Tracing the digital and the real in East Vancouver

Imagine yourself on a pilgrimage. You’ve landed at the Vancouver International Airport, a cage of steel and glass whose canned birdsounds seem to echo the dead rainforest over which the place was built. You’ve taken the Skytrain north into what locals call the city’s Downtown Core: a towering glass metropolis lapped by water, cradled by mountains and inlaid with alpine trees. You’ve come to find the Oracle at Analara.

ORACLE is the first entry in game designer ceMelusine’s east van EP, an anthology of small videogames arranged sequentially like tracks in an album. Though these “tracks” are very different from one another, they share a common rhythm: Each one pulsates with ceMelusine’s particular brand of surrealism. Within them you’ve seen the subconscious mind and spirit of East Vancouver (what locals such as ceMelusine and I call “East Van”) superimposed upon the city’s everyday landmarks. So even though the Oracle from the EP’s first track is not a real person, she presides over real places. She is here, somewhere, in spirit; it is this spirit for which you search.

you’ve seen the subconscious mind and spirit of East Vancouver

You know you’ll never find her in the Downtown Core. The first thing you’ve learned about Vancouver is that the physical downtown is very close to East Van, but their cultures are a world apart. You ride the Skytrain east, gliding past the city’s massive stadiums and mirrored skyscrapers, until the buildings around you become low to the ground. A computerized ghost in your train’s speaker system announces your destination: “The next station is: Commercial-Broadway.” Exit the car now, pilgrim; descend from the Skytrain platform into the heart of East Van. Notice on your right the trio of young hipsters wandering the sidewalk beneath a very expensive condo. Yet on your left a woman stretches out on a pile of sleeping bags, limbs wrapped around her pet Labrador. Here there are two cities stacked on top of one another. The top one, the young city, is very rich; the bottom one, the old city, has always been poor. The two halves wage a cultural war against one another, but you can tell it’s almost over; the bottom half is going to lose.

You’ve come scarcely half a block down a street named East Broadway, and already you spot a promising lead. A huge sign juts out from the building on your left, spelling “R I O” in vintage marquee lighting. Below it stands an art deco façade that reads “Rio Theatre.” You’ve been here before; you stood outside the very same building in the first scene of Summon The Apgrod (the EP’s second track). Stepping inside, however, you realize the interior looks different. The Rio is not so much a bar, like the venue at which you work in Apgrod. It is instead the city’s coolest cinema. It’s the place where ceMelusine and I once attended a packed late night screening of Blue Velvet; a place that shows everything from comedians playing live D&D to dreadful cult classics like The Room.

Following the street westward you find a neighbourhood called Mount Pleasant. There you become drawn to one of the city’s weirder little seams: The Biltmore, a cabaret that seems to have teleported here from one of Twin Peaks‘ godforsaken highways. Again the scene is familiar: You recognize the blood-red wall sconces from the interior of Apgrod‘s otherworldly nightclub. This is the very bar on which ceMelusine based his second track’s indoor environment. From outside, the Rio; from inside, the Biltmore. east van EP mashes them up such that stepping over its magical threshold transports you from one side of East Broadway to the other.

If you step back over that threshold, you can find yourself again just half a block from the Commercial-Broadway Skytrain station. There you’ll see that East Broadway intersects a different street: This one is named Commercial Drive. The Drive, as we call it, used to be the main artery of Vancouver’s counter-culture. Today most of the weirder spots have been replaced by big-name coffee shops and sushi chain restaurants. But ceMelusine and I work together only a few blocks from here, so we’ve each picked out a few places we like. If you hung out with us after work we might take you to the Storm Crow, a geeky little tavern with boardgames stocking its shelves, broadswords lining its walls and cocktails named after B movies. (Be sure to try the chickpea fries.)

The Drive used to be the main artery of Vancouver’s counter-culture

At the end of the night we might wander one block further, to the little park that reeks of cannabis from dusk to dawn. This is the place where ceMelusine once passed me his vaporizer and I experienced my first genuine high; where a tingling sensation swept from my toes up through my face, and where the flow of time contracted. Unquestionably, east van EP is in part about being high, but more specifically it’s about the sort of high only East Van can create. It’s waiting in line at the Biltmore with something extra in your pocket; it’s those blurry nights on the Drive that all seem to run together. Surely these experiences add up to something unique; surely, some wisdom is at hand. If you squint, you can almost make her out.

Take the three places I have shown you: The Rio, the Biltmore and Grandview Park. Mark them on a map. Place your finger dead-center between them, in the middle of the triangle. There, at the intersection of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way—there is what you’ve been looking for. You know the place already, pilgrim. You’ve seen it hidden in every corner of east van EP; you passed it on the way in, on the Skytrain east from downtown. You stare up at it now; a towering LED crucifix with block lettering in place of Jesus. Down its length, E A S T. Across its arms, V A N. Know that you stand before the East Van Cross.

The cross has its origins in local graffiti, from way back in the 1950s when East Van was a refuge to the poor and marginalized. The big LED sign is far more recent: It arrived in 2009 when the city splurged on public art works in preparation for the Winter Olympics. Today things are very different. A piece of real estate down here will run you millions of dollars; as wealth spills over from downtown, condos fester like flesh flies on a fallen prophet. The cross is now officially trademarked by the City of Vancouver; if you tried to spray it on a wall the mayor might order you to cease and desist.

Look behind you at the crosswalk that spans Great Northern Way; walk over it, towards the two-story concrete jenga block that is the building where ceMelusine and I work. Our open-plan office space has four walls, one of which is a big window. If you sit facing it, as we did for the year preceding ORACLE‘s release, all you can see is the East Van Cross cast against the city’s grey sky. ceMelusine used to joke about it; a sinister totem looming over him like one of David Lynch’s owls. He spoke frequently of which direction it faced. The cross does not look towards East Van, its ostensible muse, but instead towards the downtown skyline. The artist who designed it did this on purpose, meaning for it to stand as “a symbol of hope and defiance.” But to ceMelusine it was something different: a headstone, planted by the new city atop the old one.

Many pilgrims have come to East Van hoping it holds a future for them. First the poor and marginalized, then the young and wealthy; always the hopeful and defiant. Everyone who does so—and all who seek to understand east van EP—must ultimately confront the cross. You must seek it out in Summon The Apgrod‘s procedurally generated stars, in ORACLE‘s grayscale prophetic visions. You must come see the real thing for yourself; feel it watching you. It is the EP’s central axis, its point of origin. The Oracle at Analara is right here. She can tell you of forgotten histories; of conquest disguised as rebirth; of prophets, and the ghosts who speak to them. She can tell you everything there is to know about this city. If you have need of her gifts, and if you know how to ask, she will surely tell you of your fate.