The POV Interview: Stan Douglas

26 mins read

Stan Douglas is an internationally recognised photographer, filmmaker and installation artist. His works often deal with history, which he recreates in an apparently realistic but actually dramatised style. His recombinant storytelling technique allows him to set his pieces in outré places—Cuba in the ‘60s, Portugal in the ‘70s, Vancouver in the ‘40s—playing out the tensions inherent in these historic locales. Douglas’ works are rendered in an exquisite style with beautifully detailed visuals, which have won him accolades for decades. His critiques of Western society are posed in a philosophical manner, which is always questioning but never didactic.

Douglas’ distinguished photographic career has been honoured with the Scotiabank Photography Award in 2013 and the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 2012. He won the Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award in 2007, the Bell Award for Video Art in 2008, and is the 2016 recipient of the Hasselblad Award. Museums that hold his works include the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Tate Gallery, London.

Douglas collaborated with Loc Dao and his team at the National Film Board’s Digital Studio to create the immersive installation Circa 1948. An imaginative recreation of two of Vancouver’s notorious locales in the post-war period—Hogan’s Alley and Hotel Vancouver—the piece is an interactive site that works by way of each individual’s reactions to the historical environment in which they have been placed. By moving around within Douglas’ visuals and narrative, the participant’s body operates as a joystick, making the installation
reveal its secrets. It’s a piece that offers much insight into the forces that plagued urban society after World War Two: the destruction of “slum” environments, the corruption of city government and the rise of the suburbs.

Circa 1948 has already appeared in other settings, notably New York’s Tribeca festival in 2014, but it had its Toronto premiere as part of this year’s Luminato. Full disclosure: I was part of the team that arranged for Circa 1948 to have its launch in Toronto. It allowed me to interview Douglas in late May—although POV would likely have been allowed access, in any case, a few weeks later. –MARC GLASSMAN

POV: Marc Glassman
SD: Stan Douglas

POV: Much of your work—and certainly all of your recent major pieces—has been set in the past, which you combine with fictional elements. That’s true of Circa 1948, The Secret Agent, Luanda Kinshasa, Disco Angola and Midcentury Studio. I find it interesting that in The Secret Agent, Luanda Kinshasa and Disco Angola, you have dealt with Portuguese history. Is there something piquant about Portugal that appeals to you?

SD: I have a long-standing fascination with the ‘70s as a key period in contemporary history. But in re-staging the terrorism of the ‘70s, I didn’t want to be too tied to specific ideologies. Like if it’s in the U.K., it’s going to be the IRA; in Germany, it’s the Baader-Meinhof [Gang] and Italy, the Brigate Rosse. Each has their own stories, which need to be told in a specific way. I liked the unresolved character of what was happening in Portugal circa 1975. The year after the Carnation Revolution there were a lot of shenanigans: bombings, hijackings and various terrorist events staged by both left- and right-wing groups. There were people with very different agendas using exactly the same means to supposedly achieve very different ends.

1975 was in the middle of the so-called “PREC” [Processo Revolucionário Em Curso] or Revolutionary Process in Progress. It was not clear what Portugal would become and there was a kind of openness as people tried to figure out how would they rebuild their country. And this was very hopeful for many people. You had almost the entire European intelligentsia dropping by to see an actual revolution in progress. Louis Althusser and Jean-Paul Sartre went to Portugal, but you had NATO and the U.S. staging war games off the coast, anxious that there might be a communist country in Western Europe. These extraordinary conditions are the setting for The Secret Agent.

POV: In Disco Angola and Midcentury Studio, you create a meta-figure to frame the shows. There’s a photojournalist in Disco Angola and a studio photographer in Midcentury Studio. Could you comment about that? Does that device free you up as a creator?

SD: Both pieces tell epic stories in fragments, through the residue of time passing around a particular person’s life. In cinema, the cuts are crucial moments because, even though they are the negative space between shots, we make sense of it as a change in space, a change in time or a change in perspective. This empty moment or non-existent moment of fantasy becomes a crucial thing, which Midcentury Studio adopts in the temporal gaps between pictures.

Every work is dated, and we see something happening over time. At the beginning the photographer is making “bad” photographs that are nevertheless interesting images, and by the end they are “good” pictures, but they are not as documentary as they were before, because more and more he becomes in control of his medium, and more and more he’s making things happen, staging photographs.

In Disco Angola there’s less a sense of a fictive character. There’s definitely supposed to be a character in Midcentury Studio, but for Disco Angola, it’s more a sense that the mainstreaming of New York’s disco underground and hijacking of Angolan independence by Cold War powers happened simultaneously. I thought about there being a character at the beginning, but I realised that I was not interested in adopting the look of photojournalism and just wanted to make the images as detailed and transparent an as possible.

POV: Luanda Kinshasa and Disco Angola show an intense interest in the music and popular culture of the early 1970s. Can you comment on Miles Davis, whose music in that period incorporates funk, electronica and even Indian music into jazz?


SD: Miles has always been a role model for me, in that he was very conscious of not having a signature style. My favourite album of his is On The Corner (1972). Even though his playing was quite distinctive and you could always tell it was him, he wanted his voice in different settings and that was something which was fascinating. I would hope that, if there’s a show of a number of my works, it [would seem] almost like a group show in a certain sense.

POV: Besides Miles, who has influenced you?

SD: Samuel Beckett. He wrote poems, prose, theatre, plays for radio, television and film. His was an extraordinary career. Like Miles, he was medium-agnostic.

POV: The play Helen Lawrence, which you created with Chris Haddock, is more noir than Beckett, and it uses the same locales as Circa 1948: Hogan’s Alley and Hotel Vancouver. Can you tell me about the play and why you did it?

SD: Circa 1948, Helen Lawrence and Midcentury Studio are all interlinked. Helen Lawrence had stalled but I had all this research done on the era and I used that knowledge to make Midcentury Studio. Then when I came back to the play, I decided to poach an older idea I had for staging the opera Lulu (1935), by Alban Berg.

Lulu is a sort of screen on to which all of the characters project their fantasies as they fall in love with her. My idea was that the production would start as a cinematic projection on a scrim—even though we would see the people behind the screen singing and acting—then, as acts two and three progress everything becomes more and more corporeal, gritty and real. I poached the visual concept of act one for Helen Lawrence.

POV: I’ve always thought of Lulu as being almost the archetypical femme fatale, the one that then appears in all the film noirs in a more American way. And that’s why the opera is so popular even though Berg is a difficult, though brilliant, composer.

SD: I don’t think so. In Berg’s opera, Lulu is not exactly the same as she was in the Wedekind plays, or even in the Pabst film, Pandora’s Box (1929), where she is definitely a femme fatale. I think the way Berg wrote it, Lulu was more a cipher that gets projected onto. She’s quite passive in a certain sense, and observes what is happening to her from a remove. That was the basis for my idea of using projection. I also wanted to set Lulu in the 1960s, in the U.S., around L.A. and Las Vegas. Lulu would be black, and her role as a dancer, her exoticism, would have a different sort of inflection with that casting change.

POV: So in Helen Lawrence, you were able to use projections in a way that kept the audience in suspense, forcing them to move their identification from the actors to the visuals that accompany them on stage.


SD: Yeah. That’s the key thing. I mean, there’s always a barrier between the audience and the actors. Something a lot of people like about theatre is that they share the empathetic time of the actors on stage, and they identify with them. Helen Lawrence has a continual alienation effect because there’s a literal screen between you and the actors, which doesn’t let you do that. The screen is cinematic and quite spectacular, but every once in a while, you’re reminded that there’s a tiny human body behind it. And this visual metaphor has to do with the behaviour of people in the post-war period.

I had an epiphany, which is probably obvious to most people, that the behaviour of the tough guys and the femme fatales in film noir was probably a symptom of post-traumatic stress. They’ve all lived through wartime, they’ve killed people, they’ve seen people die around them. At home they’ve had to do things they’re not proud of to get by. And so this is why the tough guys are so quiet. This is why the femme fatales have developed certain skills to get by in a world that’s very patriarchal, and also very violent. They have personas that they present to the world, and the screen is presenting an image to the world, but you’re always seeing the fragile human body behind that.

POV: As an artist, do you consider where people will position themselves in the space, in the gallery? If that’s something you think about, what is your reaction when you see an audience reacting to Helen Lawrence?

SD: That’s a crucial thing, when you’re doing a play and watching people in the audience and you’re wondering, “When are they going to start coughing?” [laughs] And in a gallery you wonder what will compel them to stay and what makes them lose interest. These are things you see if you keep an eye on audience behaviour.

POV: In Circa 1948, the audience is in the installation, and they actually end up being the driver of the space. You’re allowing them, in a way, to create narratives. How did you think that through?


SD: I like the idea that this could be a way of telling a story with decisions made by the audience in a very intuitive fashion. Which direction you decide to go, which is your choice, determines the story you will encounter—and if you’re interested in that situation, you can hear more, because there are more stories there, and if not you can go away, go where you like.

Originally, I didn’t want to have any narrative whatsoever. I felt that the physical culture would tell the story. It would be as if everybody had vanished somehow and all that would be left are the relics of the way people lived in this period of time. This is why the detail is at such a high level in this piece. I was really concerned about the physicality of the spaces telling a story on their own. It was a time when you couldn’t buy new things; you had to repair things. How do people make extensions to their homes if they have an expanding family? How do you improvise a beer garden in a place like Hogan’s Alley? How do you set up a bookie’s shop in an Old Hotel telegraph office?

There had to be more narrative content to make Circa 1948 more compelling. It made sense to adapt the characters from Helen Lawrence to the installation. Just to show what’s going on at a different moment. Basically, we see stuff in the day in Circa and at night in Helen Lawrence.

What happens in the installation is that you become the interface. You’re able, just with your movement of your body, to move through the space. Watching people’s behaviour, I noticed that a lot of older people had trouble figuring out how it worked, but younger people, especially those who have experience skateboarding, understood immediately what to do, and were able to use that physical knowledge to navigate the space easily.

POV: You use narrative in this, and in other projects too, almost like a painter might use colour. It’s simply part of the palette. There’s information and there are narrative voices, but the narrative never really provides you with plot.


SD: No, definitely not. Kevin Kerr (who wrote the dialogue) and I had John Krizanc’s play Tamara in mind. The action in that play took place in a house, and there were simultaneous storylines. The audience had to decide which strand they wanted to follow by accompanying certain actors through the activities in their plot. If we had the time and the resources, that’s how we would have written Circa, but instead we kind of fudged it: the stories pause at a certain point as you walk away, but the remaining stories are still available when you come back to the same space. There’s narrative movement in Tamara, whereas in Circa 1948 everything happens simultaneously even though there’s more than two hours of dialogue.

The idea is that you’re getting picaresque slices of life: details which are symptoms of larger conditions. We get a sense of the various real estate scams that are going on in this post-war period, and a lot about the reorganization of urban space, which happened throughout North America and in Europe too. This period offered governments and developers the opportunity to warehouse the ethnic poor in the city centers as they razed the ethnic slums, and to move the white middle class to suburbs. This was happening in different ways in different cities across North America, and it happened in a very particular way in Vancouver.

That accounts for the anxieties being expressed by people in the hotel and in the alley. People in the Old Hotel knew that it was going to be torn down, and they had to decide what were they going do. Those in Hogan’s Alley realised that there was some sort of incentive on the part of city council to tear it down, because they were saying the area was “blighted” with moral failings. So people had to decide what they were going to do about their lives. How will they maintain their livelihood? Where will they live? This was the backstory of Circa 1948, which you start to intuit as you pick and choose what you want to hear.

POV: You mentioned earlier that for you the 1970s is a key period, when there were revolutionaries in Europe, the first oil crisis and a kind of collapse of the economic system. I’m wondering whether you think of the 1940s as also being another key period.

SD: It was a key period. More to the point, how does the era we’re living in today compare to the post-war period of 1945? There are some similarities: the banking system was in shambles; there was an economic crisis, a housing crisis and shadowy external threats to the western democracies—then communism, and now terrorism. The solution then was to basically invent consumerism to give the working middle class the money to buy the things they made, to make capitalism a perpetual motion machine, whereas the solution recently was to bail the banks when they could’ve very easily bailed out the creditors, which would have kept that recirculation happening quite efficiently.

POV: You’ve often used photos and videos in the same show. What qualities do you find in video or moving imagery that aren’t available for you in photography?


SD: It goes both ways. In photography, the elements of an image are there simultaneously. It does become interactive in the sense that a viewer is able to look at what they want to look at for as long as they want to look at it and to make spatial connections between things, which are often imaginative and placed by the photographer, as often as they’re aleatory. But with film, if you are using montage, you’re making an audience watch something for a specific period of time, and then compare it with what they will be seeing next. Cinema is a retrospective experience that is quite different from the simultaneity of photography.

POV: In Circa 1948, you created still photographs—beautiful images—but they’re meant to move, as well. You were dealing with the properties of different types of visual imagery simultaneously. How did that work for you?

SD: Well, we had to make it do both at the same time. The one thing we were interested in doing—and we couldn’t solve the problem—was [making it] a group experience. I guess the only disappointment with the installation is that it, like the app, is a solitary experience. But it would have been something else if somehow people could share that experience of the navigation of the space and consideration of that space.

POV: What was the initial impulse that propelled you to work on Circa 1948?

SD: My original idea was to be able to be at the site of Hogan’s Alley and Old Hotel Vancouver and to use a smartphone like it’s a window to the past. As you look up, down and around you’d see what would have been there in 1948. That was the daydream I had walking by the site of Hogan’s Alley one day.

POV: So it’s more like peering through a looking glass than the notion of a time machine, for you.

SD: If not both.


Circa 1948 Tribeca Installation from National Film Board of Canada on Vimeo.


Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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