Civic Song

TEXT Courtney Healey
PHOTO Adam Maitland

The sound is audible from a few blocks away, canned pop music and passionate but mediocre live singing. A circular red carpet covers the sidewalk at Robson and Howe Streets. There’s a microphone stand in the centre and a red plywood kiosk to one side. An emcee invites the audience to step closer. Two young women with blue-streaked hair belt out Journey’s Any Way You Want It. A woman swipes slowly through a Spanish playlist while a gaggle of Japanese girls poke at potential song selections. A petite woman in a floral sundress croons in Mandarin while the crowd slowly disperses. A First Nations man, channeling Johnny Cash, delivers a haunting rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt and people stop to watch again. 

This steady stream of impromptu performances is Sing! Karaoke Kiosk, an interactive multilingual installation designed by the Urban Republic Arts Society. Director Peeroj Thakre states, “one of [Vancouver’s] strengths is its variety of culturally distinct communities, yet many Vancouverites find there are too few opportunities to interact on a social level.” The City of Vancouver has actually named this lack of intercultural connection as a concern. Thakre and Co-Director Henning Knoetzele chose karaoke because of its cross-cultural popularity, and created a custom player to deliver thousands of songs in Vancouver’s most widely spoken languages: Cantonese, English, Filipino, French, Japanese, Hindi, Mandarin and Spanish. Sing! was originally proposed for smaller neighbourhoods where people might form ongoing connections and a sense of community through greater proximity. However, the City used funding restrictions to persuade them to relocate downtown.

On August 19th, Robson Square was packed with events, the road overtaken by a large lumpy white dunescape, food carts and street vendors lined the sidewalk, and the underground rink overflowed with salsa dancers. The message is clear: Vancouver is a diverse global city with vibrant public spaces. Urban Republic says it will “seek to bring the Karaoke Kiosk to neighbourhoods throughout Vancouver in the future.” Thakre admits that lasting social impact is less likely at the downtown locations if only because people are less likely to run into each other again. Instead, she views it as an opportunity to “share a joyful feeling and engage in a social experience with other Vancouverites.” Maybe that’s enough. But directing all of its spectacle downtown can make Vancouver’s preoccupation with its global image seem at odds with its own local agenda. Maybe next summer Vancouver should put its money–and the Karaoke Kiosk–where its mouth is. CA

Courtney Healey is the Director of Lodge Think Tank and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.