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Issue 30 September-October 1996 RSS

Let’s Play Prisoners

Art

Video Art and Human Relations

‘The surest, and often the only way, by which a crowd can preserve itself lies in the existence of a second crowd to which it is related. Whether the two crowds confront each other as rivals in a game, or as a serious threat to each other, the sight, or simply the powerful image of the second crowd, prevents the disintegration of the first. As long as all eyes are turned in the direction of the eyes opposite, knee will stand locked by knee; as long as all ears are listening for the expected shout from the other side, arms will move to a common rhythm.’

- Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (1960)

I was watching The Sports Machine on TV a while ago, when on came one of its regular segments, the AT&T Long Distance Play of the Week. This particular episode featured a black and white videotape of an 8th grade basketball game sent in by a viewer. With only a few seconds of play remaining, one team began to take the ball out from under their own basket. A kid took the pass, dribbled right, cut back left and eluded still a third opposing player, all under the watchful eye of the camera. With time running out and yet another defender closing in, he launched a shot from half court. It went in. Pandemonium! The kid was mobbed by his team-mates, people came out of the stands to congratulate him, but he didn’t seem interested. In fact, he seemed rather annoyed with them for impeding his exit from the court, and as he struggled towards the sidelines he scanned the crowd, as if looking for someone. When his eyes finally met the gaze of the camera, he pointed directly at it and I read his lips pleading: ‘Did you get it? Did you get it?’. The camera nodded. Only then did the kid get excited and start jumping around with his team-mates.

About a year ago I was in Lyon, looking at the films of Auguste and Louis Lumière - or rather, working my way through a CD-ROM touchscreen connected to a 3-channel video projector in the screening room of their family mansion-turned-museum. It was wonderfully charming and candid material, beautiful not only for its celebrated sense of drama and composition but also for the brothers’ indiscriminate enthusiasm. But while much has been said about the audience’s reaction to seeing the Lumières’ trains approaching them on screen, I came away more curious about the people in the films themselves: strangers in the street and the Lumières’ employees, family and friends. How did the Lumière brothers persuade them to co-operate? Did they extol the virtues of participating in a scientific experiment? Did they flatter them with the prospect of having their picture taken with this new device, or promise them a paid reprieve from the assembly line? Obviously, the employees of the Lumière factory were on the payroll, but you might expect the brothers’ contract with their family and friends to have been rather more delicate. The fact is that the Lumière family starred in so many films, exhibiting such pride and good humour, that all appears to have been very cordial in the household Lumière. This is most evident when a skit has ended with film still left in the camera and the subjects begin improvising after a few nervous seconds, even though the artifice of the whole situation has broken down. In these moments, the actors, the script and the apparatus itself all fracture into disparate parts, displaying the Lumière brothers’ most recognisable and enduring trait: imperfection.

There is another recurring incident in the Lumières’ films, though, that is less familiar to living eyes: that of people wilfully, almost apologetically, getting out of the view of the camera. In the Lumières’ various street films strangers repeatedly realise they have walked into some cone of influence and politely remove themselves. Continually frustrated by the general public’s inability to ignore the giant coffee mill being cranked at them, the Lumières experimented with planting ‘steerers’ in their crowds (Dublin, l’incendrie; Londres, l’entrée du cinematographe), or simply gave live instructions from behind the camera (Moscou, le promenade), as often evidenced by their subjects’ bewildered expressions (but this may have had more to do with their knowledge of Russian). What the Lumières wanted, of course, was for people to act naturally; but this was their misconception. What they really wanted was for people to act unnaturally, to act as if the camera wasn’t there. It took time for this desire to be mutually acknowledged and for behaviours to develop that were quite different from the ones required for still photography. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that the Lumières turned to more reliable subject matter, like trains, ceremonies and soldiers, until the public could get up to speed.

If, 100 years ago, people didn’t quite know how to behave in front of a motion picture device, then the behaviour of the kid in the basketball video suggests that we’ve entered an era when we don’t know how not to. Thanks to the security systems of the police, banks, convenience stores and private residences, and the computer graphics component of the Global Positioning System (the network of satellites that provides the Pentagon, and later this year, the public, with constant 64-bit graphics of every square metre on earth), it is practically impossible to be anywhere on the planet without being in view of a camera. This is a state of affairs that most Etats Unisiennes prefer and, whenever possible, like to exploit. During the O.J. Simpson trial there was more than one person who wrote a letter to the editor proposing that the Pentagon knew who the murderer was, simply because the crime had been committed outdoors and was thus recorded by the GPS. Whether such surveillance feats are possible doesn’t make any difference: if we’re capable of imagining them, then they’ve already taken effect, at least to the extent that our imaginings begin to alter our sense of what we can get away with. The Pentagon responded by saying that the idea was preposterous, adding that such information - if it did exist, mind you - was classified, and unable to be released. They are great at public relations strategy.

II

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that the use of video is an exertion of power. Not because video is inherently omnipotent or oppressive, but because we have come to understand that video produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. Video has not conquered some aesthetic or political mountain so much as the bastions of exclusion and categorisation (museums, nationalities, governments, sexual preferences) have been made low by the medium’s ubiquity. At any given moment, it seems the sum totals of people in the act of viewing (television watchers, camcorder users, security personnel) and those being viewed (actors, shoppers, stadium crowds) pretty much even out, as does the amount of videotape being produced (manufactured, shot, animated), reproduced (broadcast, recorded, dubbed) and destroyed (confiscated, recorded over, edited, cancelled) in the vast, electro-magnetic cosmos.

Consequently, power - in all its forms - is perceived to be more mutual, accessible, chameleon-like and diffuse. When viewed in this way, the strength of every citizen becomes directly proportional to whatever power they can exert as a negotiator, producer, voter or consumer; everyone gives and gets what they deserve. In such a value system, abuse of power, in the 80s sense, is no longer possible. Abuse is only possible now when power is resisted, or ceases to be seized and used. Thus, regarding every matter and in every direction, the use of power is what motivates and guides us. Anything that can happen, should; anything that can’t, won’t; that is fair and just. Such are the terms of a marketplace unfettered by hierarchy or affirmative action, a ruthless commercialism that we have flirted with ever since Marinetti let out the clutch. And even though these terms can still be forestalled (therapeutic institutions), attacked (neo-Luddites), side-stepped (I do my best) or critiqued (take your pick), they cannot be escaped or reversed. Power is both absolutely indiscreet, since it is everywhere and always alert; and absolutely discreet, for it functions permanently and largely in silence. Power misses nothing and no longer needs to apologise.

Originality becomes useless in such an environment, or at the very least becomes much harder to capitalise upon since it presupposes a uniqueness that is not recognisable, and thus incapable of spreading. Originality, like the individual, becomes solitary and weak. However, choosing to use the words, images and mannerisms of others is strategically intelligent, since it not only makes you recognisable to them but also increases your ranks. (As every smart ad man and speech writer knows, paring down your range of images and vocabulary tends to broaden your appeal.) Recognition breeds familiarity, familiarity breeds approval, and approval breeds success (power). If that sounds like paranoia or some kind of free-market fascism, then consider the status of individuality. After decades of cultural endeavour based on the plight of the individual, from Kafka and Existentialism to the Situationists and La Dolce Vita (1960), the Art of Proper Social Spacing reached its apogee in the cigarettes and cocktail dresses of late-60s Factory parties - in other words, at the very moment that video’s burgeoning influence began rendering skills such as leaning against the wall and wearing sunglasses indoors obsolete. Vito Acconci’s protean phone sex, Bruce Nauman’s video corridors, Dan Graham’s architectonics and William Wegman’s happy captivity made it clear that social space and one’s awareness within it were becoming more compelling, manipulative and hermetic.

Whether you regard the current surveillance/communications/entertainment terrain as an opportunity to be seized (Nam June Paik), an invasion to be critiqued (Martha Rosler), or a more banal and inevitable aspect of life to be negotiated, one that can be both profitable and threatening but is usually harmlessly inane (George Kuchar), there are no more hiding places. Life consists of any number of contractual relations, both human and wired, with your immediate and distant surroundings. While technology can be useful in maintaining those relations, it is not essential. All you really need is an electronic sense of space, a willingness to exert power, and the ability to negotiate your closeness over time. You know, like you do with your parents.

III

‘There is only one way under high heaven to get anybody to do anything. Did you ever stop to think of that? Yes, just one way. And that is by making the other person want to do it. The only way I can get you to do anything is by giving you what you want. What do you want?’

- Dale Carnegie, How To Win Friends and Influence People (1936)

University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate Gary Becker has devoted a lifetime to calculating monetary values for the entire range of human interaction, from giving someone a present to waiting in line or raising children, and his ideas proliferate even if we haven’t read his books. 1 There can be a great sense of relief when all our emotional tallies and manipulations are accepted as inherent to human psychology, treated monetarily, and negotiated as such - principles that the legal system, particularly divorce courts, have practised for years. If we regard our social relations primarily in the language of contracts, of obligations to be met over a period of time with certain rewards and penalties in the balance, then, out of a sense of survival, we begin to seek the best deals possible for ourselves, irrespective of any benefit to others. Being a person in the world today means negotiating the most advantageous position possible from which to simultaneously view and be viewed. In such a confining but limitless network, video’s ubiquity and economy are its most appealing, and therefore most powerful, traits. Artists keen on survival have deemed it the power tool of choice. Through video, the slightest intimacy or atrocity can be seen all over the world; the most humorous monologue may be distributed to 27 group shows at once, viewed in galleries, museums, schools or the home - and then viewed again. The most practical aspect of working with video is also its most fantastic: that of using the dominant medium of surveillance and communication to exploit one’s position within that very terrain, to engage all the various relations to be won, lost or forestalled.

And while there are several artists using video (and film) as a kind of collaborative manipulation, among them Sophie Calle (Double Blind, 1992), Stan Douglas (Monodramas, 1989/90 and Evening, 1994), Lucy Gunning (Singing Lesson, 1994), Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy (Fresh Acconci, 1995), Steve McQueen (Stage, 1996), Rosemarie Trockel (Continental Divide, 1994), George Kuchar (all his work), Julia Scher (ditto), Diana Thater (ditto again), Franz West (there’s a group show right there), Gillian Wearing (I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, 1995), and Sam Taylor-Wood (Killing Time, 1994), space only allows discussion of four videotapes, all of which are perhaps less known but which address this idea most explicitly - and, incidentally, most cruelly. Let the seller beware. This isn’t for your own good. And don’t protect me from what I want.

Like Robert Smithson’s non-sites in the 60s or Cindy Sherman’s film stills in the 70s, the release of Julie Zando’s Let’s Play Prisoners (1988, black and white, 22 minutes) was a stunning harbinger of things to come. Derived from a story by Jo Anstey, the tape is an interspliced re-telling of the story by an adult woman seated in a hot, slightly interrogatory interior and a young girl in a suburban backyard, both of which are disrupted by clips of nameless women and infants lifted from home movies. Neither subject appears to know the story very well; the woman’s narrative comes from the script she holds and the girl’s from an off-camera prompter, whose disembodied voice becomes that of the camera itself - the voice of authority (it is Zando’s voice). The camera gives instructions and the woman and child receive them, before reiterating what they’ve just been given.

The camera is unflinching and occasionally aggressive with the woman, regularly asking her to repeat phrases that she has not inflected properly, at one point reaching out and giving her an instructive smack on the head. But the camera is also considerate, never asking her to repeat more information than she can remember and always nurturing the impression that a good performance is in her best interests. Is the woman auditioning for a part, or learning an alibi that must be seamlessly corroborated? Either could be the case and as you watch the tape you find yourself both empathising with the woman’s plight and getting annoyed with her inability to deliver the narrative satisfactorily. Why can’t she get it right? Why should she? Maybe the camera should give her another smack on the head. Maybe she likes being kept this way, or maybe she enjoys exerting what little power she has by wasting the camera’s time.

Zando’s relationship with the girl is markedly different, as are her concerns with the girl’s performance. Where the woman’s recitation focuses on the illusion of her investment in the story, on her emotional believability, the little girl’s focuses on her retention, her literal accuracy. She is not performing so much as learning a lesson, and whether she repeats her phrases half-heartedly, fluidly or while lolling in the grass makes no difference to the camera, as long as she gets the words right. Here the camera is more prone to misjudge the capacity of its subject, frequently having to shorten or repeat phrases to make them digestible, but it never gets cross; it doesn’t have to, because it has the status of a non-parental authority for whom the girl must be obedient. She complies in the understanding that the sooner she gets through the exercise, the sooner she will be released. Her experience of power thus far has taught her that autonomy can only be bargained for, and the cleaner the deal the greater the bargain - a concept made clear by the presence of another girl playing on a swing in the background.

What is most interesting about Let’s Play Prisoners, though, is that its apparent focus of inquiry has changed over the past decade, without any damage to the piece. In the late 80s, the video originally made the rounds as a (feminist) critique of authority. Seen now, the piece seems more balanced, the camera functioning less as an authority and more as a fulcrum between two powers of differing values but equal captivity. Having been initially perceived as describing women’s pain and tolerance as adults and their indoctrination as children, the current social climate draws out - like poison from a snakebite - the realisation that the girl’s limited skill level and considerable disinterest transfers the bulk of her performance’s burden onto her authority. Originally the enforcers of the situation, the voice and the camera have become prisoners of their own quest for accuracy. The child, uncorrupted by the politics of civility or rebellion, and thus at once more innocent and cruel in her understanding of power, is in control of the adult.

Can this be one of the reasons why a youth culture is flourishing at the same time that Western democratic capitalism strives to become economically and emotionally more efficient, from the international resignation of social welfare programmes to the erosion of some notion of the common good? Both have come to be seen as passive-aggressive exertions of power, deceitful good intentions that only indebt us with more love hours than we can afford. In such a broad moral and ethical quandary, economics becomes the only mutually agreed upon system through which anything and everything might be solved; a machine that can turn the subtlest aspects of human emotion into legal privileges and cold hard cash. It is this bloodless, line-item fairness that the current climate shares, in spirit, with youth - in the tallying of every dollar, every loaned shirt, every minute spent doing chores. And, like youth, whose sense of reason and compassion is not fully developed, infantile ignorance of other people’s conditions is the only effective defence against their claims. If ignorance is impossible, then avoidance, and if not that, then violence. There is a simplicity and economy (both admirable aspects of power) to the rules of the playground, and thus behaviour that was once scolded as petty (as in petit bourgeois) is lauded as Total Quality Management. An attitude rooted in pettiness, selective denial and ignorance can serve you quite well in the world - at least if you’re interested in understanding all you relations in clearly economic terms. But what is gained from such efficiency? And what is lost in its admission?

In Hirsch Perlman’s Acute Conversations #1, 2 and 3 (1996, colour, 15 minutes), two men positioned at the margins of the screen fill the space between them with gestures and words. Although the space around them is ample, it feels as if they are in a telephone booth or some other physically (and psychologically) constraining space: #3 could be the lift at a skyscraper construction site, #2 could be a night club toilet, #1 a restaurant booth. Their conversations are no less claustrophobic:

‘You’re not trying to put something over on me?’

‘I’m not trying to put something over on you.’

‘You just can’t help me with this?’

‘I just can’t help you with this.’

‘If I think you can take care of this, then I’ve got another thing coming?’

‘If you think I can take care of this, then you’ve got another thing coming.’

‘I’ve painted myself into a corner?’

‘Damn it, don’t you see, you’ve painted yourself into a corner!’

In all of the conversations each man is by turns an instigator or a respondent, and is also by turns aggressive, sarcastic, compassionate or resigned. In fact, this piece is all turns: turns of phrase (rhetoric), taking turns (courtesy), turning the tables (responsibility and guilt). Tropes of conversation that would normally be accepted as indications of interest or concern here become a hall of mirrors, since each person only repeats what has just been said to him and the entire range of phrases used, all clichés, repeats as well. The only variations are subtle pronoun shifts, certain rhetorical or declarative inflections and occasional displays of emotion. Whatever the men’s relationship, or whatever crisis one of them is going through, is irrelevant to the bones of the interaction itself, laid bare to the extent that neither conversant seems capable of communicating or consoling. Obviously this is a performance for a work of art, but not by much, since its tone is not that different from conversations we’ve all had, conversations between any two people whose unspoken emotional debits and credits have rendered them taut, resentful and nearly mute.

The Acute Conversations explicitly demonstrate what Zando’s tape has evolved to show: that the effects of power are not only inflicted; they are reciprocal. If you’re involved with someone it is because you want or deserve to be, and whatever motivations, subconscious or otherwise, keep you involved in that relationship have to be considered part of it as well. Some of us are quite successful at getting what we want by acknowledging this reciprocity, by allowing ourselves to be constrained by more powerful forces because they shield us from even greater ones, or because we can bend them to our own ends. We enter relationships for the mutual pursuit of things - sex, money, security, destruction - but we also use those common desires as ‘camouflage’ for pursuing wants of our own. Whatever compromises or trials we endure in relationships can be more than offset by what they protect or make possible. And thus, cloaked in the terms of the agreement and using only what we have been given, we can deflect responsibility through selfless co-operation and concern. For, if power is mutual, no matter how disproportionate it is, then so too is responsibility. The Acute Conversations depict people who are mutually responsible for having arrived at a juncture neither is comfortable with, a juncture which they absurdly and painfully prolong. Why do they go on? Why don’t they get on with it? What do they want?

Although Sharon Lockhart’s Khalil, Shaun, and A Woman Under the Influence (1994, colour, 16 minutes) is technically a 16mm film, it is a useful model for human relations in that it moves in the opposite direction to Perlman’s crabbed, Beckettian whirlpools. The film’s organising principle is as practical as it is simple: you have to give in order to get.

Lockhart, an artist living in Los Angeles, has access to people skilled in Hollywood-style make-up effects - bloody head wounds, creeping skin diseases, and so on. She also knows kids who love that kind of stuff and who would do certain things in exchange for an opportunity to experience it first hand. Khalil and Shaun are two boys who have been given horrific skin diseases in exchange for Lockhart’s permission to film them, a deal which each boy clearly feels he has got the better of. They don’t seem to mind the camera - in fact it seems a bonus. Occasionally, throughout the film, each boy turns (on request) to reveal some new lesion that has formed between takes, or to indicate where he would like the disease to spread, gingerly touching his make-up as if he were curious about its feel but afraid of messing it up. In another segment of the film, Shaun gets to do some real acting, playing Gena Rowlands’ son in a scene lifted from Cassavettes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Lying in bed with his covers pulled up to his chin, his head scarred by hideous sores, the artifice of Shaun’s monster make-up is strangely appropriate to the situation, not only because the entire scene is so obviously fake but because Shaun behaves differently when he has the make-up on: he is cooler, resolved, not himself.

Khalil and Shaun’s wooden performances aside, what the film makes palpable is the contractual agreement anyone makes before willingly co-operating with a camera, how one’s time and identity are sacrificed for the opportunity to be dressed up and paid attention to, to develop other senses of identity and time. However, the longer they sit for the camera the more the charm of their make-up and the apparatus begins to wear off, as does their interest in a situation that could become a chore. What originally fascinated them is depicted as just another exercise to be got through, like last year’s Halloween costume or a forthcoming New Year’s Eve.

When Lockhart’s film was screened last summer at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, though, there was another curious bit of illusionism going on that did not occur in subsequent screenings. In an effort to diminish the presence of the film projector and to approximate the seamless, sourceless magic of a movie theatre in some small way, the Künstlerhaus had constructed a box out of particle board and duct tape to cover the machine, with a hole cut out of one side for the light to come through. The box somewhat muffled the sound of the projector but hardly diminished one’s awareness of it, and as I watched these charmed young boys with their latex sores, I wondered if there was a connection between their fascination with Hollywood illusionism and this clumsy attempt at hiding its origin. How is it that we can be so flattered by the apparatus of film and video on one hand and so ashamed of it on the other? Why do artists feel so compelled to put monitors on the floor, poke the eyes out of projectors or cover them in scrap wood, or project images onto stuffed cloth, broken glass and other ‘poor’ receptors? In the midst of such well-meaning debasements, how do we distinguish the technologies being aimed for us from those being aimed at us?

IV

About a year ago I was in Lyon, where (in addition to all those Lumière films) I saw an extended project by the artist Pierre Huyghe. The work was shown at Le Nouveau Musée in the suburb of Villeurbanne, where both of us were participating in a group show. Titled Mobil TV (1995, colour), Huyghe’s piece was one of the more troubling and fascinating artworks I’ve seen in a while. Huyghe had appropriated the museum’s auditorium - an all-purpose, industrially-carpeted room with benches at one end - in which he set up an ad hoc video sound stage, various editing tables and broadcasting equipment. Over the course of the show’s preparation, Huyghe and his crew shot various museological footage, some candid, improvised stuff and several skits acted out in the street or the museum’s back lot with the intention of broadcasting them on a pirate television station to be based at Le Nouveau Musée. Providing Huyghe could get his equipment up and running and actually generate enough power to penetrate the local airwaves, Mobil TV was designed to last as long as it could; that is, until he ran out of juice or until the authorities traced his signal to the museum and shut him down.

By the time of the opening, Huyghe’s piece looked pretty much like it had from day one: just so much equipment and lighting with wires strewn over half of the auditorium floor, evincing the disappointing crappiness of all television studios. Throughout the reception and the week that followed, you could enter the room and watch a bunch of guys (and one gal) running around in headsets and porta-pacs, fidgeting with monitors, conversing, or just hanging out. A lot and nothing was going on, a fact made more pronounced by the presence of a fully operative sound stage that remained brightly lit but unused. I thought it was all a ruse: that Huyghe was just playing at looking like a television station as a way of demonstrating that people will watch anything sufficiently laden with entertainment technology. In this sense Mobil TV was a ruse, but a mutually accepted one, since the more people filled the auditorium, the greater the ante on Huyghe’s production; all the while, his cumulative tinkering and clipboard consulting increased their expectant, passive captivity. Some, having reached an impasse in their personal negotiation of the piece, left. Others stayed, expecting perhaps nothing more than this.

As I sat like the others, waiting for nothing to happen, it occurred to me that this was the answer to the Künstlerhaus question: Expectation. Expectation is what the apparatus of entertainment has come to engender, what Milan Kundera in his recent novel, Slowness (1996), imagines as a large and invisible audience watching our every move, to the extent that we begin to ‘act’ accordingly, self-consciously, for them. The Künstlerhaus projector box epitomised both the maintenance and the destruction of Kundera’s audience fantasy: the box’s attempt to protect the illusion of a companion crowd was also an unwitting affront to our complicity with them. Canetti’s notion of the opposing crowd on which preservation relies has come to be symbolised by the apparatus itself.

This pregnance is what Huyghe used - some might say abused - especially when he staged a mock audition for the popular Saturday night Parisian television show, Dance Machine, as core material for his tentative broadcast. Huyghe placed an ad in the local papers announcing that Dance Machine would be in Lyon on certain dates to conduct auditions for participants on the show. Interested persons should report to the auditorium of Le Nouveau Musée at particular times to audition. People were encouraged to dress ‘appropriately’ if possible and to bring a CV; music would be provided. Soon after he arrived, Huyghe also fly-posted copies of the casting call in and around Lyon to broaden and diversify his draw. About 50 people showed up on the day of the auditions, some of them professional dancers but most amateurs: some in office wear, some in coat and tie, others with briefcases or brown bag lunches. Huyghe placed three women at the door to take names and addresses and assign audition numbers. Then, one by one, each person was asked to enter the sound stage, answer a few questions, and was given the opportunity to say anything they wanted before being videotaped while dancing to a techno track. Each lasted until Huyghe felt that he had seen enough, at which point the music was stopped as abruptly as it had started. Huyghe thanked each participant and away they went, slightly winded but genuinely excited.

Watching Huyghe’s auditions was both a heartening experience and not unlike watching a traffic accident. Aghast, I wanted to leave, but each new shiny, brimming contestant kept me glued to my seat. Later I had a conversation with Huyghe about ethics. He didn’t feel that he had misled anyone, but that each person had responded to his advertisement of their own free will - he could not be held responsible for other people’s pursuit of their own desires, however ridiculous or legitimate they might be. But what about the fact that he was an impostor, that it wasn’t a real audition, and that all those people would be cruelly disappointed when the inevitable dawned on them? (It was at this point in the conversation that Huyghe, smiling, called me an ‘American’ in a way I’ll never forget.) He then said that any one of these people could have checked out his credentials, but hadn’t, and who’s to say how many people had and stayed away? Besides, he really only deceived one person: the one who presumably would have got the part. Everyone else received the same experience they would have had in auditioning for a ‘real’ part and not getting it - to them it made no difference. In fact Huyghe had given them an opportunity to do something that they wouldn’t have otherwise had; his auditions had broadened their range of experience and, as such, had enriched their lives. Years later, they could look back on that audition they went to, that part they almost got, and fondly remember the lights, cameras, action, and being treated with such courtesy and respect. And that would be a real memory, a real experience, not a videotape of one. He had rescued them from the disappointment of actually being on TV.

Huyghe had taken every bit of power that his installation afforded him and put it to use, sparing no one who chose to engage the situation from whatever illusions it promised or destroyed. That’s impressive. But the fallout from Mobil TV’s libertine seduction remains, as do questions about the behaviour it induced, since our immersion in video and film has become so convoluted that we can recover real experience through it, whether the apparatus is legitimate or not. Has the pejorative notion of an audience-driven ‘camera-consciousness’ actually made us more aware of the words and gestures we use, as well as their sources in television, movies and the entire socio-politico-commercial network that seeks, at every moment, to define us? And isn’t that good? Doesn’t that make us more sensitive to how we speak and act, as opposed to the clichéd indictments usually levelled at the television age?

I don’t know - it’s more likely that the glare from (some of) our new-found access only makes it seem like we’re more aware of our actions, simply because our every phrase and gesture reverberates in a way it never has before. Nonetheless, as someone on the more geriatric end of the Generation X curve, I do know that the term ‘idiot box’ is grossly misconstrued, usually by people whose video consciousness was already fully formed before the current global network was in place. Living is work, and video is the reason why. And if we are perpetually on camera, perpetually conscious of our gestures and our relation to others, then being occassionally stupid or narcissistic is essential, if only to see whether the cameras are still on. One of the smarter insights Alex Bag makes in her Fall 1995 videotape is that we have to occasionally overcome our daily performance anxieties and remind ourselves that we are not old, we are not old, nor do we wear our trousers rolled. For the record we wear them ambiguously, oversized and under-defined, a sign of intelligent beings adapting themselves to the situation at hand.

1. See, in general, The Allocation of Time and Goods Over the Life Cycle (with Gilbert Ghez, 1975); A Treatise on the Family (1981); The Economic Approach to Human Behaviour (1982); or Selections (1995).

Joe Scanlan


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Issue 30, September-October 1996

by Joe Scanlan

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