Watch it

When Art and TV meet
by Keith Miller

The things that are most real to me are the illusions I create…Everything else is quicksand.”
-Eugene Delacroix, February 27, 1824

 

We can watch. It is one of contemporary society’s greatest abilities. Inspired as much by youtube’s recent rise in popularity as by trends in contemporary art practices, Watch it brings together works in video, painting, photo, performance documentation and installation. The artists included range from professional working artists to people whose only exhibition has been on youtube itself. All the works in the show reflect the ubiquitous nature of television while also signalling the inclusive nature of new media. If anything, the abundance and ease of video technology combined with the multitude of exhibition formats, such as youtube and ipods, galleries and network TV, reflects the utopian dreams of the most optimistic modernists, in ways hardly imagined.
For many hopeful centuries, at least since the Renaissance, art was understood as the site of lofty aspirations. At once a partial mirror and an idealized manifestation of all we could be and imagine, art’s apparent function was to reveal “Truth,” in the most elevated sense of the word. Through this revelation –in paintings, poetry, symphonies- a culture and a people might see and understand itself more deeply. It was often seen as what divided the best of a culture from the banality of the everyday. In this sense, art was the location of our truest being and the clearest example of what we were and could be. For the majority of the population today, that task seems to be most clearly undertaken by television.
Nevertheless, television’s influence on contemporary culture is so ubiquitous that to comment on it as a single entity seems nearly impossible. It is the subject of workplace conversation, the source of scandal, the creator of realities and revealer of the 24-hour news cycle to which we are passive viewers. This confluence of event and spectacle, act and actor, to which we as viewers can simultaneously participate and sit idly, often blurs the line between the performance and the performed. The news becomes theater and comedy becomes news. The Daily Show may be the clearest example of this, but it is all around us.
As viewer/actors in this post-ironic moment, we are required to understand that the distinction between fact and farce, high and low, us and them, must by its very nature be blurred when ‘Reality TV’ looks more like reality and less like what we experience on a day to day basis. This mixing of high and low, one of the central legacies of Pop art, creates a radically new playing field for the visual artist and the audience. While art once held the promise of the eternal, it now holds the promise of the present. Just as historians once wrote of sweeping and epic sagas, they now write of televised trials, as quickly forgotten as they were once intensely lived. The legacy of television and Pop art- I speak of them here interchangeably- is not the demand for the heroic but for the Present. The mantra of the hippies, seems to have been taken up by television, Pop art and, frankly, almost all of us: Be Here Now. This is the legacy of the Modern.


“By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.

-Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life

 

Fugitive indeed. As Baudelaire’s comment suggests, Modernity sped things up, but so much more so than the French Symbolist could have imagined. The contemporary world is so fast that even the Modern has been left behind. Where Modernity demanded scale, we now require speed. It is most important we are not left behind, that we be ‘of the moment.’ Baudelaire’s brilliant insight that one must be of one’s time has been realized to such an extent that it often seems that one must only be of one’s time. There is no longer the urgency for prophecy or historicity, but presence. And that is the greatness of television: its immediacy. For much of contemporary art, the central idea is not of a lasting impression but of immediate experience. The ephemeral nature of video art reflects a history born of process art, performance art and land art.

 

“The complaint: If I shall exist eternally, how shall I exist tomorrow?”

-Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks

Coming from the speed of photo, to that of film, which Walter Benjamin points out has “accelerated so enormously that it [can] keep pace with speech,” television demands more immediacy than any other medium. As nostalgia we can enjoy shows from the past, but as a population we require constant novelty. This is clearest in comedy and the news. Humor, like Modernism and the News, demands surprise. Without the rupture, the break from expectations, jokes do not function. Neither does the news. There must be something to report. (In essence Beauty has similar criteria, but its surprise comes from a different source.) These exigencies of novelty, presence and immediacy are central to one element of television’s influence on art. As such, they are also central in what much of video art and television-like art has challenged.
For Baudelaire the painter of modern life must be possessed of the “fire, an intoxication…amounting almost to a frenzy. It is the fear of not going fast enough, of letting the phantom escape before the synthesis has been extracted and pinned down.” Could he not been speaking of any news channel? Or of almost any of us today? It is this velocity that so grips much of today’s (art) world. In this light it should be of little surprise that one popular tendency in video art, especially after the example of Bill Viola, has been slow motion. Born of the sports replay, slow motion transforms everyday gestures into epic sagas. The ultimate manifestation of this tendency would be Douglas Gordon’s “24 hour Psycho,” (1993), in which the Hitchcock classic is slowed down so it lasts a full 24 hours instead of the original 109 minutes.
At the same time, painters since the beginning of Photorealism in the mid 1960’s have been working to create paintings that work in every way against the nature of painting. This idea is manifest in the works of William Betts who challenges us to define his work as painting when he creates works that seem to represent the vision of a TV or computer monitor more than that of a painter. His method reflects little of the commonplace notion of a painter alone in his or her studio, inspired by a muse. Instead, he creates works that reflect not how we see or think, but how the video camera sees and how the monitor ‘thinks.’
It is no coincidence that Kennedy, the first television president, was elected within a few years of the birth of Pop art. In fact, Pop art seems impossible without TV. Among the many things Pop art can be credited with, from the celebration and critique of commodity culture to the introduction of cool irony with which to view the world, it can also be credited with challenging the viewer (the world) to see in a Pop way. If there is a surprise in Pop it is not that we have never seen a comic strip, a soup can or a pin-up before. It is that we had never seen it through the lens of art. The demand is not to feel the work, to look for its meaning within it, but to look at the work and the world with Pop eyes.
 
“Once you “got” Pop, you could never see a sign the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again…We were seeing the future and we knew it for sure…all you had to do was know you were in the future and that’s what put you there.”
 

- Andy Warhol, POPism

 
  Pop art rarely presents us with anything new. Instead it presents us with the world in a way we had perhaps never seen before. This is looking at looking, or contextualizing seeing. The reflexive nature of this gesture is what gives much of Pop art its life, its freshness and, finally, its surprise. In the TV Land photos of Tom McGhee we are invited to watch a lonely man as he watches TV. Or even less interesting, a TV that plays in a lonely hotel room. This flatness, this lack of narrative drama is the legacy of Pop and photographers like William Eggleston. McGhee does not try to impress us with narrative but instead with the act of watching someone watching. In a whisper he says, “Look. He’s watching. Now you are too.”  
  This idea of watching, and being watched, constant surveillance of oneself and by others is a theme underlying our every action, especially in a city or bureaucratic setting. Bryan Zanisnik plays with this idea in his work Dog on wheels. We watch the absurd act of dog and master from a safe distance, protected from the absurdity by the familiar video screen and play along with them. We are then confronted with a remnant of the absurdity, a prop from the video, and that safety is removed, leaving us to decipher our role in the game.  
    Ahree Lee and Christine Gatti turn the camera instead upon themselves, methodically observing their surroundings and moreso themselves. In Lee’s ongoing project Me, she has taken a single portrait frame of herself everyday for the past three years. The images are frontal and unadorned, similar to any identification photo. In the video we see the transfixing image of Lee’s transformation from one self to another. She does not move, or change much, but in this slightness we notice more each change: her haircut, her glasses, lipstick. Her attention to herself is offered to us without comment. Even a smile would seem too much. The flat repetition recalls the surprising beauty of Minimalist repetition and particularly of the photos of the influential photographers Ernst and Hilla Becher. Gatti plays a similar game but with a different end. Yes, she too looks at herself. But she adds the element of her surroundings and what she is looking at. In :18 project, Gatti takes a picture of herself and what she is looking at eighteen minutes past every hour. This momentary introspection invites her to an awareness of her surroundings and her self and offers us a glimpse into that fleeting reality. The video, in which the pair of images (the artist and her view) become the frames of the movie, becomes a confusing blur in which the speed of everyday life is exaggerated, emphasizing the chaos of that velocity.      
  In the shadow of all these works which reference television, one can ask the question which seems poised on the lips of all the Dada artists. Simply: Why art? (The Dada answers: Freedom.) If television can do much of what art can do, then the function of art has eroded. But just as the Renaissance notion of beauty challenged the mystical and religious function of art before it, and Modernist ideas of novelty and purity transformed art in the 19th century, so too we have long since been in the presence of another change. Indeed, while we may no longer seek the same idea of Truth that was so heralded by Modernists, art still has a function. Our experience of this world, at full speed and constantly in the present, is now the stuff of art. This is the imperative of art and to the viewer: Experience! Now! Or, if you like, just watch it on TV.