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Reviews / February 27, 2014

Thinking Through Music: Stan Douglas’s Luanda-Kinshasa

David Zwirner, New York January 9 to February 22, 2014

The titular work in the recent show “Luanda-Kinshasa,” Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas’s 12th solo exhibition at David Zwirner, was a single-channel film depicting a fictional jazz-funk band in a recording session sometime in the mid 1970s. The setting for the session is the famed Columbia 30th Street studio, known as “The Church,” the site of landmark recordings such as Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and numerous Miles Davis albums. Douglas recreated the long-defunct studio in a church in Brooklyn and cast celebrated contemporary musicians as the session players. As the bandleader, jazz pianist Jason Moran mans a Rhodes and B-3 organ while sporting thick sideburns and a wide-collared orange shirt. The other instruments include congas, tablas, a Moog, a Wurlitzer, and a soprano saxophone along with guitars, bass and drums. As Douglas’s camera glides from player to player—occasionally capturing technicians, photographers, journalists and groupies on the periphery of the studio—the band embarks on what seems like a never-ending jam. (The length of the video isn’t noted in the exhibition, but it is, in fact, a six-hour loop).

Luanda-Kinshasa is a close companion to Douglas’s recent series of photos Disco Angola. For that project, he assumed the role of a fictional photojournalist in the early 70s simultaneously documenting the emergence of the underground disco scene in New York and the ongoing Angolan fight for independence from Portugal. The new video further mines Douglas’s fascination with the African influence on 70s music and culture in New York and, more generally, continues the artist’s well-established practice of exploring the relationships between 20th-century politics, popular culture and aesthetics through semi-narrative fictional conceits and staged historical “documentation.”

Nothing in Luanda-Kinshasa tells us the exact year in which the recording session is taking place. However, the title—which could refer to the name of the fictional band, or maybe the album they are working on—suggests 1975 or shortly thereafter. Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in 1974 it was the site of the famous Muhammed Ali–George Foreman boxing match/cultural zeitgeist known as “The Rumble in Jungle.” In conjunction with the event, the musical festival Zaire 74 was held to spotlight a range of African-influenced popular music, including acts such as James Brown, B.B. King and Manu Dibango (whose Afrobeat track “Soul Makossa” was one of the first disco hits and a reference point for Disco Angola). Luanda, the capital of Angola, was the site of numerous pivotal events in Angola’s long-fought struggle for independence, which was achieved in 1975. The city was also the heart of the Angolan music scene, an important cultural element in the independence movement.

Douglas has spoken about his fascination with the 70s as period of shifting international economic and political relations. His recent work explores the periphery effects of these kinds of seismic global changes, especially in relation to creative production in an era of mass culture. His carefully presented fictional scenarios allow complex intersections of historical forces to emerge in a way that feels somewhat natural, which is to say haphazard and contingent and intimate in scope. Thus, while Luanda-Kinshasa playfully stages a fictional recording session that could have occurred in the 70s, it is also creates space and time for broad-reaching ruminations on numerous aspects of that important transitional era.

Every detail in the video becomes politically significant: the ethnicity of those in the session (the band members are mostly black, while the technicians are mostly white); the gender dynamics in the band (all male apart from the female drummer); the fashions on display (Afros, dashikis, bandanas, tie-dyes and bell-bottoms); the items littering the sidelines (vintage cigarette brands, take-out coffee cups). Douglas plants these details as potential springboards, but he allows viewers to follow their own lines of investigation rather than prescribing a thesis. Of course, there’s also the music itself, which calls attention to the deluge of African, Middle Eastern and Latin influences that were openly embraced in American popular music in the late 60s and early 70s, as evident in everything from disco, soul, funk, jazz and psychedelic rock. This can be viewed largely as an effect of newly visible celebrations of traditional cultures by recently decolonized nations coupled with the impact of the civil rights and Black Power movements in the US.

Douglas’s explicit reference point in Luanda-Kinshasa is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film One Plus One (also known as Sympathy for the Devil), in which the filmmaker juxtaposes documentary footage of a Rolling Stones recording session with various staged scenes relating to revolutionary groups of the day, including the Black Panthers. Both Godard and Douglas focus on the creative process as a means of opening out a specific historical moment to explore the political content that is both reflected in and obfuscated by the popular culture of the day. Douglas’s colour palette is lifted fairly directly from Godard, whose roaming camera in the Rolling Stones session is also clearly an influence. However, the differences between the two works are revealing.

Godard’s exploratory camera establishes itself as separate from the Rolling Stones session by frequently panning or dollying away from the musicians to focus on the surroundings. Douglas’s camera is more conventionally integrated into the scene he’s depicting; it glides smoothly from musician to musician foregrounding the dynamic between the players. This stylistic distinction is indicative of a general difference in approach.

For Godard, the dominant mode is cacophony, whereas for Douglas it is coherence. Godard depicts the Rolling Stones session as a series of truncated attempts, and he further interrupts the action with unrelated voiceover and staged scenes. His method is to violently disrupt the smooth surface of the present in order to access its turbulent, fragmentary, unfinished quality. Douglas, on the other hand, evokes an impossibly seamless, seemingly endless moment of sustained musical convergence. He stages a fictional scene and extends it unnaturally, allowing the viewer to inhabit the past in a way that opens it up for reflection and analysis.

Douglas succeeds at opening this space through the richly rewarding aesthetic experience he and his collaborators have created. Crucially, the music, a spot-on amalgamation of various touchstones from the period, is relentlessly compelling and impressive. The most immediate model is Miles Davis’s 70s fusions of jazz, funk, rock, electronic sounds and world-music, though the Luanda-Kinshasa band translates Davis’s experimental sounds into more accessible funk and Afrobeat grooves. There are two main recurrent musical themes, over which the players improvise expertly for the duration of the video. However, much of this seemingly continuous improvisation has in fact been constructed through editing by Douglas.

The six-hour loop is made up of various combinations of the same footage edited to create different musical variations. Douglas’s approach here is in keeping with his previous moving-image works, which often play with recombining and reshuffling material to create multiple variations. His method also works nicely as a nod to the innovative sound editing techniques employed by Davis and producer Teo Macero on albums like Bitches Brew (1970) and On The Corner (1972), which were meticulously constructed in post-production from hours of improvisations.

In Luanda-Kinshasa the same shots containing the same individual improvised riffs recur numerous times, but always in different combinations, so that, as far as I could tell, no musical passage repeats itself identically over the course of the video. The finely tuned sound mix, which subtly foregrounds whatever instrument the camera is focused on, contributes to the illusion that we are witnessing a continuous “real-time” session. This is countered by the uncanny, ghostly presence of the people on the periphery of recording session who remain in the same spot repeating the same task for the entire video (the most visible such character is a technician in coveralls who fiddles at a repair in the corner for the whole six hours).

The effect is to create a disorienting state in which everything is familiar but also in flux, ceaselessly evolving and constantly repeating, seemingly naturalistic and blatantly unreal. With a surprisingly light touch, Douglas conjures an inviting illusion while provoking an attentiveness that encourages us to scrutinize the past he is invoking. Ultimately, Luanda-­Kinshasa achieves a kind of musical form of thought that is both viscerally enjoyable and intellectually challenging.