PRINT January 2015


Maeve Connolly’s TV Museum

Stephen Sutcliffe, The Hidden God, 2014, HD digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes 31 seconds. From “Artists and Archives: Artists’ Moving Image at the BBC.”

“THERE’S SOME KIND OF a haunting here that I’m picking up,” warns Mindy, a late-night psychic on a fake public-access television show in Phil Collins’s latest film, Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, 2014. “Does it make sense to ask yourself: Who have I become? . . . When did touch turn from a skin-to-skin contact into the glow of a missed FaceTime call?” Collins’s restaging of public-access spots is one of a number of artists’ sympathetic explorations of television within artistic work over the past fifteen years. TV has emerged as a subject of not only formal but also social and what might be called “infrastructural” investigation: Artists are considering facets ranging from TV’s relation to live audiences and the sitcom genres and program formats it has generated to more arcane subject matter, including the ways in which archival footage is classified and the use of live musicians on-air. This broader conception of TV appears, not coincidentally, at a moment when the medium is itself being redefined—as something that encompasses live streaming on the Internet, on-demand viewing, and various forms of two-way interaction, as well as the familiar box in the living room—making an examination of “TV” either helplessly slippery or rooted in some retrospective notion of the subject. At the same time, even alongside the new communication channels opened up by the Web, institutions have assiduously used television as a means to reach new publics or to better engage with existing ones. This is the rich landscape surveyed by the Irish film and art historian, and Artforum contributor, Maeve Connolly in TV Museum: Contemporary Art and the Age of Television, in which she keenly analyzes the medium’s particular public dimension to place TV alongside that flagship institution of the decaying public sphere: the museum.

Her argument is supported by shifts both in readings of TV and in artistic practice. In the 1960s and ’70s, artists such as Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman focused on TV’s structural properties in relation to their concurrent video practices; David Joselit’s Feedback: Television Against Democracy (2007) newly emphasized the political implications of such artists and media activists working with TV during this period. And artists today are using television ever more “in-the-round.” At the same time, contemporary art, and in particular the field of the moving image, has traditionally aligned itself with cinema, while TV—that normalizing boob tube of passive consumption—has been taken as a subject to be opposed (think Martha Rosler or Owen Land). This has been partly due to a lingering sense of artistic hierarchy, where cinema still hovers comfortably above the medium that produced Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. In fact, as Connolly writes, it is in this contested sense of TV as a “low art” that its potential lies.

Connolly’s chief claim is that TV provides a means for discussing class and social tensions: It is linked in a privileged and specific way to the public sphere. She pinpoints curator Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 in 2002 as the moment that TV’s status changed in the contemporary art world, with the inclusion of Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986), a documentary on race riots among African-Caribbean and South Asian immigrants in Britain, and Stan Douglas’s TV/video installation Suspiria, 2003. Seen together, she argues, they indicate the spectrum by which TV will be taken up by artists: as a means to address identity, in works that have moved comfortably from network broadcasts into the gallery (Handsworth Songs), and as a marker of the television monitor as an outdated artifact at the end of the analog age (Suspiria).

Further, Connolly demonstrates, the interest in TV as a form tied to publicness is a means for curators to negotiate the public nature of the contemporary art institution itself. This is especially so within museums grouped under the “New Institutionalism” moniker, which seek not only to collect and look after cultural objects but to engage with the social and political issues of their context. Drawing on discussions of the public sphere, a specialism of Connolly’s, she writes that television shares the museums’ briefs of “civic reform, education, and governmentality” and aspires to be a social space where a number of classes and interests meet. Thus, she shows, a number of institutions since the 2000s—such as the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania, and the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö, Sweden—set up broadcasting services as means to present their activities more discursively or to communicate with wider audiences, using TV’s democratic access to mirror the public aspirations of their projects. Artists, too, have used TV in place of the traditional public outlet of the museum and even the memorial, often complicating the sense of authority that these terms imply. For example, in Thomas Hirschhorn’s Bataille Monument, 2002, also made for Documenta 11, a local television channel broadcast intermittent reports about its namesake French thinker and the housing complex in which Hirschhorn’s installation was sited, turning the monument over to the public who viewed it.

Similarly, artists’ engagement with the organizational setup of TV—as in a recent collaboration between the London film distributor LUX, BBC Scotland, and Creative Scotland, where six artists were invited for a residency at the BBC in Glasgow—often focuses on the systems by which TV historically asserted itself as a mass-cultural form. The separation of powers inherent in public-TV programs/stations (commissioning board, presenter, fortresslike studio, comptroller, etc.) becomes a (sometimes biased) means of guaranteeing and promulgating views held in common and of conferring credibility on the work produced. Connolly skillfully notes a similar loss of authority on the part of museums, which are moving away from their nineteenth-century mission of promulgating set notions of civilization and education. TV Museum looks closely at the construction of museums as a realm of high art and TV as a realm of low art to show how these statuses were in fact constantly in the process of being negotiated and legitimated, while suggesting that these concepts are both now fully under threat with our changing notions of the public sphere. This is the central (and substantial) contribution of the study to the field.

Hinging her argument so closely on the public sphere, however, presents certain limitations for Connolly’s reading of the current artistic landscape. Collins, for example, has said that his interest in public-access TV in Tomorrow Is Always Too Long derives from a nostalgia for the fertile and creative arena of working-class entertainment. “It’s what perfect TV would be for me,” he recently remarked of the film. The putative decline of the dignity of the working class is a regular British talking point, and a troublesome aspect of looking at TV as a cultural institution, particularly one that refracts social and class tensions, is its rather nonglobalized national character, which plays oddly against the monoculture of international contemporary art. That is, Connolly’s insight, while largely accurate in Europe, doesn’t translate entirely to the US, in ways that help pinpoint the two areas’ different attitudes toward both the public sphere and class in general. As she acknowledges, even taking into account PBS, the US lacks the publicly funded broadcasters common to Europe, which are viewed there as national sources of pride and as genuine repositories of collective memory. Likewise for museums, the shift from public funding to private philanthropy, already navigated or never even in the cards for US museums, is much more of a factor in Europe, where New Institutionalism has also taken greater hold. Accordingly, though contemporary artists in the US have also engaged with TV more broadly, the look and feel of such work is often quite different. Alex Israel’s restagings of the talk-show TV interview in As It Lays, 2012, for instance, concentrate on celebrity culture, with its vivid demonstrations of discrepancies in wealth. To view TV solely through the lens of its publicness is also to miss the changes forced on TV by the Internet—the not-so-new kid on the block—where, for example, the lateralizing effects (or impression) of following a celebrity on social media emphasize the strict public/private divisions embedded in analog-TV production and spectatorship.

Certainly part of the recent interest in TV is owing to the reliable artistic affinity for technological forms once they begin to become obsolete. Indeed, set in relief against online viewing platforms, the public associations of TV come into sharper focus. Where TV convokes a public, in the sense that a set group of viewers sit down at the same time to watch the same program, the Internet individualizes. I select my own Twitter feed, look at my unique friend group’s postings on Facebook, follow my own personal track of kittens falling off tables on YouTube. It’s no surprise that so many current TV restagings are obsessed with the Internet; Mindy in Tomorrow Is Always Too Long rants, for instance, about our umbilical attachment to our smartphones and the way they displace our sense of self. By returning to TV in its many guises, artists are returning, in a more basic sense, to a notion of stability, whether conceived in terms of fixed subject and class positions, mass audience, or programming schedules (and its domestic corollaries, nationally observed times for dinner, entertainment, and bed)—as well as to a fixed economy of attention.

As the art world moves to take in performance art in an enlarged capacity, this question of attention has become ever more important. Tate Modern’s 2012 Tanks series “Art in Action,” for example, which looked at historical examples of video and performance art and expanded cinema (such as Aldo Tambellini’s multimedia installation Retracing Black, 2012, an adaptation for the space of work from the ’60s), attempted to write a history for performance art from within the museum, at times shifting what had been live events of a fixed duration into permanent installations, where they were viewed, paradoxically, by often more distracted visitors who entered, engaged, and passed on. In this way, the brand of participatory performances by the likes of Tino Sehgal can be seen as a determined attempt to obtain and secure the attention of the contemporary art audience, which is now fractured both by performance’s move into the institution and by the phone in each viewer’s pocket. Patterns of production and consumption have radically changed across the board and across our proliferating screens. In retrospect, the great, normalizing behemoth of TV, as Connolly’s investigation shows, was not all bad.

Melissa Gronlund is an editor of Afterall and a lecturer in artists’ film at Oxford University.