A Vehicle for Protest: The Van in Vancouver

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Vehicles captured my attention on several occasions while I was in Vancouver, with its “sky train,” compact taxis, cruise ships, yachts, and buses — most were vehicles for commerce, tourism, and leisure. During my first night I was drawn to loud music blaring several stories below from what must have been the longest stretch limousine I have ever seen, easily at least twice as long as the regular stretch limousines one can see, and this one was apparently a stretch Hummer. Young men in tuxedoes, followed by young women in ball gowns, all stepped in, coming out of what may be Vancouver’s most expensive hotel. I then realized that some of the windows of the limousine were in fact LED screens, projecting psychedelic patterns to the beat of the music, with graphic equalizers at two points on the side of the car. As it filled with about 20 young people, the lights at the front and the back of the vehicle began blinking and pulsing brightly. This must have been a group going to a prom, an American import in a country of mimics living the American Dream in Canada. The whole production, between hotel suites, clothing, and the car must have been in the many thousands of dollars, all to celebrate four years of feigned attention in class. If this is a recession, it is not hitting nearly hard enough, or, as we know is the case, it is not hitting all classes with equal ferocity.

Next, the Norwegian cruise ship. I had not seen a cruise ship since I was in Dominica, and it was “good” to know that I was back in a place that hitches its economic fortunes to the perceptions of others. Apparently I missed the disgorging, as few people were to be seen in the vicinity of the ship. I then headed to a district called Gastown, mostly to see why others have made such a big deal about it (and having seen it now, I still have the same question). On the way there, a very captivating sight, a refreshing change: the protest van. It really put the “Van” in Vancouver for me.

There was no sign of its owner, this blog on wheels. It occupies a prominent position in a central parking space, bordering a sidewalk that all tourists must pass when walking from the cruise ship terminal toward Gastown. Indeed, several were there photographing and videotaping it, quietly, and without comment. The signs are fixed to boards that are themselves screwed into a supporting structure that is itself fixed to the sides of the van, all sides of the van. A canoe sits on top of the van because, after all, this is still Canada, eh.

As one can see from the slide show, the persistent theme of the signs is imperialism and occupation (so right away my eyes turned sympathetic, needless to say). The main topics have to do with Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, oil, and torture. There is a fair amount of artistic work — hands that stick out of the van pointing at the viewer, small auxiliary signs jutting out from the corners of the van, individual words decorated (frequently with dripping blood, the Star of David, or the American flag). Yet, a quote that should have been attributed to Hunter S. Thompson, was instead erroneously attributed to Thomas S. Hunter (a good sign, perhaps, that someone has not fully learned American cultural references). Less forgivable to the pedant was the fact that the designer forgot to run a spell check on his van — again, just like a blog.

Another persistent theme across the signs was “Google ->”. On almost every sign there is a recommendation to the reader to look up a particular phrase in Google. What irony for “the real world” that the extracts from the “virtual world” staked a space in it. More irony, with this slide show that pulls the van back into the virtual world, where one will soon be able to Google “protest van” and come up with images of the van referencing Google. Our distinctions between the real and the virtual seem evermore threadbare.

If one needs a van for physical representations of what would otherwise be recognizable as blog posts…then you realize what is coming next? The Twitter protest bicycle, with short tweet-like statements affixed to each spoke on the wheels, to the frame, along the handle bar. If anyone sees the Twitter bicycle anywhere, please drop me a line, preferably 140 characters in length or less, and I promise to RT you.

In the meantime, here is a small sample of some of the images used in the slide show, at higher resolution: