Stan Douglas’ 2021 survey of 2011’s historical turmoil arrives at the Remai

Art by Gregory Beatty

‘New York City, 1 October 2011’ courtesy of the artist

Stan Douglas: 2011 1848
Remai Modern
Opens Feb. 3

A third year could properly be attached to the title of this exhibition by Canadian photo, film and video artist Stan Douglas: 2021. That was when he was supposed to present this new body of work as Canada’s representative at the Venice Biennale. But because of COVID the biennale got delayed a year.

“The biennale was supposed to be in 2021, so it was the 10th anniversary of 2011. So he was using the anniversary as inspiration to look back,” says Remai Modern curator Troy Gronsdahl of the show, which was commissioned for Venice by the National Gallery, and curated by Reid Shier of Polygon Gallery in Douglas’s home town of Vancouver.

Look back on what from 2011, some people might wonder.

And how does that relate to 1848?

Anyone familiar with European history will recognize 1848 as being a year of great significance. Starting in France in the spring, and spreading outward from there, diverse coalitions of people motivated by diverse grievances rose up across the continent. While the revolutionaries enjoyed early success, inherent divisions between different factions weakened them internally, and by fall they had been brutally crushed by reactionary forces.

What possible connection could that tumultuous year have with 2011? Judging by Douglas’s use of the “unequal” sign in the show title, perhaps none. Although starting in early 2011, the Middle East and northern Africa were roiled by the Arab Spring revolt that toppled dictators and government leaders in several countries. And in the fall, Occupy Wall Street began in New York and spread across North America.

Maybe there’s a connection after all.

Douglas is internationally known for his meticulously researched projects that critique historical figures and events in dramatic and thought-provoking ways. For his Venice turn, he produced four large-scale chromogenic prints depicting four disruptive incidents that occurred in 2011, plus a two-channel video work called ISDN.

The prints are styled as news photographs. An Arab Spring protest in Tunis in January 2011 and a police confrontation with Occupy protesters on Brooklyn Bridge in October are two events “covered”, along with a Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver in June of that year, and an August clash between police and community activists in London who were protesting the police shooting of a Black man during a traffic stop.

ISDN, which the Remai has co-acquired with the National Gallery, features a video interaction between two Black male rappers in London and Cairo. “The MCs are exchanging lyrics, so he’s thinking about youth and marginalized subcultures and the role they can play in protest,” says Gronsdahl. “It serves as a soundtrack for the show in a way.”

Hinge Moments

To create the four prints, Douglas shot on a sound stage using actors, props and extras against a green screen. “Then using digital technology, he layered the images into other photographs of the actual sites where the events depicted occurred to create these very vivid and compelling documentary-style images,” says Gronsdahl.

“They’re actually quite faithfully detailed reproductions,” he adds. “He tried to make sure all the clothing was of the period, even though it was only 10 years ago. In ISDN, he made sure the rappers had cell phones from that era. So he tries to be authentic as possible.”

We could get all meta here and talk about the implicit critique of media in the digital age that’s embedded in Douglas’s work, but let’s focus on the show’s core thesis.

“Douglas is thinking about these hinge moments in history where things could go one way or another, and how those moments are later historicized,” says Gronsdahl. “In his artist statement he quotes Marx, who says, ‘All great world-historic facts and personages appear twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’. Then he talks about the events of 1848 and the idea of the tragic recurrence of history.”

One major driver of unrest in 1848 was food insecurity. For poor and working-class people across northern Europe, bread and potatoes were staples. But two years of potato blight in 1845–1846 had devastated the harvest.

Food insecurity was a factor in the Arab Spring outbreak too, with shortages of staples and price inflation causing people to go hungry.

Poverty, inequality and injustice were other concerns in 1848, as they were during the Arab Spring, London and Occupy protests. Then there was just a general desire to move away from hereditary monarchs and aristocratic rule to more democratic nation-states.

The growing impact of industrialization and mechanization was yet another concern, especially for the working class, who worried about the impact on their livelihoods.

A similar uncertainty exists today related to automation and artificial intelligence, Gronsdahl thinks. “I see a lot of parallels between the anxieties of the Industrial Revolution and our current situation related to how we lead our lives and work, and the broader conditions of society.”

The one possible outlier in Douglas’s suite of photo-recreations is the Vancouver Stanley Cup riot. Compositionally, it’s the most intense. Where the Tunis and London protests are shot from the perspective of a news helicopter hovering high overhead, with the Vancouver image you’re at street level, as if you’re part of the cheering/jeering mob as an overturned SUV bursts into flame.

The print’s visceral quality in comparison with the other three images (Occupy offers a slightly elevated view of the Brooklyn Bridge standoff) probably isn’t surprising, considering that the riot took place in Douglas’s hometown.

But some people have questioned its inclusion in the show, says Gronsdahl.

“When we think about what was at stake in the other protests, the public display of outrage in Vancouver feels different,” says Gronsdahl. “But things got so bad that police could no longer control the situation. So that gives me pause to reflect on latent political tensions that could be in a community that may not be apparent, but when conditions are right something can be triggered.”

At the very least, it illustrates how thin the veneer of civilization can sometimes be. And while events like Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street have perhaps faded from public consciousness, it would be a mistake to dismiss their historic nature, says Gronsdahl.

“Working with such recent history, we can’t fully anticipate what the repercussions of some of those movements will be because it’s still fairly close to us,” he says.

“When we think about the widespread turmoil of 1848 there were no doubt outcomes that happened much later,” he says. “When I think of 2011, and something like Occupy — which flared up in New York and then expanded from there — while those protests ultimately ended, I think there was something in them that continues to simmer.” ■

Stan Douglas will open 2011 ≠ 1848 with a talk at Remai Modern on Friday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m. A reception will follow.