautiful. And then as—I apologize for these stock photos, and oh my god, it was the hardest thing, finding a picture of people looking at a map, not looking dorky. But these are also moments that I find are related to a public life or a public gesture, looking at a map, placing your body in space to orient yourself, which we don't often do anymore. And then the other one, which I think is the smallest of gestures, is a curb. And the sort of civic movement that is embedded in the curb, like we all stop and look left and right. And then left again, and step off. And so, the introduction of the curb just is this very, you know, there's a cadence to it that's quite beautiful. And in fact, my whole thesis was around reimplementing the curb out on the train tracks that went beside the building, which was a really radical thing to do. And it was like, that's what my thesis ended up being about, was stepping off a curb, which was quite funny. And then I began thinking about it in relation to architecture, and what a gesture might look like in a building. And this building is one of my favourite buildings in the city. It's at the corner of Hastings. Sorry, Carrall and… Keefer, or Pender?. The one, it's Pender. Yeah. And it's the Pekin Chop Suey house, it still looks like this, and the beauty of it is that the side that has the Pekin Chop Suey house sign on it is dressed like a Gastown building. It looks like Gastown. And the the elevation that's on, faces onto Pender, is dressed like a Chinatown building, and it has the typology of Chinatown buildings with the recessed balconies that overlook the street. And so this building holds its corner, presenting itself into faces, which I just find fascinating, and a really beautiful architectural expression. And this is another thing that I love about this city, because it is such an odd thing. This is, basically the area we're sitting in, this, and there are three city grids in Vancouver that collide into each other. And the pink building is the BC Electric Rail Building, the one that we just looked at with the streetcars going into it. The dock is water, the water is Water Street, obviously, like. And then the green line is... comes from an old logging road, a skid road, that was put in by, there was a group of three guys who owned the—claimed the West End, and they put in this road because it was the most direct point from A to B, and they could start logging their land. And so it has no—it's just what three guys did. And the blue line is the original townsite of Granville, which later becomes the City of Vancouver, and this is a cadastral line. This is an actual serving line that is true north. So if you continue on that blue line in the direction it's going, you will eventually hit the North Pole. The pink line is magnetic north, which is a compass, right and a compass... A compass and true north are not aligned. And there's this great, there's a bunch of websites that you can go to, and you can go back to 1911, and find out how far off the grids were. And in Vancouver, it's between 11 and 12, 11 and 12 degrees that it is moved. Right so in 1911, the grid, that magnetic north was 25 degrees east of north. Today, it's nine degrees east of north. And that's because the Earth moves, right? And the pink line was put in by a Roman Catholic priest who owned a couple of lots on the other side of Carrall Street, which is such a beautiful trace of the body on the city. And what is, what was an amazing discovery for me is that all three grids show up structurally in the BC Electric Rail Building, there's three grids, and the city is sort of, it... for me, it's the belly button of Vancouver. [laughs]
And then the other thing is this, which is... This is an architectural sort of strange thing, where we begin to imprint our body into space, and almost any architect you talk to will have measurement imprinted on their body. I know, for instance, that if I go up to something, and stretch my thumb to my finger, that's eight inches, I can walk a three-foot step to measure a space, I know that, when my hand is down by my side, that it's 30 inches from the ground. So, all of these things are, you know, and, this is Le Corbusier's Modulor Man. And this was his idyllic, that he put together. You know, the ideal man. It's really fascinating, because the ideal man in Le Corbusier's mind was 1,829 millimeters, six feet tall. I will point out that Corbusier was five-foot eight. So I just, I love this, because it's such a bizarre thing. But of course, what ends up happening is that this becomes the measurement. And so, this idealized body becomes the benchmark for a chair, for a seat, for a table, for where your arms go. And it's this, you know, it's what Corbusier pined for. It really has no basis, but a lot of people used it for many years. Now, people use this one, this is Graphic Standards. This is what most architects grow up with. Originally done in 1974, Alvin Tilley and Henry Dreyfuss, and the incredible thing about this is that for the longest time, there was no woman in the manual, and then they put a woman in. But the man is, I don't know if you can see that, if you can see up by his head. Now, it's really hard to see, but there's three numbers by each, in each category. And the three numbers are short, tall, medium—and the mean. And so the mean of this one is... 100 and... that's funny, it's not on here, is 1000… 1.772 [metres], I think, which is five-foot ten. And that piece of information, so, Henry Dreyfuss, who did this, he, one of the first projects that he did, he was an industrial designer, was he designed tanks for the US Army during World War Two. And he used human factor data to determine design elements, like the size of the tanks, where the foot pedal should be, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The project gave Dreyfuss, a wealth of data that would prove useful, because the army meticulously documented everything about the men it drafted. So this 1.772 [metres], which is the average US military Marine male in, like, 1940, '35, or '30, you know, between '35 and '42, or whatever it is. And this has been the graphic standard that drives everything. It's where door handle heights come from, it's where table heights come from, and it's, I find that really fascinating, and quite beautiful as a choice. The female got introduced, I think, sometime in the 80s, I believe, and it is a military norm as well, right. But this drives everything, which I find fascinating. So, I just wanted to put that out there, because I think that in terms of sort of thinking about gesture in the built form, and this sort of reductiveness of where things are, and I think we've all had have the experience of walking on a set of stairs that aren't calibrated properly, and how difficult that is. And there are so many things that, we come across them in a day to day that, you know, we don't notice, but we only notice when they're not when it's different, right? A door handle that isn't where you're expecting it, right? Steps that are hard to navigate. You know why you trip over the smallest of, of, you know, unevenness in a sidewalk, those types of things. Anyway, so that's what I've been thinking about in relation to the conversation. And just, because I'm an architect, I just like to see things. So that's why I put slides together.

Alana Gerecke  30:46  
Yeah, thank you so much. There's a lot there.

Annabel Vaughan  30:49  
Do you want me to put it on something nicer than that?

Justine A. Chambers  30:51  
I liked that one. 

Annabel Vaughan  30:53  
You liked that one? 

Justine A. Chambers  30:53  
Yeah, so much information

Alana Gerecke  31:03 
I think that, that your comment around when design fails is only when we when we notice, I think that's something that's really, I find personally interesting. Because it speaks to me, I think about like, the practice that I've been cultivating for a couple of, well, for almost a decade now, I guess, as I moved through my PhD, of like, trying to really actually observe the choreography that my body undergoes on the daily. Like, not just move through it, because it's become, it's so automatic, right? That it's easy to just kind of move. But if you actually take that sort of choreographic perspective, and start to look at the choices you're making, and the score that you're making those choices within, that is, the urban design, then it feels really rich to me, and ripples out to all sorts of kind of questions of relation that I think would be interesting to circle back to, but one of the things that I guess I noticed is that it's really easy to not notice! It's really, like, it feels like the city is designed, like those smooth pathways, which are designed for so many good reasons. And there's a whole conversation, when we think about the curb, around like the ablest inscription into the city. Like, who has access, who can move through, et cetera. So there are good reasons for smoothing walks, I'm not trying to claim otherwise. But it does make it easy at times for you to not notice yourself traversing along the street, right? Which would be different if you're, say, moving on uneven ground. Or if you're climbing over branches, logs, et cetera. Then you're kind of forced into this kinesthetic experience of noticing yourself navigate. And when the, when the path is clear, and you know that it's going to be clear, it's easier to check out, and check your phone, or whatever, and not actually be dropped into the choreography that you're enacting, until those moments when you trip on a curb, or when, yeah, or when just as you were talking about... 

Annabel Vaughan  33:20  
The design? 

Alana Gerecke  33:20  
Yeah, standard design dimensions. So like, my daily is, I'm not a very short woman, like I'm five-four, okay, you know, but I just can't sit in a chair, bus, school, or otherwise, without having my feet dangle. So I feel like I'm like constantly reminded about who this space is built for, and who's expected to be here, whether or not that's like, any conscious decision. That's the physical experience, right? I come up against that when I noticed that I don't have a place to rest my feet. So I think that's really interesting around the kind of the, almost the kinesthetic possibility that opens up when design fails, or when something's not smooth, when there's a crack.

Annabel Vaughan  34:07  
Yeah, and I think, you know, the pandemic has actually highlighted this in a really visceral way for everybody, because the six feet, you know, I mean, I don't know how many times you've had this happen to you, but I showed up in a line, you know, and a woman went, "Look, I'm six feet away from you." And it was like, that's not six feet, no. [laughs] Both your arms might be six feet, and just, you know, this sort of lack of spatial awareness. And then, the navigation that went on, right? I'm sure a lot of you saw that there was a video going around of the urban geographer and in Toronto, Daniel Rothstein, he put a six-foot diameter hula hoop around his body and walked through the Toronto streets, trying to show how public space was so, you know, unable to absorb this new reality. And it was funny, but there were other moments for me that were really poignant. There was one, one of the very first days of the pandemic, you know, when every, like, we were all inside and washing everything that came into our house, and really sort of freaked out and scared, and I had to go to the office. So I walked across the city, I went to the office, I picked something up, I came back, I walked across Yonge, our office is near Yonge, and Bloor, which is very busy in Toronto. And, of course, there was no, there were no cars, I was walking in the middle of the street, which was just fun. And there's a shelter that deals with homeless folks in the neighborhood. And I got to Yonge Street, and there was a guy clearly in his own headspace, you know, walking down the street, sweeping the road. And it was just this moment of, like, I stopped, It startled me, because I was just like, wow, you know, these people who normally live in the shadows, and the margins and the thresholds, you know, all of a sudden, their world, their sense of space just expanded. And for some of them, I bet it was quite trippy, they were just like, "Where is everybody? What went down?" You know, and, and so to sort of witness that was a really beautiful, sort of, but that ebb and flow, that expansion and contraction of space, is a really beautiful thing as well. And, you know, I think a lot about that, about the edge condition.

Justine A. Chambers  36:42  
I think it's like, so, you know, when I think about dance, and I think about choreography, and how I interact with it and how you're speaking about it, how you're both speaking about it, is like, it becomes an awareness practice, right? I think about dancing as an awareness practice very much. And then, in this moment we get when we're talking about smooth or jagged, and access, and these kinds of things, what starts to come up for me is like, who has the privilege of not being in awareness, like to who has the privilege to not notice? You know, because of the way I'm able to move to the world, I don't, I know I can take some steps forward, and it's not going to be perilous for me, but there are people who that's definitely perilous for. So, who gets the privilege of not noticing? And probably the majority, a majority. But I'm, like, constantly brought into this moment where, you know, if I, you know, sometimes the curb comes up a little higher than you'd like, the world meets you sooner than your foot goes down, right? And that for me, that's just like an "ugh," you know, on my back or, you know, middle-aged, you know? But for somebody else, that can completely turn their world upside down for a period of time. And then, so going back to empathic practice, it's like, what is it to make those considerations as you move through the world, and how do we make this no, you know, my thing is always, like, how do we make this an awareness practice for everyone? Because we consider how, how we behave in those spots quite differently, right? Like, how would I see it or take space if I had to notice everything all of the time, right? And I notice as much as I can, inside of my abled body that has very few restrictions, so it always sort of brings me to this sort of moment where I say, "Okay, if this is clumsy for me, whose world is broken, because of that?" Or, you know, expecting a door to open outward, and then it doesn't, and then you... But for somebody that could mean they can't go somewhere, and they could already be halfway there. So this is like, these are the types of things that I really like to hold on to and try and capture for myself. And this military norm thing like this is, I mean, yeah, my heels also don't touch the floor bare, my toes touch, but my heels don't touch. And before we came here, we were talking about, I was talking about, my dad had a car when I was, I don't know, three or four. And for the longest time, my heels went to the edge of the back seat. And then one day they started to, start folding over, and that's how I determined that I was growing up, I was now an adult [laughs] Because I was no longer, like, so little. And I just like to notice those things, you know, all the time. But this military norm, I was listening to something, after you mentioned it, I found, last time we met, I found this podcast that was talking about fighter planes, and how the fighter planes, which is one of the most frightening places, I think, to be in, in a war, because if you get trapped in or you get trapped out both are good, but both are bad. You don't—there's no winning there, but that the seats were made for this norm, or the six-foot norm, the first norm you talked about, that they created, and how people that were larger were unable to get out of the plane with their parachutes, because the passageways. And then if you sort of extend those passageways to the city, you know, who can't get out when, and more scarily, who can't ever get in? Something that really shows up for me. Like standard, the graphics. By the Bible, the Bible. I'm curious about what the female measurements are.

Annabel Vaughan  40:32  
Yeah, sorry, I don't know, if you can read them up there probably, look on my phone. Okay, follow up. It's the other thing that I think is really beautiful about this document is, you know, just the layering of information, like this notion that your body, you know, exists in this multitude of space. And that, in this sort of bizarre, non-precision by giving three numbers to everything, you know, like, you're vibrating in space, which I find quite funny.

Justine A. Chambers  41:14 
I was thinking, when you were talking about the stairs, that piece of Bruce Nauman, I mean, I know, we're all tired of talking about him, but he does have that beautiful staircase he built on his property. And some of you probably heard me speak about it before, but where every rise and run was different. And for me, I thought, "Ah, that, he made some good choreography there," right? Because what happens when your body can't fall into rhythm, is that it creates all this unusual, erratic movement from the foot up? Because you're, "Oh, okay, I'll take three steps across this rise, but then or the run, but then the rise is, is high." So that's, and then the next. So there's just people's bodies doing this like, trying? No, because we need rhythm. We need rhythm to move. I mean, in the same way that folks with Parkinson's, they say, dance, and then you'll have a different kind of access to your body because we fall into rhythm. So just, also, how rhythm, interrupting rhythm in our bodies creates, you know, erratic movement, which also is not received by the city well, most times. yeah,

Alana Gerecke  42:19  
That makes me think of William Forsythe, contemporary dancer, choreographer extraordinaire, his, like in the, I don't know, a decade ago or so, a lot of his practice shifted towards creating installations. So you'd go in and engage with these choreographic objects. So the dance wasn't, you know, bodies in a space moving in a way for you to witness, it was you going into a room full of like, thousands of helium balloons, and like playing with them? And I think it's that idea of the, of a choreographic object that I'm interested in transplanting, like, we've got a book project on the go, too, that I'm really interested in looking at that, in terms of urban design, and in terms of, like architectural choices, and how the built world functions as this series of choreographic objects, that isn't just moving us through a set of pathways and rhythms, but is doing so in service of a certain order, an organization of bodies that in turn serves, like a value and underpinning set of values. and economies and, and stuff that I think is, I think it's really interesting when you talk about that, like, if you just imagine, like, imagine moving down that staircase. And if you can imagine the resonance in your body, and then imagine transplanting that onto a sidewalk street, it just feels like there's a lot of information in that transfer, about what sort of movement is acceptable, and permissed in urban spaces, just from kind of running through that exercise mentally.

Annabel Vaughan  43:58  
It makes me think of two things. One is, if you go to the Carnegie Centre and walk up the spiral staircase, it's a beautiful marble staircase, marble rise, and they're so warm, that depending on where you walk in the stair tread, your gait gets thrown, like they have dips in them from being walked on so much. It's a really beautiful staircase in the city. And then the other thing that it made me think about was that, you know, the, there's also a mundaneness in this graphic standard, right? Because the fact that you forget where a door pull is, is exactly the result of the, like, it's a reductive thing to do this. And so there's a banality to it that enters into crappy architecture. And there's so much crappy architecture that we just, it becomes white noise, right? Like we just don't even notice, that we don't pay attention. And then there are moments in buildings that are so incredibly beautiful because of the way in which they've been rendered. And that, that makes you stop. Like, Alvar Aalto has a door handle on the Mount Angel library down in Portland, if you ever get a chance to, it's in upstate Washington, it's outside of Portland. And it is a door handle, a brass door handle that, I almost cried when I held onto it. Like, it was so beautiful, it just stopped me in my tracks, and it was heavy and felt good. And it was like, I'm opening something, you know? Like... And the other one is Carlo Scarpa, in the, I forget... Castelvecchio Museum, it's a castle that has been renovated into a museum, and you go in one door, and you follow a path through this museum, and the path is very prescribed. And if you stray off it? I went one day with my partner and my kid, who was six at the time. And then I went back the next day, and I wanted to see something again. And you know, how you go to IKEA and you like, you know, have to navigate your way through it? So, I went off-path and the security guards said "No, no, no," in broken and, like, gesturing in Italian. And it's like, "Get back on the path!" like, "You're not allowed to, you're not allowed to go!" But the thing that is so beautiful in this building is that all of the openings are cut into the walls, and different sizes, and different. But at each opening, there is an inlay of brass at the head of the door. And so, it's this really subtle cue, a threshold that is just so, rendered so beautifully. And so, things like that are, to me, lift this notion of body and embodiment in a building off the page, right, these things that, you know, and some of them, you know, I think are you know, architects are OCD, and... Man, we're not nice to live with. Somebody made a great slogan up at UBC every year, there's a you know, a studio slogan, and one of them was, "Architects are assholes." And it's everywhere now. Like. you can buy stickers. And they're, you know, I have to confess.

Justine A. Chambers  47:39  
I love this thing you're saying about the door handle, because another architect I was speaking to, we met through our kids, and actually, the way we met was kind of wonderful. I mean, we met because our kids were playing at the park, we have a mutual kid-mother. And we started talking to, "Oh, nice to meet you." And I don't know, I asked her, I asked her, you know, "What are you up to these days?" I hate to say to people, like, what do you do? But I was like, "What are you up to?" She's like, "Oh, I'm an architect." And she's like, but you know what, I had not told her what I do. But I really wanted to be was a dancer. And I was like, you know, maybe we got to talk. Maybe I wanted to be an architect without all the work. I don't know, something like that. But she said to me, and I explained how I was working on this project, and she said to me, oh, "A door handle to the front of a building is its handshake with you. And it makes an agreement with you." And I feel like that, that door of that building really made an agreement with you. And actually, like, it endeared you to it. And I love thinking about that, you know. And I mean, I'm not... even just the way certain objects, right? Like, there's a there's a window in my house that, I don't like what I have to do with my body to open it, so I don't open it. Like, it feels bad to open it. So I just don't open it. Somebody wants it open, somebody else has to open it. I'm not doing it. [laughs] And then I'm thinking about this imprinting, how we usually begin to imprint our bodies into space, like with all the measurements, but then also, how space imprints itself into our bodies, you know, which we talked a lot about when we worked on Family Dinner, another project of mine, but how when I go into my mom's house, like, I do this like, thing, because she has this piece of furniture like, kind of built-in. That's like, just, I always knocked my hip bone into it. So as soon as I walk into her house, I do this with my body, because the space has told me that I'm not going to share my hip bone against... Or, you know, my cousin, he's not my cousin. He's my, he's my stepbrother, but he's really super tall like your son. So he, their house is also old, so everything is a little bit shorter. And he as soon as he enters in the house, he compresses himself, and he stays like this in the house. So the house has sort of imprinted itself in his body. And then he walks outside. And then he like close to. Sorry, that's bit tangential all over the place. 

Alana Gerecke  50:09 
Yeah, no, I think that's awesome. And just to circle back, to kind of that lost gestures, nugget that started this for us, if we think about the doorknob and the handshake, and I know other folks have written about that, I'm thinking of Skin of the City, and other texts that think about that, then what of those... like, what of the automatic door where we step and where there's where the handshake is actually a footstep that, that sees you, and where you don't have to, you don't have any obligation to the people in front of you or behind you to hold the door? Because the system is designed to ensure that it stays open, what does that do to the, to your relationship, both with the space that thresholds that piece around threshold and also to the to the other bodies that might be moving through it?

Annabel Vaughan  50:55  
Well, and there's some violence in that as well. Because nothing, like, you know what the one thing of the pandemic? People using their foot open automatic openers. 

Alana Gerecke  51:06  

Justine A. Chambers  51:06  

Annabel Vaughan  51:08  
And I, it was just like, "Man, don't kick the building." Like... And then just sort of the, you know, the privilege of, yeah, you can lift up your leg and do that, but what about the person who actually has to use it? But, yeah.

Justine A. Chambers  51:25  
Yeah, I think that's—those are the questions we hope that people start asking. It's probably, where are we at, 6:30 almost? Maybe this is a nice moment for us to invite all of you into the conversation, or any of you. We have like a couple prompts. We're curious what you have to say about very particular things. But if anyone has—like, maybe we start with, like, burning questions, comments. And then we'll maybe ask you something more pointed. After there's this for you to come up to, so if there's anything anybody would like to share with us, comment, question reflection. Very happy to hear it. Or we can prompt you like a prompt. Okay. What did we say, Alana?

Alana Gerecke  52:19  
Well, I think we were curious about if anybody has a, like, "Oh, yeah!" moment in their minds around either, either, a gesture that you remember needing or doing or using that has fallen out of practice. For you. Super curious about that. But yeah. Well, I'm gonna say so that's part one. Part two is if there's space—indoor, outdoor, public, private, or otherwise—that you notice choreographing you. So like thinking of you're not-cousin brother who shrinks, right? Just curious, just curious. Kate—

Annabel Vaughan  53:05 
And there's a really annoying thing like about the revolving doors because they've kind of eliminated them now, because of heat lost from a building, blah, blah, blah... But now they've introduced them and they're on this constant spin. And it's like, you know, it's like, you're walking like a Canada Goose. Like, you're like, you're... It's not at a gate. It's really annoying.

Justine A. Chambers  53:32  
And that's interesting that it's not at a gate but it's meant for people to walk through. It's that disconnect, right? And I think there there are... I'm just trying to think of another example with, like, something like that, where I'm like, "If this is meant to hold bodies, why doesn't it think about bodies?" You know, you're always in this sort of confusion? I mean, I always found rotating doors unbelievably stressful, because I was very tiny for—I mean, I'm not exactly you know, you know, a titan at this moment, but I was very, like, I grew very incrementally I didn't have a lot of growing pains. I was, like, very tiny a lot of the time. So I would get sort of subsumed by the people inside the rotating door because I'd be like at knee height or something. And I found I had all of these, like, macabre fantasies of getting like squished and split in half and and I never understood why we had those to begin with like it was incredibly stressful and then at the airport here, not that I've been in there in a while. But they have the release slow ongoing ones. When, even though it's slow it has this like horror film anticipation to it for me that it's moving slowly, and you walk. But am I still getting trapped in there? That it brings like all this, all this sensation to my body. I just haven't like thought about rotating doors since you brought, until you said it. I thought, "Oh yeah, that was super stressful. Very stressful. I would avoid."

Alana Gerecke  54:59  
Kate, just piggybacking on your cursive writing, the other... I taught myself, I didn't teach myself, my mother who is an expert in all things. She's actually a superhero, I think. But she knits like, it's nothing. And I've wanted to learn forever and also not wanted to. And this year, I had good reason to want to learn, I wanted to do a special project. So I got her to teach me and I was totally thinking of it as choreography. I'm like, I have to practice the choreo. Like, I just got to keep working on it each day, I'm going to put in my practice on the steps. It's totally what it was.

Audience Member  55:35  
My dad is an architect, and I spent most of my childhood in hotel rooms. And like testing how much mattresses bounce, and like checking where the... All of the hotel suites are up to code or like the standard, and that was my favorite thing as a kid. Just like, hop on the bed, where the little garbage bin is, how far is that? My dad was just like, let's go measure everything, make sure it's at code. And the other thing that is coming to mind, it's mostly memories, but I would go to the escalator every Sunday, and just go up and down for two hours. That was my fun activity as a kid. I loved it. I still do, it's the best thing ever. But I think I just didn't understand how that works. And growing up in Italy, there weren't that many. We would go to the mall— 

Justine A. Chambers  56:26  
To go up the escalator.

Audience Member  56:29  
They would find me for half an hour. [laughs] Had to work hard to get there, but it was great. A long time in the hotel room with jumping on the bed to come up with something. Yeah.

Alana Gerecke  56:43  

Annabel Vaughan  56:44  
Yes. Skipping.

Justine A. Chambers  56:46  
I was just thinking about double dutch, like woah. This summer, I had an opportunity to do it again, after not probably double that thing since I was like, eighteen. And it was something Steven Hill put together who used to be here, up here. And doing it with kids. And then it sort of being their first time. So like everyone was really lousy at it, you know? Because it's complicated. Like how do you go in, right? Like, how do you, "Oh, no, not yet." Like, you know, this sort of... But watching this, this engagement with the ropes that everybody does it. Like my kid who's never double dutched in his life is standing at the edge like this, right? Like he's just, and I thought, "Oh, this action creates this in all bodies. Because it's like, nope, you're waiting for the the right invitation, right, to jump over and under at the same time.

Annabel Vaughan  57:38 
The testing of the beds just made me think of.... that Vancouver has its own building code. And the bottom rail of a handrail has to be four inches off the ground. And in Burnaby, it's three and a half. And I remember we were working, I don't know. My kid was little. Anyway, we've been joking about it, because there's like, "Yeah, in Burnaby, their heads are smaller. And my kid was with us on site. And he got down and tried to put his head through the—he's like, "My head doesn't go through." Being the child of an architect.

Justine A. Chambers  58:18  
Well, that's a nice thing I, I've been enjoying with... I mean, many things I enjoy about my kid, but just how he's always like hacking the space. And he's just not—at Waterfront Station, when you walk in and there's a big staircase up to the left to like, go up and over. And there's a big staircase, but there's also... In the center. But then there's these sort of tile things that are like smooth, a landing, and smooth. And he will book it up the stairs as I'm walking so he can slide down twice, and it's filthy. It's just like beyond filthy, but whatever, I just let it happen. And then he'll see if he can like do two runs of it before I finish walking to the top. And I just always love how he's messing with space. And then this makes me also, because he does skateboard, but also how skaters ask something different of the city and their navigation. And how you, and how it sort of takes the skater, or someone who's skater-adjacent to understand the markings of the space of the skater on the city. Right? If you see sort of black half circles up against a wall, you know, that's a spot where they where they skate. And that they're not looking for the most efficient way through the city, which often we are. But they're looking for the most playful way through the city, which I think is always such a lovely, a lovely lesson. I mean, during the pandemic, when they closed all the skate parks, they put sand on them to actually—which, in talking of violences, I'm like that just ruins people's boards, I don't know why you need to put sand on it, but that's fine. But what was incredible is how quickly they mobilized to create new ramps and poured concrete and made these things all over the city other places to skate. Because downtown core was vacated. So we were skating—not me, I don't skate, I just sit there with snacks and water. But Max was skating, like, in the fronts of big, like, office buildings and stuff, because there was actually nobody there. So it sort of was this, sort of, moment, that must have felt kind of sweet for the skate community. Because all the sudden, they had a kind of access to the city that they're always trying to get, but they always have to steal that access. So that was something. I mean, there's certain places where they let them skate all the time, at the Art Gallery and Coal Harbor, but... And then I'm finding myself stopping skaters on the street and being like, "Excuse me, where are you skating right now?" And then going like do I look like a middle-aged lady who's asking to, like, I'm gonna, like, narc them out or something. But I was like, "My kid's five, and he really likes skating, and I need to take him somewhere, you know?" And just how they, they're constantly repurposing the city. For play.

Alana Gerecke  1:00:54  
Yeah. And that's something we didn't... Like one of our big, kind of, bullets that we didn't get to, which is fine. But around, like, there's the built city, that designed city, and then there's use, right? And the city is somewhere at the nexus of the two. And if we think about like, we talked about traces of patina on buildings, you can think of like desire paths that cut across sidewalk spaces. You can think about those intentional moments, of you called it hacking the city or like using against design. So Carol, when you were going down the escalators, and up over and over again. I was trying to figure out how to run up the down esc— "downscalator" as my sister and I called it. So those moments when you're intentionally using against design and skateboarding is a great example, especially because then the city responds, and designs against skateboarding, right? In all sorts of ways. But also, parkour, I think, is another really interesting practice. So many, so many explorations that are that are working with the design and finding a different invitation inside of that implicit choreography, I think is really exciting.

Annabel Vaughan  1:01:57  
And we've all seen the patch of grass that you know, has the perfect path around it. And everyone takes the shortcut. Yeah, there's a dirt path, that is the path. This is the rail line, this is the CPR rail line that comes down from Port Moody all the way over here, it comes all the way down and cuts across the city, it goes into the station down here, but it comes all the way and... The path of desire of the colonial project is really interesting as well, because the you know, the scar tissue from that is really quite phenomenal. And if you walk through the neighborhood and begin to observe it, you'll see some very funny little residual lots that are about the turning radius of a train, and the logic of a train and have nothing to do with the grid of a city, which is what the surveyors are all about. Right, just like cut it up into lots so we can sell it. And so that's quite a beautiful, I mean, it's a it's a desire path, but a different... At a different scale and a different idea.

Alana Gerecke  1:03:16  
And then the that layering of like remnant, kind of, intentions or pathways, right? Like, I know you've done that mnemonic... Looking at architecture as a mnemonic device, yeah. But thinking about how the city is this layered kind of archive itself of, of the different ways of mobilization. And then also of course, like a super intentional forgetting, of, of, like, Indigenous ways and uses and landscapes and this like civic project of, of remembering certain histories and forgetting others.

Annabel Vaughan  1:03:56  
Following graffiti tags, that's always an interesting thing. Like, sometimes you'll see the same tag and you'll just be like, "How'd that guy get there?" You know, like, yeah, that that same... Like, and then you see him, them or him or her, somewhere else. And you're just like, wow, that's, you know, in an unexpected place. And you're just like "Oh, that's interesting." And I mean, this is kind of different but similar, but it never occurred to me, but when you look at graffiti on a train, it's always... It's like [indiscernible speech].

Alana Gerecke  1:04:32  
Yeah, yeah. It's totally, the reach.

Annabel Vaughan  1:04:35  
It's at the reach, right? And it never... Like I never thought about it. But of course, it's just the dynamics of that space and navigating that space in that way, which is interesting.

Justine A. Chambers  1:04:47  
One thing, Annabelle, I know it's getting close to time, but I was wondering, because one thing I noticed when I moved to Vancouver in 2006, and it was like a very ungraceful transition for me to live in the city. I felt like very alone and that it was very hard to connect with folks. And actually, the very first dancer I met was Alana Gerecke, she told me where to go to class because I looked lost like a lost puppy, I'm sure. And then I sort of had this thing where like, everybody would go to the mountain or they be on the seawall. And I was like, "Oh, the city is meant not to be in but to look out at or out from." And then you brought that up the other day also. And to just sort of link it, or Annabelle brought it up that it's like always. Maybe you could talk just like briefly how it's always been kind of that way. Because that came up with our walk, the Carrall Street walk.

Annabel Vaughan  1:05:40  
Yeah, well, I mean, Vancouver is an edge city, it's the edge condition is really fascinating. And the city doesn't have a city center. Right? There's no city square. And, you know, there's a whole host of reasons for that. And one of them is that Vancouver picks itself up and moves every every, like 25, 30 years. And the business district has moved five times, the the the library has moved four times, I think, City Hall's moved five times, right? It just keeps shifting. It's it's like this funny thing. Anyway. Water Street, I didn't put that map in. But there's this beautiful the original town site of Van—of Granville, which later becomes Vancouver... Where it says OCT? The, Water Street, which you can see at the top there has lot six and three. Those used to be underwater because water,m the water actually used to come up to Water Street. So that the old shoreline was actually ran down the middle of Water Street. And there's a very beautiful original photo of the city that was taken from the water looking in. And it's just a row of cottages, looking out. And this to me is Vancouver's typology. Is we're always looking out, we're always... You know, we don't have Central Park, we have the Seawall. But if you were to take the Seawall and collapse it into the space of a park, it's about the size of Central Park and in, in New York. Right, the physical space of it, which is so fascinating, right, and we spend our whole time like on it, looking out, looking to the other right. And so that is a really... That sort of edge condition to me is a really... Has embedded itself deeply in the city.
And that's an interesting edge condition, because, like, you're right that it's at the edge, and it's situated towards the beauty, but also the pathway is super directional, like you're meant to be moving in that direction. So there's an interest that's an interesting...

Justine A. Chambers  1:08:08  
Yeah, the Seawall's meant to push you along. 

Alana Gerecke  1:08:10  
Yeah, you're gonna keep going, 

Justine A. Chambers  1:08:11  
Yeah, constant, like don't rest here, don't stay here. And then just thinking, you know, of the erasure of Indigenous people here who've been here for time immemorial. And they understand the movements of nature, which then we've... Like you said this wonderful thing about Strathcona, how the streets are all smooth, but the path—but the alleyways have all the natural topography. And so in this, like sort of covering up, this forgetting of who was here, including the nonhuman bodies, the sustenance, the community, how it functions, which was very much with the water. That then you have a population now only turning out to look at the water, but not holding space for the folks who made who understand the movements of those waters, and like the nourishment of this sort of, you know, we're in the built space, but the natural space is what we keep turning to and yet we ignore those who understand the lessons of the natural space. And I have to like just call myself out for not doing an acknowledgement earlier. And my brain just sort of went off. But I think for me, it's nice to think about the beauty we take in and who who remains in relationship to that beauty when we look out and how, whether or not we are in like a true relationship with the natural world in that way. And I know that I have to ask myself that question every time it's summer. You know, I'm not a big rain fan. I've been here a long time, but in the summer I'm like, "we live in paradise!" But that's... but who knew that before me, right?

Annabel Vaughan  1:09:55  
Well, it's interesting because the coyotes kind of capitalized on the one way, the directional you know, the one way direction of the seawall in the summer.

Justine A. Chambers  1:10:06  
The coyotes are geniuses that way.

Annabel Vaughan  1:10:07  
They're like, oh, they only go that way.

Justine A. Chambers  1:10:11  
Yeah. And the coyotes, they took it back. Few bites of flesh along the way. And then they did that terrible culling, which...
Okay. And I just thought, oh, I live in a really boring city, where there's no nightlife and there's no... You know, I just didn't know, because it was like a different demographic of people. And we were, you know, in our late 20s—oh, maybe I wasn't, maybe 30. Regardless, I was like looking for kind of engagement with the, and it wasn't there. And then we ended up, after he was done his degree, because you know, commute is a real thing. Moving over to the east side, and now I'm here. Somewhere in the middle now. Thanks so much, Annabelle, for hanging out with us. And just blabbing, we really just wanted to blab. This is a research moment for us, it wasn't a presentation for you, it was hoping that we could all research through these ideas think through these ideas in tangential and excite—allowing our bits of excitement to sort of like propel conversation in so many directions. Thank you Alana, for being my partner in all of this.

Alana Gerecke  1:11:21  
Totally. Thank you, Justine. And, Annabel thanks for jumping into this kind of, unstrauctured— 

Annabel Vaughan  1:11:24  
Oh my god, it's been so much fun. 

Alana Gerecke  1:11:26  
Okay, cool. 

Annabel Vaughan  1:11:26  
You can pull me into any of these conversations.

Justine A. Chambers  1:11:29  
Oh, we're not done yet.

Alana Gerecke  1:11:30 
Thank you so much for coming on this blustery, dark, rainy night, in a pandemic. Really appreciate.

Justine A. Chambers  1:11:41  
Thank you.

Paige Smith  1:11:47  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. Thanks for listening to this special episode, documenting a public conversation about urban choreography, hosted in-person by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement on November 9, 2021.

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
April 19, 2022

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