PRINT December 2010


Cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore.

THIS YEAR we watched even more television at work, usually in the form of YouTube clips—if we weren’t streaming entire episodes on Netflix, Hulu, or sites operated by the networks themselves. Such moments of pseudosabotage of the traditional working day now merge seamlessly with that other engine of post-Fordist productivity: gossip. “Did you see Tina Fey’s ‘Brownie Husband’ sketch on SNL last night? Here, watch!” Or, “Did you hear Jeffrey Deitch got trampled at his own opening? Check it out!” TV is a weaker, less concentrated, and at the same time more dispersed and omnipresent signal than it was back in 1983, when Mike Kelley made a performance video based on memories of his grade school classmates’ gossip about a Captain Kangaroo character the kids were all obsessed with. Kelley never actually saw any of the Banana Man episodes, only experienced them vicariously as school-bus hearsay. Decades later, the feelings of social exclusion that came with the experience of always missing the Banana Man inspired his own “remake.” These days, it’s impossible to “miss” a show. TV flows as easily and constantly as any other information, and this year it became obvious that TV no longer has a specific room or time slot—it’s whenever we want it, on our desks, in our pockets, or in bed, where sex can be endlessly deferred with back-to-back episodes of True Blood, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad. Like the working day, the boundaries and the notion of the “channel” have been overflowed. We don’t just watch TV, we send and receive it, gather and organize it on our personal touch screens, meanwhile interacting with sites to produce, wittingly or not, the consumer feedback that helps broadcasters determine a season’s programming (if TV still even thinks in terms of seasons).

“Brownie Husband” sketch featuring Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.

Nowadays television networking includes the cyber-networking whereby viewer behavior becomes instantly productive of televisual information. “Video on demand” and “instant viewing” are also a kind of voting or data production, and TV becomes a near-instantaneous loop between producer and consumer, fulfilling Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of a “cool,” tactile, and participatory medium that involves us in the “depth” of its very process. As McLuhan said, the real content of a medium is not the programming it delivers, not what’s “on” TV; it’s us, the viewers who use it. Once we surpass a certain threshold of participation, however, we begin to wonder if TV is still TV, or if it hasn’t mutated into another, hybrid medium with enhanced powers to organize life. Abandoning its specificity and its channels, in other words, TV better adapts itself to the “constant partial attention” of today’s info user.

The year’s most fascinating TV image by far was the “live feed” of the BP oil spill. Throughout the summer, as Deepwater Horizon leaked ninety-five thousand barrels per day into the Gulf of Mexico, BP’s own ROV (remotely operated vehicle) cameras transmitted real-time deep-sea surveillance of the worst environmental disaster in US history, and anyone could watch via a BP-hosted link on the Internet. Shots of oil-smeared birds could never involve us in catastrophe like this. With the live feed, information had finally found its own, perfect image: an apocalyptic money shot, a megabudget vision of flow as such, just muck on the move, wasting everything. This was TV beyond TV, in all its scatological fluidity, involving and absenting us at the same time, outflowing the talking heads that tried to speak on its behalf—Obama’s, FEMA spokespeople’s, consecutive BP CEOs’, and all the ruined local fishermen’s. No expression of human sentiment, no voice of reason or heartfelt apology, could ever make (or stop) such TV from the center of the earth. And as BP was losing public confidence and trust, it was at the same time gaining viewers, producing them, actually, as extensions of the company’s cool ROV cams.

This year also marked the Obama administration’s loss of control of the national debate and the rise of the Tea Party as an irrational, TV-mediated force (or TV Party). Fox’s Glenn Beck and other cable showmen outcooled the president by producing TV that tapped populist dread (of economic collapse, of immigrants, of communism, etc.) while flooding the networks and blogs with dizzying levels of gossip. Beck went so far as to summon his white zombie viewership to the National Mall on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, cynically equating televisual participation with civil rights–era activism. His Washington rally (which, just before the midterm elections, was parodied by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear”) was also a sort of TV beyond TV, a diabolical form of street theater that released television from its normal channel while, paradoxically, giving body to the populist longing for containment. Bringing America a message without a message, mixing fear and flow, Beck made himself an extension of what is darkest and most irrational in mediation, setting the terms of the debate from the point where debate becomes impossible.

James Franco during the shooting of an episode of General Hospital at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, June 24, 2010. Photo: Stefanie Kennan/Wire Image.

The most talked-about TV personality of the year was probably Snooki of MTV’s Jersey Shore. She’s a cuter, more huggable type of oil spill, with her spray tan, her plume of hair, and her bubbly, alcohol-fueled chatter. On reality TV shows like this, gossip is the driving force, intensified by the participants’ enclosure within a single house with nothing to do but party, make out, and talk about it. Nothing really happened beyond the nonstop leaking of personal information, and we followed the show as a sort of embodied Twitter feed. In one episode, Snooki was in a cybercafé composing a letter that would incriminate Ronnie for cheating on Sammi, and it was strange to witness her writing, carefully weighing her words before printing them out. The guys’ pumped, shirtless gym bodies were always draped with slender microphone wires, suggesting another type of thong, or surveillance lingerie. Meanwhile, in Texas, the artist Chivas Clem produced a series of “Jersey Shore” paintings using spray-on tanning fluid instead of paint, and framing such telesexual details as the Situation’s abs, JWoww’s bust, and of course Snooki’s “pouf.”

Artists frequently translate and appropriate TV, and TV took its revenge this year with Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, a reality show that chronicled the passage of a few young people through a brief series of creative challenges judged by professional critics and dealers. The show has already been widely discussed and blogged about in art-world circuits, and those debates about the show’s merits and crimes seemed to prove that an art-world nerve had been touched by TV. Work of Art demonstrated McLuhan’s claim that the low-definition yet participatory medium of TV works best when it involves us in a process. But what disturbed us was the fact that when their creative powers are translated to TV, artists are really no different than housewives, next top models, survivors, or Snooki. The “best” artists were the ones with the fewest psychological or aesthetic issues about being exposed and broadcast, not just as artists but as people. Finalists survived by going with the flow, freely giving themselves (and their art) over to the judges, the cameras, and the terrorizing logic of the program. (Jerry, you didn’t seem to realize that televised art criticism is just more Snooki-speak, but your New York magazine reports from inside the program were good media gossip.)

Excerpt of General Hospital episode featuring James Franco and Kalup Linzy.

Another noteworthy cross-wiring of art and TV in 2010 was actor James Franco’s attempt to elaborate a conceptual practice around the use of his own TV presence and persona. First, he got himself hired to play the insane artist “Franco” on the soap opera General Hospital (also organizing an appearance on the show by performance artist Kalup Linzy, whose work frequently quotes and deconstructs the soap genre). Then in June, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles allowed GH to tape an episode at the institution as part of Franco’s exhibition “Soap at MoCA.” The actor’s suave moves between the TV studio and the museum did not exactly produce a feeling of transgression or vertigo, however. Warhol on Love Boat was one thing, but all Franco really demonstrated is that becoming an artist isn’t so hard, even an actor can do it, and that everything is already a lot like TV, even art, even TV. It would have been much stranger to see him show up on Work of Art than in a museum at this point, because, like Andy Kaufman and Crispin Glover before him, it’s Franco’s conceptual moves as an actor that are most interesting.

Now there’s a new ad for a product called Apple TV. It shows a sleek puck of black plastic cupped in the palm of a human hand. Imprinted with the Apple logo, this object is mysteriously minimal and opaque. What is it? Not an antenna and not a screen. A better-looking converter box? It’s an image of TV as a bar of designer soap, a magic stone, or a lump of coal that we touch and that endows its user with cooler, even more abstracting powers of fluidity and extension: iCoal.

John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.