The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2012

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APR 2012 Issue

ALEX BAG AND PATTERSON BECKWITH Cash from Chaos / Unicorns & Rainbows

To my fellow Cultural Omnivores,

I’m interested to know your thoughts on the recent exhibitions, screenings, and forums that have focused on artistic engagement with television content, formats, and viewership. Given our shared love of both art and television, it’s interesting to consider how each is informed or undermined by the other in these instances.

Alex Bag and Patterson Beckwith, “Cash from Chaos / Unicorns & Rainbows.” Images courtesy of the artist and Team Gallery.
On View
Team Gallery
March 29 – April 28, 2012
New York

Take Vaudeville Park’s Channel to Channel, a screening a few months back that showcased a selection of video art centered on reconfigurations of television tropes. Ben Dowell’s “Untitled (Doritos Commercial)” (2006)takes a transcript from a morning news show debate on the topic of the legitimacy of psychiatric drugs and recasts the dialogue as a conversation between two conspicuously untelegenic men. They deliver lines awkwardly as they eat Doritos with robotic persistence.

Are we to interpret Dowell’s piece as a condemnation of pop-science punditry, in which the spectacle of inflammatory topics, dumbed down for easy consumption by a television audience, replaces meaningful dialogue? And were the Doritos a jab at the creative content of television relying on corporate-controlled advertisers?

Other Channel to Channel selections appeared to embrace television’s potential to reach broad audiences and its ability to draw viewers into complex fabricated worlds. Some videos were broadcast on public access channels, including Erica Magrey’s wonderfully strange piece inspired by science-fiction television series and John Kilduff’s program satirizing instructional painting shows.

All of the videos included were fantastic, in my opinion. Most of them humorous in some way, they struck a nice balance between high-minded provocations and “low culture” television strategies, taking the opportunity to parody but also to entertain, and treating the medium as a legitimate outlet for artistic expression.

How do these projects figure into the activist approach highlighted in “Demystifying Dominant Narratives on TV in New York and Norway,” a talk given last month as part of the Armory Show’s Open Forum? Panelist Maria Juliana Byck, from Paper Tiger Television, spoke about the collaborative team’s lo-fi, experimental program, which has aired on Manhattan’s public access channel since 1981 with the intention of subverting corporate control of television.

Also at the Open Forum talk, artist Sara Eliassen presented her anti-commercials made with collaborator Lilja Ingolfsdottir. Broadcast on Norwegian television, their pieces appropriate the high-gloss visuals of expensively produced TV ads to parody the inherently sexist commercials that feed the cultural obsession with female beauty.

Both projects are on point in their critiques. But would you agree that non-art televised efforts by The Onion, The Colbert Report, or Saturday Night Live (the brilliant commercial parody in which Tina Fey makes out with a man-shaped brownie comes to mind) are less didactic and more effective in turning the mechanisms of mass media against itself? Byck and Eliassen readily admitted that their work is mainly viewed in graduate seminars and art exhibitions.

If you want to check out an exhibition by an established artist whose practice has been significantly shaped by the influence of television, I would recommend Alex Bag’s collaborative installation with Patterson Beckwith, currently on view at Team Gallery. The exhibition features compilations of the artists’ public access program, created in the early stages of Bag’s career and broadcast on Manhattan’s Channel 34 from 1994 to 1997.

The television show was a hodge-podge of the artists’ punk-rock fueled antics interspersed with clips that resemble The Soup-style recaps of the week’s talk shows. In Bag and Patterson’s selections, otherwise inane scenes take on meaning through the use of video editing, like a looped clip from The Jenny Jones Show of a woman showcasing her “stupid human trick”—forcing ingested milk to dribble out her eyes.

But what do you think? Do you agree with me that the commingling of fine art and television, enjoyable entities usually seen as separate, if not antagonistic, provides a welcome opportunity for evaluation and critique? I would love to know your opinion.

Eve Perry


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2012

All Issues