‘What If It Didn’t Work Out the Way It Did?’: Watch Video Artist Stan Douglas Remix History to Reimagine the Present

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the
Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 8 episode, "Vancouver," 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

At the onset of the new year, one of New York City’s most maligned public transportation hubs—Penn Station—got a major upgrade.

Completed at the end of 2020, the new Moynihan Train Hall has opened with an array of site-specific art commissions that honor the building’s past, and are helping to shape its future. Alongside works by Kehinde Wiley and Elmgren & Dragset, the Vancouver artist Stan Douglas created photographic panels that touch on little-known historical facts about the site.

The works, which “chronicle the breadth of collective experience for which Penn Station served as a stage,” according to the Public Art Fund, which organized the installations, are housed in the Train Hall’s waiting room.

Stan Douglas, <i>1 March 1914</i> from "Penn Station's Half Century" (2020). © Stan Douglas, courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner.

Stan Douglas, 1 March 1914 from “Penn Station’s Half Century” (2020). © Stan Douglas, courtesy of the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 filmed in 2016, Douglas explained his process of mining historical footage and stitching images of the past together to create wholly new narratives of space and time.

“I’m an artist,” Douglas says in the video, which originally aired as part of Art21’s flagship program Art in the Twenty-FIrst Century, “and history is one thing I use to make what I make.”

In the film, Douglas describes delving into the history of his native Vancouver, which was part of a nascent film-noir scene after World War II. Inspired by the cinema he encountered in one of his first jobs as a DJ and then an usher, Douglas’s work blends cinema, music, and photography to collapse disparate elements of the past and imagined pasts.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” season 8 episode, “Vancouver,” 2016. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

In my work, I want to go back to look at these possibilities of what if it did not work out the way it did?” Douglas says, “I always want to consider that the thing we have is not necessary. It’s not the only way things could possibly be.”

On January 28, Stan Douglas will be featured as part of Public Art Talks, presented by Cooper Union via Zoom. 

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. 


This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org


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