Legacies of the Television Age



The art viewer is always asking, why can’t video artists make their video tape like real TV? The first answer is they simply don’t want to. They are trying to use TV to express art ideas instead of simply to sell products, the most common use of broadcast TV. The second answer is they don’t have the budgets, the staff or equipment to produce broadcast TV. Many of the ideas in artists’ video tapes are far more interesting than broadcast TV, but they suffer from a lack of technical support … Video art in the long run is not television. It’s the medium of television being used to express conceptual ideas about space and time.1

Quoted in ‘Video in perspective’, an essay written by Robert Newton for the publication accompanying Plug In and Switch On, an exhibition of Australian videos and video environments held at the National Gallery of Victoria in late 1978, Les Levine’s comments provide an interesting reference point for Transmission: Legacies of the Television Age.

Thirty-seven years later, against the backdrop of a communications and media landscape dramatically altered, this exhibition considers a range of artists’ responses to and engagement with television, sets and screens, visual broadcasting and the transmission of information. Television here is considered variously as a means of global communication; a mediator of technology; a distributor of pop culture and consumerism; and a filter of media and the news.Television became the mass medium in the 1960s; its ‘liveness’ and ability to sync vision with audio imbued the medium with an unprecedented power of communication. Today it exists as one of many competing media platforms. With the current transition from analogue to digital television broadcasting, the medium has come into competition with online platforms, including largely user-generated content on YouTube and on-demand internet streaming media such as Netflix, accessible on mobile devices. These developments, along with earlier evolutions of television content and methods of transmission, have contributed to an expanded contemporary understanding of the format.There is no one simple definition of television: it operates differently across different regions, political zones and technological structures. A few ideas and analyses are offered here as an introduction to thinking about the medium and artists’ critical responses to it. In a technical sense, television can be described as ‘the electrical transmission and reception of transient visual images’ and, importantly, it allowed for many viewers to watch the same thing simultaneously.2 Philosopher Samuel Weber has identified three primary operations that constitute television: ‘production, transmission and reception’. He goes on to discuss the significance of television as a ‘method of transmission’, the effect of which allows ‘the televisual spectator [to] see things from places … where his or her body is not (and often can never be) situated’. In this way television seemingly overcomes physical distances, offering new ways of thinking about time and space, and allowing us to ‘see at a distance’. The television screen itself is also analysed by Weber as having three distinct functions: ‘a screen which allows distant vision to be watched’; a screen for content, in terms of ‘selecting or filtering’ that which is watched; and a screen ‘in the sense of standing between the viewer and the viewed’.3
In the mid 1990s the artist Peter d’Agostino and historian David Tafler wrote of how in that ‘post-television culture’ the medium was seen to have become ‘unhinged’, no longer existing as the ‘altar’ of the modern family, but rather as an ‘omnipresence [that] now pervades every facet of daily life’.4 More recently, curator Gilbert Vicario has analysed the transition and evolution of transmission platforms, arguing that

television has been all but replaced by the personal computer, the telephone has been absorbed by the internet, and the ability to perform in and out of elegantly discrete or not so discrete portals of digital communication continues to shape and distort our conception of the individual.5

Further to this idea, art historian David Joselit has posed questions of the extent and politics of information transmission occurring today.

In a moment when we all make profiles (on Facebook, Netflix, Match.com, etc.) and profiles are made of all of us (through the movements of our iPhones, what we buy at Kmart, our web-browsing proclivities), the transmission of information is also a charged politicised site. Who has the right – or technology – to know what? Where can information go? How freely should it circulate?6

It is certainly true that information exchange technology has advanced to the point that many people in developed countries today live surrounded by, and in some ways directed by screens. The multiplicity of screens has shifted the communications power of television. What was once a shared and predetermined experience, in terms of the timing of broadcast programming, is now a more individualised and participatory one; the previously passive experience of watching (on a multiplicity of devices) is now a more active one. The artist and writer Hito Steyerl has written and spoken extensively on the status of images and their circulation today, with consideration of their economic and cultural currency. Steyerl discusses the ways in which data and images have moved ‘beyond screens’, with digital technologies allowing for vast proliferation and dissemination of both images and knowledge, complicating where images start and end:

But if images start pouring across screens and invading subject and object matter, the major and quite overlooked consequence is that reality now widely consists of images; or rather, of things, constellations, and processes formerly evident as images. This means one cannot understand reality without understanding cinema, photography, 3D modelling, animation or other forms of moving and still image. The world is imbued with the shrapnel of former images, as well as images edited, photoshopped, cobbled together from spam and scrap. Reality itself is postproduced and scripted, affect rendered as after-effect. Far from being opposites across an unbridgeable chasm, image and world are in many cases just versions of each other.7

Art historians such as Dieter Daniels have argued that unlike film, television did not develop a form of art unique to the medium itself, with the exception perhaps of the emergence of the music video in the 1980s.8 That is not to say, however, that there has been a lack of critical responses to television broadcasting and the TV set by artists or cultural theorists. On the contrary, from the late 1950s onwards artists have engaged with television in varying ways: as a means of reflecting on the technologies associated with the transmission of information; investigating television’s impact on popular culture; and often using it as a means of commenting on the largely private, corporate control of televisual content for public consumption.The writings of theorist Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s, for example, undoubtedly had a strong influence on the emergence of media theory and the discussion and understanding of the social influence of television, spreading ideas about its existence not only as a technological form but also as a vital cultural form. McLuhan encouraged active involvement: ‘Our new electric information environment … compels commitment and participation’.9
In the 1980s, writer and philosopher Umberto Eco analysed the aesthetic structures of live television broadcasting, recognising its blend of spontaneity and artifice and response to the demands and expectations of its audience, arguing that if it could break from its ‘closed form’, the medium could have potentially become

some sort of initiation into a freer exercise of one’s sensibility and other enriching associative experiences; in other words, it could be a big step toward another psychological and cultural dimension.10

As Newton recognised in his 1978 text, many artists were critical of the medium and its ‘remoteness’, rigidity and one-way flow of information, while a notable few, such as Nam June Paik and Andy Warhol, embraced television’s global and seemingly utopian possibilities for communication.11 Artists such as Dara Birnbaum tried to reverse the passivity of commercial broadcast: Birnbaum saw television as her ‘landscape’, and states, ‘I thereby felt that I had every right to paint it’.12 The emergence of video in the 1960s, in particular the development of Sony’s Portapak portable video technology, allowed many artists to engage with television by appropriating of the medium itself. Critic and curator Bruce Kurtz wrote of the vast possibilities afforded by the development of portable and inexpensive video production, which

makes possible the dissemination of various points of view and colour, [and] if creatively managed [has the potential to] change our entire political, social, economic, moral, and aesthetic environment, just as commercial television controls our entire environment now. The important difference is: commercial television is centralised, whereas portable equipment takes video out of the studio and into the mainstream …Television is politics.13

Former NGV curator Annette Dixon wrote of the differences between video art and television in relation to a group of newly acquired works for the Gallery by American artists in the mid 1970s, many of which are included in this exhibition:

The most obvious difference between artists’ video film and commercial television as we know it lies in the structure, or what used to be called the ‘composition’ of these pieces. Here, a particular activity is usually presented in an open-ended situation where every part has approximately the same value.14

The works featured in Transmission date from the late 1950s to the present day and utilise a wide range of materials. While only a few were created specifically for television broadcast, the works are united by an engagement with the televisual, the legacies of television broadcasting and the visual transmission of information through sets and screens.15 In looking to newer technologies that have marked the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting and the internet, and the simultaneous shift from passive to active engagement, several artists reflect on the form of the screen itself.
Susan Fereday may best encapsulate the engrossing yet ephemeral aspects of television and its enduring source interest for artists when she states:

Television is a seductive medium because it reduces everything to a kind of media-hum, a blue glow of interchangeable information and content. Nothing lasts on television, nothing remains on screen for long, the image surface is unexamined, and the content is disposable. What remains are ideas: efflorescent, intangible, and inspirational.16

  1. Les Levine quoted in Robert Newton, ‘Video in perspective’, in Plug In and Switch On, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1977, n. p.
  2. Albert Abramson, ‘The invention of television’, in Richard Paterson & Anthony Smith (eds), Television: An International History, Oxford University Press, London, p. 9.
  3. Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Essays on Form, Technics and Media, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1996, pp. 110, 116, 164, 122–3.
  4. Peter d’Agostino & David Tafler (eds), Transmission: Toward a Post-Television Culture, Sage Publications, London, 1995, p. viii.
  5. Gilbert Vicario, ‘Medianation: performing for the screen’, in in Wendy Watriss (ed.), Contemporary U.S. Photography, FotoFest Inc., Houston, 2010, p. 216.
  6. David Joselit, ‘Signal processing’, Artforum International, vol. 49, no. 10, 2011, p. 359.
  7. Hito Steyerl, ‘Too much world: is the internet dead?’, in Nick Aikens (ed.), Too Much World: The films of Hito Steyerl, Sternberg Press, Berlin, 2014, pp. 34–5.
  8. Dieter Daniels, ‘Television – art or anti-art? Conflict and cooperation between the avant-garde and the mass media in the 1960s and 1970s’, trans. Michael Robinson, Media Art Net <http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/overview_of_media_art/massmedia/scroll/>, accessed 20 April 2015
  9. Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, produced by Jerome Agel, 1967, reprinted by HardWired, San Francisco, 1996, p. 24.
  10. Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1989, p. 121.
  11. Jacob Proctor, ‘All access: Simon Denny’s media archaeology’, in Jacob Proctor, Simon Denny: Full Participation, Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, 2012, p. 12.
  12. Dara Birnbaum, email interview with the author, 29 March 2015.
  13. Bruce Kurtz, ‘Video is being invented’, Arts Magazine, Dec.–Jan. 1973, p. 44.
  14. Annette Dixon, ‘Videotapes from New York’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, vol. 16, 1975.
  15. For definitions of the televisual, see Maeve Connolly, TV Museum: Contemporary Art and the Age of Television, Intellect Ltd, Chicago, 2014, p. 9.
  16. Susan Fereday, email to the author, 30 March 2015.