History Maker

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.

Left: Stan Douglas, Single Woman I, 1951, from the series “Malabar People,” 2011, digital fibre print mounted on Dibond aluminum, 24 x 18 inches. All photos courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong, and Victoria Miro, London/Venice. Right: Owner/Bartender, 1951, from the series “Malabar People,” 2011, digital fibre print mounted on Dibond aluminum, 24 x 18 inches.

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.”

Kung-Fu Fighting, 1975, 2012, chromogenic light jet mounted on Dibond aluminum, 36 x 54 inches.

Club Versailles, 1974, 2012, chromogenic light jet mounted on Dibond aluminum, 59 x 89 inches.

Capoeira, 1974, 2012, chromogenic light jet mounted on Dibond aluminum, 56 x 84 inches.

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.

Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, 2008, chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 70 x 114.5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Installation view, Hors-Champs, 1992, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart.

Installation view, Hors-Champs, 1992, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart.

Installation view, Hors-Champs, 1992, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart.

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.

Production view, Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013, video stills from film installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013, video stills from film installation. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

Royal Bank of Canada/Parking Lot, Habana Vieja, 2004, chromogenic print, on board on aluminium. Courtesy of the artist.

Print Shop/Auto Shop, Habana Vieja, 2004, chromogenic print, on board on aluminium. Courtesy of the artist.

In most of your projects there’s an element of documentary. John Grierson, the founder of the National Film Board, called documentary “the creative treatment of history.” If you put the emphasis on the word “creative,” a number of possibilities open up. It’s in that sense that I think of your work as being documentary.

Yes. The photographs for the UK Riots are documentary in a literal sense, even though I had to be in a helicopter to take the plate shot and we had to degentrify the neighbourhood with CG, but the people you see in the picture are the actual people who were at the disturbances in August 2011. It was all extracted from three hours of aerial footage licensed from Sky News. It took me a long time to figure out what was happening where, and what was happening over time, because the footage was quite random, with widely changing perspectives, zooming in and zooming out. But once I understood what was happening temporally, that allowed me to make a spatial depiction of what occurred in the riots.

I suppose you’re a conceptual documentarian because you construct images rather more than you capture them. That whole synthetic sense of how you make an image has been central to your artmaking.

The one exception would be the “Midcentury Studio,” where I got fascinated by the strangeness and inhumanness of photography and tried to have less control over what was going to happen. The “Crowds and Riots” series, which includes the Gastown Riot photograph, was the first time I shot people in action. In preparation, I really got into the minutiae of the photographic medium because I had to make a choice about whether to shoot digital or analogue. In the end I decided that it doesn’t matter what your storage medium is; what matters are your lenses, how they converge light and render perspective. How you converge light is the most important thing in photography. But it also got me thinking about photography as being an inhuman medium; it’s not like human sight at all, even though many people think we see like a camera. We see with our minds more than with our eyes. It’s pattern recognition and long-term/short-term memory, not an instantaneous gestalt of the space. I tried to leverage that strangeness by making photographs as if they were somewhat incompetent, mimicking the work of Ray Munro, a photographer who didn’t know how to take photographs but knew how to fly a plane. He got a job as an aerial photographer in Vancouver and eventually learned on the job and would found one of the first photo studios in Vancouver. But seeing him learning how to grapple with the medium, and after looking at 6,000 images in the Black Star Archive, I verified my intuition that there were low demands of pictorial coherence in news photography just after the war, and heavily editorialized photography by the ’50s. All the images in “Midcentury Studio,” with two exceptions, were done in a single take that often meant setting up a situation I could not completely control in order to get an image that would surprise me. This happens in the current work on a micro-scale, basically on the level of frame, in which individual performances are subject to photographic automatism, but in the end it gets tamed by my montage practice on top of that.

Mayko Nguyen as Rose in Helen Lawrence, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Sterling Jarvis as Henry in Helen Lawrence, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

In “Midcentury Studio” you cast yourself as a photographer who is a combination of Munro and Weegee. Did you think about the kind of photographer you were imagining yourself to be in developing that body of work?

Sure. At that moment the whole era was an era of flux. That was the premise of my play Helen Lawrence and of “Midcentury Studio,” where the old ways were not really working anymore and people were becoming less tolerant of black markets and shady dealing as society was becoming normalized after the war. That happened in different ways in different cities around North America. It all came from seeing a photograph of the Second Hotel Vancouver, which was torn down before I was born. But the whole ambience of the image was that of a film noir, so it made me think about Vancouver being part of that film noir world. I found an unproduced screenplay by Raymond Chandler called “Playback,” which he claims was set in Vancouver, even though I’m pretty sure that some scenes were depictions of Victoria. It made me think of Vancouver as being part of this continuum of the post-traumatic stress experienced by people who had been away at war that caused the attitude and behaviour of people in film noir movies, which plays out in both Helen Lawrence and “Midcentury Studio.”

**One of the compelling things about “Midcentury Studio” is the portraits taken by your invented photographer. Did you base them on what your uncle had done in his BA thesis paper? He names his club the Malabar, which perfectly plays into the intersections of documentary and theatre that your images are about.

Absolutely. I was totally inspired by the characters he described in “The Social System of a Downtown Bar.” One of his observations was that the differences between patron and staff were artificial because when they were off work the staff became patrons and entered the same social circle. They are all Black and Brown and Indigenous people who were not accepted in white clubs in Vancouver but felt welcomed in that place.

8One of the things you like about Weegee is what you call “the uncanny events at the periphery of the images that were beyond his control.” Do you want those things to happen at the edges of your work as well or are you more reluctant to allow that edge to unravel?

I really admire someone like Lee Friedlander. I look at his pictures and I have no idea how he made them. But it is about having more faith in your skills to succeed than fail and I guess I am more afraid of failure.

You open your conversation with Jason Moran at the Zwirner Gallery by saying that you’re fascinated when things go wrong. As you describe some of the processes you went through in the Penn Station project, it’s clear how easily that could happen.

Sure. You need a script or some kind of plan in order to come away with something. Even a documentary needs that. But either the script or your plan gives you permission to play and let things get out of control. I was able to make that change in the Celia Cooney shot because I had a pretty clear idea in my head about how the whole thing was going to look, so I was able to make blocking and performance changes on the fly. But to go out there with a camera randomly and produce images as great as Friedlander’s is something I can’t do.

Your photographer comes to understand that photographers have to employ ruses if they’re going to create a convincing visual document of the era, and you also comment on the slippery nature of the medium itself. Does that mean the ruse becomes the way to the truth and that the slipperiness of the medium is a welcome condition?

The images toward the end of “Midcentury Studio” are less literally true because the photographer doesn’t leave the world as he found it. He intervenes in order to make visible the message he wants to produce. He has to direct people to do things and to frame things a certain way. You’d have to get the permission to take a photograph with a big flash of four guys in nice suits beside the men’s room playing street craps. I saw in many of the archival photographs in the Black Star Archive that they were clearly staging what was supposed to be a documentary scene. But I believe that sometimes you need to lie to tell the truth. That’s what I do with these pictures all the time; I take a number of things I’ve seen, images of the time and place, and condense them by making a scene that was not literally true but that has a truth in terms of the story it tells.

Circa 1948, 2014, interactive app and interactive installation created with the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio in Vancouver, led by Loc Dao. © NFB.

Circa 1948, 2014, interactive app and interactive installation created with the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio in Vancouver, led by Loc Dao. © NFB.

Circa 1948, 2014, interactive app and interactive installation created with the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio in Vancouver, led by Loc Dao. © NFB.

Circa 1948, 2014, interactive app and interactive installation created with the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio in Vancouver, led by Loc Dao. © NFB.

You have an earned reputation for paying close attention. Looking at some of the photos in “Disco Angola,” I’m trying to figure out what it is I’m looking at. I’m assuming Club Versailles is a gay club where lines of cocaine are being done, there’s lots of drinking and dancing, there’s a guy wearing a red, white and blue sleeveless shirt and a jockstrap. But overseeing this calmly debauched scene is the statue of the Virgin Mary. What is she doing in that set?

She’s kind of a fetish. Marie Antoinette was a lesbian icon and that’s why I chose that title. It was just a prop we found, a self-illuminating, glow-inthe- dark Virgin Mary. I don’t think it’s on in this photograph, but I just liked it as a female icon. It’s an intuitive thing, like when I asked the costumer, “Get me a guy in a jockstrap,” and he found an archival photograph of Andy Warhol talking to a guy in a jockstrap in Studio 54. We modelled his costume on that look.

Do you want people to make a connection between Kung Fu Fighting and Capoeira, so that somehow disco in New York is linked to military resistance and Angolan independence? I’m trying to figure out how those two narratives are functioning in “Disco Angola.”

All the photographs are paired in some way. For example, what the Kung Fu Fighting people were doing was often a made-up version of what they saw in the still-popular Bruce Lee movies. But Capoeira was a martial art that originated in Angola and was elaborated on in Brazil and then forgotten back in Angola. 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.

This question of doubling comes up a lot. I go back to Intrigue (1948), which shows a pair of shoes that gets doubled in the reflection, and even in Hair (1948) the ovals of the woman’s hairstyle are a kind of doubling.

Yes, the doubling is often an embarrassment to me. I think I have found a great resolution to depicting a condition, but then I realize I’ve just come back to my dialectical habit again, where I put two things in opposition.

You have said that your work deals with the “antimonies of modernism.” An “antimony” is an acceptable contradiction. That discourse is one that you don’t have any trouble incorporating?

Not at all. The condition of two things being true but incompatible happens every day.

Did you know about the Leonard Peltier extradition hearing when it happened? How did you come across the 1,000-page transcript of the trial that becomes the basis for Locus Standi?

I was asked to write a blurb for the back of a book called Vancouver in the 70s and on one page there was a picture of Peltier at the courthouse and I thought, what is Leonard Peltier doing in Vancouver? When I was researching the UK Riots I had coffee with a playwright named Gillian Slovo, who had written a verbatim play based on the British riots. I had never heard of verbatim plays or documentary theatre until I came across her work. I thought, what if I used her method and talked to people who were at the Peltier extradition hearing and put their stories together? But when I was reading newspaper articles from the day, I realized what was happening in the trial itself was extraordinary because the defense was basically unpacking 200 years of land grabs and broken treaties, the systematic terrorization of the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation by the FBI and CIA. So in the end, it became less about Peltier and more about the relations between settlers and Indigenous people in North America. Peltier does fade away at the middle of the piece, but it tells a riveting story in a very condensed way about what has been going on. I’ve always wanted to do something about the palimpsest of sovereignty in North America, but I never knew how to approach it. The hearing transcripts seemed to be the perfect raw material, clearly from the settler point of view, using the settler legal apparatus, but an extraordinary story of alterity is told at the same time.

Set shots, 2020. Courtesy of Stan Douglas. Photographs © Evaan Kheraj.

Set shots, 2020. Courtesy of Stan Douglas. Photographs © Evaan Kheraj.

Set shots, 2020. Courtesy of Stan Douglas. Photographs © Evaan Kheraj.

Set shots, 2020. Courtesy of Stan Douglas. Photographs © Evaan Kheraj.

You’re always looking for what you call a “nexus point,” which is a middle point for some kind of transformation. I go back to your idea of repurposing history and wonder if you choose stories where that nexus point is obvious? Or is there always a point in the story where it becomes apparent when and how things could have changed?

Hard to say. It’s not literally true, but often I can say the stories choose me, I don’t choose the stories. The stories are clearly so vivid that I can’t not deal with them; I have to grapple with them somehow.

So you don’t have a list of subjects that you want to engage and all you’re waiting for is the coalescing of time and resources that allows you to actually get the thing made?

I’ve had this ongoing obsession with 1848, which was a very inspiring moment of spontaneous revolt. When 2011 happened my first thought was this was our 1848. The year 1848 was when there were “bourgeois revolutions” in virtually every country in Europe with calls for political and economic reform; in 2011 you had the disturbances in UK that started in Tottenham and spread through the whole country, Arab Spring was ongoing, Occupy Wall Street spread globally, and there were even riots in Vancouver. This was our global 1848 and that idea is going to be the governing thesis of my projects for Venice in 2022.

So many of your pieces have been about music— Hors-Champs (1992) and Luanda-Kinshasa (2013) are obvious examples. You tend to link music with social and political issues. So Hors- Champs is connected to the Free Jazz movement in Paris and Luanda-Kinshasa connects to African independence. When you think music, do you think change and transformation?

Yes. After I graduated from art school I made a point of reading some long novels because there was such antagonism toward language at Emily Carr. I read Beckett’s trilogy, The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry and Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. Toward the end of Doctor Faustus there is an amazing description of Beethoven’s Opus 111, which unpacks music that I had thought of as being primarily affective or formal play, but he argues that it is a social document, a model of how people endure time together. I discovered that Theodor Adorno was Mann’s musical advisor and so I began reading his musicology and later his philosophy. Adorno was famously intolerant towards “jazz,” by which he really signified popular music—as far as I know, the only jazz musician he mentions by name is Benny Goodman—although he does make some vague references to “oppositional groups,” but he remained steadfastly antagonistic toward jazz. A lot of this stems from his basic chauvinism with regard to German romantic music’s being a high point in human history. Nevertheless, there is an explanation of the value of jazz in Adorno’s work. He claims that the problem with jazz is that the commodity form is embedded in the music because, in its identical refrains, it advertises itself. But he also talks about how the musical material that is the basis of the variations in the second movement of the Opus 111 oozes sentimentality but is redeemed by subsequent variations. African Americans were themselves commodities until the 19th century, but the principle of variation redeems the cheesiest Tin Pan Alley melody in the best American music.

The connection between music and society is echoed in Hors-Champs where the replaying of Albert Ayler’s 1965 composition includes sections from “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “La Marseillaise,” anthems of countries that were formed out of revolution.

I was in Paris, listening to archived recordings of jazz music at the National Audiovisual Institute in a Kafkaesque, cylindrical building with dark hallways littered with rows of shopping carts full of open-reel quarter-inch tape. That is where I first heard “Spirits Rejoice” as it was performed in Albert Ayler’s first concert in Paris. The tape broke numerous times and I had to repair it with a splicer to get to the end, but when it was over I wiped the tears from my face and called the archivist, who tossed the reel into one of the shopping carts. I’m sure nobody has heard that recording since. As I spent more time listening to that song, I realized it was a concise bit of musicological deconstruction where he teases out of the famously racist French national anthem “La Marseillaise,” something with which he can identify. There’s a gospel melody, a military fanfare, a call-and-response, and George Lewis says he heard a country tune, too. There is a long history of African Americans going into self-exile in Europe and the spatial metaphor of Hors-Champs is itself about exile: images are projected on either side of a suspended screen so if you’re watching one side, you can’t see what’s going on on the other side.

It occurs to me that Miles Davis might be your equivalent in music to Samuel Beckett in literature.

Very much so. I’ve always appreciated the way in which Miles Davis changed his music as the culture changed. And I’ve always appreciated the way Beckett was medium agnostic and he also taught me some fundamental things about human knowledge. People think he’s a very pessimistic writer, but I think he has the greatest capacity for hope of anybody who has ever written because he understands that it is basically impossible for people to understand each other completely, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Very often his characters try to talk themselves into existence. Probably his greatest work is How It Is, which is a 150-page novel about a person crawling face down in the mud encountering another person in the mud. That’s the whole story. It is an incredible tale about the fundamentally human desire for communication.

When you did Every Building on 100 West Hastings, your model is Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). Are you acknowledging that history and saying that you’re going to do something different with your Downtown Eastside version from what Ruscha did in Los Angeles?

Most of the works I made in the 2000s were free remakes of existing works. You can’t make anything completely original because if you do, it will be completely incomprehensible, so you must build new culture on existing culture. The main thing that postmodernism recognizes is that there is no raw material; how material is recognized as a potential medium and how it is manipulated have everything to do with cultural bias. After WW II art is basically postmodern, including the neo-avantguard “modernism” championed by Clement Greenberg. The Hastings piece originated in a fundraiser for the Or Gallery called “Knock Off” in which I presented a knock-off of Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. I did a very quick version one day with a small digital camera, then stitched the shots together in Photoshop, but having done that I thought it was worth doing over at a higher resolution. I made 21 exposures one night, moving down the street with a 4x5 camera with a minimal lighting package and a cop to stop traffic. It took forever to composite on computers of the day. My dilemma was always, “Should I keep on working and hope the computer doesn’t crash or do I press ‘save’ and wait 45 minutes?”

In Inconsolable Memories (2005), Sergio says that every memory is “a mixture of honey and shit.” That’s another antinomy, but I wonder if Sergio could as easily be you as a character in a film?

Very often the characters in my work are surrogates for myself, and Sergio is definitely one of them. His problem is that he can’t make the connection between the car that he was given and discarded and the guy who stabs him; also he is simultaneously too nostalgic and living too much in the present. I sometimes have this problem, but my avatars are generally outsiders. Sergio is a Black architect who has a certain status in Cuba, but if he goes to Miami on the Mariel Boat Lift, he will be just another refugee—and a Black man in the USA. He jumps off the boat and swims back to Cuba, where he mistakes a social tragedy for a personal one—like the original Sergio in Tomás Alea’s film Memories of Underdevelopment. One of the scariest email headers I ever saw was from Edmundo Desnoes, the screenwriter of that film. I had given a copy of the catalogue to Tania Bruguera and she gave it to him and when I saw his name I thought, okay, I’m going to be sued. But he wrote, “Borges once said that there’s only one story, and every writer takes a turn at re-writing it. Thanks for your version of mine.”

The title of your Cuban work is revealing. The photographs are beautiful and elegant and precise, but they carry a poignancy, maybe even a sense of the inconsolable. Cuba is a country that has had to repurpose everything, so all those grand buildings are now schools for children. But at the same time so many things, like homophobia and corruption, went wrong with that repurposing.

Very much so. Every revolution is a repurposing of a country, but the Cuban Revolution is incomplete and I saw a microcosm of that incomplete dialectic in the architectural environment of Cuba, where you find places that have been one thing in the past and desire to become something else but for various reasons never quite get there. The film consists of two projections on a single screen and when one projects an image the other projects black, alternating eight times in each segment. There are two film loops, one is five segments long and the other three segments long, and they slowly go out of phase: you think you’re going forward in time, but at a certain point you start to see things repeating. It’s like going forward and going backwards at the same time, which was what I felt in Cuba.

Modernism has an interesting pedigree in dealing with time; in Ulysses James Joyce tries to get down all the thoughts Leopold Bloom has in a 24-hour period; Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse deals with spatial time; and Henri Bergson’s concept of time influences Cubism. Is there a general way that you deal with time in your work?

I’m interested in a situation where everything seems different but it’s really the same, over and over again. This became part of my five-year plan to make work that would reinvent itself in real time, starting with Win, Place or Show (1998) and culminating in Suspiria (2003). An intermediate work, Journey into Fear (2001), deploys what I call “narrative arbitrage” where narrative elements are shuffled in such a way that they provide new contacts for one another and they effect new meaning. “Arbitrage” is when you take something from one place to another where it has more value and you pocket the difference. These works take a fixed amount of material and make it feel like there is more there. If you ran Suspiria, which combines all the stories about witchcraft in volume I of Das Kapital and all the stories about economics from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a pastiche of the music of Goblin by Scott Harding and John Medeski, it would continuously spit out unique stories and songs until the sun burnt out.

A number of the stories you use have contested meanings and their narrators are unreliable. Melville’s The Confidence-Man was subtitled His Masquerade, and he published it on April Fool’s Day in 1857, which should give us a clue about how we should regard the narrator. Is it the unreliability of the narrative that explains your attraction to them because it allows you a degree of slippage and overlapping that you can use in your storytelling?

I have to say yes. In the case of The Confidence-Man I was given a story with a premise of being on a ship and we don’t know if the Confidence Man is one person changing character or seven different people, so it was perfect raw material for Journey into Fear, which is a remake of an oil crisis-era remake from 1975 of a WW II espionage film based on a novel from 1940—updated to a new era of globalization, the imperatives of which led me to believe that a crisis in capitalism was coming.

I want to get at this question of language, landscape and storytelling. “Landscape” is a constructed term that is already built on someone else’s dislocation. So are all landscapes haunted by that absence, and if all narratives need some kind of retelling, do they need to be unhaunted or doubly haunted?

I’d say all language is haunted. In many ways it’s a form of ventriloquy and we’re the marionettes because we have to say other people’s words in order to express our own ideas and feelings. The app Circa 1948 began with the idea of haunting the landscape. We spent a lot of time and money trying to figure out how to make it work in geographical synch with the two sites in which it is set, at the viaduct where Hogan’s Alley used to be and at the downtown plaza where the Second Hotel Vancouver once stood. I wanted to walk around and have the virtual overlaid on the actual and to use the app like a window on a world that was haunting that location. The app, Helen Lawrence and Suspiria all derive from the childhood trauma I had after seeing William Castle’s B horror movie 13 Ghosts (1960). A guy inherits the home of a deceased uncle, not realizing that he was a collector of ghosts who are trapped in 12 cells in the basement and are invisible until you put on special glasses. This freaked me out as a kid, the idea that something dangerous or threatening could be there even if you can’t see it, but eventually I came to understand that “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” ❚

Order Issue 155 here.