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Rhonda Lieberman on Barbara Kruger’s “Remote Control”

Barbara Kruger, New York, 1990.
 
Click here for Barbara Kruger, “Remote Control,” March 1986

BARBARA KRUGER is an excellent close reader of the idiot box—formally, aesthetically, and politically. From 1985 to 1990, she wrote a column on television for Artforum called “Remote Control.” I must admit I dipped back into these texts with trepidation. This is going to be dour, I dreaded—even strident. Lectures about power and the constructedness of everything, hectoring “you” in direct address. Indeed, she sounds just like Barbara Kruger: the pedagogical priestess of the ’80s confronting Reagan-era mediatization, armed with her casserole of Frankfurt School seriousness, slick surfaces, and the righteous verve of a feminist on a mission.

But I was quickly rewarded for reading on. Through Kruger’s knack for apt description, flecks of humor leaven the dour matzo of Thought. She’s at her most engaging when she watches TV and simply tells us what she sees—sometimes shot by shot, providing not only a phenomenology of viewing but also a perfect sense of the ridiculousness we take for granted—when she slows down and lingers over clichés; it’s like watching TV with an alien. As with the best writing, suddenly a desert of banality comes alive with weirdness. In her study of Saturday-morning kids’ shows, she watches a McDonald’s commercial where a child’s idyll morphs into a branded hell. Her sentence beautifully conveys nasty reality as she marvels that the tot would “trade this woozily gorgeous locale for a seat in some orange plastic meat-palace.” Right on, Barbara Kruger.

Opening her piece on The Home Shopping Club, our guide observes: “A giant wrist invades the TV screen, larger than life and sporting pores the size of M & Ms”—it looks like a Barbara Kruger piece!—“sometimes the displayed object is seductively caressed by an errant finger.” Kruger notes the hosts’ “highly veneered niceties, a kind of have-a-nice-day prose rife with hard-sell vagaries and false concern . . . a wizened, cruel memory of what human contact and exchange feel like.” Touché.

No TV genre is left unread: Girl-boy crime-busting duos are decoded, Jerry Lewis’s telethon and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show get drubbings. Kruger busts morning TV’s “tableau of faux-lived-in-midbrow cheer,” where “the sanctity of interior encapsulation remains sturdily intact,” separating “the domestic refuges of ‘life’ from the alien rampages of the ‘world.’” She demystifies TV weather forecasters as concern trolls constructing “events” out of “Nature’s tantrums.” The “foreplay heralding the arrival of this monster”—the much-feared Hurricane Gloria—was a “crescendo of coverage . . . more of an event than the purported event itself.” Adorno would adore Kruger’s read of Puttin’ on the Hits (a sadly defunct showcase of lip-synchers), which “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.” Pass the popcorn, Barbara Kruger. What’s not to like?

Kruger foregrounds the representational strategies we take as givens twenty years later: the constructedness of media “events,” the radical leveling achieved by the random flow of images (the Mediterranean = Detroit = famine = Kibbles ’n Bits), the transformation of subjects into “either actors or viewers simultaneously” (“the video camera has indeed replaced the mirror”). She highlights the way in which the fetish for statistics in show business and politics passes as a replacement for analysis. Watching Entertainment Tonight’s “constant numerical barrage of box office statistics, celebs’ birthdays, and audience demographics,” she notes that it becomes, “through its perky yet trance-like recitation, almost pataphysical if not downright otherworldly.” Kruger’s take on electoral coverage is still horribly apt: dominated by “polls and statistics, an inescapable dose of numerical narrativity that constructs and collapses ‘public opinion’ with a kind of hydraulic ease.” Elsewhere, she anthropomorphizes TV, pondering our “‘open’ relationship” with the thing, which “broadcasts itself as an exquisite generalist, an encyclopedic skimmer that avoids specificity like Dracula dodging the Cross.”

With the relentlessness of an Old Testament prophetess and the mournfulness of Harold Bloom, Kruger outlines all the ways in which TV captures our fascination and spins it into political disengagement (“we can look and not see”). Walter Benjamin’s mass audience of distracted experts is implicit here everywhere.

Though she never explicitly cites Benjamin—or other commentators, which gives her writing a TV-like sense of presentness, as if it is communing with the screen in a void—she channels his attunement to the correspondences between technological formats, states of mind, and politics: “But, of course, we don’t have to think about anything once television lulls us to sleep and begins its dictations.” I don’t know whether she was familiar with Paul Virilio’s oeuvre back then, but she hits on the immediacy, ubiquity, and collapse of time and space by TV in a way that resonates with his eerily prescient concept of “indirect vision”—the trending toward technological interface that anticipated today’s rampant smartphone addiction, as well as drone warfare.

Confronting perhaps the greatest challenge to any project of critique, Kruger shows how TV journalism allows the image to squelch words—“dwarfing each utterance like a slab of beef crushing a tiny sprig of garni”—just as it spews statistics to preempt analysis, in both cases reducing complexity to discrete, digestible icons: images and numbers. Ollie North, star of the Iran-Contra scandal, is her beefy poster boy, “tucking all unpleasant textualities behind a glazed and hunky pose.”

You get the picture. If Kruger’s image-and-caption artwork is aimed at replicating the effects of media—but slowing it down and thereby tuning us in to its operations—her writings are way more effective at delivering that payoff. But that’s just my two cents.

I’ll leave you with her priceless take on The Price Is Right. (This essay actually appeared not in Artforum, but in the October 1979 issue of Real Life magazine under the title “Game Show.” But it’s my favorite Kruger TV moment, so “Barbara Kruger, come on down!”) Check out the excited contestants (“the lucky ones assault the stage like a brigade of squirrels who haven’t had an acorn for a week”); the firm-thighed spokesmodels (“A pink wall sporting a huge dollar sign mysteriously rises, exposing a model in a baby blue chiffon dress who is caressing a gigantic refrigerator”), the announcer (Kruger doesn’t merely see TV, she listens: “‘A NEW CAAAAR!,’ he screams. His bellow is shocking in its intensity, the end of it almost tinged with a sob”). What a vivid, fun, and sharp period piece! I can’t believe I’m now going to quote David Rieff, who recently wrote, reviewing Claude Lanzmann’s memoir, that “truly accurate description is in and of itself a moral act.”

While TV, like love, is beyond good and evil, Kruger’s wonderfully accurate descriptions of the boob tube bear witness to this culturally central appliance—this one-stop shop for fame, fortune, distraction, and what looks like democracy. These days, TV has been absorbed into the all-pervasive adult pacifier of the Internet. Nevertheless, Kruger’s “Remote Controls” remain strikingly pertinent twenty-plus years after she wrote them. There is nothing more exhilarating and gratifying than to see something called out properly. If that’s a moral act, I’ll take it.

Rhonda Lieberman is a contributing editor of Artforum.