Ed Rankus recalls how one of his high school teachers in the late 60s taunted his class by saying, “You people should never attempt to read James Joyce.” Rankus’s knee-jerk response was to promptly plow through Ulysses. Today the 43-year-old video artist admits he didn’t get much out of it at the time, but something about the Irish writer must have rubbed off on him. A Joycean blend of cryptic self-revelation, opaque imagery, and whimsy surfaces in Rankus’s latest work, Nerve Language.

The ten-minute video is an abstract collage, an alluring, melancholy rebus in which Rankus makes an analogy between the networks of nerves and leafless tree branches. Though the images are mostly black-and-white, Rankus overlays some with pulsing color. The video also contains elements that might be viewed as a diary of memories embedded in synapses. Snapshots appear. Do they portray the artist as a young boy?

As a teenager Rankus ventured into the Loop on Saturdays, catching Godard, Fellini, and Kurosawa movies at the now-defunct Clark theater. He soon became interested in filmmaking, and he prizes the memory of attending an underground screening at the Hubbard Street loft of filmmaker Tom Palazzolo. “I felt really cool,” he recalls. Around that time Rankus read a story on experimental filmmaking in Time and imagined a future in which he was a great director. He and some friends formed the Hack Film Club, making “short pretentious kinds of films” in eight millimeter, one of which took “potshots at the Catholic church.” He says he once put a rosary on a duck and watched it waddle in an attempt to make a “really bold statement on anticlericalism.”

Rankus picked up some pointers by repeatedly running an eight-millimeter copy of Buster Keaton’s The General on his father’s projector, but for more formal training he enrolled at the University of Illinois’ Circle Campus. It was there that he turned to video, falling in with a group he describes as a cultish crew of experimenters aiming for the electronic equivalent of the psychedelic experience. He went on to the School of the Art Institute for a master’s in fine arts, where he began doing more “tightly controlled work” in black and white.

After he graduated Rankus found work in his field, teaching and making educational videos–among them an HIV-awareness tape and a documentary on Islamic communities in Chicago. “It was work I liked to do,” he says, “and it supported me and my artwork.” His day job even provided the set for one of his videos. In the 80s he worked as a video technician at a psychological research lab at UIC, where he shot the darkly witty Naked Doom, about an imprisoned killer, in an Orwellian warren of cinder-block corridors and one-way mirrors.

Today Rankus teaches video part-time at the School of the Art Institute and has a couple of collaborative projects in the works, including a video for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibit “Art in Chicago, 1945-’95” and an experimental-music video for

Nerve Language will be screened at 2 PM Saturday as part of the Black Maria Film and Video Festival at the Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive and Jackson. Tickets are $6; call 443-3608.

–Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.