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CANADIAN ~

I

Geoffrey Farmer

robr

Television


Interrupting the program ... descrambling TV through video by Heidi May

any artists using video have chosen to comment on the effects of mass media by utilizing an apparatus that is inherently connected to the so urce. Even before the portable video camera and player appeared on the market, artists were using the technological capabilities of the television in order to produce a comment on the TV's place in society. In 1965 Nam June Paik made a piece entitled Magnet TV, which employed neither videotape nor broadcast images, but was instead created by moving a large magnet across the surface of a television set in order to produce a moving abstract pattern. Paik, a member of the Fluxus anti-high-art movement, created works in which the television was emptied of its regular function and transformed into a statement abo ut technology in general. More recently, artists like Tom Sherman and Stan Douglas have appropriated aspects of television within video works and manipulated its structure, creating a critique that addresses the dominance of televisual ideology. Canadian filmmakers Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg have also explored orth America's obsession with television as well as the effects that this medium has had on family interaction and the individual psyche. Cronen berg's 1983 film Videodrome depicts the imagined effects of a proposed television show that after repeated viewings would eventually control the TV viewer's mind. The film shows us a hypothetical society in which massive doses of "videodrome" create a new outgrowth of the human brain, an outgrowth that


Still from Videodrome 1983 87 min Directed by David Cronenberg ÂŤ:) 2001 by Universal City Studios. Inc. Courtesy of Universal Studios Publishing Rights. a Division of Universal Studios Licensing, Inc. All rights reserved.


can potentially produce and control hallucinations to the point of changing human reali ty. Cronen berg has succeeded in creating fantasy worlds that scare us to the point of disbelief; however, if one gets past the bizarre sci-fi concept, the basic idea of Videodrome does not seem that far-fetched. Television is a powerful yet non -critical medium, a form of technology that resists a closed meaning partially because of its extremely fragmented structure and discontinuous text . John Fiske writes about TV's inability to produce coherent meaning in his book Television Culture; he states that "Its attempts at closure, at a unitary meaning, or a unified viewing subject, are constantly subjected to fracturing forces." A critical assessment of television is, for the most part, not being performed by the medium itself. There is a crucial need for this analysis, and this may occur through the use of video. Some critics will disagree and say that the battle lines between television and video art have become completely blurred, that television's critique of itself is more pervasive than its critique by media art. Although idiosyncrasies of television are ridiculed on certain TV programs that are designed to poke fun at the medium's formats and conventions, this is an imagined reality of TV-a reality constructed to make the viewer feel as if he or she is part of the deception. Video art has not succumbed to the powers of television; rather, in some cases, video takes TV out of its normal viewing context and creates a critical situation for the TV viewer to contemplate. It seems ironic that such a disjointed media for mat/entertainment device has had such a strong effect on subject formation and self-development. Recently I read something that Raymond Williams wrote in 1975 in his book Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Williams has been quoted frequently in other writings on television and is best known for his conception of the term "f1ow"-the incorporation of interruption within TV to the point where it becomes naturalized in the stream of images. Williams writes about how difficult it is to respond to and interpret television's intrinsic visual experiences, and how little has been written on the topic. Williams states that the atte ntive moments belonging to the viewer may comprise one of the most significant aspects of the medium's power. He states, To get this kind of attention, it is often necessary to turn off the so und, which is usually directing us to prepared transmissible content or other kinds of response. What can then happen, in some surprising ways, is an experience of visual mobility, of contrast of angle, of variation of focus, which is often very beautiful.. .. To most analysts of television, preoccupied by declared or directed content, this is, if seen at all, no more than a by- product of some other experience. Yet I see it as one of the primary processes of the technology itself, and one that may come to have increasing importance. And when, in the past, I have tried to describe and explain this, I have found it significant that the only people who ever agreed with me were painters.

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This "primary process" of the technology is important to analyze since so much of the visual content of TV has been carried over to information technology, which seems to be dominating every aspect of our society. One could say that television is the base structure for the current state of visual culture. Its fragmented and repetitive design offers a viewing situation intended to be internalized by a series of disconnected "glances," as opposed to the cinematic "gaze." I feel this visual design has also been carried over to the World Wide Web, where the entire animated computer screen has become one image in itself, pulling users in aLI sorts of directions analogous to the aesthetics of channel surfing. Current video work is addressing technology and the variety of effects it has on identity issues within an increasingly digital world. In certain works, television is examined not only for its content but also for its ability to intrude into the everyday lives of its viewers. Kristin Lucas, a video artist working out of New York, creates works that portray the psychological response of the television viewer within a coli aged environment that references the structure of television itself. Lucas's examination not only demands that we question our relationship with what we watch on television, but also encourages us to acknowledge TV's influence upon other computer-based systems. Toronto artists Jubal Brown and Istvan Kantor also examine the impact of technology through video art. Brown's videos seem to visually illustrate the psychological intake of signals emitted from the television screen. His rhythmical use of imagery, a technique common to several contemporary Canadian video artists, contains an aggressive feeling of attack towards the television set. Although the subject matter ofIstvan Kantor's work is not television specifically, the artist's message about the "constant noise" of the current generation undoubtedly fits into a discussion about the mental disarray of a society raised on television. Video a-rt is questioning the mediaabsorbed viewer by allowing a personal viewpoint to disrupt the landscape of the media, rather than the other way around.

Disassembling the Media: A Construction of New Meanings Typical television formats are torn apart and manipulated within video art with the intention of disrupting normal viewing habits. The obstruction of normal TV language is usually achieved by either an exaggeration or an inversion of the strategies used within the entertainment industry. A popular strategy that has been used for years within television broadcasting is the "direct address" approach, also referred to as the "talking head." Within this format, the head of an individual is seen addressing the TV viewer in a one-way conversation; the camera never veers far from the person's face. The method is used in news broadcasts, commercials, televangelist programs and many other shows that presumably "inform" us yet control us at the same time. Monologues within videos, particularly ones that are directed towards the viewer, speak of the "informative" aspects of television that control culture. Vancouver artist Stan Douglas incorporated this structure within some of his Television Spots


ABOVE: BELOW:

JUBAL BROWN Video still from The End 1999 3 min

ISTVAN KANTOR Video still from Accumulation 2000 10 min

(1987-88). The Television Spots consisted of twelve segments, each 15 or 30 seconds long, that contained incomplete and unresolved narrative fragments. The Spots left viewers' expectations unfulfilled; people were forced to question why this disruption of expectation was taking place. These works were broadcast on commercial television and were intended to interrupt the systematic structure of television in order to exami ne the reactions of the mass audience and question the effects that this controlling device has on individuals. In the spot "My Attention," Douglas films the talking head of a man who recites a schizophrenic monologue that reveals a se nse of identity confusion felt amidst a world of distractions. The monologue is directed towards the camera, yet the output is intended for the television audience. The actor says, ''I'm speaking to you right now ... but I can still hear voices coming from down the hall ... " This narrative seems to focus on the individual's inability to concentrate on anything other than the sounds and images emanating from technological devices, from the television. He stresses his desire to "shut these things out" and states that he attends to things, even though he doesn't even find them interesting. In Kristin Lucas's Cable Xcess (1996), the artist portrays herself as an amateur, transforming the visual language of television to produce a personal statement about humans' exposure to TV and the effects it can have on one's health. This piece exaggerates the dangers involved with watching television, yet effectively

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illustrates the anxiety the TV viewer may feel when there is a power failure-ultimately revea lin g contempo rary society's dependence upon this object of high technology. In this video, the direct-address technique is tlIken out of its corporate context and used on a personal level-the artist recites messages to the viewer through a screen filled with static, and the image is interspersed with fragmented television imagery. Cable Xcess reveals the hand of the artist battling the medium, disrupting the TV viewer's ritual of watching through technical imperfection. The result is an intentionally amateurish piece where the artist

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appears to be breaking through the broadcast waves. What separates this piece from the particular Television Spot mentioned above is the element of confrontation between the artist and the medium. Through the use of transparent layering and filtered effects, the individual within the monitor is at a greater distance from the viewer; the focus remains portraying the fragmented televisual experience.

Collage: The Televisual Experience The flow of television can be disrupted within video art either by breaking it down and isolating certain elements or by exaggerating the fragmented system to its full extreme. Within Fredric Jameson's often debated 1987 article "Reading without interpretation: Postmodernism and the video-text," the author describes how Raymond Williams' idea of the ongoing "total flow" of television has erased any kind of critical distance for the viewer. Jameson also insists that the total absence of memory in relation to television further separates it from the analysis of film and the processes of interpretation applied to film. As he writes, " ... memory seems to play no role in television, commercial or otherwise (or, I am tempted to say, in postmodernism generally): nothing here haunts the mind or leaves its afterimages in the manner of the great moments of film .. .." Jameson complains that no specific forms from within video art can be taken out of the context of television to be remembered in any relevant way. However, the flow of television can in fact be critiqued within video, with the intention of disorienting the viewer and encouraging him or her to become aware of their own relationship to the medium. Lucas appropriates the televisual experience within her videos and illustrates how the fast-paced style of television has inflected other routine interactions we perform with technological systems on a daily basis. By using a repetitive system of collage, she critiques the "message" of the medium through an exaggerated design that speaks about the nature of television. Collaged imagery within video references the televisual experience both in regard to how TV is watched and in how its images are consumed. The "collection-consumption effect" has been referred to as characteristic of television, in contrast with the voyeuristic nature of the cinema. As defined by author John Thornton Caldwell, the term "collection -consumption effect" describes the hyperactive pace at which images are gathered before the viewer during the TV-watching process. Through video, this "collective" experience can be examined through a coli aged structure of imagery and sound that demonstrates a specific psychological reaction; or it may be manipulated through more of a montaged system that produces an effect that seems less random. For my purposes here the word "collage" can be understood as a description of the structure of television itself, as something used within video to reference the experience of

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the medium. The wo rd "montage," on the other hand, may be applied to the analysis of televisuality within video as a structural device. Definitive terms aside, the visual and mental experience of the collection-consumption effect and the "glance-like" mode of attention of the typical TV viewer are both brought to mind in a number of recently created videos. Within Lucas's work, a visual montage is created that reflects the coli aged system of TV as well as the mental.:;tate of the television viewer, producing a sense of instability and randomness. Toronto artist Jubal Brown also evokes the psychological similarities between the TV and its viewer. In his video The Blob (2000) Brown applies a fast-paced, rhythmical aesthetic that vicious ly attacks found footage frame by frame. The narrative voice-over of the piece analyzes the emergence of TV and compares its rays to demonic spirits that have " possessed our souls" and "wreaked havoc on the human world." The artist repeats television clips in a cyclical fashion, accompanied by a musical beat that sounds not unlike a machine gun. The images seem randomly organized and, in one section, literally project toward the viewer. As the "channels" are switc hed from one to the next, the broadcast image expands to fill the screen, as if being sucked in by the viewer. In 1982 John Ellis first used the word "glance" to describe how television is watched in comparison to the cinema, which he described as the province of the "gaze." In both Cable Xcess and The Blob successive movements between found footage and the artists' original video reveal the fragmented structure of the medium as well as the interrupted attention span of its viewer. Most importantly, the use of collage seems to illustrate Raymond Williams' point: that the difficulty we experience in responding to and interpreting television's visual experiences in words is a problem that may best be dealt with visually. Williams suggests that a painterly approach to television's inherent qualities can serve as a strategy for understanding its visual significance. The layering of images within both Lucas's and Brown's video work, whether collage or montage, references painting formally and psychologically, as images continuously build on top of each other, layering front to back and back to front. The coli aged screen not only demonstrates the televisual experience, but also reveals the individual's mental state.


ABOVE: KRISTIN LUCAS Video still from

Cable Xcess 1996 5 min

Male Naysayer from " Television Spots " 1987-1988 Twelve videos for television 10-37 sec Colour, mono soundtrack

OPPOSITE: STAN DOUGLAS Video still from

The Transference of Zapping The constantly shifting channels of the television are carried over to the viewer through a process called "zapping." John Fiske describes zapping as an activity that the television viewer participates in as he or she switches from one program to the next, never watching any show in its entirety. Fiske states: "Zapping allows the viewer to construct a viewing experience of fragments, a postmodern collage of images whose pleasures lie in their discontinuity, their juxtapositions, and their contradictions. This is segmentation taken to the extreme of fragmentation and makes of television the most open producerly text for it evades all attempts at closure." I described a section of Brown's video The Blob in which a number of clips actually move towards the viewer repetitively. The chosen clips are taken from a wide variety of previously televised programs and, under the control of the artist, seem to resemble a typical "zap" session. In Brown's The End (1999), a similar aesthetic is explored throughout a video that compares the end of civilization to the switching off of the television set. Instead of the imagery expanding to fill the screen, the layered images in The End recede, or are "zapped," into the middle

of the screen and diminish into a neon fl as ' rhe sound that accompanies the visual display is much li ke that used in The

Blob, yet fittingly resembles the sOLind of a T V being turned off and on repeatedly. Towards the end of this video, almost hidden within the static of the screen, we see the friendly icon familiar to many computer users of the current digital generation. This small image, consisting of a smiling computer monitor, adds another conceptual layer to Brown's animated collage-the acknowledgement of television's influence upon other televi sual mediums, such as personal computers, video games and automated machines. This "zapping" encounter with TV bears similarity to other everyday experiences in a world engulfed by the moving visual image, whether driving beside animated billboards or spending time on the internet. The central character in Kristin Lucas's Host (1997) undergoes something similar when she tries to com municate with an automated machine. In Host, a therapy session is directed by the system operator of a streetside multimedia kiosk. While the artist indulges in a virtual conversation about a troublesome relationship, the session is transformed into an amalgamation of daytime television and tabloid; the system

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operator/therapist seems almost to have control of the remote control. As the artist tries to express her fee lings and her desire to "slow things down," she is continuously interrupted by the system/therapist she is dealing with. Fiske once wrote that the term "flow" was an unfortunate metaphor on the part of Raymond Williams: in Lucas's Host the fragmented design of television does anything but flow. Within this work, it is almost as if television's inability to be perceived in a coherently meaningful way is transferred over to its viewer-ultimately affecting the viewer's perception of himor herself. The artist in front of the camera in this video now becomes the fractured viewing subject; her therapy session switches back and forth from a focus on her to an acknowledgement of the mediated system before her. The monologue combines a psychological assessment of the central character and a sociological assessment of her placement in a technological society. As the monologue proceeds, the viewer of this work begins to question just what relationship the character is having problems with: we wonder if she is involved in a human relationship or one with a piece of equipment when words like " upgrade" are brought into the conversation . Looking closely, one notices the flickering images in the individual's eyes, perhaps an indication of the ongoing flow of imagery before her. In the same way that the aesthetics of television add to its own disco nnected meaning, the televisual aspects of society interfere in the individual's own realization of the self.

"Worst Episode Ever:" Working Through Television The exaggerated appropriation of the flow of television within video can create a contemplative mindset within its audience that may prevent viewers from becoming absorbed into the medium. Not only can television episodes be manipulated within video art in order to raise question s about their impact on society, but psychological reactions or "episodes" may also be triggered within the viewer. By creating an intense experience that takes the televisual form to its extreme, video interrogates the TV viewer. Within the video works mentioned thus far, the flow of television is represented as a stream of information that the artists have placed themselves within and "work through." The term "working through" as it is used in psychoanalysis is the crucial aspect of therapy that occurs when the subject discovers something releva nt and feels a need to replay and rean alyze things. In the recently published book Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, John Ellis adopts this phrase to describe how TV currently uses its information. Ellis states that contemporary television reworks imagery and content that we have already been witness to, constantly making and remaking meanings by attempting definitions and explanations over and over. Ellis describes this therapeutic process as characteristic of contemporary televi s ion; however, the term can also be applied here to the TV viewer's situation of watching or to the artist's creative process.

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Reserving the phrase "working through" for the object of the television itself seems ironic since it suggests that the roles of the human and machine are reversed . It is as if one is saying that the TV has become the psychiatric patient, and is having problems identifying with itself. Interestingly enough, it has been noted that television seems to want to be anything but television: other visual art forms such as photography and film have revealed themselves within its televisual form . The working-through that television is involved with influences the psychological state of TV viewers, possibly placing the audience in a never-e nding therapy session, perhaps not unlike the one portrayed in Host, where the system operator could be interpreted as the television, a mechanism in charge of several operations at once. Istvan Kantor, also known as Monty Cantsin, works through his "accumulationist theory" in a video that comments on aspects of totalitarianism and the noise of a technological society. In Accumulation (2000) , Kantor combines Soviet tanks, glowing children and electro-shock victims in a montage that is overlaid with rolling text displaying the artist's thoughts about a society under control. Like Brown, Kantor appropriates found footage in a fast, repetitive manner that ultimately affects viewers emotionally, and at times physically. Although the video focuses on upheaval resulting from war, Kantor raises concerns about the dominance of technology through segments of text that move across the screen in different directions. The artist's manipulation of movie clips and digital constructions within a fragmented visual essay places this piece alongside other video works using high technology to critique their own existence. Kantor's work has been de sc ribed as anti-authoritarian; however, I would go one step further and say that Accumulation exaggerates authori tative formal qualities in order to allow the viewer to acknowl edge the artist's control of the medi a. By borrowing, and purposely overusing, certain visual strategies from contemporary advertising and design, Kantor uses the tools of the trade to draw attention to their contribution to the overwhelming confusion of our technology-based society. The artist incorporates moving text like that seen on interactive web pages in which sounds occur as you scroll the cursor across the text. As with Brown and Lucas, Kantor takes it to the furthest extreme, creating the visual equivalent of a mental breakdown. Video can be used to comment on our personal experiences with technology in ways that raise our awareness of the psychological control wielded by the media. The artists discussed here ask their viewers to acknowledge the role that technology plays in our lives, and they use the confused pace of televisuality to encourage us to do so. Video art has been interpreted by many writers as a format that demands sustained evaluation, since it moves at a pace slower than the normal speed of television. However, with video collages that reference and exaggerate television's fragmented speed, the viewer is encouraged to question the disruption of the normal viewing experience-drawing attention to how television is absorbed and video art is watched. •


KRI STIN LUCAS Video still from Host 1997 7 min 36 sec

Interrupting the Program  

Interrupting the Program: Descrambling TV through Video, by Heidi May Canadian Art, Volume 18, Number 2 (pp. 66-73). www.canadianart.ca

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