Peril – the world through the eyes of Stan Douglas
Peril. That is the word that comes to mind when observing the world today. Raging wildfires are matched in their intensity by rising tides, the potential end of all species buoyed by a resource economy that threatens to fuel our demise. Even humans are a renewable resource with finite potential. The mood is one of ever-present dread, as reflected in uncivil discourse leading to civil unrest. These structures, like the spin-mastery of our leaders, are mostly vacant of all but investment in short-term solutions that often recycle the very problems they purport to solve. Can we say we are better than our past selves, both individually and as a society, when nothing seems new under the sun?
Stan Douglas does more than just contemplate the question in his celebrated exhibition Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848. Following global acclaim at the 2022 Venice Biennale and a cross-Canada tour, the opportunity to explore the works at the National Gallery of Canada revealed a project with an international focus – a borderless perspective that at the Biennale attracted 70% of the 800,000 visitors by exploring protest beyond the confines of “The Canada Pavilion.” Four large-scale photographs re-enact the imagery of protest and civil unrest in 2011, including scenes of protest from the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, the Arab Spring in Tunis, Egypt, an uprising against police brutality centered on the killing of Black North London resident Mark Duggan in the UK, and a post-game riot in the streets of Vancouver after a Stanley Cup loss by the home team. In the adjacent gallery, two massive screens play a simultaneously looping video of a pair of young UK Grime artists in North London (TrueMendous and Lady Sanity) and two Egyptian Mahraganat rappers (Yousef Joker and Raptor) in Cairo, seemingly trading “bars” between each other in their respective languages, although the two groups were never in the same room.
The 1848 in the title refers to a year of revolutions across Europe, guided by working-class dissatisfaction with the status quo during the rise of the printing press, a form of communication similar to the internet and social media in the 20th and 21st centuries. The ≠ represents “not”, as in, 2011 is not 1848. I questioned the appropriateness of the title, based on my sense that maybe not much has changed at all. “I meant to suggest that, while related, what was happening in these different times wasn’t the same,” says Douglas. “There is the idea that new communication technologies of the era caused people to recognize the similarity of their predicaments enough to inspire a desire for change, but the 1848 revolutions had an effect on governance that set the stage for the democratic reforms of the 20th century. However, the protests of 2011 weren’t really political events where there was a common platform or party – they could say they don’t like what’s going on but had no recourse to do much about it.”
Veering off into 2011, Douglas refers to easily forgotten frictions with police authorities and political events, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, as lacking the same cohesion as the 1848 revolutions, and therefore being different to what preceded them. “They could say they didn’t like what was going on, but they couldn’t say what they wanted to do about it. Even with the riot in Vancouver, there’s a reaction to a sense [that] things shouldn’t be the way they are, and since there was no real recourse to do anything about that, it became a violent incident.”
During our conversation, Vancouver seemed to be an outlier, one that I had to challenge. Full disclosure, before speaking with Douglas, I viewed the Vancouver riot as a case of garden-variety drunken hooliganism. A massive tailgate party that went wrong for people who didn’t really have anything to rebel against, so they made an excuse out of an NHL championship loss. As with all of Douglas’ work, I knew there had to be a deeper layer to the riot that would make it of value to re-create. His 2016 Blackout series juxtaposed images from New York’s 1977 and 2003 blackouts and examined two very different responses to system and technological failures, one causing widespread unrest and, the other a form of community. I wondered if he was using the same juxtaposition for Vancouver as he had with other images.. “Less explicitly so,” he offers before adding, “Let's not forget that Vancouver is a city where it is doubtful that the majority of the people in the photograph could ever own a home. Yes, they were a nihilistic mob by the end, but there were undercurrents based on real issues in Vancouver, manifesting in people enjoying being on the streets and turning around the power dynamic between themselves and the police.” A feeling of unconscious but shared disquiet, powerfully re-created by Douglas, allows some sympathy for the devil, if the devil thinks housing prices and rents are too high. “They share a feeling that Vancouver is a problem,” Douglas says, “and many people coming into the city from the suburbs share a sort of resentment for the city and what it represents.”
ISDN, the title of Douglas’ video work, is the acronym for Integrated Services Digital Network. Basically, this is a less powerful form of internet, related to simultaneous digital transmissions over public telephone numbers. Think, old-school dial-up internet before its current state of infinite content generation, offering unlimited potential for good or evil, and social media influencers as living billboards for corporate brands.
Going back to early tribal societies, music has always been considered a secondary form of communication and, depending on which culture, even a form of spiritual or ancestral communication. Although neither Stan Douglas nor I seemed to be entirely sure how the actual loop continues – estimates are anywhere between three-and-a-half days to two weeks, depending on your source – Douglas asserts that the possibilities are literally endless. “There are about four stanzas of lyrics per location, and then five cyclical mixes of music taking elements from Grime and Mahraganat in between,” he says. “The idea is that the possibilities for cross-cultural collaboration are almost endless, with the number of combinations creating a geyser of communication.”
While artificial in the sense that both sessions were recorded independently of each other, the result is something that looks like a seamless communication, an interconnected ISDN borrowing from North American Hip-hop as a way for the underclass in their respective regions to tell their own story. “When I first began looking at this project, I realized UK Grime combined Dubstep and hip hop into this new genre that has its roots in class struggle, and I figured something like that must have happened in North Africa,” says Douglas. “Working-class people having a voice and just being able to say I’m here and I’m valuable is a political act.” When you consider that in Egypt, Mahraganat is not allowed to be performed in official venues since practitioners are not considered trained musicians, the act of resistance within the art form is more apparent.
So what does all this say about the human capacity to change for the better, and where does Douglas find any sense of hope in this series? “I find more hope in the music than in the photographs, where there is a utopian impulse,” he replies. “Going back to Hors-champ (1992), which was about American musicians in Paris trying to find a place for themselves in that situation, I can find greater possibilities in the music because so much of that is about artistic collaboration and what the audience can imagine for themselves.”
It is easy to see why Douglas feels that way. The photographs tell a story about people’s interests not being considered, while people in power continue to maintain that power by allowing these struggles to play out ad infinitum. “It is a matter of people coming together in spite of the divide between them,” says Douglas, “and in a way, music is fundamentally a model of how people can spend time together. Is that a good time or a bad time? These are fundamental questions.” As long as artists like Stan Douglas are prepared to ask the big questions, perhaps that is another place the rest of us can find some hope in a world in peril.
Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848, presented as a partnership between the National Gallery of Canada, Remai Modern and The Polygon Gallery, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 2024. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.