When Apps Double As Art: Stan Douglas Pushes The Envelope With ‘Circa 1948’

  • Still from Circa 1948, created by Stan Douglas in collaboration with the NFB Digital Studio, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. 

    Still from Circa 1948, created by Stan Douglas in collaboration with the NFB Digital Studio, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. 

As a standalone artwork, an iPhone app might not strike you as the most rewarding investment. Current such iterations can’t be displayed on a wall, nor can they be exclusively owned. Like video and internet art, artist-made apps are intangible, ephemeral, and, without exception, require some participation from users. Take net artist duo JODI’s ZYX, in which text prompts instruct users to make a series of physical movements and gestures—spinning, jumping, blowing onto their handheld devices—in effect turning the user-viewers into performance artists and collapsing virtual and physical realms into one; or Rafaël Rozendaal’s Finger Battle, in which users engage in a sort of digital thumb-war, competing to finger-tap a divided screen faster than the other. 

  • Rafael Rozendaal, still from Finger Battle, 2011.

    Rafael Rozendaal, still from Finger Battle, 2011.

Art-related apps have typically fallen into two camps: whimsical games developed by artists working in virtual space à la JODI and Rozendaal, or those that function as a device to enable the layman and skilled artist alike to create art, including in the form of videography and painting with iSupr8 and Brushes, the latter now inseparable from David Hockney’s breathtakingly detailed landscape “paintings,” created using the app’s digital tools and palette. But can apps provide a new medium for other artists—not only those whose primary material is the worldwide web—to tackle bigger questions?

The answer lies in Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948, an immersive app developed by the artist along with a team of 3D artists and programmers. The leading Canadian photographer and video artist takes as his mise-en-scène Vancouver, in the year 1948, a noirish city reeling from the country’s contribution to the WWII Allied war efforts. Douglas homes in on two locations: the crumbling walls and faded glamour of Hotel Vancouver, and the shadowy, ramshackle Hogan’s Alley, where dogs bark continuously in the distance. Users can navigate their way around the two spaces, venturing into private rooms, up staircases, and along dimly lit corridors, while sultry jazz and bop play periodically in the background. People are absent from the spaces, but if you click on the shining objects, they conjure ghostly mirages of figures that deliver snatches of past conversations. As you explore, threads of narratives emerge but never cohere.

  • Still from Circa 1948, created by Stan Douglas in collaboration with the NFB Digital Studio, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. 

    Still from Circa 1948, created by Stan Douglas in collaboration with the NFB Digital Studio, produced by the National Film Board of Canada. 

The question of how the work should be categorized is tricky to parse. Is it an app, a video game, or an artwork? What separates Circa 1948 from games and apps is its lack of function or goal. It’s a bit like the ’90s computer game Myst, but without any resolution or objective other than to roam these gorgeously rendered virtual environments and soak up the world Douglas has recreated. Themes of class, crime, and race are invoked, but it’s also a study in atmosphere, with the real-world conditions of a postwar milieu as its basis. Moreover, it comes with the associative heft of Douglas’s larger practice; it’s remarkable to what extent he has put his stamp on the medium, making the app a fluid extension of his vision and bringing a new, interactive entry point into the artist’s concerns.

On the subject of what exactly the work is, Douglas is staunch. “It’s not a game,” he has said in a Guardian interview. “It’s a narrative. There’s no task: you’re not told to find this, kill that. There’s no beginning, middle or end—you’re sort of always in the middle. But that’s always the best part of a novel, say: not the beginning or the end. In the middle you know what’s going on.” Circa 1948 also constitutes just one part of a larger multimedia work, Helen Lawrence, a play Douglas created with the screenwriter Chris Haddock that fuses elements of theater, visual art, live-action film, and digital imagery—and that will feature at the fringe arts bonanza, the Edinburgh Festival, this month.

Circa 1948 certainly draws influence in large doses from existing methods and tropes of gaming and theater. Parallels can be drawn with elements of SimCity and Second Life, as well as live Punchdrunk theatrical productions, in which audience members are given agency to explore the theatrical stage, discover the action, and weave together fragments of the central narrative. But the way in which Douglas combines various disciplines—including cinema and literature—points to how artists might open up spaces to play with the medium. Perhaps one day it could provide a viable source of revenue for artists; like a musical album, one app can be owned by many. Though Circa 1948 was funded by the Canadian National Film Board and is downloadable for free, consumers might, in the future, pay a nominal fee to carry such an artwork around in their pockets.

  • Ann Hirsch, still from Twelve, 2013.

    Ann Hirsch, still from Twelve, 2013.

Artists working with difficult or sexual content, needless to say, may run into censorship issues. Last year Ann Hirsch’s iPad app Twelve was launched—and pulled—from the Apple App Store due to its sexually explicit subject matter; characteristic of Hirsch’s brilliantly provocative work, Twelve delves into the artist’s experiences exploring her sexuality as a tween in AOL’s chat rooms. According to Klaus Von Nichtssagend Gallery, which is working to preserve the app, Apple rejected the contention that the app is a work of art. Apple might not be ready to consider apps as artworks, but with medium-bending works like Circa 1948 now available, it might be time that we do.

—Tess Thackara

Download Circa 1948.