New York

Sven Påhlsson

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

In the more than forty years since the publication of Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities, her groundbreaking critique of postwar urban development, a wide array of voices have joined the writer in lamenting the negative effects of urban sprawl. Thus it comes as no great revelation when Norwegian artist Sven Påhlsson Sprawlville or Life at Highway Exit Ramp, 2002, a digitally animated riff on mass-produced tract housing and strip malls, once again draws our attention to the soulless properties of these land-hungry environments. Yet Påhlsson has utilized the most appropriate medium for reinvigorating this discussion, aligning it with the related debate on the consequences of reproducibility.

Påhlsson's commentary takes the form of a thirteen-minute video created with 3-D modeling programs. After visiting and documenting numerous American suburbs, he scanned his photographs into a computer and isolated the basic shapes of houses, trees, lawn mowers, and so on to use as building blocks for fictional townscapes. Manipulating these components digitally—the end results bear little actual resemblance to the locales he visited—Påhlsson finally put the stills into motion to give the audience a jarring ride above and through the topography of the suburbs. As if captured by a highly mobile camera, the view alternates abruptly between ground-level pans across homes with prominent garage doors and vertiginous sweeps over parking lots and shopping centers.

Mind-numbing repetition is the leitmotif of the piece, with row upon row of single-family dwellings and cars zipping along before your eyes. Påhlsson's collaborator Erik Wøllo composed an electronic score that enhances the sense of oppressive sameness. The steady rhythms of drums keep pace with building facades that chug by as if passing on a conveyor belt (such sequences resemble the higher-speed urban scenes of Godfrey Reggio's 1983 dystopian documentary, Koyaanisqatsi). This monotony is broken, however, by frequent shifts in scenery and the accompanying musical variation. In addition, Påhlsson uses software effects so that light transforms from night into day, color ranges from sepia to brilliant primaries, and the sparkling atmospheric quality of watercolor is suggested. Through all this visual and sonic diversity, Sprawlville achieves a surprising degree of beauty for a work that is meant to reveal the ugly heart of Middle America. Although it carries dark overtones, Sprawlville is oddly attractive.

If Sprawlville is not entirely convincing as critique, it nevertheless draws a compelling analogy between virtual reality and residential development, highlighting their shared myth of endless mutability. Påhlsson reinforces this likeness by creating an edition of individual houses that one may “purchase” as a slowly morphing image on a seven-inch flat screen to be installed in a wall. Påhlsson borrows from the sales-happy jargon of real-estate agents in an accompanying promotional leaflet that promises long-term satisfaction. Collectors choose from among three different plans, including the “Mission Series Highland Plan,” the “Durango Plan,” and the “Tradition Series Santa Rosa Plan,” the names of which evoke the allure of the western landscape. In an accurate portrayal of postwar American home buying, these units reflect varied income levels and offer a narrow range of customization. Påhlsson references the emphasis on choice, while stressing the inevitably restricted set of options. By extension, one suspects that the seemingly infinite possibilities of computer graphics possess their own plateau of flexibility. Just as land once seemed to be in eternal supply, 3-D technology, often pitched as inexhaustibly adaptable, might well prove to have its own outer limits.

Gregory Williams