At the Venice Biennale, Canadian art star Stan Douglas explores the meaning of protest in the age of social media

At first glance, the four huge protest photographs by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas on display in the small, angular Canada Pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale look like a news report.

There is an aerial view of the Tottenham riots in the UK, with smoke, scattered protesters and police flanks; a scene from Occupy Wall Street in New York with arrested non-violent resistance fighters; groups of young people gathered on the main avenue of Tunis, Tunisia, peacefully discussing politics and an alternative future at the start of the Arab Spring; and the Vancouver riots after the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup Final, with a crowd of hockey fans cheering on an overturned car that was set on fire.

Yet upon closer examination, the viewer notices that every person, object, and structure captured by the camera is in sharp focus and fully rendered.

These images are not photojournalism at all, but painstakingly produced reimaginings of real events, all of which took place in 2011.

Photograph by Stan Douglas Tunis, January 23, 2011, from the series 2011 ≠ 1848, currently exhibited at the Venice Biennale. (Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Venice, and David Zwirner, New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong)

“It’s the idea of ​​poetic condensation,” said Douglas, one of Canada’s most internationally acclaimed artists, “to have so much information in one place to allow the viewer to see them and analyze them as he wishes. He has a feeling of unreality.

“But I’m not trying to fool anyone. I’m saying this build is less of a snapshot of the moment, and more of a schematic or diagram of a riot.”

A view of Stan Douglas’ photography New York, October 10, 2011, hung at the 2022 Venice Biennale. (Venice Biennale)

He calls this form “hybrid documentaries”.

The two-part exhibition — the photographic series 2011 ≠ 1848 and installation video ISDNin another part of Venice – marks Douglas’ fifth appearance at the Venice Art Biennale, perhaps the most prestigious art exhibition in the world.

But this is his first show as an officially selected Canadian artist, and the first time Canada has chosen a black artist.

The virality of protest

In 2011 ≠ 1848Douglas links the 2011 protests to the widespread upheaval of the “Spring of Nations” of 1848, when bourgeois uprisings against the aristocracy erupted across Europe.

Douglas is interested in the similarities between the two years – the 1848 protests spread using print technology, while the 2011 protests exploded using social media.

Speaking of the photos from the Venice Biennale, Vancouver artist Stan Douglas said, “I’m not trying to fool anyone. I say this construct is less of a snapshot of the moment, and more of a blueprint or diagram of a riot. (Courtesy of Evaan Kheraj, the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner)

“A lot of the events that you see depicted have been made bigger by people saying, ‘This is happening. Come down. The example of the Arab Spring is what inspired Occupy Wall Street,” he said.

But there are key differences: 1848 ultimately led to the formation of nation states, while the social inequality that fomented the 2011 protests – a ripple effect of the Great Recession from 2007 to 2009 – remains depressing unresolved, he said.

Other events since then, including the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter, have shed light on underlying social inequalities.

The second part of the Douglas show, ISDNis set just before 2011, when the use of the digital transmission system to transmit audio over traditional telephone lines began to decline, and is more optimistic.

Two giant screens hang in a disused 16th century salt warehouse with British grime musicians projected onto one and Mahraganate artists (who merge hip hop, electro and Egyptian folk music) on the other hand.

The two groups of rappers seem to perform an endless call-and-response, but it’s fictional, as they were each recorded separately, without listening to the other.

WATCH | British and Egyptian rappers collaborate in Stan Douglas’ ISDN video installation:

RNIS Venice Biennale video installation

In Vancouver artist Stan Douglas’ ISDN video installation, British grime artists Lady Sanity and True Mendous perform an imaginary call-and-response with Cairo-based musician Raptor. 0:50

The result is a joyful imaginary collaboration session, with bass lines, drums, melodies and effects tracks on different time loops creating an “improvised” jam that lasts over three days before repeating itself in the same order.

“They both took the model from American hip hop…but then incorporated a local idiom with that,” said Douglas of British and Egyptian Music. “In the play, a third idiom emerges through [the imaginary ISDN] collaboration. Your mind makes connections where there may not be any.”

Sign of ‘incredible maturity’

Douglas, 61, studied at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver and now spends half his time in Los Angeles, where he is chair of the graduate program at ArtCenter College of Design .

He has spent a career making photographs, films and more recently theater exploring failed utopias and alternative histories related to urban planning, technology and post-colonialism.

He uses elaborate techniques for his photographs. Shoots can last for days, during which dozens of actors are photographed on a sound stage, sometimes one at a time, then composited with a digital plate of the location.

Douglas has a strong fan base in the art and film world.

“It’s interesting to look at the history of the world through four photos and [process] everything that happened and what happened,” said German art curator Bettina Steinbruegge, referring to 2011 ≠ 1848.

Photo by Stan Douglas Vancouver, June 15, 2011. (Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Venice, and David Zwirner, New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong)

“And then you see the rap musicians, who are very political and a younger generation. That’s a good way to see what’s going on, all this turmoil. We live in a world that’s changing fast and it’s quite aggressive, and I think he captured it very well.”

Mark Peranson, editor of Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope, is equally enthusiastic.

“The way he composes the video stylistically with the iterations of the algorithm works really well with rap music,” he said. “Because there is no strict narrative [with rap], it worked. And the music is great.”

Reid Shier, curator of the Canada Pavilion in Venice and a member of the National Gallery of Canada’s three-person committee that chose Douglas to represent Canada, calls him an incredibly generous and approachable artist.

“If you enter ISDN and you don’t know anything about Stan Douglas or contemporary art, you’re going to be confronted with a work that speaks to an experience of listening to music in real time,” he said. “It’s not something you have to go in and read like a long instructional sign to understand. You can get it visually, sensory, aurally, in so many different ways, and it’s incredible maturity.”

“International Interconnection”

Although race is a constant element in Douglas’ work, it is not explicitly autobiographical and is generally part of a larger exploration of post-colonialism.

His 1991 short film, I am not Gary, features a white man mistakenly calling a black man he meets on Gary Street, a commentary on racial invisibility. In inconsolable memories (2005), Douglas reflects the experience of a working-class black Cuban.

A still from Stan Douglas’ 2005 film Inconsolable Memories. (Courtesy of the artist/Art Gallery of York University)

He says he had an abiding interest in the breed, but resisted showing it from a purely regional perspective, citing another early work, The Sandmann (1995), which features an Afro-German character whose experience is closer to his own.

He is “kind of an outside figure”, which is similar to Douglas’ experience of “growing up in Vancouver with a predominantly white population”.

Douglas says this year’s Venice show has been the most fun so far – he’s been here enough to know what to expect and be able to relax. But he bristles at the idea of ​​“representing Canada” as the country’s official artist this time around.

“I have a problem with the idea of ​​identity, so in representing Canada, I’m not representing Canada — I’m representing international interconnectedness,” he said, a point underscored in his work.

“I identify as Canadian, but I don’t want to say, ‘This is Canada.’ I have no idea what that is. Producing a national myth about what Canada is is not really doable. Unlike the United States, it’s all run by people who can’t stand each other but who love their constitution, their revolution or whatever. In Canada, we don’t have those unifying myths.

“I identify as Canadian, but I don’t want to say, ‘This is what Canada is,'” Douglas said. ‘I have no idea what [Canadian identity] is. Producing a national myth about what Canada is is not really feasible. (Michael Courtney)

Although Canada has no unifying myths, one could argue that it does have a certain unifying mode of expression that, even in the contemporary art world, avoids hyperbole and self-glorification.

When asked if he’s surprised at how well his career as an artist has gone, Douglas laughs.

“Oh yeah, I never thought I wouldn’t have to work,” he said. “When I arrived, waiting to have [an art] career was very weak, especially as a Canadian. »

He pauses, then gives a low-key – one might say quintessentially Canadian – explanation of his success.

“Luck. Right place, right time.”