4. Desember: “Television haunts all exhibitions of video art” – video art and television in 1970s America

“Television haunts all exhibitions of video art,” David Antin wrote in 1975. Antin also argued that television is video art’s “frightful parent” and concluded: “So it is with television that we have to begin to consider video, because if anything has defined the formal and technical properties of the video medium, it is the television industry.”

Looking at video art is, according to poet and critic David Antin, defined by the experience of watching commercial television, the industry that also defines the possibilities and limitations of video art’s technical means and formal qualities.[1] The technology television uses is shared with video art. This was an incredibly contested and politicised technology in the 1970s, accommodating the hierarchies of the world of advertising, political campaigning and the control of information. This contestation, which is not inherent to the technology itself, nevertheless forms the backdrop to almost all production of video art according to David Antin. Following Marshall McLuhan’s much quoted phrase, “the medium is the message,” we know that the way we look at things changed with the introduction of television into our everyday lives, and that it did so not so much because of the content, but because of the medium itself and our relation to it.[2] Far from uncritically accepting McLuhan’s media determinism, we can agree with him that television definitely changed the phenomenology of viewing. Taking on board Antin’s claim that in order to consider video we must start with television as well as his analyses of the TV-industry’s technical superiority and timing and programming influence, I will continue where Antin left the viewer in relation to television and video art: “intimidated and unprepared” to reflect on it, as viewing the medium has been defined by television, not video.[3] The point of departure for this texts is thus the role of the viewer in relation to the contested medium of video/television. Drawing on Richard Serra’s “Television Delivers People” (1973), Dara Birnbaum’s “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman” (1978), and The People’s Communication Network’s documentation of Queen Mother Audley Moore at Green Haven Federal Prison (1973), the text will explore how the video works refer back to television in order to critique how it constructs viewership.

In “Television Delivers People,” (fig.1) Serra adopts the visual form of the credits at the end of a TV program or that of a teleprompter. Accompanied by cheerful Muzak, the text on the screen claims that “the product of commercial television is the audience,” and proceeds to prove this claim in short and dogmatic sentences by referring to the “inherent conflict” between commerce, information and entertainment. What the television industry does, claims Serra, is to blur the line between propaganda, entertainment and advertising, so that viewers will pay for what they think is entertainment while companies pay for advertising time that ultimately becomes the viewers’ entertainment. In this way, television reduces viewers to commodities who will become consumed as the industry gets money from advertisers according to viewer-numbers. The viewer is trapped in the status of both consumer and product. Serra is also critical of the power television has over society: since the majority of news a person sees is on television, its industry has the power to control what people will and will not know, hence also what people will base their judgements upon.[4] The Muzak and the blue background (used by TV-producers for its “soothing” effect) contribute in seducing the viewer and selling Serra’s message, which is also a critique of the very means he uses to sell that message.[5] The capitalisation of sentences which are meant to have more emphasis enhances the persuasiveness of Serra’s claims while also keeping to the language of television: critiquing and unmasking the internal tactics of the industry. Art critic Benjamin Buchloh was interested in Serra’s “Television Delivers People” because it addressed an audience that was very different from that of the museum or gallery. Buchloh hoped that at the time of Serra’s work, the institutions of high and low culture would exchange “tokens,” and that television would become liberal enough to accommodate high art practices, while high art would embrace the “technology of mass-cultural representation.”[6] Buchloh is referring to video art’s capacity to destabilise the high and low culture division. Serra’s work operated in the high art world as it was critical of its own materiality, at the same time as it operated in the commercial world of television through its distribution. We could argue that by being confronted with a critique that was concealed in television’s own representational means, the spectator would start thinking critically about the hypocritical strategies of these propaganda-like means, and hence become activated. We could also argue that Serra’s claims actually contribute to the further frustration of the viewer: that by presupposing the viewer as a passive recipient of soft propaganda whose ability to act and make judgements is defined by the information provided by television, Serra actually reduces the viewer to exactly that. Beyond making the viewer aware, Serra’s video does not provide an escape route for the viewer.


According to Antin, the information flow and hierarchy defined by television is an asymmetrical one that does not fulfil the democratic potentials of the medium. In this hierarchy of transmission and reception, the viewer is always at the bottom because transmission is more expensive than receiver technology. The television industry maintains its power because every time a viewer switches his/her TV on, the viewer is “delivered as a saleable” product to advertising companies. This is another way in which television haunts video art. Video is forced to take into account this asymmetry even though it is not inherent to the technology, precisely because of television’s dominance over viewership.[7] Although Antin is an advocate of video art that directly critiques television’s asymmetry – such as the work of Richard Serra or Dara Birnbaum- his analysis of the relationship between video and television risks removing rather than promoting viewer agency. There is a problem with presupposing viewer-passivity when this viewership includes millions of people. It is a problem because Antin’s critique of television also becomes a critique of those who watch television. While advocating for a more democratic use of the medium, his critique of viewership is not democratic.


French philosopher Jacques Rancière contributes to this debate with a more emancipatory alternative for the viewer. Rancière argues that the relationship between viewer and spectacle, active and passive, are oppositions in what he refers to as the partition of the sensible[8].[9] They are opposites as well as “allegories of inequality,”[10] but in order to allow for the emancipation of the viewer, we need to stop presupposing that viewing means passivity and that spectacle means activity. We need to start from an equal and non-oppositional ground where looking, studying and analysing sensible things in the world, are already a reconfiguring and transforming process. “The spectator is active, just like the student or the scientist: he observes, he selects, he compares, he interprets.”[11] There is, however, an apparatus in Rancière’s model of the partition of the sensible: the “police order,” which reinforces the hierarchies, oppositions, and categorisation of things.[12] Television plays a huge part in this regulation and reinforcement of what can and cannot be heard, seen and done. There is a strong relation between political power, social control, and the media, where in a consumerist society, adverts define what can and should be bought. It is also a fact that political representation in America is available only to the presidential campaigns that have enough money, and hence making it much easier for wealthy politicians to run for president.[13] Thus, In Rancièrean terms, the equality needed to emancipate the spectator of the medium is opposed by the police order, which reinforces the partition of the sensible.


While Buchloh and Antin seem to agree that successful video art should both directly critique television and at the same time appropriate television’s very visual forms and language, others would argue that there are other ways of critiquing television’s dominance over the medium as well as for opening up the more democratic potentials of the medium. In her essay “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” artist and writer Martha Rosler describes a utopian moment in the history of video, which occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The decentralised community projects[14] and production of cable television was part of this utopia, which both Antin and Buchloh left out of their work discussed here. It is utopian because of the radical avant-gardist aim to “redefine the system … by merging art with social life and making audience and producer interchangeable.”[15] The People’s Communication Network’s documentation of Queen Mother Audley Moore at the Green Haven Federal Prison (1973) is an example of video/activism that started shortly after the Portapak was released on the market. The portapak was relatively inexpensive and there was available funding at the time.[16] The video is a documentation of 75-year-old Civil Rights activist, “Queen Mother” Audley Moore, giving a speech at Green Haven Federal Prison in New York. Her rhetorically engaging speech was about her personal experiences with racism and activism throughout her life as a black woman from Louisiana, about race struggle since the times of slavery, and about injustices in society. Some of Moore’s stories are based on her memory of events, which she says, “I am the only one old enough to remember.” The documentation of her speech onto tape for the broadcasting on cable television and for the deposition in the free video library at Antioch College[17] truly captures this memory and makes her experiences, stories and motivational speech available for the public as a resource. The People’s Communication Network represented the newly established public access cable TV in New York City. Recording and broadcasting a speech made by a civil rights activist from inside a prison radically countered commercial television’s asymmetrical and anti-democratic tendencies as this kind of video documentation blurred the lines between activism, television reportage and video art. It also blurred the lines between spectator and spectacle, as they made video production and broadcasting accessible to whole communities.[18] As the first video collective documentation from inside a prison and especially when considering that 1973 was only two years after the Attica Prison riots, the video truly complicates the traditional notion of a prison in the 1970s. The video focuses not only on Audley Moore’s speech, but also on her audience, which was a mixture of people: young and old, male and female, although predominantly black, which is another point aimed at the American justice system. At one point there are children playing in the background of the shot, and although there are walls, the general atmosphere seems far from the traditional representation of a prison court as a heavily controlled and surveyed space.


The way in which the video of Queen Mother Moore’s speech blurs the line between viewer and program, and video and activism, can be compared to another one of Rancière’s claims: in his book The Nights of Labour: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France, Rancière speaks through the poetry, diary entries and found texts of a number of Parisian artisans written between 1830 and 1851.[19] He does this in order to critique the traditional Marxist understanding of the working class, or of the proletarian as a person who enjoys self-directed labour. Although Rancière’s book is a complex and historically specific analysis that cannot be given justice in this essay, parts of Rancière’s argument are fruitful to the discussion of viewership and how the People’s Communication Network contributed to destabilising the viewership that was produced by television. Because Rancière’s workers were manual workers and hence part of the proletariat as constructed by Marxist theory, and because they despite this, read and discussed literature, wrote poems and discussed philosophy, these workers were “truly radical figures whose penchant for trespassing constantly threatened to expose the artificiality of social boundaries …”[20] Since they positioned themselves in between the socially accepted categories of proletariat and bourgeoisie, between intellectual and vocational, they exposed and threatened the social order or the distribution of the sensible. Rancière believed that the “individuals and groups” who are not comfortably defined by the social classes and who produce things not to benefit from the material wealth it may bring them, but because they want to belong to a different class than what they are defined as by society, are more dangerous or have more power to disrupt the social order than the uncivilised rebels who “undermine society from below.”[21] The blurred line between worker and intellectual, work and leisure compared to the blurred line between spectator and spectacle, artists and activist is where I make the link between the French situation and the recording of the speech at the Green Haven Federal Prison. From this link we can begin to understand the documentation of the speech as a form of activism as well as art, which provides an alternative to as well as a critique of television and the social order it reinforces.


In “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,”[22] (fig. 3) Birnbaum borrows all her footage directly from the TV-show of high popularity in the late 70s: Wonder Woman.[23] In 1977/78 the technology to record and manipulate television was not yet available for private use, and Birnbaum had to go to a studio to have the recordings done and to edit them.[24] The video of about 6 minutes length starts with Wonder Woman performing her most characteristic move where she spins around and transforms from ordinary woman into superhero. This transformation is repeated several times, exploiting the technology’s effectiveness and at the same time showing the constructedness of both the special effects and of representation. Throughout the video we see Wonder Woman performing the role of superhero without actually using her powers for anything particular. It seems as though she is magnificently powerful just for the sake of being magnificently powerful, or just for the sake of spectacle. The repetition of her every move as well the minute-long explosion at the end of the video, deconstruct the flow and speed of television programming, and becomes an exercise as well as a realisation for the spectator: that television is a construction, that it reinforces gender-stereotypes, that the content of the program and that the general wonder woman hysteria needs to be addressed critically and that the institution of television and its relation to the spectator also needs to be thought of critically. Benjamin Buchloh comments that the effects of the strategies Birnbaum used are “revealing to the viewer that the apparatus of television conveys its ideological message as much by its formal strategies and its technique as by its manifest subject matter.”[25] Birnbaum wanted the video to reach the same audience as the original Wonder Woman program did by distributing her film within the televisual sphere. Her critique and deconstruction of the form of viewership produced by television was successful partly because the critique came from within television itself: appropriating its language, distribution, and its visual effects.[26]


Antin and Buchloh would both agree that Birnbaum’s video has efficiently contributed in the critique of television, as well as to the critique of other cultural codes. At the same time as it critiques television programming with reference to speed and the constructedness of representation, it avoids locking the viewer into the position of a passive observer like Serra’s video risks doing. Appropriating both the technology and the distribution means of the original Wonder Woman, Birnbaum was able to reach out to larger audiences, destabilising the dichotomy of high and low art, at the same time as it offered viewers a critical escape route from regular entertainment. The way in which Birnbaum’s video does not define itself as neither high nor low art and the way it operates in both institutions, with its destabilising effects, places her video aligned with Rancière’s workers in the way that she can show the constructedness of the social order, and overcome the hierarchies, the allotment of roles and categories by destabilising or, redistributing the sensible.



Liv Brissach, 2012


[1] David Antin, “Television: Video’s Frightful Parent” in Artforum (December 1975): 36-37.

[2] Paul Levinson, Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium, (Routledge, 2001), 35.

[3] Antin, “Television,” 39-42.

[4] from “Television Delivers People,” by Richard Serra with Carlotta Fay Schoolman, 1973. UbuWeb, http://www.ubu.com/film/serra_television.html, accessed December 1, 2012.

[5] John G. Hanhardt and Maria C. Villasenor, “Video/Media Culture of the Late Twentieth Century,” Art Journal (Video Art Issue), Vol. 54, No.4, (Winter, 1995), 22.

[6] Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, , “From Gadget Video to Agit Video: Some Notes on Four Recent Video Works,” Art Journal (Video Issue), Vol. 45, No. 3, (Autumn, 1985), 219.

[7] Antin, “Television,” 38.

[8] Le partage du sensible, or the partition/distribution of the sensible refers to everything that it is possible to perceive in a given society, and to the organisation of all that is perceivable. ie. What you can read, hear, think, as well as what you cannot read, hear, and think.

[9] Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator” Artforum, (March 2007), 171-80.

[10] Ibid, 176.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jacques Rancière interviewed by Truls Lie, “Our Police Order: What can be Said, Seen, and Done,” Eurozine, November 8, 2006, http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2006-08-11-lieranciere-en.html, accessed 2 December, 2012.

[13] Torres, Frances, “The Art of the Possible” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Dough Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (Aperture, 2004), 205.

[14] Name given by the Video Data Bank when releasing Surveying the First Decade, 1995.

[15] Martha Rosler, “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” in her Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001, (The MIT Press, 2006), 54.

[16] From 1972 funding was also available from the Federal Communications commission on the basis that video projects should benefit communities.

[17] Chris Hill, “Dialogue Across Decades: BLW and People’s Communication Network – Exercises in Remembering and Forgetting,” Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 64, No. 1-2. (Spring/summer, 2012), 17.

[18] BLW, “I am going to tell you something no one else can tell you who wasn’t there…,” Joaap, http://www.joaap.org/5/articles/BLW/BLW.htm, accessed 5 December 2012.

[19] Donald Reid, Introduction to the English Edition of The Nights of Labour: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France by Jacques Rancière, trans. John Dury, (Temple University Press, 1989), xxi.

[20] Gary Gerstle, Review of Jacques Rancière, The Nights of Labour: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France, trans. John Dury, (Temple University Press, 1989) in The Oral History Review, Vol. 20, No.1/2, (spring – autumn, 1992), 125.

[21] Jacques Rancière, “Good Times or Pleasure at the Barriers,” in Voices of the People; the Social Life of “La Socieale” at the End of the Second Empire, eds. Adrian Rifkin and Roger Thomas, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988), 50.

[22] Dara Birnbaum, “Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” 1978. YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6xZOUXNyQg, accessed December 1, 2012.

[23] TJ Demos, Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, (Afterall Books, 2010), 1.

[24] Dara Birnbaum, Author’s Introduction to her Rough Edits: Popular Image Video Works, 1977-1980, (Nova Scotia College of Art And Design, 1987), 13.

[25] Buchloh, “From Gadget,” 222-3.

[26] Ibid, 222.

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