New York

Stan Douglas

According to Max Brod, the first time Kafka read from The Trial, everyone present, including the author himself, was overcome with laughter. In “Humor, Irony, and the Law,” Gilles Deleuze reads this irruption of laughter alongside that occasioned by the death of Socrates at the end of Plato’s Phaedo. The irony of the inappropriate laughter signals defiance to what Deleuze describes as a modern conception of “the law,” which “defines a realm of transgression where one is already guilty, and where one oversteps the bounds without knowing what they are . . . Even guilt and punishment do not tell us what the law is, but leave it in a state of indeterminacy equaled only by the extreme specificity of the punishment.” If this conception of law is the necessary precondition for the “Kafkaesque,” it also seems uncannily acute in light of the Patriot Act. This state, which Deleuze calls modernity—in its political, epistemological, and existential manifestations—is what the work of Stan Douglas confronts.

Taking its title from Deleuze’s essay, Douglas’s recent exhibition included four cinematographic photographs of crowd scenes, representing, in meticulous and historically precise manner, crucial moments of political discontent at the very point at which law becomes visible through the use of force—the moments when agents of the law confront and physically overwhelm civil dissent. For each image, Douglas has assembled several shots (as few as eight, as many as fifty) layer by layer into a seamless composition depicting a moment from Vancouver’s local history: the Gas Town Riots of 1971, a union protest from 1935, and a freedom-of-speech demonstration in 1912. Alongside these fraught political moments hung a constructed crowd scene, set in 1955 at a horse track located just outside Vancouver. The image reminds the viewer to see a crowd not simply as a blur of faces but as a series of individuals, each with his or her own set of reactions and emotions, and this lesson in specificity carries through to the artist’s more explicitly political images.

With painstaking effort, Douglas has constructed photographs that insist on their own inauthenticity. The images, although based on historical realities, make artifice so evident at every level that no one would confuse them with reportage. That the artist’s attempts at representing the law as extreme, arbitrary, and disconnected from some discernible principle are in themselves inordinately constructed holds a certain degree of irony. In Deleuze’s terms, such irony is a violence that disrupts the indeterminate, but no less absolute, order of the law.

These photographs were primers for Vidéo, 2007, the film that was the heart of the show. In this eighteen-minute loop, Douglas crafts a narrative that borrows heavily from The Trial and Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965), as well as from contemporary political realities. In Douglas’s version, K. is a woman of “African descent” and unknown nationality, and this departure from Kafka’s white and male K. is a telling one in terms of political and legal implications of the character’s being charged with and convicted of an unknown crime. Douglas’s change makes for so simple, and yet so powerful, a difference that it is hard to believe no one has attempted it before. We never see the woman’s face, and, although the figures onscreen speak, no dialogue is audible. All we hear are dislocated and dislocating ambient noises. The viewer can fill in the blanks, however, because the terrifying narrative is disconcertingly familiar from not only Kafka’s novel but also our daily newspapers, from not only fiction but also reality. The intertextuality of Vidéo reminds us that texts—visual and literary—teach us to read other texts, but they also teach us how to recognize reality at its most ironic. Douglas’s insight, a brilliant one, is that Kafka’s laughter is not despair but resistance.

Richard Deming