Stan Douglas: the Canadian artist on why he featured two London rappers in his Venice Biennale show

·7-min read
Installation views of Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848 at the Canada Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 23 April – 27 November 2022 (Jack Hems)
Installation views of Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848 at the Canada Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 23 April – 27 November 2022 (Jack Hems)

It does seem a bit incongruous at first. Why are two London grime artists - not to mention two Egyptian rappers - appearing in a work by a 62 year-old Canadian artist at the Venice Biennale?

Douglas’s much-admired new two-part installation at the festival (he’s representing Canada) is a continuation of interests that the artist has been pursuing the whole of his career. 2011 ≠ 1848, as it is titled, is a richly layered collection of works, stuffed with ideas in that dizzying way contemporary art so often is, but inspired by the 10th anniversary of the seemingly unrelated but near-simultaneous protests and unrest that broke out across the globe in 2011, including the riots in London, and the music that began to emerge there around that time.

The first part of his show, in the Canadian pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale, comprises four large-scale photographs which restage protests and riots from that year from four different locations - Tunis, in January at the beginning of the Arab Spring, the aftermath of the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver in June, clashes between young people and police in Hackney in the August, and the kettling of Occupy Wall Street protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge in October.

In the second, two huge screens hanging in one of the vast salt warehouses down in the Dorsoduro area of the city, right on the water, depict what seems to be a call-and-response between two duos: the London-based rappers TrueMendous and Lady Sanity (both of whom originally hail from Birmingham) and two male MCs in Cairo, El Joker and Raptor.

Protest, and music as a form of cultural protest or expression of political and social frustration has long been an area of fascination for Douglas - and that particular type of expression, he tells me, “is manifest in grime, to a large degree”. Grime began to appear, he says, just before the events of 2011, which he believes were a manifestation of a “widespread intuition of something being wrong”.

“Discontent is being represented by these actions,” he argues. Without the rioters even necessarily really knowing it, these were acts of protest, he thinks. The title of the work, 2011 ≠ 1848, makes a connection between these widespread actions and those of the year 1848, in which upheaval took place across Europe with the middle and working classes coming together against a lack of democratic freedoms, press restrictions and the continued dominance of the aristocratic elite - similar to 2011, but limited to one continent due to the limitations then of global information exchange.

Events like those of 2011, especially those in London which had little or no clear focus for all but a few of the perpetrators, “are usually treated like police events, and policed and forgotten. In the UK, for example, they would say ‘they're just they're looters and hooligans, they just want to get flat screen TVs’. But I mean, this was only a few months after the tripling of tuition for universities. Community centers were closed, [there was] ongoing austerity, which had massive effects on young people.”

Young Londoners were “already on the streets because they had no place to go,” he points out. “And then after the killing of Mark Duggan, which causes the burning of the Tottenham police station, what happened in the days after, throughout the boroughs of London and throughout the UK, was clearly something else.”

He just wants “to frame these things as being not just hooliganism, not just rioters, but an expression of a political discontent, even though there's no real programme or solution.” He concedes that it’s not the kind of focused political protest like those of Occupy Wall Street, but believes it’s not also just mindless violence; it’s something more ambiguous, in the middle. “I wanted to sort of posit that you don't behave like this if you're happy with your life.”

Stan Douglas on set in Cairo, 2021. (Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner. © Seham)
Stan Douglas on set in Cairo, 2021. (Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner. © Seham)

Grime, then, was a related development, he thinks - another response to that general, nebulous feeling of discontent. What he wanted to do with this project was to find out whether his hunch - that another equivalent form must have independently sprung up at the same time elsewhere, specifically in North Africa - was right. After a lot of research, he found it.

“Grime uses a local idiom, which is dubstep, as a basis - something quite specific to London” he says. “I found a number of artists who were doing carbon copies of American rap in like, Palestine or Tunisia, but when I came across the scene in Cairo, it was clearly using a local idiom combined with that whole thing.” Mahraganat, as it’s known, and grime often share a similar timbre, he explains, because the producers in both scenes use the same free or pirated software and similar samples found on the internet. He had his equivalent - so he and his team found and auditioned a number of rappers, and came up with this pairing.

The result is kind of thrilling. I spent far longer in there being swept up in their apparent interaction than I expected to, and I am rarely equipped with the patience to sit through a lot of video art.

As with all of Douglas’s work, though, none of this is real, or at least, not much of it. The photographs are based on thorough research, but they are entirely restaged, by necessity. TrueMendous and Lady Sanity, El Joker and Raptor are, yes, all up-and-coming rappers in their respective scenes; nothing is scripted, their flows are real. But the call-and response didn’t happen, they didn’t hear each other’s work, Douglas had requested in advance that they “produce lyrics that were about the theme of the politics of everyday life, like encounters with authority, encounters with police, you know, everyday sexual politics” and the music you hear them rapping along to was added later.

“One of the beauties of rap is that it doesn’t have any melody, so these a cappellas can play on top of anything,” Douglas says. This elaborate construction - given weight by a back story that these two duos have identified a commonality and set up two impromptu sessions to work together - is just that: a construction.

Douglas is interested in the way that our perceptions of information is altered by the way it’s presented. It’s perhaps significant that nowhere in the documentation for the show do you ever get told the rappers’ names - it’s hard to tell whether that’s an oversight or a deliberate attempt not to allow reality to get in the way of the weaving of Douglas’s narrative. Either way, it works. It’s convincing, and it does make you think he has a point.

Are we in for more of this kind of thing now, I ask him? The storming of the Capitol looms large in recent history, a rise in explicit nationalism in the US, in parts of Europe and in the UK since Brexit, the anger and frustration expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement all suggest it, on all sides of the political prism.

“It’s hard to predict,” he says, carefully. “Things are going to get strange, I think, for next while.” He cites the truckers protests in Canada, in which demonstrators used hundreds of trucks to blockade the city centre of Ottowa for two days. It had started as a call for the end to cross-border Covid-19 mandates but became an anti-Trudeau protest.

“95 per cent of truckers are vaccinated in Canada,” Douglas points out. “And the truckers’ union was against those protests. So really, it was about something else. Many of those people who were there were part of this network of right wing organisations who were there more in opposition to any kind of state control. Many were from the US, many were from outside [Canada].”

He tells me about “this bizarre crew called the Diagonalists. These guys want to create a white nation state that goes from Alaska, diagonally across North America down to Florida.”

What? “These people are sort of infiltrating and very involved in this, this is not like a normal, spontaneous, popular movement, there is something else going on. So it’s hard to say where it’s going to be taken.”

Strange sounds very much like the right word.

Stan Douglas: 2011 ≠ 1848 is at the Canadian Pavilion, Giardini, and Magazzini del Sale No. 5, Dorsoduro, commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada, and presented in partnership with the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Gallery of Canada Foundation. Presenting sponsor: Royal Bank of Canada . The Venice Biennale runs to November 27, labiennale.org

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