Issue #35, November 1997
I shall begin with a proposition — one that is so commonplace that its significance is often overlooked — that in our society, youth is present only when its presence is a problem, or is regarded as a problem.
— Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light
A moment comes when people in general leave the space of consumption, which coincides with the historical locations of capital accumulation, with the space of production, and with the space that is produced; this is the space of the market, the space through which flows follow their paths, the space which the state controls — a space, therefore, that is strictly quantified. When people leave this space, they move towards the consumption of space (an unproductive form of consumption). This moment is the moment of departure — the moment of people's holidays, formerly a contingent but now a necessary moment. When this moment arrives, 'people' demand a qualitative space.
— Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
You can't trust anyone. The school bus driver, your pastor, the babysitter, even your dad could rape you or beat you or lock you up and no one would ever care! So kids start to look in all the places adults tell them are evil. They figure maybe what adults say is evil is really good. Kids turn to Satan for all sorts of reasons.
— Donna Gaines, Teenage Wasteland
I was in Courtenay, a milltown on Vancouver Island on Canada's West Coast, with Steve, an 18 year old out of a Beck song: sleeping in the park, carrying a guitar and amp with the price tag still on them, as if they'd been stolen (a more recent song — "Sissyneck" on Odelay — goes, "and everybody knows my name at the recreation centre"). For some reason this was turning into a total Kids weekend, all drugs and juvenile sexuality. I met Steve as I was walking around Courtenay, suddenly enraged by the music the town pipes along its main street to keep kids away. The mall-like texture of the tinny show tunes appeals to seniors, who shop the suddenly gentrified blue-collar main drag. Gentrification in Courtenay means a Mount Royal bagel store and a lingerie store, but old values hold true: displayed in the lingerie shop window was a poster for the local air show. Makes sense: guys shopping there for their girls, pick up some tickets, whatever. The airplane painting on the poster — all contrails and cockpits! — was titled "Houston, we have a problem," the suggestion of air/space disaster lifted from Apollo 13.
In an article in local art rag Boo, Peter Culley, a Vancouver Island poet, has written that Apollo 13 and Martin Scorcese's Casino are both reactionary laments for the decline of marginal institutions. Apollo 13, with its astronaut wives as these sleek chicks in miniskirts in big open houses (so different from the air force life I remember — cramped little houses up north with five or ten coats of paint on the kitchen cupboards, moving every year or two; closer to Ray Carver than Ron Howard) also posited a parallel between heterosexuality and the space program: both come to crisis in the film. So it comes full circle, indicating the intentionless work of ideology, when a poster about air danger is displayed in a store for bed-clothing sexual danger.
Steve and I talked and then went down to the park by the river to smoke some drugs. We strolled over the river on a bridge out of Vancouver's Stanley Park (cute but functional). You can see why EJ Hughes painted the area so avidly. It's so pastoral — what with the Courtenay Hotel in white fake timbering, the rec centre in the background and the steady morning traffic of the highway. Very idyllic.
When we got there three teenagers were sitting on a bench. We walked over and one of them asked right away if we had any drugs. It's tough to get high in this town — but the kids will find a way. So I kind of said sure and she sensed our hesitation — or Steve's, he didn't know I had some and thought he'd have to share the one joint with four now. The girl said well don't worry about it if it's your last one, someone's gone to get some. But I rolled one up and Steve got his out and we smoked up. Only one of the three girls actually wanted to smoke. All three were pretty hardcore homegirls though. They were talking about smoking up with their mom, running from the cops with booze hidden — "never got my liquor taken off me" — all 16 year old bravado. They head off to the Arbutus — smalltown hotel with a cold beer and wine store — saying, "okay ladies, let's get loaded."
I headed off and walked over to the skatepark a couple hundred metres away. It was nice and grotty looking, with graffiti, and about a dozen kids 10-12 years old were skating. None of them were too good but they were enthusiastic, very cute & clean cut in their baggy pants and skinny chests. I was taking pictures all the time with the disposable camera I got at a corner store out at the industrial edge of town. Some of the skaters asked if I was doing it for a magazine or for a sponsor — the dream of getting free runners or skateboards. I didn't have the heart to tell them it was just cultural studies.
This was when I started to realize how Courtenay's class stratification also works along age lines, as seen in the increasing clout of "seniors" as a class as the last benefit of the post-war boom. Seniors — or the wealthy or even just well-pensioned members — are trying to control public space — as capital seeks to do — through tactics like keeping kids off the street, etc. So kids are forced to the margins, where they can find more freedom: the homegirls sitting in the park as a social space, the skaters quickly moving around their little park as traffic on the street next to it moves at a snail's pace through the town.
When this article was being edited by Matt Wray for Bad Subjects, he asked me: Are they forced or is there some choice here — are they making free spaces that are unfree?
This is a good point. It speaks to agency. I locate their agency in a conflicted situation — i.e. one where authorities — adults — police a space that should be and once was shared by various age groups. I'm describing what I see as the dialectic of oppression and subversion/resistance. It is resistance — I don't think I'm being romantic here, although I situate this in terms of my own desire. So at any rate, yes, the kids are forced to the margins — they are excluded from certain spaces (as insufficient consumers, say, as youth, a danger). The spaces kids are forced to are various, however — some retreat into sanctioned activities, some to the private sphere (if it is attractive, i.e. class) and some to public spaces that are then themselves marked or demonized as dangerous youth spaces (the skatebowl, a park, a mall). And in some of those spaces, no matter how innocuous the activity sometimes demonization (including physical violence) takes place, and no matter how violent the activity sometimes they are ignored. So I'm talking here about oppression and about how youth resist that — how agency emerges precisely in that dialectic.
This marginalization also feeds into alienation: kids see the hypocrisy of the world around them, especially in how it addresses them solely as consumers in a pop culture flow that is also contradictory in its violent and moralistic messages. The homegirls talked about kids smashing in the windows of the elementary schools, about going with guys sometimes when they'd do it . Besides the kicks aspect, what leads kids to attack their previous institutions? Maybe it's that by smashing windows in a school they can get some action back against institutions, against adult power. At an extreme, then, kids get really bitter and cynical and perverse in how they want to manipulate the system — a Nietzscheanism answered by the adult world's desire to transform delinquent kids into adults to better punish them.
After hanging with the skaters for half an hour, I went across the street to a strip bar in the Courtenay Hotel. It was totally dark inside, and I got a glass of draft for two bucks something. The girl dancing — on a very small carpeted stage, her towel on one side with her bra and panties on it — was pale and blonde and tanned, anorexic, she hardly seemed to exist in the room, it was like she was a ghost. I looked at her impossibly high heels, her lipstick and hair. A guy was selling carvings, guys in sports shirts and shorts sat at the counter around the stage, talking. Tanned, moustaches. Baseball caps? Maybe. Sales guys.
There was more vitality outside, with the kids in the park. Both the park and the bar are in the world, but it seems as if sometimes adults will work to armour themselves against the world via material structures — buildings, cars. Whereas kids — some kids — carry that armour in themselves. But they also, in their marginal spaces, have a lot of fun. Adolescence, developmentally, is the period in which kids want to keep having fun — pursuing the pleasure principle, be in essence anarchistic — but the world is trying to change them into workers. This is accomplished via regulation, everything from curfews and spatial exclusions to moral codes and policing.
Courtenay has a long history of hippie activism and presence (the disreputable Renaissance Fair used to be held there) as well as a healthy and vital working class culture. This last advertises itself through such media as the North Island Weekender, published in Campbell River and sort of a logger's paper. One column is written by a mill worker, and uses phrases like "rural non-aboriginal" in fatuous attempts to unite white rural working class people into some imaginary front. The most common attribute used in the personal ads is "employed." Even the local "alternative" rag is right wing in its mortgage and job-hunting and dope-smoking coverage.
The "alternative nation" is present in Courtenay as well, via a new hemp store. Here, in addition to the usual pipes and beige shirts, are stickers that look like the BC Hydro logo (the provincial power company) and say BC Hydroponic. This technique of subverting a commercial logo has really caught on the past few years with t-shirts advertising everything from Master-bate (instead of Master Card) to Adidhash (with a pot leaf instead of the Adidas trefoil). This form of cultural jamming works in part because of the overdetermined importance symbols will have in society. I bought a t-shirt at the cold beer and wine store that says" Logging makes the economy grow!" with a giant logging truck barreling off the chest. A debate at one local town council centred on a town crest, which had native animal designs on it. Councillors objected to the raven, calling it a crow.
Considering the white attacks on native symbols, policies, and culture, the local native culture was extremely generous in its presentation of itself at a pow-wow that I went to with my sister and her kid. The drumming was the best part, with three crews. One set of guys, I think from Alberta, just pounded their skins like crazy. They had printed foam and net hats on, sunglasses, and golf shirts too I think. The kids' crew all wore Adidas jackets, black and white. A kid near me said "head banging!" Some of the music was battle charges or whatever from over a hundred years ago. My sister was hungry so we went and got some bannock and corn on the cob. They had a cappuccino van there but it was mostly hamburger trailers, probably the same ones they have at the air show. We walked by the booths at the back of the fairground, some pretty junky stuff, some neat stuff, on a rack of native design t-shirts, a few Adidas jackets. Behind were some huge tipis that people were camping in who'd come in from the prairies. A guy told us about how they were going to have a demonstration of putting one up. He said a woman had just bought one and she didn't know how and an old guy from Williams Lake, he was a Blood, did it. Security kids hopped around with big walkie talkies. So in the end it seems as if, for all of its flaws and great oppression, native culture, here, in Courtenay (and elsewhere), is doing better at accommodating kids, providing them with a role in society instead of shunting them off to one side. The pow-wow is a multicultural place — as my sister said, everyone's inter-racial these days — and a multigenerational place.
The bus down-island slowly accumulated teen-aged kids in polyester uniforms: army cadets going to Vernon to be "instructors" for slightly younger kids. Waiting at the BC Ferry terminal in Nanaimo, a couple of them take sport at a South Asian family running down the pedestrian walkway — "lookit their turbans bouncing!" I turn around, scowling, and they shush each other up. In their uniforms, they're all too visible, can't be themselves. And for all my kid wannabe sartorialisms, they know all too well that I have the authority of an adult. When the bus drives out of Stanley Park and through the West End of Vancouver, the country kids are again in full gawk, at the buildings. "I'm gonna get a hoor," one guy from Port Alberni declares. A girl says, "yeah he said that when we got to Nanaimo."
Clint Burnham teaches at the University of British Columbia and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver. His books include The Jamesonian Unconscious: The Aesthetics of Marxist Theory and Be Labour Reading (poetry). He is on the editorial collective of Boo, a Vancouver art magazine.