Stan Douglas with Lynne Cooke, 1993

LYNNE COOKE: In the works that you have made over the past couple of years there seems to be an identifiable tendency to look for the anti-hierarchical, the nondominant, the anti-authoritative. One instance of that would be your essay in the catalogue to an exhibition of Beckett teleplays, which you curated in 1988. In it you argue that in place of a closed world like Sade's, which is invented to be mastered, Beckett 'imagines an uncertain one: the residence of even less certain subjectivity.' Another would be your proclivity for film loops, as in “Overture”, thus not only making the piece continuous, but divesting it of a climax. There's a related avoidance of narrative resolution in the film script for “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin, BC”. Do you regard this as a philosophical position or part of your aesthetic?

STAN DOUGLAS: Both in terms of presentation and the subject matter of my work, I have been preoccupied with failed utopias and obsolete technologies. To a large degree, my concern is not to redeem these past events but to reconsider them: to understand why these utopian moments did not fulfill themselves, what larger forces kept a local moment a minor moment: and what was valuable there – what might still be useful today. In both the gallery pieces and the TV pieces I'm looking at supposedly inconsequential moments of life. Yet these are perhaps the most significant ones, because they are the ones where habit is predominant, where people aren't strictly attending to how they're behaving. So, in the narratives of the TV projects, and also in the more thematically structured gallery works, I'm trying to reconsider what has been either a habitual discarding of personal habit or a larger cultural one, in as much as cultural forces go through the same process.

LC: What led you to these media? How did you end up working primarily with reproductive technologies?

SD: Part of it is the fact that I can't draw. But it's often also the result of trying to find the appropriate medium for the subject matter of the work. I learned quite a bit about these different media trying to make the projects as different from each other as possible. A certain subject will eventually draw me to a particular medium. Since I'm interested in the cultural and the psychological effects as well as the social situation of television broadcasting, I have to work with the medium of television itself. The player piano piece, “Onomatopoeia”, is concerned with evoking certain historical moments, and certain notions of absence, which the very formal presentation both embodies and represents at the same time.

LC: When you say you can't draw, is that a consequence of your art school training?

SD: I did go to art school, where I did a little bit of drafting and technical drawing. But I was just too lazy to learn how to draw.

LC: Does this reinforce your tendency to write?

SD: That has evolved with the projects. Developing them by way of notes and textual research, as well as reading a lot, gave me various models of how to write, and eventually I began doing it myself. The essay for the Beckett catalogue was the first essay I had ever written: it was out of necessity.

LC: How do you find your subject?

SD: It's always quite by accident. With the Ruskin works, for example, I had gone on a boating trip with some friends during which we came upon an extraordinary site: a power station built in 1930, which looks like a vampire's château set in the landscape. Next to it there is a very well-tended second-growth forest maintained by a regional hydro company, as well as a somewhat devastated runoff area. What's left of the Stave River is flanked on one side by wealthy holiday homes and on the other side by small lumber mills and a couple of trailer courts. The name 'Ruskin' made me curious about it. I learned that it was originally established as a Ruskinian utopian community, which failed after only two years of operation. Since then it has been the site of various small local communities, none of which lasted very long. Around 1900, business ventures and later, a large Japanese community formed there until the internment during World War II, when they were declared 'enemy aliens', and their land was expropriated by the government. “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin, BC” developed out of finding this location, and being fascinated by it.

LC: Have those who were interned fought to be recompensed? Is a political issue implicit in the work?

SD: About five years ago, after years of lobbying, there was a redress in Canada. But monetary recompense for the internment, for that injustice, can only be symbolic. And it's very, very difficult to find out who was in that community, because the purpose of internment was to destroy the social fabric of the Japanese-Canadian community. It was a community of ex-guest workers – all of whom were therefore de facto Canadians – who were developing their own social relationships with the country. The purpose of the internment was to break up those communities and to leave them no possibility of having any solid social ground. It's only recently that people have been able to reconstruct the whole fabric – their relationships and families. Indirectly, the film-script bears upon this, in that two policemen seem quite happy to discredit the reputation of the Japanese man, and his race as a whole.

When I did the research for this project, I went to the provincial archives and looked at the daily diaries of constables working in this area and of the others working in very isolated areas. Part of their job in the 1930s was to keep the different racial groups separate, preventing any kind of coalition that might cause a social or economic threat to the status quo. Everybody was catalogued by race. The Japanese, Chinese, 'Hindoos' – spelled with two o's – Jews, and Italians etc., were all categorized as other to the Anglo-Saxon majority. This is presented in the film in what seems a nonchalant, matter of fact manner. That was how they went about the business of containing these different racial groups.

LC: It's automatic: routine rather than considered behaviour.

SD: Exactly.

LC: In “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe...” you are dealing with the material in two different forms. There is the group of colour photographs with two text panels, which has already been exhibited, and then there's the film that you're currently making. How do the two compare? On a previous occasion you also developed the same body of material into quite different idioms, didn't you?

SD: Yes. Those location photographs are part of my process of going out and considering the site. In assembling them into a work for exhibition I was trying to make slightly decrepit sites around Ruskin look like nineteenth-century English landscapes: that way of cataloging property peculiar to the landscape tradition. But then, if you look carefully at the details, you'll see abandoned cars, debris – a slightly devastated landscape that otherwise appears to be pastoral.

LC: You have examined the context through a specific medium as well as through the conventions of a particular genre. By contrast, in the film you'll represent it in completely different sets of terms – well, not completely...

SD: I can be a lot more diachronic in the film. I mean, I can deal with time in the film, which photographs don't lend themselves to as easily. The film has an open-ended time that folds in on itself. That's partly derived from working with the orchestral score, the Schoenberg score, which has been reduced to piano. It's like the classic post-Sophocles narrative of beginning, middle, and end – pursuit, fear, catastrophe – which is typical of Western culture. Yet, by the end, the musical material has diverged so far from its origin that it's without resolution or rest. The story, too, leaves itself open. At the end there is a character who has the possibility of discrediting the policemen and the investigation – or, though he probably hasn't got the power to do that, he at least knows where his roommate has gone.

LC: The Schoenberg score was for an imaginary film, not for an actual film, wasn't it? And the diary entries with which the film opens are based on actual historical records, which you consulted but did not literally transcribe...

SD: In those two sequences of diary entries some are direct quotes – but with the names changed – of actual entries from the Ruskin area, and others were invented to make the narrative flow.

LC: There's an interesting relationship between the Schoenberg score, which did not accompany a real film, and this material which is quasi-documentary. In both there is a slippage, either between fact and fiction, or between the real and the imaginary, so that these oppositional categories no longer seem to pertain. The possibility of moving between them allows you to open the film itself up for investigation. Is this similar in some way to what occurs in “Subject to a Film: Marnie”, where, if I've got it right, the only sound in the film happens at the moment when the woman in the deserted office reaches with her gloved hand to unlock the safe? Is the click on the soundtrack not that of the combination lock, but a noise produced from the suture on the film's loop?

SD: Yes, but the suture happens just before that – when she finds the safe combination and closes the drawer. There's a similar scene in “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe...” a little dream sequence where suddenly the exterior is contemporary, where what you thought was a cabin throughout the entire film is revealed as a trailer court, and you see the contemporary police car coming up to Theodore's cabin. It's played across a dream sequence: he's sleeping, tossing and turning. The camera cuts from inside to outside. Then, after the digression, the film returns to 1930 again [...]

LC: When you [refer to] 'poetic resonance', do you mean something like a space for imaginative play – a space for exploring areas of the mind that don't often come into consciousness in other arenas of experience?

SD: At a very blunt level I would consider poetic resonance to be like the harmonic relationship in a piece of music. It's not like the melody which would go horizontally and has a beginning, middle, and end, referring to past moments, or anticipating future ones. The harmonic or poetic resonance goes elsewhere, allowing an audience to have other kinds of engagement with the work. I tend to describe a work in terms of what materials are used, and of what references are there. I shy away from interpreting it because if the audience had no way of finding a language of its own to understand a project, then that project is unsuccessful. I may as well have just written on a piece of paper a statement staying, 'I mean this.'

LC: When you're talking about poetic resonance is there any difference between the television and gallery works?

SD No, it's the same process of poesis. Poesis also happens on that real vernacular level. Those forms – like genre movies, which are supposedly domineering and meant to over-determine one's response or relationship to them – are still received by audiences in ways that market research can't predict – although there are, of course, preferred meanings, which it does everything in its power to have accepted as being true or natural in some way. I prefer to have respect for an audience, and to allow it to participate in the construction of meaning.

FRIEZE, September/October, 1993
Jen Budney and Stan Douglas

JEN BUDNEY: What are you working on now?

STAN DOUGLAS: I just finished shooting a new piece called “Win, Place or Show” set in Strathcona, the neighbourhood in which I live in Vancouver.

This city, like every other urban centre in North America, went through a building boom in the post-war period. In the jargon of the day, city councillors wanted to sponsor ‘urban renewal’ to do away with ‘urban blight’. What this typically amounted to was the destruction of inner city neighbourhoods in favour of new housing projects and the creation of new towns on the outskirts: suburbanization of the middle class and concentration of the working class in the old city centres. This had a devastating effect on a lot of US cities, as the tax base was withdrawn to new towns, and the projects that erased old neighbourhoods were more often than not poorly conceived and constructed. One of the strangest things about this phenomena is that it was perhaps the most comprehensive application of modernist principles to urban planning; however absolutely compromised. Developers used modernistic devices as a means to cut costs, while architects using industrial techniques usually ended up making homes for the wealthy, and the trickle-down vanguardism they imagined never really took place.

In Vancouver, the city wanted to completely raze its oldest neighbourhood, putting in its place a sort of Corbusian working class compound, and then zone the area around it for heavy industry. Two of the housing projects got built, but a residents’ group was able to convince the federal and provincial governments to renovate rather than raze the houses and to set up co-operative housing. Mind is a sort of a sci-fi piece in which the city’s original plan has been completed. Two men sharing an apartment are having an antagonistic conversation, which blossoms into a fist fight. They get tired and stop, there is a pause, then the whole thing loops. The six-minute scene was shot from ten points of view on either side of the cinematic axis. When installed, the two axis sides are projected on two adjacent 3m x 4m screens and a computer re-cuts the montage in real time so that each time the action loops the points of view are fundamentally different, and it will take about 15 hours or so for it to repeat itself. The work is about the control of space: in the housing project, in the axis convention which is here split open, and in the hellish Sysiphian conflict itself.

JB: In recent works, such as “Der Sandmann” and “Nu•tka•”, your treatment of film or video as a language has resulted in the creation of binaries that occasionally, cyclically merge: two pans of the Schrebergarten in two different time periods—where a dreadful memory lurks for narrator Nathaniel—take turns in ‘wiping’ each other out; two images of Nootka Sound come together as the overlapping voices of Spanish commandant Martinez and British captain Colnett are synchronized, explaining their apprehensions about arriving at the Canadian West Coast. These pieces both deal explicitly with the ‘return of the repressed’—but this return is apparent in other works as well, for example: “Pursuit, Feat Catastrophe: Ruskin B.C”. (in that it returns to a rather unsavoury moment of Canadian history). How conscious are you, before you set out to make a work, of wanting to create re-readings or double readings of histories?

SD: The trope of the double has become embarrassingly apparent to me over the last few years but I did at least come by in honestly. It has been something that has ‘just appeared’ over the course of research. But I suppose with two parallel streams of image or sound, you have the minimum number of voices necessary for polyphony or conflict.

With regard to the research itself, I certainly do start out wanting to re-read or reconsider the history of a particular location. I never exactly know what I’m looking for, but it always begins with being fascinated with a site: by the Gothic power house at Ruskin, the Schrebergarten surrounding Berlin or by the industrial landscape of the north-west coast. Usually I’m intrigued by a locale that is in some way at odds with itself, uncanny, and my job then is to find out how it came to be that way. I tend to have an affinity with the minor histories of a place, things that might even be invisible to people who live there. So the ‘return of the repressed’ in some instances might even have to do with a repressed history, as with the legacy of free jazz in “Hors-champs”.

JB: You work with video and film, media that are most widely used to reach mass audiences, and whose productions—TV programs and movies—are often “obsessed with their own internal logic.” (I’m paraphrasing you on “Happy Talk News”). Yet, many of your close friends in Vancouver are poets, people who are not just obsessed with the shifting of commas, but in extracting meaning from details and deconstructing language and its formulas. (I might also add that poets generally work for audiences that are even smaller than those for the visual arts). How do ideas of poetry inform your own work, which has to deal with both images and language, or images and sound?

SD: In a very literal way, knowing the writers that I do helped me learn how to talk about my work. There is a writer’s collective in Vancouver called the Kootenay School of Writing which, in the early 1980s, had moved down to Vancouver from the interior city of Nelson BC after the college they were a part of had been shut down by a conservative provincial government. Over time, their workshops became less prominent than their readings and exhibitions (there was then an art gallery associated with KSW, Artspeak, first run collectively, then by a curator named Cate Rimmer). In the mid 1980s they held a series of lectures called Artists/Writers/Talks. The name is pretty self-explanatory: The writers and artist who hung around together at readings and opening were invited to explain their work to one another in a more or less formal setting. I really didn’t enjoy art school that much—as elsewhere, aside from NSCAD* I suppose, there was a strong prejudice against language and theory among most of the students and much of the faculty. These talks were the firs time that I found myself in a conversational community larger than handful of friends where we were able to hash out ideas over an extended period of time.

The writers at KSW were varied. Some wrote prose fiction, but the majority were poets, usually avoiding the institution of Canadian Literature by either looking to the post-war US modernists or, especially, by an engagement with the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School of the late 1970s. They would no doubt hate this, but you could call Language Writing a sort-of anti-humanist lyric poetry which, for moments, effaces subjectivity in an attempt to make language itself speak. The Television Spots and Monodramas incorporated this idea in the fact that they broadcast anonymously. The last thing I wanted people to think was that what they were seeing was art: in order to be effective or productive, it had to appear that television itself had begun to confuse its strict conventions. I think the contact with poetry is also where I became interested in vernaculars of representation—something nascent in the television pieces, and more fully articulated in the installations from 1992—the idea that different cultures will make very different use (articulations) of the same medium (language) from region to region.

JB: Michel Foucault said that “language is the first and last structure of madness.” Do you agree?

SD: If I understand this remark, it means that madness is invisible until there is a language to describe it—much like the history of sexuality Foucault recounts in his late work, where certain sexualities did not exist until they were ‘invented’ by discourse in the late nineteenth century. Reading books like “Discipline and Punish” certainly influenced my interest in vernaculars of representation—and the idea that as a language disappears the things that it was invented to describe disappear also. In “Evening Happy Talk News” the theatricalization of television news programs and its alignment with entertainment did away with dry, paternalistic news reading but also reduced the amount of editorializing that wasn’t just opinion. When there is a paradigm shift, the new paradigm isn’t necessarily better just because it is newer, and vice versa.

JB: Would you describe your work as ‘mannerist’, in the way, say, that Robert Smithson define Hitchcock’s and Eisenstein’s films as mannerist (disclosing or recovering a sense of primal evil), or the way Brecht contrived always to achieve an ‘alienating effect’?

SD: The words ‘primal’ and ‘mannerist’ don’t really sound right together. And even though I don’t recognize the quote, and I’m not exactly sure of its context, I guess mannerism is what happens when an old paradigm of representation begins to lose its transparency and its forms can be put to new uses. This is what happened in Mannerism proper vis à vis the Renaissance, and it’s what happened to modernism in the post-war period. People talk about high modernism in, say, Ad Reinhardt or Joseph Kosuth but this work had very little to do with the pre-war avant-garde because there was little social relationship and no sense of the future; because it was art obsessed with art. Formal transformations of artistic institutions were proposed, and the attenuation of meaning resulted.

JB: You’re talking about pre-war art being art-obsessed, right?

SD: Ah, well, no, I thought I was saying exactly the opposite: that pre-war modernism was engaged with meaning in the world and the transformation of how meaning could be made in the future, whereas the post-war practice I indicated was obsessed with the institution of art as an enclosed, autonomous system. The alienation effect, for example, offered a transformed sense of spectatorship—an attitude, really—which the audience could take home with them. But if an artist is only concerned with defining or expanding the boundaries of the category of art then their work becomes mannerist in the negative sense. This happened with a lot of conceptual art in the 1970s and more recent morbid symptoms are those varieties of so-called public art which appropriate public discourses to the art world without reciprocity. But of course even the “Three Penny Opera” was ruined by its own success: you can hear it each time “Mack the Knife” is sung without its original violence and irony.

JB: In 1988 you organized the exhibition “Samuel Beckett: Teleplays” for the Vancouver Art Gallery, which included Beckett’s “Film” and versions of the seven works he wrote specifically for television. The exhibition travelled and you lectured on Beckett a number of times over the following two years. The way so many of your own works loop, repeat themselves endlessly, is reminiscent of many of Beckett’s works (where “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible,” as Jean Anouilh wrote in praise of Beckett’s most famous play, “Waiting for Godot”). What’s your connection to Beckett and why is he important to you?

SD: I organized that show basically so I could see the work. I had become interested in Beckett a few years earlier when I picked up one of his books, “Company”, in a store and realized that it had just been published, when I had the impression that Beckett was either dead or in Beckettian silence. You usually only hear about Godot or “Endgame”, but I was particularly struck by his late work in general—the pieces more or less contemporary with the Teleplays—and his prose in particular. I had been taught in school that Beckett was about endings and stalemates, but his writing became for me more of a beginning, a ground zero, the a priori skepticism with which one has to regard language and representation in order to speak while remaining aware of the influence of ideology, for example.

Yes, the looping that is everywhere in my work comes from Beckett, but the primary difference is that in his work structures of words repeat while their utterance changes, and in mine the looping utterance stays the same, by way of mechanical means, while perception of it changes. It’s like polyphonic music: except in memory, you can’t attend to all the voices simultaneously, you have to decide which details to focus on.

JB: Finally, I wanted to ask: between Ruskin, B.C. and Schönberg’s 12-tone system, the Schrebergarten and now Strathcona in Vancouver, you’ve done a lot of work about failed utopic projects. What fascinates you about these failures? Do you think you’re any more tuned into this theme coming from B.C. (the whole province is peppered with little colonies of idealists)?

SD: The failed utopia thing goes much deeper than that—its almost as bad as the double thing—all of the installations I’ve made since 1992 deal with this conundrum in one way or another. Certainly, British Columbia is a province that since the late nineteenth century, was colonized by people looking for an outside, an elsewhere, where they could establish utopian communities based on ethnic, political or religious ideals and this, along with radical exploitation of natural resources, became the local tradition. (But I have to admit that I was pretty ignorant of all that until I began conducting research on Ruskin.) The installations have focused on minor yet pivotal moments in modernity, a moment when society could have gone one way or another. I’m not necessarily nostalgic for these communities, I don’t necessarily agree with what they represented, but I was interested in the fact that a community like a language or culture paradigm becomes a place that makes peculiar ideas possible, and when it disappears those ideas disappear also.

JEN BUDNEY is a writer living in Milan.

*NSCAD is the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax Canada. Stan Douglas graduated from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, on the opposite coast.

SIKSI, 8.1, Spring 1998
Robert Enright & Stan Douglas

Nearly two decades after puzzling Canadian TV viewers with his ‘Television Spots’ (1988), originally conceived as cryptic 15- or 30-second adverts selling absolutely nothing on commercial networks, Stan Douglas has gained a reputation as an enigmatic artist; his films, videos and photographs refining an aesthetic in which meaning is provisional and migratory. It should come as no surprise that he has made a film reworking the idea behind “Rashomon”, Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece. In “Klatsassin” (2006) Douglas constructs a coastal rainforest Western, populated by a cast of unreliable narrators whose multiple accounts of a violent incident are as much a philosophical statement as they are episodes in a film narrative. 

Douglas understands history as a string of contingencies. This recognition sets an elegiac tone for much of his work, marked by a fascination with those moments when historical events might have taken a different turn. What if the Cuban Revolution, the colonization of Vancouver Island, the political unrest in Paris in May of 1968, had turned out differently? In posing these questions he constructs lost histories in the guise of newly imagined narratives. These re-imaginings reflect on their own conditional nature, and their way of telling mirrors the tale being told. Douglas’ films and videos have no beginning and no end. As he says, ‘life is all middle’.

Before we talked at his Vancouver studio, Douglas showed me his most recent project, “Vidéo” (2006), which conflates two extant film sources: Samuel Beckett’s “Film” (1965) and Orson Welles’ “The Trial” (1962). Hybridizing the style and tone of his sources, he sets his story in contemporary Paris and comes up with a haunting narrative that insinuates a sense of disturbing watchfulness and past and present danger.
-Robert Enright

ROBERT ENRIGHT: How did you come to make “Vidéo” using the two sources you chose?

STAN DOUGLAS: Early last year I was teaching in Berlin and being harassed, for odd reasons, by the university administration. One evening I was to meet two curators from the Centre Pompidou in Paris to discuss the possibility of me doing a new work for the Beckett exhibition. I had been thinking about Beckett’s “Film” as a kind of cinematic lipogram, in which we never see a reverse shot of the protagonist until the very end, but I didn’t really know what I would do. As I was getting ready to go to the meeting I noticed a copy of Kafka’s “The Trial” (1925) on a bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying and everything clicked: I remembered seeing Orson Welles’ version of “The Trial”, filmed in the derelict Gare D’Orsay and, what I presumed, were the then-new Paris suburbs, then I remembered that I had been staying in the same apartment while the riots were going on in Parisian banlieues during the fall of 2005. Welles actually shot his exteriors among housing projects in Zagreb but I stuck with my original inclination and used locations on the outskirts of Paris. It turned out that the place I was most interested in, La Courneuve, was the site of the most violent demonstrations in November 2005, and the tower I liked best was the fictional home of the heroine in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” (1967).

RE: What’s notable is the way film history is implicated in your making of a film.

SD: Yes, people often say that it’s impossible to have an original idea because everything has already been thought of, or that every book is the rewriting of a book that has already been written. I try to be honest in the way I work with these source materials and admit freely and immediately what I am elaborating upon. But since these stories are very basic and shared in a certain way, it is the time, manner and matter of the telling that makes one thing unique or different.

RE: Does it matter whether people are as aware as you are of the sources and references in the film? Does the viewer need to bring the same knowledge to the seeing that you bring to the making?

SD: It is, and it isn’t necessary for the viewer to be as aware. At a certain point, if you can’t parse the work just by experiencing it and having everyday knowledge of television and film – if it doesn’t work from the level of a person coming at it cold, then it really isn’t successful. If you have to have an exterior text to explain what the work is, then the work isn’t complete in itself. Somebody who does know these historical references can have a more complex understanding of what’s going on, but it’s absolutely not necessary.

RE: Can you ever look at a film innocently?

SD: Of course, but no filmmaker is truly innocent. They’ve looked at other films in order to make their own, so they’re never pure to begin with. And being aware of other approaches helps any filmmaker break their habits, especially when they discover their own habits in the work of someone else.

RE: Is your looking invariably a kind of research?

SD: I can go to a film just for fun or distraction. But I do have a memory. I never imagined when I watched “The Trial” that I would make a film either based on it or that refers to it. But it was somewhere in the back of my mind so that I was able to make the connection when I needed it. This is how intuition works. An artist’s experience becomes a tool kit, an inventory of techniques, that can be put together in a quick fashion.

RE: You may start with intuition, but you are quite serious about inquiring into every aspect of what making the film might entail.

SD: Yes, but a lot of the research turns out to be of no use. I do research to a point where I know enough about a situation that I don’t have to think about it anymore. That’s what the research is for; it’s not to illustrate something you’ve researched directly, but to have an understanding of the flavour of a situation or a moment in time. This is the difference between what Marcel Proust called ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ memory.

RE: Is it an inevitable development that your work gets more complicated? If I think of what happens in “Overture” (1986) and compare it to “Inconsolable Memories” (2005) or “Klatsassin”, I realize how much more layered these later projects are becoming.

SD: They’re certainly more complicated than “Overture”, which was just a matter of taking the Edison Company’s pre-existing film and Proust’s pre-existing novel, chopping them up, duplicating them and then putting them together in a certain order. Now I’m writing the words and making the pictures myself, with the help of a 30- or 40-person crew. Those two pieces are certainly less complicated than a studio film, but I got a taste the kind of work that any independent filmmaker has to do in order to make a feature.

RE: Do you think of yourself as an independent filmmaker?

SD: Because I’m self-trained, I’m still a little uncomfortable when I’m around a real filmmaker. Nevertheless something I really enjoy these days is working with actors and learning to work with their skills in maintaining a character over a period of time. A lot of what I asked actors to do before was quite technical but the recent projects have allowed me to develop dramatic situations. It took me a long time to figure out what a director’s responsibility was, but I was able to deduce it from what the cast and crew expected of me. You don’t go too far into the minutiae of your collaborators’ respective crafts, or you will just piss them off, but you have to be either extremely precise or confidently vague about what you want in order to avoid some nasty surprises. Editing is extremely important also, it’s something I like too because it is, in effect, the time when you make the final draft of your script, if there is one.

RE: You spent the good portion of a year researching and working on a Beckett project, so he’s obviously been a seminal figure for you.

SD: I was interested in theatre when I was in high school, and particularly in “Waiting for Godot” (1952). I guess teenage angst played a certain role, but then I forgot about Beckett when I went to art school. Towards the end of my studies I found a copy of “Company” (1979) and I realized Beckett was still alive and writing. I thought he wrote “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame” (1957), then gave up. I was so impressed that I started reading Beckett in reverse order and discovered that his later books were much more successful than the canonical ones.

RE: So he re-seduced you back into his world?

SD: Exactly. For example, “Not I” (1972) became my favourite work of art: a voice talks about herself coming into being through language. Language is something she doesn’t really trust, but it is the only thing she has to make herself exist. That’s the fascinating tautology of the work: the writing is suspicious of itself, but it’s the only thing it has to realize itself. The thing I owe to Beckett is an understanding of the impossibility of communication as something a priori but not absolute. The received wisdom is that his work circles around an endgame and collapses into pure interiority, but I think it stages a condition of doubt and suspicion from which communication can begin.

RE: You seem invariably to start from the interstitial, from the in-between.

SD: Yes. Working in the form of loops with these recombinant pieces you can’t really talk about beginnings or ends, which are arbitrary and often produced by the ideological or formal requirements of a narrative form. I mean, life is all middle.

RE: You’re articulating a lack of certainty inside a frame that has a certain degree of certainty about it. Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?

SD: Sometimes the certainty is false. To instill confidence in the people you’re working with as a director you have to pretend to know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Sometimes you have to make leaps that allow the process to continue. You also have to allow a space for improvisation. So it’s a matter of creating a space that’s flexible enough that things can go wrong, where you can let other people contribute ideas to make the project more than you expected. If it’s not different and more than you had planned originally, it’s probably not worth doing. It should have probably remained a script. What I end up with is never what I expected and always different from what I intended. When I was developing “Klatsassin”, I was inspired to revisit “Rashomon” after walking through Stanley Park one day and seeing dappled light coming in through the trees. Kurosawa shot the trial scenes in direct sunlight and the contradictory versions of the murder under the cover of trees with only specks of light punctuating the scene. We planned to shoot our murder scenes in a similar way but the weather didn’t cooperate, it was cloudy. This meant that the visual metaphor would change. It was not what I had imagined, but it still works.

RE: There is an interesting sense of layering in “Klatsassin”; you go to Kurosawa and you end up with a Western set in British Columbia. How did that work?

SD: Kurosawa was criticized for being too Western. He often took Western narratives and applied them to his films, or people in the West would make Westerns from his Samurai stories.

RE: There’s a murder that happens outside 11th-century Kyoto in Kurosawa’s film, and there’s a murder in “Klatsassin” as well. How much play do you allow yourself with the narrative you inherit from Kurosawa?

SD: There was a lot of play. In “Rashomon” you have a bandit, a ronin and his wife; in “Klatsassin” a thief, a deputy and his prisoner. In both cases there is a scene with rain, from which the strangers who meet are seeking shelter, but the ruin of a city gate is very different from a relatively new roadhouse. In “Rashomon” the characters have arrived by chance, in “Klatsassin” they are where they are because of their different reactions to a gold rush.

RE: It’s a pretty fantastic-looking cast of characters evident in the related photographic portraits you made. They seem more filmic.

SD: They all have great faces, faces with peculiar kinds of experience, but they were all types. In that historical situation you would meet people and not care to know them well, but you would care about their function. Are they useful to you or will they be a problem? What is their function up here and how will it affect me? I never gave them names: they all go by their profession or function.

RE: Do you always develop photographic work out of a film, either prior or afterwards? Has that become a necessary part of your practice?

SD: It’s not necessary, but it’s a parallel thing. It’s often a way of understanding where I am and what I’m looking at. For the recent ‘Western’ series (2006), I followed the Gold Rush Trail up the Fraser Valley to Barkerville in order to understand the landscape. Obviously it’s not the same as it was in the 19th century, but I could at least start to imagine the situations miners were walking through. I visited a spooky ghost town at a place called Quesnelle Forks that I didn’t expect to find. But I must say that my ‘destination’ was a bit of a disappointment, when I discovered that Barkerville had been made into a theme park, with actors walking around in 19th-century clothing, speaking with English accents and doing street theatre.

RE: It’s interesting that very few people appear in the photographs you made in Cuba in 2004–5. There is evidence of human activity, just not much human presence.

SD: I consider those photographs to be less about absence than the stage of an action. As soon as you put in a person, it becomes theatre. We try to understand what they are doing there, what they are thinking, instead of viewing it as an architectural space or an environment with some kind of social potential.

RE: You say you want to avoid theatre, but there’s a lot of theatricality in the film work you’ve been doing.

SD: It’s very easy for me to do moving pictures of people, but still images I find very difficult because in a moving picture the person exceeds your expectations in some way. They’re always moving, they’re always fleeting; you can’t hold them and say ‘this is what they are, this is what they represent’. When they’re static, it imposes a certainty on their condition with which I have trouble.

RE: The Cuban photographs for “Inconsolable Memories” (2005) seem to function differently from the ‘Nootka Sound’ photographs (1996), where you’re doing more traditional landscapes.

SD: The ‘Nootka Sound’ pictures cover an area which to the untrained eye seems like a natural situation. But if you look at it carefully, you realize it’s been logged at least twice. Plus I was looking at different traces of human presence there: either swamps created by the run-off from logging, a fish trap that is 3,000 years old and still in use, a well that was built by the Spanish when they were there in the 18th century or the replica of a longhouse inside a Catholic church that was a gift from the Spanish state, perversely commemorating their conquest of the area.

RE: So your engagement with a place is always implicated in its political uses?

SD: In this work I was conscious of doing an anti-Group of Seven piece [A group of Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s]. Instead of being a landscape ready for exploitation because it is supposedly empty, I wanted to show a landscape that was full of people, that was full of human presence, native as well as European.

RE: So in that sense it’s the same as what you call your ‘re-purposed’ places in Cuba. There is a history of political and economic use in both those places.

SD: For me it was like a microcosm of the revolution itself. You re-purpose a state or a country when you have a revolution, but you still see what it was prior to that. You can’t completely revolutionize a country. In a way it’s an analogue of what was going on in a larger scale in Cuba.

RE: You can’t tell from the Cuban photographs whether this is a place that is being rehabilitated or an image that traces the destruction of that place.

SD: That’s exactly what it’s like. Is this going forward, is it going backward, is it in stasis? A lot of the locations in Cuba are like that.

RE: Is looking for places like that your reckoning with the failure of Modernism? I guess what I’m thinking is that all places carry a similar sense of failure. The Modernist project wasn’t the only one to put forward that notion, but don’t all Utopias fail? By its very definition, Utopia is ‘no place’.

SD: Or they don’t last forever. Maybe there was Utopia in Cuba for a little while and it’s not there any more. Maybe it’s working towards a future that it can never realize but that desire is the Utopia. Literacy in Cuba is higher than in the US even now, and there were probably moments in the 1960s when the revolution was functioning very well, in spite of the fact that the US was actively attempting to depose Fidel Castro. Maybe it’s just me, but there had always been something mythical about Cuba. I went to Cuba because I was curious. I’d met a lot of Cuban artists, and I wanted to see what their home was like before it changed, because it will be a very different place once gerontocracy is over.

RE: So much of your work has been concerned with finding a notion of social justice and freedom inside society. Where did that come from, and why has it seemed so persistent a search in your work?

SD: It would seem self-evident that these things are important. The social utility of art is that it provides a language to talk about something that is very complicated in a very condensed manner, or to experience something that you thought was familiar in a new way. In my work I am addressing things I don’t initially understand. I try to make a model of transient or mutable conditions in order to understand them. Hopefully, it will have the same use for other people.

RE: People remark on the complications of your looping. You have a piece that the viewer has to look at for three days before they see all the permutations. Why not make a simpler version of that narrative?

SD: It’s not a matter of seeing every possible combination, because it really doesn’t change that much after a certain point. Once you’ve seen all the elements, it’s there in your head as a possible construct. It’s just that I’m not forcing a certain narrative sequence that determines its being understood in a particular way – I’m allowing associative possibilities for an audience, depending on when they arrive and when they decide to leave the work. These aren’t linear works, there is no beginning or end, and there’s absolutely no reason to see all the permutations.

RE: “I’m not Gary” from the ‘Monodramas’ (1991) is a very focused example of how we can thoroughly misunderstand the notion of race: maybe in a benign way, maybe in not so benign a way. How much has your being black played into your work? The question of the Other and its relation to mainstream culture seems so central to much of what you do.

SD: I grew up black in Vancouver, which in my youth was a mostly white culture with a large Asian and South Asian component, but not so many people of African or Caribbean descent. So I felt quite isolated and was always in that condition of being the Other. There is an outsider figure in all of my works, who is, I suppose, a surrogate for myself. If you want to psychologize – which I don’t. In any event, the situation in “I’m not Gary” actually happened to me. I was walking down the street and some guy said, ‘Hi, Gary, how are you doing’, and he seemed so certain I was Gary that for a second I doubted myself.

RE: You have resisted the autobiographical as a way of reading your work, haven’t you?

SD: Yes. Even though I began this interview with a personal anecdote. I just don’t think that works of art should be treated as symptoms of an artist’s biography. It’s bad enough to say that a work of art is a riddle to be solved, what’s worse is to say that the artist’s personality is the key. The suggestion that a work of art is an effect of personality is highly reductive and shuts down interpretation unless, as in the case of Warhol but very few others, persona is your medium. We know very little about Shakespeare, but Shakespeare is still interesting to us.

RE: Has film been the thing that has interested you the most? Why did you choose that medium as the principal focus of your practice?

SD: Is that true? I guess it was always ‘film’ in quotation marks. It didn’t begin there; I began with video, and even then I wasn’t a real video artist, I made ‘video’ so I could work with television — and those videos were all shot on 16 mm film. I have used different idioms of representation – silent film, news broadcasting, musical entertainment, television programmes – working within the language and vocabulary of a pre-existing medium.

RE: The ‘Television Spots’ and the ‘Monodramas’ are absolutely perplexing for a television viewer. They don’t follow through on the delivery of our conditioned expectations for the medium or the message.

SD: I suspect they’re obsolete by now because we’re used to teaser ads which seem to have no apparent point. When I was first invited to do “Hors-champs” (1992) at the Centre Pompidou, I think I was invited to make French Television spots. But when I finally saw French television, I realized they wouldn’t work at all because the look of their TV was already heterogeneous. The strict genre rules of advertising and broadcasting that we knew in North America didn’t really exist there, and I had to look at something else.

RE: The two-sided screen in “Hors-champs” allows you to see what’s happening off-screen. Where did the idea come from for structuring the piece in that way?

SD: Good question. It had to do with the Hors-champs – the out-of-field, the thing you cannot see. I didn’t know what would happen until it was actually made in space. I just thought of un-opposing things being withheld in a certain way. But having one image surrounded by the halo of an absent image was quite powerful.

RE: Do you ever set yourself a problem in making a work of art?

SD: The idea of a work of art being a puzzle that has a solution is not very interesting. Why wouldn’t you simply state the problem and the solution? Why go through the process of making the thing? The ambiguities or, to put it positively, the possibilities of an image that does not have a clear-cut answer allow me to be productive in different and unexpected ways. The thing I always wait for is to be told something about a work of art that I didn’t anticipate.

RE: A filmmaker like Peter Greenaway sets a problem in his films, or uses a puzzle as a point of departure. Then the film is an elaborate way of inquiring into that puzzle, as if there were a solution to it.

SD: In Greenaway it’s sort of a mannerist Structuralism, where you’re taking these systematic notions and applying them to a narrative form. In my work the systems are there, but they’re not as important. The recombinant ones are typically for maximum distribution of the narrative elements so that they don’t repeat the same sequences too often. In “Win, Place or Show” (1998) I adopted a technique from Serialist composition and from Arnold Schoenberg, where you don’t repeat any note until you’ve played all the notes in the tone row.

RE: How important are music and sound in what you’re doing?

SD: Sound has become more and more important. Early on I would run out of money before I got to the sound mix, but now it plays a crucial role. “Suspiria” (2003) is intimately involved with being there while the music was being recorded, and then breaking it down to be reassembled by the computer system.

RE: The music in “Hors-champs” also carries heavy political associations, in that it’s connected to May 1968, a period when France had no government for three days. This is one of those times when a revolution almost happened, when things could have turned out differently.

SD: This was in the early 1990s, when Wynton Marsalis was saying that Free Jazz was a mistake, an experiment of youth. In a way the revivalists were saying this period of experimentation didn’t happen, and that they should legitimate jazz by making a new museum of its tradition. When I was in Paris doing research, I met various expatriate American musicians who felt betrayed. They had been intimately involved in the culture, and their music was an emblem for a revolutionary idea. Then, as the people who were involved in 1968 became part of the status quo, they either associated the music with a mistake, or they were reminded of revolutionary ideas they had abandoned. So on the one hand the music was being ignored in a general sense, and on the other it was being ignored in France for a very specific reason.

RE: We’ve discussed the influence of Beckett, but someone else who seems to have informed your work is Bertolt Brecht. Brecht allows us to engage a work of art by being conscious of what are our choices as viewers. Your work also invites that.

SD: Sure, although the alienation effect has a pretension to objectivity that I don’t really agree with. Probably more important for me were the writings on music by Theodor W. Adorno, the idea that in music, which we assume to be either the most expressionistic or formal of media, could be found very discrete social residue or indices. And in the very musical structure of the sonata or the symphonic form he could discover social content. What I found interesting were his close readings of Richard Wagner and Ludwig van Beethoven. His critique of jazz is notoriously dubious, probably because he never really heard it, but his sociology of European music is amazing. I came across his work the year after art school. Typically in art school there was an antagonism towards reading in general, so as an antidote I decided to take on some long books, including “Under the Volcano” (1947) by Malcolm Lowry, “The Making of Americans” (1925) by Gertrude Stein, and “Doctor Faustus” (1947) by Thomas Mann, for which Adorno was the musical adviser. I said, ‘Who’s this Adorno guy?’ and that led me to “The Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1944), “In Search of Wagner” (1938/52) and “The Philosophy of Modern Music” (1949).

RE: Did you read theory because it was useful?

SD It just helped me understand things. As I said before, the function of art is to help me make a model of how the world works, or an aspect of how the world works, in order to understand it better. That’s what a theory is. In the social sciences, or in physics, theory is a proposition, ‘Maybe the world is like this,’ and then pursuing your research according to that idea. In my work I’ve said maybe globalization feels like “Journey into Fear” (2001).

RE: You also seem to be attracted to stories that have been told filmically at least twice before. It seems like doubleness appears a lot in the work.

SD: It’s a bad habit, which I hope I have kicked by now. It was something that occurred a lot early on in my work, things always had this binary structure; in “Hors-champs”, in “Der Sandman” (1995), in “Nu’tka” (1996) in “Win, Place or Show” and in “Journey Into Fear”.

RE: Did you feel it was a structural limitation in the way you were using it?

SD: I just felt it was becoming a bad habit. It began because two is the smallest unit with which you can have conflict. But lately I have shied away from the double screens that I was using.

RE: Does one piece of yours naturally lead you to the next? Is there that kind of causality in the practice? I guess what I’m asking you about is musing, about the source of inspiration.

SD: I try to start from scratch with each new project, but obviously by now I have a tool kit of techniques I use and ways of working with actors and language and the camera that appear again and again. I try to make them as different as possible from each other.

RE: But it seems that story is often a point of departure for you…

SD: I’ll have to think about that. The stories tend to come from a place rather than from a story itself. It’s not like ‘I have a story, so let’s find a place where I can make that story’; it’s more like, ‘Here is this place – what is its story?’

RE: I’m struck every time I come to Vancouver at how distinctive and pervasive a place it is.

SD: I’ve noticed that people who are born here don’t like to leave. I tend to make works that alternate between something very local and something that is away, so it’s away and at home, away and at home. “Klatsassin” was the home story, but then “Vidéo” was shot in Paris. But Vancouver has been important to me, absolutely.

RE: What about your role inside what is recognized within the art world as the Vancouver School?

SD: I wasn’t a really a part of it. Ian Wallace, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ken Lum were a group of artists who’d met every week at the bar. They’d do projects and exhibit together; they’d discuss and write about each other’s work. They developed a very productive relationship. Even though you had the Western Front being part of the Fluxus network, Ian and Ingrid Baxter as N.E. Thing Company establishing international connections within the museum world, it was those four artists who made Vancouver a go-to place for curators and critics. But it’s easier for critics to talk about the Vancouver School brand than it is to talk about the more complex conditions that really exist here. They really can’t get over the fact that so many good artists have developed in this tiny out-of-the-way place on the edge of North America called Vancouver. The really disappointing thing in this city is the general indifference to its own history and culture. Beautiful buildings get torn down all the time and are replaced by monstrosities that aren’t built to last. This neighbourhood is so unhinged because drug dealers and users have been given no-go zones elsewhere in the city. The neighbourhood has been left to go fallow, but that will change because there is only so much real estate here, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.

RE: Are you optimistic about this area? You’ve built your studio here.

SD: Yes. I always had studios in this neighbourhood, from a time when my milieu was not so much just artists as it was artists and poets. The formal and informal discussions instigated by the first incarnation of a writers’ collective here called the Kootenay School of Writing, was a fundamental influence on my practice. The level of conversation at art school wasn’t all that satisfying but the series of artist/writers talks sponsored by KSW were great, if only because there was something one didn’t understand about the other’s medium and you had to explain things that you otherwise took for granted.

RE: Are you surprised by the success you’ve had?

SD: Right place at the right time.

FRIEZE, September 2007
Douglas, Stan. “Talks About Klatsassin, 2006.” ArtForum

Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas has reinvented some of the most significant works of cinema, from his elegantly looping six-minute, 16-mm work “Subject to a Film: Marnie,” 1989, which follows closely from Hitchcock’s 1964 original, to “Suspiria”, 2002/2003, a recombinant video mix of elements borrowed from Dario Argento’s gory, Technicolor-drenched 1977 cult classic of the same name, transposed to an eighteenth-century tower in Kassel, Germany, during Documenta 11. Douglas’s latest offering, “Klatsassin”—a high-definition video that will be screen in abridged form at the Vancouver International Film Festival this month before making its full-fledged debut at the Vienna Secession in November—likewise engages and elaborates a well-known work of cinema. Here the artist refashions Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (1950), a film famous for its multiple, contradictory accounts of a murder in a woods outside eleventh-century Kyoto, as a western set in nineteenth-century British Columbia. Taking the narrative complexity of Kurosawa’s murder mystery to a logical, if perverse, extreme, “Klatsassin” is Douglas’s most ambitious and perhaps most audacious act of appropriations yet.

More ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ than “Gunsmoke,” “Klatsassin,” with its diverse cast that includes a German miner, a prospector and his partner, a thief, a Scottish constable, an English innkeeper, and a Tsîlhqot’in (Chilcotin) prisoner, transforms “Rashomon” into a branching narrative that weaves digressively through five different time periods and multiple, conflicting stories of a murder. To see all 840 permutations unfold, one would have to watch the gallery-bound installation from more than three days.

In his ongoing exploration of looping structures, which began with “Overture” in 1986, Douglas has persistently transformed the way one might employ film and video to construct elliptical narratives and unexpected temporal models. Yet for all its technical sophistication and labyrinthine complexity, “Klatsassin” exploits a relatively simple binary opposition: a poetic tension between the repetitive precision of cinematic time and the fluidity of subjective experience—most specifically in the imperfection of human memory. Inscribing this tension in the formal operations of his film, Douglas circles around—and beyond—the raw materials of Kurosawa’s classic to produce a historically based, subtly allegorical western without end. -Michael Ned Holte

1000 Words

STAN DOUGLAS Talks About “Klatsassin” 2006

I don’t necessarily like westerns as a genre. The idea for “Klatsassin” came from walking in the woods on day, seeing dappled light in the forest, and being reminded of the light in “Rashomon”—during the various recollections of the fight scene. When I saw the film again I realized that the differing versions of the same event were germane to my work. So Kurosawa’s movie became an interesting raw material to work with.

Many of Kurosawa’s films have been made into westerns. “Yojimbo” became, scene by scene, “A Fist Full of Dollars”; “The Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven”. And even “Rashomon,” I was dismayed to discover, had been remade as a western called “The Outrage”, starring William Shatner, Edward G. Robinson, and Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit. It’s quite awful. So, in a way, I’m making good to Kurosawa by doing a tribute to “Rashomon” properly.

This is a dub western. We have a set of narrative materials that are repeated and recombined to create new variations, which is what happens in dub music, where multiple versions are derived from a single song. The use of a dub track in “Klatsassin,” by Berlin’s Rhythm & Sound, is an analogue to the overall structure of the piece. It’s also a kind of readymade. A readymade is something that is re-contextualized and means something new in that new context—but you still have an idea of what it was in its original context, so it can be two things at the same time. It can be polyphonic.

My film is set in the time of a native insurgency that took place in British Columbia in 1864. It was the Tsîlhqot’in nation’s response to a gold rush that had begun midcentury and brought a lot of people from Europe and the United States—and with them, smallpox. This is where Klatsassin, a Tsîlhqot’in chief whose name literally means “we do not know his name,” comes in. With the memory still fresh of an epidemic that took the lives of thousands of natives in the region, many Indians up there didn’t want Europeans crossing their territory. Klatsassin himself led a war party that killed fourteen people in a day. Unable to capture any of the insurgents, the governor sent Klatsassin a gift of tobacco, which the chief interpreted as a peace offering. When he came in to negotiate a treaty to end what he regarded as a war, he was tried for murder, and hanged. Armed escorts transported Chedekki, the only member of the war party left alive, to New Westminster to see if an eyewitness could identify him, but he escaped en route. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened, and that’s where my story begins.

Principal photography was done around Vancouver, and we shot second unit in various places up in an area call the Cariboo. It’s a different landscape than one normally sees in westerns. I researched the languages spoken there in the nineteenth century, and I looked at the history of this area—the way people dressed, the way they interacted, where they came from, and so on. In “Klatsassin,” I don’t think any two characters are the same nationality or speak the same language. They’re all from different places, scrambling to get their gold. It reminded me of today—people from the US and Europe trying to get the most valuable thing in the world out of the earth in a place where they’re not really welcome. And there was an insurgency. And a prisoner with a bag over his head.

Often we see in galleries motion pictures that have a beginning and an end—linear films that are made to repeat. I first proposed a looping idea in 1986, in “Overture”, which really is a loop: There’s no beginning and no end. Other looping pieces, like “Subject to a Film Marnie” and “Der Sandmann,” 1995, have a semblance of linear narrative, beginning and end, but mostly it’s all middle. With the recombinant pieces, such as “Journey into Fear and Suspiria,” it’s taken to a new level. These works change over time, and often very long intervals pass before they repeat themselves; they are branching narratives, no longer linear or one-dimensional. It’s a matter of extending the possibilities of temporal form far beyond the ninety-minute, three-act dramatic structure Hollywood loves.

My most complex recombinant work would be “Suspiria,” which lasts so long it might as well be infinite. It is comedic but also quite complicated and it takes maybe an hour for the viewer to understand what’s going on. In “Klatsassin” the structure is apparent after ten or fifteen minutes, but it takes days for all the permutations to play out. And that makes it virtually impossible for two different viewers to see the same thing the same way—much like the characters in “Rashomon”.

ARTFORUM, October 2006