PRINT March 1986



DECIPHERING WHO’S REALLY WHO in TV’s world of substitutional histories and circuitous ventriloquisms is a game that hardly anyone wants to play. Things are accepted at face value, at the surface of the screen, because the audience thinks this scrim of fascination is all the medium has to give. And the scrim is usually more than enough. Offering itself up as a rest stop for wandering eyes, the tube offers a parade of personalities masquerading either as other personalities or merely as themselves. Neither real no illusory, they appear and disappear at the flick of a switch, controlled by some remote idea of what is fit for the moment or what might be better.

In a recent episode of Miami Vice directed by its star Don Johnson, America’s newest national treasure, a retired army man is exposed as a major drug-dealer busy distributing product left over from his days in Vietnam: killer heroin contaminated by wood alcohol. It seems the captain was shipping the drug back from Nam in the body-bags of dead combatants, and the alcohol had been used to preserve the corpses. And who portrays this “pig,” this necromonstro whose office walls are lined with photos of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger? Why, none other than G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate, the miniseries that thrilled and entertained us over a decade ago. Considering Vice’s proclivities toward embroidering the seamier (as in Versace) side of life, the mind boggles at the casting possibilities to come. Robert Vesco as a smuggler hot into stuffing toot up the innards of lava lamps to be sold on the tonier boulevards of New York and LA, and Chuck Colson as a dealer turned born-again Christian hawking courses on how to get rich quick by buying real estate for no money down.

This human exchangeability was the subject of a recent installment of Amazing Stories, Steven Spielberg’s ongoing joke on and homage to the cute joys and even cuter tribulations of life in the good ole US of A. “Remote Control Man,” directed by Bob Clarke, tells the story of a poor schnook who is victimized by the entire kit and caboodle of his traumatic domestic life and turns for solace to (surprise!) his TV. His nagging wife gets pissed off, so she sells the TV for a new pair of pumps and all hell breaks loose. In the usual whiz-bang sci-fi manner, the husband winds up with a spectacular replacement, a video appliance that makes the term “state of the art” seem archaic. Propped up in his chair, remote-control device grasped tightly in his chubby little hands, the schnook is able to zap his family into score of character mutations and to fill his house with a veritable army of TV celebs. Bounding out of the screen at the speed of light, they nudge, cajole, and crusade their way into his domain, making his delirious family squabbles seem like a slow day at the library. Barbara Billingsly, recreating the role of June Cleaver, makes his breakfast, and his son is transformed into Gary Coleman. Richard Simmons, Lyle Alzado, the Hulk, and Ed McMahon are but a smidgen of the onslaught that converts what he thought would be heaven into a semiliving hell. In response to the schnook’s frantic questions as to why this star-studded gang is occupying his living room, the grinning celebs reply, “What are you asking me for? I’m just a character on TV! I’m not real.” “Don’t be such a wimp.” “Turn on to people, not to the boob tub. Turn on to your wife and kids.”

So what are Spielberg and Co. trying to tell us? That the characterological simulations of television must be dislodged? That the rhetoric of the real must be reestablished amid the morass of electronic duplications? That we should abandon the dictates of our favorite light source and return to the clumps of figures that constitute our notion of the family? Of course this is being suggested, but with the full understanding that almost nothing short of nothing can treat the heavy dose of fascination that grips so many of us. And so, the folks at Amblin Entertainment figure, why not go through the motions and make like you’re going for the apple pie?

The ventriloquistic capabilities of television reach their literalized apex in Puttin’ on the Hits, a show in which contestants are judges on their lip-syncing prowess, their looks, and their originality. The latter category is a particularly poignant one, since most of the contenders appear as carbon copies of their favorite rock star, not only replicating the attire and gestures but also miming to the voices of their idols. Out of their open but mute mouths spring the vocal virtuosities of Prince, Sade, Bruce, and dozens of other current and nostalgic divinities. Bounding across the stage, the contestants act out in front of millions of viewers what was once relegated to the mirrors of teenagers’ bedrooms, private arenas where air guitars and sultry poses reigned supreme. Puttin’ on the Hits stages the charged bonding of uncritical appropriation with exhibitionism, and grants its practitioners the right to make spectacles of themselves while making believe they’re someone else.

This ventriloquism, coupled with narrative rearrangement, recently played havoc with scads of pirated videotapes of the movie Rambo that were smuggled into the Middle East and subtitled in French and Arabic. But along with the translation came the erasure of all references to Vietnam and the Soviet Union. The whole story was transformed to the Philippines ca. 1963, where Rambo is busy rescuing POWs held by the Japanese. Sylvester Stallone’s daftly rabid red, white, and blue-ism remains visually intact, but the muscle-bound hulk’s rants are now accompanied by a contradictory text which propels his story to another time and another place.

This cavalier mixing and matching of pictures, words, characters, and personages foregrounds video’s chameleonic flexibility. Able to be adapted to the needs not only of its authors and distributors, but ultimately, through rapidly spreading technology, of its domestic spectators, its lure is not only the promised pleasures of fascination but also those of alteration, of “creativity.” Planted in our own cozy “home box offices,” we not only receive the pre-packaged masquerades and lip-syncs of network TV but can also partake of our own brand of substitution, time-shifting, editing, and dubbing. This puttering and hobbyism can be seen as an alleviation of the viewers’ passivity, a way of allowing us some control over the images and words of corporate culture. But these are simply rearrangements of prescribed images, or, when the footage is one’s own, simply private, undistributed gestures. The power of the corporate network is its ability to multiply and project its desiring voice into the larynx of its viewers, and, with a few exceptions, to marginalize and make absent what it finds undesirable and unprofitable. Whether this business-as-usual can be interrupted by the supposed freedom of visual and vocal choices granted to us by the new video and cable technologies remains to be seen. And if we, the dummies, really do start to talk back, will we merely end up selling Charmin to each other?

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes. Her column on television appears regularly in Artforum.