Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

Catastrophic Narratives
Lance Blomgren

If I told you that what you are about to read is not a story, but only appears to be a story, and if you then continued and read through the artifact that only appears to be a story, but in fact is not, and you understood it as a story, then in your mind it would be lodged as a story and nothing you or I could say to the contrary would change that. Once it is a story it remains one or fades. It could be a series of lies or mistakes, but nevertheless it is a story or it doesn’t exist. —Fred Douglas


Recently I was able to rewatch Léonard Forest’s film In Search of Innocence (1964), the National Film Board documentary on the Vancouver art scene. I last saw it about twelve years ago. In the film there is a scene of Fred Douglas reading his poetry, and minutes later, arguing with artist Roy Kiyooka about the nature of creative improvisation, mainly as it pertains to painting. The film is more associative than linear, more about capturing the pensive cultural mood of the period than recording the various personalities for posterity. There are sustained shots of the ocean—tugboats, dockworkers, and seagulls—mist rising from the mountains, and rain-soaked streets, overlain periodically with Forest’s meditations on this specific time and place. “You learn to live with mountains,” he says. “It’s the end of the line but the beginning of something.”

Kiyooka is baffled by Douglas’ claim that speed and spontaneity are an essential component of artistic practice, when, as he reminds the viewer, Douglas would take months to create one of his “spontaneous points.” Douglas, however, plays out the disagreement with the claim that Kiyooka, by his definition, is simply limiting the notion of improvisation by framing it within a set notion of time. The pace of the work, he suggests, dictates its content; an improvisational nature of production can take place day-to-day, day-by-day, and can accumulate into something that, while not standing for anything and is “not a symbol,” is however significant. The accidents, missteps, and inspired moments that characterize the spontaneous gesture become an archive of the seam between conscious and non-conscious thought that as the film narrates, is a record of “a way of being in the world.”

In relation to Douglas’s sprawling body of work and his artistic practice itself, his offhanded, somewhat slippery comments on this idea of improvisation do not seem surprising. When Douglas died on February 14, 2005, his gestures of “prolonged spontaneity” had spawned dozens of large-scale multidisciplinary projects—executed through photography, painting, drawing, illustration, design, sculpture, performance, book works, writing—that reveal an uneasy truce between the nature of improvisational methods and the afterthought, the “what do these objects mean?” Although Douglas would move conceptually away from the romanticized notion of improvisation expounded by In Search of Innocence, which in the years before Vancouver conceptualism found inspiration in the discourse of spontaneity that emerged from abstract expressionism, bebop and free jazz, and the beat movement, to a more philosophically based interrogation of the very possibility of the spontaneous act itself, the diversity of his creative output remained marked by a basic trust in the instinctual and unconsciousness. Many of his projects, including his photographs of the mundane, his mobile installation The Van (1983), a vehicle decked out for the Arcadian journey; his mid-1990s 11-Inch Paintings and Fictional Cars; and Redeemed Plates (1995), all emerge out of a long-term consideration of the artifacts of improvisational play, out of “arrays or lists ...a condition of compilations.” Douglas writes: “I add one thing to the other until a kind of catastrophe occurs. This catastrophe is the picture or the story.”1

More surprising, however, is to see Douglas reading his poetry. Throughout In Search of Innocence Douglas’s reading is presented both on camera and as a voiceover accompaniment to Forest’s damp West Coast imagery. Douglas reads with pleasure, relishing the collision between sound, linguistic high-jinks, and imagery: “What is happening on this dark green chesterfield or, you know, bed is that we are on it doing like intangible verbs to each other’s curves.” These scenes are a startling reminder that Douglas’s practice, which arose from a predilection for processes of accumulation and collage, not knowing, and afterthought, included language and writing as central media from early in his career.

Although Douglas wrote copiously as part of his practice, especially over the last ten years, the film marks a rare moment in his bibliography where his literary roots are foregrounded, and his preoccupation with writing is captured so clearly. Here, the questions that permeate much of Douglas’s oeuvre—the relationship between image and memory, the structure and intricacies of the imagination—are given reference point within an early instance in Vancouver art history when text and the act of writing were first becoming subsumed into the discourse of visual art, when both the materiality of words and the writing process itself were seen as ripe material for artistic inquiry. In 1964, “text-based art” was not yet a term, but would seem applicable now to a number of artist-writers that Douglas is presented alongside in the film —Kiyooka, Judith Copithorne, and bill bissett—if it had.2 At the time, all of these artists were experimenting with ways to present text as art, informed by, but separate from, traditions of concrete poetry and illustrated narratives that often relied on the primacy of the printed page.

At the time of his death, Douglas was working on the final touches of a book project called Flutter, part of which was shown at Access Gallery in Vancouver in 2004. Flutter is an extensive photo-roman that blends regional folklore with history, strict documentary photography with hand-painted, sepia-toned, staged tableaux, found images, and erratic illustrations. The pages are richly designed, dense with layered images, headlines, and text. Conceived as a historical magazine about Vancouver—a magazine of which there was only to be one copy—the project grew to approximately two hundred designed spreads, divided into what Douglas designated as feature articles, short features, and sidebars. The final product was quickly becoming a coffee-table book, a large-scale livre d’artist that, in scope and style, resembles more the quality of an illuminated manuscript, like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence or The Book of Kells, than most contemporary book works.

What marks this project is the degree to which Douglas’s text-based practice takes centre stage alongside his visual work, often overwhelming it. While earlier writing projects were featured prominently in Menu for Sunset (1996), a series of photographic/text panels with an accompanying novel, and Redeemed Plates (1997), an exhibition of altered photographs of thrift-store decorative brass plates, which included his narratives in catalogue form,3 his text is presented as something of an addendum to his images, a fact supported by critical writings on these projects.4 Flutter, by virtue of the project’s original conceptual form, the magazine, as well as the abundance of writing involved, is a work that highlights Douglas’s position in the discourse of text-based art, compelling another look at his writing, as well as the implications of the literary imagination and the role of narrative in the context of his other work.


That Douglas is primarily known as a photographer is certainly not a critical oversight. In 1959, he co-founded a group of Vancouver-based photographers called the Leonard Frank Memorial Society of Documentary Photographers, who obsessively shot everyday life. Photography was to remain his enduring focus. By the late 1960s, Douglas, who was now working as a museum preparator and experimenting with photography, began moving away from other artistic interests—painting and writing—to commence a detailed investigation into the history of photographic technology and techniques that would become his dominant focus.5 One of Douglas’s final forays into poetry, in fact, is documented in a 1969 cassette recording of a literary series at the Vancouver Art Gallery. During his performance, Douglas cuts himself off a number of times, stating he no longer likes the poem. (Later, Douglas would say that it was soon after this reading that he gave up on literary aspirations and realized he disliked a lot of writing, poetry in particular.6) Two publications, Durations (Intermedia Press, 1975) and Photographs (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1981), helped reinforce Douglas’s photographic reputation. These books are a mix of portraiture and expository study that, informed by the advances of conceptual art, take social constructions of time, event, and site as some of their central theoretical preoccupations. These photographs, with their focus on the mundane, the process of cataloguing, and their fascination with the photographic “event,” overlapped aesthetically and sometimes theoretically with work such as N.E. Thing Co.’s ACTs (1968), Jeff Wall’s Landscape Manual series (1969), and Ian Wallace’s early-1970s “drive-by” photographs, helping frame Douglas’s distinct voice in the Vancouver art community in the years before photoconceptualism. Even Douglas himself would downplay his multidisciplinary approach, maintaining the primacy of his photographic work. The Van, which was displayed in installation form at various institutions, was not really an installation, Douglas claimed, but assembled as a prop for a photograph, a quick summation of where his artistic interests lay: I’ve photographed the van hundreds of times. That’s why I made it: to photograph it. I am a photographer. I make huge enlargement photographs so that all this detail can be seen.... My intent, therefore, was never to use the van as an installation as it is being exhibited here.... I am pleased, and only too happy to engage in this form of art if that’s how people respond to my work, but I don’t think I’d self-consciously plan to make an installation work.7

Flutter also finds Douglas returning to text as a means of recontextualizing and furthering his photographic inquiries. The project remixes his photography, as well as previous paintings and illustrations, as a means of drawing them into the world of the magazine, searching for new life for them, locating new “catastrophes” of meaning in their ordering and presentation. His histories, narratives, and fictional flights work to enliven these images and, as an experiment, strive to overcome what Douglas once referred to as the “deadness of their allegory.”8 And yet in this project, the experiment takes on its own life, turning the writing itself into the primary cohesive glue for the project. Working alongside his archival documentation of everyday objects—outdated dinnerware sets, 1980s towels, and argyle sock collections—as well as found photographs, drawings, and the art-deco design of the project, Douglas’s writings pull the artwork into their gravity. In Flutter, his stories become a central mode of expression, situating the visual ephemera within a literal pretext of narrative understanding.

Douglas’s writing is composed of formally conventional paragraphs. Most of Flutter takes Vancouver as its setting, subject, and spectral protagonist. Among Douglas’s “feature articles” there is “Five Versions of Heaven,” one version of which finds the main character reuniting with friends who have passed away in a house in the Strathcona neighbourhood, and “Cedar Cottage,“9 a story of time-travel where the protagonist finds himself transported back to when this East Vancouver district still had streetcars. There is also an extended bit featuring Ducharme, a notorious late-‘40s Vancouver sex offender, who in Douglas’s research, was probably falsely convicted for reasons of race. There are sections titled “Flattened Animals,” “Dancing: All Styles,” “The Bewildered,” “Boxing (False Creek Flats),” “Thing for Women,” and “Tentative Fictions.” The stories move in and out of topographical reference, regional history, parable, and extended narrative; they technically waver in construction from wonky, overtly collaged sentences to meandering torrents of unabashed lyricism and unyielding description.

One striking aspect of Douglas’s Flutter stories is the degree to which they confuse the relationship between exposition and what may be called the performative text, narrative and procedural action. His writing, like most of his work, is based on a process of accumulation and juxtaposition, more paste-up than cut-up; his texts find a way to marry seemingly non-productive text with the public assumptions of fiction. There are a number of examples for this kind of text-based project, Fiona Banner’s epic The Nam (2000), Matt Mullican’s and Jenny Holzer’s list-based narratives, and, perhaps vaguely, Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2002) among them. Douglas’s writing, however, exemplifies a particular take on the potential of forging narrative from discrete bits of information, especially in tandem with his images. Framed as a simultaneous celebration and criticism of the brain’s tendency towards the structures of rationality set forth by a story—things like scene, conflict and climax—Douglas’s fictions teeter on a line between melodrama and integral collapse. In an undated artist statement from the mid 1990s, Douglas sums up his writing: [It] is not an envelope to put things in, nor is it a layering of things. It doesn’t contain anything, but things emerge from it. It is an uncontaining of things—a fluttering, a dispersal, a profusion.... The pages give the illusion of progression, but really the story is going nowhere.... It is not a home or a harbour—it is not even a pathway. It is a swarming.... It offers no solutions of conclusions of any kind.

As such, Douglas coined his particular subgenre of art-based writing “apparent stories,” as opposed to real stories, a term which highlights his skeptical suspicion that narrative is unable to truly engage its promise of catharsis, understanding, or resolution, but maintains some faith in the process of imagination that makes this promise possible.

But there is a sense of melancholy that permeates this process. Like Samuel Beckett and Edmond Jabès, Douglas writes texts that remain fragile entities. His stories move in and out of focus and significance, seeking aimlessly, in both their creation and subject matter, for rare moments of unironic, authentic illumination; his texts display a cheerless sympathy for the fossilized signifiers of the past and an almost filial need to try to recover their initial value. For Douglas, the structure of our popular narratives, our ability to believe in them as well as their allegorical potential, is one of these remnants, a cultural artifact that has its “weakness echoing through [it] as a virtue ...a beauty which makes other beauty seem muscle-bound and demanding.”100 The writings in Flutter find themselves at the mercy of their own fallibility, imbued with a persistent sadness and lack of definition that spills over into the narrative content, enacting their position.

Ultimately, it is this melancholic sense of utopian spirit that gives Douglas’s writing its individuality and allure. His stories plod forward, an undifferentiated field of narrative that, like a 3-D poster, deliver moments of clarity and epiphany only if you are looking at them right. There are emergences of meaning, incisive insights—flights of absurdity, raunchy humour, and distilled imagery. But when you try to locate them again, they are lost, having receded into the background or dispersed altogether. But then others appear, as the brain forges new connections, giving a momentary sense of order to what otherwise seems white noise. There is a striving towards something in these texts, the wish for narrative unfolding and the promise of an ending. But the ending never comes; the reader becomes Godot, hovering uneasily between the expectation of fulfilment and what he or she learns will never be. The phenomenological response to this is confusion, resignation, even remorse. The narrative hold on Douglas’s stories grips, only to release. The hapless characters of Flutter and Menu for Sunset act out their mundane rituals in a void of understanding, sometimes going with it, but often drifting into states of pure loss, and in Douglas’s hands this is transposed onto the reader. And yet, hope remains, as in this final section of Menu, where the characters are in a spacecraft of sorts, debating whether or not to join their new alien friends on another planet: As they looked down at the diminishing scene they were filled by a melancholic sense of loss, a feeling of being about to relinquish something precious—they weren’t taken by the thrill of escaping and no new sense of freedom filled them. As much as they were inspired by the promise of adventure in a perfect place, this sense of loss drew their affections back down to earth.... The vehicle swooped low once again and they jumped off. The colossal thing then tilted in the air and they could see the friendly smiling faces of the aliens looking down and waving at them.... They looked around to find themselves standing on a street. It was sundown and some women had just got off work from the cannery and were walking up the hill. The sun behind the women outlined their smocks and bandanas with a blazing rim of yellow light. The women walked and gestured and smiled.11

  1. Fred Douglas, Menu for Sunset: An Apparent Story Illustrated with Pictures (Surrey: Surrey Art Gallery, 1996), 70.
  2. Unlike Douglas, however, all three of these artists would eventually engage in literary careers, establishing themselves as key poets in the history of experimental Canadian literature.
  3. Excerpts from Cars, Clothes, Houses and Weather Conditions (Calgary: Illingworth Kerr Gallery, 1997).
  4. For example Christopher Brayshaw’s article “Shadow Landscapes” (Border Crossings, May 1996, 59–61), refers only briefly to Douglas’s “prose fragments.” Liane Davison’s essays in both Menu for Sunset and Excerpts describe his writing in relation to the reading of photography and the formation of meaning in images.
  5. Jamie Reid, “Fred Douglas,” introduction to DaDaBaBy, 7.
  6. In conversation with the author, June 2003.
  7. Fred Douglas, quoted in Connie Hitzeroth, “Curious Campsite Creation,” NOW (Toronto), July 10–16, 1986.
  8. As quoted in Liane Davison’s “Ruminating on Redeemed Plates,” in Excerpts from Cars, Clothes, Houses and Weather Conditions (Calgary: Illingworth Kerr Gallery, 1997), 7. Although Douglas was referring specifically to the kitsch brass plates he had been photographing, this comment relays a theme and an approach that underscores much of his work.
  9. As recorded on Flutter, a recorded conversation between Douglas and Yvette Poorter (Montreal: gratuitUS, 2001).
  10. As quoted in Willard Holmes’s Introduction to Photographs (Victoria: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, 1981), 4.
  11. Douglas, Menu for Sunset, 64.

Image: Fred Douglas, page from Flutter (detail, 2004)

About the Author

Lance Blomgren is the author of Practice (1995), Walkups (2000) and most recently Corner Pieces (2004), a collection of urban fi ctions and text-based art projects. He has exhibited work in Montreal, Vancouver, Banff, Berlin, Chicago and New Mexico. He is currently the Co-Director of the Helen Pitt Gallery, Vancouver.

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