Stan Douglas discusses his recent exhibition at Victoria Miro Mayfair
Occasions of flux, transformation and disorder, and the possibility of change they bring about, have long fascinated the Canadian artist Stan Douglas. His critically acclaimed photographic series Crowds and Riots, 2008, explores crowd phenomena in the twentieth century, focusing on subjects including the clashes between police and protestors that defined Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood in the early 1970s. His film The Secret Agent, 2015, restages the plot of Joseph Conrad’s novella – a story of espionage, double-crossing and political entanglement – within the aftermath of Portugal’s ‘Carnation Revolution,’ which overthrew Europe’s oldest dictatorship, in April 1974. New photographic works on display at Victoria Miro Mayfair focus on two locations of the 2011 London riots: Mare Street in Hackney Central and the Pembury Estate in Hackney Downs. To create the panoramic mise-en-scènes on display, Douglas conducted intensive research, mining sources including contemporary aerial news reports and still images. He then meticulously combined his own aerial photography with media footage to reconstruct moments frozen at specific points in the unfolding disturbance. He discusses his decision to focus on events in east London and how the work carries echoes of uprisings in 1848.
What compelled you to make work around events in 2011?
‘2011 was the year of riots around the world. The Arab Spring was ongoing, you had Occupy Wall Street, you had the events in London, and you even had riots in Vancouver, with people coming in from the suburbs, coming downtown with crowbars intending to wreak some havoc after the game of the Stanley Cup hockey championship. I call this our 1848. In 1848 there were mini revolutions throughout continental Europe. This happened globally in 2011, with people in various ways expressing their frustration with a lack of representation. But instead of it being treated as a political event, it was treated as a policing event like the 2003 anti-Gulf War demonstrations.’
What drew you to events in London in particular?
'We were able to get access to news footage fairly readily. I could probably get footage from New York or Los Angeles, Berkeley or Vancouver, but trying to get footage from Egypt or Tunisia is actually quite difficult. Also, information about the urban condition is readily available in the UK. Google Street View is historical, so you can dial it back as far as 2008 - so I was able to locate images from the exact year and, as luck would have it, the exact month. This allowed us to make the streetscapes - from gentrification, to building façades, to the ads on buses - historically accurate.'
Is the process then a case of digitally stitching the found material together?
'The original idea was to take the existing helicopter footage and use that to make the photogrammetric image but it just didn't work because there were too many holes, too many areas not covered, and the resolution was too low. So, last October, we chartered a helicopter and flew over the locations and made the aerial plate shots.'
How do you go about populating the images with scenes from 2011?
'First, all the vehicles have to go, and anything that's non-period has to go, then it's a question of restoring the period architecture, and placing the figures. But the figures themselves look like cut-outs if you place them directly from the video footage, they require shadows, which meant we had to make a rudimentary 3D model of the scene model so we could output shadows and ambient occlusion. The same goes for the vehicles. The two pictures took four months to make.'
And is everything we see as accurate as possible?
'It's pretty close to events as they took place. For example, people and vehicles are more or less where they were in the footage. But you get a sense of the dynamic, the micro-narratives, that are otherwise inaccessible by looking at linear footage from the helicopter. These images are a condensation of what happened over time. Time was turned into space.'
The scale of work reminds me of history painting…
'I think more about Bruegel and the image of simultaneity in his quasi-temporal pictures. History paintings construct a contrived synchronic moment while there's something diachronic happening in Bruegel, which I like.'
Looking at the works, there's a kind of push-pull between two ways of looking. There is the overview, which places us up with the helicopters, in a position of power, then there are the vignettes on the street, which tell more complicated stories…
'They invite you to take a closer look. You get a sense of the physical culture of a location, the way people live in a certain place, the things that they need around them to feel at home and the ways in which public space and private space intersect. And of course, you get a sense of how that balance is turned upside-down when people begin using their neighbourhood in an "incorrect" fashion - walking on the street, partying on the street, rioting on the street…'
Unlike some of your previous work, which looks at events from a historical perspective, these new images focus on recent history. Are you mindful that the events and underlying issues may be unresolved in the public consciousness?
'It's said that things become history after 25 years so, no, we haven't quite synthesised what happened in 2011, but I think it's important to remember what happened and not to let it be identified as just being a symptom of hooliganism, consumerism or opportunism as some politicians have tried to claim. Something else was going on. It's important to remember this event was caused by conditions that haven't really gone away.'
Showing the work in London gives it a very specific resonance…
'I guess that's true of anything. Even though you depict something that's quite local and very particular to a place, when you take it somewhere else, people look at something very unfamiliar and compare it to their own experience. This is how things like the motifs of riot photography were established: it's about looking for something familiar, but the other side of that coin is difference, how events never exactly coincide with our expectations except by force of will.'
How would you differentiate your work from paradigmatic riot photography?
'There is a kind of iconography of riots and uprisings which we see everywhere, which is a kind of editorial desire to get something recognisable as a riot as opposed to finding something which is unique to the situation. If you look at 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs, or 2011 in the UK, there's always the same iconography: it's night, a car or two burn in the near distance and, in the foreground, a young man (preferably brown) wearing a balaclava is in the midst of tossing a projectile. And in a way these events become almost interchangeable. I was interested in looking at the footage in detail and trying to draw some other depiction of this event, which I didn't understand, didn't experience, and certainly wasn't able to experience in a single gestalt. What I found was actually something very different from the typical depiction of these events. One thing I noticed in the footage I saw was there's no looting whatsoever. People often talk about the riots as being consumerist, about people just being interested in getting commodities, in stealing from stores, but in the three or four hours of footage I acquired from Sky News there is no looting at all.'
Can we discuss terminology? You are very particular in calling events in London a riot and not a protest. Why?
'We were talking about the various kinds of events that were happening in 2011. Occupy Wall Street, clearly, was a protest against what Wall Street represents. The Arab Spring was clearly a protest against various authoritarian governments. What happened in the UK could be called a riot, or even an uprising, but to call it a protest doesn't make sense because it was not organised, there's no group or coalition, there's no common purpose except that of claiming the streets.'
What would you say is the work's main subject?
'The main thing I was working with with these images was the way in which different groups tried to claim the street as their space. People have claimed it as their space, upturning the usual order of things which the police are there to restore. That's the main thing being depicted in these pictures. That's the real conflict: between two groups who want to claim the ownership of space.'
And returning to 1848, is there anything we can learn from history?
'Even though they were quickly compromised, the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 in a way established the paradigm of what capitalist democracy would eventually look like. And of course there's a book by Marx about it, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, which contains that famous line, "Historical events and personages repeat themselves, first as tragedy, then as farce". I suppose in the case of 2011 you could add, "then as tragedy again". This book also contains the quip, "They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented." In this case, there is an intuition among people that something is wrong, that something must be overturned, but instead of it being treated like a political event it's treated like a policing event. This phrase could also be updated to, "They cannot represent themselves, they will not be represented."'
Interview: Martin Coomer