This book brings together a wide variety of essays, text works, photographs, and critical responses drawn from the long career of Tom Sherman. Since the 1970s, Sherman has been known for his video, audio, performance, and conceptual art. He has remained an active and engaged artist as well as a keen critic, and an influential teacher—teaching for many years at Syracuse University in New York. He is also an engaging and skillful writer. For a reader interested in media art, cultural politics, or Canadian art in general, this collection is a feast.
The volume is organized in three chronological sections that take us from the 1970s to the present day. Part One consists of a long, previously unpublished text called The Faraday Cage alongside a series of shorter text pieces written in the 1970’s.
The Faraday Cage—the most personal and autobiographical of writing in the book—details Sherman’s early intellectual and personal growth and is an energetic and colourful memoir of the period from 1971 to 1976 when he came to Toronto as part of a wave of young Americans evading the draft (‘Faraday Cage’, is the title of Sherman’s first important work exhibited at A Space in Toronto in 1973). This first text is a long and novelistic recollection of Sherman’s day-to-day life, full of promise, turmoil, and struggle. The writing betrays the narcissism of youth, but it also shows Sherman’s ability to capture, in crisp and clear prose, the flow of life in all its uncertainty and possibility. Sherman gives us a close-up view of the vast social network of artists working or passing through Toronto during this period, as we glimpse such luminaries as General Idea, Lisa Steele, Colin Campbell, and Marshall McLuhan (and many, many more) in action. Sherman’s perspective is not like the one we might grasp from the usual catalogue of achievements rolled out by a historian. Sherman’s first and only encounter with McLuhan, for instance, was less than impressive: McLuhan comes off an irreverent showman glibly shutting down militant questions at the famous weekly Coach House Seminars where Sherman and his friend ventured one week. “Neither of us ever returned to the Coach House,” is Sherman’s terse coda to the incident.
We are also pulled into intimate relationships, and it is here that Sherman is most compelling. The writing is touching, tough, funny, and moving. We are given a close-up view of an uncertain and tentatively developing Toronto art scene in the 1970s—full of cliques and tribes, Venn diagrams of artist-run centres and commercial media—while also following the rollercoaster of Sherman’s emotional life. The writing, particularly when he is detailing injuries and illnesses, feels a bit like his long-time girlfriend Lisa Steele’s groundbreaking video work Birthday Suite (1974) where she appears naked on camera on her 27th birthday describing visible marks on her body and the accidents that caused them. Sherman’s memoir is a similar catalogue of wounds (sometimes quite literally). Sherman’s recall, assisted by letters he wrote to his mother during this period that he reclaimed after she passed, is astonishing.
As we move through the decades in Part Two (with writing from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s) we get a more objective account of the cultural changes swirling around the media art world. We see Sherman wearing many hats: part-time journalist, bureaucrat, artist, theorist, chronicler, and most of all, lyrical writer. These writings, mostly critical essays culled from Sherman’s contributions to different publications, retain his crisp, engaging, witty, intimate, and cool style. In his essay The Appearance of Voice (2003), Sherman narrates the conceptual shift in his artwork to audio, performance, and his embrace of the web. Then, in pieces like Artist’s Behaviour in The First Decade (2003) and Vernacular Video (2008), we have a bird’s eye view of the ever-shifting media landscape. The tone has shifted, but he is still able to dip into the first-person voice.
In Rare Species Are Common (2005), he beautifully describes the marine life seen on walks on a Nova Scotia beach near his summer home. Sherman then uses his observations to put forward a metaphorical description of the idiosyncratic media artist working inside the dominant ecology of mass media. This piece is a stand-out. It employs Sherman’s keen eye for detail and opens into new vistas of media theory that situates media ecology in dialogue with the ecologies of the natural world that has echoes in the work of media theorists such as John Durham Peters and Jussi Parikka.
In Part Three, we meet the artist later in his career. This section consists of a series of (mostly) recent photographs accompanied by short texts. Here we see that Sherman practices what he preaches. He knows how to write a good story. He also lets images speak for themselves. This section brings together the personal voice highlighted in the first part of the book with the wisdom of a curious scholar. The observations are poignant, pointed, honest, and highlight Sherman’s perceptive intelligence.
Throughout this collection, Sherman demonstrates his interest in questions about infrastructure, and spends much more time on questions about the ‘medium’ than he does the ‘message’ (he seems to return to McLuhan after his difficult first impression). He insists that artists must resist the hegemonic imperatives of the mass media. He is not at all afraid to tell us what he thinks of the museum-ready video installations in vogue in the early 21st Century or the business stench that has attached itself to the term “New Media”. He has always been, and still is, an advocate for the artist’s voice and the contrarian views that are fermented there.
Sherman does, however, makes a special case for video as the key technological advance of our time. The video that he painstakingly learned in the 1970s has become a very different kind of medium in our digital age. No longer an exclusive tool used by expensive technicians and eager video artists, video has become part of everyday life. Over his career he has seen video become ubiquitous, and perhaps even a dangerous influence. He compares it with a pencil, a tool that everyone uses but few really explore as an artist’s tool. By constantly advocating for the personal use of video—truly personal (not just another mode of posting to your social media networks) —Sherman promotes a human and poetic dimension to media.
Throughout this mosaic of essays, Sherman lays out how the large cultural shifts in technology, funding, public support, and various hybridizations have defined media art over the last five decades. I was constantly struck, in fact, by how prescient Sherman’s analysis has been throughout his career. From antagonistic resistance that was characteristic of many early video artists (“I vomit in the face of a culture dominated by industrial crap” he growls in the 2003 essay Artist Behaviour in the First Decade), to the mainstreaming of the avant-garde in the digital era, where the general population finally got their hands on the means of production but seem lost and unable to grasp the potential for true self-expression that such access promised, Sherman saw it all coming. We would do well to listen to him carefully as he lays out his “history of the future.”
Sherman’s imaginative and evocative writing makes this book an absorbing read. He proves to be a colourful chronicler of his times and a deft critic of the art world. As such, this book is an important contribution to the ever-shifting landscape of media art in Canada.