Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition is an urban harvest fair. It has
been held annually since 1910. Since then it has evolved from a small
gathering on the outskirts of the city to one of the largest events of
its kind in North America.
The word "fair," according to Webster's New Collegiate dictionary,
derives from the Italian "feria," meaning holidays. It goes on to define
it in part as a gathering of buyers and sellers at a particular place
and time for trade.
"Marketplace PNE" is that part of Vancouver's fair where small business
entrepreneurs can rent space to showcase their wares.
This marketplace is currently housed in the 44,579 sq. ft. Forum
building, built in the 1930s as an arena for hockey games and major
entertainment events. For the duration of the fair, the building is
transformed into a massive exhibition space holding hundreds of display
Operating within a carnival atmosphere, vendors in the Forum
Marketplace, each with their well-rehearsed pitch, compete vigorously
for attention and dollars.
A successful pitch, that winning blend of aggressiveness, credibility
and sincerity, can take years of trial and error, in contact with the
public, to develop.
Some vendors represent products which they themselves have developed and
produced for market. Others buy into franchised products which have had
a proven track record on the international fair circuit.
The range of products is diverse. What they have in common is the
singular intensity with which they are presented by the vendor. In this
context, these products take on an exclusive, even limited edition
status. It is the personal endorsement embodied in the pitch which makes
these products appeal to an otherwise cynical consumer. Perhaps within
this personalized exchange, the making of a choice outside the realm of
corporate influence and the myth of brand name security, suspends
consumer cynicism, if only temporarily, and contributes to that sense of
freedom and exhilaration one might expect from a visit to the fair.
For the past ninety years the PNE site, including the racetrack, has
grown to occupy 114 acres of the 160 acres that constitutes Hastings
Park. In 1910, the park, some miles from the population center of
Vancouver, surrounded by bush, seemed an ideal location. Since then a
stable, mainly residential community has grown up around the park.
Within that community, the impact of the annual fair and it's attendant
hordes of visitors has been tolerated by local residents. However, in
the mid nineties there arose a groundswell of support for a plan that
would see the PNE lease discontinued and the park reclaimed as
greenspace for the benefit of the surrounding community.
By 1996 a move seemed inevitable. The PNE corporation had begun it's
search in earnest for a new home, and landscape architects had begun to
draw up plans to redevelop the park for the people.
It was this sense of imminent change, a venerable Vancouver institution
about to dissolve and reinvent itself, which attracted my attention.
The notion of the PNE has always given me mixed feelings. First off I
think: hype, crowds, weather, parking, junk food, expense, noise, danger
(those speeding rides), all of this amidst seemingly great
confusion and lineups for everything. However even taking all of this
into account, the PNE, in much the same way perhaps as the secular part
of the Christmas celebration with all of its tacky commercialism and
emotional stress, somehow seems to prevail year after year. We could
blame the whole thing on the children! The fair has been a regular part
of my family life for the past thirty years.
In 1997, moved by this sentiment, and the growing
atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the future of the PNE at it's
Hastings park site, I began working on a photographic project to study
and record aspects of the fair which I felt might be radically altered
or even altogether lost. During the past four
years I have produced a number of albums, each of which represents, in
part, the production and consumption of this popular event. "Vendors" is
one of these albums.
For much of the 20th century the PNE functioned as a marketplace
bringing the suburban farmer producer together with the urban
entrepreneur / consumer for their relaxed mutual exchange of products
and ideas. Being both an annual, community, agricultural fair and an
urban amusement park, the fairgrounds provided
exhibition space for food production from family-based farming
operations. The fair is a venue for competition in which prizes were awarded for
excellence in categories ranging from livestock, milk, eggs and cheese;
fruits and vegetables; kitchen preserves and handicrafts. For an urban
public becoming increasingly more disconnected from rural life, these
competitions provided entertainment as well as insight into the issues
involved in quality food production, at the same time supplying a link
with those people and their animals who provided for their basic food
needs. On the other hand, the fair provided the urban entrepreneur with
a site in which to sell state-of-the-art amusements and to mount
displays promoting the fruits of modern technology, the latest mass
production techniques, and popular culture.
In 2000, the number of PNE visitors topped I,000,000. Staging an
event this size each summer has come to involve the collaboration of
over 15,000 people rallying together to deliver an ever diverse range of
activity and entertainment. Over the two week period the site becomes a
community composed of smaller communities ? each of which produces a
particular facet of the overall entertainment package.
The vendor's world is one such community. Entering the Forum building
feels a bit like stepping on to an island. There are no windows. Each
booth is lit by spotlight from the ceiling, creating a theatrical
feeling. Visitors are surrounded by the ever present collage of sound
generated by the interaction of humans engaging in the ritual pursuit of
The Forum public fall into three main categories. First there are those
browsers who feel it compulsory on a trip to the fair, to at least
wander through the building soaking up some of it’s unique ambiance, and
in the process perhaps discover something really unique and indulge in
an impulse buy. Then there are the great number of repeat customers who
seize the opportunityeach year to replenish their stock of unique items
which they have found to be indispensable and are either cheaper and/or
only available at the PNE. Finally there are those who find themselves
there by some mistake or error of judgement, perhaps they are on a short
cut to somewhere else, or to indulge a friend or to escape a downpour
(this is, after all, Vancouver). Finding the whole exercise distasteful,
they make a beeline for the nearest exit.
The vendors themselves often know each other from previous events, here
and elsewhere. They might from one year to the next, switch from product
to product, this year selling “Speed Cleaner,” next year ? “Magic Pads.”
Often it is a family affair. In order for me to make contact with the
person who I photographed selling Floral Gel last year, I was directed
to her mother who was pitching for the Ginzu knife. Aunt Marge is famous
for selling her home made fudge in the Forum since the 1950s. Next door,
Marge’s husband’s booth offers an eclectic array of products to
alleviate, amongst other thing, sore feet, wrinkles and arthritis.
Vendors routinely spend twelve hours a day in this building seven days a
week. It’s intense, the crowds vary, their booth represents a sizeable
investment and they feel the pressure to be on-the-case in order to
increase their likelihood of recovering costs and turning a profit.
The vendors fit neatly into the PNE tradition of personalized exchange -
in this instance, between entrepreneur and the general public. It is a
mode of commerce, which, at the beginning of the 21st century seems
genteel, increasingly rare and under siege, as "big box" stores
everywhere absorb their competition in order to insure market share and
enhance corporate profits.
Michael de Courcy