Fuck the Steam Clock! (featuring Gunnar Holm Mikkelsen)
I got friendly with a fellow student last term in the Film Studies program at UBC - a Dane named Gunnar Holm-Mikkelsen, here for one term before heading back to Denmark. He's an interesting guy - a filmmaker and a songwriter to boot, performing under the name Saint Kodiak. We shared both Ernest Mathijs' Cult Movies class (yes, the Ernest Mathijs who was recently featured in the Straight) and Lisa Coulthard's violence-centred American Cinema Since 1960 course - excellent classes, and fuel to many a stimulating conversation between Gunnar and myself.
The peak of our interactions, however, came shortly after both of us got lightly sozzled at Funky Winkerbeans (the Eargoggles night, with the Rebel Spell performing).
It had been fun enough to show him around the city a bit before we got sauced, offering him a narrative (as we worked our way east along Hastings Street) about gentrification, poverty, the Woodsquat riots - assisted by Stan Douglas' vivid photographic reconstruction - and the whole Marc Emery tale, which led to a trip (tho' we didn't partake) the Cannabis Culture bookstore. Gunnar responded with tales of the Danish Freetown Christiania, which I'd not heard of previously - a sort of squatted autonomous zone inside Copenhagen where normal Danish law ceases to apply and pot culture and so forth proliferates.
As I realized awhile back giving Zev Asher a similar tour (though we ended up at Scratch Records, not Funky's), there's a sort of enlightenment otherwise unavailable that comes of talking about the city to a non-Vancouverite, and once we got to Funkys (and the beer began to flow) we ended up having some great conversations with Femke van Delft, Bev Davies, and Todd and Erin of the Rebel Spell, all of whom sat at our table for a period... but the peak, as I say, was when we were staggering about Vancouver afterwards, and I asked Gunnar if there was anything else in the city he wanted to see while we were out and about.
"I keep hearing about this Steam Clock," he said. "Is it really worth seeing, or is it just some lame, touristy thing?"
Honest-to-God, folks, I had never devoted a minute of my life to thinking about the Steam Clock before that, and I almost collapsed in laughter. No, no, it's not worth seeing, I said - or something along those lines - but that alone makes it worth seeing! As we reeled towards Gastown, I commenced a rant that I didn't know I had in me, about how the only people who seem impressed by the Steam Clock are Asian tourists and ESL students; it practically exists as a photo op for them, while actual Vancouverites walk by heedless, paying no attention to the thing and identifying with it not in the slightest. It's nowhere near as grandiose in its lameness as my own town's contribution to public art, the giant robot horse clock, known as The Beast, that (when it's working) rears up on its hind legs and nods its head a few times, as the clock chimes the hour. By contrast, the Steam Clock doesn't even have status as a public eyesore; I actually will bring visitors to Maple Ridge to bear witness to the horse (and Bev Davies and Femke van Delft both got to photograph it in action, and we stood around chatting about how utterly absurd and misguided it is - all the moreso for having its design allegedly plagiarised from a Hasbro toy), but if Gunnar hadn't asked - and if he hadn't asked in the way that he did - the Steam Clock is so negligible that it would never, ever have crossed my mind as something to show him. Better yet, Gunnar knew something about it I didn't, which the plaque confirms - that it isn't even actually an antique, that it was set in place in 1977 or such, as a manufactured tribute to Vancouver's past.
The Maple Ridge Horse Clock by Bev Davies (!), not to be reused without permission
I don't remember all that we said about it as we observed it - I seem to recall him chuckling wryly and saying "it's a clock and it blows steam!" and he recalls saying something like "I passed up Big Ben for THIS?" - but I do remember seizing the moment - as the clock blew 2AM - to ask some equally inebriated Vancouverites who appeared on the sidewalk at that time if they felt any identification with the Steam Clock at all. The actual wording of their response is lost to alcohol and time, but I briefly bonded with these strangers in drunkenly declaiming "fuck the steam clock!" while Gunnar looked on, laughing.
It was a sweet moment of bonding, our cursing the Steam Clock together. Though, to be honest, on reflection, having thus publicly abused the clock, I am now moved to a certain fondness for it, based in its status as a neglibile non-event; it is benign, ersatz, useless, and ever-so-humble, offending no one and accomplishing nothing (though presumably some of the tourists who pose in front of it find it moving, and I guess it does serve its function as a timepiece well enough, though I cannot recall ever having used it as one). For the true athlete of perception, it seems its value as a tourist attraction lies precisely in its lack of value as a tourist attraction; perhaps the next time I entertain a visitor to this city, thanks to Gunnar, I will bring them there, as well, so we can contemplate how singularly unimpressive and meaningless it is, as it blows its steam at the sky. It makes one wonder what actual historical landmarks the city pays no attention to, while celebrating this one... Bev Davies occasionally has pointed out to me the house The Clash stayed at the first time they came to Vancouver, for one, and I retain some fondness for the wall, long-since muralled over, where that pro-Squamish Five slogan was spraypainted, reading, if memory serves, "Jail the Real Terrorists: Litton, Hydro, Red Hot Video." Maybe there are some scorched spots left on the sidwalk from the Canucks riot?
(Check out the music of Saint Kodiak here).