Tom Sherman

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Video still from <b>Envisioner</b> by Tom Sherman

Tom Sherman, Envisioner, (1978), 3:14 min.

Video still from <b>Wind-Up Wolf</b> by Tom Sherman

Tom Sherman, Wind-Up Wolf, (1999), 3:11 min.

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Clip 27

Tom Sherman, Off-Kilter: Talking to Nature, (2002), 3:01 min.

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About these works

Envisioner (1978)
Distributed by Vtape.

The message offered by Envisioner is a bleak one, terse and dissatisfied, held in tight control by the work’s rigorous structure.

The first few words from each sentence of a prepared text appear onscreen as scrolling text from an early video character generator, while we hear the full statements in voice-over. Between each sentence, Tom Sherman’s eyes appear in a central band “behind” the text, a confrontational partial portrait. As he points out, “The writing allows the author to extend himself into the space and time of the viewer. The video appears as an early example of interactive television (primary focus on the control end)” (Vtape online catalogue).

Envisioner was produced at the Western Front in Vancouver, British Columbia, and represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1980.

Wind-Up Wolf (1999)
Distributed by Vtape.

Images recorded in the countryside on Canada’s Atlantic coast and in Sherman’s neighbourhood in Syracuse, New York are assembled as a portrait of family and environment. A soundtrack of "wolfish" noises contrast with glimpsed images of spiders, flowers, the seashore, berries, and human hair, ending with the artist’s own grin to the camera.

This tape is a condensation of favourite video memories, a composition of experiences Sherman wants to savour again and again. The quick pace and relentless march of images makes these recorded experiences even more perfectly, electronically, unnatural. The soundtrack, composed by Sherman, is an unlikely “dialogue” between crows and humpback whales pushed along by a pounding industrial beat.

Off-Kilter: Talking to Nature (2002)
Distributed by Vtape.

A text from Sherman’s collection of writings Before and After the I-Bomb (2002) is heard in voice-over, as the camera moves forward through a landscape. A strange blossom is held out, centred in front of the lens.

Sherman says of the piece, “These video recordings remind us of how far the world has tumbled out of balance. Our relationship with nature is screwed up, big time. Our excessive use of languages and technologies continues to drive a wedge between us and the wild animals and plants. We look to nature for companionship. We try to talk to nature in nature’s own language, to form new relationships with the animals and the plants and the earth between our toes. We take a wildflower for a walk across the road. We’ve tried all kinds of crazy things, but so far, nature hasn’t talked back” (Vtape Online Catalogue).

In a series of brief essays on video today, Sherman evokes his intimate knowledge of and love for the medium:

Video is a liquid, shimmering, ubiquitous medium that absorbs everything it touches. This liquidity makes video synonymous with intermedia, the art of filling the gaps between media. Today’s media culture and media art are composed of complex, hybrid forms of multi-sensory information. Nothing is very pure and one-dimensional these days. […] In fact, making video is like talking. In its essence it occurs in real time, permitting our minds to run ahead of the moment. Video is intimate and immediate (quick as light), and it is positively inclusive. Video will be at the heart of all forms of digital telecom in the near future. Video (intermedia) fills all the spaces between the arts today. (Sherman 56)

About Tom Sherman

The multi-faceted Tom Sherman has worked with video and related media since 1970, and won the Bell Canada Award for Video Art in 2003. Much of his work is text-based, incorporating his own voice-over commentary for the images presented, but footage from the natural world is often a central motif. Sherman is drawn to the habits and habitats of animals and insects, portraying them amid human intrusions of roadways, buildings, and fences, or with the jarring interference of electronic pulses and sound. Gannet Burial (1999) or Spiders (1990) show his fascination with a nature that is not always friendly or benign.

He is also a collector of human traits and foibles, framing stories about individuals or about his own sometimes strange experiences and perceptions. Images may be speeded up, reused, or greatly slowed. He has characterized his recent October Tapes (Before Letting Go, Declarations, Free Fall) of late 2004, as "atheist extremism." There is a wildness in the camera work and editing, for example, circling around a rock band, a wrestling match, and small-town carnival: exuberant pacing and brilliant colour, interior and exterior juxtaposed.

Little visual narratives inform 23/7 (2003) - we see a nuclear reactor, then sparkles, flowers, waves and seashore, along with Webcam portraits, birds and baseball events. The piece has much in common with some of Sherman's written works. Fragments of nature and human activity follow one after the other, but interact only sequentially, as if by chance. Tom Sherman's videotapes combine great variety in camera work, editing, visual and textual information. Different themes require different means, and spoken ideas link with images from the visible world, a constructed coincidence. The viewer is bathed in images, massaged by words.

Sherman is a prolific writer and theorist, and in "Artists’ Behaviour in the First Decade" (2003) he notes, succinctly:


Reputations are hard to maintain when the technology is evolving quickly and the territories and jurisdictions are fluctuating between popular culture, underground art, technosocialism and the expansive hybridity of recombinant aesthetics. Cultural citizenship today must be established through local commitment and presence, along with simultaneous international initiatives and recognition abroad, technical competency, increasingly refined media literacy, punctuated by occasional successes in expanding audience by crossing-over into the spotlight of pop culture. (Sherman 88)

Born in Michigan in 1947, Sherman received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Eastern Michigan University in 1970 and came to Canada in 1972. He worked first at artist-run centre A Space in Toronto and by 1974 had begun writing to extend his concept-based work into publications, texts-as-visual-objects, video, and performance. A co-founder of A Space Video (1973) and Fuse magazine (1978) in Toronto, Sherman was a regular on-air contributor to Canada's national radio network, the CBC, on programs hosted by Peter Gzowski and Barbara Frum. He was also a writer for the TVOntario network and produced some of the first music videos (1976-78) ever broadcast there.

In 1981 he became Video Officer at the Canada Council in Ottawa and in 1983 founded their Media Arts Section, establishing the Council's first grant programs for computer-integrated media. In the late 1980s Sherman worked with Simon Fraser University to develop the Centre for Image and Sound Research (Vancouver). In 1991 he was appointed director of the School of Art & Design at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.

Sherman's video work represented Canada at Venice Biennale in 1980. In 1983 the National Gallery of Canada mounted Cultural Engineering, a retrospective of his ten years of video, installations, and writing. In 1986 he was an international commissioner for the Art, Technology and Informatics exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Over the past three decades his work has been featured in hundreds of international exhibitions, festivals, and broadcast venues, including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art (New York), documenta X (Kassel, Germany), Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria), Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, LUX Cinema (London, UK), Montevideo (Amsterdam), Tranz<>Tech International Video Biennale (Toronto), Elektra 2001, Mutek (Montreal), and In Video (Milan).

Throughout the 1990s he was a frequent contributor to Kunstradio, the weekly radio art program on ORF, Austria's national radio network, and in 1997 he released Personal Human, an audio CD of his voice/music work with composers Jean Piché and Bernhard Loibner. Sherman and Loibner have since formed a performance/recording duo called Nerve Theory, and in 2003 released Planetary Disorder, a music/video DVD. In addition, Sherman actively publishes in periodicals, Webzines, and Internet listservs. In 2002 the Banff Centre Press (Alberta) published his fourth book, Before and After the I-Bomb: An Artist in the Information Environment, a comprehensive collection of his writing over the past twenty years.

Sherman is currently a professor at Syracuse University, teaching video production and media history and theory. He divides his time between Syracuse and his Canadian home in Nova Scotia.

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