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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Miss Guides

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Modern art or public nuisance?
Modern art or public nuisance?

Text and photos by Sean Ruthen, re:place magazine

“…the creative possibilities inherent in repetition, and particular environments and moments in time.” – from Dorian’s bio

Three innovative artists have arrived on the Vancouver scene, offering up a ‘happening’ in the full John Cage sense, and they are called the Miss Guides. Part walking tour and part performance art, guides Anna Swede, Dorian, and Kid Skid offer four profound vignettes of Vancouver’s current scenography in a one hour long walk (book here), proffering themselves up to the spectacle that pre-Olympic preparation has brought to our city.

Moments along the way poke fun at how traditional walking tours are commercialized byproducts of a recently bygone laissez-faire consumerism, even using narratives from other city’s walking tours, including the elevator rides up the Petronas and Jin Mao towers. Other moments make a spectacle of the here-and-now, as the guides use every opportunity along the walk to use the free public hand-cleaning dispensers that have appeared everywhere downtown.

With citations from Robert Smithson and Michel de Certeau among others, the guides ask questions about our city as both an aesthetic and ontological construct, with particular attention to each vignette’s unique environmental conditions. Memory and history are presented as the guides’ palette, challenging the complacency with which most of us inhabit the city. A stroll through one particular graffiti-covered Gastown alley reminded me of the East Side Gallery along the Spree in Berlin, where one of the last standing fragments of the Berlin Wall has now become an impromptu art gallery.

The twenty dollars asked for the walk is modest when you consider it includes a ride up to the observation deck of the Harbour Centre building, a ride I must admit I hadn’t taken since I first came to the city in 1996. On a sunny day, as it was for the preview offered to re:place magazine, CBC Radio One, the Georgia Strait, and Aha Media, the view from the observation deck was stunning, and slightly tongue in cheek given the comparison of our new Shangri-La building with the Empire State and Jin Mao buildings in New York and Shanghai.

View from the lookout at Harbour Centre.
View from the lookout at Harbour Centre.

For as much as their presentation is a statement of the work of art as a product of its environment, they are equally as concerned with local and current histories in the area, from the 1938 ‘Bloody Sunday’ at the old Post Office (now Sinclair Centre) to the infamous City of Vancouver view cones. They also engage the participant, asking them to observe how they walk around a downtown construction site while shutting out the sounds of the buses and other traffic. Later on, the walker is literally asked to contribute to the compost/culture of the city.

The walk begins with the question of ‘ruins’ in the city. Specifically, are the columns of the Roman forum ruins, or are the chain-linked blocks along Granville Street at Hastings and Cordova? One of the 25 citations offered up by the guides posits that we build ruins, imagining how construction sites create awe in the same way as Stonehenge or the Acropolis. Ultimately, the Miss Guides show an adept skill at pulling out the more esoteric elements of the all too familiar streets around Waterfront Station, confidently guiding the pedestrian participant from the lofty heights of Harbour Centre to the gritty realities of Gastown’s back alleys.

In one of the group’s most engaging moments, a guide sings ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ while walking by the Steam Clock, oblivious to the diners at the Water Street Café. But foregoing the obvious, the guides lead the group down a road less traveled, to the seam of the city that separates Gastown from the 22 sets of rail tracks disconnecting the water’s edge from Water Street. And you will be surprised to find what grows between the cracks of Gastown’s back alleys.

graffiti as didacticism
Graffiti as didacticism.

Walks run Thursday and Friday evenings at 7, and on Saturdays at 2, running until August 1st by appointment only. The guides hinted at the possibility of another tour in the future, but ultimately the work is intended as a finite temporal artifact that is present day Vancouver, including its state of pre-Olympic construction frenzy (a window which grows smaller with each passing day).

In the full spirit of the oral tradition, these three guides for a brief time this summer will be the modern equivalent of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, guiding the curious through our unique urban odyssey. And with each passing walk, as a new iteration of this urban performance is sure to present itself, the Miss Guides will most certainly rise to the occasion of the divine urban comedy that is Vancouver.

Not to be ‘missed’!

By Sean Ruthen


For more information, you can visit the Miss Guides website.


Sean Ruthen is a contributing editor for re:place magazine. He is presently working, living, and writing in Vancouver.