Stan Douglas produces films that don’t begin or end…

...they are in progress

18 mins read

One day in November, 2007, the renowned photographer and filmmaker Stan Douglas returned to Stuttgart, Germany, to take a final look at the installations included in a major retrospective of his work. The show, which took over two prominent art institutions and encompassed 14 film and video works as well as 120 photographs, was accompanied by a 200-page catalogue with essays by some of the world’s leading art critics, and had been featured in most international art publications, including a glowing spread in ArtForum.

Douglas took in dimensions and arrangements of the works and then walked into the room where his film Suspiria was screening. What occurred next has likely never happened to any filmmaker, especially one who writes, shoots, directs and edits all of his works: Douglas did not recognize what he was being projected. He was surprised—but not too surprised.

“That’s the idea,” Douglas said recently in Vancouver. “That Suspiria is kind of infinite.”

What he meant is that the video’s 256 story fragments can organize themselves into seemingly endless permutations that can take thousands of years to unfold. Similarly, the soundtrack, comprising two hours of sequences, also remixes itself in nearly infinite ways as it is being played.

The strange-looking video—all over-saturated figures, who appear eerily disembodied in a dungeon-like set, while acting out scenarios inspired by the Brothers Grimm, Karl Marx and the 1977 Dario Argento horror film of the same name—uses superimposition techniques and a computerized projection system that constantly rearranges film and sound sequences.

The work takes the film loop to a new level because it doesn’t just repeat, it changes over time. “Basically, it’s a recombinant narrative system that will eventually begin doing its own thing,” said Douglas. “The longer you let the thing play, the stranger and stranger the thing becomes. But this is a work that has only two hours of music and two hours of narrative material. In this way, I am trying to make a model of how capitalism works.”

Douglas explained that most of the stories in the Grimm fairytales are about exchanges of commerce and that he was interested in how currency markets work—specifically, how foreign exchange fluctuations and hedging can produce surplus value from nothing. “It’s a little like magic,” Douglas said. “No labour has been done. No commerce has taken place, but [the] meaning of the system, money, has been produced. Just as meaning has been produced by my system, even though there’s only a limited amount of raw material.”

This kind of conceptual sophistication distinguishes all of Stan Douglas’s work and has brought him widespread international acclaim. By combining traditional cinematic techniques with new technologies, he produces remarkable video installations. He has expanded the experiential spaces of cinema, television and the museum like no other artist. As a conceptualist he is fascinated by the way images can be staged in such a way that there arises a doubt as to the objectivity of the camera and the reporting. Klatsassin (2007), for example, reconsiders Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, a film famous for its multiple, contradictory accounts of a murder, as a western set in British Columbia. To see all permutations of the film unfold, one would have to watch the video for more than three days, making it virtually impossible for gallery viewers to see the same thing the same way—much like the characters in Rashomon. His film, Le Détroit (2000), set in a city rapidly deteriorating, literally erases itself by superimposing a black and white film on its negative. Monodramas —made up of ten, 30- to 60-second minisoap operas that aired on television during commercial breaks in 1992— confounded viewers who called in asking what was being sold.

Douglas’s visually complex works aren’t just mechanically and stylistically clever, they offer constellations of carefully researched historical references, and poetic and rigorous intellectualism. From one of his earliest works, Overture (1986), a cinematic shot of a train going through a tunnel accompanied by a voice-over reading Proust, to his latest piece, the looping film noir drama Vidéo (which premiered last year at the Pompidou Centre), Douglas’s oeuvre is replete with observations on social alienation, psychic states, perception and memory, and ways time as a system may be thwarted.

Art critics and curators are tremendously appreciative of the dimensions in Douglas’s work and the 45-year-old artist has reached most of their art world pinnacles. His works are shown in top museums, including the Tate, and he consistently represents Canada at the most prestigious exhibitions in contemporary art, including three Documentas (1992, 1997, 2002) and three Venice Biennales (1990, 2001, 2005); he’s been given 65 solo exhibitions and appeared in more than 300 group shows. What’s more, the work sells. Typically, his video/film works are produced in editions of four with prices ranging from $250,000 to $400,000; his photographs (most of which relate to the films) sell for $25,000 to $90,000.

Both individuals and institutions collect Douglas’s work, according to his dealer, David Zwirner, owner of the eponymous New York gallery. “Art collectors usually acquire the photography; it’s easier to live with. But most of the films he’s made are in museums. Earlier in his career, the films were in editions of two. Then we realized there were more institutions interested in the work than we had at any given time, so the edition was changed to four.”

In Vancouver, the three-story building that houses Douglas’s studio is situated in downtown’s Main and Hastings area. It’s a handsome, understated building, built for him in 2005 in a gritty neighbourhood that continues to experience sweeping gentrification. Inside is a model of calm, spotless modernism. The first floor stores sets in crates; Malécon (2005), a spectacular large-scale photograph of a gigantic crashing wave, takes up most of the front, east wall. Walk upstairs, pass a small kitchen and a couple of offices (for three regular staff), and one reaches Douglas’s work space: wall of windows, sleek, quality furniture, beautiful, unframed test prints of photographs on one wall, and taped to another, a series of images depicting sets for a planned, Portugal-based film.

He has invited in a visitor to talk about making films that document artistic concepts, and to compare this to documentary filmmaking. A tall, sturdy, African- Canadian born in Vancouver, Douglas is reserved but friendly and well-spoken. When seen at local art openings, he appears mostly to listen to people who hover around him. Sitting at his boardroom table, he looks distinguished in a dark shirt, paisley scarf, designer jeans and shiny black shoes.

Since he fixates on ideas and uses motion picture to examine them, Douglas concedes that his process aligns itself with documentary filmmaking—but there’s a crucial difference. “Stories can be resolved, films can be resolved, but mine aren’t resolved,” Douglas says. “I’m making conditions that are not final. They are not stories with a beginning, middle and end. They are conditions that are being shown as condition. They are always in process, always in flux—always in the middle, in a way.” He pauses for a second and then says firmly, “I’m trying to make models of the condition of flux.”

Producing these “conditions” can necessitate productions as elaborate as any short independent film. For example, Klatsassin’s 37-page screenplay involved a cast of 13 as well as 20 extras. A 30-person crew worked on the one-week shoot, a smaller crew on the four-day second-unit shoot. The budget was $300,000. His future project, the Lisbon-based Secret Agent, involves five leads, seven principals, six actors, about 40 extras and a crew of 30. It will be projected onto an avenue of screens: two rows of four screens facing each other, so that viewers will move through “a town” to take in the story.

Unconventional projection techniques like this means that such films as Secret Agent will have to bypass normal modes of screenings. Most of Douglas’s films “can’t work in a cinema,” he says. “Sometimes they take a lot of space that’s very specific or they need certain apparatus for projecting it. But there’s a possibility of having the work seen by many, many people; for example, Inconsolable Memories (2005) was shown at the Venice Biennale, so at least one million people saw the work”—a huge number for an independent film.

The 69-hour Klatsassin did make it to the big screen, however, when it premiered at the 2006 Vancouver Film Festival. Recalls Douglas: “There was one six-hour screening, which I liked. People could walk in and walk out when they wanted, which is like a gallery experience. But the one-hour evening screenings didn’t really work for me, because you should be free to use the work as you like. Maybe you need to see it for an hour to figure it out, maybe you only need to see it for half an hour,” he says. “Although it was odd: in the six-hour screening people would typically sit there for 90 minutes. Somehow the standard duration of a feature film is sort of created in people’s minds.”

Usual procedure at film festivals is that a film attracts a distributor, and then the distributor releases it in various regions where people pay to see it. For Douglas, business works differently. He and Zwirner co-produce most of his films with expectation of recouping their costs through sales. To that end, Zwirner endeavors to get the films seen by as broad an audience as possible, working with curators of museums on solo and group shows. But as Zwirner insists: “It’s not like I go out to sell. I promote. I really try to facilitate making these works visible.” Sales occur in his gallery during solo shows by Douglas, but significant works are sold when his artist exhibits at museums around the world. Staatsgalerie, involved in the Stuttgart retrospective, for example, ended up buying one of the works.

Now it’s time to penetrate new territories. “We’re at this point where Stan has shown so much that we really want to try places where he hasn’t been seen before,” Zwirner explains. “South America—we’re starting to do stuff there. It would be great to get more work seen in Asia, so there’s been a bit of exposure in Japan.”

As he’s introduced to new cities around the world, Douglas remains loyal to Vancouver, a place he cites as a fundamental influence on his practice. In the 1980s, he was among artists and poets who attended talks sponsored by the Kootenay School of Writing (KSW), where discussions about art theory would continue for hours. “Artists and writers would look at how each approached their ideas,” says Douglas. “Poets, prose writers, painters and photographers were interested in the KSW. This conversation was really important to me.”

At the time, adds Douglas, art was not taken seriously as a profession. “If you wanted to be an artist, you had to really care about it yourself. Anyone who remained an artist wasn’t doing it for the glory necessarily; they were doing it because they wanted to do it. And their most interesting critics were their fellow artists because there was not a whole lot of media attention. Things have changed little by little in Vancouver. There’s a bit of media attention, a possibility of people coming to Vancouver now because it has a reputation.”


Hors Champs (1992):The two-sided screen in this jazz piece allows viewers to see what’s happening “off-screen,” that is, the images from second camera.

Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin, BC (1993): Silent black-and-white film investigates an unsolved murder from the 1930s.

Evening (1994): Three-projector installation reconstructs two news days in the 1960s to examine paradigm shift in television journalism, from news to the synthesis of journalism and entertainment.

Der Sandmann (1995): Two 360-degree pans of German gardens, one in former times, the other today, are spliced together so they can be presented by a pair of projectors on the same screen. As the cameras pass, the old garden is wiped away by the new one.

Nu-tka (1996): The video overlaps identical nature images but both move in opposing directions to create a gently filtered sketch. This electronic perception of nature is immersed in a cacophony of voices that only briefly speak in unison. During these moments, the picture grows still and the real landscape emerges—beautiful, virgin—only to blur again.

Win, Place or Show (1998): Cameras set up to bisect a space along two parallel axes simultaneously encompass the space in its entirety. Two adjacent projection surfaces create a one-screen optical effect. The two protagonists disappear in the gap between the screens or emerge doubled or mirrored on both sides of the projections. The recombinant narrative offers 204,023 scenarios.

Journey Into Fear (2001): On a container ship, two characters retrace each other’s steps in pursuit. Some 625 possible combinations are generated out of five dialogue sets—all equally rich in innuendo.

Inconsolable Memories (2005): Shot in Cuba, it focuses on the failure of Communist utopias. Two film loops, each composed of scenes interspersed with sections of blank film are simultaneously projected onto the same screen.

Vidéo (2007): Silent video combines the oppressive camera work of Beckett’s film Film with Kafka’s novel The Trial.

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