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Selling Out: In various political movements (usually communists and anarchists), a "sellout" is a person or group pretending to adhere to a genuinely pro-working class ideology, only to follow these claims up with actions directly contradicting them, often (whether actually or implicitly) supporting capitalism.
About two weeks ago I left Vancouver on a six month tour with my recently completed film END:CIV. I am saddened that I can't be in the city to celebrate the anniversary of our resistance against the Olympics with my comrades. I've been thinking a lot about the Vancouver activist scene during my longs drives, and I get a big grin on my face when I think about all that we have accomplished in the last year. But there are a few things that have been bothering me for some time, and I hardly hear any public discourse about them.
One of them is the W2 space at the Woodwards building. I think it's important to talk critically about this space as it relates to anti-capitalist, indigenous, anti-poverty and gentrification struggles in our city.
A few weeks before the anti-Olympics convergence, the Vancouver Media Co-op (VMC) was flooded with requests from dozens of independent journalists from all over the world and we were afraid that we might not be able to accommodate everyone. We looked into W2 as possible overflow space, and Irwin Oostindie, W2's executive director, came to one of our meetings and explained what was available. At the meeting Oostindie admitted to us that W2 had accepted moneys from the Cultural Olympiad and was venue for part of their program. That was a deal breaker for us since the VMC had started as the media arm of the Olympic Resistance Network, and taking part in a de-facto Olympic venue, would have gone against our raison d'être. At this point it's when I started to connect the dots about W2's problematic existence.
In 2009, April Smith and Hendrik Beune came to my studio with some concerns. Back then they were part of Fearless City Mobile Project (a project of W2) headed by Oostindie. Their complaint was that Oostindie was discouraging them from posting satirical videos about Stephen Harper on the now defunct fearlesscity.ca. I told them that if they felt like they were being censored, they should start their own website and bypass Oostindie altogether. Beune and Smith have since started AHA Media and have posted hundreds of videos on their site. During a recent email exchange Oostindie told me that "…W2 has a strategy to stay low on the profile until we open." It appears that Smith's and Beune's situation was an instance Oostindie trying to quash politically controversial material to stay "low on the profile."
A similar story was brought up to me by indigenous artist Riel Manywounds. She along with Gord Hill were commissioned by Gallery Gachet, then headed by Oostindie, to create a mural to be hung on the streets of the Downtown Eastside as part of a public art exhibit. The piece that Hill and Manywounds collaborated on was originally titled "Revolt 2010" and was explicitly critical of the winter games. It consisted of a thunderbird breaking the Olympic rings, with the words "Police Repression, Stolen Native Land, Homelessness, Huge Public Debt, Environmental Destruction" emblazoned on the bottom. According to Manywounds, Oostindie saw the progress of their work with and objected to the words "Revolt 2010" that adorned the top of the piece. The artists reluctantly re-painted the top with the words "Resist 2010". But when it came time to display the mural as part of the exhibit, Manywounds remembers that Oostindie asked for more changes. Manywounds recalls that "…by that point felt like 'fuck this, we're going to pull our piece out, you just censored two native artists.' " Hill and Manywounds then took their modified piece the Rhizome Cafe, where it was displayed in the months preceding the games. Later she found out that Oostindie's W2 project was slated receive funds from the Cultural Olympiad and concluded that being the reason for the censorship.
Manywounds felt that Oostindie wasn't telling them the whole story. "At the time it was just more frustrating that he was not being truthful about why we couldn't do our art, so personally we took offence."
Oostindie argues that Olympic money is the people's money and in a way, he's putting that money in the service of the people. Lily Loncar, a longtime downtown eastside activist says "it's blood money." For many grassroots activists who tirelessly organized to unmask the capitalist nature of the IOC, the revelation that W2 was taking taking Olympic money meant that it was no longer a neutral space, but enemy territory.
W2 as a tool of gentrification.
The Downtown Eastside (DTES) was a key battleground for anti-olympic struggles. Several of the members of the Olympic Resistance Network either work on the DTES or take part in housing and anti-poverty struggles. The speed at which gentrification has advanced in the only affordable neighbourhood for poor folks in Vancouver is outstanding.
W2's website states that it is "a globally networked community media arts centre in Vancouver's DTES (Downtown Eastside)." W2's mandate is "to break the digital divide, promote social inclusion, cross-cultural dialogue, and redress." Oostindie will also tell you that W2 is grassroots community group. But by far W2's most prominent events are not grassroots ones but Red Bull sponsored raves and DJ driven dance parties. At W2's website, the most prominent event category is "party" with 56 entries with only two instances of "resistance." The price range of these "parties" is between $10-$30, hardly affordable for the poor residents of the area and according to Lily Loncar, these events attract a different type of crowd into the neighbourhood.
"…they are not neighbourhood people, they are not people who use the space because they can't afford to rent space somewhere else." Loncar told me over the phone. Loncar was part of a group of people who squatted the Woodwards building to demand social housing for the poor and homeless of the DTES. On the comments section of an article on the VMC, Oostindie was quick to invoke the Woodwards squat when defending their acceptance of Olympic money:
"Talk to us, learn about how the Woodward's complex works and the struggles W2 has to make real the aspirations of the Woodward's Squat for our local neighbourhood."
Loncar told me that her and her comrades did not break the law to get a social media space. What they wanted was social housing, period. "That's not what people who got sick (while squatting) fought for, that's not what people who slept on cold wet cement fought for." According to Loncar, hundreds of people took part in the squat but she does not remember Oostindie being one of them. In the end the city only handed a fraction of the units the squatters demanded, and not all of the homeless people who took part in the squat benefited from this "victory." Now Woodwards boasts a luxury condo tower, an upscale food market, a bank, the Goldcorp school for the Arts at SFU and a London Drugs, which Oostindie himself "welcomed", and W2.
"John" A long time DTES frontline worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, commented on W2. "I don't think a media centre is high on the list to what's going to help the poorest people down there. It seems to me that a place like that is there because when developers pitch ideas, one of the ways they make it a little more palatable is by sticking on supposedly progressive extras. But the space is an empty gesture because it only seems progressive for people who don't live there, or at least not the poor people who live there, which makes it wonderful for developers because it doesn't bring the property value down for developers, it probably brings it up, unlike most social services that are expected to draw a poorer crowd."
Corporate capital has a long history of silencing and co-opting radical movements. This is best explained on the book "The Revolution will not be funded" by INCITE! a radical feminist collective for women of color. In it they lay out how they were told by their funders to tone down their positions on Palestine or loose their operating budget. I believe W2 has gone deep into the rabbit hole of corporate funding and that nothing significantly radical or anti-capitalist will ever come out of that space, simply because their handlers won't allow it. To this day W2 refuses to take a position on the SFU school of the arts at Woodwards acceptance of a 10 million dollar donation by Goldcorp. Goldcorp is a company responsible for the destruction of indigenous communities in Central America. With Oostindie's experience with anti-mining activisms and being that the DTES is populated by many poor indigenous folks, wouldn't it make sense that an organization that purports to work in the interest of those in the community, make a strong statement against this problematic "donation"?
I would have less of a problem with W2 if Oostindie and others wouldn't claim radical cred. But W2 and Oostindie by extension, like to pretend and push the idea that it is "grassroots." W2 takes corporate money, shakes the hand of the mayor and brings hordes of yuppies to the DTES by the truckload, while winking at radical and anti-poverty activists as if to say "I'm still on your side". I think it's high time radical, migrant rights, anti-mining, anti-poverty and anti-capitalist activists totally reject this space, and call W2 exactly what it is: A sellout.
In the spirit of total resistance