Art Out: Stan Douglas: DCTs and Scenes from the Blackout
By Ilana Jael
At a groundbreaking exhibition by Stan Douglas that just closed up shop at Chelsea’s David
Zwirner Galleries, some of the most exciting new photographs on the scene this season were those that made us question whether they could be called photographs at all. These are the “photos” from “DCT,” an ongoing series of Douglas’s in which the artist seizes on the point in the digitization of an image where it is represented only by code and manipulates a sequence of data points referred to as discreet cosine transforms. The abstract, psychedelic images that result from this process have a unique “hermetic language, completely divorced from any referent in the real world.”
Intended to explore “non-identity” and the complex role of technology in image making, these
dazzling photos are ironically resistant to the casual digital reproduction commonplace in the Iphone generation’s approach to art, and are filled with subtle secondary patterns that can only be picked up on after more than a casual glance. Unlike the digital images that we are constantly bombarded by and wont to casually scroll past on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, the pictures of DCT demand our full, extended attention by representing “multiple things simultaneously,” an all the more impressive feat considering that they are technically pictures of nothing at all!
Stan Douglas’s second featured series, Blackout, is also interested in technology’s central role in our lifestyles, as well as what happens when things break down. Partially inspired by the real-life NYC blackouts that occurred in 1977 and 2003 and the widespread power loss that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Blackout presents viewers with a “hypothetical present day emergency scenario of the total loss of power in New York City.” Douglas first came to photography as a means of preparing for his film making, and his sense of being a crafter of worlds and stories rather than a mere documentarian of them is clearly at play. Far from being naturalistic, these staged scenes required an extensive cast and crew and multiple exposures to achieve their chilling effect.
Douglas, who is African American, was also looking for a way to portray “blackness”
photographically, and to prompt viewers to examine ongoing racial and class tensions through the comfortable remove of fiction. Loot, in which a flaming trash can appears beside destroyed mannequins and other rubble, and Jewels, which depicts the smashed window of a ransacked jewelry store, both call to mind race riots past and seem to warn of a worst possible future if tensions increase. In another of Douglas’s apocalyptic scenes, an entire apartment building appears lit only by Candlelight; ironically, this natural light appears more unnatural to us than electricity that emanates from manmade sources.
On the other hand, the eerie Solitaire, in which a woman trapped in an elevator is seen playing
the titular game aside a makeshift candle she had “Mac Gyvered” out of a can of Crisco and a shoelace, seems to have religious connotations. Alone and somber, she looks almost as if she is keeping vigil, or waiting to be “saved.” But Douglas’s vision isn’t all doom and gloom; in Stranded, members of a diverse crowd gathered on the steps of a city building are seen chatting animatedly with one another, building the sort of unlikely connection that stays out of reach when we interact only with those already in our social circles, or stay inside staring at our screens. Both series work to challenge our reflexive conception of photography as a mere representation of reality rather than a deliberate and conscious manipulation of it and open the door to how much more the medium could offer us if we were only as willing as Douglas is to question our assumptions of what it can do.