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On Riots

Stan Douglas

Stan Douglas, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, 2008, courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London.

Reading List: “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Crisis Era Struggles in Britain” ENDNOTES, Issue 3, 2013.

I thought I’d give an overview of how I got to a text like ‘‘A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Crisis Era Struggles in Britain’’ in Endnotes, and how it fits into my work. I don’t think we’ll talk so much about the text in particular, though I’d be happy to do that at the end. Instead I want to talk about how I’ve been trying to deal with these different social conditions in my work over the years.

Back in 1988, I made an exhibition of Samuel Beckett’s film work, called ‘‘Samuel Beckett: Teleplays.’’ Beckett, the famous Irish playwright who wrote Waiting for Godot, also worked in various media—- in radio, dance or pantomimes- and he made a film called Film. You see him in this photo on the left talking to Buster Keaton, the famous film actor, and here, talking to Alan Schneider, who directed Film (1965). When I made that exhibition I was twenty-six years old or something and it was the first time anyone had collected Beckett’s media work into one package. It gave me a reputation among Beckett scholars, so when the [Centre] Pompidou said they were going to do a Beckett show in 2007, a year late for the 100th anniversary of his birth, they commissioned me to make a work. I had no idea what I was going to do. At that point I hadn’t thought about Beckett for a long time, and I started asking myself, What can I do in Paris?

I thought about the Paris riots in 2005 that spread throughout France. The racial profiling of people from North Africa was rampant in France and they had had enough of it. At one point two kids who were being followed by police for no good reason, for a very cursory interview, and when they ran to escape they were inadvertently killed. This set off days of rioting in all the suburbs around Paris and eventually in different cities around France. It’s a case where a group of people feel they’ve no representation from their government, that they aren’t being protected by the people who are supposed to protect them, and that they have no recourse to do anything about that in typical democratic ways. The only way they feel they can vent their frustrations is through acts of violence.

Beckett’s Film stars Buster Keaton, who’s character’s name was ‘‘O,’’ and it was based on a maxim of the Irish idealist philosopher, Bishop Berkeley, who said, ‘‘To be is to be perceived.’’ —-meaning, I don’t exist unless there is someone else to perceive me, or that intersubjectivity is key to existence in some sense. Beckett said he didn’t believe that, but he used it as the premise for Film. It’s mostly a silent film. There is one spoken event where one character says, ‘‘Shhhh!’’ to another character, as if to demonstrate that it is willfully silent. One doesn’t exist in a silent film unless they are seen, and this is the key conceit if the film. So one character ‘‘O’’—- short for ‘‘Object’’—-is being pursed by another character, ‘‘E’’—-short for ‘‘Eye’’—-which is the camera. I don’t know if Beckett knew this or not, but basically he was playing out the standard rules of eye-line continuity in cinema, for which you aren’t allowed to go over a certain axis in the character’s view without crossing that axis and turning into a different point of view. You can’t suddenly go to the other side of the axis without breaking spatial continuity. Anyway, whenever O feels the camera is coming around to a third person view he turns away, so he can’t be seen, so we don’t see Keaton’s face until the very end. In the film he sees people, they are horrified by the sight of him. He goes into his chamber, he covers his parrot, he covers his fish, the dog goes out, the cat goes out. He looks at photographs of his past and tears them up, and for the denouement the camera scrolls around his face and we see him looking at an image of himself, fuzzy, with an eye patch. The gag is that he’s trying to avoid exterior perception, but of course you can’t get away from the ‘‘other’’ inside of yourself, which is a condition he can’t escape.

Anyway I was teaching in Berlin at a school called the Universität der Künste, getting irrationally harassed by the administration and one evening I was looking at the bookshelf in the apartment where I was staying and I found I was staring at a copy of Kafka’s The Trial and I thought, That’s it! Orson Wells made his film of The Trial in Paris in 1962, in which we see Joseph K incessantly harassed by cops and he lived in what I thought was a housing project on the outskirts of Paris. It turns out that those scenes were actually shot in Zagreb, Croatia, but once I had this conceit I was going to stick with it and have my character, K, live in a housing project in suburban Paris. Location scouting around Paris, the place I like the best were buildings at La Courneuve, built in 1960, which was a prize-winning piece of architecture when it was made, originally for a mainly white working class population but now it is almost exclusively North African. This was also the epicenter of the riots in the Saint Denis region, north of Paris, in 2005. Additionally, that is where Jean-Luc Godard shot Two or Three Things I Know About Her, from 1967 I believe, where Marina Vlady plays a working class woman who becomes a prostitute to make ends meet.

My resulting video installation was called Video (2007). The only sound we hear is not a shush, but a gunshot. At the end you’re not sure if the central character has killed the police who are pursuing her or if they’ve killed her. The lights go on, the lights go off, and that is the end. Beckett’s Film opens with a close-up of his eye, which is closed and opens. Video starts with an image of a surveillance camera. It may be hard to see because it’s very, very dark and was shot at +18 dB so the sensor was over-sensitive, and there is quite a lot of noise, the camera thinks it’s seeing something but it’s not really seeing anything. You’re seeing the sensor seeing. At first you see a red dot arcing across the screen in the darkness and eventually you realize it’s the polling light of a surveillance camera.

[plays clip from Video]

In 2008 I was commissioned to do a large public project in Vancouver—-I’ll talk more about it later—-it was basically a large set piece, that was very expensive to make, with performers. I’d done a few portraits but in this case I had to photograph people as performers: a crowd, police, horses, etc., and it was going to cost about half a million dollars to make the photograph itself, so I decided I needed some practice before getting started. To do that I did a series of photographs called Crowds & Riots from 2008. In those images, I was basically trying to work out how to direct a crowd in a very simple way, and how to make a small crowd look like a bigger crowd. One of these, Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935, recreated the battle of Ballantyne Pier where longshoreman were trying to unionize and were all fired in 1935. A riot took place as scabs were being brought in to replace them. The riot lasted about three hours. In this case I wanted to work with horses. One thing that was very important to figure out was, How do I shoot a horse in motion? How do I shoot it so it doesn’t look like it’s falling or flying, but that it’s doing something in particular.

Another one of these photographs is called Hastings Park, 16 July 1955. I told the performers they were supposed to be watching a hose at a horse track, that they’d root for the horse. I had this whole fiction going on—-but actually I was shooting them when they were passing time, between what they thought were the takes. You can see a guy on the bottom left trying to pick up the girl beside him in the red dress; another man is telling stories befuddling those next to him, and someone was telling dirty jokes. I was able to assemble them into a construction as a single image. It took about four weeks. It was shot in two halves, with various layers. I’d shoot it a different way now if I had that possibility, because having to reconstruct people’s body parts is kind of a chore.

But from all these experiences I was ready to do this larger piece about the Gastown Riot, Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2009) which is a 44-foot mural permanently installed at the Woodward’s Complex in Vancouver. The Woodward’s department store was the middle-class and working-class center of Vancouver, where people would have their bridal registries, or go see Santa Claus—-that is where I used to see Santa Claus as a kid. When the big box shopping malls came into Vancouver in the 1990s it shuttered its doors and almost this entire city block was empty. There were demonstrations against the plans to redevelop this site because they didn’t include any social housing. Ultimately there was a solution in which the developer retained part of the historical building at the far end as a residential tower that pays for everything, but added housing for single men, single mothers, the arts college and university, as well as a theatre, cinema and grocery store—-so basically a little city.

Historically the area around that building was always a working class neighborhood, and until the 1970s you would have older men who worked in resource industries like mining and fishing or forestry retiring there. It was a very quiet place, until this containment policy took place in the 1970s. My feeling is the reason that this happened was because of a festival in 1971. Hippies, who used to be concentrated in a different part of city, began squatting there and began mixing with the working-class men in the beer parlors. The cops didn’t like this and wanted the group contained as much as they possibly could, and they began harassing people, calling them drug dealers and trouble makers, and arresting them for no cause. These hippies being hippies were entitled middle-class kids who thought they could do whatever they wanted, so they had a festival at a place called Maple Tree Square. They had a festival where they gave away popcorn, flowers, watermelon, and a ‘‘smoke-in’’ with a ten-foot papier-mâché joint. By ten o’clock police chief Abercrombie decided he’d had enough and told them to clear the streets. There were about two thousand people there and very few of them could actually hear that order, so nothing happened. Then conflicting things started taking place. There is a word in that Endnotes essay I’d never seen before ‘‘kettling’’—- breaking crowd into manageable pieces so they don’t become a large, unmanageable body. And that is what these cops started to do. There were cops dressed as hippies who infiltrated the crowd, trying to find people who were selling drugs. When the riots began they got their police helmets and sticks and began finding people they had identified, while at the same time other police were trying to clear the streets. Based on the visual records and various stories, I made my photograph.

The Endnotes essay is about riots caused by the rioters, but this one was really caused by the police interactions. I wanted to look at this location, the Woodward building, and to somehow implicate the building in this event, which caused the stigmatization of this area. Because of this event, instead of the Gastown area being revitalized and turned into a market place, developers let this area go kind of fallow for a long time. At first I wanted to shoot at this intersection but a couple things got in the way. The Vancouver Canucks were in the Stanley Cup playoffs so we could only have a little time to shoot, and then the woman who owned the building on the opposite corner, wanted to charge us $50,000 to dress her window. I said, Fuck that, we can just build it ourselves. And that’s what we did. We found a big parking lot near the race track, laid down fresh black top, aged it with sandblasters, poured the concrete sidewalks. Got the lamp stands from the city ironworks—-and little details like that aluminum garbage can on the left—-they were all over Vancouver when I was a child and I had completely forgotten about them. Ironically, the most valuable part of this was actually the sporting goods store window in the building of the woman who wanted $50,000 because it was full of vintage rods and reels and tackle so we shot that first to get everything back to the collectors.

There were various scenarios playing out in the scene: the cops on horseback—-with terrified horses—-as they try to kettle people; a group of children watching the ‘‘street theatre;’’ the creepy black vans the police used as paddy wagons; a bearded ‘‘island-type’’ being dragged away from the sporting goods store; some old-timers by that checkered wall who are watching it all from a position of safety because they were not identified as hippies; a middle-class couple probably headed to dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Gastown with the same position of privilege. There’s sense of panic in the whole thing. This is a mural, 28 x 40 foot image embedded in glass—-it’s baked between two sheets of tempered glass so it’s a single unit, reversed from the inside, lit from both sides. Now that it’s installed it sits in this neighborhood, telling a story, almost like a marker—-this happened here. I’m not taking a position on why it happened, but just that it happened and that this event should be part of the discussion about this place. I do find that when I walk by I’m often stopped by people who want to talk about it—-they don’t know who I am—-but they want to know, what is this? Why is this here? And people do stop and look at it for like ninety seconds, which is a long time today, unfortunately.

I thought I’d also show you a project called The Secret Agent (2015). This is a six-channel video based the novel by Joseph Conrad of the same name. His story was based on a real attempt by a French terrorist named Martial Bourdin to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. At that time, you had the practice of terrorism, which had been the province of the state, being adopted by individual actors. One intention of anarchists was to provoke the state reveal its true oppressive tendencies. I was interested in doing something on terrorism, and Conrad’s book was the first espionage novel and the first literary depiction of terrorism in western literature. Portugal became interesting to me because they got rid of fascism after fifty years in 1974—-that is interesting. The ‘‘carnation revolution’’ began because the army felt they could not sustain the wars in Africa—-the people didn’t want them there, they weren’t equipped to deal with guerrilla warfare, but there was so much money coming in from African natural resources that the government wanted them to keep on doing it, and the military said they couldn’t. So in 1974 a banned Portuguese Eurovision song was played on the radio as a sign for the military to occupy government buildings. It was a bloodless coup. People just woke up and suddenly there was no fascism, after fifty years! It was carnation season and people gave out carnations to mutineers. There was an attempt at a counter revolution that didn’t work out. The summer before a new constitution was ratified at the end of 1975 you had bombings from the extreme right and left, hijackings, kidnappings. Oddly these people with radically different ideologies thought that by using the same techniques they could achieve very different ends. So I took the Conrad story and adapted it to 1975 Lisbon.

There is a series of hierarchies in this film, with people, mostly men, telling the others that they know how the world works and that everyone should do as they say—-which is very much like what a terrorist does with their actions that in effect say, my ideology is more important than your life. In the novel they wanted to blow up the Greenwich observatory to make an assault on ‘‘time,’’ because time was the thing that organized commerce in the nineteenth century, in the case of my Secret Agent there is an attempted assault on the Marconi installation outside of Lisbon which was a major conduit for all European telephony, so instead of time they attack the networks. The installation is a six-channel video, sometimes all the screens are on, there are always at least two screens on at any given time.

[Plays excerpt from The Station Agent (2015). Then turns on muted footage of Pembury Riots. ]

I’ll finish up by showing you some footage I got from Sky News of the Pembury Estate riots of 2011, which you read about in Endnotes. I licensed about six hours of footage to get a sense of what the psycho-geography of a riot was like. I thought I could do a photogrammetric image of the area. Photogrammetry is where you take a bunch of photographs around an object and infer a three-dimensional object from them—-I thought news helicopters would be great for that because they circle around. These images were too low resolution and there were a lot of gaps. You can see that the cops are overwhelmed—-they didn’t understand the scope of thing. Rioters began putting up barricades, burning cars and dumpsters. At a certain point the cops start turning away. They’re trying to disperse them but the people in helicopters told them there are too many rioters, and to get out of there. Eventually you see these cops regroup. It’s one of the most well documented riots in history because in addition to the news cameras, almost everybody on the ground had a cell phone with a camera in it and many of the cops wore bodycams.

I am now making large composite photographs of this riot, synthetic views you could never possibly have. Because this Sky News footage wasn’t high enough resolution I rented a helicopter in London and shot the locations myself with a high-resolution camera and we are now compositing video stills into it. Another task is to get everything back to the state it was in in 2011. Recently Hackney has started to become gentrified but luckily Google Streetview is historical—-so I was able to find images of the streets from the time of the riot. Apple Maps 3D for this area is roughly five-years of out of date so I was able to find the correct look of that gnarly pub on the corner, for instance. First thing is checking all the cars, making sure the cars are contemporary circa 2011. The gentrified buildings with new roofs are being photographically taken back to the place they were six years ago and for many storefronts, and a few entire buildings, three-dimensional models will have to be made that will then be comped into the scene This will be about six by ten feet, the other one five by ten feet. They show a key moment that could never be recorded without putting these things together.

MFU: Maybe this is Paul Virilio territory, but looking at the helicopter footage, it really feels more like a video game perspective and it’s strangely not dramatic. I don’t feel stressed out within it. And I was trying to tease out the different associations we might have with this perspective that the image has set up. It works very differently when it’s a photograph. A part of that is the lack of sound on the news footage—-there is a passivity, roving from one scene to the next. But I feel if you could hear some of that ambient sound it would change it.

SD: With this Sky News footage all you would hear is helicopter sounds—-helicopters are quite loud. There is a remote control camera in the nose of the helicopter controlled by the operator, so that is part of what creates the distance too—-it’s not handheld, it is a very mechanical motion. They pull out to see where the action is and zoom in on it, then they pull out again. So yeah, it’s a ‘‘god’s eye view’’, as Virilio wrote about in the First Gulf War, which had the Powell doctrine of never getting boots on the ground just killing people remotely with technology. It has the exact same point of view.

MFU: I’m guessing there must be a lot of video material from what was happening on the ground?

SD: Yeah, if you go online you’ll see all the DSLR footage.

MFU: What was that like?

SD: Just chaos. It’s immediate and you can only see what’s going on immediately around you. You do get a sense of the anxiety that an individual in that situation might have, and that is probably fruitful material for doing something because there is so much documentation of these events. My dream was that I could use this technique to make a series about what I call ‘‘The Year of Riots,’’ 2011, the Arab Spring was ongoing, there was Occupy Wall Street, and the UK riots not just in London but across England. It began as a traditional race riot but it became something else. You have the children of the rioters from the ’80s rioting again, and people had that same sense of disenfranchisement that people in Paris had in 2005, and that same sense of hopelessness spread across the entire country. After 2008 and the financial meltdown, people were told they have to behave and endure austerity which, as it turned out, was not austerity all. As they say in the Endnotes, the riots certainly mean something but we can’t necessarily identify causes.

MFU: Have you ever thought about this as a Virtual Reality project?

SD: VR is a funny medium. There is a famous essay by Irwin Panofsky called ‘‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’’ and it shows that perspective is a technology that has a long history and somehow connects to the desire of people in West to see the world as a two-dimensional optical image. We experience the world in four dimensions but for some reason people want to possess it in two. Maybe feels scientific, maybe it feels modern. There was, for example, something called a ‘‘black mirror’’ or a ‘‘Claude glass’’ named for Claude Lorrain, the 18th century painter whose works were epitome of ‘‘pictorialism,” The formula for a pictorialist landscape painting was: you had a tree on one side as a framing device, middle ground with little figures to give it a sense of scale, a little stream and behind that mountains and landscape. So in the eighteenth century people would go in groups with their ‘‘Claude glasses’’ to find locations that had those features, they’d then turn their backs to it and look at it in the black mirror which increases contrast and abstracts what it reflects. For some reason people had the desire to see the world in that way, in a way that confirms their preconceptions as images. Panofsky argues that perspective itself is a form of organizing the world. We see in fragments—-we never see a scene perfectly optically, only a portion of our vision is in focus. What we think we see is based on pattern recognition and short and long-term memory. I know what you look like so I don’t have to look at you all the time to confirm it, I just assume you do. We don’t see like cameras at all. An optical apparatus convers external reality to a single point. The funny thing that happens with VR is that this point is somehow enclosed by an environment. So instead of being a thing that is mobile that can go out into the environment and look around it, the thing has been enclosed by the technology so it has no mobility whatsoever. Even if perspective, according to Panofsky, is a metaphor for European imperialism, somehow VR seems to me a metaphor for the capture of the individual by that which produces the VR—-so it is problematic.

I actually have made a VR. I made a project called Circa 1948 with the National Film Board of Canada, about the reconstruction of these two neighborhoods in Canada, where you can walk around an entire city block and an entire hotel of that era. We also made an installation of at Tribeca film festival that was a cube you walk inside where a head tracker will see your head move forward or back and there are projections on all four walls which distort as you do that so you don’t feel like you’re in a cube. It feels like you’re in a sphere. If you tilt your head down the whole world shifts into parallax. It’s an overwhelming experience, but it’s not really art. In this instance the technology is more impressive in and of itself than any content you could put into it. People are fascinated by the experience they are given by the technology itself, rather than what you’ve done with it.

MFU: It’s almost like we haven’t learned how to engage with VR yet, not only as makers but as viewers. What you’re saying reminds me of our eyes being adjusted to the televisions refresh rate. When HD televisions were first introduced they seemed really strange and like they mess with your eyes, but then they start to look normal as you adjust to seeing them. Through reading about it you realize that the frame’s rate is so much faster, which is the difference.

SD: Marshall McLuhan talked about hot media and cool media—-I always mix that up, but I think TV was cool because it was low-res and you had to use your mind to make it make sense, whereas film was hot because it presented so much detail. Now it’s like that is reversed, where video is hot and film is cool. We’re nostalgic for the way a projection is always a tad out-of-focus, the spatial noise when the frames move around in the gate, and two-dimensional noise of film grain that you have to peer through to get at the image. Compared to film, sixty frames-per-second 4K is like more real than real. But then again, it might be a case of the medium being more powerful than what you could put into it.

MFU: With The Secret Agent you mentioned that if you’re standing in the installation taking it in, you’re not going to be able to take in all the information in the moment and that is intentional. Can you talk about that in terms of fragmentation and knowledge?

SD: For instance, there is a scene where the police commissioner and Secretary of State are talking to each other and the screens are facing each other across the space. The entire scene is played out in a single take with them looking directly at one another, so you can’t see both at the same time. In effect, you have to create a montage with your body. That happens throughout the piece because you’re always deciding what is important and what is not. I was inspired by this film called The Boston Strangler by Alan Fleischer, the first multi-screen film from 1968. He’d been to Expo ‘67 and saw the national and corporate pavilions with their multi-screen installations and thought, I could make a film like that. People often think The Thomas Crown Affair was the first split-screen movie but it’s not. The Boston Strangler staring Tony Curtis, in a great performance with funny makeup, was. They were fastidious in how they organized things, they’d basically mask the scene in the frame and then compose it before hand, and do that same thing over and over and then put it together so they had maximum resolution. All those conjunctions are actually thought about dramatically. The effect was, in a way, to have more stuff going on than the eyes could pay attention to, so the audience would have the same anxiety as the characters in the film, asking themselves, Is this important? Is that the Boston strangler? Where is he? Where will he strike next? I wanted to get that same sense of, Where is the next thing going to happen? What am I missing?

MFU: In the clip you showed from The Secret Agent I found myself following dialog.

SD: Well that is the expectation and it’s edited to throw you off. The sound is actually leading you around, taking you around the space and showing you what is significant and what is not, and that allows you to be surprised when you’re not quite sure what you should be looking at.

MFU: It seems like the specific pictorial solution you’ve come up with in the new Pembury riot pieces is the only ways to address the larger complexity of a riot, because they take place in congested urban areas where the sight lines are short and cut off.

SD: One thing about photos of people —- with a person you get caught up in the drama—-psychologizing them, identifying with them, judging with them, as opposed to looking at a location as evidence of a way of life. My thinking with the riot photographs is that if it could have multiple people and multiple scenes in one picture I could make an image of complexity that I find interesting. There are different things going on, and because of the architecture I saw that the image was divided by walls and windows and doors so I could almost work in fragments, and that was a key idea. But then, these later things came up like, how could I depict the psycho-geography? Or, find a decisive moment that could represent this riot.

MFU: I was interested in the part of Endnotes that credits changes in communication media as a key component of recent riots, but says that ‘‘they only ever contribute a weak form of causality shaping possibilities rather than driving things.’’

SD: There was a verbatim play by Gillian Solvo constructed by interviewing people who were in the riots in different ways. I talked to her and some politicians and they said that social media had more to do with cleaning up than with the rioting itself. There was not that much coordination for the rioters—-they were just there, they didn’t come from somewhere else to riot. But what was coordinating was, we’ve got to clean this up before people set this on fire. Apparently social media was crucial for that to happen.

MFU: It’s so visually striking, how the cops look versus the rioters; do you find an innate visual sympathy with the ‘‘not-cops’’ because the way the cops cohere into larger forms is meant to look scary?

SD: Well, cops in their uniforms are not human in the way the other people are. They are probably meant to not look human. They look like machines, they have truncheons, they have big helmets, they have transparent shields. They are hard, they’re shiny and they are bulkier than they would normally be. Whereas the kids in hoodies are vulnerable and that is clearly part of the theatre.