Working in the Wasteland (excerpt)

Hope Ginsburg sees participation in broadcast Television as the opportunity for sublimation – a kind of Xanadu where there are words for everything and companionship is available around the clock. Applying for a part as a segment presenter in QVC – the Home Shopping Network – Ginsburg creates a character whose construction and presentation are documented en route to the screen test. Leading to her interview at QVC, Ginsburg undergoes a transformation that is marked by the convergence of autobiographical exegesis, incessant chatter, and cosmetic preparation along with the repetition, rehearsal and assimilation of television sales jargon. The success of a sales pitch on QVC depends on lavishing a product of negligible value with an enthused and believable personal testimony and on being in complete synchronicity with the clock. As such, the sales pitch is structured to incorporate the goal-oriented mechanically-timed challenges of the workplace with rewards that bestow luxury and leisure on the homebound viewer. In this respect, it is worth considering the possibility that QVC provides the home shopper with an employment-reward substitute. Ginsburg’s performance-portrait depicts an attempt to master this process.

(catalog text)

Newton N. Minow, FCC Chairman, Addressing the National Association of Broadcasters, 1961:

“When Television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better. But when Television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own Television set when your station goes on the air, and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without profit-and-loss sheet or ratings book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western badmen, western goodmen, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons, and endlessly commercials – many screaming cajoling and offending – and most of all boredom…”[1]

FCC Chairman Minow’s famous “vast wasteland” speech is characteristic of much of the criticism that has been leveled at Television. This assessment has shown such endurance that its evocative coinage is virtually identified with the medium, wresting dominion over the wasteland from T.S. Eliot in a coup characteristic of Television’s wide embrace. And while the industry has evolved tremendously since first being thus labeled, Minow’s critique remains instructive because it contains a number of assumptions that still serve – rightly or wrongly – as basis for much of the public discourse concerning Television today.[2] Minow’s description of the wasteland – a void surprisingly teeming with activity – concludes with boredom’s ascendancy over Television, hanging over the wasteland like a dense haze.

What is this boredom? Who is it that’s bored? As he is addressing broadcasting content, it is curious for Minow to end up outside of the tube with boredom – presumably the condition of viewers. Surely, Minow does not mean to imply that the actors and producers of Television are bored, nor that they are concerned with depictions of boredom. NOr, one suspects, does he mean to imply that themes he finds objectionable are inherently boring either. And certainly viewers, who consistently vote with their eyes and rear ends by watching TV for just over seven hours a day do not do so for boredom’s sake.[3] Minow’s leap from properties of the programming content to those of the viewing audience, from the hyperactive format of Television to the bored passive stare of its viewers, homogenizes and distills Television’s many audiences for the sake of oratory. Repressed from this leap is the varied topography of viewer experiences that returns to haunt proponents of the wasteland argument and their overt preoccupations with morality and taste. The conventional notion that the Television experience is inherently passive and anti-readerly can be countered by addressing the growing interactivity of the medium and by pointing to the various productive activities that are undertaken by at least some of Television’s many audiences. Perhaps the point is not to defend or attack Television nor to describe it in toto, but to offer other contexts from which a more nuanced understanding of the medium might be achieved.

Television’s evolution is directly related to that of the modern work experience. The modern work day, cluttered with machines in both its industrial and office incarnations, seems inconceivable without a leisure industry with its own set of machine antidotes and the relaxing hypnosis offered by Television. Both experiences however, (work and leisure) hinge on an increasingly minute and obsessive perception of time and – given the emergence of the internet as a complex of multiple environments of social and economic function – they are now coming ever closer together.[4]

The commercial Television end-user’s experience is paradoxically characterized by both an escape from the work clock and its return in the periodic ticking of the advertising that subsidizes the escape. Discussing the impact of commercials on the Television viewer, Frederic Jameson notes: “These regular and periodic breaks are very unlike the types of closure to be found in other arts, even in film, yet they allow the simulation of such closures and thereby the production of a kind of imaginary fictive time. The simulacrum of the fictive seizes on such material punctuation much as a dream seizes on external bodily stimuli, to draw them back into itself and to convert them into the appearance of beginning and endings’ or, in other words, the illusion of an illusion…”[5]

And yet, it is not quite a fictive time that’s asserted by the presence of commercials and other hypertextual interventions (stations IDs, logos, URLs, scores & statistics, etc.) into the main Television text, be it a movie, a sporting event or even the news. The rhythmic insertion of these interruptions has also conditioned viewers to take charge of the timeline, to change stories, to shift back and forth between several spaces in a manner that prefigures the web. This mode of consciousness is deemed interactive. Contemporary developments in interactive technology are pointing the way towards a future where broadcasting content and time will become hihly programmable and highly customized properties of the viewer.[6] The proliferation of new channels and viewers’ dependence on the remote-control may be the best evidence that in many respects this is already so. Noel Carroll points out that technology consists of prosthetic devices that amplify our powers. As a prosthetic device, the remote-control permits viewers to take part in structuring Television time and space. Given the present structure of Television, this kind of interactivity is disruptive to the attention and time necessary for viewers to do the work they’re supposed to, i.e., stick around, watch the commercials and get the messages. Consequently the pace of editing on Television has speeded up, as if trying to catch up with the distracted viewer’s attention span and become a part of the interactive experience. In this scenario, the history of Television arrives at a paradox wherein the very technical evolution of the medium and the peculiar consciousness of its viewers present a challenge to its present format – a format that is structured around a passive mentality whose uniform habits enable the commercial rating of time.

Not all viewers are passive or bored. Those who actively pick out a specific text from Television’s total flow and elevate their selection singularly  or jointly to the status of icon, are said to be fans. In the broadest sense, the development of fan audiences and fan culture occurs alongside a trend that sees Television’s evolution away from Network homogeneity and towards the balkanized medium that it is today. Fans have always evinced a kind of interactivity with the Television text that has taken them beyond the more passive attentiveness of other audiences. They react to events on the screen and emote: they cry, they scream, they cheer and they do so publicly in a manner that may otherwise not be civil or socially acceptable. More significantly in this context, fan behavior is often also characterized by its productive adaptation of what is normally considered the separate and inviolable original text and its engagement with that text outside broadcasting time. Fans, in this regard, are viewers/consumers who have also become performers/producers.

Fan productions range from the cultivation of individual collections of memorabilia to the collective development of micro-economies that regulate and barter the goods traded and collected by fans. These micro-economies support institutions, such as fan clubs and conventions, with varying degrees of autonomy from the producers and marketers of the original text. Relationships between these two communities are obviously symbiotic in that fans represent a fiercely loyal and very lucrative marketing bse. However, fan activities may extend beyond the control of the originating entity, often testing the limits of proprietary laws, normal behavior and acceptable taste. Fan productions can also be understood as an individual’s integration of various aspects of the mass-marketed text in order to develop or change self-image or to redefine relationships to family, friends and broader society. In this respect, fan productions may also depart from the official culture’s conventions, most commonly through anti-social or anti-authoritarian behavior, but also by challenging gender and sexual conventions, and by addressing race relations and /or socioeconomic concerns. Fan production is also manifested in the appropriation, customization and expansion of the original mass marketed text. This encompasses fan literature such as fanzines, comics and books, fan art in its various guises, fan websites and fan videos.[7]

In that the fan community traverses a normally sealed area between performer and audience, text and reader, producer and consumer, its position within a culture that creates profit from the separation of the two – privileging the former over the latter – becomes ambiguous. Fans’ contradictory roles in the cultural economy of the Television era are discussed by John Fiske as “ways of filling cultural lack and provid[ing] the social prestige and self-esteem that go with cultural capital… fans, in particular, are active producers and users of such cultural capital and, at the level of fan organization, begin to reproduce equivalents of the formal institutions of official culture.”[8] Fan production is explained by Fiske as an activity that externalizes the normally private, repressed or unconscious internal semiotic productions of more ‘normal’ viewers. His examples of fan-written “Star Trek” novels that engage aspects of the show’s characters restricted from broadcast and of Madonna fans’ home-made music videos suggest that the boredom of Minow’s wasteland or the memory blockage of Jameson’s conception of viewers are both concepts that need to be updated with regard to at least one of Television’s many constituencies. Although there have been cases of fans asserting their will forcibly over the Television by kicking it or even throwing it out the window, fan behavior often does find more productive pursuits by reworking or customizing the Television text.

The artists included in this exhibition are engaged in such (re)productive activities in one way or another. Their activities are obviously not to be misconstrued as fan productions in the very restricted sense of that group. However, as a group of works, their videos all share a common investment in adapting, reworking, possessing and customizing selected Television texts. What they also share with the productive fan is the sincere belief in the power of the original. Where they depart is in their degree of ego investment in the selected text and in a desire to consider Television critically. This may lead the artists to the original broadcasting source (Arpiani-Pagliarini, Ginsburg); to its appropriation as a desirable context from which to make a statement (Marello, Kopp, Joskowicz); to an examination of a genre or character type (Miner, Ichige, Stephen); and to the reorganization of its temporal structure or viewing experience (Heimerdinger, Croft, Westphalen). And while specific references may remain obscure to general audiences, the artists’ dependence on an original widely distributed source and their desire to interact with it, at times even making it real and personal across spatial and temporal axes, clearly demonstrates that there is a lot of interested work being done in the wasteland.

Fido: [freaks + irregulars + defects + oddities] (1966) a coin having a minting error. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

[1] For an audio record of the speech (which is well worth it) go to the History Channel’s website www.thehistorychannel.com/speeches/index.html

[2] Repeated attacks on the Broadcasting industry by politicians during this election season continue Minow’s “Wasteland” argument, although the focus is usually on children’s well-being. Minow’s harsh condemnation of Television does deserve a bit of an historical adjustment, keeping in mind what was then still missing from the wasteland’s landscape: In 1962, Telestar1 a communications satellite was launched, making round-the-world instant live broadcast possible. Following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Network News was expanded nationally from a 15 minute listing of events to a more contemporary half-hour show consisting of features, analysis and a greater commercial opportunity. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, also [preceding]  Minow, was founded in 1967. Source: The American Experience, PBS.

[3] Nielsen Media Company, 1999 Report on Television.

[4] I am mostly concerned with briefly outlining features of what is already quite an historical age of Television. The present tense, characterized by the ‘deregulation’ of Television, the diminished Networks, and the emergence of web-based and customizable forms of entertainment and information for work and for leisure, as well as what any of this means, must remain, for now, out of this scope.

[5] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press, 1991. pp. 74-76.

[6] For a wild assessment of present & future threats to Television as we know it see “The new technology from TiVo and Replay provides the ultimate in television convenience. It will also spy on you, destroy prime time and shatter the power of the mass market…” As reported in “The End of the Mass Market”, The New York Times Magazine, August 13, 2000. Pg. 36

[7] Recent examples of fan productions that challenge the legal/structural authority of the original text are easily found on the web. They include an anonymously produced entire trailer for a yet unmade Star Wars movie (www.theforce.net); and a member of the Klingon Language Institute, bible translation and for preaching and selling Christian themed items in Klingon through mail and over the web.

[8] John Fiske, Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Routledge, 1992. Lisa Lewis, ed. Pg. 33