On February 1, 2016, the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Art invited Canadian artist Stan Douglas to discuss The Secret Agent (2015), a recent work and eponymously titled exhibition currently at London’s Victoria Miro gallery (2 February – 24 March 2016). The work was commissioned in 2008, but was only realised seven years later following various vicissitudes that delayed the project. Douglas also discussed two other works, Disco Angola (2012) and Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), which were made in the lag between 2008 and 2015.
Douglas set the scene around which the three works were based; specifically the aftermath of the 1974 Portuguese Carnation Revolution, a coup d’état that toppled the country’s dictatorship. His concerns centre on the period that followed, known as PREC (Processo Revolucionário em Curso/Revolutionary Process Underway), constituting a moment of unpredictability for Portuguese society. Events could go one-way or another, politically-speaking. The coup had also led to the fall of the Portuguese Empire. Independence emerged across Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and East Timor. The Angola of 1975 is approached by Douglas as a kind of utopia, as a space of emancipation, optimism and drive. However, according to the artist, such a possibility was betrayed through a civil war orchestrated by Cold War superpowers, exemplifying “a utopian moment interrupted by outside forces”.
Douglas played a clip from Luanda-Kinshasa, a six-hour-and-one-minute film-loop of a fictional recording session from the 1970s, set in a meticulously recreated 30th Street Columbia Studio. “Luanda” and “Kinshasa” are the titles of two Afrobeat-jazz-funk compositions that are edited and combined in several configurations over the course of the video. According to Douglas, the work draws from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 documentary Sympathy for the Devil, which shows the Rolling Stones in the studio interjected with film clips featuring the Black Panthers and other political movements. In contrast to Godard, Douglas stays in the studio and welcomes the outside world to the space through Anthora coffee cups, Afros, clothes and cigarette brands. Race, economics and competing styles subtly charge the studio. Yet it’s music in this setting that seems to create a space of opposition and resistance, as well as a sense of collectivity and optimism in the face of violence and the reign of global capital.
Turning to Disco Angola, Douglas set up parallels between New York in the Seventies and the civil war in Angola through a series of eight staged photographs. In one set of photographs, we see the emergence of disco in New York where clubs were frequented by a diversity of people. Various cultures joined together, giving a voice to a community that was eventually exploited by commerce. Music executives encroached and capitalised on the scene, dismantling its once utopian ethos. Douglas visually aligns these photographs with others that show the onset of civil war in Angola. In doing so, the artist sets up counter-associations, again, concerning “utopian possibility” and “outside interference”.
Lastly, Douglas played a short clip from The Secret Agent. This work is based on a book written in 1907 by Joseph Conrad on espionage and terrorism set in London. In Douglas’s work, the story is relocated to Portugal’s PREC. When speaking about the work, Douglas characterised terrorism as an act that is both emphatic and ambiguous; The Secret Agent could also be described as such. The six-screen work prompts a sense of disorientation as two or more screens play simultaneously, in some cases overflowing across each other. The viewer is also saturated with details from each screen and experiences an apparent control over the course of the action with access to various viewing angles. Nonetheless, conclusions are withheld as the viewer’s sense of disorientation echoes the experience of the protagonists in the aftermath of 1974.
Following Douglas’s presentation, the CSCA engaged in a discussion with the artist. Questions emphasised the significance of the 1970s to Douglas’s work, which was acknowledged by the artist as an acceleration of American capitalism’s dominance and a source of today’s popular culture. Douglas was also asked about the way in which he mediates historical or political narratives through literature, such as Conrad, Beckett and Proust. He described the authors as offering a parallax or a doubling of sorts. Furthermore, Douglas discussed the politics of retelling events and the way in which they provide a structure for working. For it is through Douglas’s re-enactments of various situations that we are able to consider periods of transition, of suspension, where utopian possibilities emerge ever so fleetingly before being subsumed by new world systems.