The Angel of History in the Age of the Internet

STAN DOUGLAS: Mise en scène, León Krempel, ed., Prestel, 2014

‘The Angel of History in the Age of the Internet’. An essay on the recent photography of Stan Douglas by David Campany. Published in Leon Krempel, ed., Stan Douglas, Prestel 2014stan-douglas-powell-street-grounds-28-january-1912-2008-sc3a9rie-crowds-riots

 Stan Douglas, Powell Street Grounds, 28 January 1912, 2008, 151,1 x 264,2 cm. Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York/London & Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

 

The Angel of History in the Age of the Internet

Paris changes! but naught in my melancholy

Has stirred! New palaces, scaffolding, blocks of stone,

Old quarters, all become for me an allegory,

And my dear memories are heavier than rocks.

 Charles Baudelaire, 1857[i]

In what turned out to be the last few years of his life, the German critic Walter Benjamin became deeply interested in the idea that moments in history do not remain permanently accessible to posterity. Rather, they lie dormant until a new circumstance makes them understandable and pertinent. “Every now … is the now of a particular recognizability, in which things put on their true—surrealist—face,” he wrote in his opus of notes published as The Arcades Project.[ii] Suddenly and unexpectedly, a past moment may become meaningful to a present that has the means to grasp its deepest character.

The opportunities for this may be very brief and we ought to presume that more often than not they pass us by. But when they are seized, by a society or perhaps by an individual, something like a time tunnel appears to connect two moments, present and past. It’s an illusion of course, because we can never really go back. What happens is better described as an allegorizing of the past by the present, or perhaps an allegorizing of the present by a past it now claims as its own.

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Stan Douglas came of age as an artist in the 1980s, at a time of renewed interest in allegory as an artistic mode. The myths of pure presence and straight speaking that motivated so much modernist art were beginning to frustrate and to reveal their limitations. A “postmodern turn,” as it was named in haste, signaled a range of reconnections between art and everyday life, between high art and popular culture, between the here and the far away, between artistic mediums, and perhaps most significantly between the present and the past.

At the center of this turn were photography and film, two mediums that, although having their own distinctive identity within high modernism, became attractive to artists of many kinds because they seemed to belong everywhere and nowhere in particular. Some critics, notably Craig Owens, went so far as to suggest that photography is inescapably allegorical: it operates at the intersection of numerous rhetorics, genres and discourses, none of which belong to it exclusively, and it offers only a fragmentary account of a world it steals, quotes and even substitutes itself for, with tenuous means of explanation.[iii]

While this is true enough, what really opened up photography to the allegorical imagination had as much to do with the medium’s cultural and historical standing in the closing decades of the twentieth century. Photography was no longer the defining medium of the age, as it had been in the previous era dominated by mass circulation magazines and newspapers. The displacement was long and drawn out. It began with the advent of cinema, was confirmed by the rise of television and sealed by the arrival of the Internet (all mediums in which Stan Douglas has taken an interest). Photography would now be a secondary medium. Not exactly obsolete, but certainly eclipsed. And in the eclipse other possibilities emerged: new ways of using and thinking about photography beyond the burden of authority given to it by news and advertising; new temporalities beyond the charged moment and its cultish power of immediacy; new philosophical questions; new conditions of knowledge and experience; new pictorial problems and new aesthetic realms.

In other words, photography had once been in a position to define the look and value of the age over which it ruled, but now it seemed its role might be to revisit that age, to rethink it, reflect upon it and in the process perhaps even open up alternative ways of understanding the present. We might say then, that photography has undergone a shift, significant but not total, from Emissary of Progress to Angel of History. Here is Walter Benjamin again, in perhaps his most well-known lines:

“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”[iv]

The allegorical photographer backs into the future. Perhaps his own images pile up before him. Perhaps he scavenges the greater pile produced by the culture around him. Perhaps the new archival technologies of his own moment—today it is the Internet—allow him to reach further down into the pile, further back into the past, to pick out fragments presumed lost or irrelevant. And perhaps with his findings he is prompted to make new images.

Photographs can only be made in the present, although they immediately convert that present into something past. But if the past is to enter into the photographer’s frame it must do so either through the traces it has left behind in the world or through a reimagining. Stan Douglas pursues both approaches. That is to say, he makes fairly “straight” documentary photographs of places where the past might be still discernible and thinkable, and he makes photographs that stage or restage moments from history. He explains:

“The idea I come back to again and again is the habits of a culture or a people being disrupted by something and somehow having to deal with that. Do they deal with it by going back to the old ways, or do they deal with it by finding the new possibilities in this new situation? That’s the key thing in almost every project.”[v]

While that is a neat enough summary, Douglas leaves out the fact that such moments of disruption or transition are easier to see with hindsight. We must presume they are happening all around us, and it is a challenge to our political consciousness to address them. All of Douglas’s projects seem to be triggered by encounters with the remnants of moments from history. They take as their subject or point of departure short-lived occasions from the twentieth century when something significant seemed to hang in the balance. It might be a moment of civic revolt. It might be a moment in the professional or artistic development of photography or film when new forms of expression were taking shape. It might be a moment in which a society paused momentarily to consider its future. It might be a turning point in which a constellation of chance factors produced something precarious and unpredictable. Douglas is unusually but consistently attuned to such moments. He may not be an Angel of History, but over the last three decades he has developed a dialectical means of bridging present and past that aspires to contemplate, through the rearview mirror, the forces of what Benjamin noted we prefer to call “progress.”

It is often assumed that in the golden age of allegorical painting (Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) audiences were familiar with the stories, events, and morality tales being depicted. But this was far from always being the case. Very often a compelling depiction could prompt a reconnection. The allegorist revives something presumed dead. In this way their art becomes not an aesthetic end in itself but a starting point, an overture to curious learning.

Stan Douglas is well aware of this activating dimension of allegory. His photographs may point to historical forces, but they do not, cannot, explain anything like their full complexity. Each project begins with an interest in a dense nexus of facts and anecdotes about a past moment. This nexus informs and structures the making of a work that in the end cannot really convey the richness of its motivation. To a greater or lesser extent that task is carried out by catalogue essays, gallery press releases, interviews and artists’ statements which orbit around Douglas’s work as paratexts—bits and pieces of information which are not strictly part of the art but which ground it and open it up.[vi] In this sense Douglas is an exemplary post-conceptual artist, drawing on the now well-oiled relay between the space of the gallery and the space of the art magazine, art book, history book, or Internet search engine. So before I continue, I should outline the general terms of this modus operandi.

Let’s take as an example Douglas’s photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (made in 2008), a highly artificial-looking image of what might be a clash between police and citizens in a late twentieth-century modern city. Turning to the press release issued by Douglas’s gallery, David Zwirner, we learn that: “Douglas stages a scene from the famous Gastown Riots, which exploded mounting tensions between local hippies and law enforcement. Striving for historical accuracy, the work replicates local businesses, as well as music posters and newspapers from the time.” This gives viewers some context for the work—and perhaps even some tips as to what to look at and “appreciate” in the richness of the image. The numerous monographs that reproduce Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 pass on some of Douglas’s research, set the scene for the historical moment that is being reimagined, and elaborate the process required to bring about that reimagining. Alternatively, even a quick Internet search for “Gastown Riots” will plunge you into a world of archival material, perhaps of the kind Douglas was looking at in the first place. Quite rightly Douglas heads off the accusation that his art demands such in-depth knowledge:

‘People always say: “How can we possibly be expected to know all that?” I don’t expect you to know all that. I do not want the work to simply have a message that is recognizable immediately. What I hope the work can deliver is that it will offer more, the more you spend time with it. As you ask it more questions it will give you more answers.'[vii]

These days, of course, it could hardly be easier to get any number of “answers” at the click of a mouse or even a quick browse through the shop at the art museum. The pile accumulating before us is enormous and more available than ever. Accessing and assembling a sense of a moment from the last century is no longer a specialized professional activity. Artists, viewers and readers—we are all historical researchers. All Angels of History. Potentially.

Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 is one of four works comprising Douglas’s loose series Crowds and Riots. Each image pictures a moment in the history of his hometown of Vancouver, Canada. Powell Street Grounds, 28 January 1912 reimagines a moment from the Free Speech Fight of that date, which broke out in response to a bylaw banning outdoor meetings of the Industrial Workers of the World. After negotiations, free speech was permitted in parks but not on street corners. Ballantyne Pier, 18 June 1935 revisits the Vancouver dockworkers’ strike, which although a failure did eventually pave the way for the unionizing of dockworkers in British Columbia. Hastings Park, 16 July 1955 shows a crowd waiting for a horse race to start. Each tableau is elaborately and conspicuously staged, and very different in appearance from the historical documents that informed Douglas’s research. Indeed, so arch and prepossessing is Douglas’s mise-en-scène, and so manicured are the color palettes, that each looks like a still from one of Hollywood’s recent attempts to make a “quality” historical movie. Except that Hollywood probably wouldn’t touch these subjects, and Douglas isn’t actually making movies here. The stillness and pictorial artifice serve to signal the past rather than summon it forth as authoritative spectacle. For all the period detail on display, there’s little suggestion that “this is how it was.”

These photographs may alert us to particular moments in history, but they also invite a more generalized and contemplative set of questions to do with the status of reenactment in today’s visual culture, in which so much of the past seems accessible and genre hybrids like “drama-documentary” and “advertorials” are ubiquitous. As Bill Nichols has noted, reenactments do not offer historical evidence. Rather they “contribute a vivification of that for which they stand. They make what it feels like to occupy a certain situation, to perform a certain action, to adopt a particular perspective visible and more vivid. Vivification is neither evidence nor explanation. It is, though, a form of interpretation, an inflection that resurrects the past to reanimate it with the force of desire.”[viii]

We should expect “forces of desire” to be capricious and illogical. This becomes apparent in Mid-Century Studio. For this extended suite Douglas takes his cue from North American press photography in the years following World War II. Catalogues and press releases will tell you that after Douglas familiarized himself with the extant work of Raymond Munro—an ex-military pilot who became a press photographer in Vancouver in 1949—the artist visited the extensive archives of the Black Star press photo agency.[ix] He then set about recreating the look, subjects, and milieu of that moment. In the late 1940s many press photographers were still working with the handheld 4×5 Speed Graphic, a clunky and awkward sheet film camera that in anything less than expert hands produced clunky and awkward pictures (although very rich in detail from that large negative size, especially when lit by a flashbulb that allowed for small apertures and great depth of field). The resulting prints were rarely seen directly by the public: they would be cropped down to key details before reproduction in the crude halftone of newsprint. The Black Star Collection is in the care of the Ryerson Image Center in Toronto, but dozens of similar archives accumulated by North American newspapers over decades are currently being destroyed or sold off piecemeal. They are simply not needed. When they go, they take with them an extraordinarily rich anecdotal history. Mid-Century Studio imagines an untrained photographer like Munro who learns on the job in a culture moving swiftly but unevenly from wartime austerity and pragmatism to the wasteful and selfish aspirations of 1950s consumerism. To this end, Douglas’s project includes Weegee-esque crime scenes and shots of raids on gambling dens alongside pictures that might have illustrated local stories about magicians, sportsmen, glamorous people and common citizens as they settled into postwar lives.

On one level, the whole time-consuming, labor-consuming, and money-consuming enterprise undertaken by Douglas (and his skilled team) is quite gratuitous here. Where Crowds and Riots forged an aesthetic distinct from its historical source material, Mid-Century Studio mimics its sources pretty closely. Republishing or exhibiting those original press photos might have been just as effective.[x] Indeed, a comprehensive book about Mid-Century Studio includes archival photographs from the 1940s and ’50s that are every bit as compelling as Douglas’s versions.[xi] Moreover, a quick look on eBay throws up similar gems of mid-century press photography at $10 or $15 apiece. Lavishing great artistic attention on the detailed re-creation of a world according its own representational logic may well seem excessive, but Douglas is not setting out to “copy the masters” here. His “force of desire” leads him to copy a tellingly gauche kind of photographic practice. Not high art but popular local news. And it is precisely this disproportionate amount of effort—the spectacle of labor on display in Mid-Century Studio—that becomes the source of fascination and the unlikely entry point into the historical moment.

For Disco Angola (2012), Douglas once again conjures up the persona of a photographer, but with very different aims and outcomes. This time the results take the form of a hypothesis. What if a photojournalist involved in New York’s burgeoning underground disco scene around 1974 was also travelling to Angola, where a coup d’état had just ended Portuguese rule? Two concurrent but very different moments of “liberation”—one sexual, one national—linked by an imaginary photographer and by the African rhythms to be found in early disco. Within a couple of years disco went mainstream and lost its edge, while Angola was destabilized and plunged into twenty-eight years of civil war. Beyond the particular nuances suggested by the photographs, Disco Angola reflects something of the turn in recent historical consciousness toward looking not so much back and forth through time as across it, connecting events that were happening simultaneously.[xii] In a world economy with its uneven flows of goods, labor, art, and information, an understanding of simultaneity becomes a matter of great urgency. History cannot be grasped or told without this complex transnational braiding of politics, power, and culture. Old habits of linear history-telling must give way to analyses in parallel.

Douglas’s loose series Interiors, which includes Artist’s Cabin (2009), Olde Curio Shop (2010), Kardynal Shoes, and Tosi Foods (both 2011) shows different aspects of the persistence of older ways of doing things (making art, reusing past objects, buying shoes and food from independent stores). These are more or less documentary pictures that also point to the inevitably uneven development and take-up of “progress.” Douglas has been making photographs in this idiom for some time. He’s interested in places which, when photographed, have the potential to strike us as stage sets that dramatize their own historical determinations. Recently in Cuba he photographed architecture that has been repurposed after a revolution that was never completed: a cinema now used as a parking lot, a church used as a bank or music hall, a convent used a school, a cinema turned into a woodworking workshop.

A point of reference here might be Eugène Atget, the photographer who documented those parts of old Paris that were either endangered or ignored by modernity: buildings, interiors, streets, and tradespeople whose very existence testified to a living history of ruptures, shocks, shadows, and vestiges. Even Atget’s bulky camera, glass negatives, and patchy prints were anachronistic, remaining unchanged throughout his decades of activity. Atget’s sober stare and affection for everyday life saw him heralded as a precursor of modernist photography.[xiii] At the same time, his ability to stage space as an uncanny scene of the generalized crime that is capitalism endeared him to surrealists and those attuned to what History suppresses. Walter Benjamin and the photographer Walker Evans were early admirers.

Stan Douglas’s movement between simple documentation and elaborate reconstruction can be taken as a reminder of one of the most humbling and subversive qualities of photography: there is no correspondence between cost of production and artistic merit. A photographer may slave for a year over an image with technicians and budgets at his disposal and be no more or less successful than one who simply goes out to the street and takes a photograph in a matter of seconds. The intelligence and acuity of photography lie in experience and perception. Moreover, Douglas’s interest not just in the past but in photography from the past could well be taken as a conditional acceptance that what is most significant about the medium has little to do with art and a lot to do with its complex status as a source of documents. If we take Douglas at his word, that he is interested in providing prompts to search for “answers,” his is an art that leads us away from art and into other things. Documents, above all.

And yet there is a sense in which we should see even staged photographs as documents—that is to say, as records of their own making. This is why the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard insisted that even fiction films are documents of historically specific performances and should be approached as such. If photographs and films outlive the immediate moment of their making, they are likely to survive to posterity on the basis of their documentary character. Even “art photographs.” Disco Angola, Mid-Century Studio, and Crowds and Riots will turn out to be as much documents of Stan Douglas’s moment, our moment, as any moment they depict. But in an age that is now so paralyzed in its thinking about the future, and so fascinated and overwhelmed by its apparent access to the past, what exactly is our moment?

Inevitably, allegories are fragile. Like jokes or satire or political broadsides, the more localized they are, the more acutely effective they are. Context is paramount but also unstable. Allegory is the enemy of the Universal. In this sense, allegorical artists are very much artists of their own place and time, however complicated that may be. This is so regardless of their interest in other places and times. For this reason, Stan Douglas’s most focused artistic gesture may well be the permanent display of Abbott and Cordova, August 1971 in a public space in Vancouver close to the site the image depicts.[xiv] Here at least the picture is “for” the people who are the most direct inheritors of that moment in 1971. Their response will be richest, although we can have our response too. For all the investment in photography as a medium of historical record, the presence of photographs in public places is rarely this permanent. While photographs thicken public space, usually as advertising, they come and go to the tempo and turnover of capital.

Nevertheless, it is often argued that photography supplanted the role once held in public consciousness by monuments, those public markers in stone or bronze of civic memory. But a photograph—of war, or unfreedom, or occasionally of gallantry—becomes monumental in its repeated dispersal. Rarely does a photograph occupy the kinds of physical public space we associate with monuments. That is to say, there is usually little overt connection between the place depicted in the image and the place of its consumption.

Photography has become whatever it is precisely through its overturning of the very idea of site-specificity. Moreover, against the claim that a photograph is a historical record, many of the medium’s most outspoken critics (from Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, to Guy Debord, Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard) have argued that we need to be on guard against the simple equation of photography with memory. Photography may even be the enemy of memory. Just because a photograph is a document it does not follow that its meanings are clear. Far from it. Meaning requires what Stan Douglas calls the “search for answers.”

[i]Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie

N’a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,

Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie

Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs.

Charles Baudelaire, “Le Cygne” (“The Swan”), Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), 1857.

[ii] Walter Benjamin, Convolute [N3a,3], The Arcades Project, published posthumously by Belknap/Harvard, 1999.

[iii] Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” October, vol. 12. (spring 1980).

[iv] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940) in Illuminations (Fontana, London: 1940).

[v] Stan Douglas, International Center of Photography Infinity Awards short film (2012), http://www.icp.org/support-icp/infinity-awards/stan-douglas.

[vi] See Gérard Genette, Paratexts (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[vii]Stan Douglas, International Center of Photography Infinity Awards short film (2012),

http://www.icp.org/support-icp/infinity-awards/stan-douglas.

[viii] Bill Nichols, “Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmatic Subject,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 1. (2008), pp. 72–89.

[ix] The Black Star archive was gifted to the Ryerson Image Center, Toronto, in 2005. See Peggy Gale, ed., Archival Dialogues: Reading the Black Star Archive (Ryerson Image Center, Toronto: 2012).

[x]One of the landmark photographic projects of the post-1960s era is Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence (1977), a book of fifty photographs gathered from numerous institutional archives made by technician-photographers in the name of science or forensic documentation. The surreal automatism of such documents out of context is compelling, while the book’s undercurrents of paranoia, repression, and secrecy are darkly comic. For the attentive, Evidence also provides a neat schooling in the arcane world of “technician photography.”

[xi]Stan Douglas, Christopher Phillips, and Pablo Sigg, Mid-Century Studio (Ludion, 2011).

[xii] Perhaps the finest example of this in art has been the exhibition 1979: A Monument to Radical Instants, curated by Carles Guerra for La Virreina Barcelona in 2011.

[xiii]See for example the folio “Adjet [sic]: Un Précurseur de la Photographie Moderne,” in L’Art Vivant, January 1, 1928.

[xiv]Abbott and Cordova, August 1971 is installed as a 50 x 30 ft. billboard in the public atrium of the new Woodward’s building in Vancouver.