February 24, 2015

Gallery Image
Scott Rogers, ALPTRUTH (video installation), 20132015. Courtesy YYZ Artists’ Outlet. Photo: Allan Kosmajac.

I am always suspicious of art about sports. Although I cling to few of the usual hang-ups about what counts as art or not, sports stick for me. Perhaps it’s because sports seem unserious, crassly commercialthey attract manic fandoms and sponsorships, generate exorbitantly paid stars with exorbitantly short careers and rely on overpriced gear with absurdly named components (things like breathable monofilament mesh, abrasion-free flat seams and compression-molded EVA). Sports rhetoric is notoriously facile, too. It’s hard to talk meaningfully about sports when tired phrases are the standard: ones about giving 110 percent or how excuses are the nails used to build the house of failure.

Sports never seem to fall victim to the constant impending crises of funding and relevancy that the arts do: they make none of the same pleas for their own importance. My suspicion of sports includes, admittedly, an element of envy. I envy sports because they know they’re cool. They have endorphins and crowd mentalities on their side. Art can rely consistently on neither of these things. Art’s always trying to prove it’s cool, worthy of the same excitable attention.

So I was not prepared to be won over by ALPTRUTH, Scott Rogers’s video installation exploring the risky business of backcountry skiing: skiing in uncontrolled or unmarked areas, generally without the use of lifts. The one-room installation at YYZ Artists’ Outletentices at the outset with a strange accumulation of gear: a clothesline draped haphazardly with waterproof garments, a tarp,sale tags and harnesses, a water bottle and a set of conjoined tables covered with maps, carved-open Nalgene bottles, bits of paper, Ziploc bags, dice and rubber balls.

A headlamp casts an eerie glow over the scene. A card on the table reads, Your vehicle was broken into. Come to detachment in Lake Louise when you are back. Take a left at the first intersection. Office next to Petro-Canada.

The setting reads, at first, more as a tabletop-roleplaying game than a hardcore-ski expedition. There’s a distinct element of fantasy and chance that pervades these objects. An accompanying exhibition essay by Samuel Forsythe chronicles the disappearance of two hikers in the Scottish Highlands, resisting an interpretative voice and instead indulging in something far creepier. The narrative makes no direct reference to Rogers’s exhibition, and ends with a search-and-rescue team recounting the uncovering of the hikers’ superstitious rearrangement and defacement of their gear, and a final coded message left at their camp, a reference to Ann Carson’s Plainwater.

Rogers’s video is far less fantastical, but equally menacing. In an all-consuming 40-minute video documenting a risky expedition he took in January 2013, Rogers mines this tension between banal commercialism and the real, almost sublime, bodily fulfillment he finds in the pursuit. By turns ominous and flatly factual, the video combines a lo-fi audio track and first-person footage from a GoPro camera with digitally layered footage from Google Maps, images of brands and key acronyms spelled in yellow block letters across the screen.

The film’s audio drifts between measured procedural descriptions of Rogers’s ski trip, meditations on the advances in backcountry-skiing technology, a travel log that documents trail conditions and Rogers’s increasingly damaged feet, toes and consciousness, and dizzying descriptions of heuristics used to gauge the safety his surroundings. The work’s title, ALPTRUTH, references the acronym for a mental checklist (Avalanche, Loading, Path, Terrain Trap, Rating, Unstable Snow, Thaw Instability) for skiers to evaluate the risks as they pursue their otherwise unchecked expeditions.

There’s a relaxed composedness to the way Rogers speaks about backcountry skiing that sounds almost unbalanced. For example, the pace of improvements in gear for backcountry skiing, Rogers notes, has resulted in an increased adoption of the sport. Companies responsible for better gear, he argues, are now faced with the difficult task of ensuring the safety of new backcountry skiers. Though increasing clientele helps sales, high-profile mistakes by amateurs discourage new joiners to the sport. Corporate involvement in the sport is high, not just because skiers are reliant on hi-tech equipment, but because companies are reliant on their market staying alive. Even as he discusses the deaths of fellow skiers, he’s coolly realistic about their impact on the market.

Late into his procedural breakdown of the trip, and his methodical backgrounder on the sport, the parallel narrative of Rogers’s dangerous trek and slightly delirious decision to break his own trail puncture his cool, collected murmur. Suddenly, the steadily accumulating descriptions of his injured feet and toes that previously served as mere atmospheric audio become a significant concern. Rogers, weighing his options, decides to leave the trail.

Against audio of Rogers’s calm, measured conclusions about backcountry skiing and its risks, the video zooms in on gruesome footage of his injured, discoloured big toes. The bits of toenail and the bloody bandages in dirty Ziploc baggies on the table are enough physical evidence of the excruciating difficulty of the expedition.

Clearly Rogers’s video is serious. The work not only meditates on a beloved hobby, but on a delicate desire for all the sport’s complicated realities: the thrill of skiing in unpatrolled territory, the seductive texture of fresh powder snow, the lust for bro-like admiration, the welcome solitudes of calm stretches, the borderline-survivalist breed of endurance that comes with a breakfast of PowerGels, the very real danger of being buried beneath an avalanche.

It is very possible that Rogers’s hobby will kill him. And it’s also clear that the highly marketed gear and the hokey acronyms are inextricably linked to his survival.

Though they are crassly commercial, crassly bodily, if we play sports, they dictate our moods and movements, our understandings of the capacities for our brains and bodies to adapt, endure, thrive, suffer. They demand involvement, they offer transcendence. Rogers’s work circles this payoff, carefully weighing the risky particulars of his chosen sport, and the self-discipline and embodied knowledge necessary for his success as a backcountry skier. Ultimately, his installation is not only a brilliant rabbit-hole look into the subculture, but also an examination of the borderline between recreation and serious pursuitsthe peripheral activities that are often coded as mere exercise, even as they offer us an avenue into the otherworldly.