MAINSPACE EXHIBITION /
Milton Lim – whitepages.
November 7–December 19, 2020
Exhibition Description /
whitepages is an object-oriented multimedia installation examining the phonebook as a living archive of human migration. Consisting of projected datasets, generative sound, twelve phonebooks arranged as a telephone keypad, and an overhead camera sensor, whitepages creates a space to consider the extended relationships of names, phone numbers, and addresses across time.
Using common Chinese surnames to create a sampling frame, the phonebook becomes a time capsule of conditions preceding contemporary concerns of Vancouver’s housing market crisis and Richmond’s racialized linguistic policies. It traces the distinct waves of Chinese immigration to Canada over the last century; journeys resulting from the promise of gold, new employment opportunities, many significant political shifts overseas, and more recently, the now-defunct Immigrant Investor Program (IIP) which, from 1986-2014, rapidly transformed the racial demographics of British Columbia.
Telephone directories retain information about who was permitted to own land, who was recognized as a citizen by the government, and where enclaves developed. They even document the exclusion of Chinese names from BC phonebooks in the early 1900’s, which in turn, gave rise to the Chinese Publicity Bureau (Vancouver) publishing their first separate Chinese-Canadian phonebook in 1935.
whitepages, like the technologies it references and is built upon, interfaces past contexts via present conditions. Today, the decline of these hardcopy directories gestures towards our changing relationship to our contact details as we continue transacting public ‘information’ into the currency of public ‘data’. Access to digital material is immediate, direct, and efficient. On the other hand, the phonebook offers an alternative perspective, one that holds the complexities and weight of the decisions that brought us here.
“The telephone was already thought, correctly, to be responsible for rapid industrial progress. … The areas depending on ‘instantaneous communication across space’ were listed by the United States Commerce Department in 1907: ‘agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, and in fact, all the various branches of production and distribution of natural and artificial resources.’ … In other words, every cog in the engine of the economy” (Gleick, 2011, p. 191-192).
In this brief paragraph, historian James Gleick (2011) recounts the pivotal role telephony played not just within the history of the telecommunication industry, but also in all other facets of the socio-economic landscape in the early twentieth century. Against this backdrop of unprecedented industrial growth in North America, immigration formed another facet of this landscape, an indispensable but often marginalized part of this growth. Considering that a significant part of the Chinese population in Vancouver at the time was employed by the railroad industry, one could propose a link between the proliferation of telephony with immigration and industrialization, a link that can be read through the records of phonebooks. Coincidentally, 1907 was also the year the Asiatic Exclusion League organized the parade that led to the three-day riot in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown. The delicate relationship and socio-political entanglement between notions of race, immigration, telecommunications, industrialization, and the cataloguing of human populations are all encapsulated in Milton Lim’s interactive media installation, whitepages, activated through participants’ interactions with the phonebooks on display.
“Telephone books soon represented the most comprehensive listings of, and directories to, human populations ever attempted” (Gleick, 2011, p. 194). Seen in this light, telephone books are arguably the precursors of the ubiquitous algorithmic surveillance and ever-expanding databases of the human (and non-human) today. There is a strong link between traditional classification systems of knowledge and commercial search engines, a link that emphasizes how classification systems—or a seemingly benign list of people—are largely determined by existing power structures (Noble, 2018). Arguably, the phonebook and its classificatory structure would be no different. Embedded within them are the politicized processes of information creation, dissemination, and retrieval, having been designed and deployed by the dominant political forces.
To investigate the socio-political landscape of Vancouver in the 1900’s and the place of Chinese-Canadian residents in BC, Lim looked into the existing phonebooks of the era. It was thought that each phonebook would act as a historical record of the respective Chinese-Canadian population at a given point in time, giving the artist a sense of the population’s size, how this size changed over the years, and most importantly, functioning as a conduit to the lives lived (or not). Upon investigation, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the BC/Vancouver phonebooks in the early 1900’s skipped the Chinese residents and businesses. In the 1900 BC directory specifically, sandwiched between the Chilean Consulate and Chipman, is a note that says, ‘Chinese Directory, see at end of the Vancouver.’ The Chinese-Canadians were segregated. According to the records, this segregation began in 1882 (with 45 entries listed, and 3 years before the Chinese head tax was introduced in 1885), first with the Victoria directory then the Vancouver directory, and lasted until 1923 with Henderson’s Greater Vancouver Directory (also the year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was introduced). The phonebook, arguably the search engine of the time and much like the search engines of today, is marked by decisions that enact, enable, and sustain specific social relations.
In addition to the BC directories, a curious artifact turned up: a Chinese-Canadian phonebook, separate from the conventional phonebook. The Vancouver Chinese Telephone Directory and Chinatown News have been in publication since 1935. Read in conjunction with the inconsistent inclusion and systematic segregation of Chinese-Canadian residents and businesses in the BC directories, the Chinese Telephone Directory adds to the complex relationship between information, policy, and the building of communities.
Technological artifacts embody the social, cultural, material, and economic conditions of their development as well as operations, and are therefore inevitably political (Winner, 1980). In whitepages, the assemblage of interactive digital media enables an engagement between the participants and the phonebook interface. The indexical quality of the phonebooks, a record and catalogue of the human lives of a certain historical period, is then activated by participants’ physical presence in relation to the twelve ‘touchpads’ of the interface, producing a number of distinct sound and projection states. The phonebook is then reframed in different forms, as conventional data, but also as geography, as time, as a set of policies, as statistics, and as the human lives that were lived, among others, exemplifying the phonebook’s position within the larger political landscape where it is situated. Entangled with socio-political and cultural-economic elements beyond the telecom context, the phonebook becomes the nexus through which Lim examines and invites visitors to consider the histories of the Chinese diaspora as they unfolded in Vancouver in the early twentieth-century, and continue to do so today.
– Kevin Day
Milton Lim (he/him) is a media artist and performance creator based in Vancouver, Canada. His research-based practice utilizes publicly available data and interactive media to illustrate expressions of value, discourse, and labour within abstract frameworks of power and politics. Milton holds a BFA (Hons.) in theatre performance and psychology from Simon Fraser University.
His projects have been presented at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (Vancouver), the Vancouver Art Gallery, VIVO Media Arts Centre, CanAsian Dance Festival (Toronto), Carrefour international de théâtre festival (Quebec City), Seattle International Dance Festival, Risk/Reward Festival (Portland), artsdepot (London), soft/WALL/studs (Singapore), and Australia’s Darwin Festival, among others.
Milton is a Co-Artistic Director of Hong Kong Exile, Artistic Associate with Theatre Conspiracy, archivist with videocan, Digital Interaction Designer with The Cultch, and one of the co-creators behind culturecapital: the performing arts economy trading card game. He is currently an Artist-in-Residence with The Theatre Centre (Toronto).
Kevin Day’s practice and research, encompassing sound, video, text, graph, and media installations, examine digital media polemics such as algorithmic culture, digital epistemology, big data, mediation, immaterial labour, and information capitalism. Informed by philosophy of technology, media studies, and critical theory, his research articulates an urgency of questioning the ubiquitous logic of framing the world through information. Day was born in Taipei, Taiwan. He received his MFA and PhD from the University of British Columbia and is currently based in Vancouver. His work has been generously funded by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
TNG gratefully acknowledges its home on the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region, including the Blackfoot Confederacy (Kainai, Piikani and Siksika), Métis Nation of Alberta Region III, Stoney Nakoda First Nation (Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley), and Tsuu T’ina First Nation. TNG would also like to acknowledge the many other First Nations, Métis and Inuit who have crossed this land for generations.
Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Winner, L. (1980). Do artifacts have politics? Daedalus, 109(1), 121-136.
The artist would like to acknowledge the support of the British Columbia Arts Council.