Arts

Watch the rise of Stan Douglas — Canada's artist in Venice — in 5 archival videos

These videos chart the rise of the celebrated photoconceptualist, from emerging Vancouver artist to Canada’s official representative at the Venice Biennale 2022.

After 5 previous Biennale exhibitions, the celebrated artist finally gets top billing at the Canada pavilion

Celebrated Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, pictured here in 1995, is headlining the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2022. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Widely regarded as one of the world's most prestigious showcases for contemporary art, the Venice Biennale opened with Aperol spritz-soaked celebrations this past weekend after a three-year, pandemic-induced hiatus. And there representing Canada is Vancouver-based multimedia artist Stan Douglas, who's showing his photographic series 2011 ≠ 1848 in the Canadian pavilion as well as the video installation ISDN in a 16th-century Venetian salt warehouse.

Over his long and varied career, Douglas has won acclaim for his multilayered, intellectually challenging, technically innovative and visually sumptuous works. He has often focused (no pun intended) on the role that image-making technologies — photography, film and video — play in how we perceive the past, view the present and picture the future. Douglas has a consistent fascination with alternate histories: imagining how real events could have unfolded differently, fabricating archives for incidents that went undocumented, even inventing elaborate science fiction scenarios. 

Across these various projects, Douglas always asks the viewer to consider whose histories are remembered and how. Looking at moments of unrest and transformation — such as the Gastown riots memorialized in his 2008 photo installation Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 or his current Venice project juxtaposing the global uprisings of 2011 with the European revolts of 1848 — Douglas tends to present stories from the view of those marginalized by official history. Though Douglas rarely addresses race in a head-on manner, many of his most exciting works make use of historically Black music, such as jazz, Afrobeat, disco, or, in the case of his ISDN video installation showing in Venice now, UK grime and Egyptian Mahraganat. 

This is Douglas's first time as Canada's officially selected representative — and he is the first Black artist to hold that honour — but it is not his first time showing at the Biennale. As one of Canada's most internationally-recognized artists, he has already exhibited his conceptual photographs, videos and installations at five previous Venice Biennales, dating back to 1990.

In this selection of videos, drawn from CBC's archives and other sources, you can watch Douglas's journey from emerging artist to his current international recognition. See below for a taste of how Douglas's work and its reception have evolved over the years.

CBC Midday (1991)

Stan Douglas in Paris, 1991

33 years ago
Duration 6:24
Artist Stan Douglas tells Valerie Pringle of CBC's Midday about the video projects he calls monographs.

In this six-minute segment from 1991, Douglas discusses his work with the host of CBC's Midday. At the time, Douglas was exhibiting at Paris's prestigious Jeu de Paume, a centre dedicated to photography and cinema. 

The interview focuses on Douglas's Monodramas, which are a series of very short, enigmatic films — send-ups of genre conventions with stories about everyday moments of misrecognition — that Douglas broadcast on B.C. television during commercial breaks. The films disoriented and confused numerous viewers. Some even called in to the station to ask what these curious "ads" were selling. In this clip, both Douglas and the host seem, amusingly, equally uncomfortable discussing contemporary video art for a daytime TV audience.

CBC On the Arts (1995)

A perspective on Stan Douglas's work in 1995

2 years ago
Duration 3:11
Arts critic McLean Greaves reviews an exhibition of photographs and video installations by Stan Douglas for CBC's On the Arts in 1995.

In this short clip, the host of On the Arts, a weekly segment on CBC Newsworld, discusses Stan Douglas's participation in the 1995 Whitney Biennial exhibition with correspondent McLean Greaves. Greaves cites buzz for the artist from the New York Times while struggling to explain the appeal of Douglas's photo series of German gardens. 

The host comments on the fact — often observed about Canadian artists — that Douglas was "one of the most exciting new artists to come along in quite some time," while, at the same time, few people in Canada seemed to know about him. Greaves also asserts that, despite being a Black artist, Douglas's work didn't necessarily come across as "African Canadian or African American" because it was "more cerebral"— a remark that speaks volumes about expectations for racialized artists.

CBC On the Arts (1999)

Stan Douglas at the Power Plant gallery in 1999

2 years ago
Duration 6:15
Arts correspondent Jennifer Baichwal discusses the work of Stan Douglas with the CBC's Laurie Brown for On the Arts in 1999.

Four years later, Douglas's status as a major artist was no longer in doubt. In this six-minute segment, shot on location at Douglas's solo exhibition at Toronto's Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, host Laurie Brown and arts correspondent Jennifer Baichwal (now well-known as a documentary filmmaker) have an insightful and informed discussion about the breadth of Douglas's work.

Looking at Nu•tka•, which is a looping, two-channel video work from 1996, Baichwal observes that "Douglas deals with history, and those points in time where history could have gone one way, but went another. And you know how they say history is written by the winners? Well, he deals with that, but also with the marginal voices that the winners try to obliterate."

The pair then move on to Win, Place or Show (1998), another looping, two-channel project that recombines segments so that it would take 20,000 hours to repeat. The story of the piece concerns two dockworkers living in a fictitious modernist apartment building in the 1950s — an unrealized development that was once planned for the urban renewal of Vancouver's immigrant and working-class Strathcona neighborhood. Baichwal and Brown note the influence of Samuel Beckett on the narrative and comment on Douglas's fascination with the "underside of utopian ideals," while praising the artist's facility with the medium of video. 

Stan Douglas: Channeling Miles Davis – Art21 (2016)

This clip is an outtake from Stan Douglas's episode of the popular Art21 documentary series on contemporary artists. It focuses on his epic, six-hour video Luanda-Kinshasa from 2013, which is a fictional documentary that imagines an encounter between Miles Davis and Afrobeat performers in the 1970s. In the interview segments, Douglas muses about his experience as a DJ in the 1980s and his interest in the idea of polyphony. It's with a similar spirit that he draws connections between disparate musical forms and different historical moments, local histories and global movements in the hopes of "opening up history to alternate possibilities."

Biennale Arte – Stan Douglas (2019)

This video was produced for the 58th Venice Biennale, in which Douglas participated in the main exhibition. As he explains, so much of his work is involved with "the idea of historical reconstruction and reenactment," but these particular works were different. Both imagined scenarios that had yet to occur. One was a fictional blackout in contemporary New York City (Scenes from the Blackout), and the other was a space voyage based on "quantum teleportation" (Doppelgänger) that sends a Black astronaut to an Earth-like planet at the same time as that planet sends an emissary to Earth — another riff on Douglas's favoured method of doubled, overlapping narratives.

On camera, Douglas talks about his fascination with transformation, flux and what he calls "minor histories." What interests him, he explains, are "unrealized possibilities" — the utopian potential that lies in events that either failed to happen or haven't yet occurred.