The first major retrospective of Canadian artist Stan Douglas opens this September in Stuttgart. He talks about history and landscape, puzzles and storytelling
The first major retrospective of Canadian artist Stan Douglas opens this September in Stuttgart. He talks about history and landscape, puzzles and storytelling
Nearly two decades after puzzling Canadian TV viewers with his ‘Television Spots’ (1988), originally conceived as cryptic 15- or 30-second adverts selling absolutely nothing on commercial networks, Stan Douglas has gained a reputation as an enigmatic artist; his films, videos and photographs refining an aesthetic in which meaning is provisional and migratory. It should come as no surprise that he has made a film reworking the idea behind Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece. In Klatsassin (2006) Douglas constructs a coastal rainforest Western, populated by a cast of unreliable narrators whose multiple accounts of a violent incident are as much a philosophical statement as they are episodes in a film narrative.
Douglas understands history as a string of contingencies. This recognition sets an elegiac tone for much of his work, marked by a fascination with those moments when historical events might have taken a different turn. What if the Cuban Revolution, the colonization of Vancouver Island, the political unrest in Paris in May of 1968, had turned out differently? In posing these questions he constructs lost histories in the guise of newly imagined narratives. These re-imaginings reflect on their own conditional nature, and their way of telling mirrors the tale being told. Douglas’ films and videos have no beginning and no end. As he says, ‘life is all middle’.
Before we talked at his Vancouver studio, Douglas showed me his most recent project, Vidéo (2006), which conflates two extant film sources: Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) and Orson Welles’ The Trial (1962). Hybridizing the style and tone of his sources, he sets his story in contemporary Paris and comes up with a haunting narrative that insinuates a sense of disturbing watchfulness and past and present danger.
Robert Enright: How did you come to make Vidéo using the two sources you chose?
Stan Douglas: Early last year I was teaching in Berlin and being harassed, for odd reasons, by the university administration. One evening I was to meet two curators from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to discuss the possibility of me doing a new work for the Beckett exhibition. I had been thinking about Beckett’s Film as a kind of cinematic lipogram, in which we never see a reverse shot of the protagonist until the very end, but I didn’t really know what I would do. As I was getting ready to go to the meeting I noticed a copy of Kafka’s The Trial (1925) on a bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying and everything clicked: I remembered seeing Orson Wells’ version of The Trial, filmed in the derelict Gare D’Orsay and, what I presumed, were the then-new Paris suburbs, then I remembered that I had been staying in the same apartment while the riots were going on in Parisian banlieues during the fall of 2005. Wells actually shot his exteriors among housing projects in Zagreb but I stuck with my original inclination and used locations on the outskirts of Paris. It turned out that the place I was most interested in, La Courneuve, was the site of the most violent demonstrations in November 2005, and the tower I liked best was the fictional home of the heroine in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967).
RE What’s notable is the way film history is implicated in your making of a film.
SD Yes, people often say that it’s impossible to have an original idea because everything has already been thought of, or that every book is the rewriting of a book that has already been written. I try to be honest in the way I work with these source materials and admit freely and immediately what I am elaborating upon. But since these stories are very basic and shared in a certain way, it is the time, manner and matter of the telling that makes one thing unique or different.
RE Does it matter whether people are as aware as you are of the sources and references in the film? Does the viewer need to bring the same knowledge to the seeing that you bring to the making?
SD It is, and it isn’t necessary for the viewer to be as aware. At a certain point, if you can’t parse the work just by experiencing it and having everyday knowledge of television and film – if it doesn’t work from the level of a person coming at it cold, then it really isn’t successful. If you have to have an exterior text to explain what the work is, then the work isn’t complete in itself. Somebody who does know these historical references can have a more complex understanding of what’s going on, but it’s absolutely not necessary.
RE Can you ever look at a film innocently?
SD Of course, but no filmmaker is truly innocent. They’ve looked at other films in order to make their own, so they’re never pure to begin with. And being aware of other approaches helps any filmmaker break their habits, especially when they discover their own habits in the work of someone else.
RE Is your looking invariably a kind of research?
SD I can go to a film just for fun or distraction. But I do have a memory. I never imagined when I watched The Trial that I would make a film either based on it or that refers to it. But it was somewhere in the back of my mind so that I was able to make the connection when I needed it. This is how intuition works. An artist’s experience becomes a tool kit, an inventory of techniques, that can be put together in a quick fashion.
RE You may start with intuition, but you are quite serious about inquiring into every aspect of what making the film might entail.
SD Yes, but a lot of the research turns out to be of no use. I do research to a point where I know enough about a situation that I don’t have to think about it anymore. That’s what the research is for; it’s not to illustrate something you’ve researched directly, but to have an understanding of the flavour of a situation or a moment in time. This is the difference between what Marcel Proust called ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ memory.
RE Is it an inevitable development that your work gets more complicated? If I think of what happens in Overture (1986) and compare it to Inconsolable Memories (2005) or Klatsassin, I realize how much more layered these later projects are becoming.
SD They’re certainly more complicated than Overture, which was just a matter of taking the Edison Company’s pre-existing film and Proust’s pre-existing novel, chopping them up, duplicating them and then putting them together in a certain order. Now I’m writing the words and making the pictures myself, with the help of a 30- or 40-person crew. Those two pieces are certainly less complicated than a studio film, but I got a taste the kind of work that any independent filmmaker has to do in order to make a feature.
RE Do you think of yourself as an independent filmmaker?
SD Because I’m self-trained, I’m still a little uncomfortable when I’m around a real filmmaker. Neverthless something I really enjoy these days is working with actors and learning to work with their skills in maintaining a character over a period of time. A lot of what I asked actors to do before was quite technical but the recent projects have allowed me to develop dramatic situations. It took me a long time to figure out what a director’s responsibility was, but I was able to deduce it from what the cast and crew expected of me. You don’t go too far into the minutiae of your collaborators’ respective crafts, or you will just piss them off, but you have to be either extremely precise or confidently vague about what you want in order to avoid some nasty surprises. Editing is extremely important also, it’s something I like too because it is, in effect, the time when you make the final draft of your script, if there is one.
RE You spent the good portion of a year researching and working on a Beckett project, so he’s obviously been a seminal figure for you.
SD I was interested in theatre when I was in high school, and particularly in Waiting for Godot (1952). I guess teenage angst played a certain role, but then I forgot about Beckett when I went to art school. Towards the end of my studies I found a copy of Company (1979) and I realized Beckett was still alive and writing. I thought he wrote Waiting for Godot and Endgame (1957), then gave up. I was so impressed that I started reading Beckett in reverse order and discovered that his later books were much more successful than the canonical ones.
RE So he re-seduced you back into his world?
SD Exactly. For example, Not I (1972) became my favourite work of art: a voice talks about herself coming into being through language. Language is something she doesn’t really trust, but it is the only thing she has to make herself exist. That’s the fascinating tautology of the work: the writing is suspicious of itself, but it’s the only thing it has to realize itself. The thing I owe to Beckett is an understanding of the impossibility of communication as something a priori but not absolute. The received wisdom is that his work circles around an endgame and collapses into pure interiority, but I think it stages a condition of doubt and suspicion from which communication can begin.
RE You seem invariably to start from the interstitial, from the in-between.
SD Yes. Working in the form of loops with these recombinant pieces you can’t really talk about beginnings or ends, which are arbitrary and often produced by the ideological or formal requirements of a narrative form. I mean, life is all middle.
RE You’re articulating a lack of certainty inside a frame that has a certain degree of certainty about it. Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?
SD Sometimes the certainty is false. To instil confidence in the people you’re working with as a director you have to pretend to know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Sometimes you have to make leaps that allow the process to continue. You also have to allow a space for improvisation. So it’s a matter of creating a space that’s flexible enough that things can go wrong, where you can let other people contribute ideas to make the project more than you expected. If it’s not different and more than you had planned originally, it’s probably not worth doing. It should have probably remained a script. What I end up with is never what I expected and always different from what I intended. When I was developing Klatsassin, I was inspired to revisit Rashomon after walking through Stanley Park one day and seeing dappled light coming in through the trees. Kurosawa shot the trial scenes in direct sunlight and the contradictory versions of the murder under the cover of trees with only specks of light punctuating the scene. We planned to shoot our murder scenes in a similar way but the weather didn’t cooperate, it was cloudy. This meant that the visual metaphor would change. It was not what I had imagined, but it still works.
RE There is an interesting sense of layering in Klatsassin; you go to Kurosawa and you end up with a Western set in British Columbia. How did that work?
SD Kurosawa was criticized for being too Western. He often took Western narratives and applied them to his films, or people in the West would make Westerns from his Samurai stories.
RE There’s a murder that happens outside 11th-century Kyoto in Kurosawa’s film, and there’s a murder in Klatsassin as well. How much play do you allow yourself with the narrative you inherit from Kurosawa?
SD There was a lot of play. In Rashomon you have a bandit, a ronin and his wife; in Klatsassin a thief, a deputy and his prisoner. In both cases there is a scene with rain, from which the strangers who meet are seeking shelter, but the ruin of a city gate is very different from a relatively new roadhouse. In Rashomon the characters have arrived by chance, in Klatsassin they are where they are because of their different reactions to a gold rush.
RE It’s a pretty fantastic-looking cast of characters evident in the related photographic portraits you made. They seem more filmic.
SD They all have great faces, faces with peculiar kinds of experience, but they were all types. In that historical situation you would meet people and not care to know them well, but you would care about their function. Are they useful to you or will they be a problem? What is their function up here and how will it affect me? I never gave them names: they all go by their profession or function.
RE Do you always develop photographic work out of a film, either prior or afterwards? Has that become a necessary part of your practice?
SD It’s not necessary, but it’s a parallel thing. It’s often a way of understanding where I am and what I’m looking at. For the recent ‘Western’ series (2006), I followed the Gold Rush Trail up the Fraser Valley to Barkerville in order to understand the landscape. Obviously it’s not the same as it was in the 19th century, but I could at least start to imagine the situations miners were walking through. I visited a spooky ghost town at a place called Quesnelle Forks that I didn’t expect to find. But I must say that my ‘destination’ was a bit of a disappointment, when I discovered that Barkerville had been made into a theme park, with actors walking around in 19th-century clothing, speaking with English accents and doing street theatre.
RE It’s interesting that very few people appear in the photographs you made in Cuba in 2004–5. There is evidence of human activity, just not much human presence.
SD I consider those photographs to be less about absence than the stage of an action. As soon as you put in a person, it becomes theatre. We try to understand what they are doing there, what they are thinking, instead of viewing it as an architectural space or an environment with some kind of social potential.
RE You say you want to avoid theatre, but there’s a lot of theatricality in the film work you’ve been doing.
SD It’s very easy for me to do moving pictures of people, but still images I find very difficult because in a moving picture the person exceeds your expectations in some way. They’re always moving, they’re always fleeting; you can’t hold them and say ‘this is what they are, this is what they represent’. When they’re static, it imposes a certainty on their condition with which I have trouble.
RE The Cuban photographs for Inconsolable Memories (2005) seem to function differently from the ‘Nootka Sound’ photographs (1996), where you’re doing more traditional landscapes.
SD The ‘Nootka Sound’ pictures cover an area which to the untrained eye seems like a natural situation. But if you look at it carefully, you realize it’s been logged at least twice. Plus I was looking at different traces of human presence there: either swamps created by the run-off from logging, a fish trap that is 3,000 years old and still in use, a well that was built by the Spanish when they were there in the 18th century or the replica of a longhouse inside a Catholic church that was a gift from the Spanish state, perversely commemorating their conquest of the area.
RE So your engagement with a place is always implicated in its political uses?
SD In this work I was conscious of doing an anti-Group of Seven piece [A group of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s]. Instead of being a landscape ready for exploitation because it is supposedly empty, I wanted to show a landscape that was full of people, that was full of human presence, native as well as European.
RE So in that sense it’s the same as what you call your ‘re-purposed’ places in Cuba. There is a history of political and economic use in both those places.
SD For me it was like a microcosm of the revolution itself. You re-purpose a state or a country when you have a revolution, but you still see what it was prior to that. You can’t completely revolutionize a country. In a way it’s an analogue of what was going on in a larger scale in Cuba.
RE You can’t tell from the Cuban photographs whether this is a place that is being rehabilitated or an image that traces the destruction of that place.
SD That’s exactly what it’s like. Is this going forward, is it going backward, is it in stasis? A lot of the locations in Cuba are like that.
RE Is looking for places like that your reckoning with the failure of Modernism? I guess what I’m thinking is that all places carry a similar sense of failure. The Modernist project wasn’t the only one to put forward that notion, but don’t all Utopias fail? By its very definition, Utopia is ‘no place’.
SD Or they don’t last forever. Maybe there was Utopia in Cuba for a little while and it’s not there any more. Maybe it’s working towards a future that it can never realize but that desire is the Utopia. Literacy in Cuba is higher than in the US even now, and there were probably moments in the 1960s when the revolution was functioning very well, in spite of the fact that the US was actively attempting to depose Fidel Castro. Maybe it’s just me, but there had always been something mythical about Cuba. I went to Cuba because I was curious. I’d met a lot of Cuban artists, and I wanted to see what their home was like before it changed, because it will be a very different place once gerontocracy is over.
RE So much of your work has been concerned with finding a notion of social justice and freedom inside society. Where did that come from, and why has it seemed so persistent a search in your work?
SD It would seem self-evident that these things are important. The social utility of art is that it provides a language to talk about something that is very complicated in a very condensed manner, or to experience something that you thought was familiar in a new way. In my work I am addressing things I don’t initially understand. I try to make a model of transient or mutable conditions in order to understand them. Hopefully, it will have the same use for other people.
RE People remark on the complications of your looping. You have a piece that the viewer has to look at for three days before they see all the permutations. Why not make a simpler version of that narrative?
SD It’s not a matter of seeing every possible combination, because it really doesn’t change that much after a certain point. Once you’ve seen all the elements, it’s there in your head as a possible construct. It’s just that I’m not forcing a certain narrative sequence that determines its being understood in a particular way – I’m allowing associative possibilities for an audience, depending on when they arrive and when they decide to leave the work. These aren’t linear works, there is no beginning or end, and there’s absolutely no reason to see all the permutations.
RE I’m not Gary from the ‘Monodramas’ (1991) is a very focused example of how we can thoroughly misunderstand the notion of race: maybe in a benign way, maybe in not so benign a way. How much has your being black played into your work? The question of the Other and its relation to mainstream culture seems so central to much of what you do.
SD I grew up black in Vancouver, which in my youth was a mostly white culture with a large Asian and South Asian component, but not so many people of African or Caribbean descent. So I felt quite isolated and was always in that condition of being the Other. There is an outsider figure in all of my works, who is, I suppose, a surrogate for myself. If you want to psychologize – which I don’t. In any event, the situation in I’m not Gary actually happened to me. I was walking down the street and some guy said, ‘Hi, Gary, how are you doing’, and he seemed so certain I was Gary that for a second I doubted myself.
RE You have resisted the autobiographical as a way of reading your work, haven’t you?
SD Yes. Even though I began this interview with a personal anecdote. I just don’t think that works of art should be treated as symptoms of an artist’s biography. It’s bad enough to say that a work of art is a riddle to be solved, what’s worse is to say that the artist’s personality is the key. The suggestion that a work of art is an effect of personality is highly reductive and shuts down interpretation unless, as in the case of Warhol but very few others, persona is your medium. We know very little about Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is still interesting to us.
RE Has film been the thing that has interested you the most? Why did you choose that medium as the principal focus of your practice?
SD Is that true? I guess it was always ‘film’ in quotation marks. It didn’t begin there; I began with video, and even then I wasn’t a real video artist, I made ‘video’ so I could work with television — and those videos were all shot on 16 mm film. I have used different idioms of representation – silent film, news broadcasting, musical entertainment, television programmes – working within the language and vocabulary of a pre-existing medium.
RE The ‘Television Spots’ and the ‘Monodramas’ are absolutely perplexing for a television viewer. They don’t follow through on the delivery of our conditioned expectations for the medium or the message.
SD I suspect they’re obsolete by now because we’re used to teaser ads which seem to have no apparent point. When I was first invited to do Hors-champs (1992) at the Centre Pompidou, I think I was invited to make French Television spots. But when I finally saw French television, I realized they wouldn’t work at all because the look of their TV was already heterogeneous. The strict genre rules of advertising and broadcasting that we knew in North America didn’t really exist there, and I had to look at something else.
RE The two-sided screen in Hors-champs allows you to see what’s happening off-screen. Where did the idea come from for structuring the piece in that way?
SD Good question. It had to do with the Hors-champs – the out-of-field, the thing you cannot see. I didn’t know what would happen until it was actually made in space. I just thought of un-opposing things being withheld in a certain way. But having one image surrounded by the halo of an absent image was quite powerful.
RE Do you ever set yourself a problem in making a work of art?
SD The idea of a work of art being a puzzle that has a solution is not very interesting. Why wouldn’t you simply state the problem and the solution? Why go through the process of making the thing? The ambiguities or, to put it positively, the possibilities of an image that does not have a clear-cut answer allow me to be productive in different and unexpected ways. The thing I always wait for is to be told something about a work of art that I didn’t anticipate.
RE A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway sets a problem in his films, or uses a puzzle as a point of departure. Then the film is an elaborate way of inquiring into that puzzle, as if there were a solution to it.
SD In Greenaway it’s sort of a mannerist Structuralism, where you’re taking these systematic notions and applying them to a narrative form. In my work the systems are there, but they’re not as important. The recombinant ones are typically for maximum distribution of the narrative elements so that they don’t repeat the same sequences too often. In Win, Place or Show (1998) I adopted a technique from Serialist composition and from Arnold Schoenberg, where you don’t repeat any note until you’ve played all the notes in the tone row.
RE How important are music and sound in what you’re doing?
SD Sound has become more and more important. Early on I would run out of money before I got to the sound mix, but now it plays a crucial role. Suspiria (2003) is intimately involved with being there while the music was being recorded, and then breaking it down to be reassembled by the computer system.
RE The music in Hors-champs also carries heavy political associations, in that it’s connected to May 1968, a period when France had no government for three days. This is one of those times when a revolution almost happened, when things could have turned out differently.
SD This was in the early 1990s, when Wynton Marsalis was saying that Free Jazz was a mistake, an experiment of youth. In a way the revivalists were saying this period of experimentation didn’t happen, and that they should legitimate jazz by making a new museum of its tradition. When I was in Paris doing research, I met various expatriate American musicians who felt betrayed. They had been intimately involved in the culture, and their music was an emblem for a revolutionary idea. Then, as the people who were involved in 1968 became part of the status quo, they either associated the music with a mistake, or they were reminded of revolutionary ideas they had abandoned. So on the one hand the music was being ignored in a general sense, and on the other it was being ignored in France for a very specific reason.
RE We’ve discussed the influence of Beckett, but someone else who seems to have informed your work is Bertolt Brecht. Brecht allows us to engage a work of art by being conscious of what are our choices as viewers. Your work also invites that.
SD Sure, although the alienation effect has a pretension to objectivity that I don’t really agree with. Probably more important for me were the writings on music by Theodor W. Adorno, the idea that in music, which we assume to be either the most expressionistic or formal of media, could be found very discrete social residue or indices. And in the very musical structure of the sonata or the symphonic form he could discover social content. What I found interesting were his close readings of Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. His critique of jazz is notoriously dubious, probably because he never really heard it, but his sociology of European music is amazing. I came across his work the year after art school. Typically in art school there was an antagonism towards reading in general, so as an antidote I decided to take on some long books, including Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry, The Making of Americans (1925) by Gertrude Stein, and Doctor Faustus (1947) by Thomas Mann, for which Adorno was the musical adviser. I said, ‘Who’s this Adorno guy?’ and that led me to The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), In Search of Wagner (1938/52) and The Philosophy of Modern Music (1949).
RE Did you read theory because it was useful?
SD It just helped me understand things. As I said before, the function of art is to help me make a model of how the world works, or an aspect of how the world works, in order to understand it better. That’s what a theory is. In the social sciences, or in physics, theory is a proposition, ‘Maybe the world is like this,’ and then pursuing your research according to that idea. In my work I’ve said maybe globalization feels like Journey into Fear (2001).
RE You also seem to be attracted to stories that have been told filmically at least twice before. It seems like doubleness appears a lot in the work.
SD It’s a bad habit, which I hope I have kicked by now. It was something that occurred a lot early on in my work, things always had this binary structure; in Hors-champs, in Der Sandman (1995), in Nu•tka• (1996) in Win, Place or Show and in Journey Into Fear.
RE Did you feel it was a structural limitation in the way you were using it?
SD I just felt it was becoming a bad habit. It began because two is the smallest unit with which you can have conflict. But lately I have shied away from the double screens that I was using.
RE Does one piece of yours naturally lead you to the next? Is there that kind of causality in the practice? I guess what I’m asking you about is musing, about the source of inspiration.
SD I try to start from scratch with each new project, but obviously by now I have a tool kit of techniques I use and ways of working with actors and language and the camera that appear again and again. I try to make them as different as possible from each other.
RE But it seems that story is often a point of departure for you…
SD I’ll have to think about that. The stories tend to come from a place rather than from a story itself. It’s not like ‘I have a story, so let’s find a place where I can make that story’; it’s more like, ‘Here is this place – what is its story?’
RE I’m struck every time I come to Vancouver at how distinctive and pervasive a place it is.
SD I’ve noticed that people who are born here don’t like to leave. I tend to make works that alternate between something very local and something that is away, so it’s away and at home, away and at home. Klatsassin was the home story, but then Vidéo was shot in Paris. But Vancouver has been important to me, absolutely.
RE What about your role inside what is recognized within the art world as the Vancouver School?
SD I wasn’t a really a part of it. Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ken Lum were a group of artists who’d met every week at the bar. They’d do projects and exhibit together; they’d discuss and write about each other’s work. They developed a very productive relationship. Even though you had the Western Front being part of the Fluxus network, Ian and Ingrid Baxter as N.E. Thing Company establishing international connections within the museum world, it was those four artists who made Vancouver a go-to place for curators and critics. But it’s easier for critics to talk about the Vancouver School brand than it is to talk about the more complex conditions that really exist here. They really can’t get over the fact that so many good artists have developed in this tiny out-of-the-way place on the edge of North America called Vancouver. The really disappointing thing in this city is the general indifference to its own history and culture. Beautiful buildings get torn down all the time and are replaced by monstrosities that aren’t built to last. This neighbourhood is so unhinged because drug dealers and users have been given no-go zones elsewhere in the city. The neighbourhood has been left to go fallow, but that will change because there is only so much real estate here, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.
RE Are you optimistic about this area? You’ve built your studio here.
SD Yes. I always had studios in this neighbourhood, from a time when my milieu was not so much just artists as it was artists and poets. The formal and informal discussions instigated by the first incarnation of a writers’ collective here called the Kootenay School of Writing, was a fundamental influence on my practice. The level of conversation at art school wasn’t all that satisfying but the series of artist/writers talks sponsored by KSW were great, if only because there was something one didn’t understand about the other’s medium and you had to explain things that you otherwise took for granted.
RE Are you surprised by the success you’ve had?
SD Right place at the right time.