Video & Filmmaking

Frames Per Second: Stan Douglas’s Ambitious Look at Terrorism

April 28, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Stan Douglas/Courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York and London and Victoria Miro, London

“The Secret Agent,” 2015, installed at the Victoria Miro Gallery in London before its New York debut. Different perspectives on the plot appear on opposing screens, forcing the viewer to constantly choose between different points of view. “The viewer decides what they want to look at,” Douglas says. “You’re missing things all the time.”

For more than 30 years, Stan Douglas has used video and photography to create speculative histories—elaborately conceived and produced moments in the past that might have happened, but didn’t. His works have been set in the wilderness of British Columbia during the Gold Rush in the 1890s, and in Vancouver in the 1940s. In three of his recent works, Douglas, who lives in Vancouver, has looked at pivotal moments immediately following the end of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa. In 2012, the year Douglas was honored with the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Art, he exhibited “Disco Angola,” a series of photos by an imaginary photographer who, in the mid ‘70s, moved between New York City, where discos offer an oasis of pleasure amidst the city’s financial crisis and crime, and Luanda, a place of revolutionary fervor and diverse cultural expression. Douglas’s 2014 video installation, “Luanda-Kinshasa,” set in 1973, envisions a six-hour recording session in which jazz musician Miles Davis collaborates with Afrobeat musicians from the newly independent Angola and Congo. Douglas’s new video installation, “The Secret Agent,” on view at the David Zwirner gallery in New York City in April, may be his most complex production yet.

Set in Portugal in the summer of 1975, “The Secret Agent” is a six-channel video installation with a running time of 54 minutes. Two rows of three large screens face each other, and viewers stand or sit between them. Images come and go, but there are always at least two screens active, displaying different angles on the same scene. “The viewer decides what they want to look at,” Douglas explains. “You’re missing things all the time.”


He based his script on the 1907 novel by Joseph Conrad, considered the first work of fiction to deal with terrorism, but Douglas moved the action from 19th century London to Lisbon in the year after “the Carnation Revolution,” a bloodless coup led by military leaders tired of fighting to maintain Portugal’s colonies in Africa. Filmed on location in Lisbon with local actors, “The Secret Agent” required three weeks of pre-production, with help from a production designer, an art director and a costume designer, followed by three weeks of shooting. “It was great. Usually my projects take maybe one week,” Douglas says.

Both Conrad’s novel and Douglas’s video concern a plot to set off a bomb and destroy national infrastructure. “I was interested in the depiction of terrorism,” Douglas explains. “There’s a very simplistic notion when people consider these things. I wanted to go back to consider what it was historically.” In Douglas’s version, the U.S. ambassador forces the protagonist, Verloc, to act as an agent provocateur and carry out an act designed “to terrify the middle class.” In the video as in the novel, the act has unforeseen consequences that are inconsequential to one character, but heartbreaking to another. By showing different perspectives on the plot on separate, opposing screens, Douglas forces the viewer to constantly choose between different points of view. “An action has different meanings in different contexts—for those who are the objects of it, and those who are producing it,” he says.

Conrad’s story fit the moment in Portugal’s history Douglas wanted to examine. “After the revolution, there was this crazy period where things were in total flux. There were questions about how government would be reformed and reorganized after the fascists were out of power,” he explains. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger feared the formation of a Communist regime in Europe. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre went to Portugal to see what the future might bring. “Nothing else in Europe offered that sense of possibility,” Douglas says.

He wrote the script, working from the novel and Conrad’s own play adaptation, in 2008. He had cast the film when the foundation in Portugal that was backing the project went bankrupt, “so I put it aside and moved on to other things.” After doing extensive research for “Disco Angola,” he says, “I went back to the script, and I realized it was actually kind of interesting.” With support from David Zwirner, Douglas worked with a Portuguese production company to shoot the video in 2015. He had a crew of about 30, including gaffers, grips, two camera operators and two assistant camera operators. The director of photography was Leonardo Simhoes.

Douglas says he had a multi-screen display in mind when he wrote the script, but he didn’t make a storyboard. He decided how each screen would be used when he was editing the footage from about 12 hours to a little over three. His crew shot most of the scenes using two cinema-quality video cameras running at the same time. When two actors were talking, they looked into different cameras. In the six-screen installation, their close-ups appear on opposing screens, “as if they were talking to each other across the way,” Douglas says. For a viewer standing between the wall of screens, the effect can be startling. “A character will pop up on the opposing screen and start screaming from behind you,” he says.

“There was one crazy scene where characters were talking at cross purposes,” Douglas notes. To film it, “There was a crane over the actors with rotating arms, and cameras on either side.” The two cameras rotated around the actors. When one camera moved, it couldn’t show the camera facing it, and the five-minute scene had to be done in a single take. “That was challenging,” Douglas says.

“The Secret Agent” was filmed at several locations, including a palatial building that stands in for the U.S. Embassy, a police station and a nightclub. While Verloc owns a pornographic bookstore in Conrad’s novel, Douglas made him the owner of a cinema that’s showing Last Tango in Paris. During location scouting, Douglas found a historic theater in Lisbon: “It was almost another character in the piece,” he says.

Douglas used different screens to “represent different zones of society.” Scenes shot in private spaces, such as Verloc’s office, are shown on the left-hand screens; the action in the embassy appears on the right. City streets appear in the center screens, “at the intersection of government and private space.” Douglas adds, “Some characters are stuck in some zones, some traverse all of them.” Though he incorporated long tracking shots —one follows a minor character walking through corridors of the embassy, for example—the segregation of the spaces creates a sense of claustrophobia.

The soundtrack of “The Secret Agent” plays an important role. A single song is heard again and again—when a band is rehearsing in a nightclub, coming through the door to the projector room of Verloc’s theater. The soundtrack has six variations, each the length of the video loop, and the mood of each version varies, from upbeat to ominous: “It changes the mood of the scene,” Douglas explains, so a viewer may have a different experience of the video depending on which variation they hear.

At David Zwirner, which has represented Douglas since 1993, “The Secret Agent” will be sold in a limited edition of four. Douglas’s previous videos have been acquired by several museums and are in private collections.

The installation debuted last year at the Wiels arts center in Brussels, in a show that featured his other works set in the 1970s. Douglas says it was a period of influential change. “The economy was unstable, we had the liberation struggles in Africa, pop music was radicalized in the Seventies, and a lot of the genres we listen to today were invented then.” It was a time of instability, but also openness. It could give rise to the kind of cross-cultural pollination he imagines in “Luanda-Kinshasa,” which Douglas calls his “most optimistic work,” or it could change for the worse. As Douglas notes, “The Angola revolution could have been an amazing thing if it hadn’t turned into a proxy cold war.” With “The Secret Agent,” Douglas explores a darker possibility, and uses the scope of a six-screen installation to show its effects in a variety of ways.

Related: Stan Douglas Wins $118,000 Hasselblad Award for 2016 

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