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Truth and consequences

In his engaging career survey, Winnipeg video artist and longtime prof teaches lessons in cause and effect

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/10/2015 (684 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Pathways, Obstructions & Survival Lessons begins abruptly, with a challenge to our perceptions and an unsettling call to action. Made circa 1979 and less than 90 seconds long, The Chair is the oldest and shortest work in the career survey of experimental videos by Winnipeg artist and longtime School of Art professor Alex Poruchnyk, which screens at Cinematheque Oct. 8 at 7 p.m. It's as startling as ever.

Renovation

Renovation

Live Wire

Live Wire

Falling

Falling

The Chair

The Chair

Tauntingly, in time with thrusting camera movements, an off-screen voice chants "2D. 3D. 2D. 3D," as we struggle to make out the image of a man in front of us. He's chained to a chair, his mouth taped shut, and a key dangles at eye level, ostensibly within our grasp. "I cannot speak" the voice intones, "I can only guide you with my eyes" -- a succinct encapsulation of what artists do, what they ask of their audiences and what constraints they face. The situation is left pointedly unresolved.

What follows is a diverse, approachable 45-minute program that touches on genres of video art spanning performance footage, animation, impressionistic montage and plain-spoken documentary. That opening shot echoes down the decades, though: "The decision is yours," we were told. "The responsibility is yours." But what can we do but watch?

Unifying the seven experimental shorts is a sense of cause and effect -- that actions, even simple acts of looking, have repercussions and we, as viewers, are implicated. Themes of personal responsibility, like some of the work's working-class sensibilities and subject matter, its unfussy and unaffected production values, and Poruchnyk's easy interweaving of personal narrative and conceptual art, feel like rare commodities of late. So while the videos might be familiar to many (literal generations of current and former students, to start with), seeing them still comes as a mild, pleasant shock.

Live Wire (1982) evokes that helpless feeling of watching someone do something deeply stupid. With a kitchen knife, Poruchnyk splits, then strips a live electrical wire before moving to complete the circuit with his hands. At the moment of contact, the video cuts to static and hangs there. Again, what could we do?

As if still reeling from the jolt, collaborations with Vern Hume and Alethea Lahofer offer scrambled reinterpretations of media imagery. Face March, from 1984, lingers ominously on high-stepping soldiers and blurred-out faces clipped from newsreel footage, while whispered narration exhorts us to rebel (or at least dress the part of rebels). Lahofer's Hey Kids, which Poruchnyk animated, is a berserk bombardment of late-'80s youth-oriented advertising (and, I can vouch, a potent vector for "aging millennial" nostalgia). Amid glitched-out Dobermans and dancing skeletons, remixed messages flash across the screen at subliminal speed: "Pizza!" "Condoms!" "Scare your friends!" "Just Watch!" More relaxed in its pace and subdued in tone, the eerie 2002 montage Dock Watch Bay shudders and sleepwalks through themes of inner conflict, disaster and escape.

Made 30 years apart, the two longest works give contrasting but complementary perspectives on the division and intersection of art and labour. Falling finds Poruchnyk clearing trees on a wooded property a few years back. With rope, he hoists his camera into the upper limbs, where it spins mid-air, turning leaves and branches into mandalas of digital artifacts.

The chainsaw whines and we tumble abruptly, anticlimactically into the underbrush. In Renovation, a much younger Poruchnyk recounts his triumphs and setbacks, then ongoing, of purchasing and renovating a derelict downtown rooming house.

Each is surprisingly poignant and suspenseful in its way. Both show art-making can be continuous with "honest work," and that work itself is a valid subject for works of art. If it's "survival lessons" we're being offered, many of us could probably stand to watch and learn.

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

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