Date 23.05.2023 - 29.07.2023
Venue David Zwirner, Los Angeles
All images Courtesy by the artist and David Zwirner
Since the late 1980s, Douglas has created films and photographs—and more recently theater productions and other multidisciplinary projects—that investigate the parameters of their respective mediums. His ongoing inquiry into technology’s role in image-making, and how those mediations infiltrate and shape collective memory, has resulted in works that are at once specific in their historical and cultural references and broadly accessible. Multichannel video installations have been an integral part of Douglas’s practice since the early 1990s, allowing for the simultaneous presentation of overlapping narratives or vantage points.
For his solo presentation at the 2022 Venice Biennale representing Canada, Douglas created ISDN and four photographs that collectively consider the reverberations of the events of 2011—a year that saw pervasive global unrest, including Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and uprisings in numerous other cities, including London and Douglas’s native Vancouver. Presented across two venues—ISDN was on view at the Magazzini del Sale No. 5, a sixteenth-century salt warehouse on Dorsoduro, and the photographs were exhibited at the Canada Pavilion in the Giardini—this exhibition subtly pointed to the ways in which these events informed what came after them and how we are still feeling their impact over a decade on. This project reflects Douglas’s broader interest in capturing the interpersonal dynamics that arise in such moments of societal fracture—moments, as he notes, “when history could have gone one way or another.”
In the two-channel video installation ISDN, the viewer finds themselves in the middle of a call-and-response jam session that unfolds across continents, literally positioned between the two screens. Set in 2011, the work pairs MCs in improvised studios, one in London and the other in Cairo, who trade free-styled verses, transmitted between them on ISDN (Integrated Service Digital Network) lines, a technology that has become largely disused as it has been replaced by faster broadband and fiber optic connections. In placing rappers in these two cities in dialogue, Douglas juxtaposes two musical styles that emerged nearly simultaneously in the early 2000s—UK Grime and Mahraganat (or, “festivals”) in Egypt—which, as the artist notes, in 2011, “would literally become the soundtrack for youthful revolt.” While these genres do share sonic resemblances, both emerging from hip-hop and making use of a range of nontraditional sampled effects, it is primarily their status as a form of social critique that began on the margins and eventually gained wider attention that inspired Douglas to bring them together.
While the London rappers, TrueMendous and Lady Sanity, drop their verses in English, Yousef Joker and Raptor in Cairo respond in Arabic, with subtitles in the opposite language appearing below each. Though their sound is upbeat, both pairs foreground systemic social ills in their verses, directly raising questions of race and class as related to their own particular situations. Layers of sound underneath the vocals rotate in an ever-changing configuration, the permutations of which would take several days to fully experience. Ultimately, as Douglas notes, though the lyrics may cover weighty themes, this form of artistic expression holds “total optimism and joy.” He continues, “the idea of having this endless music is to say that when you do have this cross-fertilisation between cultures, the possibilities are endless.”
The video presentation is complemented by five photographs (the four exhibited in Venice plus an additional, previously realized related work) that recreate specific moments from 2011 in four global cities: London, New York, Tunis, and Vancouver. To create these panoramic mises-en-scènes, Douglas digitally stitched together imagery, utilizing a variety of sources to reconstruct the events as accurately as possible. Though the COVID-19 pandemic prohibited him from traveling, he hired photographers to take location shots from a wide variety of angles and vantage points, from which he painstakingly removed the traces of any elements that did not exist in 2011, such as graffiti or even buildings constructed in the interim. Douglas then staged these scenes locally, using an empty hockey arena as a set, where he photographed dozens of actors in period dress in small groups, and then assiduously inserted them into the image using digital editing technologies. Paradoxically, despite his fealty to the specific circumstances, the resulting images are inherently synthetic, conveying an uncanny sense of the hyperreal while evincing too much information for the naked eye to accommodate.