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Stan Douglas’ Television Spots

Karen Henry

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Reflections on T.V. Spots

Stan Douglas, installation view from T.V. Spots and Marnie, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, 1988. Photographer unknown.

In 1988 I wrote a review of Television Spots by Stan Douglas, published in Parachute magazine. I’d worked at Video Inn (now VIVO) until 1987 and was interested in artists’ use of media in a culture increasingly dominated by television. The dynamic between video art and popular broadcast media was a prominent discussion.1 The internet was not pervasive in popular culture until the 1990s.

Stan was deeply into Samuel Beckett and the Irish playwright’s forays into broadcast television in the late 1970s. Stan’s curatorial project to present Beckett’s teleplays also premiered in 1988 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. As this exhibition did not open until October of that year, I was not aware of this context at the time I wrote the review, which was based on a presentation titled TV Spots that took place at Artspeak from January 16 to February 6, 1988. The CAG exhibition of this work, in December, coincided with the teleplays exhibition. At CAG, the Spots were shown with the location photos and script for Stan’s remaking of the robbery sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s film Marnie. Marnie was an example of his interest in isolating pivotal moments in time—in this case, when Marnie went from being a professional thief to another, future self. In an interview with Diana Thater in the 1998 Phaidon book Stan Douglas, Stan positions both Marnie and Television Spots in terms of his interest in liminal, in-between spaces.2

After Television Spots, which were made to be repeated like ads during television’s primetime hours, Stan went on to make the slightly longer Monodramas in 1991. At 30–60 seconds each, the Monodramas had a more narrative-like structure that similarly frustrated convention. Both were conceived as interventions into commercial television and both had limited broadcast runs.3

There is an optimism in this effort to interrogate the increasingly consuming effect of technology on our lives. In my review, my criticism was the limitation of this strategy to access the consumable time of broadcast, requiring significant funds or the largesse of the system for limited periods. In the gallery, the work acted as a conceptual model but did not serve their intention to interrupt the viewer’s trance and throw them back on themselves.4

Stan’s own critique, published ten years later, addresses the effect of this effort to impact the public: “Being tautological, or self-referential, is a limitation that I, retrospectively, found in the Television Spots (1987–88) and Monodramas (1991). The idea was to play two television genres, dramatic and commercial, against themselves, so that the audience wouldn’t be sure if they were seeing something abiding by one or the other of the broadcasting conventions. It was an attempt to disrupt the formal means of television. So when people called the stations, upset about having their expectations confounded, I realized that the anonymity I had insisted upon—that the spots would not be identified as art—was really an act of bad faith. . . . once the spots became art they became strangely self-referential. So I figured I couldn’t take my artistic practice to a public space.”

Television was a distinct stream of mediation. With the internet, the separation from our own experience is more pervasive. Would Stan make them differently now? Interestingly, the Spots are generic enough that they do not look entirely out of date. As we are ever more absorbed into the media environment that steals our imagination, perhaps the Spots deserve reconsideration.

Within the (so-called) democracy of the internet, could the Spots be released as an “ordinary” meme of life on the street, spreading through the digital realm? I love the pace, the simplicity of what we see—in their disruption, they anticipate the “slow” movement. The use of the iris opening and closing may seem quaint, but it takes you out of the present time, breaking the seamless flow of imagery and, however briefly, throws you back on yourself. This seems like an opportunity to let the Spots go where they may: drop the art designation and infiltrate the dark realm. In the age of “sharing,” it would be interesting to see how they might mutate or whether these simple life forms would remain their essential selves. Perhaps the Spots would become “extinct” rather than propagate. Maybe our job as believers in art—and human potential—is to keep them circulating. I, for one, would find in them a relief from the onslaught of “content,” a grounding reminder of our ordinariness.

Karen Henry

Karen Henry is a writer, curator, editor, and art consultant. She works as an auxiliary planner for public art in Vancouver. Her work has been published in Ciel Variable, Afterimage, Prefix, BlackFlash, Parachute, High Performance, Video Guide, and Vanguard; and art catalogues for Presentation House Gallery (now The Polygon Gallery), the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Burnaby Art Gallery, Richmond Art Gallery, Walter Phillips Gallery, and the National Gallery of Canada. She has held curatorial and administrative positions at the Western Front, Burnaby Art Gallery, Presentation House Gallery, and Video Inn (now VIVO).


1 “[I]n every instance, aspects of video in relation to television are presented. This relationship is a central issue for video in this decade.” Lorne Falk, The Second Link: Viewpoints on Video in the Eighties, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff, 1983, p. 3.

2 “Diana Thater in conversation with Stan Douglas,” Stan Douglas, Phaidon Press, New York, 1998, p. 28.

3 The Monodramas were first broadcast in Vancouver in 1992 on BCTV, sponsored by the UBC Fine Arts Gallery (Stan Douglas, Phaidon, p. 26). They were also shown in Toronto in 1992 (Stan Douglas, ed. Gilles Godmer, Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, 1996, p. 18). Television Spots were aired in Saskatoon and Ottawa (Wikipedia).

4 TV Spots, as an exhibition, hangs in the balance between the purity of representation and the revolutionary force of intervention.” Karen Henry, “Review: Stan Douglas,” Parachute, June – August 1988, p. 36.