In 1972, Miles Davis recorded and released “On the Corner,” a record that garnered great scorn from jazz critics. It was admonished for its Sly-inspired funk rhythms, Hendrix-level electrification and elements of a newly emerging electronic music. Though it confused jazz aficionados, rock critics dug it. “On the Corner” went on to influence a new generation of makers — from post-punk, to disco, to globalized pop.
The album served as inspiration years later for the black Canadian artist Stan Douglas in making his six-hour, one-minute video work “Luanda-Kinshasa” (2014), currently on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. In the epic six-hour loop, a camera pans around a recording studio showing an ensemble of musicians jamming grooves similar to this period of Davis’ output.
Though it might seem like it at first, the piece is not merely about the generic ruptures happening in music; it also highlights the context in which these cultural shifts were taking place. The social, political and economic atmospherics of the early ’70s have great resonance in today’s struggle to make black lives matter, as well as the changes happening in modes of production and consumption. “Luanda-Kinshasa,” a digital work housed on an Apple Mac mini, was acquired by both the PAMM and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and thus represents the shifts happening in art as well.
The setting of the film is meant to replicate “The Church,” the famed CBS studio on 30th Street in Manhattan where Davis recorded his renowned “Kind of Blue” and where many other artists, such as Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, recorded too. For those who might not be into this groovy reality of wobbly bass tones and funk-rock riffage — which might come off as cheesy to younger audiences especially — there is an ideological and cultural moment that deserves deeper thinking.
Rene Morales, the curator at the PAMM who coordinated the exhibition, says, “The music is not a specific rendering of a historical musical piece. It’s a new musical piece that was created for the film, but it has very strong influences of a particular moment when Western pop music was fusing with jazz and global influences, particularly Afrobeat in this case, which was a very important, Pan-African musical movement in the ’70s.”
The title of the piece refers to the capitals of Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Politically speaking, the period of the 1970s was one of the great global fluxes, following the worldwide protest culture that crested in 1968. The struggles of black Americans were being connected with resistance to imperialism in Africa. Though much of Africa had become post-colonial, and though the Civil Rights movement had achieved the Voting Rights Act and other reforms, systemic violence remained in both places, and continues today.
The music being played in Douglas’ piece, Morales says, “was part and parcel of this reaching back to African roots that was such an important aspect of the Black Power movement in the 1970s here in the U.S. At the same time, the music features tabla drums and conga drums. It brings together all sorts of Asian, Caribbean and Latin influences. It has a particular resonance with Miles Davis in the 1970s, who was really instrumental in bringing this globalist perspective into music — again, with this kind of charge to reaffirm or affirm a new black identity.”
“Luanda-Kinshasa,” however, also seems intended to disorient. There are unsettling cues throughout: the repairmen dressed in white working on the same thing in the corner at different times throughout the entire six hours; the strange moments where the film seems to repeat yet move forward. And though it clearly is depicting the 1970s, the film feels intensely contemporary — it was, after all, shot in digital with high resolution just two years ago.
The long duration and temporal confusion screams contemporary art. Douglas, born and working in Vancouver, is well established in the global contemporary art circuit; he’s shown at the renowned Documenta exhibition and Venice Biennale and is represented by the high-powered David Zwirner gallery in New York. For “Luanda-Kinshasa,” Douglas hired renowned contemporary musicians for a one-time band, including American jazz pianist Jason Moran, Senegalese drummer Abdou Mboup, Indian tabla player Nitin Mitta, and the American drummer Kimberly Thompson.
“Everything with Stan Douglas’ work is extremely specific,” says Morales. “He’s just about as exacting an artist as you can find working today.” All of the elements in the work are meant to convey something, and if you watch large chunks of it, your sense of time and space will start to contort. The multicultural band (and solitary female performer) isn’t the only thing that hints at the 1970s: Everything from the period costumes to the products lying around evokes a groovier time.
“Subtle clues create a kind of temporal disjunction, a sense of what am I looking at, and what time period is this?” Morales says. “There’s this kind of confusion between past and present which runs throughout the piece on many different registers and many different levels.”
This was partly achieved with an intense editing process by Douglas, which involved picking out musical phrases and scenes and then arranging them for his own purposes. There are two major movements, “Luanda,” the more African-inspired portion, and “Kinshasa,” the bluesy-rock half. The permutations of each weave in and out of each other, subtly confounding a sense of time, though it appears to be linear. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Miles Davis used a similar process for “On the Corner.”
“Luanda-Kinshasa” was acquired by the PAMM with the help of its recently arrived Director Franklin Sirmans, who was previously curator for LACMA. “We reached out to him while he was still in L.A. and asked if he wanted to propose something for the list,” Morales says of Sirmans. “We thought it was a nice opportunity to start working with him and he proposed this piece. Basically, [LACMA] needed a partner in order to make this joint acquisition. So the piece was acquired from David Zwirner gallery jointly by LACMA and PAMM.”
This kind of acquisition represents a relatively recent practice by art institutions. Over the past 20 years or so, as the costs of art have risen exponentially, museums have started teaming up to acquire work. “Luanda-Kinshasa,” like other jointly acquired works, can only be shown at one institution at a time.
Says Sirmans, “the first thing that struck me was the weirdness of time, the way that we were looking at something from the past in the present, with present day actors, but was clearly not of our moment. . . . It has this conceptual backbone of time, and how to think about time, vis-à-vis the experience of contemporary art.”
“Luanda-Kinshasa” points to a historical period that represented both possibility and peril. The ’70s, a time of funk and fusion, was the time when capitalism started shifting from goods to services — a time when economies banished the gold standard, manufacturing shifted away from the U.S., and computing technology started emerging in earnest. It was also a turbulent chapter for the art world: The art market began its astronomic bubbling, and DIY, artist-run spaces started proliferating. The ’70s was a time where a lot of the struggles and paradigms of today began, and Douglas seems to intentionally draw the comparison.
Even though it appears to just be a six-hour jam session, there is more than meets the eye. “It’s about people working together,” Sirmans says. “You have the backdrop of the 1960s and 1968 in particular, and there’s this sense of hope and potential. I think that in this day, in this moment, there is a sense of possibility of working together, but because of the recent events all over the place, that is being supremely tested.”
Though the long, repetitive nature of “Luanda-Kinshasa” could be read as a critique of the limits of music (its potential for onanistic, self-absorbed play), the video ultimately seeks to paint a picture of a collaborative, peaceful moment — through a contemporary lens. Deeply concerned with metaphysics, “Luanda-Kinshasa” is about time itself, and how we experience it.
As PAMM curator Morales says, “The way he treats the musical soundtrack in this piece, in the same way he treats repetitive, recurring sequences, you could read that almost as a metaphor for how time and history function — the forward progression that occurs with cyclical occurrences.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Luanda-Kinshasa” video artwork by Stan Douglas
When: Through Sept. 25
Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., downtown Miami
Information: pamm.org; 305-375-3000