PRINT September 1989



TV IS A TOOL. But unlike computers and chain saws, there are no directions as to its use; no howtos, no recipes. You never forget how to use TV because you never have to learn how. Like any other relationship, it seems you just sort of “get along” with this chatty appliance; you “do” it, it “does” you. We “do” TV by letting its juices flow. Not flesh-and-blood juices, of course, but continuously acrid signals, impulses that flow from its artificial circuitry to our own. Like humans, television is sensitive to our touch. We flick a knob on its chassis and it performs for us. We know how to push its buttons. We know how to turn it on. We are clasped in a relentless tango of remote controllings. TV “does” us by holding us within its gravitational force field while at the same time letting us be. It simulates an “open” relationship, offering us a menu of seemingly multiple choices and encouraging flirtations and fickleness. We see what we think we want to see. We make mute.

An exercise in extreme and protracted power, this relationship is a meeting of serious control freaks. TV doesn’t meet our demands with reticence or struggle. There are many battered women but few battered televisions. TV talks back in a voice so diverse yet so same,so displaced yet so predictable, that it turns simple ventriloquism into a miasma of unmarked whispers and ambient anonymities. But it’s not really talking back even though it addresses us face to face. And we think nothing of turning our heads or disappearing for moments or hours on end. No big deal, it keeps on talking.

Television is conversant on a million topics and broadcasts itself as an exquisite generalist, an encyclopedic skimmer that avoids specificity like Dracula dodging the Cross. It flaunts a fluency in more than a few languages and speaks in hundreds of voices, juggling gender and race like a spirit trying on bodies for size, like a manic quick-change artist on a binge. It tells us jokes and grovels for laughs. It creates scenarios that elicit compassion, disgust, and everything in-between. It sells time. It sells the time of our lives, the dearness of our moments for hard, cold cash. It sells us. It plies its trade through demographics; through the scientisms of polling, surveying, and surveilling. It lulls you to sleep and begins its dictations. Like a mad hypnotist of global proportions, it elects presidents, conducts diplomacy, and creates consensus; a consensus of demialert nappers caught halfway between the vigilance of consciousness and the fascinated numbness of stupor.

Like any other relationship, our bond with TV is tempered by constancy. It is here, there, and everywhere, embedded in the every day and every night of it all. And with further diversification of its menu, it has become bloated with more channels, more numbers oozing movies, weather, news, and rock 'n’ roll. But regardless of its growing proportions, it travels well. From Miami to Bozeman, from Bangor to L.A., we are greeted by the same characters. This insistent familiarity, this soggy uniformity has the feel of a kind of generic Americana; a traveling show going nowhere, a gig that runs in place at the speed of light. It has developed a kind of pithy shorthand, a terse haiku of American symbols and power. It gets us riled up, it stirs our allegiance without our knowing what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling it. And feeling is just the right word, since feel is something we do with our hands. Thought comes nowhere near this process. Thought might raise messy questions. We might have to think about histories, about subtleties, about agendas, about accountability. We might have to think about what we’re being shown and told and who’s doing the showing and telling. We might have to think about freedom and allegiance and what these words mean to us now. We might have to think about power and how it’s granted or withheld and who’s doing the granting and withholding. We might have to think about words like “pre-born” and what it means to live in a time when being alive might as well be labeled “pre-dead.” We might have to ask questions like: Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and sold? Who is free to choose? Who follows orders? Who does time? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?

Hey wait a minute, someone just changed the station! Things were just getting good! Y’see, I was just watching this really heavy program. Sort of a parody of an incredible country built on this terrific idea about freedom and democracy. And there had been this coup, y’know, but like the people didn’t know anything about it because it was like so subtle and they were like so asleep. And the guys in charge were mostly CIA and corporate types from comfy old money and they got away with like everything. And if you weren’t a guy and you weren’t white it was really a drag. And it was really funny because these guys forgot about truth because they really liked fiction. So they called fiction truth and everybody believed them because everybody was watching the same program. And I was laughing so hard that I started to cry because this couldn’t really be happening. This isn’t real, this is just something on TV, right? What a great show!

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