In a cavernous 16th-century Venetian salt warehouse, a performer from London pauses her rap as a colleague from Cairo responds, their alternating calls for freedom ricocheting around historic walls. What could this have to do with that infamous day in 2011 when Vancouver fans rioted as the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup?
Both scenes are about inchoate politics and simmering anger – and part of an ambitious contribution to the 59th Venice Biennale by Vancouver artist Stan Douglas, who is representing Canada with an investigation of the global protest movements that rocked the world in 2011.
“These intuitions that are had by moral people and shared over distance are a political situation,” Douglas said. “It’s not just a question of who fights the wars or who are the people in power. The way people live is a political act. “
The 59th edition of the Biennale, that international exhibition sometimes known as the Olympics of the visual arts, was supposed to be held in 2021, the 10th anniversary of the events to which Douglas refers. It was the year not only of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, but also of the London riots initially triggered by a police shooting, and the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver. At the Canada Pavilion in the Biennale’s park-like Giardini, Douglas has installed four large-scale photographs representing those events.
The artist has also gone boldly off-site to mount a two-channel video installation in the Magazzini del Sale No. 5. It’s a high-ceilinged space in an old salt warehouse located in the Zattere neighborhood near the intersection of the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal. There his four fictional rappers of 2011 – played by real-life music artists TrueMendous (Chyvonne Johnson) and Lady Sanity (Sherelle Robbins) of Britain and Raptor (Hesham Emad) and Yousef Joker (Yousef Fouad) of Egypt – face off in a global cry for change.
“I asked them to write about the politics of everyday life, certain moments where you feel the pressure of power,” Douglas said. “The ones from London were explicitly political but there was a real issue of censorship in Egypt. But if you’re a working class person in a place as stratified class-wise as Egypt, to say ‘My experience is important’ is itself a political act. “
Both this video installation and the photography mark historic firsts for Canada in Venice. Although Douglas, a Vancouver artist with an increasingly important international reputation, has participated in several group shows at the exhibition, it’s the first time he has represented Canada – and he is the first Black artist to do so. Traditionally, Canada’s national showcase at the Biennale has stuck close to its little modernist pavilion in the Giardini: Douglas is also the first official Canadian representative to mount an off-site exhibition. The Magazzini del Sale is a dramatic space made for big gestures in contemporary art; the Canada Pavilion is a wood-and-glass shed that spirals like a shell, making it notoriously difficult to work around. Douglas, who added an extra wall to accommodate the photographs, figured its best characteristic was the daylight flooding in through its clerestory: After much fiddling with artificial lights, he turned them off.
The photographs in this bright space are based on an idea Douglas was already developing when he was awarded the Biennale commission by the National Gallery of Canada and they continue his work staging historical moments with large casts of extras, costumes and filmset lighting. Like his photo murals about the history of Penn Station, recently installed in the Moynihan Train Hall in New York, these new photographs were staged in Vancouver’s Agrodome.
Then the crowd scenes were laid on top of CGI renditions or actual photographs of the sites, including an aerial view of the Pembury housing estate in the London borough of Hackney. It was that documentary image shot from a helicopter in 2016 that launched the series.
In New York, police kettle protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge; in Tunis, small groups begin to gather on the dramatically lit Avenue Habib Bourguiba and, last but not least, Vancouver fans in hockey sweaters cheer as a car burns. Whether seen from high above in London and Tunis, or close up in New York and Vancouver, these scenes are visibly staged: There is a choreographed pageantry to the brewing discontent.
“I’m not trying to fool anybody and say this is a photo document. It’s too big; there’s too much detail, ”Douglas said. His model is Pieter Bruegel, the 16th-century Flemish artist whose paintings are packed with vignettes, collapsing time and space into one single scene.
The European art mavens who flock to Venice might puzzle over the idea that a Canadian hockey riot ranks up there with the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. Douglas, on the other hand, sees the same phenomenon in both: a desire for change that fails because it can’t propose a clear alternative.
“The hockey riot… began before the game was over. So it wasn’t about losing the game. This was something else, this sort of general feeling of frustration that has no articulation, ”he said. “Occupy Wall Street is a self-conscious copycat of the Arab Spring, but again, there’s no real [agenda]. They wanted the one per cent to pay their fair share… but they didn’t say how that might happen. Kind of magical thinking. “
This idea is what gives the show its title, 2011 – 1848, arguing that despite comparisons between the Arab Spring and the so-called Springtime of Nations in Europe in 1848, the 19th-century movements had more political impact. Little reform followed 2011 and the anger that Douglas observes seems as present today as it did a decade ago.
The photographs consider the crowd’s motivations, while the video work offers a more creative expression of the phenomenon. Douglas has often made reference to music histories in previous projects and, intrigued by the way grime, the British version of hip-hop, emerged as the soundtrack for the London riots, he went searching for an Arab equivalent. He discovered mahraganat, a genre that combines hip hop with the Egyptian pop music shaabi.
The video features a fictional encounter between a pair of Black female rappers in London and a pair of Egyptian brothers, who are engineering their real-time cross-cultural exchange with pirated software and an ISDN or integrated services digital network. (That all-but-obsolete technology for relaying voice and data gives the video its title, ISDN.)
With lyrics that speak bluntly of British racism and more obliquely of existential alienation in Cairo, the musicians offer an artistic version of the anger that fueled the 2011 protests. Not far from the Venice docks where the super yachts anchor, the four rappers face each other from either end of the old warehouse, offering the art world’s elite a personification of popular discontent.
Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848 continues at the Venice Biennale to Nov. 27.
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