An Interview with Stan Douglas
If Stan Douglas weren’t a filmmaker, video artist and photographer, he’d be a writer. He thinks like a writer. When he talks about his projects and bodies of work, how they come into being and how they develop, it is like listening to a novelist outlining a plot, setting a scene or describing a character. He provides a narrative frame in which stories and characters present and configure themselves, often in complicated situations. Douglas has been interested in written language for a long time. In Vancouver in the ’90s he attended the talks and readings organized by the KSW, the Kootenay School of Writing, a writers’ collective in which artists, writers and poets discussed the various connections among their art forms. The discussions at KSW were also resolutely political. Douglas has said that the KSW was a fundamental influence on his practice, the trace of which is evident in the ways that art and politics overlap in much of his work.
What is consistent about Douglas’s narratives is that they are always in flux. It is a literary convention that the epic poem begins in media res, so the reader enters the story in the moment of its occurrence. In this sense Douglas’s predisposition is epic (I am inclined to use that word to describe the amount and quality of his production, as well). Characteristically, there are no beginnings and endings in his work; as he says, “life is all middles.” He has gone to considerable lengths to reflect that temporal condition. Suspiria, a video made in 2003, is constructed from over 250 story fragments and two hours of music that together generate an infinite number of visual and aural sequences. In making it he designed a system that makes its own decisions. The effect is an inconclusiveness, a kind of parallax in which the same story is told in different ways. As early as Klatsassin, 2006, he took the example of the contradictory plots in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, 1950, and constructed what he called a “dub western” that investigated a murder from multiple perspectives.
Douglas’s narrative borrowing is impressively wide ranging. He uses other stories as platforms on which he can develop narrative possibilities of his own. He has consistently gone to literature to find points of departure for his visual projects. As early as Overture, 1986, he took black and white archival footage shot by the Edison Company, of a train going through a tunnel in the Canadian Rockies in 1899, and applied a voice-over section from the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Since then he has collaborated with a congregation of writers by using and adapting their stories as frames inside which he can substitute his shifts in place, incident and character. The Secret Agent, 2015, is a film version of a Joseph Conrad novella published in 1907 in which a terrorist plots to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. Douglas’s screenplay shifts the country and time to Portugal during the Carnation Revolution and the hot summer of 1975, but it maintains a feeling of unsettling drama.
In “Midcentury Studio” he invents a fictional photographer whose portraits are based on individual types taken from his uncle’s academic paper on the socio-economic overlapping of patrons and workers in a Vancouver nightclub called the Malabar.
It is instructive to note that Douglas is not averse to re-employing actual events in addition to fiction as the frame through which he can reset the narrative of history. In Locus Standi, his verbatim play on the Vancouver trial of Leonard Peltier, he shapes history to comment not only on Peltier’s particular case but on the pattern of “land grabs, broken treaties and systematic terrorization” that describes the relationship between settlers and Indigenous people in North America, what he designates as “the palimpsest of sovereignty.”
All these relationships involve what Douglas has elsewhere called “repurposing.” It is a brilliant and endlessly adaptable strategy that allows him to make new histories out of specific retellings of inherited histories; repurposing is an inquisitive and engaging practice of picking an actual moment and reimagining it as a different progression of events and sequence of actions. So in “Disco Angola” he pairs Bruce Lee-inspired Kung Fu Fighting and disco in ’70s New York with Capoeira, a form of movement that combines dance and martial arts, in Angola during that country’s Independence War with Portugal. Capoeira originated in Angola and migrated to Brazil, where it became more elaborate. In the following interview, Douglas takes delight in tracing the exotic nature of that migration: “My fantasy was what would happen if there were fighters from South America who came to Angola via Cuba and showed the locals an unfamiliar dance that was in fact their own.” Douglas has described his work as a process in which he tries “to make a model of transient or mutable conditions in order to understand them.”
Similarly, Journey into Fear, 2001, uses Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man as an informing text, and the layered narratives that result create a vertiginous range of possibilities. Douglas’s version is a remake of a previous 1975 remake of a WW II espionage film made in 1942 and based on a 1940 Eric Ambler novel that comments on the new era of globalization and the crisis in capitalism.
Douglas’s most recent and ambitious project is the Penn Station’s Half Century, a set of four large murals that are a hybrid of staged photography and computer graphics technology. The murals are comprised of nine images, three diptychs and a single triptych, and will be installed in the late fall in the Concourse and Waiting Room of the Moynihan Train Hall in New York City.
Stan Douglas is one of Canada’s most recognized international artists. He has won the Hnatyshyn Foundation Visual Arts Award (2007), the Bell Award in Video Art (2008), the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, NY (2012), the Scotiabank Photography Award (2013), the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (2016) and the Audain Prize for the Visual Arts (2019). He will represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 2022.
The following interview was conducted by phone to Stan Douglas’s Vancouver studio on August 13, 2020.
BORDER CROSSINGS: Where did you do the research for the project? Did you already have some idea about what kinds of narratives might emerge from the history of Penn Station over its half-century?
STAN DOUGLAS: My researcher, Faith Moosang, went through thousands of newspaper articles on Penn Station and then I went through the hundreds that she selected and from those I gleaned the most interesting stories to get a general sense of how people used the space and its general relation to the city. When I was sent documentation by the Public Art Fund, the thing that struck me the most was an image of the concourse, which immediately reminded me of the opening scene of Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955), and I thought it would be amazing if I could somehow recreate the everyday life of the station. There are basically two components to each of the nine images that will make up three diptychs and one triptych: backgrounds created in software and photographed extras. There is an arena in Vancouver called the Agrodome, which we used as a location because it is almost as big as the footprint of Penn Station. In fact, we actually had to make it three times as big to get close to the size of the waiting room and concourse. Imagine a three-part pan of the same scene; the camera was static, but we blocked the performers as if they were part of a 20-degree area within a 50-degree angle of view, so it’s wedges, wedge A, wedge B, wedge C, and everybody moves and acts as if it were a continuous virtual space. We had four days, 400 extras in period costumes from costumers in Montreal and LA. We got everything we needed from the various periods to make it work because most films were on hiatus. The casting was pretty amazing, and we were able to get good matches for the major characters. In COVID times there are all sorts of protocols; your temperature is taken when you come into the space, we had hand sanitizers everywhere, everyone was wearing masks all the time, the extras and crew. We would block the action with masks on and then they would take off the masks when it was time to shoot. It was insane.
From a narrative perspective you get everything in the images; there is war, romance, crime, social unrest, entertainment, celebrity and art. When you looked at the material your researcher provided, did you have a list of events that you needed in order to tell your version of the building’s half-century?
Not really. I did give instructions for her to look for events in which the station engaged with the rest of the city. At first I thought there were too many items about political demonstrations, communists and anarchist bombings, and I asked if she was making a biased selection. She assured me that she wasn’t since the first half of the 20th century was a crazy time and there was a lot of political instability in the US and particularly in New York City. The reason for the New Deal was that communism seemed to be a viable alternative to many people and FDR wanted to nip that in the bud. One of the featured characters is Angelo Herndon, an amazing guy: a Black labour organizer who was tenacious and who believed so strongly that he didn’t care about being in towns in Georgia where the police would take him to the edge of town and threaten him with a lynching. He would continually put his body at risk for the things he believed in. Another is Bert Williams, comedian, singer, stage performer and film director. He was the one who instigated the vaudeville performance at the station that we depict. He was an extraordinary person who was key in the development of the Harlem Renaissance because when he started making money and gaining celebrity, his place in midtown Manhattan became a salon where all Black entertainers and intellectuals would gather. He was a key figure.
In one of the two-part murals you combine Herndon with Celia Cooney, the Bobbed Haired Bandit. Both of them are surrounded by adulatory crowds.
Yes. Cooney was a celebrity outlaw and bandit and a crowd of 9,000 wanted to get a look at her because this would be the first chance for people to see what she actually looked like. She committed numerous petty robberies in New York and New Jersey and began leaving taunting notes to the police, who were unable to apprehend her. In Angelo’s case, he had just been released on $10,000 bail, which the authorities in Georgia didn’t think he would ever be able to raise before his insurrection case was over, and many of the 6,000 people who were there to greet him made donations as low as 25¢ to his cause. After the trial he was sent back to a chain gang, but he was ultimately acquitted by the US Supreme Court. He later worked with Ralph Ellison editing Negro Quarterly, but he was ultimately quite disillusioned by politics. They were extraordinary figures who drew very different kinds of crowds.
Your sequence starts with the impromptu vaudeville performance organized by Williams and ends with the film set for Vincente Minnelli’s The Clock (1945), emptied of actors. It provides a tidy meta-narrative, a constructed image that memorializes another constructed image.
Yes, it’s an image of an image of an image and very much a self-conscious meta-image; Penn Station was a place where people often saw their loved ones for the last time before they went off to fight in World War II so it loomed large in people’s imagination. That’s why it was appropriate for the love story in Minnelli’s film where Judy Garland has an affair with a soldier on a two-day furlough.
What is the content of the other murals?
The first two are versions of the vaudeville event—one is the night before when they were sleeping in the concourse and the next one is the day of the vaudeville show; the next pair is Celia and Angelo; and then there are three different eras of the waiting room. Each scene is set at the break of day on the summer solstice. There is the airplane that was taken apart and rebuilt inside a waiting room in the ’20s to advertise a coast-to-coast service, there is one with these big WPA murals and a neon flag in support of the war effort and the final one is the Electronic Ticket Center, which in many ways hastened the demise of Penn Station. Different eras, different conditions, different attempts by the organization to animate a space that was grand but never all that welcoming.
I gather that Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 and the four photographs from “Crowds and Riots” (2008) must have provided you with skills that could be applied in the Penn Station project. Were they useful antecedents?
Absolutely, even though we had more reality in both those photographs. Photographing people on a large scale and directing people in crowds were something that was involved in this current project, although the weird thing was that it was done in fragments—in the three wedges for maximum resolution and in layers for maximum depth of focus. When placing the extras for the Celia Cooney image, I realized that the blocking I had planned was not going to work because I would need more than one exposure to make an entire body in focus and there were too many foreground bodies in motion. So I changed the scenario so that somebody in the foreground yells that Celia has arrived and a crowd comes running from a different part of the station. Having everybody in motion because of the wedges made things chaotic, but not everyone was moving in the same direction, so yesterday I made a better selection of takes that make it work as a picture. It was a sort of surgical operation.
Is this project a bigger scale version of what you call your interest in “minor histories and marginal types”?
Sure. These minor histories are local examples of a global condition, a symptom of something much bigger than you see in this little kernel, almost like a fractal or the whole was contained in the part.
These are characters who lived and stories that happened, but their significance often goes unrecognized. In one sense you’re an historical archaeologist who digs down, finds these things and makes them visible. Is the uncovering an ethical pursuit for you?
Yes, through the means I have as a visual artist to tell these stories. These people weren’t totally forgotten. Herndon’s autobiography, I Want to Live, is still in print and there’s a book about Celia Cooney that gave me some details about her being separated from her husband and that she wore a bright magenta hat, which looks great in a photograph. One nice detail I was able to include was a lawyer named Samuel Leibowitz waving a writ of habeas corpus. He was hired by the brother of Celia’s husband to defend her and he was the same lawyer who defended the Scottsboro Nine, nine Black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. One of them, Ruby Bates, recanted her false testimony and actually became part of the racial justice movement advocating for their pardon. She was at Penn Station to greet Angelo and she’s in the picture, too.