Legacies of the Television Age


In an analysis of the sculptural and cultural aspects of the television set, and its point of difference from the experience of the cinema screen, the artist Vito Acconci famously wrote that ‘television space is fishbowl space’. Acconci went on to discuss the screen as being seen as

some kind of distorting, inside-out mirror, which the power inside the box holds up to the world at large. Inside the box, the world – or the power-to-be-a-world – is condensed: it’s the size of a conventional package, a gift, it’s power made handleable. The viewer might be led to believe, then, that the world is in his or her hands.1

The viewing of television has evolved dramatically since its first real appearance as a popular consumer product in family living rooms in the mid twentieth century. From the box-like cathode ray tube sets, the architecture and design of television screens have gradually evolved and become thinner. The 2010s saw the introduction of flat-screen LCD display televisions that have largely replaced the older CRT screens, and a different form of depth perception is offered in recent models of 3D television. Television content is now also available for viewing on-demand through a wide range of mobile devices. What was once a ‘cultural force’ has now gained a ‘cultural ubiquity’, as Jacob Proctor has written:

Gone may be the singular, massive piece of household furniture around which the late twentieth-century family gathered, but in its place we are presented with a promiscuous proliferation of screens.2

For many Australians, Eamon O’Toole’s Wide World of Sports TV, 1988, evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for the television set switched on in the corner of the living room, the iconic Channel Nine logo for the sports signalling the beginning of many hours watching cricket or car racing on a hot summer’s day. The transmission of live sporting events on television is one of the key representations of reality: the ability to show instant replays and the drama surrounding major games, which are often promoted and commentated using the language of warfare and battle scenes, has been described by Samuel Weber as creating the ‘media event par excellence’ prompting empathy in viewers, who ‘take comfort in the possibility of unequivocal decisions, of being able to distinguish winners and losers, as well as in the possibility of “records” that are quantifiable and measurable’.3O’Toole’s meticulous simulacra of the TV set, as a piece of furniture in the family home complete with toy cars displayed across the top, was created using his now signature process of heating sheets of PVC over handcrafted moulds that are later coloured with enamel paints and texta pens. When asked why he chose to create a TV sculpture, O’Toole responded:

In tribute to what has become an icon in society, capturing treasured memories and shaping the world, I decided, at some point, to turn the humble TV into a sculpture, a mood lamp featuring the Channel Nine Wide World of Sports logo … That sense of anticipation that comes from hearing the first bars of the famous theme music, signalling a major event was about to start – get that cuppa ready and sit, transfixed, as the engines roar for the opening lap. In those days, replays were few and far between, so that sense of urgency and immediacy was ever-present.

This sculpture is a reminder of the endless hours spent working on sculptures with the background noise of the TV keeping me company; or serving as a close friend, keeping me company and entertained with its myriad movies and late-night shows into the wee hours of the morning. This is where the idea to turn the sculpture into a mood light came into being – I would be glued to the luminescence of the Channel Nine sports logo, illuminating the lounge room.4

Tom Wesselmann was a sculptor, painter, collagist and printmaker whose graphic imagery, characterised by reductive lines and flat, bold colours that incorporate scenes from everyday life, established him as one of the leading figures of the Pop Art movement of the early 1960s in the United States. Wesselmann appropriated icons of American popular culture and mass media in his works, drawing attention to vernacular objects and domestic scenes as a means of breaking the distinction between high and low art objects and iconography. Televisions featured in his works of the early 1960s; several Pop paintings used actual working TV sets within their composition, while others used collages of television broadcasts. In TV still life, 1965, Wesselmann incorporates the television set within the kitchen scene as a new, but common, fixture of twentieth-century domestic life. As Dieter Daniels has observed, Wesselmann frequently used the TV in this way, as a backgrounded feature of his still-life scenes or female nude studies; a familiar icon, commonplace and unexceptional and yet vital, political, and pervasive:

Wesselmann shows television as part of everyday American life, as something that is not watched deliberately but running in the background, and just as much part of the interior as the furniture and the pictures on the wall.5

In the first decades of analogue television it was common to see mechanical test patterns, which had similar geometric structures but unique visual qualities according to the different broadcasters, appear during breaks in transmission – which for some stations lasted longer than the live broadcasting period. These patterns were used to measure and set contrast controls for both the receiver and the transmitter. When Australian television broadcasters began the shift from black-and-white to colour programming in 1974, it began with the transmission of colour test patterns for several hours each day, allowing broadcasters to appropriately tune their equipment. With the transition to digital television, the test pattern is now obsolete. Elvis Richardson’s Televisuals: Salute Elvis, 2008, takes the hard-edge abstraction of test patterns and recreates them in animated watercolour drawings using a specific range of colours and lines, each pattern containing an anagram of the word ‘televisuals’.
In Patrick Pound’s Screen capture, 2015– groups of vernacular photographs are carefully placed into patterns upon large sheets of graph paper, as if grappling with an undisclosed mathematical problem or attempting to map out a visual network. They are found images, seemingly redundant, identified by Pound on the internet, collected and put back into ‘use’. The photographs depict screens in various guises: television sets, mirrors, windows, reflections. Their indexical nature, freeze-frame examples of visual transmission, are traces of the moment when a moving image becomes a still image – they represent the transition from an action to its recording, transmission and reception by a viewer who records it again and prints it out. Collected, sorted, filed, arranged; the ways in which the images hold ideas and meanings relating to the ‘screen’ are made manifest through Pound’s complex arrangement of them. A new logic appears for the viewer to unravel or identify.

In the artist’s words:

Screen capture is a selection from an ongoing collection cum archive of hundreds of found photographs which hold related, yet seemingly contradictory, ideas of the screen, of portals and mirrors; of projections and reflections all in one. These found analogue photographs refer to the television screen and the camera lens. Having been released from their homes and found hovering unhinged on the internet they provide an endless and overlapping resource. I recapture these images and put them back to work – setting them a new task. Screen capture is an ongoing archive that has become a memory machine, a sorting machine and a thinking aid … The graph sheets are filled with numerous found images taken off of the television: from Kennedy funerals to moon landings. The televisions recorded here are from all over the planet. Kennedy is seen in Germany, the moon in France. Television programs are captured aplenty: from sitcoms to state funerals. Big moments and small are equally reduced to screen time and made permanent as paper records … These indexical records capture the fleeting and the crucial and stop it dead in its tracks. Digital television and radio and the vast store of recently redundant images now available on the internet encourages the desire to rewind, to recollect and to search for meaning in the details of the remnant and for coherent connections between things.6

Steven Rendall’s large-scale work Flatscreens, 2010, is painted with oils on an unstretched canvas, allowing it to be hung directly on the wall, and shows a plethora of screens in an apparent museum-style display. Indeed, the inspiration for the painting derives from Rendall’s visits with his young children to the permanent Screen Worlds exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne

Flatscreens is a way of thinking about how the fantasies portrayed on the televisions in Screen Worlds might relate to the fantasies that an artist, a painter even, might entertain regarding any importance, value and purpose of their work. The screens of Flatscreens show a different array of images than at Screen Worlds: they relay images of fountains from outside NGV International as well of the fountain glimpsed at the beginning of Rosemary’s Baby (1968); and show images of warehouse shelves and Donald Pleasance drinking upside down from Wake in Fright (1971). Through making the work I began to think of it as a proposal to reprogram the screens of Screen Worlds, replacing the selections of ACMI curators with another selection of images.7

When asked about his enduing interest in television sets, screens and visual transmission, Rendall described his fascination with the differences in surface texture and connectivity offered by painting and television.

Maybe it is the difference between the surface of a painting and television’s connectivity that I’m trying to perceive and portray. Painting cannot be transmitted; television exists only to be transmitted. Painting is stationary, silent and inaccessible. Television moves; it is audible and always there. Painting is measured by height and width. Television is measured diagonally. In Flatscreens I am considering the medium of television through the medium of painting. More specifically, I am considering the way the medium of television is finding its place in museums in relation to the way painting has found and, to a certain extent, lost its place in museums. I am constantly drawn to screens as a subject for painting. I’m drawn to the way television screens transmit images but are also pieces of furniture. I am drawn to the way both these aspects are constantly changing as new technologies are developed (hence the title Flatscreens). I’m drawn to the complexities of using one medium to relay another medium.8

Similar to Pound’s and Rendall’s investigations of the changing effects of screen technology, Simon Denny’s work over the past decade has involved a rigorous examination of the physical presence, role, language and use of technology and tech-design in society. Earlier works tracked the gradual phasing out of analogue technologies in favour of digital, whereas more recent projects have explored tech industries (their marketing strategies, language of communication, products and aspirations). At the core of many of his works and exhibitions is the question of how and why information is used and experienced at a local, national or global level, and an investigation of how we interact with technology.
New display (Samsung), 2013, is one of a series of sculptural works created by Denny that embeds the technology of the Samsung Smart TV and remote control within the installation itself, superimposed with text and photographs taken from promotional materials associated with new Samsung products, with their promise of a new and ‘smarter’ experience of television. The title of each work refers to the technological brand but each has a unique, emotive preface; for example, Join in (Samsung); Ich will umsteigen. Wie geht das? (Samsung) (I want to change. How does it work? (Samsung)); and Schön persönlich (Samsung) (Beautiful in person (Samsung)).

Denny has discussed his fascination with changes to the physicality and materiality of TV screens and the associated decline its importance as a familial object:

For me, using this format comes from playing more with ideas of exhibition design, how these things, these TV casings, dominate some areas of presentation. It was also somehow about noticing the changing formats of monitors in installations, how those tube TVs are really becoming a thing of the past, with flat screens or digital projections taking over. I mean those large boxy monitors that sort of dominate the look of some video installations are really becoming a retro thing. There’s a physical thinning out of those basic exhibition building blocks, like a halving of the depth of those objects – and, of course, the changing nature of the material specificity of the image quality itself.9

The artist has also elaborated on his interest in Samsung specifically:

‘Internationally,’ and in my mind, Samsung’s brand has, in recent years, come to be totally synonymous with the mobile objects that accompany us in our most public and our most vulnerable moments, from intimacy to presentation. There are other actors in this space, but Samsung is unique in that it not only produces leading mobile devices that have the most competitive specs in the world, they also make many of the key components – like screens and memory chips – that power other brands’ products (like Apple). Personal communication devices are transformative tools that we are emotionally bound to, from purchase to abandonment.10