A few days before the opening of Stan Douglas’s exhibition ‘Disco Angola’ in March, the revered public radio programme This American Life aired an episode-long retraction of a story on Apple’s manufacturing practices in China. This American Life could no longer stand by its story, the presenter said; the writer in question had fabricated details, switched around locations, and elided characters for dramatic effect. The week of Douglas’s opening saw countless newspaper columns and online debates on the indistinct line between fiction and journalism – a fitting context for this series of photographs ‘from’ the 1970s, but actually made this year.
For ‘Disco Angola’, as in his previous series ‘Midcentury Studio’ (2010), Douglas adopts the persona of an anonymous press photographer, with his digital images presented as analogue reportage. Four photographs depict a New York ballroom in the heady first days of the disco era – the photos are given dates of 1974 and ’75, before the opening of Studio 54 and the other Manhattan megaclubs. (Hottest jam of 1974: Gloria Gaynor’s ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’.) New York was nearly bankrupt at the time, and the early discos were mixing chambers: in the smoke-filled Club Versailles, 1974 (all works 2012), we see black and Latino revellers boogieing with a cute white guy in a jockstrap and boots, plus uptown women in red satin dresses or cloche hats. Four other images are set in Angola in the same years, during Portugal’s Carnation Revolution and subsequent decolonization, and just before the outbreak of Angola’s brutal, 27-year civil war. In A Luta Continua, 1974, a woman poses in front of a building painted with the flag of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, the political party that still rules the country; Exodus, 1975 shows Portuguese colonists at the port of Luanda, suitcases and crates of livestock by their side.
The conceit of ‘Disco Angola’ is that the same photographer – the fictional journalist, not, or not just, the contemporary artist – shot both series of images. But if Douglas were engaged in an enterprise as otiose as ‘drawing parallels’, in which Angolan soldiers practicing capoeira look a bit like kung-fu fighters on the dance floor, then any two locations or periods would have sufficed. Douglas’s strict dating of these photographs to 1974–5 makes the correspondence clearer. We are at a hinge moment in the history of political economy: the Bretton Woods monetary regime has collapsed, the 1973 oil crisis is only just abating, global stock markets are enduring the worst crash since the Great Depression, and the détente between the US and the Soviet Union is breaking down. Seen in this light, it makes a bit more sense that Douglas’s photographs (which were all, in fact, shot in Los Angeles) look more like the composed tableaux of his Vancouver School colleagues Jeff Wall or Roy Arden than war photography or nightclub snaps. The digital prints are large and do not imitate the dye shifts of decades-old colour film, and several contemporary details (the Club Versailles disco seems to have bought its tables from IKEA) show through. The overworked border between history and fiction is not really Douglas’s concern; what matters is how fiction can allow the artist to put history into motion, producing new correspondences that illuminate the present as much as the past.
Most New York gallery-goers will know the story of the death of disco, the toll of AIDS and the transformation of the city into its gilded, lifeless current form. (David Zwirner’s space was, in fact, once a disco: the Tracks nightclub kept the party going every night of the week.) But a quick refresher on the contemporary state of Angola: the kleptocratic president José Eduardo Dos Santos, who led the MPLA during the civil war, is now the longest-serving leader in Africa. More than half of all Angolans live on less than US$2 a day, while expats flocking to work in oil and diamonds will tell you that Luanda has the highest cost of living of any city in the world. Over the last three months, youth protests against the Dos Santos regime have accelerated, fuelled by social media and text messaging and documented on YouTube, in an open and leaderless manner that recalls Occupy Wall Street. Douglas’s exhibition has the virtue of reminding us that the economic upheavals of the unloved 1970s produced the global puzzle we live with today – but more than that, it reminds us that New York and Luanda are not so far apart, and that the fictions that govern our lives have consequences that are very real.