Legacies of the Television Age


The ability for television broadcasting to give viewers seemingly direct access to events in real-time imbued the medium with an unprecedented power of communication. The television reporting of events associated with the assassination of then President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963 was a crucial moment that John Alan Farmer has described as having ‘electronically united’ the grief of the people of the United States: ‘[investing] the medium with the authority not only to mediate the experience of reality but also to produce it’1. Subsequent events of great political, social and cultural experience, such as the reporting of the shooting of unarmed students at Kent State University, Ohio, and the landing of American astronauts on the moon, saw the evolution of a shared visual experience on an unprecedented scale, with television imagery essentially becoming the memory of the events themselves – belief in the image was so strong that the image became the memory. While the public appetite for television grew in the 1960s, many artists, in the United States in particular, such as Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper, were quick to respond to the cultural, social and political implications of the media phenomenon.

While we are now accustomed to and have come to expect the twenty-four-hour news cycle, it was the ‘liveness’ of the medium and the daily broadcasting of images related to the Vietnam War that led to it being known by many in the West as the ‘first TV war’, or ‘living-room war’. The dominance of frontline reporting from Vietnam transmitted into homes via television meant that it was, for the first time, a war literally watched in ‘close-up’.2 As photographer Jorge Lewinski wrote:

So far as the photographic coverage was concerned, there never was, and probably will never be, another war like Vietnam. Throughout its long duration not only were photographers and correspondents given absolute freedom, but they were actively encouraged.3

This encouragement coincided with a trend for seeking out images of extreme violence. The Vietnam War became a constant visual presence, with people around the world bombarded by images of atrocities. The effect of this microscopic looking was to create a pervasive visual cultural memory of the war that resonated deeply with the generation watching it on television.

John Immig’s photographs reveal a concern with disrupting the ubiquitousness of imagery generated in Vietnam. He used a Leica camera to shoot images of news reports on the television screen, which he then printed and toned onto clear film of high contrast. With this transition from one medium to another, the images become abstracted and our gaze is ‘reduced’ as the scenes of war are altered and transformed into blurred shapes of contrasting tones. The graphic forms are abstract but nonetheless quickly recognisable as derived from coverage of the Vietnam War. Immig’s photographs force us to slow down the memories of the somewhat ephemeral television imagery and look deeply at what is being portrayed, and how. As the artist explained, he attempted to return a sense of historical significance to the events and subjects of war, his rationale being that there were

supra segmental messages in … the 24 frames per second carriers such as TV and movies. I attempted to break up the flow by separating fractions of seconds from the flow. Vietnam was right in your face at the time. The war was lost on TV and on the street of course. The powers that be have wised up since then, and now exercise more control over images.4

Richard Hamilton’s work also frequently drew upon imagery sourced from a range of popular culture and media outlets, which he would alter and transform to create new and alternate versions of an image. The abstracted image of a seriously injured student in Kent state, 1970, derives from a photograph taken by the artist of a BBC television broadcast. As the title indicates, the image captured is from footage of the shooting of students by the Ohio Army National Guard at Kent State University in May 1970, when they opened fire on a student demonstration protesting against American involvement in the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. This image depicts Dean Kahler, who was not killed but suffered paralysis as a result of the shooting. The transformation of the image from its original mass-media transmission on television to a photograph, then to a lithographic print, gradually reduces its legibility; the tragic reality of the scene is understood slowly as you look closely in an attempt to read the degraded image. Hamilton described the circumstances surrounding the creation of this print, and his decision to create a large edition of it for widespread distribution:

It had been on my mind that there might be a subject staring me in the face from the TV screen. I set up a camera in front of the TV for a week … In the middle of the week the shooting of students by National Guardsmen occurred at Kent State University. This tragic event produced the most powerful images that emerged from the camera, yet I felt a reluctance to use any of them. It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance – I didn’t really choose the subject, it offered itself. It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds; the wide distribution of a large edition print might be the strongest indictment I could make.5

From 1968 to 1978, Ant Farm functioned as an art collective later described as having a ‘Utopian agenda and a penchant for radical architecture’.6 A group of San Francisco architects, Ant Farm comprised key members Chip Lord, Curtis Schreier and Doug Michels, with Doug Hall and Hudson Marquez often collaborating to realise events. They worked with architecture, graphic design, sculpture, performance, happenings, media interventions and video. In Vietnam-era America, Ant Farm unapologetically, and with irony and humour, critiqued consumerism and politics and the role and pervasiveness of television.
On 4 July 1975, American Independence Day, the collective staged what they described as the ‘ultimate media event’ – a complex performance that saw a stack of television sets set ablaze. A customised, iconic 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz, with human drivers guided by a video monitor within the car, smashed through the monitors. The event was preceded by reportage-style news broadcasts featuring Hall impersonating the late President John F. Kennedy at a press conference talking about the role of the media and television in politics. The spectacle was presented in ‘documentary’ style in the video Media burn, 1975, which also mimicked the format of news coverage and reportage of space launches in the United States.
The following year Ant Farm travelled to Australia for ten weeks at the invitation of Sydney architecture students Victor Allen and Bob Perry, who operated as an art group named Chameleon.7 “Off-Air” Australia, 1976, was created from documentation of that visit, during which Ant Farm made numerous television appearances on Australian television, as well as from appropriated commercials and footage of their various media events. The actions of Ant Farm during their time in Australia have recently been documented by Brisbane curator and gallerist David Pestorius, who described their press conference on arriving at Sydney Airport

This media event was the occasion for an impromptu Ant Farm performance, which was reported in The Sydney Morning Herald and, subsequently, several equally madcap appearances were made by the group on prime-time television talk-shows. The highpoint of this media frenzy, however, was the commissioning of a five-minute segment for the Nine Network program A Current Affair. Titled Ned Telly and the Golden Spanner (1976), the skit extended and localised Ant Farm’s deconstruction of national myths and obsessions. Just as they had seconded JFK as the glue in the group’s critique of screen and car culture, technology and the space race, so too Ned Kelly was annexed as vacuous celebrity. It was a time when satire was extremely popular on Australian television — think Paul Hogan, Basically Black, Norman Gunston, etc. — and Ant Farm’s skit for A Current Affair and their other appearances on live television must be seen in this context.8

The video concludes with footage from a press conference of Ant Farm’s proposed Dolphin Embassy, a mobile laboratory that would use video technology to facilitate human–dolphin interaction and learning from dolphins in the wild, which Pestorius has argued was amongst ‘the earliest Conceptual art projects to engage with traditional Aboriginal culture’.9

The intense emotional response caused by the collective viewing of catastrophic events (tragedies, disasters and an increased global terrorist presence) on television has continued to exert a profound influence on the wider cultural psyche. While the experience of seeing and, by extension, being a virtual witness to events has had a mobilising effect (for example, encouraging widespread relief efforts for natural disasters), it has also, arguably, caused an increase in feelings of anxiety and trauma by association and a shift in the memorialisation of events. The ability to re-watch reporting of events has been seen to impact heavily on the ‘collective memory’ of an experience, as opposed to a ‘personal memory’, which may fade over time. As sociologist Andrew Hoskins has observed, how we remember an event is very complex, particularly when considering the reason why we should remember it:

The motivation often stated for the marking of catastrophes involving human death and suffering is the hope that future generations will ‘not forget’ and so ensure that such events will not be repeated.10

The insatiable demand for information and television reporting’s potential for instantaneous transmission and endless repetition has led some cultural critics to question its role and responsibilities, a tension ABC journalist Philip Williams captured so poignantly after his experience reporting from the site of the recent MH17 Malaysian Airlines crash in the Ukraine:

So much of what we do drifts into TV-land. An impersonal space that does not cry when terrible things happen but swallows up information and demands more.11

Now 7 years later, 2008, by Elvis Richardson is a video that explores how the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 are remembered. Richardson was in New York when the events took place, and was curious about the reactions and recollections of people who witnessed them from a distance, via television imagery.When on a residency at the Fremantle Arts Centre in 2008, she came across a work titled 9/11 by Christine Gosfield, which as Richardson described ‘expressed [Gosfield’s] horror and personal bewilderment at 9/11 when in the days immediately after the terrorist attacks she made the work by photographing 360 Fremantle people’. Inspired by Gosfield’s work, and by the parameters of the UK documentary series Seven Up!, directed by Michael Apted, Richardson began work on her own video project by finding many of the people featured in Gosfield’s photographs and interviewing them about their memories of the events surrounding 9/11. Richardson soon realised she was ‘struck by how people’s collective emotions were mediated by technology’, and that the experience of the interviews of people who had been ‘virtual witnesses’ essentially made her ‘rethink’ her own memory of the day.12 The memories and recollections of the interviewees were not presented as video or audio recordings in the final iteration of the work, but rather as handwritten chalk messages on a blackboard, each one erased in order to make space for the next memory, but leaving a trace of the one before – the aim being to seek out questions of the reality of the events and the ways in which those events are transmitted and memorialised.
  1. John Alan Farmer, The New Frontier: Art and Television 1960–65, Austin Museum of Art, Austin, 2001, p. 55.
  2. Immig was studying the writings of Marshall McLuhan when he created this series of photographs. McLuhan, famous for coining the phrase ‘the medium is the message’, stated: ‘The public is now participant in every phase of the war, and the main actions of the war are now being fought in the American home itself’ (Marshall McLuhan & Quentin Fiore, War and Peace in the Global Village, Corte Madera, California, 2001, p. 134).
  3. Jorge Lewinski, The Camera at War: A History of War Photography from 1848 to the Present Day, W. H. Allen, London, 1978, p. 197.
  4. John Immig, email to the author, 11 April 2011.
  5. Richard Hamilton quoted in ‘Richard Hamilton, Kent state’, 1970’, Tate, <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043/text-catalogue-entry>, accessed 20 April 2015.
  6. Jenni Sorkin, ‘Ant Farm 1968–1978’, Frieze, no. 86, Oct. 2004, <http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/ant_farm_1968_78/>, accessed 20 April 2015.
  7. David Pestorius (ed.), Ant Farm 1976–1978 Australia, Kann-Verlag, Frankfurt, 2014, n. p.
  8. ibid.
  9. As David Pestorius has written, the Dolphin Embassy project gained significant traction during the 1976 visit to Australia, with Ant Farm members resolving to ‘return to Sydney in early 1977 to open a consulate, to develop and construct the floating embassy vessel Oceania, and to prepare for the first of several research expeditions over a project ten year period’. The project never eventuated fully.
  10. Andrew Hoskins, Televising war: From Vietnam to Iraq, Bloomsbury Academic: London, 2004, p. 3.
  11. Philip Williams, ‘Bearing witness at the MH17 crash site’, 14 Sep. 2014, ABC News, <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-13/bearing-witness-at-the-mh17-crash-site/5742214>, accessed 20 April 2015.
  12. Elvis Richardson, ‘Now 7 years later’, Elvis Richardson, <http://www.elvisrichardson.com/now7yearslater.html>, accessed 20 April 2015.