PRINT November 2000


It is a truism nowadays that television not only brings us the world but helps fashion it as well. Think of 1998’s The Truman Show, whose protagonist is the star of a TV program without knowing it: All that he surveys—even the sky above his head—is an elaborate soundstage populated by an entire suburb of actors. The implication is that our daily existence has a made-for-television dimension to it: Life may not imitate art, but it does imitate TV.

However, pace Truman, the relation between lived experience and TV isn’t that of imitation—the traditional aesthetic relation between original and copy—it’s more like the feedback circuits of electronic media itself, a dynamic in which it becomes impossible to know precisely where reality ends and representation begins. It is within this loop that the artist Jonathan Horowitz situates many of his video installations. In Dunk Tank, 1994, for example, the thirty-four-year-old New York artist takes the psychic measure of the late-night talk show by casually incorporating the viewer into celebrity interviews. Four video monitors present conversations between Jay Leno and Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy, Michael Keaton, and Kathleen Turner, respectively. Lena’s questions are audible, but the celebrities’ answers are not: The responses appear as text superimposed on the screen, syllable by syllable—lines meant for the viewer to recite. Horowitz’s sly bait and switch thus exposes the fantasy that likely motivates our seemingly endless interest in talk shows: We imagine ourselves to be guests on the Tonight Show, saying the goofy, brilliant, witty thing we would surely say if only we had the chance.

Horowitz has also set about exploring how television undermines and flattens our sense of time. Take Maxell, 1990, a wry video that simply presents its title, “Maxell,” in the center of the screen for six and a half minutes. As we gradually come to realize that the title is not an overture to a more visually dynamic program—moreover, that it is slowly degrading in picture quality—it dawns on us that Horowitz is mocking our, as it were, prerecorded anticipation of a televisual rather than a textual experience. As the screen is overwhelmed by static and white noise, we are made painfully aware of the passing of time—the one experience that television and film must prevent for fear of boring their audiences.

A more complex meditation on the nature of time occurs in The Body Song, 1997, in which Horowitz reverses the direction of a Michael Jackson video. Reversing the time messes up the film’s logic; linearity and conflict are disrupted. The original music video, Earth Song, is an environmental fairy tale in which Jackson starts off lamenting a desolate wasteland that is miraculously transformed into a paradise over the course of the video, presumably thanks to his magical voice. In Horowitz’s backward version, the piece begins as an Eden and ends as a conflagration. In this depiction of time, events take place randomly. They have no rational narrative form. Everything simply decays: Forests die and animals rot. Caught in reverse, Jackson becomes just one more beast, on par with the elephants, tigers, and other beings trapped in time’s maw rather than a controlling agent or the hero of the narrative’s dream machine.

Yet if Horowitz challenges the implicit idealism behind the linear shape of events on television—whether they be music videos, sitcoms, sporting events, or news broadcasts—it’s because he believes that the medium has a near-monopoly on collective memory itself. In Horowitz’s view, to be on television is to be plucked from the devastating flow of time—the time of random decay where beings live and die without dignity, anonymously almost, that he visualizes in Body Song—and raised up into the hallowed realm of collective experience and memory. Television is our mythic time, Horowitz seems to say, the realm of heroes and gods.

To explore how television serves as creator and receptacle of both personal and collective memory, Horowitz devised The Jonathan Horowitz Show, 2000, an autobiographical work-presented last spring in New York at Greene Naftali—that built on similar investigations by the artist (such as Bach Two Part Invention #9 AV, 1998). Set in a ring around a central column of the gallery, seven monitors played different twenty-minute montages consisting of pop-culture imagery and segments from television shows that relate to different periods of Horowitz’s life. In one sequence, we see a segment from the Mary Tyler Moore Show with a caption that reads “Nick at Nite, 1994–2000.” Sometimes we see full-screen titles like “I think I have AIDS, 1988–1993” and “my mother holding my hand, 1988–1993.” The formal gambit here is to juxtapose the TV clips with Horowitz’s personal thoughts, fears, and experiences. But there is a metaphysical gambit as well that involves contrasting the images with texts. When it comes to memories, TV segments, unlike texts, can be thought of as both signifier and signified, as both memory aids and the memories themselves. What is the difference, after all, between the memory of a TV show and the show itself? Texts refer to the past, preserving a measure of time between the act of remembering and the thing remembered. In combining the titles with the television, Horowitz smuggles this sense of time back into the medium, marking his TV memories as experiences that are past.

To complicate matters, Horowitz broadcast a recorded but unscripted monologue throughout the gallery. As one studied the monitors, his voice could be heard commenting on everything from politics to friends to art, struggling to find his words and his train of thought. The gesture is hard to interpret, but it comes off as a parody of the smooth TV voice-over spoken by a subject in perfect control of his or her language. Horowitz is showing his subjective underbelly, the hesitations, stutters, and indirection to which speech is prone in reality. The monologue expresses a desire to be free of television’s homogenizing power, but it is more than that: Horowitz injects TV with the same hesitation, wandering mind, and mortality that TV promises to rid us of. Now that’s a whole other kind of “reality television.”

Saul Anton is a writer living in New York.