Sven Påhlsson Sprawlville or, Life at the Highway Ramp
7 February – 4 April 2004

Oakville Galleries at Centennial Square

This digitally animated riff by Norwegian artist Sven Påhlsson is a harrowing journey through the terrain of a fictional suburb, one that resembles a suburb we all know very well. Devoid of inhabitants, Sprawlville takes us on a hallucinatory trip past nocturnal scenes of mass-produced tract housing, past big-box stores and past parking lots—all viewed as if by the surveillance of a mobile camera. It is a threatening look at unbridled suburban expansion.

To create this piece, Påhlsson visited and documented numerous North American suburbs. He then scanned his photographs into a computer, isolated the basic shapes of houses, trees, cars and so on, and used them as building blocks for fictional sprawlscapes. He then put the stills into motion using a computer application to make vertiginous sweeps—up high and down low—to take us ultimately on a ride through an endless and complex terrain. Påhlsson says, "To me the experience of the suburban world is almost unreal, and the diminishing differences between the computer-constructed virtual world and the conditions of suburban sprawl are both uncanny and frightening."

In this piece, mind-numbing repetition is the order of the day. One single-family home follows another and the viewer's eye inevitably scans the screen in the hope of finding someone there amid the garages, mailboxes, cars and the occasional motorboat. Påhlsson's collaborator, Eric Wøllo, composed an electronic score that enhances the sense of oppressive sameness. It is an intense techno-soundtrack with a steady beat that keeps pace with what seems like never-ending facades of homes. The monotony is broken only by a few shifts in scenery, accompanied by corresponding shifts in the musical score. Påhlsson's work draws a compelling analogy between virtual reality and residential development, highlighting their reciprocal and endless mutability.