Isabelle Pauwels

At the Catriona Jeffries Gallery until December 22

There’s an element of drama in the staging of Isabelle Pauwels’s new, concept-driven show. A spotlight shines in the darkness near the entrance to the gallery, picking out a floor-mounted video monitor and a microphone on a stand. In a wall-sized video projection nearby, playing again with light and darkness, black-inked words are typed onto a sheet of white paper. At the far end of the room, another isolated light draws the viewer’s eye to a tabletop assembly line—well, an assembly line of sorts, consisting of one worker, three machines, and long hours ?to be filled at minimum wage.

The on-site worker is Pauwels herself, an emerging Vancouver artist who proposes to produce individual editions of her book, More or Less Square, on demand, for pay. Two photo ­copied samples of the publication are on display, and a poster advertises the artist’s availability as a “galley slave” to reproduce—on computer, electronic typewriter, and manual typewriter—the tripartite original. In addition to Pauwels’s $8-an-hour wage, factor in a charge for materials and equipment and her dealer’s commission.

In a recent interview with the Straight, Pauwels pointed out that her video projection, gallery/galley/galley proof/galley slave, serves as a title page for the show. On that much-enlarged page, an electronic typewriter lays down definitions of the four words and phrases as they occur in sequence in the Penguin English Dictionary. The other works here play out those definitions and elaborate upon linked ideas. These include the artist as ill-paid labourer and the undermining of cultural values by the pressures of commerce and globalization. They also touch on the machine-made versus the handmade, the inextricable relationship between language and thought, and the inevitable superseding of one technology by another.

Although there are references here to the industrial neighbourhood in which the gallery is located, the more predominant narrative in the exhibition is a history of television. Preoccupations with TV’s content and programming are present in the book’s fictional scripts or transcripts. What emerges overall is a concern with the development of TV technology during the 1920s and ’30s, its appropriation and refinement by the military during the Second World War, and its subsequent commercial application. Throughout the show, there are actual and metaphorical inversions and reinventions of form and structure.

One such inversion is the microphone set beside the video monitor (which shows Pauwels’s lips speaking into the mike, sped up, slowed down, halted, not corresponding with the randomized soundtrack), which used to project sound. This is a reference to TV’s original potential to be a transmitter as well as a receiver—a point that enables Pauwels to muse on the short-lived creative and democratic possibilities of new technologies.

Many ideas are compressed into this small exhibition. Many concepts are cloaked in its dramatic darkness. Still, the work rewards sustained attention from its audience.