BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 07 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

TV Swansong

Television can be at its most powerful when it breaks down

BY Dan Fox in Reviews | 07 JUN 02

Nostalgia is big business on British television these days. Easy to produce, even simpler to digest, programmes such as Top Ten Best ... or I Love 19 ... plumb the depths of our collective TV memories. Viewers wax wistful over long-forgotten childhood cartoons and wince at fashion mistakes as low-rent pundits smugly elucidate the druggy references in The Magic Roundabout (1965) or reminisce about oversized Dynasty (1981) shoulder pads. Yet, however much these cheap trips into the archives glue a nation's memories of its formative years together, nostalgia is hardly the basis for a sustained examination of television and broadcast media. Unfortunately for the live webcast that was 'TV Swansong', most of the artists involved in this mammoth jamboree thought otherwise.

The brainchild of artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, 'TV Swansong' was an ambitious project comprising work by eleven artists reflecting on the current state of television - a pretty cumbersome subject for anyone to tackle. Its rather grandiose title suggested that this was television's last gasp, a final act set in the digital heartland of its nemesis, the Internet. Much was made in the accompanying press fanfare of the project's inherent accessibility on the web and, to use the argot of public art, the collaborative dialogues that had been established with non-art organizations in the process. As an echo of the old Reithian belief in television's edifying and educational potential, such sentiments were all well and good. However, one couldn't help wondering just who was benefiting from this interactive largesse. Perhaps with the exception of Pope and Guthrie's own hospital television project, Pope and Guthrie's Recommended Dose (all works 2002) the members of the public that a number of the artists worked with - the Blackpool ballroom dancers in Giorgio Sadotti's Virtual Bootleg, for example, or the energetic kids in Jessica Voorsanger's children's art TV programme - seemed little more than bit-part actors in the artist's wider ambition to create a 'meta-dialogue' with a critical art world framework rather than their collaborators. This was more lip-service 'accessibility' for funding bodies than 'democratic' engagement with television's audiences.

So just what were you 'accessing' as you enjoyed your TV dinner in front of the computer monitor? 'TV Swansong' had the air of an off-kilter telethon, breathlessly jumping from event to event as programmes were rescheduled according to technical or logistical hiccups. Casual references to bygone programmes seemed to be the order of the day. In Search of a Small Planet saw the Lincolnshire and Dumbartonshire countryside become a canvas on which Zoë Walker and Neil Bromwich indulged their fondness for The Clangers and The Dukes of Hazzard. Rory Hamilton and Jon Rogers organized the Generic Sci-Fi Quarry, a performance in a working quarry by members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the electronic music laboratory famous for creating the music to a plethora of TV sci-fi, most famously Dr Who (1963). As a tribute to the late Delia Derbyshire, a pioneering figure in the Radiophonic Workshop, Generic Sci-Fi Quarry was a fitting commemoration, and a sparkily imaginative work in itself, but once streamed through the webcast was stripped of atmosphere and reduced to boyish hankering for old-fashioned TV adventure.

The most successful moments in 'TV Swansong' were those that hooked into the idea that television can be at its most powerful when it breaks down and the cracks that skirt the edges of its smooth continuities appear. Chris Helson's The Act involved the artist travelling on the day of the webcast to the site of whatever big breaking story international news agencies had identified that day. He ended up in Corihuayrachina in Peru, where an Inca City previously unknown to Western archaeologists had just been discovered. Radio Roselle saw Graham Fagen play a selection of politically charged reggae and Scottish folk records from a ship somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Reminiscent of Radio Caroline and other pirate radio stations, Fagen's set was perhaps a far more demonstrative example of broadcast media's democratic aspects than any of the other more explicitly 'collaborative' works in TV Swansong's schedule.

Taking its cue from the Sidney Lumet film Network (1976) and the live TV suicide of US senator and Pennsylvania Treasurer Bud Dwyer in 1987, Jordan Baseman's monologue The Last Broadcast put a darker, post-watershed spin on the proceedings. A suicidal newsreader hijacks the airwaves and launches into an impassioned tirade against the bullshit of 'infotainment' and 'the demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in'. 'TV is not the truth. The Internet is not the truth', he declaims, as static interference and test cards intermittently jam his broadcast. Alongside Fagen's play list The Last Broadcast was incendiary viewing - a voice of independence on an otherwise run-of-the-mill night in front of the box.

Dan Fox is a writer and a recipient of the 2021 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He lives in New York, USA.