Cultural Containment

TEXT Ian Chodikoff
PHOTO Iain Sinclair

The idea of adaptively reusing shipping containers is not a new concept. For several years, they have been incorporated into a variety of building projects, such as the monumental yet ephemeral Nomadic Museum designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban on Manhattan’s Chelsea Pier in 2005, and the fanciful pods of inhabitation borne from repurposed containers, courtesy of fashionable New York firm LO-TEK.

A recent public art installation in front of the Vancouver Public Library proves that recycling old shipping containers remains a seductive idea. Known as containR, two overlapping steel boxes were converted over a 10-day period in late February to become a “nomadic gallery” or theatre space for the purpose of displaying art and projecting video. Now dismantled, the project was part of the Vancouver 2009 Cultural Olympiad, a series of multidisciplinary festivals and digital programs that will culminate in a 60-day event taking place before and throughout the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to be held in Whistler and Greater Vancouver next year. The installation was presented in conjunction with Springboard, a non-profit organization with a 20-year history of producing artist-run initiatives through multimedia presentations in the public realm, often involving dance and choreographed activities.

With backgrounds in film, new media, dance and choreography, artistic directors Nicole Mion and Evann Siebens curated the film and art for containR, in addition to commissioning Vancouver artists the dark and Zak David (a.k.a. Virus) to paint graffiti- and tag-inspired artwork on the installation’s many surfaces. Robert Duke of Duke Architecture and industrial designer Keith Doyle of the environmental design firm IF (Intelligent Forms Design Inc.) designed the portable installation. Duke, a graduate of Carleton University’s School of Architecture, began his career in Calgary designing furniture and interiors before finally settling in Vancouver where he recently started up his own design firm. Doyle is an industrial designer whose firm has been developing a range of workplace-related furniture items. Iain Sinclair of Kindred Construction helped manage the construction of the project.

Designed, developed and built by an interdisciplinary collaborative of visual artists, architects and builders, containR challenges our perceptions of dance, sport and movement. A screen and video projector were housed inside the double-height portable theatre whose upper portion cantilevered out 10 feet, creating a canopy over the entrance. Both pedestrians and motorists were able to view a monitor showing a documentary of the construction and modification of the containers as they walked or drove by the site. Photovoltaic panels were integrated into the design to help supply the electricity needed to power the videos and lighting.

The interdisciplinary team’s approach certainly responded to the challenge of the Cultural Olympiad’s three tenets: sport, art and sustainability. The intention behind containR was to ask questions like “Where is the line between art and sport?” and “How does a dance performance differ from a snowboarder’s performance on the slopes?” Visitors were given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions by watching a series of videos. Despite receiving the commission from Vancouver Cultural Olympiad organizers in September 2008, the containR team was given a budget of less than 50 percent of the actual construction cost. The remaining costs were financed through additional sponsors. The future prospects of containR remain in discussion, but the team members hope that subsequent versions will be refined to allow the plywood prow (see photo) to be finished in metal with a large television screen. They also hope that containR will grow to encompass a gallery and retail space along with live performances for the 2010 Olympic festivities next year. CA

For more information,please visit