“Strange Attractors: Observations on Video Art in Ottawa-Hull” offers up a sampling of twenty-five works which address the wealth of possibilities, themes and techniques examined on tape, from the sheer exploration of shapes and sounds to the seamless beauty of the most recent visual storytelling. While the exhibition was conceived as a survey of the production of video in the National Capital area from 1980 to 1997, in fact curators Sylvie Fortin and Su Ditta have examined the whole nature of video art. Underscored in their investigation is the experimental aspect of the art form, in that the seven “viewing environments” are not only delineated thematically, but also inevitably demonstrate the range of technical achievements made possible over the span of seventeen years.
Video exhibitions in a gallery setting are problematic, as it is difficult to achieve an environment in which the viewer can become completely engrossed in the material. Moreover, video risks being transformed into installation by situating it too carefully into a particular space. A delicate balance between watching and being watched is necessary. Rather than being consumed by such logistics, Fortin and Ditta have instead seized upon the range of options, by referring spatially to the different relationships that video art has to film and television. In this manner, two groups of videos are projected directly onto the walls, flirting with the is-it-film-or-something-else dilemma. Other selections are to be viewed on televisions in the corners of the rooms, in front of couches that are strangely reminiscent of student furnishings. Two tapes are screened at eye level on a monitor atop a pedestal, forcing the intrigued viewer to stand. Others are screened on state-of-the-art monitors, surrounded by comfortable chairs, each seat equipped with its own headset. The last room of the exhibition is a small, closed interior with an enchanting surprise – a remote control, giving the viewer the illicit pleasure of being able to pause and rewind the tapes. It is unfortunate that the overall experience of the exhibition is marred by slight installation problems, such as sound spilling over from nearby pieces, but nonetheless “Strange Attractors” is a rare opportunity to take stock of video production from a particular location on its multiple levels.
The three tapes in the section “Absurd Abstractions” focus on the sense of experimental play inherent to early work in the medium. Triangle (1980, 6:00) by Kevin Dowler tells the story of havoc inflicted on the victims of a plane crash and a shipwreck by shark attack in the Bermuda Triangle, shot on the budget location of the bathtub. The tape is delightful, at times unintentionally so, in its use of special effects, and yet packs a sting with its critique of the media’s fascination with destruction on a public scale.