Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sinister farm scenes brought to life by traditional drawings and digital animation

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Nothing is quite as it seems in Michel Boulanger's haunted countryside. The digital animations featured in Terre blanche, his exhibition at the Maison des Artistes, lead us into uncanny, unstable simulations of rural landscapes, leaving us to find our own way out.

In the titular work, conflicting modes of agricultural production provide a volatile backdrop for an unseen character's inner turmoil.

We begin in uncertain territory, drifting through otherwise-empty white space riddled with strange, translucent masses that might be ice forming in water or biological specimens seen under magnification. (These are actually 3D renderings of mottled ink-wash fractals produced by collaborator Caroline Gagnon). These give way to a quaint farming scene -- a simple barn and grain silo tucked against a stand of trees and picturesque mountain rising in the distance behind a rustic post fence. From there, we move into a vacant industrial livestock facility, gliding past labyrinthine rows of empty stalls and cages into the building's dimly-lit recesses.

The animation cycles among these virtual sites unpredictably, propelled by a reading of âmilie Hamel's eerie, elliptical poem Sauver la bête ("Save the beast"). As winter falls, the narrator rails against his environment, circumstances and the compromises he's made. A second voice beckons away from the barn and toward the woods, compelling him to "open wide (his) throat and sing." The factory farm collapses into a swelling river, and the cycle begins again.

Boulanger, who has a background in drawing and painting, imports hand-drawn elements into his virtual environments as layers and textures. Terre blanche in particular contrasts expressive graphite and charcoal marks, which he reserves for the natural landscape -- snow and ice, clouds and trees -- with the slick, featureless polygons of rudimentary 3D rendering, which compose the man-made structures.

The "white land" in question is both the snow-covered landscape and the draftsman's blank page, while the contrast between analogue and digital textures underscores Boulanger's interest in the fraught relationship between human ambition, technology and the natural world.

A two-part animation, Champs témoin ("control fields," presumably a reference to agricultural experimentation), explores similar terrain. In the first video, Monter ("to mount" or "rise"), a 3D-rendered pig obsessively jumps in place, surrounded by a sparse, expansive and constantly-shifting landscape of sketchy pencil marks.

Rather than drawn lines, the pig's body is made up of black tire tracks, which appear again in Fuir ("to flee"). In this second video, we assume the first-person perspective of someone frantically trying find his or her way out of a cornfield at night. A flashlight beam plays over the stalks, which shudder and snap with the movement of unseen entities.

At intervals, plants spark and flare like oddly-hued welding torches. Just as dawn breaks, the morning sky reflected in muddy tractor ruts, we approach a group of lighted farm buildings at the field's edge. Seamlessly and unceremoniously, the loop repeats: light drains from the sky and we plunge back into the sinister corn maze.

Boulanger exploits the ability, in digital media, to produce endless iterations using the same elements. The videos repeat, but the loops are peppered with subtle variations that destabilize the viewing experience. Terre blanche's fugue-like structures and stark juxtaposition offer a hypnotic, paranoid and strikingly contemporary meditation on unremitting natural cycles and humankind's unyielding drive control them.

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 24, 2013 C17

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About Steven Leyden Cochrane

Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.

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