Stan Douglas, Luanda-Kinshasa @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A single video installation, displayed in a darkened room on the north wall of the central gallery space. The work is a 6 hour 1 minute (loop) single channel color video with sound (aspect ratio of 4:3), made in 2013, and produced in an edition of four. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It wasn’t immediately apparent to me when sitting down to watch and listen to Stan Douglas’s video “Luanda-Kinshasa” that he was time-tripping again. I hadn’t read the “liner” notes supplied by the gallery, explaining the background of this marathon recording session, so my eyes and ears were open and happily engaged by a group of 10 jazz musicians who were clearly inspired by the acid jazz-electric funk bands from the late ‘60s-early ‘70s organized by Miles Davis for his albums “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew,” “Live-Evil,” and “On the Corner.”

Even though most of Douglas’s projects since the 1980s have moved in a netherworld between fiction and documentary, he doesn’t give away the secrets behind his constructions. Never campy or bizarre, he likes to hide behind the ready-made façade of a period style–high-gloss black-and-white photography in “Midcentury Studio” (2011), lush Kodachrome for “Disco Angola” (2012)–so that his directed images accrue a realistic patina.

As musical and fashion styles no longer stay dead and buried in the postmodern era but instead are periodically transfused and recycled, I naively assumed at first glance (and hearing) that for once he might be playing a straight game. His camera functions here as a neutral observer, as if eavesdropping on an actual recording session. Shots and angles are conservative, limited to isolations on one or two of the players, lingering on them for a minute or more. More attention-grabbing are the thumping rhythms and droning harmonies of the soundtrack. Interlacing lines of percussion (tabla, congas, standard drum kit), electric guitars (bass, lead, rhythm) and two keyboards boom and echo from speakers near the roof of the cavernous gallery space.

Only gradually did I realize that Douglas had stage-managed every detail of the session, from the platform boots worn by the bass player to the blue Anthora paper cups scattered around the “studio.” The burnt orange palette of the décor (curtains, diffusion partitions) caught my eye as anachronistic. I wondered why this sweaty group was jamming in a room cooled by electric fans. The Ektacolor haze over everything didn’t look entirely contemporary either.

Not until reading the sheet supplied by the gallery did I learn that Douglas in this piece had sought to recreate the atmosphere of the Columbia Records 30th Street studio, a deconsecrated Armenian church where dozens of classic LPs were made between 1949 and 1981 by everyone from Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd to Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday to Glenn Gould and Vladimir Horowitz.

Douglas has a terrific ear for the vibrations of time and place of yesterdays, and this demolished landmark—celebrated for its fugitive interior life rather than any structural bravado—serves as a handy vessel for his artistic obsessions. He also found the perfect collaborator in Jason Moran, the composer-pianist polymath who has all of jazz history at his fingertips. He presides here at a beat-up Fender Rhodes and sets the groove, much as Miles did with his trumpet when he recorded “Bitches Brew” at 30th Street in the summer of 1969.

It’s a credit to Douglas’s tonal control and his musical respect for the period that Moran doesn’t look silly, even though he is dressed in open-necked orange polyester shirt and neck-chain, his face framed by the meatiest pair of mutton chops since Shaft was sticking it to the Man. The drummer Kimberley Thompson goes about her business with grimacing aplomb despite an atomic afro and paisley smock. Set direction and background personnel–a photographer taking production stills, a journalist with her notebook, sound technicians fiddling with cables–are never allowed to distract from the waves of communal sound.

Like “Disco Angola,” this is a speculative piece about cultural exchanges between Africa and North America. During the late ‘60s-early ‘70s, music between the continents migrated along new flyways, as James Brown and Miles Davis gained fame in West and Central Africa, and Afro-Pop was exported out of the Congo and Nigeria to Europe, the U.S., and Canada. In his imaginative reconstruction, Douglas has brought these two worlds closer than they were at the time in order to organize an idealized diaspora band, one that never existed or recorded.

The musicians here, like those on “Bitches Brew” and “Live Evil,” are multi-hued and multi-ethnic: African-American (Moran, Thompson, guitarist Marvin Sewell, saxophonist Antoine Roney, bassist Burniss Earl Travis, percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell); African (percussionist Abdou Mboup); Caucasian-American (Jason Lindner); English (guitarist Liberty Ellman); and Indian (tablaist Nitin Mitta).

“Luanda-Kinshasa” is not a piece that need–or warrants–continuous monitoring. Rather, it can be sampled for 15 minutes or half an hour at various intersections over several visits. The studio sessions that Miles recorded with producer Teo Macero and others, beginning in 1969 with “In a Silent Way,” were compiled from many hours of tapes spliced together, and Douglas’s video reflects that process as well. It’s trance music, like a Grateful Dead concert. The sonic climaxes are spaced far and unpredictably apart.

And yet, because this is jazz, an ensemble music that often begins with an agreed-upon set of chords or scales and then extrapolates from them in unmapped directions, “Luanda-Kinshasa” manages to be an affectionate exercise in historical artifice as well as a living document of original, spontaneous creativity.

Collector’s POV: The single video is priced at $375000. Douglas’s photographic work has only been intermittently available at auction in recent years, with none of his more recent large scale images coming up for sale. So while secondary market prices have ranged between $1000 and $35000, this data is not entirely representative of his entire body of work, including his videos. As such, gallery retail may still be the best option for interested collectors.

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JTF (just the facts): Published by Skinnerboox in 2022 (here). Hardcover (17 x 21.5 cm), 134 pages, with 60 color and black and white photographs and illustrations. Includes texts by ... Read on.

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