Jef Cornelis, De Straat (The Street), 1972, 16 mm transferred to video, color and black-and-white, sound, 39 minutes 30 seconds.

Jef Cornelis, De Straat (The Street), 1972, 16 mm transferred to video, color and black-and-white, sound, 39 minutes 30 seconds.

Jef Cornelis

Jef Cornelis, De Straat (The Street), 1972, 16 mm transferred to video, color and black-and-white, sound, 39 minutes 30 seconds.

The importance of what Jef Cornelis produced during his career at the BRT—the Belgian Radio and Television company, later renamed the Flemish Radio and Television company—can hardly be overestimated. Between 1964 and 1998, Cornelis directed more than two hundred documentaries, film essays, and live broadcasts on modern art, architecture, and other topics in the cultural domain. “Inside the White Tube. A Retrospective View on the Television Work of Jef Cornelis” gave an overwhelming image of four decades of television historiography. Although today it is tempting to look at this exhibition in a purely nostalgic way—as the record of a lost paradise of public television—one should instead zoom in on the methods Cornelis used to undermine and disarray the laws of TV production.

The exhibition’s four thematic sections (“Speaking in Tongues,” “Arguments,” “Decades,” and “Counterpoints”) gradually gave the viewer a sense of the diversity of Cornelis’s oeuvre. Abdij van Park Heverlee (Abbey of the Heverlee Park), 1964, shot in 35 mm, demonstrates the radical way Cornelis’s storytelling undermines television conventions. Slow, elaborate, and compositionally well-conceived tracking shots of the abbey’s architecture unfold, without any commentary, interview, or explanatory voice-over, over the course of just under half an hour. This is an early, maybe not yet totally balanced, example of what Cornelis would produce later on. In De Straat (The Street), 1972, a pumping soundscape with a mix of recognizable street noise, music, and a rather archaically literary voice-over accompanies breathtaking shots from a helicopter and acerbic jump cuts between street and market scenes in Belgium, Italy, and elsewhere—all as a way of commenting on an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, “De Straat. Vorm van samenleven” (The Street: A Way of Living Together). This disjointed roller-coaster of images and sounds is a good example of how Cornelis hijacked television as a platform for his personal artistic vision, rather than merely using it as a tool to convey basic information.

In 1986, the late Belgian curator Jan Hoet made history with his large-scale exhibition “Chambres d’amis”: In private homes throughout the city of Ghent, renowned artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Bruce Nauman, Daniel Buren, and local hero Panamarenko displayed their work. This exhibition prompted Cornelis to organize a tour de force of his own. With its six hours of live television, De langste dag (The Longest Day), 1986, was Cornelis’s most sensational and ambitious project. Satellite television had been used to cover big sporting events or breaking news stories, but an art exhibition? That’s exactly what Cornelis employed it for that June 21, the day the exhibition opened. Switching between a studio location with a very young Chris Dercon as the conversational foil for curators Germano Celant and Denys Zacharopoulos; a newsroom with journalists commenting on what was happening in the city and answering telephone calls from the audience; dazzling helicopter shots; and mobile interventions in the houses where the works had been installed, Cornelis created a new way to treat art as a mainstream cultural event.

It would be impossible to describe every film in this remarkable exhibition, which itself represented only a small selection from Cornelis’s vast body of work, but one section, “Speaking in Tongues,” deserves particular mention. Eight short films shot between 1969 and 1990 presented the filmmaker at his most radical. Each work was a variation on the conventional artist-portrait, but in C’est moi que je peins, Wie alleen staat heeft recht van spreken (It Is My Own Self That I Am Painting, Who Stands Alone Has the Right to Speak Up), 1996, for instance, we see a shot, several minutes long and without commentary, of an office door through which civil servants are leaving their workplace. It is not clear why we are viewing this seemingly banal shot; to see it on television is disorienting. Cornelis finally gives a clue by showing the artist Jacques Charlier talking about why he finds this banal situation so significant.

Although it now seems unthinkable that anyone could create such avant-garde projects for mass audiences on public television, this show was convincing proof that once upon a time such a subversive approach was really possible. Television can be much more than a passive feeding tube. It can actually become art.

Jos Van den Bergh