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Celebrate the late Dennis Tourbin with ABCDelevision at Club SAW

By Michaella Francom on March 18, 2014

The name says it all: ABCDelevision. Rather, to be clear, the written word doesn’t say it all-but absolutely that’s the point. ABCDelevision is actually pronounced “Abracadelevision” and it was a term Dennis Tourbin coined to describe the ‘magic’ of television: an ‘instant’ medium which beamed with unprecedented immediacy and simultaneity images and words, a message, directly into our homes. Fascinated by the power of different mediums to transform language and having dedicated his art to “an exploration of the complex visual dimensions contained within language” it’s unsurprising that his single word contains so much more meaning beyond the mere letters on a page.

Presented in conjunction with the CUAG’s Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry and Gallery 101’s Twice Lightning, Curated by Christopher Rhodes, Club SAW’s ABCDelevision will be a screening that spotlights Tourbin’s video art.

Primarily considering himself a poet, Tourbin was nevertheless a master of many mediums with a keen understanding of how to choose the best medium for his message. A young man in the era of Marshall McLuhan, Tourbin’s work effectively and brilliantly approaches media study in a manner both serious and tongue-in-cheek. It seeks to reveal that how something is said is just as important, if not more so, than what is being said. It expresses an imperative that we engage with language understanding that it can be manipulated and its message radically altered.

This is beautifully demonstrated in one of the films for Thursday’s program “The Interrogation”. The piece itself is an interrogation between himself and a tape player “seated” on a chair. Tourbin presents the same scenario twice but each time from two very different perspectives. First from a long, static shot and the second time round from the tape player’s perspective employing cuts, close-ups and lower angles. It demonstrates how the formal techniques of television wholly change the audience’s experience of an event and draws attention to the ‘tricks’ of mass media.

In light of the fact that Tourbin is best known for his works related to the events of the October Crisis, one might expect him to have been a staunch supporter of either the left or the right. In fact his message is non-partisan. “His agenda is not necessarily pro-liberal or pro-conservative,” said Rhodes “It’s more of a case of that he felt Canada as a nation suffered from a lack of identity and sense of historical awareness.”

Case in point the media storm of 1995 surrounding the National Gallery of Canada’s decision to cancel an exhibition of Tourbin’s October Crisis work. Widely considered to be motivated by political concerns (1995 being the year of a second Quebec referendum) mass media’s attention was myopic. Interviews with Tourbin were rife with leading questions intended to get a simple pro-left or pro-right message from the artist. From his responses Tourbin’s opinion was clear: this was not about partisanship. The cancellation was about censorship, a glossing-over of history and an erasure in a sense of part of our past.
Coverage of the ‘scandal’ was compiled by Tourbin, preserving the moment in history as a series of clips: some of which will be presented at the screening.



While overshadowed by this media storm, Tourbin’s work in Ottawa can hardly be reduced to that one event. ABCDelevision will include highlights from a series Tourbin produced and hosted for Rogers’ cable called Mirror Mirror in which he visited local artists’ studios to interview them “in their element”.

Working in an art gallery myself, I’m used to seeing video work displayed in a large open space on screens intended to be viewed individually. I asked Rhodes about the challenges of curating a 75-minute program of video art.

Rhodes had to laugh when he admitted he probably loves video art more than the next guy, but that he understands some works are appropriate for galleries and others for screening such as ABCDelevision. Some works can come to for a few minutes, walk away from and return to it or not: those are for gallery walls. Other works are meant to be viewed from start to finish. That’s what you can expect to see with the two longer pieces The Interrogation and In Conversation with a Diplomat.

Finally, I was curious to hear Rhode’s opinion on how Tourbin would have felt about the internet: a still-young technology at the time of his death in 1998.

Rhodes responded saying Tourbin was definitely interested in new technologies. In his research Rhodes found a video from the early 80s where Tourbin used very basic programming to create a visual poems using colour-changing scrolling text (think Star Wars’) on a computer screen. It seems safe to say that given his scrutiny of mass media, the internet would have inspired some amazing work had Tourbin lived to produce it.

Tourbin’s wife, Nadia Laham, plays a large role in keeping her husband’s work in the public eye: keeping history from being glossed-over. She will be in attendance on Thursday for a Q&A to follow the screening.

The video art of Dennis Tourbin is not widely available online, however for a preview the following video was found on YouTube: The poem being read, “Bay Street Ottawa”, can also be found as a visual poem at CUAG’s exhibit. I’ll be visiting that exhibit with a local art historian, Judith Parker, and will talk a bit more about that show in part two.



ABCDelevision screens at ClubSAW Thursday March 20th, 2014 at 7:30pm. FREE admission-come early to get a seat!