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Stan Douglas is a pioneer of video installation and large-scale photography. Born in 1960 in Vancouver, where he continues to live and work, he brings together diverse cultural allusions—including to great works in music, cinema and literature, from Miles Davis to Akira Kurosawa and Samuel Beckett—and elastic references to time, historical periods and collective memory.
His works address issues including race and revolution while scrutinising the different media he employs and how they shape our understanding of reality and history. His most distinctive innovation, which has been a consistent element of his work since the 1990s, is what he calls “recombinant” video works—where imagery and dialogue are recombined in sequences generated by a computer so that they have seemingly endless permutations.
Douglas is representing Canada at the Venice Biennale this year, where he is showing photographs and a video installation drawing parallels between social unrest around the world in the year 2011 and the upheavals in Europe in 1848. In Unlimited at Art Basel, meanwhile, he is showing an early work—Onomatopoeia (1985-86), in which a fragment of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 (op. 111) rings out in a ragtime rhythm from a player piano beneath a screen with historic black-and-white images of looms in a wool mill.
The Art Newspaper: Your works often have a complex relationship with time.
Stan Douglas: In an exhibition space, time can’t be necessarily linear. People come in at random points and leave at random points, so the works should accommodate that somehow. In my earlier works, the loop was a form with which I did that, often dealing with the loop itself as a problematic—inescapable loops, something that’s a problem for the subjects. In other cases, it’s more recombinant; trying to look at the reflection of life, how life is complicated, how it is perceived differently by different people who see it at different times. And the work that I’m showing in Venice, ISDN, like other recombinant works, transforms over time. It doesn’t demand you see the entire thing—that’s just impossible—but that you understand what this world is. And that’s what I’m trying to ask people to do. It’s not a question of “I missed the beginning, I’ve got to wait for the beginning.” It’s like it’s always in the middle. And that’s the condition that is most appropriate for an exhibition space.
Is there any hierarchy between your video installations and photography?
People say: “Stan, I love your photographs, but your video is really your practice.” So around 2008 I made nothing but photography for five years, just to prove that wrong. Because you can do so much with a photograph, it is a different thing. It does give the viewer more freedom than a motion picture, which is in control of your attention in a way that photography, or any two-dimensional work, isn’t—it allows the viewer to look at what they want to look at, when they want to look at it, and for how long. In a way, the recombinant pieces also allow that freedom because it comes back again—you have a second chance to experience it.
In the Venice video installation we see what we think of as a live performance—a pair of rappers in London and in Cairo, effectively having a live call-and-response, but that is a fiction, isn’t it?
It is and it isn’t. They really are performing, if they weren’t performing and didn’t put their all into the performance, it wouldn’t make any sense. The idea that they’re collaborating with people who are thousands of miles away, that is definitely a fiction. We see [two rappers] performing in London, the other two rappers in Cairo. They’re reacting, apparently moving to the music. And just in a nice coincidence, we see them react in ways that are exactly like what the music is doing. This is an effect of your brain trying to make sense of things which don’t make any sense. Everything is the same BPM [beats per minute], so everything can be synced. But it’s kind of surprising, when you realise what we can do with an a capella. And I got that early on, when I worked as a DJ—we can take the a capella from one song and if the tempo matches and the key is close enough, you can play it over anything, and it becomes a new work entirely. I guess DJ-ing changed my outlook quite directly: I realised that you could use existing cultural material to make new cultural material. So using those records to make new music, that was an extraordinary realisation for me, which informed what I did ever since.
Music has been a key subject for you from your earliest works like Onomatopoeia and Deux Devises [1982-83].
I had been doing slideshows before that. In a way, they were meant to self-destruct, because I was using a technology that was very specific to one company in Vancouver and I knew that, at a certain point, I would not be able to use those machines anymore. And many of those pieces I consider to be juvenilia. But unfortunately Deux Devises I thought was quite interesting and so I had to sort of rebuild that, which took quite a bit of time. And Onomatopoeia was like that as well—also slides, which I had to reconstruct, because that technology I originally had was not available.
• Stan Douglas’s Onomatopoeia is in Art Basel Unlimited; 2011 ≠ 1848 is part of the 59th Venice Biennale (until 27 November). This is an excerpt from the podcast A brush with… Stan Douglas. You can hear the full conversation here