The Reflecting Screen

How Artists Address Media

published in Technologism exhibition catalogue, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2015
E.A.T. Pavilion - Expo 70, Osaka (1970)

Simulated science

This is a prickly path, but bear with it for a while. We start with Naoki Urasawa’s manga saga 20th Century Boys (1999–2006). It charts two trajectories: one follows a group of four young boys hanging out in Osaka, thrilled at the prospect of seeing the Expo ’70 world fair to be held in their hometown; the other captures their present life, thirty years later, when their dreams have either vaporised or else been transformed into something monstrous. The narrative deftly weaves the crypto-iconicism of painter Okamoto Taro – who designed the famous Tower of the Sun for the festival plaza of Expo ’70 – into the millennial doom cult of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which engineered the 1995 sarin gas subway attack in Tokyo. The story is bracketed by utopia and dystopia, compressing the two dimensions into a fateful cosmic singularity.

Within twentieth-century art history discourse, Expo ’70 is cherished for the presentation of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art & Technology), a cross-fertilisation venture between engineers at New York’s Bell Telephone Laboratories and a group of avant-garde artists attracted to realising new forms through creatively applying new technologies. Following various E.A.T. events in the preceding few years, its showcase in Osaka at the Pepsi Pavilion created large-scale immersive, interactive and multi-sensorial environments, born of pure and non-representational manifestations of synergistic visual, spatial and aural construction.

But hold this image in mind: a group of radical artists and engineers working with a major telecommunications corporation, purveying their visions within a promotional pavilion for a major beverage corporation. The pull between Bell and Pepsi affects a bracketing between the utopian world of engineered invention and the dystopian world of addictive consumption – but without compressing the two as in 20th Century Boys. Contrary to the dissolution of the utopian into the dystopian, as symbolically expressed in Urakawa’s manga (a theme heat-sealed into the fabric of Japan’s post-war art and culture), media-art discourses persist in ignoring how corporate association, intent on promoting newness, has created the peculiarly dissociative mediascape of the present.

The work of E.A.T., undoubtedly rich and seminal in what would become variously labelled ‘electronic art’, ‘experimental art’ and ‘media art’, proves limited when considered transculturally and transhistorically. As contemporary art curating and theory goes into overdrive with modernist historical revisionism (recuperating anything that was not a mere painting or sculpture), moments like that of E.A.T. at Expo ’70 become unnaturally engorged by proscriptive agendas. Science, technology, collaboration, interaction, perception, immersion, communication: these buzz-terms are conscripted to assign archaeological depth to early experimentalism in technology-inspired and -aided art, and attribute soothsayer prescience to often skeletal explorations of optics, kinetics, luminescence and atmospherics. Their modish synaesthesia and futuristic fantasia, strangely, remains critically unremarked. An opposite view could contend the simulated science they inaugurated hangs heavy over every art-science mash-up funded by government and private arts enterprises the world over since then.

So far, these words smack of a reactionary stance and sound like a forced debunking of landmark experimentalism in the arts. The aim here, though, is to consider how the buzz-terms have persisted in a wide range of artistic experiments in what ostensibly could be regarded as ‘screen-based art’. My aim is to trace their legacies and trajectories, framing them within their utopian and dystopian reflections of art and society. Strategically, I will query the centrifugal force that screens – televisual, digital, informative, interactive, mobile, networked, displayed, etc. – exert on artistic trends that use screens to reflect the world and address media.

E.A.T. Pavilion - Expo 70, Osaka (1970); Nam June Paik - Zen for TV (1963; 1976 version)

Retrograde retooling

E.A.T. largely sought a techno-cosmological exploration of post-Cartesian form, which conceptually connects with later philosophical ruminations on abstraction in painting and sculpture. The contemporaneous expanded artworks of, for example, Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Christo and The Light & Space Group can be viewed as being bent on transcoding the existential anti-materiality of earlier Ab Ex reveries, and parlaying them into the ‘real world’ via industrial and commercial applications. Sharing similar propensities, E.A.T. rejected materiality for post-material ephemerality: light, shadow, mirroring, fog, cathode rays, electronic oscillators etc. In a sense, E.A.T. was making the world into what today we would consider a ‘screen’ – part-framing device, part-satellite dish, part-projection. At their most interesting, E.A.T. experiments did not so much immerse the viewer as suggest (in line with McLuhanism) that the viewer was already within a mediated realm in the so-called ‘outside world’. Their huge Mylar inverse-vacuumed-curved ceiling mirror at Expo ’70 perfectly encapsulates this.

But counter to such repositioning of the viewer through redefinitions of spatiality, many artists of this era took McLuhan at his word. Unable to shake off the prime modernist impulse of destruction, they saw television screens as objectified screens. In a weird ontological twist, artists started to view the television monitor itself as the material and corporeal embodiment of ‘the media’, as if it was a squashed obese apparatus, able to hold limitless information and beam it directly onto human retinas and manipulate their brain waves. Despite being rooted in paranoid, conspiracy science fiction of the late 1950s, these fears persist in today’s lazy assessments of ‘the media’. Nam June Paik’s early ‘television sculptures’ stand at the nexus between E.A.T.-style spatial events and Smithson-style sculptural events. From Zen for TV 1963 to Magnet TV 1965, he instigated a rupturing of the McLuhanesque medium, using magnets to distort the cathode rays’ stable distribution of scan lines. An ‘anti-content’ was thus generated: a single scan line in the former; a twisting parabolic apparition in the latter. It accords with E.A.T.-style abstract light shows, but it more so returns the television monitor to a non-representational ground zero.

The 1960s and ’70s are lionised as a radicalising epoch for video art, but it’s almost embarrassing to witness the near-puerile attacks directed to television monitors. Ant Farm’s infamous Media Burn (1975) is video art’s mirroring of the spectacular pyrotechnics of the televised Vietnam War. It contributes to a visual discourse of anti-object art, which runs parallel to Fluxus’s undying preoccupation with destroying the grand piano. Early video art’s symbolic destructions deliriously terrorised the home environment, implying ‘the media’ bore an invasive mind-control quality to its messaging: destroy the medium and you destroy the message. Despite the assumed radicalism, video art’s reliance on destruction echoes nineteenth-century espousals of liberating expression and articulation through their Romanticist attacks on painterly mimeticism and antechamber decorousness.

There must be enough video art produced from destroyed monitors, tubes, screens, circuitry, cabling, shells and frames to create landfill the size of Smithson’s Spiral jetty. From television sets ripped inside-out to monitors encased in whatever material you want to figurative assemblages comprised of stacked and welded monitors, these operations sought to retool the televisual medium by blocking its reception and emission. In a sense, this amounts to a ‘de-mediatising’ of the television by instituting a perceptual focus onto the object in an act of retrograde radicalism. Indeed, the television needed to be retooled as an object for it to be destroyed, because to electronic engineers the television ‘box’ was inconsequential. Sometimes this produced canny works – the three-decade trajectory of television facsimiles Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Keinholz made since the 1967 Cement TV constitutes a rarity – but mostly it has produced monotonal anti-media statements.

Nam June Paik - Magnet TV (1965); Ed & Nancy Keinholz - Cement TV (1967)

Ugly utopias

By the end of the 1970s, some video artists were at least shifting their attention from the television set to its televisual statement. Yet the predominantly leftist anti-media mindset of the artistic intelligentsia at the time implied a rejection of the complex ambiguity of pop art’s take on ‘mediatisation’ throughout the 1960s. Short of a few oddities such as Dara Birnbaum’s Wonder Woman (Transformation) (1978–79), hardly anyone applied a post-pop critique of television to produce video art. Political viewpoint – then as now – required separatist attacks on its subject. Thus, theorising television as language, text or effect beyond the enabling perspectives of McLuhanism remained a dormant concern throughout the 1970s and well into the ‘80s.

Scanning these decades for incisive televisual critique beyond parody, dismissal or cabaret is like surveying a razed battlefield: art dealt with the media by pretending it had already destroyed it. For sure, a rise of Paik-like ‘video walls’ and ‘sculptural forms’ of multiple monitors proliferated, but their screen content processed the hell out of recognisable imagery, or desultorily collaged randomised image fragments as if to intone that all screen content is the same nothingness.

Museums aided this warfare. Pity the poor, isolated curators who spent decades at board and trustee tables arguing for a video artwork to be purchased for their collection. True to the undying mythology of 1960s bravery, the final purchase of any such work was and has since been treated as a bold step forward in ‘art’ acknowledging ‘video’. Like gleaming post-war architecture built on the rubble of forgotten battles, museums now boast a billion screens of frightening definition, scale, size and number. In place of the Paikian media-overload, one is now assailed with the cine-video upscale spectacularism of Bill Viola, Douglas Gordon, Isaac Julien, Shirin Neshat, Stan Douglas, Doug Aitken, Yang Fudong, Rodney Graham and Candice Breitz, all of whom bludgeon viewers with a mix of cinematographic beauty and fawning humanism.

Museum personnel rarely mention, however, what was one of the most disturbing features of emerging video, electronic and media art: the sight of ugly cabling sprawled across the floor. Visible wiring and power points in the museum were deemed more hideous than what would become the cliché of demolished walls in 1990s ‘institutional critique’. It was a view that captured just how nineteenth-century notions of beauty determined how museums gazed upon their selves in the mirror.

Who would have thought that the beautiful/ugly dichotomy would persist? But it did and does. Once the 1990s explosion of new information technologies became a corporate product/service-oriented reality, the term ‘visualisation’ took on entirely new meaning. From computer simulation to statistical presentation to textural rendering, the stuff fed into computers had to be displayed on a screen in some visual form. As this input did not pre-exist in material form prior to the computer’s digital encoding and processing, the only way for it to exist then was through an act of visualisation. Abstract correlation or representational effect amounted to the same thing: a problem of how to visualise something. The screen, then, became the laboratorial canvas as well as its museographic object. Unsurprisingly, the worst and tackiest artistic sensibilities of the preceding hundred years drove visualisation. It was the era of software packages with names like DaVinci, Matisse and Picasso; creative groups engaged in visualisation were proudly called ‘Renaissance teams’.

In actuality, the dual-pronged assault of museum-validated beautiful imagery and industry-aligned creative visuality constitutes an oppressive screen culture that has led numerous artists to return to base destructive impulses. While CRT monitors no longer exist, ‘unmonumental’ artists deploy myriad deconstructive, forensic, hacked, rebooted or excavational operations on LCD screens of every possible size and format. These artworks often speak of a performative act of destruction performed on the screen’s design as visual object, technological invention or online repository. With art museums now looking like Gap™ stores (the two are fused in the 2002 film Minority Report’s production design), artists respond by producing disembowelled anti-screen works sprouting with cables and circuitry – just like the detritus deplored by museums when screen-based art first invaded the gallery space. Moreover, destroying screens (from lo-res portable devices to hi-end prosumer displays) ironically forces museum visitors to actually look at the screens. In the outside world, where screens shape the mediascape into faux-futuristic screenic overload, people navigate the city by unconsciously blocking out fluorescent Ad Shells, department store video walls, vinyl digi-print wrappings on public transport vehicles and the council-commissioned public projections.

Interactivity in Minority Report (2002); Broadcast media takeover in Videogram Of A Revolution (1992)

Messianic media

If emerging critique of the media and its televisual substantia was rooted in Cold War sci-fi paranoia, we now live in an era in which screens have become the filamental texture of imagery. A big budget Philip K. Dick conspiratorial flick such as Minority Report is a queasy case in point, with Tom Cruise surrounded by holographic projections of multiple screens that he commands like a mime performing a football jock routine.

This idea was born not out of Hollywood thin air, but from decades of I.S.E.A. and Ars Electronica digi-networked wireless interactivity seeking to replace ‘the screen’. If seminal video artists wished to destroy the screen’s object and status, new media artists from the 1990s onwards researched eight million ways for it to stay dead. Their purpose was not driven by modernist destruction but the desire to empower the individual by allowing one to mime Zeus-like acts of creation. The plethora of art installations and corporate demonstrations using sensor triggers, proximity switches, camera feeds, Internet tabulation and live processing – again, largely inherited from the synaesthetic human-actuated machine-responsive aims of E.A.T. – cast the ‘participant/user’ in a role similar to Mickey Mouse in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section of Minority Report (1941), magically conjuring matter by gesticulating in the air.

In the ‘real world’ of corporate design and its cynical embrace of new technologies, these fantasies of self-empowerment and participatory control are today repeatedly championed for the good they bring to the world – by both media artists commissioned by arts festivals and start-ups hustling ‘ways in which you will watch’ whatever. It is a cunning idea based on 1970s Erhard Seminars Training-style self-centeredness: if you feel in control, you can control the world to be a better place. Unfortunately, this drive has laterally affected a millennial rash of politically inclined new-media artists, theoreticians and documentarians. Rather than shaping forms, tallying data, projecting images or sounding spaces by waving their invisible wands, they trade in a Wikileaks-style belief in transparency, ‘revealing’ unclassified information or tracing hitherto invisible ideological connections. Pertinent to the discussion here, screens remain central to these tactics. Art videos like Hito Steyerl’s How not to be seen (2013) and Harun Farocki’s Immersion (2009) have been championed for their ability to address the current state of media manipulation and its reliance on (among other things) surveillance for data collection and simulation for military training. The ideological interventionism of their critique is in perfect synch with many of the under-analysed media art strategies discussed here, which might explain the low threshold for interrogating these works’ Godardian production and messianic proclamations.

That sounds harsh, but compare these works to Farocki’s earlier collaboration with Andrei Ujica on Videogram Of A Revolution (1992). Over five days in 1989, widespread civil unrest escalated in Bucharest, culminating in the ousting of authoritarian head of state Nicolae Ceauşescu, who had ruled communist Romania since 1965. These five days were caught on a mass of official and amateur video cameras, a technology that became central to the revolution as the state television studios were stormed and the media commandeered by the people. (German Farocki contacted Romanian Ujica after the latter published Television/Revolution: The Ultimatum of the Images in 1990, which Farocki had considered making into a film. Ujica suggested they work with actual archive footage of Ceauşescu’s last days.) The result is a rare moment in which the revolution truly was televised, making for a gripping video that wholly documents the mechanics of the medium, the shifting of its authorial voice and the aggregation of disconnected viewpoints into a televisual momentum for actual social change.

Contemporary politicised screen-based art seems to dream of this situation, replaying it onto the world’s Springs, Occupys and Wikileaks, as if utopian change can be imagineered by artistic intervention with documented images and recontextualised footage. But the only thing these twenty-first century screens reflect is the dystopia of how artists address the media.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.