PRINT Summer 1982


I AM PART OF the generation that grew up watching television. But by the time I went to college TV wasn’t interesting or diverting; in fact, for the most part its content was irrelevant. It was impossible to be entertained by the sitcom format of “My Three Sons” after watching live footage of the war in Vietnam on the evening news. It was difficult to reconcile soft-focus, prepackaged television ideology with hard-core reality. TV made.sense when it focused on the issues of the time—in the streets of Chicago in the summer of ’68 or on the moon in ’69. Those were broadcast messages worth staying tuned for. TV fiction—the sitcoms, the cop shows, the game shows, etc.—have exactly the opposite effect. Most of these programs are produced according to such bland and standardized formulas that they are as predictable and as dull as McDonald’s hamburgers and Holiday Inns—“The best surprise is no surprise.” Television can be a powerful stimulus, but more often it pacifies. I hadn’t watched TV much since those days until recently. A couple of years ago at a museum video screening I saw artists’ tapes which were simultaneously being shown as a series on cable TV in New York. Video art had been shown sporadically on a few public television stations, as “art,” in the context of high culture; but the cable environment didn’t offer that protection—these tapes were just on, competing for an audience with every other show on the dial. The work didn’t fit any recognizable TV format, nor did it look like the video art that I had seen over the preceding decade in galleries or museums. This program was the first that made me seriously consider the possibility of visual artists producing tapes for television, of developing an audience and in that way cornering a new market, to communicate their information beyond the already existing audience and even to make some money—and so I had to reconsider television. It’s such a persuasive and pervasive medium. 98% of American homes have one television set and it is estimated that over half of those homes have at least two sets. In the average household people watch TV for over 47 hours a week.

In this country television has become the primary source of information about the world; in fact, it shapes our view of “reality.” Despite our knowledge of the media’s hyperrealism and even surrealism, we continue to interact with and even transform our environment according to the information, images, and values presented on television. It’s a package deal, and you personally don’t even have to watch TV to be affected by it.

My critical interest is influenced by recent developments in video technology which promise to affect our television viewing and consequently our lives to an even greater degree. It’s futurism come true. Cable television, video discs and cassettes, and satellite distribution offer the possibility of interactive television (making it a medium for two-way, not one-way, communication) and also represent alternatives to the traditional networks. The highly centralized structure of the broadcast television industry is at last being challenged by the latest technology and by thousands of independent producers. The advent of cable and its public access channels has made possible the development of alternative television. In 1975 Allan Rucker, a member of the Los Angeles documentary group TVTV (Top Value Television), described TVTV’s goals as being “to demonstrate that you could take this low-cost technology and people who had not been wrung through the broadcast television system and make not only technically decent television but also television in which the information was shockingly different; it was looser, more direct, more informal, more personal, and it was more visceral.”

Video and performance artists who have been trained in fine art rather than in journalism or television production are among this new generation of aspiring TV producers and personalities. The programs they make are the results of ten years of video art experimentation, a basic understanding of the technical structures of television, and the desire to produce a new kind of TV. While there has been no mass exodus from the art galleries and museums into the coliseums of the television industry, a significant number of artists have decided that video by artists should really be seen on television, which, after all, is the definitive system (so far) intended for disseminating information recorded on videotape. The structures of the art world have never been able to embrace video art fully, and this, coupled with a desire for a different audience, has given the artists added impetus to pay attention to television and watch the new developments that are redefining what TV will be. Of course Shigeko Kubota, Mary Lucier, Frank Gillette, Rita Myers, Dan Graham, Ira Schneider, and others continue to make multichannel video installations, and artists like Bill Viola, Dara Birnbaum, Juan Downey, and Howard Fried make single-channel videotapes which require an art context to be fully comprehended, but now another group is emerging that includes Mitchell Kriegman, Michael Smith, Jaime Davidovich, Ilene Segalove, Tony Oursler, Ed Bowes, John Sanborn, and Kit Fitzgerald, Maxi Cohen, Chip Lord, Paul Dougherty, and a host of others who feel the specific challenge of TV and make tapes to be seen at home, on television. These categories are not ironclad—I’ve seen some of the same single-channel tapes in museums, on television, and in rock clubs, and some of the artists, such as Brian Eno, produce more than one type of work.

Video art was born during the agitated ’60s decade. Its development was made possible by the introduction in 1965 of the Sony Portapak, a portable 1/2-inch black and white video camera and recorder. Nam June Paik is credited with being the first artist to use this new system. Video was the perfect medium for expressing the strategies of many artists in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It is a nonobject transmitter like performance art; like artists’ books and magazines, it has the potential to reach a mass audience. It was exciting because it also provided a new visual language which artists could study and invent. Furthermore, in the spirit of the times some artists saw video as a tool for social change. No matter why they had chosen to work with videotape most of them were at that time virulent in their opposition to available forms of broadcast television—to its content, its conventionalized formats, and its manipulation of the audience into blithering consumers.

Artists making tapes for television now are motivated by many of the same concerns. With some exceptions this is not a starry-eyed or rapacious group who actually expect money, fame, and mansions in Bel-Air. Their aims are much less grandiose, though equally difficult to achieve. Television is an industry; it’s also a distribution system, a communications medium, an authoritative information source, a context, a language, and a tool. Artists are learning how to use it to express their ideas and discovering which ones are allowed and can best be communicated on TV, so that they can develop new visual images which will convey their information to an ever-expanding audience. As Jaime Davidovich explains, “TV reaches everybody. If artists can get their work on television, they can eventually increase the audience for their work and, at the same time, expand the appreciation and understanding of new or alternative ideas.”

Most of the people now engaged in making video for broadcast or cablecast are members of the first TV generation who have grown up looking at television images and who have at least a subliminal understanding of the way the medium communicates information. It is logical that they are the ones who have begun to analyze the medium and even to try to improve it. To many of them this activity is much more important than producing art objects. As Dara Birnbaum says: “Video has to do with communications, and having to face an electronic revolution, like the industrial revolution had to be faced in the 19th century. In art what the social conditions of the time were about has always been important to me . . . I’m interested in what effect art can have on the society.” Les Levine puts it this way: “Television is the art of communication, and art has always been communication in its most eloquent form.” For artist/producers today the first steps are to establish the right of access to the airwaves and cable wires while maintaining control of production, to build up an audience base, and to be paid enough for their product to be able to continue to produce. As with most artists, the bottom line is to keep on making their work.

Well, what is this work like, and is it art? The art-for-television I am talking about here is experimental by nature. It is, in a way, subversive, because it is produced by outsiders to the industry whose intentions are different from those of most people within commercial television, whose packaged perfection usually homogenizes content and leaves the subject lifeless and unreal. “Artists don’t represent corporate interests, they don’t have to sell anything or be responsible to anyone,” as Bobby G of “Potato Wolf,” an artists’ cable show, points out. Generally these programs are personal and subjective in feeling. As Levine describes it, industry people “bring writing, they bring management, they bring corporate attitudes, but the artist brings the body to television you’re looking at television as though it was conceived and made by another human being.” In Paik’s view artists working in television “are like Off-Off-Broadway—full of fresh, daring ideas, but crude craft.” Artists’ programs are usually low-budget productions, which means they don’t look like broadcast TV. Many artists are not afraid of using conventional television formats, but even when they do so, the concepts and the personalities involved on and off camera combine to create a television that does not conform to audience expectations.

Some producers, like Birnbaum and Chip Lord, consider their tapes to belong to “art”; others, like Michael Smith, prefer not to identify their work this way. Wolfgang Staehle tried to solve the problem by calling one of his programs “After Art I.” I don’t think this work can be categorized as popular art, nor can it be measured on the same terms as fine art. It just may be an entirely new expression. These artists are simultaneously creating a context for the media concerns so dominant in contemporary art and a new distribution system for their ideas.

As I said earlier, artists’ television is an offspring of video art, which was intentionally critical of the standard broadcast uses of the media and was made in direct opposition to conventional television: where TV is conventionally narrative, most video art is not; where TV is fast-paced, video art is often by comparison very “slow.” Generally the videotapes made by artists in the last decade fall into one of four categories. Performance video includes tapes of the sort made by William Wegman, who used video to record his negotiations with his incredible dog Man Ray, or tapes made by Joan Jonas, who has used it to add an additional layer of visual complexity to her work by providing yet another focal point in her performances. Video sculpture describes such multichannel, closed-circuit video installations as Mem by Peter Campus, Iris by Levine, and Wipe Cycle by Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette. Many of these sculptural installations have used live feedback as well as prerecorded material to include the viewer in the work, and place him or her in the disorienting role of participant/performer as well as viewer. Video “painting” describes the kinds of tapes made by such artists as Ed Emshwiller and Tom DeWitt, who have experimented with the use of computers and video synthesizers to produce abstract pictures and patterns on the TV screen or to manipulate taped imagery. These video artists shared an audience with other contemporary artists since (essentially) the only supportive outlet and context for this work was the art gallery or museum. Documentary video of the last decade has borne the closest resemblance to broadcast TV. Michael Shamberg and TVTV used 1/2-inch black and white Portapak cameras to make the first “alternative video” documentary to be broadcast on television. It was called “Four More Years,” and provided a new perspective on the 1972 Republican Convention. Other documentary pioneers were John Reilly of Global Village, who made “The Irish Tapes” with Stephen Moore, aired in 1974; and Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno of Downtown Community Television Center, whose “Cuba: The People” was the first 1/2-inch color Portapak documentary to be aired nationally, on the Public Broadcasting System in 1974. All the work had an identifiable look—raw and unfinished, by broadcast standards, due to a comparatively slow-paced, real-life sense of time; a personal, even eccentric view of events; and the use of early Portapak and editing equipment. Furthermore, the images that these video artists—documentarians or otherwise—framed with the camera, in the studio or on the street, belonged to and emerged from art history as much as from television; the form and the content inevitably reflected the artists’ personal viewpoints and, generally, their desire to challenge cultural idioms, especially as they are reinforced on television.

The beginnings of a support system for video art production were developed during the ’70s as the National Endowment for the Arts, state arts councils, and other public and private funding sources established grants for work in the medium. Media centers sprang up around the country to offer training workshops as well as production and postproduction facilities. A few galleries tried to distribute video art, and a few museums and alternative spaces made exhibition time available for the new form. Public television stations opened workshops for artists where they were given their first access to high-quality television equipment and their first taste of working in collaboration with studio engineers. While artists continued to make work that operated against the conventions of television in an effort to expand the possibilities for the medium, their antitelevision stance began to change. In 1974 Gerd Stern, a member of the media panel for the New York State Council on the Arts, affirmed that “even the extremist spokespeople for alternate media are more interested in broadcast and cable exposure in the early ’70s than in the late ’60s.”

The only broadcast (as opposed to cablecast) outlets for video art and artists’ television are on the Public Broadcasting System: “Video and Film Review” has been on WNET in New York since 1975 and “Artists’ Showcase” has been on WGBH in Boston since 1977. Although these series are usually broadcast on Sunday nights between 10:30 and midnight, they have devoted, sizable audiences. In the New York metropolitan area, 125,000 to 150,000 people watch the programs each week. Despite the thrill of reaching such a large audience, artists’ enthusiasm for public television has waned because the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has given much more support to independent documentary producers than to artists. A possible reason for public television’s relatively low level of support for video art in recent years, according to David Loxton, Director of WNET’s Television Laboratory since 1976, is that artists are considered “too arrogant about television. They don’t see their product in the context of what comes before or after it, and they have not considered how an individual watching at home might respond to their work.” He sees the future for video as being in museum installations, and does not think that artists are approaching television realistically. Now that cable television and other new technologies exist, though, there is the promise of a better deal.

We are in the midst of a highly publicized telecommunications revolution which is raising everyone’s expectations for a more democratic form of television, in which we, as viewers, will have much greater choice of and control over what we watch. Media is the biggest media story of the decade: magazines, newspapers, and even TV itself bombard us with data and promises about communications hardware. From the business sections to the leisure, entertainment, and home design sections comes the message that cable, videocassettes and videodiscs, and satellite transmission are threatening the oligarchy of the three national networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC, and decentralizing control of the airwaves. Already the accepted notions of who constitutes an audience and what constitutes a market, the principles on which commercial television is based, are being redefined. The necessity of “broadcasting” to millions can now be countered by the advantages of “narrowcasting” to smaller, more precisely targeted audiences who will pay to receive programs addressed to their specific interests. Thus cable television seems to be economically viable without having to apply the First Commandment of Broadcasting, which is, “Appeal to the lowest common denominator.” Opportunities for greatly diversified programming will multiply to satisfy particular interests. The hope is that among the many cable channels and the many different audiences, there will be enough room and enough demand for independents to secure time on a regular basis to narrowcast their work. Furthermore, cable provides the means for two-way, interactive television, such as the QUBE system built by Warner Amex Cable Communications in Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio. (At publication time, Warner Amex had announced the opening, scheduled for April 13, 1982, of a QUBE system in Pittsburgh, Pa.) At the moment there is not nearly enough programming available for all the new systems—the hardware far outstrips the software, which ought to mean that any program has a good chance to be bought and shown.

Cable originated around 1948 in rural Pennsylvania, as a means of bringing television to areas where mountains, tall buildings, or distance from transmitters made reception of broadcast signals difficult or impossible. Coaxial cables today can carry as many as 150 wires, which would create 150 channels, though most cable systems being built today provide less than 60. Manhattan Cable and Teleprompter, the companies that have had the cable franchises for Manhattan since 1970, currently offer 26 channels, divided among the national broadcast networks, local PBS and UHF channels, and a selection of the programming offered by more than 30 cable networks, which is distributed nationwide via satellite and microwave transmission. Home Box Office, Cable News Network, Nickelodeon, and CBS Cable are examples of these new cable networks. CBS Cable is one of four networks that carry cultural programming only or predominantly. It is to these networks in particular that artists and distributors of artists’ tapes (like Electronic Arts Intermix, in New York) are directing their best efforts. Culture, as defined by CBS Cable, for example, is primarily the performing arts, music, and film. It is performing artists like George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp, Pinchas Zuckerman and Dizzy Gillespie, who are on cable networks. As one CBS Cable executive is reported to have said, “If it isn’t Mozart or Puccini, we’re not interested.” A slightly more enlightened and generous view was expressed by an executive from Warner Amex: “If artists will be satisfied with exposure, that’s a possibility. If it comes to having to pay for it, that’s a few years down the road . . . It’s not even likely that a video showcase series would stand a chance in the start-up programming services.” Nonetheless, in January of this year, USA Cable Network’s “Nightflight” program did introduce a series called “The Video Artist”: an 8-week series of 15-minute segments aired at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. EST on Saturday nights. The field may be opening up for independently produced TV, but it appears to be happening very slowly. Readily available, though, are the public access channels, open to individuals and groups to cablecast their programs. The time on these channels is free, on a first-come, first-served basis, with minimal censorship (expressed by blacking out the signal) applied against what is considered by the cable company to be obscene material. (Public access in New York is occasionally known as “pubic access.”) Currently in Manhattan alone there are at least six weekly programs produced by artists and showing programs by artists: “Soho Television,” “Potato Wolf,” “Communications Update,” “Some New Faces,” “Anthology Film Archives,” and “Andy Warhol’s T.V.”

Most artists will acknowledge that their programs are more likely to attract a cult following than a large audience. That is why neither cable nor broadcast television is clamoring for these tapes right now. Criticism regarding artists’ lack of attention to the TV context is valid for many productions, but this shouldn’t necessarily disqualify them from being seen on television. It suggests, though, that viewers need to be exposed to more alternatives to commercial fodder, as much as artists need to understand the expectations of the home viewer just as they are aware of those of the gallery or the museum viewer.

A videotape presented in a museum viewing room—in a formal space, specially designed to remove people from daily experience—functions more as an art object than as a TV program. The gallery context is rarely conducive to watching video because, in common with film and the performing arts, video makes particular demands on the viewer’s time. The length of time of any video art piece is “inherent time, the time required for the task at hand,” as the writer David Antin has described it. Not only does video art take time to watch, but it is often criticized as being boring to watch; it is always being compared with television, which condenses real-time events to such a degree that any other style of presenting information seems slow. In the gallery context a videotape, like any other work of art, is perceived as being fundamentally a form of personal expression by a specific artist.

In the home environment, if it’s on television it’s television first, not art, and it is understood in the context of “Family Feud,” “Hill Street Blues,” Johnny Carson, and the evening news. TV is a home appliance; its space is the space of everyday life. People can afford to watch the tube seven or eight hours a day because they can do so many other things simultaneously—do household chores, read magazines, eat and drink, make telephone calls, do homework. Most people don’t really watch TV, anyway; they listen to it—it’s visual radio. (The standard formulas of television shows—game shows, variety shows, dramas, comedies, news programs, sports programs, soap operas—all derive from radio. Miniseries are an adaptation of serial publication.) The typical TV viewer is not a captive viewer who has committed time, energy, or money to watch a program the way one would go to a gallery or film. If you don’t like what’s on you can simply change the channel or turn the set off. The home-viewing context is casual and full of distractions, but it is also intimate and familiar.

Regular television programs are structured to allow for immediate comprehension and consumption. Programs are shot and edited so that the image is constantly changing, even just slightly, every two to ten seconds, in order to give the appearance that something significant is happening. Two-minute commercial blocks break into shows every twelve minutes during prime time and much more frequently later at night, all but destroying any sense of continuity and defying one’s ability to separate content from commerce. (Television’s most valuable commodity is not drama, comedy, news, or any other kind of entertainment or information; it is simply time itself. Advertising spots are ordinarily available in 10-, 30-, and 60-second units. A 30-second spot running on ABC prime time on weeknights nationwide sells for approximately $85,000.) TV audiences expect to be bombarded with thousands of bits of prepackaged visual and aural information in the space of several hours, in presentations that barely differentiate between war in the Middle East and Cool Whip on Jello. Nonetheless, producers of television shows and commercials clearly communicate in a format the viewers have been programmed to anticipate and which they understand.

The character of the home-viewing environment and the commercial structure of broadcast television need to be acknowledged and accounted for by anyone producing work for TV. The other critical issue independents must contend with is who controls the production and dissemination of their material. Although television programs are produced through the efforts of many creative and technically skilled professionals, they are most often made according to tried and true formulas which govern every detail down to split-second timing and the tone of an announcer’s voice. This working process virtually precludes the possibility of accident, of spontaneity, or of personal expression by the team or individual who developed the concept or produced the show, unless that individual is also the TV personality on camera, as Ernie Kovacs, Johnny Carson, and Mary Tyler Moore, among others, have been. The vision of an artist in a TV studio with a couple of Ikegami broadcast cameras focused on a set with miked and costumed performers, bathed in hot, brilliant lights, surrounded by cameramen, directors, switchers, soundmen, prop people, and floor managers, all of whom have some degree of input into what the final show will be, is a far cry from the reflective, isolated, intensely personal experience of the artist in a studio assisted by one or two faithful acolytes. In television, as in film or theater, there is always the terrible fear that the original concept will be destroyed—in production, in editing, or, finally, in distribution. Critics of artists who are attempting to work with the medium hasten to point this out; but the artworld pressures on an artist to make a certain kind of work that is more popular, more salable, more precious in appearance, can be just as intense and difficult to withstand as the pressures of television. And the desire to work in collaboration and the challenge of creating for mass media are important motivating factors for this more public work.

Nam June Paik has probably had more experience working in television than any other artist; he understands the problems. “Single-channel videotape is very hard to make and it’s hard to make something which is interesting to me and to you and to any number of people. To make a reasonable compromise, that is, to say all you want to say and make it understandable is torture, but can be done . . . After ten years working with Channel 13, I learned that you must target your audience. When you’re an artist you’re not supposed to think about those things. Artists are taught, we are trained, only to talk, never to listen. This is the whole avant-garde movement since Picasso. . . . Yet suddenly you are confronted with a situation of making television programs for an undefined, individual, and unlimited audience. Then you know that this not listening becomes a big handicap. So, how to make a reasonable compromise of subjective and objective dialectics? That became a big hangup. Yet, if the quality is good, it can work.”

Though some artist/producers are more wary than others, they all believe they can make that reasonable compromise. There are a number of different approaches.

Jaime Davidovich, the director of the Artists’ Television Network (A.T.N.) and producer of the “SohoTelevision” series, a showcase for artists’ tapes, on local cable, feels that “before you can communicate your ideas to an audience you have to know who that audience is, you have to listen, then you can design a format which will bring you into the viewer’s home and at the same time draw the viewer into your world.” Soho TV has been on cable in New York regularly every week since 1978, so the show has had time to develop an audience. One month after its premiere, a Manhattan Cable survey showed that 14,000 people already were watching it. In the winter of 1979–80, to test audience response to artists’ video, Davidovich produced an interactive program on the OUBE system in Columbus, Ohio. Tapes were shown on the system for 14 weeks and at the end of the series the viewers were invited to comment on what they wanted to see more of or didn’t like at all. His research confirmed his ideas that a variety-show format was most likely to keep people tuned in. The ingrained preferences for easy entertainment—for music, color, action, and quick changes—are difficult to avoid, but the variety format is an old format which can distract viewers from the unconventional nature of the show’s content.

A.T.N. is currently producing a series of six programs to be called “The Live Show.” Live and taped short performances by Louis Grenier, Michael Smith, Mitchell Kriegman, and others will be interspersed with short narrative tapes (like those by Ilene Segalove), electronic animations, and interviews with Vito Acconci, Spalding Gray, Cindy Sherman, and other artists. What Davidovich has done is to choose the best artists’ work available that fits comfortably into the purpose and structure of the show and that is not violated by the quick-cut format and the energetic atmosphere, or by being thought of as a form of entertainment. “The Live Show” is a low-budget production and will be seen on local cable TV, which has its own low-budget profile and is relatively free from the pressures of achieving visual slickness and technical perfection. Still, if this is a success, it’s a step on the way to a slot on one of the national, paying networks.

The producers of the show “Potato Wolf” have a less methodical approach to television. “Potato Wolf” began in 1978, although the first series by the artists in Collaborative Projects (Colab), which produces it, was “All Color News,” cablecast at the end of 1977. Bobby G held the position of executive producer of the series last year (it rotates yearly); he and the other artists of Colab take responsibility for conceiving, directing, and producing individual programs for this public-access cable show. The programs are live and/or taped, and are produced for the remarkably low average cost of about $90.00 each. Bobby G says, “The programs are high-risk when they are live, and they’re experimental, but they are accessible to a TV audience because they’re topical—they deal with whatever is currently happening.”

For example, in November 1980 Peter Fend produced “Italy Wins World War,” a news program about the resolution of a world war not by weapons, but by art. The story, Fend says, was catalyzed by hearing architectural historian Vincent Scully’s lectures, “Garden and Fortress: The Shape of France.” Scully draws parallels between the development of an ideally ordered concept of the nation state, with Paris as the center, and the design and construction of idealized landscapes and chateau gardens, going on to speculate that a new form or sense of political territory could arise from earth art. The “weapons” Fend used to win the war include the “air eye,” televised satellite imagery; the “eco-bomb,” conceived from Joseph Beuys’ Fat Corner and Dennis Oppenheim’s Feather Ridge; and dry wells and off-shore soil wells.

The producers have no information regarding the size or composition of their audience, but I would expect that the show has a small, very specific, art cult of admirers. Its funky, homemade, last-minute quality often overwhelms the official subject. In the live shows the producers frequently lose control, and even the taped ones look barely contained. There is a lot of originality and a lot of dada humor here. Among my favorites from last season are “The Reptile Mind,” a half-hour epic by Alan Moore; “Mock Wrestling,” a live show with a large, vocal cast of fans and wrestlers, by Scott Miller; and “After Art I,” by Wolfgang Staehle and Herr Luges. Staehle’s program used a TV magazine format to include a serious interview with the “Prince of Porn,” Maurice Girodias, who was the first publisher of Henry Miller and William Burroughs; an on-location chat with Neke Carson, the head of La Rocka Modeling Agency; and interviews with Glenn O’Brien and Richard Foreman. It ended with “Anatomy Lesson,” which was a bid for audience participation: a nude model posed motionless for five minutes so that viewers could draw her; they were asked to send their drawings to the producers. It was a perfect gesture in the context of public access, but unfortunately the wrong address was flashed on the screen.

“Communications Update” is by far the least “entertaining,” most politically oriented artists’ series that can be seen on cable. Liza Bear, cofounder of Avalanche magazine and of the project for Send/ Receive Satellite Network, initiated the series with Michael McClard, Willoughby Sharp, and Rolf Brand in September 1979 as “The WARC Report.” The producers have from the outset been concerned with public telecommunications policies and the uses of the new technology. The impetus for producing the series, according to Bear, was the fact that “the TV media was not covering communications issues and we felt that it had to be done. It was important that we, as artists, investigate the issues presented by the facts as we perceive them and not from the vantage of the multinational conglomerates; in so doing we made the information our own by working with it.” “The Space Shuttle,” 1980, a documentary produced by Bear, McClard, and Sharp, and “The Queens Cable TV Franchise,” 1980, documenting the New York City Board of Estimate hearings for the awarding of the cable franchise for the borough of Queens, produced by Bear and McClard, are typical of the programs shown in the two series in 1980. Other shows were produced by Stephen Torton, Dee Dee Halleck, and Vicki Gholson.

The new series of “Communications Update,” the fourth so far, began in March 1982 and is produced by the artists specifically for a time slot after the 7:00 P.M. news, in the expectation that viewers will be switching channels, looking for programs. These shows are not about the image-processing qualities of the medium, and run the gamut from fact to fiction. A lot of them attempt to expose the manipulation carried out by television. For example, “The Very Reverend Deacon b. Peachy,” by Ron Morgan and Milli Iatrou, is about a tele-evangelist newly arrived in New York who finds his moral intentions subverted by the the economic imperatives of the medium and its technology.

There has been a shift in focus away from hard-core communications issues and a purely documentary format “Although I hate the words,” Bear says of this, “it’s a shift from hardware to software. We’ve explored the possible ways to tap into the technologies sufficiently. When we started it looked like there was going to be much more opportunity for the disenfranchised independent producer to have a stake in the new technologies, but instead the feudal overlords have just acquired new territory. I feel the imperatives now are really to make programs that offer the viewer a different set of values and artistic views than they’ve been given so far.”

An entirely different approach to television is demonstrated by Joan Jonas. Like her other tapes, “Upside Down and Backwards” can be seen as a document of a live performance, but in fact it is an entity unto itself, in the same way that a televised version of a dance performance or a baseball game provides an experience for the home viewer that is similar to but different from the experience a live audience has of it. It is startling to see such strong visual images as Jonas’, each brimming with symbolic content, spilling into your living room. Jonas has chosen upbeat new music by The Residents and Pere Ubu for the tape, which adds yet another dimension to it, and is a counterpoint to her soft voice reading fairy tales. During the performance she tells one fable, “The Boy Who Went Out to Learn Fear,” from beginning to end, and one, “The Frog Prince,” from end to beginning. When she is not speaking she is performing various dance movements—one, with a mallet and golden ball, is shamanistic—and adopting different poses: at one point she is sitting, cradling a skeleton in her arms and lap, in a pose reminiscent of a Pietà. Every object, movement, and sound takes on a mythical, ritualistic significance. Though she uses narrative, the stories are not easily guessed, so it is only at the end of the tape that one begins to decipher and appreciate the seemingly mysterious relationships that exist all along among the images, her actions, the fairy tales, and the music. This kind of tape requires the full attention of the viewer, and benefits from more than one viewing. Jonas’ attitude about the question of audience is evident in the work: she does not intend to entertain, though she may, or amuse, though she may. This work is closer to “art” as we know it in painting and sculpture than it is to television. The same can be said of Perfect Lives (Private Parts), a seven-episode opera by Robert Ashley in collaboration with Peter Gordon, John Sanborn and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, which was commissioned for TV by the Kitchen. The danger that Jonas and Ashley and company seem to have avoided, and that some others are more susceptible to, is that their art may be diluted, as Birnbaum warns, by the seduction of greater visibility and more money for the production of more popular, more accessible programs.

Mitchell Kriegman has invaluable experience to relate on this point. He has a track record in the art world—his audiotapes, “The Telephone Stories,” were premiered at the Whitney Museum in March 1980; his videotapes have been shown at alternative spaces and museums around the country; and “The Marshall Klugman Show” has been broadcast on WNET/13 four times. One of his most recent productions, “Likely Stories,” was seen on the same program and at the Kitchen and Anthology Film Archives in New York. Kriegman was hired as a writer and performer on the NBC-TV show “Saturday Night Live” in its second incarnation, during the fall of 1980. His training as a writer sets him apart from most video artists, but his background in video art set him apart from the other “SNL” cast members. He has described this as a serious difference. According to Kriegman, the other cast members called him “Mr. Concept.” Whenever color bars came up on the screen and nothing was happening, he said, they would ask, “Is that your piece, Mitchell?” He feels he was fired from the show because his sense of humor and conceptual approach were incompatible with the old format of the show, which NBC ultimately decided to hold on to, even though they had initially promised to create a new one. Before he left Kriegman produced three short segments including one about a man (himself) who was literally unconscious of the woman with whom he lived, and consequently was oblivious to her needs. The reaction to this segment among his friends who watched the shows at home on television was negative, because the tape seemed to project a sexist attitude toward women in general. According to Kriegman, neither the producer of “Saturday Night Live” nor NBC program executives thought of his tapes as sexist. And when the same tapes were seen months later at the Kitchen—without the weight of cultural authority provided by network television—the issue of sexism no longer seemed threatening.

In retrospect Kriegman says, “About the sexist nature of those tapes—as far as I’m concerned, they were personal pieces. That’s the way I saw myself acting in that situation. In the context of television everything becomes a corporate statement; you can’t communicate a personal attitude to something. So the character in these tapes was considered a role model whose behavior had the tacit approval of the all-powerful. . . . I wasn’t cautious enough,” Kriegman continues. “I forgot how the television context would redefine my personal statement. In the gallery context, a work is seen as a personal statement. I’m not saying that all men treat women this way, or that they should; only that I have. In TV the corporate entity, comes between the viewer and the creator and puts its own message on top of yours. . . . The vanishing point comes when you try to make an uncompromising statement for an audience. You lose track of yourself and your ideas; you can get wiped out.” Kriegman’s solution now is to back away from prime-time television. He sees the only opportunity for him to hit television as being on the syndicated, fringe-commercial market, on local stations.

“The Video Artist” is another experiment in the search for the proper relationship between content and context. The segments of this series have been produced by Eric Trigg of Electronic Arts Intermix and Stuart Shapiro of “Nightflight,” a program that appears on USA Cable Network. “Nightflight’s” time slot––2:00 A.M. to 6:00 A.M. on Friday nights, and 11:00 P.M. to 3:00 A.M. on Saturday nights—is prime time for a particular viewing audience who watch TV late at night out of choice. Television is eagerly courting this audience, whose existence first became known when “Saturday Night Live” came on the air. “Nightflight” is primarily a music show; “The Video Artist” comes on after “Live at the Apollo” and before a feature film, usually a concert film. The selection of a work for the series appears to be based on how “arty” it looks and how hip it sounds, rather than on what the tape is about; it doesn’t have to be “about” anything in particular. Half of the pieces in the series—those by Shalom Gorewitz, Ed Emshwiller, WTZ (Dean Winkler, Tom DeWitt, and Vibeke Sorenson) and Merrile Aldighieri/Joe Tripician are produced with the aid of computers or image synthesizers and colorizers; the works by Bill Viola, Anita Thatcher, John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald, and Twin Art (Ellen and Linda Kahn) more closely resemble regular narrative, figurative television. Sanborn and Fitzgerald are very conscious of the need to create accessible, entertaining images; ; and have been successful in negotiating for both cablecasts and PBS broadcasts of their tapes. They have also moved into the rock video scene as the video directors of Danceteria, a New York club. In all their work they edit images in such a way that each tape has a visual beat, which is as important to the tape as rhythm is to a piece of music. This visual beat is so pronounced that it frequently overshadows rather than complements the content of the tapes. The razor-sharp editing style is the most memorable part of their tapes.

While Shapiro believes that “video art is a true art form that is underexposed,” he admits that “part of its appeal is that it is fresh, original programming. . . . ‘Nightflight’ is as commercial as I can get it,” he says; “These tapes have to compete with everything else that’s on at the same time, so everything I show has to have entertainment value.” When Shapiro saw Wegman’s tapes he rejected them on the basis that they were not that funny, they were not visual enough, and they looked too old.

Is it the aim of this type of artist/producer/writer/director to conceive a work that can be art and simultaneously succeed as “television” in order to reach a mass audience? Or, on the other hand, is the intent to make television for a smaller, more clearly identifiable and familiar peer audience, for off-off hours? If the goal is prime time, the parameters of that mentality must be understood—for example, how network TV censors itself by dictating the kinds of situation that are acceptable to show and the points of view and interests which must be served in their programs. It is essential to consider how much the demand for “entertainment value” may destroy the artist’s initial conception. With a selected audience in mind, the content and its presentation can be formulated to satisfy the demands of both the artist/producer and potential viewers. It is still necessary to think about what kinds of ideas can best be presented on TV, and how to take advantage of the inherent characteristics of the home-viewing situation. However, without the pressure of restrictive commercial rules, there already is room for greater freedom of expression than before.

The role of the artist as TV producer is fraught with contradictions, but this does not suggest that there is no place for art in the mass media. Commercial television has been refining its production and distribution systems for 65 years; artists working with video have had little more than ten years’ experience with the medium. Furthermore, the idea that artists can produce work specifically for television distribution was not widely entertained until four or five years ago. For the time being, artists will not radically change the way we conceive of television programming or how we choose what we look at; home computers that hook up to the TV set and new video technology are doing that already, much more effectively. However, at the very least, all the artists described in this article and the many others not mentioned here are designing new programs and experimenting with various approaches to presenting art on and for TV. While they have had to become more conscious of the way the television industry operates, the response to their work clearly indicates that the more direct experience and feedback from network programmers and audiences they receive, the more the ideas can be refined. Ultimately these artists will have to create their own television audience and thereby define their own context.

Robin White is the editor of View magazine, and is editing the next issue of TV Magazine.