Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994

'Free Spirits' in the Ether
Stan Douglas At CAM, August 6 through September
25, 1994
Chris Ballou
To plumb the depths of meaning in televisual conven-
tions, the responses that they condition, and the legacy that they
engender seems out of the question when absorbing their content
is an overwhelming task to begin with But as Marshal McLuhan
argued in Understanding Media. the "medium is the message". In
other words, an individual is more affected by the circumstances
that arise from or are constructed to accommodate a technology
than the content that technology seemingly contains or transmits.
It is within this realm, of sorting out these meanings, that Canadian
video artist Stan Douglas pursues his agenda.
In the "Monodramas", Douglas couches fictional sce-
narios in familiar, television conventions. Interspersed with actual
commercials, each drama unfolds with a palpable "and now back
to our program" sensibility. But just as we're settling in, John
Madden appears to tell us about the exciting sale happening right
now at Ace Hardware. Wait a minute...what about the guy ranting
to himself in "Disagree". or the disappearing figure below the
balcony in "Eye on You"? Like a passenger without a seatbelt, our
expectations crash through the windshield of a story with the last
page tom out. By frustrating expectations and denying any
resolution or sense of closure, Douglas alerts us to the way
television conditions our responses and, by implication, other
forms of conditioning as well.
Or so it might have been in their original context,
broadcast during prime time on Canadian television. Imagine the
subversive potential of a "Monodrama" slipped in unannounced
among product endorsements. Imagine the confusion visited upon
an unsuspecting and complacent audience suddenly confronted
with an intriguing vignette that is entirely familiar and yet rejects
familiarity. It actually offers the possibility of broadening a
discourse by reaching those outside of it. No mean feat when one
considers how much art work is aimed at an audience that already
agrees with the artists' point of view. But replayed in a museum
where the audience is already a willing accomplice, only a
simulated effect is possible; all we really can do is imagine. Here
the "Monodramas" function more as a document than as an actual
experience, illustrating the difficulties related to re-
contextualizing a work of art conceived for another audience or
In "Hors-champs", documentary resemblances are in-
tentional. The "Ed Sullivan Show" format of straight forward
performance on an anonymous stage combined with the grainy
texture of the black and white footage create the impression of
"photographic truth" or historical "fact" that the whiz, bang, and
flash of music video denies itself Within this format, Douglas has
devised a fascinating inversion. The musical guest segment of a
television talk show is, after all, directly related to product pro-
motion: ask yourself when you last saw a band on t.v. that didn't

have a new release on the market. By resurrecting a convention
from the televisual scrap heap that lacks today's technological and
commercial sophistication. "Hors-champs" acquires the kind of
credibility that is usually reserved for PBS documentaries. Fur-
thermore, its rejection of the usual histrionics of "music televi-

sion" is also a rejection of the alienation related to the absence and
need tactics of commercialism. Perceived as "truth" or "fact"
instead of product promotion, our relationship to the piece begins
to shift as we move a step closer to the music.
Our experience of popular forms of electronic, visual
media is a direct result of a singular (whether individual or cor-
porate) prerogative and is only made less alien through repetition.
Intent is specific and material extraneous or contrary to the intent
is eliminated. The two-sided format of "Hors-champs" largely
undoes this tyranny. By providing both the "finished" version and
the out-takes and by designing a situation that allows a viewer to
switch between the two. Douglas invites us to circumvent his
directorial manipulation. This is not a channel surfing scenario
that exchanges one singular prerogative for another. but an op-
portunity for the viewer to construct their own. Through this
"interactive" video we move another step closer to the music.
With these barriers eroded, a different kind of musical
experience is now possible. In the catalog that accompanies the
survey of Douglas' work currently touring Europe, critic Peter
Culley notes:
the two-screen installation serves to break down music video's
tendency to either fetishize or obliterate the personal; by simul-
taneously showing us the quartet as playing musicians and lis-
tening human beings, "Hors-champs" creates a further sense of
unselfconscious intimacy.
Not rock stars posturing with a guitar or scantily clad women, not
someone on a distant stage behind a trench of security guards, but
musicians who perform for their own pleasure and who likewise
take pleasure in the individual contributions of their comrades.
Through evidence provided by the "flipside" of the screen where,
for instance, the remaining three musicians move closer as the
drummer pursues his solo, the viewer realizes that they are not
alone in their appreciation of the music. The audience does not
participate in the performance but is nonetheless united with the
musicians in mutual enjoyment of Albert Ayler's 'free jazz'
composition, "Free Spirits". Theoretical discourse aside,
"Hors-champs" offers generous rewards even for those of us
whose interest in jazz is limited.
Among the obstacles to wider appreciation of video
among its artistic peers is its resemblance to popular. electronic
media. Each technology generates expectations among its audi-
ence. When those are not met, the audience leaves the room or
changes the channel. Accustomed to linear and narrative pro-
gression and to qualitative judgments based on entertaimnent
value, it is no surprise that most would apply these same criteria
when confronted by the technology that conditioned those ex-
pectations instead of ones specific to the medium of video or even
to art in general. The result is that even seasoned art viewers pass
by video projects'and installations the same way they surf the
channels that don't catch their interest. But unlike other media,
painting for example, video exists in real time; its visual in-
formation is related sequentially, not all at once. It requires time
to view this information and time is the one thing that televisual
technology has taught us not to grant.
1 Culley, Peter, "Ascension: Music as Emblem and Agency in the
Work of Stan Douglas", Stan Douglas, Paris, France. Editions du

Centre Pompidou, 1993.

Huerta, Benito; Ballou, Chris & Loftus, Kelley. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. Accessed July 30, 2014.