Stan Douglas with Lynne Cooke, 1993

LYNNE COOKE: In the works that you have made over the past couple of years there seems to be an identifiable tendency to look for the anti-hierarchical, the nondominant, the anti-authoritative. One instance of that would be your essay in the catalogue to an exhibition of Beckett teleplays, which you curated in 1988. In it you argue that in place of a closed world like Sade's, which is invented to be mastered, Beckett 'imagines an uncertain one: the residence of even less certain subjectivity.' Another would be your proclivity for film loops, as in “Overture”, thus not only making the piece continuous, but divesting it of a climax. There's a related avoidance of narrative resolution in the film script for “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin, BC”. Do you regard this as a philosophical position or part of your aesthetic?

STAN DOUGLAS: Both in terms of presentation and the subject matter of my work, I have been preoccupied with failed utopias and obsolete technologies. To a large degree, my concern is not to redeem these past events but to reconsider them: to understand why these utopian moments did not fulfill themselves, what larger forces kept a local moment a minor moment: and what was valuable there – what might still be useful today. In both the gallery pieces and the TV pieces I'm looking at supposedly inconsequential moments of life. Yet these are perhaps the most significant ones, because they are the ones where habit is predominant, where people aren't strictly attending to how they're behaving. So, in the narratives of the TV projects, and also in the more thematically structured gallery works, I'm trying to reconsider what has been either a habitual discarding of personal habit or a larger cultural one, in as much as cultural forces go through the same process.

LC: What led you to these media? How did you end up working primarily with reproductive technologies?

SD: Part of it is the fact that I can't draw. But it's often also the result of trying to find the appropriate medium for the subject matter of the work. I learned quite a bit about these different media trying to make the projects as different from each other as possible. A certain subject will eventually draw me to a particular medium. Since I'm interested in the cultural and the psychological effects as well as the social situation of television broadcasting, I have to work with the medium of television itself. The player piano piece, “Onomatopoeia”, is concerned with evoking certain historical moments, and certain notions of absence, which the very formal presentation both embodies and represents at the same time.

LC: When you say you can't draw, is that a consequence of your art school training?

SD: I did go to art school, where I did a little bit of drafting and technical drawing. But I was just too lazy to learn how to draw.

LC: Does this reinforce your tendency to write?

SD: That has evolved with the projects. Developing them by way of notes and textual research, as well as reading a lot, gave me various models of how to write, and eventually I began doing it myself. The essay for the Beckett catalogue was the first essay I had ever written: it was out of necessity.

LC: How do you find your subject?

SD: It's always quite by accident. With the Ruskin works, for example, I had gone on a boating trip with some friends during which we came upon an extraordinary site: a power station built in 1930, which looks like a vampire's château set in the landscape. Next to it there is a very well-tended second-growth forest maintained by a regional hydro company, as well as a somewhat devastated runoff area. What's left of the Stave River is flanked on one side by wealthy holiday homes and on the other side by small lumber mills and a couple of trailer courts. The name 'Ruskin' made me curious about it. I learned that it was originally established as a Ruskinian utopian community, which failed after only two years of operation. Since then it has been the site of various small local communities, none of which lasted very long. Around 1900, business ventures and later, a large Japanese community formed there until the internment during World War II, when they were declared 'enemy aliens', and their land was expropriated by the government. “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe: Ruskin, BC” developed out of finding this location, and being fascinated by it.

LC: Have those who were interned fought to be recompensed? Is a political issue implicit in the work?

SD: About five years ago, after years of lobbying, there was a redress in Canada. But monetary recompense for the internment, for that injustice, can only be symbolic. And it's very, very difficult to find out who was in that community, because the purpose of internment was to destroy the social fabric of the Japanese-Canadian community. It was a community of ex-guest workers – all of whom were therefore de facto Canadians – who were developing their own social relationships with the country. The purpose of the internment was to break up those communities and to leave them no possibility of having any solid social ground. It's only recently that people have been able to reconstruct the whole fabric – their relationships and families. Indirectly, the film-script bears upon this, in that two policemen seem quite happy to discredit the reputation of the Japanese man, and his race as a whole.

When I did the research for this project, I went to the provincial archives and looked at the daily diaries of constables working in this area and of the others working in very isolated areas. Part of their job in the 1930s was to keep the different racial groups separate, preventing any kind of coalition that might cause a social or economic threat to the status quo. Everybody was catalogued by race. The Japanese, Chinese, 'Hindoos' – spelled with two o's – Jews, and Italians etc., were all categorized as other to the Anglo-Saxon majority. This is presented in the film in what seems a nonchalant, matter of fact manner. That was how they went about the business of containing these different racial groups.

LC: It's automatic: routine rather than considered behaviour.

SD: Exactly.

LC: In “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe...” you are dealing with the material in two different forms. There is the group of colour photographs with two text panels, which has already been exhibited, and then there's the film that you're currently making. How do the two compare? On a previous occasion you also developed the same body of material into quite different idioms, didn't you?

SD: Yes. Those location photographs are part of my process of going out and considering the site. In assembling them into a work for exhibition I was trying to make slightly decrepit sites around Ruskin look like nineteenth-century English landscapes: that way of cataloging property peculiar to the landscape tradition. But then, if you look carefully at the details, you'll see abandoned cars, debris – a slightly devastated landscape that otherwise appears to be pastoral.

LC: You have examined the context through a specific medium as well as through the conventions of a particular genre. By contrast, in the film you'll represent it in completely different sets of terms – well, not completely...

SD: I can be a lot more diachronic in the film. I mean, I can deal with time in the film, which photographs don't lend themselves to as easily. The film has an open-ended time that folds in on itself. That's partly derived from working with the orchestral score, the Schoenberg score, which has been reduced to piano. It's like the classic post-Sophocles narrative of beginning, middle, and end – pursuit, fear, catastrophe – which is typical of Western culture. Yet, by the end, the musical material has diverged so far from its origin that it's without resolution or rest. The story, too, leaves itself open. At the end there is a character who has the possibility of discrediting the policemen and the investigation – or, though he probably hasn't got the power to do that, he at least knows where his roommate has gone.

LC: The Schoenberg score was for an imaginary film, not for an actual film, wasn't it? And the diary entries with which the film opens are based on actual historical records, which you consulted but did not literally transcribe...

SD: In those two sequences of diary entries some are direct quotes – but with the names changed – of actual entries from the Ruskin area, and others were invented to make the narrative flow.

LC: There's an interesting relationship between the Schoenberg score, which did not accompany a real film, and this material which is quasi-documentary. In both there is a slippage, either between fact and fiction, or between the real and the imaginary, so that these oppositional categories no longer seem to pertain. The possibility of moving between them allows you to open the film itself up for investigation. Is this similar in some way to what occurs in “Subject to a Film: Marnie”, where, if I've got it right, the only sound in the film happens at the moment when the woman in the deserted office reaches with her gloved hand to unlock the safe? Is the click on the soundtrack not that of the combination lock, but a noise produced from the suture on the film's loop?

SD: Yes, but the suture happens just before that – when she finds the safe combination and closes the drawer. There's a similar scene in “Pursuit, Fear, Catastrophe...” a little dream sequence where suddenly the exterior is contemporary, where what you thought was a cabin throughout the entire film is revealed as a trailer court, and you see the contemporary police car coming up to Theodore's cabin. It's played across a dream sequence: he's sleeping, tossing and turning. The camera cuts from inside to outside. Then, after the digression, the film returns to 1930 again [...]

LC: When you [refer to] 'poetic resonance', do you mean something like a space for imaginative play – a space for exploring areas of the mind that don't often come into consciousness in other arenas of experience?

SD: At a very blunt level I would consider poetic resonance to be like the harmonic relationship in a piece of music. It's not like the melody which would go horizontally and has a beginning, middle, and end, referring to past moments, or anticipating future ones. The harmonic or poetic resonance goes elsewhere, allowing an audience to have other kinds of engagement with the work. I tend to describe a work in terms of what materials are used, and of what references are there. I shy away from interpreting it because if the audience had no way of finding a language of its own to understand a project, then that project is unsuccessful. I may as well have just written on a piece of paper a statement staying, 'I mean this.'

LC: When you're talking about poetic resonance is there any difference between the television and gallery works?

SD No, it's the same process of poesis. Poesis also happens on that real vernacular level. Those forms – like genre movies, which are supposedly domineering and meant to over-determine one's response or relationship to them – are still received by audiences in ways that market research can't predict – although there are, of course, preferred meanings, which it does everything in its power to have accepted as being true or natural in some way. I prefer to have respect for an audience, and to allow it to participate in the construction of meaning.

FRIEZE, September/October, 1993