Stan Douglas interview: 'I've always thought of disco as a utopian space'

The fêted Canadian artist talks about his 'Disco Angola' series

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'Coat Check, 1974', 2012, Stan Douglas

© the artist. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

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'A Luta Continua, 1974', 2012, Stan Douglas

© the artist. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

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'Two Friends, 1975', 2012, Stan Douglas

© the artist. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

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'Checkpoint, 1975', 2012, Stan Douglas

© the artist. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

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'Kung-Fu Fighting, 1975', 2012, Stan Douglas

© the artist. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

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'Capoeira, 1974', 2012, Stan Douglas

© the artist. Courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery.

Since the 1980s, Stan Douglas has merged historical fact with creative fiction in his photographic and film works. For his latest London show, 'Disco Angola' at Victoria Miro Mayfair, he adopted the persona of a 1970s photojournalist to examine the connection between New York's disco scene and the civil war in Angola.

Disco and war aren't obvious partners. Why did you choose to combine them?
'I've always thought of disco as a utopian space. Think of NYC in the early 1970s. It was dirty and dangerous, and almost bankrupt. The relief you can get from that kind of situation by going dancing is a form of escape. I made a connection to the early days of independence of Angola, where there were certain possibilities available of a once-colonised country to make its own freedom. But both disco and Angola were colonised in a sense. With disco, the middle class wanted to go in and exploit this new popular form, whereas in Angola, the Cold War powers wanted to use the civil war as a proxy war for the Cold War situation.'

What is it that fascinates you about utopias?
'Utopias may not last long. But what remains is a model of how a positive future could have taken place.'

How do you go about re-creating historical periods?
'There's a really long process of research. I spend a lot of time poring over the way people dress and the environments people live in. Some things are based on montages of actual images, others are based on my imagination.'

What's the best thing about photography?
'The fact that you can never control what it does completely. It's not like painting, while you're taking a photograph there's always a sort of alien consciousness working with you. The photograph is a collaboration with the real; the image is based on something outside of your head. It means that you have to put the right sort of stuff in front of the camera. Of course, now with digital technology, photography doesn't have quite the same connection to reality.'

And what can that offer the viewer?
'It's about offering people a way of thinking. It's a very odd thing to have disco and rebel war in the same situation, but to think that these things are connected and happening in the same period is what I want to consider, and what I hope you guys consider too.'

Music is exceptionally important in this project, do you listen to the music when you work?
'We had drumming and handclapping for the kung-fu shot, to get in the rhythm as they were doing the moves.'

So do you have a favourite disco tune?
'My favourite disco tune? Gee.. There's a guy from Berlin called Soundstream who does amazing, amazing disco edits.'

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