You are in Candahar

It’s a bar, an art exhibit, the star of the other Olympiad in Vancouver
Photograph by Simon Hayter

As millions tuned in to watch Canada’s founding First Nation tribes being celebrated with spectacular production values in the Olympic opening ceremonies at B.C. Place, another audience was participating in a more gritty and audacious Aboriginal spectacle just blocks away at the far less grand Playwrights Theatre Centre on Granville Island. There, more than a hundred thronged to the Candahar Bar when doors opened at 7 p.m., eager to check out the opening night of one of the most buzzed-about art installations on Vancouver’s jam-packed 2010 Cultural Olympiad calendar: a pop-up replica of a Belfast public house that’s part performance space, part ongoing social experiment.

The fact the $5 admission covered a glass of wine, beer or whiskey helped draw the crowd. But when patrons approached the pub to wet their whistles, they found it packed with revellers. A burly bouncer blocked the entrance; only Aboriginal people were allowed inside, he told them. Everyone else had to wait until 8:30 to be served liquor; until then, there was water or pop. The only non-native revellers inside were the Belfast-born brothers Chris and Conor Roddy—the unscripted performance artists who also serve drinks—and Theo Sims, the puckish British-born artist who masterminded the Candahar, which is named after a street in Belfast. Sims wanted to construct a space that would dismantle the car-bombs-and-balaclavas stereotype of Northern Ireland, where he went to university. First staged in Calgary in 2006, the installation has since toured the country, with Vancouver its fifth and final stop. When it was exhibited at the 2007 Biennale de Montréal, Sims deflected the demand to provide bilingual barkeep, which became a heated subject of debate within the bar itself.

And so it was last Friday night, when patrons discovered they’d been part of “Indians Only,” a one-off production by Vancouver multidisciplinary artist Rebecca Belmore, herself an Aboriginal Canadian. The idea, Belmore told Maclean’s, was to confront stereotypes about Indians drinking and to challenge presumed notions of privilege and prejudice.

Some people left in protest, others in disgust. One guy who tried to sneak in the pub’s back door was kicked out. “It really did get the hackles up; you did feel the tension, definitely,” says Sims. “It was great.” Belmore recalls one woman told her she’d felt upset by the experience but not unhappy about it. “She was conflicted, which was the point.”

Sims is pleased one of the first-night performance pieces offered a stark contrast to the official opening. He also hopes his final Candahar installation will provide “an oasis of integrity” amid the mass-market government pavilions. Unlike Irish House, there’s none of what Sims calls “paddy-wackery”: shamrocks, shillelaghs, James Joyce quotes. It’s also a Guinness-free zone; they made a point of sourcing beer from a local microbrewery. “We’re trying to support the small guys,” he says, which is tricky with VANOC as a financial sponsor. “They weren’t pressuring us to use people,” he says. “But we have to be careful how we display our other sponsors.”

The Candahar is also an interesting counterpoint to the activists bemoaning the clamp-down on anti-Olympic expression, and the effect of the 2010 Games on the arts community. The cuts to arts budgets have sparked angry protests—“With Joyous Hearts We Destroy the Arts,” one placard read. Yet the Cultural Olympiad, which runs Jan. 22 to Mar. 21, has created a city-wide focus on the arts. It will bring Robert Lepage’s Blue Dragon and the world premiere of Laurie Anderson’s Delusion, and offer relief from the hype and slick packaged showmanship now synonymous with the Games. Slick showmanship exists within the Cultural Olympiad too. But for every big-ticket show like Feist there’s a concert from the Central American singers who form the amazing Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project.

If nothing else, the Cultural Olympiad offers an opportunity to participate in events that aren’t just another corporate branding platform—like the exuberant dancing flash mob of 2,000 at the corner of Robson and Bute last Saturday afternoon organized by the non-profit group Imagine-1-Day. It has put the “art” back in party. Author Lee Henderson, who performed at the Candahar earlier this week, has been enjoying local artists DJing at the Light Bar, an installation that also includes light sculptures, live music and lectures. “It’s been a great party,” he says. “Everyone’s in a great mood.”

Sims understands that creating a party is a way to draw a crowd that likely wouldn’t visit an experimental gallery. That’s a phenomenon playing out across a city filled with public art and surprise performances. That’s the case with an ongoing piece at Candahar that will run until its final last call on Feb. 28: in Alex Leslie’s and Elizabeth Bachinsky’s Blackout, the audience create “found poetry” by blacking out months’ worth of Olympic coverage from local and national newspapers with Sharpies. As Sims points out, revelling in the irony: “Were it not for the Olympics, none of this could have happened.”