Jen Budney and Stan Douglas

JEN BUDNEY: What are you working on now?

STAN DOUGLAS: I just finished shooting a new piece called “Win, Place or Show” set in Strathcona, the neighbourhood in which I live in Vancouver.

This city, like every other urban centre in North America, went through a building boom in the post-war period. In the jargon of the day, city councillors wanted to sponsor ‘urban renewal’ to do away with ‘urban blight’. What this typically amounted to was the destruction of inner city neighbourhoods in favour of new housing projects and the creation of new towns on the outskirts: suburbanization of the middle class and concentration of the working class in the old city centres. This had a devastating effect on a lot of US cities, as the tax base was withdrawn to new towns, and the projects that erased old neighbourhoods were more often than not poorly conceived and constructed. One of the strangest things about this phenomena is that it was perhaps the most comprehensive application of modernist principles to urban planning; however absolutely compromised. Developers used modernistic devices as a means to cut costs, while architects using industrial techniques usually ended up making homes for the wealthy, and the trickle-down vanguardism they imagined never really took place.

In Vancouver, the city wanted to completely raze its oldest neighbourhood, putting in its place a sort of Corbusian working class compound, and then zone the area around it for heavy industry. Two of the housing projects got built, but a residents’ group was able to convince the federal and provincial governments to renovate rather than raze the houses and to set up co-operative housing. Mind is a sort of a sci-fi piece in which the city’s original plan has been completed. Two men sharing an apartment are having an antagonistic conversation, which blossoms into a fist fight. They get tired and stop, there is a pause, then the whole thing loops. The six-minute scene was shot from ten points of view on either side of the cinematic axis. When installed, the two axis sides are projected on two adjacent 3m x 4m screens and a computer re-cuts the montage in real time so that each time the action loops the points of view are fundamentally different, and it will take about 15 hours or so for it to repeat itself. The work is about the control of space: in the housing project, in the axis convention which is here split open, and in the hellish Sysiphian conflict itself.

JB: In recent works, such as “Der Sandmann” and “Nu•tka•”, your treatment of film or video as a language has resulted in the creation of binaries that occasionally, cyclically merge: two pans of the Schrebergarten in two different time periods—where a dreadful memory lurks for narrator Nathaniel—take turns in ‘wiping’ each other out; two images of Nootka Sound come together as the overlapping voices of Spanish commandant Martinez and British captain Colnett are synchronized, explaining their apprehensions about arriving at the Canadian West Coast. These pieces both deal explicitly with the ‘return of the repressed’—but this return is apparent in other works as well, for example: “Pursuit, Feat Catastrophe: Ruskin B.C”. (in that it returns to a rather unsavoury moment of Canadian history). How conscious are you, before you set out to make a work, of wanting to create re-readings or double readings of histories?

SD: The trope of the double has become embarrassingly apparent to me over the last few years but I did at least come by in honestly. It has been something that has ‘just appeared’ over the course of research. But I suppose with two parallel streams of image or sound, you have the minimum number of voices necessary for polyphony or conflict.

With regard to the research itself, I certainly do start out wanting to re-read or reconsider the history of a particular location. I never exactly know what I’m looking for, but it always begins with being fascinated with a site: by the Gothic power house at Ruskin, the Schrebergarten surrounding Berlin or by the industrial landscape of the north-west coast. Usually I’m intrigued by a locale that is in some way at odds with itself, uncanny, and my job then is to find out how it came to be that way. I tend to have an affinity with the minor histories of a place, things that might even be invisible to people who live there. So the ‘return of the repressed’ in some instances might even have to do with a repressed history, as with the legacy of free jazz in “Hors-champs”.

JB: You work with video and film, media that are most widely used to reach mass audiences, and whose productions—TV programs and movies—are often “obsessed with their own internal logic.” (I’m paraphrasing you on “Happy Talk News”). Yet, many of your close friends in Vancouver are poets, people who are not just obsessed with the shifting of commas, but in extracting meaning from details and deconstructing language and its formulas. (I might also add that poets generally work for audiences that are even smaller than those for the visual arts). How do ideas of poetry inform your own work, which has to deal with both images and language, or images and sound?

SD: In a very literal way, knowing the writers that I do helped me learn how to talk about my work. There is a writer’s collective in Vancouver called the Kootenay School of Writing which, in the early 1980s, had moved down to Vancouver from the interior city of Nelson BC after the college they were a part of had been shut down by a conservative provincial government. Over time, their workshops became less prominent than their readings and exhibitions (there was then an art gallery associated with KSW, Artspeak, first run collectively, then by a curator named Cate Rimmer). In the mid 1980s they held a series of lectures called Artists/Writers/Talks. The name is pretty self-explanatory: The writers and artist who hung around together at readings and opening were invited to explain their work to one another in a more or less formal setting. I really didn’t enjoy art school that much—as elsewhere, aside from NSCAD* I suppose, there was a strong prejudice against language and theory among most of the students and much of the faculty. These talks were the firs time that I found myself in a conversational community larger than handful of friends where we were able to hash out ideas over an extended period of time.

The writers at KSW were varied. Some wrote prose fiction, but the majority were poets, usually avoiding the institution of Canadian Literature by either looking to the post-war US modernists or, especially, by an engagement with the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E School of the late 1970s. They would no doubt hate this, but you could call Language Writing a sort-of anti-humanist lyric poetry which, for moments, effaces subjectivity in an attempt to make language itself speak. The Television Spots and Monodramas incorporated this idea in the fact that they broadcast anonymously. The last thing I wanted people to think was that what they were seeing was art: in order to be effective or productive, it had to appear that television itself had begun to confuse its strict conventions. I think the contact with poetry is also where I became interested in vernaculars of representation—something nascent in the television pieces, and more fully articulated in the installations from 1992—the idea that different cultures will make very different use (articulations) of the same medium (language) from region to region.

JB: Michel Foucault said that “language is the first and last structure of madness.” Do you agree?

SD: If I understand this remark, it means that madness is invisible until there is a language to describe it—much like the history of sexuality Foucault recounts in his late work, where certain sexualities did not exist until they were ‘invented’ by discourse in the late nineteenth century. Reading books like “Discipline and Punish” certainly influenced my interest in vernaculars of representation—and the idea that as a language disappears the things that it was invented to describe disappear also. In “Evening Happy Talk News” the theatricalization of television news programs and its alignment with entertainment did away with dry, paternalistic news reading but also reduced the amount of editorializing that wasn’t just opinion. When there is a paradigm shift, the new paradigm isn’t necessarily better just because it is newer, and vice versa.

JB: Would you describe your work as ‘mannerist’, in the way, say, that Robert Smithson define Hitchcock’s and Eisenstein’s films as mannerist (disclosing or recovering a sense of primal evil), or the way Brecht contrived always to achieve an ‘alienating effect’?

SD: The words ‘primal’ and ‘mannerist’ don’t really sound right together. And even though I don’t recognize the quote, and I’m not exactly sure of its context, I guess mannerism is what happens when an old paradigm of representation begins to lose its transparency and its forms can be put to new uses. This is what happened in Mannerism proper vis à vis the Renaissance, and it’s what happened to modernism in the post-war period. People talk about high modernism in, say, Ad Reinhardt or Joseph Kosuth but this work had very little to do with the pre-war avant-garde because there was little social relationship and no sense of the future; because it was art obsessed with art. Formal transformations of artistic institutions were proposed, and the attenuation of meaning resulted.

JB: You’re talking about pre-war art being art-obsessed, right?

SD: Ah, well, no, I thought I was saying exactly the opposite: that pre-war modernism was engaged with meaning in the world and the transformation of how meaning could be made in the future, whereas the post-war practice I indicated was obsessed with the institution of art as an enclosed, autonomous system. The alienation effect, for example, offered a transformed sense of spectatorship—an attitude, really—which the audience could take home with them. But if an artist is only concerned with defining or expanding the boundaries of the category of art then their work becomes mannerist in the negative sense. This happened with a lot of conceptual art in the 1970s and more recent morbid symptoms are those varieties of so-called public art which appropriate public discourses to the art world without reciprocity. But of course even the “Three Penny Opera” was ruined by its own success: you can hear it each time “Mack the Knife” is sung without its original violence and irony.

JB: In 1988 you organized the exhibition “Samuel Beckett: Teleplays” for the Vancouver Art Gallery, which included Beckett’s “Film” and versions of the seven works he wrote specifically for television. The exhibition travelled and you lectured on Beckett a number of times over the following two years. The way so many of your own works loop, repeat themselves endlessly, is reminiscent of many of Beckett’s works (where “nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible,” as Jean Anouilh wrote in praise of Beckett’s most famous play, “Waiting for Godot”). What’s your connection to Beckett and why is he important to you?

SD: I organized that show basically so I could see the work. I had become interested in Beckett a few years earlier when I picked up one of his books, “Company”, in a store and realized that it had just been published, when I had the impression that Beckett was either dead or in Beckettian silence. You usually only hear about Godot or “Endgame”, but I was particularly struck by his late work in general—the pieces more or less contemporary with the Teleplays—and his prose in particular. I had been taught in school that Beckett was about endings and stalemates, but his writing became for me more of a beginning, a ground zero, the a priori skepticism with which one has to regard language and representation in order to speak while remaining aware of the influence of ideology, for example.

Yes, the looping that is everywhere in my work comes from Beckett, but the primary difference is that in his work structures of words repeat while their utterance changes, and in mine the looping utterance stays the same, by way of mechanical means, while perception of it changes. It’s like polyphonic music: except in memory, you can’t attend to all the voices simultaneously, you have to decide which details to focus on.

JB: Finally, I wanted to ask: between Ruskin, B.C. and Schönberg’s 12-tone system, the Schrebergarten and now Strathcona in Vancouver, you’ve done a lot of work about failed utopic projects. What fascinates you about these failures? Do you think you’re any more tuned into this theme coming from B.C. (the whole province is peppered with little colonies of idealists)?

SD: The failed utopia thing goes much deeper than that—its almost as bad as the double thing—all of the installations I’ve made since 1992 deal with this conundrum in one way or another. Certainly, British Columbia is a province that since the late nineteenth century, was colonized by people looking for an outside, an elsewhere, where they could establish utopian communities based on ethnic, political or religious ideals and this, along with radical exploitation of natural resources, became the local tradition. (But I have to admit that I was pretty ignorant of all that until I began conducting research on Ruskin.) The installations have focused on minor yet pivotal moments in modernity, a moment when society could have gone one way or another. I’m not necessarily nostalgic for these communities, I don’t necessarily agree with what they represented, but I was interested in the fact that a community like a language or culture paradigm becomes a place that makes peculiar ideas possible, and when it disappears those ideas disappear also.

JEN BUDNEY is a writer living in Milan.

*NSCAD is the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax Canada. Stan Douglas graduated from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, on the opposite coast.

SIKSI, 8.1, Spring 1998