Stan Douglas at SFU Woodward’s

Circa 1948 lets viewers explore postwar Vancouver.

Anyone who has passed by the atrium at Woodward’s is familiar with Stan Douglas, as his work Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 forms an imposing part of the space. In the past couple of weeks, however, there was a lot more of Stan Douglas around Vancouver.

Currently occupying the Woodward’s atrium is a nondescript, grey cube. A collaborative piece with the National Film Board (NFB), Circa 1948 is an interactive, immersive experience that transports a single viewer at a time to either the previous Hotel Vancouver or Hogan’s Alley in postwar Vancouver and allows them to walk around their chosen environment.

Meanwhile, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s recently closed exhibit, the Persistence of the Real, included his work Luanda-Khinsasa, a six hour-long film of a period recording studio jazz jam. This was followed up by a very well-attended artist’s talk and Q&A period at SFU Woodward’s on September 24.

At Woodward’s, Douglas fielded questions from students on his artistic process, subject matter, collaboration with the NFB, and the socio-political relationships that surrounded his work. Facing question after question from a highly interested and informed crowd, the Q&A resembled more of a collective group interview than anything else.

An important part of the talk was a conversation about artistic accessibility. An organization like the NFB has a mandate that is focused on creating work that is accessible to Canadians. According to Douglas, this conversation around accessibility changed how the work developed into its final form. An initial direction was for the viewer to physically occupy the spaces explored by Circa 1948, and listen to the past in an open-ended manner. However, concerns over accessibility drew it into the realm of an app and an immersive experience which bears much similarity to a video game.

However, the collaboration went both ways: for instance, Douglas described his input and focus on the creation of the environments as distinctly photographic, more on “the effects of light as you move through space” than on the trees, or the smoke of the chimneys in the environments they rendered.

Douglas utilizes art to project and explore how historical events relate to the present. The locations chosen for Circa 1948 are troubled by recession, conflict over space, and socioeconomic inequalities — circumstances familiar to us today. Meanwhile, through the mixture of music and smooth, seemingly endless visual imagery, Luanda-Kinshasa presents a utopian, idealistic representation of how the world could be; one that is more in line with early science fiction than current views. Its utopian idealism contrasts with contemporary social pressures and popular narratives of dystopic and dysfunctional futures.

This focus on space which Douglas framed was in asking “how did it get to be this way?” This question is a focus in many of his works, Abbott & Cordova included. Douglas’ focus on class, spaces of contention, and inequality that we might rather ignore and forget places his practice at odds with typical historical narratives.

I found myself more curious about the circumstances and history of the space I was exploring than I necessarily would have been through a traditional film. This kind of work, which looks at our contested spaces, might have an important role in filling in the gaps in our historical narratives. Circa 1948 will soon wrap up in Vancouver to go on a cross-Canada tour, beyond that who knows where its home will be. Perhaps we should take a moment to look at the future of these narratives, and ask ourselves: how did we get here?