Philadelphia

Connie Coleman and Alan Powell

Temple Contemporary

Exhortation, seduction, intimidation: Connie Coleman and Alan Powell’s ambitious video trilogy, entitled Negotiations for a Heaven on Earth: Threats, Promises, Desires, 1988, takes on these tactics of mass media manipulation in order to critique television’s power to fashion cultural consciousness. The piece employs borrowed texts and imagery from actual broadcast footage, reconstituting them via state-of-the-art image-processing; in terms of sophistication and methodology, the processing technique mirrors high-end media technology. The artists also devised three sculptural environments—one each for “Threats,” “Promises,” and “Desires”—as contextually appropriate sites of reception for the segments’ messages regarding media portrayals of power, sex, and violence.

The “Promises” section suggests a generic town meeting hall or VFW post. Folding chairs face a squat Corinthian capital, on which a giant wedge of apple pie supporting a video monitor is poised; the entire ensemble is set against an American flag. On the screen, one actor, assuming three different roles, delivers excerpts from TV speeches by corporate consultant Tom Peters (whose “Nine Customer Promises” from his In Search of Excellence series inspired this segment), John F. Kennedy, and televangelists Robert Schuller and Pat Robertson. The actor shifts character by adopting minimal changes in voice, dress, and hairstyle, but is always presented as a talking head expostulating against a starry, blue background that mimics conventional news-show graphics. Through its parodic conflation of the realms of economics, politics, and religion, all of which promise a different variety of “pie in the sky,” “Promises” exposes the highly codified presentational tactics by which television’s texts of power and persuasion are delivered, while reducing them to an interchangeable, coalescent babble. Here, too, homogeneity of representation and mode of address clarify the media’s tacit identification with paternalistic models and patriarchal forms.

In “Desires,” a montage of appropriated and processed footage from the dance show Soul Train, intercut with edited commercials and excerpts from game shows such as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, unfolds within a deliberately flimsy, game-show-like set. The fast-paced juxtaposition of food, cars, and beautiful bodies—those ubiquitous objects of desire that provide the stimulus for our everyday fantasies of consumption—humorously explicate the libidinal appeal of commodity esthetics.

“Threats” features a paneled den, whose television set is enshrined within a faux-brick “home entertainment center.” Here, Coleman and Powell have collaged snippets from soap operas, cop shows, and TV news, interspersing the footage with still frames of apocalyptic quotations from sources such as Rap Brown, Hitler, and Albert Einstein. “Threats” isolates and recontextualizes violent imagery in such a way as to render suspect even a seemingly innocuous nature program. The recurring image of a snake swallowing a rat, for example, becomes a symbol for the media’s promotion of a sensibility valorizing a ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest ethic. Completing the installation are computer-print stills from each video segment. The stills are encased in trompe l’oeil marble frames designed to resemble classical temples. These pieces objectify the show’s three major themes, while acknowledging the intersection of institutionalized high art and popular culture.

The message of “Negotiations,” however didactic, is also powerfully clear. The medium is the mythos; in the realm of the hyperreal, the boundaries between fiction and reality have been irremediably blurred. Breaking the codes of television’s representational forms—those modes of signification that homogenize difference, perpetuate the stereotypical, and sanitize the horrible—becomes a critical means of pointing out the infiltration of our collective sensibility and our complicity in that infiltration. While this is not new thematic territory, Coleman and Powell have explored it with sufficient urgency and skill to warrant our close attention.

Paula Marincola