BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Stan Douglas

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

Stan Douglas' work Deux Devises, while produced four years ago, appears in the United States at a remarkable moment. Recently, the Oakland School Board in California has proposed that current African American students do not actually speak slang but 'Ebonics', a language as different from English as Chinese or Spanish. Linguists, including the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association agree that there are about 50 characteristics that differentiate Ebonics from standard English. One of the most common is the use of 'be' to denote an ongoing action, as in 'he be going to work'. As 53 percent of the 52,000 students in the Oakland school system are black and on average have the lowest grades, the recognition that black students speak a different English could be the first step toward improving their low scholastic achievement, and generating more Federal money for education. The quarrel over difference has begun again, but in this instance it has begun in a period distinct from the first successful campaigns won by an emerging Multicultural conscience. The Clinton Administration has already made clear that it will not support the move towards 'Ebonics' and the Black English controversy has divided African-American leaders. 'I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender borderlining on disgrace... it's teaching down to our children and it must never happen', said the Reverend Jessie Jackson. Tony Cook, a member of the Oakland County School Board says we should 'quit saying there is something wrong with a majority of the children'. By coincidence, Stan Douglas' Deux Devises has passed through the turmoil.

Deux Devises, is an installation comprising a black and white slide projection with audio. Standing alone, freed of any social or political interference, this work is as romantic as it is touching, and all because Douglas chose to juxtapose the downhearted Blues of Robert Johnson with the doleful melodies of the 19th century composer Charles Gounod. Slide projectors flash pictures of a black man expressing phonemes from the lyrics of Johnson's Preachin' Blues following simply typed out English translations of Antoine de Baif's lyrics to Gounod's O Ma Belle Rebelle. 'That blues is/a low down achin' heart disease/Like consumption/ killin' me by degrees sings Johnson, while with Gounod we hear: 'O beautiful rebel mine/Alas to me you are cruel/Each time you sweetly smile/And spirit me away'.

Gounod and Johnson's subjects share a similar weave: both are romantics, speaking to broken hearts that aspire to know true love. It is a testament to Douglas, or perhaps particularly to Gounod, that I know someone who cried while sitting through Deux Devises. But after the tears, outside the genuinely melancholy atmosphere that Douglas casts within the darkened installation, all correspondences between composers dissolve. The musical languages and lyrics used by each composer are as different as 'Ebonics' is from standard English. Johnson's emotions lurch into improvisation, attentive to the black spiritual, while Gounod keeps his tessitura within the octave and moderately restricts his tempo. Gounod's lyrics, taken from de Baif's Amours de Francine, evokes the Renaissance, while Johnson is pure down-home American Blues. Of course, through all this, Douglas seeks to highlight difference, cultural, social and otherwise.

Ragged blues set against music suitable for 19th-century salons creates not too subtle a rift. Douglas presents Johnson's Blues outside the canon of the Eurocentric art within which Gounod squarely sits. By this contrast, Douglas implies that Blues is an original source, literally seated in black vocalisation. It is here, within this historical legacy, that Douglas wishes to locate himself. It needs to be said that Douglas has slightly tripped up on his own rhetoric concerning translation by 'rendering into English' de Baif's original French in order to illustrate the slides which flash in time to Gounod's music. He must know that something of the original is always lost in the foamy wake of translation.

Beyond his stylistic stress on legacy and difference is the fact that when Douglas made Deux Devises he was apparently 'unencumbered' by Cornel West's ingenious charge to social and political reformers that exhorts: 'do not simply escalate your protest, but change the form of your discontent to re-enter the debate with radicality at your side'. Well-seated within the congress of Multiculturalism, and without noticing the long shadow West casts, Douglas evidently made Deux Devises simply ­ albeit sincerely and with every good intention ­ to offer each of us the opportunity to relearn the relativity of cultural, not to mention linguistic difference. Ho-hum. It is in this sense that Deux Devises becomes an early-80s period piece. Not unlike Gounod's 19th-century salon songs.

It may seem paradoxical, but refocused by the fury of 'Ebonics', Deux Devises brings a significant question into view: not which language is original, but rather, how is language original? This is a question not at all projected from the former ascendancy of Multiculturalism, but from a power attributed to Gounod: the ability to stir deep-seated human compassion. Whose language are we to believe, especially when it comes to matters as important as broken hearts? Lost love is a truly, truly serious affair, immediately ushering politics, and social ideology to the second or even the fourth row.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.