Artist Stan Douglas: why I restaged the London riots

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A review by Kieran Yates for London’s Guardian.

Stan Douglas’s latest photographs recreate two key moments from the civil unrest of 2011. The artist talks racial profiling, riot porn and why he’s fascinated by ‘ruptures in the status quo’

‘So how much of your work is really documenting the ineptitude of the police?” Stan Douglas is laughing at my question without completely avoiding it. “Well, the work can’t conceal the points at which they are out of their depth,” he says. We’re sitting in the Victoria Miro gallery in Mayfair, London, talking over the sounds of drilling as the artist’s latest large-scale works are secured to the wall next door.

The 57-year-old Canadian has spent the last 30 years making richly cinematic and allusive conceptual works that echo Hollywood noirs, westerns and cold war spy thrillers, Melville, Kafka and Hitchcock, while digging into deeper sociopolitical themes. His 2016 film The Secret Agent relocated Conrad’s novel, set in 1886 London, to Portugal after the 1974 carnation revolution. Disco Angola (2012) and Luanda-Kinshasa (2013) also explored historical moments of upheaval – what he calls “a rupturing of the status quo”.

The radical dimension to his work is unavoidable in his new photographs which depict the events of August 2011: protests in Tottenham that led to riots which spread city-to-city, across the UK. The large-scale photographs show aerial shots of Hackney’s Mare Street and Pembury Estate where, he says, “interesting action” took place. “By which I mean that there was this sense of anticipation; people waiting for things to happen.”

 Douglas acquired footage from Sky News and selected frames he wanted to recreate. Then he took a helicopter over the exact locations and spent four months digitally rendering the resulting images in a process that included making rudimentary 3D models of all the people in the scene so that they would cast shadows, and superimposing historical buildings in place of the newly built shop fronts.

The result is a sober view of two days, in two places, capturing two daylight moments. The scale of the work requires space and focus – you could almost be forgiven for missing the wisps of smoke and small formations of police. Like his 2008 riot-scene photograph Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971, which depicted the clashes between police and protesters that defined Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood in the early 1970s, this work has a light touch, which fits with the soft-voiced, greying figure before me.

He rejects the suggestion that these Hackney photographs might be regarded as riot porn, replicating iconography we’ve seen hundreds of times: “No. It’s not just about the pornographic image that’s being fetishised,” he insists. “The fire, the projectile, the balaclava … It’s a much more complex machine.”

The Vancouver native saw little footage of the London riots until recently but tells me about a riot he experienced directly back home in 2011. “It was a hockey riot, the [Vancouver] Canucks had lost the Stanley Cup and I was downtown going for a drink and I saw smoke. We went into a bar and saw the news footage and basically cars were being burned, stores were being looted and police were unable to control what was going on. They were as unprepared as the police were in Hackney.”

For many, the lasting images of the riots were a mix of pixellated social media shots captured on BlackBerrys, and TV news footage that conjured a whole city ablaze (in reality much of the unrest was localised), opportunistic looters running away with trainers and David Starkey on Newsnight in a now infamous interviewdeclaring that “the whites have become black”.

In Canada, Douglas saw headlines about what was unfolding, but was not privy to what was happening on the ground. And he admits he knew little of the nuances of British politics (though he met with Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy to discuss this project). So why has he made this work now, so long after the fact? And why Tottenham as opposed to Baltimore or New York?

“I was interested at how London’s riots changed from a traditional race riot after the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham to becoming something completely different,” he says. “It moved into a sense of frustration in different regions of the country.”

Douglas frames the work in the context of his own black male experience in Canada. “In Vancouver there’s a very tiny black population” he says. “I’m there because my father came from the Caribbean to go to university. When I was younger, I used to get pulled over by cops. Once I got told I resembled a pimp.” He goes on to share countless stories before settling with a sigh, “I was constantly being racially profiled”.

Between the noise of drilling, he makes the link between global race relations and riots that are different, but the same. “There is the same condition of being harassed and profiled by police, not being taken seriously as a citizen and in many cases people who were paid to protect you, were afraid of you. The French riots in 2005 foreshadowed what happened in 2011, and again now with the Black Lives Matter images.”

Despite the riots’ five year anniversary in 2016, there was little mainstream discussion last year about the summer that shook the country. But the aesthetic of the London riots has been appropriated in various ways by artists and musicians. Kanye West used the images as inspiration for his 2015 Adidas collection, and songs such as Lethal Bizzle’s Pow! set the riots to a soundtrack of grime. In comparison, Douglas’s treatment can feel somewhat clinical.

The space in Douglas’s cool and detached images draws your eye to asphyxiated clusters of action. In the same way that his aerial shots are physically removed from the ground, this cerebral approach takes away the emotion of the events.

Of course, these works might have more community impact had they been exhibited in Tottenham or Hackney, as opposed to a Mayfair gallery. “They paid more!” he protests, before admitting: “It feels kind of odd being here …” and trailing off.

Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 by Stan Douglas, 2008.
 Abbott & Cordova, 7 August 1971 by Stan Douglas, 2008. 

I tell him that for many, the riots were a series of kindling moments – the hard stop of Mark Duggan, the Tottenham protest being infiltrated by police, Monika Konczyk leaping from a burning building in Croydon. For Douglas it was crucial to consider that and slow right down. “The streets are these arteries where the people, the police and objects are all interacting,” he explains. “It’s not focusing on mayhem and that fascinates me.”

Instead, Douglas aims to tell the story of how humans interact and mobilise, and how bodies physically communicate tension, fear and solidarity non-verbally. But you get the sense that this is just another project for Douglas, another boiling point captured from around the world. His ambition, he tells me, is to capture rioting images from the whole year of 2011.

As the drilling finally dies down, there’s a moment of silence. It becomes clear that this work is Douglas trying to make sense of chaos in his own way, moving country to country, seeing it close up and attempting to answer questions about what takes us to the edge. Douglas wants to keep us suspended there in these photographs, on the precipice of tension, watching formations, poised to see what will happen next, and hoping it answers something about ourselves.

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