by Stacey Ho
The original bench, on Main Street in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, was made from driftwood and tree stumps. Someone from the neighbourhood had planted a little garden there and the bench was right next to it. Starting in 2008, artists Charlene Vickers and Neil Eustache would go hang out on the bench every week. They would spend a long time sitting around and looking at people going by. Special guests were invited to join them or sometimes people would just drop in. Maybe there would be coffee or snacks or someone would bring music or a radio. They would watch for people who looked interesting, or look to see if there were other First Nations or Indians going up and down the street. They would try to spot all the people wearing Cowichan sweaters. After being out in the cold for a while, maybe they would go get an all-day breakfast at Bert’s Restaurant. The price of the breakfast was about the same as a single artisanal donut that you can now buy at the spot right next to where Bert’s used to be. Bert’s has been replaced by a bar called, of all things, Colony.
Anyway, after a while, Eustache and Vickers started putting out “benchin” calls for people to join them at their spot (informally called the littlest rez in north america). They formed a society, Cool Indians on Main Street, which had its own Facebook group. Everyone was invited to come and hang out. Sometimes people would bring cameras and post pictures on the internet, either of themselves or of people that they saw while benchin. Word spread and lots of people joined in. But, at some point, someone wanted to put up a new building where the bench was. A fence was built around the bench and the little garden, and eventually concrete was laid over the garden and the bench was dismantled. But, this didn’t stop people from benchin. They would post photos of themselves sitting or gathering on benches in locations around the world.
Benchin had become a gesture you could take anywhere. Benchin is about looking. I think of James Luna’s iconic Artifact Piece (1986), which powerfully pointed to how looking consumes and categorizes non-white and particularly Indigenous bodies within the context of the museum. Luna laid in a vitrine at the San Diego Museum of Man with labels that described the scars on his living body, while another case exhibited ephemera from his life—records, divorce papers, political buttons, shoes. On the flipside, Vickers, Eustache and their collaborators reversed this institutional gaze by looking outward. However—just as looking from within the context of a museum is buoyed by particular forces, ideas and experiences, and these forces in turn calcify into historical narratives, colonial structures and racist institutions— the conditions necessary for looking outward must be fundamentally different from such structures and point to different ways of knowing and being in the world. As people visibly and consistently read as Native, Vickers and Eustache emphasized a way of looking back and out that was informal, open, inclusive, fluid and participatory.
In a city where $1,730 per month for a one bedroom apartment is defined as affordable housing, benchin is also about taking up space. While low-income, historically targeted populations are pushed out of Vancouver by gentrification, the question of who gets to shape and safely occupy the spaces that we share arises out of extreme necessity. In the face of this neoliberal dystopia, it gives me hope to see that the stratification of public space can be resisted vernacularly through acts such as tent cities, guerrilla gardening and street protests, as well as by performative and relational gestures as humble as benchin. As Vickers put it, “It’s our right to hang out and sit on this bench and if people want to sit with us they can and if not it’s just us.” Instead of top-down, exclusionary constructions designed by developers that centre the (boring) desires of the white and wealthy, benchin articulates that space on unceded land can be inclusive, decolonial and anti-capitalist through centring Indigenous bodies and experiences. By extension, I can’t help but think of public acts that have specifically centred the xʷməθkʷəyə̓ m, Sḵwxw̱ ú7mesh and səl ̓ílwətaʔɬ peoples whose territories are occupied by Vancouver.
Even though the beloved, original Main Street bench is now long gone, benchin still enjoys a prolific and colourful life over a decade later. In 2013, Eustache and Vickers reimagined benchin as a performance and installation for Not Sent Letters, which is an ongoing series of interdisciplinary art evenings curated by Jeremy Todd. And in 2015, Vickers presented a version of benchin at the LIVE Biennale Performance Art Festival. In this iteration (full disclosure, curated by me), the bench was cordoned off by a red velvet rope so that benchers could get the full VIP experience. Nearby, Vickers ran a table displaying objects borne out of collaborations with artists like Maria Hupfield and Robert Chaplin. There was also a book from her dad, a Walkman with which to play powwow music to people, Cool Indians on Main Street T-shirts for purchase and smokes on sale for 25 cents. This summer, not too far from the original benchin spot, Vickers is planning a benchin video for an outdoor video screen on the corner of Kingsway and Broadway. In typical Vancouver fashion, the screen will be displayed on the side of a 21-storey condo called, no joke, The Independent, which was built upon the former site of artists’ studios destroyed in a mysterious 2009 fire.
“We’re all benchin right now,” Vickers cryptically told the audience while accepting the VIVA Award for Visual Arts last year. A highly professionalized contemporary art awards ceremony is not typically where anything as fun as art happens, but that evening, some special people in the know got to participate in a pretty good art piece; benchin took place in the bodies of the people who had benched together, both those present in the space of the awards ceremony and those who were not there. It took place in their experiences, in the intangible friendships, stories and community ties that connected them to each other. Benchin exists in this way because this is how it was created in the first place. Vickers’ simple statement may seem like an irreverent gesture (and it is a bit irreverent), but it also alludes to a network of relationships that don’t just happen overnight, but must form over time. The shape and structure these connections take on is just as real and as important as a building, a city, a monument or a museum. And, crucially, such connections—their enactments, materializations and their histories— will exist as long as there are people who recognize and remember their power, significance and creative possibility.