Studio International

Published 17/11/2017

Stan Douglas: ‘A re-enactment is an event that becomes processed in memory’

Photographer and film artist Stan Douglas talks about his new works, which extend his interest in historical moments of rupture to the 2011 London riots


Moments of uprising, rupture and revolution: for the Canadian artist Stan Douglas (b1960), these instances have been a fertile source of creative energies. For the photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008), he restaged a scene from the 1971 Gastown riot in his native Vancouver, using actors and props on location to create an accurate simulacrum. In his film work The Secret Agent (2015), Douglas adapted Joseph Conrad’s novel to the setting of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation Revolution, while the series Disco Angola (2012) alternated photographic recreations of New York’s emergent underground disco scene with the contemporary movement for Angolan independence. In each of these pieces, Douglas looked back to the 1970s as a time of international shifts and redirections.

A pair of new works takes a rather more contemporary incident as its subject matter – the London riots of 2011. Mare Street and Pembury Estate (both 2017), currently on display at London’s Victoria Miro Mayfair, are photographic documents of the events of 8 August in Hackney Central in east London, capturing the juncture immediately before the Metropolitan police moved in to disperse the rioting crowd. Gargantuan in scale, both works feature dozens of figures sprawled around the streets. Some run to escape, others engage in confrontation with the police, and a sizeable quotient appear to be simply enjoying the fissures in normal life, such as the rare ability to walk along the roads.


Mare Street and Pembury Estate are the result of a painstaking process. Douglas used Sky News footage to research the people, their actions and their locations. He then shot the area by helicopter to create plate shots, into which were edited the figures, vehicles and accoutrements of riot. Such was the historical fidelity required that, using Google Maps for reference, Douglas edited each structure to its appearance in 2011. Each work consists of around 100 photographs. When beheld at the gallery, the level of detail is astonishing, overwhelming and not a little unsettling.

Ahead of the show’s opening, Studio International caught up with Douglas at the gallery.

Joe Lloyd: Several of your recent works have focused on moments of uprising, rebellion and revolution. What draws you to these moments?

Stan Douglas: In part, it is because of Samuel Beckett. In his book Proust (1930),he talks about ideas of voluntary and involuntary memory, and the notion of habit. Habit, he says, in a very Beckettian line, is “the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit”. The world is so complicated that we have to set habits to protect ourselves from what Beckett calls the violence of the real. We maintain these habits as a way of keeping our sanity, to make sense of what’s what. If we attend to the complexity of the world, we go insane. And for Beckett, this happens on a personal and a social scale.


This is more or less what [the French philosopher] Alain Badiou calls “the event”. And the event is where there’s a rupture in habit. For Proust, it’s an involuntary memory, where suddenly you’re using memory instrumentally to recall something, but the real intrudes on what you’re doing. And this happens occasionally on a larger, social scale, where things are ruptured, and the question is always how to deal with it. Do you reinforce your habits? Or do you find a new solution for the problem? And those questions are always complicated. And in this kind of rupture, this event, there is a possibility of imagining a new way of being in the world.

JL: What struck you as distinct about the 2011 London riots?

SD: That was the year of riots, of course, but the key thing about those in the UK is that they did not follow the usual pattern. It began in Tottenham, north London, with a traditional race riot [over the killing of Mark Duggan], but then what happened in the following days was untraditional, something new. The MP David Lammy wrote a book about it, Out of the Ashes (2011), in which he says that a major reason was the closure of youth centres. Without places to gather, the youth were on the street. And what you see in my photographs is a lot of people waiting – for something to do, or for something to happen. Suddenly, the norm is upturned: there are no cars on the street, and people are waiting for some event to take place.

Of course, there was looting, street fires and all sorts of misbehaviour. But the curious thing is that, in the footage I saw, there was none of this. It was, instead, people revelling in occupying a space they’re not usually allowed to occupy. And the real conflict only came when the police tried to kettle the crowd and restore order.


JL: In Britain, six years, later there is still far from a consensus on the events.

SD: Many politicians perceived it as consumerism, hooliganism, people wanting to steal, but I think there was something else going on. There was a gamut of intentions on the street. Some people call it a protest. I wouldn’t, as there was no real organisation, but it was definitely some sort of uprising. The political classes are no longer afraid of the people – hence why austerity and thinking away the social contract are possible. The demonstrations of the Iraq war in 2003 were some of the biggest in the UK’s history, but they were a political event, while this was more of a policing event, and that’s something real.

JL: Why did you choose Hackney?

SD: Just by chance. I selected it from the photographs I had available to me, which were of Hackney, Croydon and Tottenham. The events in Hackney were the longest in duration and the most interesting. Both in terms of the most aggressive defence and reclaiming of the street, but also in the sense of not exactly carnival but the world turned upside down. Mare Street is always crowded, always functioning, but on this one occasion it became dysfunctional and empty.

JL: In previous works, such as Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 (2008), you have focused on areas at the crux of change. Hackney, with its rapid gentrification, seems to fit into this pattern – it has changed a lot since 2011.

SD: Virtually all of the businesses on Mare Street have changed, so we had to find images of what it was like. There was a funny little garage called the Car Hospital that was by the Pembury Estate, which is now a marble and glass townhouse with solar panels. The pub next to it was called the Three Sisters, but had changed from an old local to a gastropub. And everywhere now there is scaffolding on roofs. Houses are being restored quite elaborately, and many of them have new roofs. It’s quite a sudden transformation, although, as I understand it, Hackney has always been quite mixed socially.

JL: Temporality is a recurrent concern in many of your works. What is the time frame of the events depicted in these photos?

SD: I was trying to represent a certain moment in both cases. The first was before they clear the intersection by Hackney Downs, where there was a final violent confrontation between some people with balaclavas throwing cinder logs at the police. You can see the way they made their movement up to that location. And on Mare Street, it’s the moment before they are about to clear the street itself, and a huge crowd starts running down a side street, just before everything clears and it ends the utopian moment.


It’s not entirely historically accurate – you see groups moving at a slightly different time to how they did in 2011. There’s just little these micrographs happening everywhere, such as where people are photographing the police to collect their own evidence. It’s probably one of the most well-documented uprisings in history. There’s a vicar; there’s a guy sitting on the street daring police to push him aside. I see it as a reconstruction of fragments, and my attempt to get my head around what was happening in the whole neighbourhood.

JL: What made you choose the enormous scale?

SD: Just for the insane level of the detail that you can get there. You can also read the physical culture of the area. You see evidence of gentrification, you see evidence of people of different income groups living in the same area. You see the little chairs and tables on roofs, where people go for a coffee or a cigarette or just a break: the places that people make for themselves. We could only do that with this kind of detail. And, of course, when you first see it, you might think: “Oh, there’s an just aerial shot of Hackney,” but if you look closer, something’s wrong.

JL: As someone familiar with that part of London, to see it from such an angle is disconcerting.

SD: You see it in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise see it. You see it, perhaps, how the police might see it. I was always seeing helicopters in the photographs: helicopters directing the police where to go. And then helicopters above these helicopters, with the news crews. So you can get this point of view of surveillance culture, surveillance apparatus, in these images, too.

JL: I also think there is a mesmerising aspect to it, which, to me, connects them to the DCT works [abstract pieces created through jpeg compression] also on display at Victoria Miro Mayfair. Was that an intentional echo?

SD: No! But I like that it’s there; I enjoy it. With the uprising photographs, there’s this vertiginous sense of being too much going on. That is not intentional, but came out of the process. For the DCTs, I like to have a sense of disorientation, where it looks like more than one thing. You can’t really focus on making it one stable form. It keeps becoming something else. And that’s something I was actually seeking in that work.

JL: Do you think Mare Street and Pembury Estate are photographs, or does your fabrication turn them into something else?

SD: They’re documents of a sort – they’re photographic, they’re based on the representation of optics, but then they are augmented by digital technology. At a certain point, we had to add distortion to the images to bring them closer to the photographs. There’s also a bit of chromatic aberration in the fringes of the figures, which we added to make them fit better with the photograph. It’s funny that we can use 3D technology to make our perfect image, but it feels much better when we can match the imperfections of photographic artefacts.

JL: Many of your works look to the past, but generally to a more distant era – the immediate postwar era, the 1970s. Why did you choose to move to an almost contemporary context?

SD: So as to look at something I didn’t understand entirely, something that affects the present, but is not well understood. I think these photographs represent a moment that is still unresolved. I think the tensions that caused it are still present, and that people are somehow repressing it.

JL: In pieces such as Circa 1948 and Midcentury Studio,the viewer is forced to make connections and draw a narrative together. Do these new works also contain a similar element of mystery and discovery?

SD: You’d have to tell me! I have my fantasy of micrographs happening within the photographs, but I wonder if anyone will spot that. Hopefully, they will, but in a way I can’t see what is there unless someone tells me that it’s there. You can’t rely entirely on intention: I can intend the work, but if nobody else understands it, it can’t mean as much. Hopefully, visitors will understand these Easter eggs.

JL: Did you consider restaging the events of 2011, as with Abbott & Cordova?

SD: I thought it might be cool to do moving pictures, but to conduct it on this scale … Abbott & Cordova is just one intersection, and that was incredibly complex. To do something on this scale, an entire neighbourhood, is something I could not re-enact. But it’s always important to have a work of art that keeps on offering more every time you approach it. So, it’s not just something you recognise, but the more you look at it, the more it gives you. And a re-enactment is an event that becomes processed in memory.

Stan Douglas is at Victoria Miro Mayfair, London, until 20 December 2017.