Gil Scott Heron may have proclaimed in 1970 that ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, meanwhile we have waited in vain for television itself to be revolutionized. Artists and writers of the late 60s and early 70s, galvanized by a late-Marxist and avant-garde rationale must have been thrilled and inspired by the immense political potential of TV to send art into each and every home and class in society, however remote from the art cinemas and bourgeois theatre network of the sophisticated metropolis. Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Trevor Griffiths are a few enduring examples of the potential success of these aspirations, but there were many more, and more radical, given a brief chance, a golden opportunity perhaps, to awaken the slumbering suburbs and provoke youthful minds hitherto provided only with the crass, soporific broadcasting that belligerent hip-hoppers Public Enemy later branded ‘The Drug of a Nation’.
Today’s audience seems irretrievably engrossed in phones, laptops and pads but despite being more mobile these new levels of addiction only compound a ‘couch potato’ mentality, worsening the waste of human time and potential inaugurated by TV and inviting a more constant and direct way for products and services to be directly injected into punters’ bloodstreams. In an age in which there seems no escape from the corrupting influence of the ubiquitous screen we might look back to artists and playwrights of an earlier era for some guidance about what to do with the technology we now have in hand, which is far more powerful, efficient and prodigious but for which we nevertheless can’t quite seem to find any revolutionary purpose.
Slow moving fine artists – invariably years behind new techno-cultural waves that initially electrify the kitsch, trashier end of the market- inevitably took a while to catch up with TV. It fell to Korean artist Nam Jun Paik to fearlessly throw in his hand with TV and early enough to now qualify him as the granddaddy of TV art. He explored TV comprehensively, both as a medium with which to collage received media imagery and as the peculiar object that it is – part sci-fi transmitter, part clumsy cabinet.
Paik aside, a sprawling survey show at ICA in 2003 titled ‘Video Acts’ gave a historic overview of the manifold ways and means with which artists first approached and encountered the nexus of video camera, monitor and recorder appearing in their studios. This technological wave coincided with 70s feminism, conceptual art and the idea of art expanding beyond established fields of painting and sculpture into new practices, informed, provoked and in some ways undermined by video. The results are worth reviewing, if only by means of the catalogue which features a host of artists, experimenting in their fledgling moment, who went on to become inextricably associated with the medium.
At Tate Britain today, in a small dedicated room, you come across ‘TV Interruptions’, (1971), the work of David Hall. What looks like a coven of huddled black cuboid monitors are set at near head height on black plinths that extrude the monitors’ dimensions. Artfully oriented as if to discourse with one another, they nevertheless allow the viewer to shift around within their crossfire of images as short videos jump from screen to screen in unpredictable sequences. The pieces were made as contributions to the Edinburgh festival and, given the self-reflexive legacy of modern, then abstract, then conceptual art Hall tended to make TV talk about itself. He filmed the Edinburgh streets through an old TV cabinet so that all is framed by that once modern, now retro, slightly suburban shape. Some of the pieces are ‘one-liners’, inhabiting the danger zone where conceptual art meets wit, e.g. a running tap that seems to fill the TV itself with water. But where water fails fire succeeds as the sight of a TV gradually burned away to nothing while sitting incongruously in the landscape provides a more satisfying experience. The most inspired scene relays the shadow of a cloud gently rising up a hill, as if Hall had noticed it was reminiscent of the moving tonal bands of interference that sometimes troubled early TV transmissions.
But ultimately what is most interesting, enduring and valuable about these brief works is that they were made to be inserted into Scottish TV schedules at unexpected moments, without contextualization or explication, thus disrupting viewers and allowing fine art to go out into the big wide, non-art world and see what it might do. Even today this project seems quite daring and something you might feel art should be doing more of, until you remember that the strategy is probably rendered redundant by our age of You Tube and facebook wherein coming across unscheduled and unexpected mini-movies and clever ideas on screens has become our all-too-familiar norm rather than any kind of exception.
Perhaps the revolution, if it ever comes, will not be podcast either, but while we are waiting, always looking – according to Gil Scott Heron- in the wrong direction, we can also wait for technology to set us free, even as its tremendous promise and potential tends to render us ever more complicit and subservient to its strangely beguiling facility.