Listening to Stan Douglas

The way Stan Douglas works with aerial images is intriguing. Using long-distance shots, like those of live TV police persecution, he composes large-scale photographs of ordinary neighborhoods. Most of them are presented as if they were telling the multiple stages of a public disturbance, or as he puts it, “riots”. In this exhibition at Victoria Miro London, it was the 2011 London disturbs, and his scene portrays the London Borough of Hackney.

Recently, the artist spoke about this work at Tate Modern, as he told how he laboriously juxtaposes these images. In the case of London , the images related to the 2011 riots were acquired from Sky News, so he could catch momentum, but his intervention consisted in working for a “photogrammetric” frame, so one could spot how these scenes (slowly) evolved at that day and how the landscape stands nowadays.

In one of them, protesters light up fire barriers, in another we already see the aftermath, in another one, everything is back to normality in a rapidly gentrifying area.

This strange effect of seeing something so intense digested in “cold-blood” photography, shot meters away high above, exists because of the interplay between the casual and the spectacular. In 2017, where are the people fighting for inclusion? We signs of new shopping malls, painted crosswalks as they should be, traffic queues, cars and buses, but little remained from the past protester scene. Geographically, one would say, all have changed, but did that tension that has simply gone away?

On one hand, Douglas’s pictures benefit from the boredom and a sleepy ethos that emanate from London’s tiring horizontal suburbs, even more if seen from above. On the other, Douglas indirectly tells us that the Met Police has, somehow, fought to restore the boredom, which some call the “order”.

Douglas has previously worked with collating images of spare images to form a wider rioting scene in his hometown, Vancouver. He had positioned himself high up again, but this time no helicopters, in a sort of improvised tower at a parking lot, as he tells, where he slowly captured episodic, interdependent scenes of urban tensions, later merging them all into a sole portrait of a huge Bruegelian scene.

Also broadcasted at Tate, we find Luanda-Kinhasa. Douglas films a jazz band playing in what alludes to a reconstruction of the legendary Columbia’s 30th St studio in New York City. Here, legendary singers, such as Billie Holiday once performed, but this work deals with the past in a much sensitive way, if not romantic, memorialist. Another scene or action bridging past and present.

In the riot photographs shown at Victoria Miro, it is silence that tells the story. His gaze, like that of an eagle, persistently flies over scenes that are, according to him, private and public. As he tells the difference of both looks:

‘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…’

While I listened to Douglas’s talk at Tate, I figured out that what makes more sense in his poetics of artistic surveillance lies in his attempt to capture social change as we see it. It is about showing it from above the ‘performance’ of the rebels, small figurine that move in face of the oppressive state power. However, one might also wonder, what can we do of the things that happen over the streets?

Especially in the UK, where the discontent are increasingly online monitored, where people can be harshly punished for what they say, have their laptops confiscated at airport customs, aren’t there other situations that are more actual portraits of this unbalance between private and public? Are we still in the time when change can come only from the streets? Perhaps Douglas could have a major point should he look elsewhere.