In the 1960s television became the most powerful mass medium of the western world. In the U.S.A., where it was commercially structured, TV was already broadcasting 24 hours a day on up to ten channels, and from 1957 it did so in color. As a new part of the culture industry, early on TV became subject to critique by intellectuals such as Theodor W. Adorno and Guy Debord, who addressed it as an ideological instrument in the service of the capitalist system.
Since the early 1960s various critical artistic approaches to TV have emerged. The subversive TV interventions that occurred simultaneously in Europe and in the U.S.A. around 1970 count among the most important of these critiques. The term “interventions” does not designate a clearly defined genre; rather, it is used by artists and critics to refer to a broad range of broadcasted artistic works and practices. In contrast to pirate broadcasting, interventions were realized in more or less close cooperation with conventional TV stations. Furthermore, “[t]hey [were] not announced as ART, but [did] suddenly and unexpectedly interrupt the flow of the program. They acquire[d] meaning only in the context of the broadcast, not as something preserved on video.” (Daniels) Interventions ranged from playful to radical, mostly engendering a subversive reflexivity of the medium’s psychologically effective apparatus.
Early european examples include the interventions by Peter Weibel and Valie Export, which were broadcast from 1969 to 1972 by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (Österreichischer Rundfunk, ORF), a national public service broadcaster. Their work is paradigmatic of a broader tendency by critics of TV to analyze the media’s functions to form the viewing subject. Export’s “Facing a Family” (fig. 1), which was shown on February 28, 1971, confronts the public with a five-minute-long video of a family watching a sports program on an invisible but audible TV set. Their focal point is obviously located very close to the filming camera, with the effect that the viewer of Export’s intervention gets the discomforting impression of being watched by the family on the screen. This effect reveals and reverses the normal situation, in which the TV viewing public is designated the role of quasi-invisible beholder or voyeur. Furthermore, Export’s film allows us to examine the social and gender roles in an average family and how they are lived and stabilized through TV consumption.
TV interventions do not only appropriate the televisual apparatus and reflect upon its effects on the watching subject. They also examine the aesthetics and psychological implications of particular TV formats, such as game show, talk show, or advertisement. In the U.S.A. Chris Burden’s 1972 intervention, later called “TV Hijack”, went so far as to break the law in his attempt to critique TV (fig. 2). During a live talk show to which he had been invited by a local TV station, the artist, with a knife in his hand, threatened the life of his interviewer, Phyllis Lutjeans, if the station stopped live transmission. Burden destroyed the station’s copy of the show, but not the videotape produced by his own crew. “TV Hijack” uses the strategies of appropriation and hyperbole to disclose the aesthetics of live transmissions of extreme situations, the distancing effects of the medium on the beholder, and the transformation of life into spectacle in TV formats working with such content. In “Chris Burden Promo” from 1976, the artist addresses the TV advertisement with a similar strategy. The „Promo“ is part of a series of TV commercials produced by Burden in the 1970s and broadcast at his own expense at the usual price (fig. 3). The 30-second short “Chris Burden Promo” consists of only six artists’ names in yellow text on a blue background that are read simultaneously by a voice-over. While we hear them being pronounced, the written names emerge from the depth of the blue space and quickly become bigger. The first five belong to the most popular artists in the U.S.A. at that time: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso, immediately followed by Burden’s own name. The series is repeated, and the commercial ends with a voiceless copyright and authorship text: “paid for by Chris Burden – artist / © 1976.” The ad parodies the aesthetics of TV commercials, mimicking their strategies, such as repetition, exaggeration, and the one-dimensional presentation of the promoted products.
Even if they are not expressly defined as art, in the context of 1970s TV programs, interventions like Export’s and Burden’s videos are easily recognizable as such, due to the ambiguity of their meaning and to their self-reflexivity. For instance, the “Chris Burden Promo” not only mimics a TV ad, it also refers to the commercial mechanisms of the art market and positions itself in a nascent tradition of artistic TV critique. In a video from 1973, “Television Delivers People” (fig. 4), Richard Serra uses repetitive slogans and the eye-catching combination of yellow writing and blue background to parody TV aesthetics. By the 1980s artists seemed to have lost interest in interventions as a reflexive art form distinct from regular TV formats. Instead, subversive practice entered and merged with genuine TV productions. Important examples of this phenomenon are the American animated sitcom “The Simpsons” (1989-present) and the talk show “Talk 2000” (1997) by the German theater director and filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.
fig. 1: Valie Export: Facing a Family, 1971, Video, b/w, sound, 5:11 (excerpt),
fig. 2: Chris Burden: Still from TV Hijack, 1972,
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- David Joselit. Television against Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
- Art and Television. Exhibition cat. Bonn: Kunstmuseum Bonn and Vaduz: Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein,. Ed. by Dieter Daniels and Stephan Berg. München: Hirmer Verlag, 2016.
- Subversion zur Prime-Time. Die Simpsons und die Mythen der Gesellschaft. Ed. by Michael Gruteser, Thomas Klein and Andreas Rauscher. Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 2002.
- Sandra Umathum. “Von der Kunst, die Bilder zu stören. Unvollständiges zu Christoph Schlingensiefs Interventionen im Fernsehen.“ In: Kunst/Fernsehen. Ed. by Klaus Krüger, Christian Hammes and Matthias Weiß, Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2016, pp. 113-127.
- Dieter Daniels on the relations between art and television: http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/overview_of_media_art/massmedia/1/, last access: January 7, 2017
- Nick Stillman on Chris Burden: http://www.eastofborneo.org/articles/do-you-believe-in-television-chris-burden-and-tv, last access: January 7, 2017
About the author:
Magdalena Nieslony is an Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Department of Art History at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Her research addresses the Russian and European avant-gardes, American art after 1945, the methodology of Art History, the relationship between art and art criticism, and the interplay between art and mass media. She is the co-editor of Theorie². Potenzial und Potenzierung künstlerischer Theorie (with Eva Ehninger, Peter Lang Verlag, 2014) and the author of Bedingtheit der Malerei. Ivan Puni und die moderne Bildkritik (Gebrüder Mann Verlag, 2016). She is currently working on the critique of linear perspective in the American art of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Reference / Quellennachweis:
Magdalena Nieslony: TV Interventions, in: Aesthetics of Resistance, Pictorial Glossary, The Nomos of Images, ISSN: 2366-9926, 9 January 2017, URL: https://nomoi.hypotheses.org/952