Stan Douglas’ ‘2011 ≠ 1848’ at 59th Venice Biennale is the story of two years and four world events. It is also the story of two exhibitions, which marks a first in the history of the Canada Pavilion.
“When the director of the National Gallery [of Canada, Sasha Suda] called me, I knew right away what they wanted to do,” he tells me via Zoom from his Los Angeles apartment before it opened in Venice. “She didn’t expect me to have an idea so quickly, so I didn’t tell her then; I told him I would find it!
The idea in question stems from a two-part series from 2017 (Pembury Estate and mare street) which Douglas created in response to the Hackney Riots in London in 2011, which began after a local man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police, and spread nationwide in a sustained uprising by racial and class tensions, mass unemployment and a post-recession economic situation. decline.
Stan Douglas on the set in Cairo, 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner. © Seham
In these expansive aerial stagings, the artist has combined newsreel footage of London events with newly created imagery. He looked for parallels between the global uprisings of the early 2010s – including the Arab Spring and the riots in the artist’s hometown of Vancouver – but the project was dropped due to difficulties obtaining footage of news. ‘2011 ≠ 1848’, curated by Reid Shier, is the culmination of this ambitious project. ‘Like [the Venice Biennale] was supposed to be in 2021, which would have been the 10th anniversary of 2011, I thought, “OK, I’ll do it,” he said.
Compare, contrast and rework a become a kind of signature for Douglas. One of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists, with a practice spanning film, photography, music and theatre, he has long stunned audiences with his razor-sharp dissection of crucial historical moments and his ability to dig into the nuances to a discordant effect.
The first part of ‘2011 ≠ 1848’ takes place in the Canadian pavilion Giardini. Four large format images cover four events of 2011, each painstakingly re-enacted by the artist: the emergence of the Arab Spring along Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis; the aftermath of the Stanley Cup Riot in Vancouver; youths and police clashed in Hackney during the London Riots; and the commotion of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.
Installation view of Stan Douglas: ‘2011 ≠ 1848’ at the Canada Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 23 April – 27 November 2022. Photograph: Jack Hems Courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Canada, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner
As its title suggests, “2011 ≠ 1848” compares and contrasts the events of 2011 with those of 1848, a year in which the middle and working classes across Europe rose up against the lack of democratic freedom. , against the restrictions of the press and the hegemony of the elite. ‘This brings [the two] dates in a conversation you wouldn’t otherwise imagine.
In the title, Douglas uses the unequal sign to illustrate the distinctions between the events of each year. “It was a scene for nationalist movements as well as democratic reform in the 19th century, whereas in 2011 it became a police operation.”
At the heart of the project is how generational differences in the dissemination of information can influence the course of a revolt. In 1848, ideas spread across the continent through the print media; in 2011, activism went global and viral through electronic means, notably during the arab spring, when rallies were coordinated through social media. But as the artist notes, a wider reach doesn’t necessarily mean a greater sense of unity, especially when it comes to the London riots “There [was] no general voice, program, [or] party, he [was] person-to-person communications. It didn’t have the same unifying effect. It made the body appear, the mass appear, the protest appear, but it didn’t have the same melting effect in the nation or political action.
Stan Douglas, London, August 9, 2011 (Pembury Estate) from the Serie 2011 ≠ 1848, 2017. © Stan Douglas Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Venice, and David Zwirner, New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong
The results of this work go far beyond photography or reporting. They are complex tapestries of anguish, frustration and disenfranchisement vis-à-vis social systems, spanning eras, geographies and dimensions. Although rooted in the past, the resonance with recent contemporary events is disturbing.
In a variation on a theme, Les Magazzini del Sale No. 5, a former salt warehouse dating from the 16th century, features a captivating audiovisual work that forms the off-site portion of Douglas’s exhibition. Better experienced than described, ISDN is a two-channel video installation that explores music as a form of intercontinental cultural resistance. It focuses on two genres: grime music surfaced in London in the mid-2000s, at the same time mahraganat (Arabic for “festivals”) music emerged in Cairo. Although grime has its roots in dubstep and mahraganate in sha’abi, the two share a similar timbre (producers often use the same free software and sampling), and by 2011 each had become a soundtrack full-fledged youth revolt. to the right. ISDN is a story of music as social and political revolt, fictionalized but rooted in facts.
Installation view of Stan Douglas: ‘2011 ≠ 1848’ at Magazzini del Sale No. 5 at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, April 23 – November 27, 2022 Photography: Jack Hems. Courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Canada, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner
Douglas is no stranger to harnessing the power of music as a vehicle for ideas. The medium has been woven into the fabric of his films since the early 1990s, from his musings on free jazz to Off fields1992, to jazz-funk steeped in afrobeat in the epic jam session Luanda-Kinshasa2013, and his career-long admiration for Miles Davis.
When entering the space, we see both screens simultaneously. In the middle, we’re sandwiched between the two, caught in a rhythmic, haunting call-and-response game between two pairs of lyricists: TrueMendous and Lady Sanity in London, and Raptor and Youssef Joker in Cairo. Douglas faked an exchange and rapport as the two raps alternate in makeshift recording studios outfitted with scavenged recording and mixing equipment. When one pair starts rapping, the other dances and listens, seemingly in response.
Grime and the mahraganate “take hip-hop as a model and incorporate local traditions,” says Douglas. There is a meaning, which goes back to hip-hop or rap itself, [that] if someone from a disadvantaged community comes on stage and says “I’m important”, it’s a political act.
Stan Douglas ISDN, 2022, still images from a two-channel video installation. Lady Sanity (top) Cairo: Raptor (above) London: © Stan Douglas Courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, London and Venice, and David Zwirner, New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong
As the rappers hypnotically beat the stinging 140 BPMs, tracing the micro and macro frustrations of daily life and encounters with the authorities, it reminds us of the distinct socio-political contexts that distinguish these worlds but also align them. Despite the great popularity of the mahraganate, the genre is officially banned in Egypt, which means that political references are veiled – the act of subverting. The UK, while relatively libertarian in its views on free speech, has a checkered history with grime, involving run-ins with the authorities, charges of incitement to violence and accusations of racial discrimination.
How does Douglas hope audiences will react to a work that carries so much cultural weight? “It gives an idea of what this universe looks like. It’s nice,” he says. “You go in there and recognize something, and that thing is made different by what’s in it. It’s kind of like a musical Kuleshov effect. Only instead of happening in time, it happens in time. ‘harmony; simultaneously instead of sequentially.’
Stan Douglas’ work in Venice – meticulously researched and forensically constructed – is both illusion and hyperreality. Its impact lies in niche moments of flow, empathy and tension. In this palpable and audible embodiment of hindsight, we come to believe in what we see and hear. §