New York

“Good Morning, Mr. Orwell”

PBS And The Kitchen

Why is it that when I think about “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,” the video variety program broadcast live (via satellite) between Paris and New York on New Year’s Day, the first thing that comes to mind is yodeling? Perhaps because of the yodels and near-yodels that appeared on the hour-long interactive broadcast, conceived and organized by Nam June Paik and coproduced by WNET in New York and FR3 in Paris. First there was Mitchell Kriegman’s banal “blues yodel,” whose echo was supposed to be its retransmission from Paris, delayed by the one second it takes for a signal to go up to the Bright Star satellite and back. But it didn’t come back—problems with the feed, and so a lame gag became a meaningless one. Then there was Philip Glass’ music for John Sanborn and Dean Winkler’s Act III; the mad pace of that videotape, with its pseudo–Star Wars animation of spinning, exploding cubes and spheres rushing over computer-generated landscapes, was matched by the manic frenzy of Glass’ music, in which his familiar celestial choir yo-hoed so fast that it began to sound like an anxious yodel. And finally there was Peter Orlovsky, howling about raspberries and throwing in an occasional yodel or two for emphasis.

On another level, though, the image of yodeling seems apt because it describes Paik’s method, both here and in his other work—but rather than a voice being pitched rapidly back and forth between normal singing and a falsetto, in his work it’s the conventional video image that’s rapidly alternated with processed or manipulated imagery. And it’s not just two kinds of images that he switches between, but many, making a Dadaist video collage—an electronic yodel. This disjunctive quality was strong in the version of the show broadcast from New York, but it was particularly apparent in the Paris version. (Afterwards the Kitchen showed the two tapes side by side, allowing for some interesting comparisons.) When the Thompson Twins were on here, for example, Emile Ardolino, the New York director, presented them in standard multicamera fashion, perhaps reflecting his long experience with PBS broadcasts of live ballet and theater. Meanwhile Paik, in Paris, was playing with the image of rock singer Sapho like a kid torturing a ball of Silly Putty, squeezing it, stretching it, throwing it out into video space, chopping it up into little fragments—and when he got bored, putting it down and moving on to shots of some particularly absurd fashions by Studio Berçot.

The premise of the show—which Paik and several of the other participating artists helped finance out of their own pockets—was to comment on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and, as Paik said, to “celebrate the positive possibilities of the media.” Many of the acts referred directly to Orwell’s prophecy, most seeming a little thrilled by its lurid pessimism. “TV is eating up your brains!” Sapho sang (translated in subtitles). Laurie Anderson told a couple of her dark Vocoderized allegories (in her mannerisms and white suit suggesting Steve Martin), and she and Peter Gabriel sang a song. The group that best caught the blend of paranoia and giddiness that the prospect of 1984 induced, though, was Urban Sax, 80 saxophonists and vocalists who appeared from Paris in white radiation-cleanup overalls, half of them walking up a down escalator, the other half going down the up, honking dolefully while they pedaled in place.

The show had more than its share of technical problems—the satellite glitches continued throughout—and as a result some of the better bits weren’t broadcast to both continents. (By the same token, the Europeans were spared Krieg man’s and Orlovsky’s yodels.) Some performances on both sides seemed to be just shticks, but overall there was a sense of great excitement to the proceedings, and at times the energy of the artists and of the event itself seemed almost enough to make the program burst out of the TV set. Afterwards, though, it was back to the usual bland pudding: “Dr. Manson’s commitment to medicine falters, this week on Masterpiece Theater,” the PBS announcer intoned, in a voice like that of a teacher returning to an uproarious classroom.

Charles Hagen