Genealogy of the media landscape

Mar Villaespesa

 

A great deal of the work of videocreators -especially in the last decade- has television, and all it implies (the power of the media and control of the masses) as a central theme. Of course, this was bound to occur, considering that video was born as a cultural discourse, within the framework of the experimental art -the happenings, events and performances- of the 50s and 60s, and set out to oppose the instutionalized hegemony of commercial television.

In the genealogy of video-creation, as discussed by John Hanhardt in his essay, De-collage/Collage: Notes Toward a Reexamination of the Origins of Video Art (1), the two key figures, Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostel, adopted television as an icon; both employed stacked-up, modified or damaged TV sets to build formal and conceptual Dada structures. The name of Nam June Paik would have to figure prominently in any history of video; her great exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art was considered by many critics to be her "coronation". Nam June Paik, along with other artists using video in its early days, claimed they were using it against television, and that rather than being viewed as art, their work should be interpreted as political response, strategy.

Later in the 60s, theories on communications and more specifically the theories of McLuhan and his famous aphorism, "The medium is the message", brought video to the fore as a highly effective medium for the transmission of social data.

These factors, together with the appearance in the mid-60s of the first portable video camera -the Sony Portapack- led to an alternative style of production based on video as both instrument and vehicle. Ever since the beginnings of its still-short life, "video" has come to mean not only the electronic image produced by the twin techniques of recording and reproduction, but also the finished product, or in other words, a complete creation. The term is also applied to the new artform which originated in the 60s, as mentioned above.

The artists who began using video as an instrument and means of expression were caught up in the Utopian concept inherited from the avant-garde, tuning in to the liberating ideas of these movements which were struggling to break down social and artistic conventions and utilizing the media (radio, posters, etc.) and live performances to display their rejection of the cultural system, inspired by such movements as Dada, Russian Constructivism and Surrealism. Furthermore, they relished the enthusiasm of the 60s and strove to achieve the .social changes demanded by the "counterculture", whose protest movements proclaimed their desire for pacifism, women's liberation, civil rights for minorities, and so on. After the Second World War and the Marxist-inspired analyses proposed by the counterculture, any understanding of the world and its cultural forms could not now ignore economic factors; culture and the economy were now inextricably interwoven.

At this juncture, with the merging of economics with culture and the plea for social change, video came upon the scene. While Utopia may exist more in theory than in practice, it is still true that Utopian ideas have often preceded events to come; as Victor Hugo said, "The Utopia of today is the truth of tomorrow." Now while we cannot actually say that video is the "truth of today", partially because I do not think that we are here to create "truths", this medium has never tired of examining relationships vis-a-vis the Utopian myth of the communication revolution.

landscapes of critical subjectivity

The video artist Antoni Muntadas speaks of "critical subjectivity" when referring to the extent to which criticism might be exercised at personal and individual level. "Personal vision will thus determine how the artist will observe and portray any set of interesting, worrying or distressing facts, situations or events which lead the artist to express his dissent. Naturally, this concept is not just relevant to video, and may be applied to work included in a postconceptual space." (2)

As critics and academics have stated, postmodernity - and, subscribing to the artist's theoretical framework, postconceptual methods including any form of art that contributes to the renovation of language and attitudes and which is based on the assumptions of 1970s conceptual art - is the cultural representation of latter-day capitalism, just as realism was the artistic expression of the first phase of capitalist industrial development and modern art coincided with imperialistic and monopolistic capitalism.

The work currently being produced by Tete Alvarez is centred around video, although the artist also employs other reproductive media, especially photography. There is clear reference to the work of Muntadas, which often lies within "the media landscape and its invisible mechanisms". This plastic art project was sponsored by a grant from the Provincial Government of Cordoba, financing both the exhibition of Installations and the production of this catalogue. Alvarez shows how his work has "constantly drawn on the world of the mass media and portrays the resulting impact on society". If Pausa y Tono (1993;"Pause and Tone") highlights the lack of communication resulting om saturation by messages and media, Paisajes (1994;"Landscapes"), the videoinstallation for which he was awarded this grant, explores the relationship between television and society. Comments the artist, "The limits between the real world and the media-based world barely exist." Baudrillard, in a recent essay. The Perfect Crime, again talks of the vertigo -or perhaps the space- which we in the western world are faced with on a daily basis. "We live in a world in which the chief function of the sign is to make reality disappear, while concealing its disappearance. Today's art does nothing else. The media do nothing else." (3)

The conflict between reality and its media-based perception is one of the paradoxes of communication tackled by Tete Alvarez in his work; he points to the confusion that exists between the real world and what we are shown of it, the virtual representation supplied to us by the mass media.

The dialectics of video/television, addressed by Eugeni Bonet in his self-commissioned programme, Señales de Video (Video Signs, 4)), is one of the classic challenges of video art; this theme has been touched upon by many artists, and has constantly featured in the work if others from practically the very outset of their careers in videocreation: for instance, the work of Muntadas or the first videobased work of Eugenia Balcells, Going Through Languages (1981), or more recently the work of Antonio Cano and others, including Tete Alvarez.

A year ago in Lyon, the third edition of the Biennial Festival of contemporary Art witnessed the opening of the Museum of contemporary Arts, with "Images in Motion" as its first exhibition, a tribute to the centenary of the cinema. The Festival was based on what the organizers saw as three distinct phases in the long and eventful history of cinematic art: the cinema of the 20s, the appearance of video in the 60s, and the computer art of the 90s, respectively referred to as periods of "reality", "live action" and "interactivity". These three concepts, while permitting improved communications from a technical or scientific perspective have, in humanistic terms, given rise to an "increasing distance between the world and its image", as highlighted on this project by Tete Alvarez. This is based on a premise that has come to be widely-held in these last few years of the present century, that in show business, illusion and outward appearances have supplanted reality; the culture industry has developed omnipresent mechanisms via the so-called leisure culture and the representation of reality has been perfected to such an extent, thanks to technological advances, that it has taken the place of reality.

the installations landscape

In Installations, Tete Alvarez employs diverse reproductive media such as photography in El becerro de oro (The Golden Calf), slide projection in Carta de ajuste (Test Card) and El espectaculo debe continuar... (The Show Must Go On...), photocopies in Clappers, and video in Espacio para la observación de la naturaleza (Space for Nature Study), ¡Que pequeño es el mundo! (It's a Small World!), Sin título - Manzanas (Untitled - Apples), Uno y otro lado (Both Sides), Nosce te ipsum and Nadie llama a tu puerta (No One at the Door).

The layout of the installations is quite elementary, with the aim of "enclosing" the viewer in a space where he will be confronted with an image. This may be an image of nature, of an apple, of a test card, the projection of someone who is not even in the same room but next door, the frozen logo of the international news channel CNN, the reflection of someone else repeating, clone-like, one's gestures, an image of many different people all applauding, or the sound of somebody ringing at the door, but nowhere to be seen.

This collection of installations broadcasts images, sound, gestures, words and a corporate logo which are both monologues and dialogues; monologues, as each piece is autonomous, and dialogues since they have all been conceived expressly for this exhibition and are all in some way interconnected.

Installations is the presence of absence. It encompasses collective and individual life. Collective, since the experience of the visitor, though silent and personal, is one of the scenarios usually associated with other participants, such as the four circus images in The Show Must Go On...; the viewer is also invited to share or participate in the social gesture of applause, in Clappers, or to contribute to the perpetuation of the faith-oriented religious and social myth of sects led by telepreachers, as captured in The Golden Calf which a portrait of TV presenter Larry King is illuminated and framed, fit for adoration. Other scenes, however, are more intimate. Take, for instance, the concealed landscape of Space for Nature Study, where the projected scenery is imprisoned within an enclosure and may only be viewed through a slot, while listening to the lashing of the wind. Or when, alone or accompanied, the viewer is faced with a television screen displaying the Test Card; this universal but abstract image is projected onto a switched-off TV set and moves in and out of focus, while the viewer can just make out a live, satellite-dish picture broadcast by the NBC channel. Elsewhere, the viewer is invited to admire the truly beautiful display of a pocket-television showing the CNN logo, but set in a glass prism as though it were a jewel. Other spaces are double, literally for reflexion, with the camera as a mirror, in Both Sides and in Nosce te ipsum. (In the early days of video, in the 70s, Narcissus was held as an emblem, using the speculum in the political act of self-examination. Rosalind Krauss in her celebrated 1996 article "Video:The Aesthetics of Narcissism" claims that video is not just a medium but a psychological situation, since the technology allows an image to be simultaneously recorded and projected; the performing artist may thus use the video monitor as a mirror or as a means of reflexion.)

Not all the pieces are exhibited in enclosed areas or compartments. Sometimes there is no three-dimensional space, just a simple wall, as in No One at the Door, where the basic element - the door - conveys the impression of an enclosed space. The audience applauding in Clappers, represented by photocopies mounted on the flat surface of a wall, conjures up the inside of a typical TV studio broadcasting any one of the thousands of quiz shows so common on all public and commercial TV channels.

Tete Alvarez began his career in the mid-to-late 80s, in photography, super-8 movies and video, working with the Arte-Accion collective. Since then it is not only his image-bank that has grown. In addition to creating images of the hand, he has shown a particular penchant for the eye, as may be witnessed in La función del ojo (1986;The Function of the Eye),taken from one of his earlier works created together with Antonio Serrano, the other member of the group. In Pause and Tone, the form of an eye is also central to the videoinstallation. While this image appears in both pieces, the basic and metaphorical complexity -and consequently the critical discourse- is greater in the latter.

Alvarez has constantly developed his language, gradually replacing the graphic, near-advertising style which characterized his earlier creations with a more narrative tone, although overall, his work is clearly more analytical and reflective than it is narrative.

Recent work such as Museum (1995) examines the symbol of power associated with the world of art - a subject which featured strongly in the work of artists like Louise Lawler and General Idea in the 80s when the crisis of representation converged with the very power of culture. However, Fluxus (Georges Madunas, Robert Filliou, etc.) and later a great number of 60s and 70s artists (Haacke, Kosuth, Francesc Torres, and even Muntadas) had already begun to question the role of the Museum and other environments such as galleries in the world of art; criticism was hurled at the myth of bourgeois culture o and the bonds that linked institutions and culture. Since then, many viewpoints have been expressed by artists with respect to this institution. "They have attempted to merge realities, respond to a cultural framework, maintain their distance, compromise, alter and simulate - in other words, deconstruct the Museum - as a conscious act." "The Museum as a protector, classifier and storage structure now lies neither in the past nor the future and is thus open to challenge and question." (5)

Museum comprises a series of 21 photographs taken by security cameras situated within the Museo de Bellas Artes (Art Gallery and Museum) in Cordoba and aims to "examine the current role of the spectator in the environment of representation". The Museum as a paradigm of surveillance - yet another paradox in art, since this space is not one of freedom but of control. In Museum the viewing area is itself ruled by the media. Even the viewer's expression is expressed as an object to be viewed; the visitor becomes the "star" of closed- circuit television, an experience which we undergo more and more not only in museums and galleries but outside in the street, due to the measures adopted by conservative governments to monitor public activity, in a witch-hunt to combat terrorism, violence, etc. (Yes, 1984 has come and gone, when Winston Smith felt the eyes of a huge face following him wherever he went; under the face were the words "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU".)

landscapes in motion and in evolution

Time Code (1993-94) is a single-channel video composition, Diez mil frames (Ten Thousand Frames), in combination with a videoinstallation or videosculpture. This format derives from the "expanded field" concept formulated by Rosalind Krauss, which renewed artistic language from a formal viewpoint while expanding critical discourse by favouring a space, one which is not so much formal as cultural, for proposals bracketed within what has been called "public sculpture" or site-specific projects (electronic billboards, digital screens, sculpture in the urban environment, etc.): statements criticizing daily life and institutions, a critical view of culture from within its own infrastructure.

This format, the videoinstallation, has been developed not only by the above-mentioned artists but also by other well-known figures in video art such as Dough Hall, Judith Barry, Gary Hill and Mona Hatoum (to name but a few), in an attempt to bridge the gap between artistic practice or thought-based activities and the real world.

In Time Code (Ten Thousand Frames),a 70-minute recording, Tete Alvarez has based his work on the technical term that lends its name to the piece.This term denotes the digital information that is stored with the video track and which acts as a timer for the stream of images; electronic time units are used to split the signal into individual pictures known as frames. Here, a series of fixed-focus images of nature shows apples, an anthill, a weather vane, etc., and displays the real-time movements of each of these on the screen. Image-motion as it happens. The course of time as we understood it before the appearance of electronics is set in counerpoint to digital time; the exposure of the timing information buried in the video signal results in a deeply disturbing exhibit. This video is also presented as a videosculpture in which each of the five monitors shows a complete version of the images which appear in Ten Thousand Frames as fragments.This piece is about the course of time and our perception of it; in the digital age in which we live, many videocreators wish to make us more aware of time and thought by expressing these both audibly and visually.

Deleuze concludes the chapter entitled "Recapitulation of images and signs" from his essay The Time-lmage (6) writing that according a formula postulated by Nietzsche, something new, a new artform, will never disclose its essence on emergence; indeed what it has been since the beginning may only be revealed at a turning-point in its evolution.

The work of Tete Alvarez is approaching that stage, that fork in its evolutionary path at which its essence may be clearly revealed. namely "the highlighting of the process of media influence on any community that is led and controlled by the mass media". His interest in the media he employs may also become clear. "Photography and video enable me to work along one line: video as a projection of the image in time and photography as the reduction to zero of that movement." (7)

Installations examines mass culture and communicates the presence, and at the same time the absence, of solitude and of the absurd in both public and private acts.Are we faced with nature or is nature already dead? Are our images and sounds what we perceive, or are they coming from next door? Did the real apple ever hang from the thread from which the projected apple now hangs? The image of the author looking into the camera and reproduced on a monitor, is it reflected in the screen-mirror on the other side of the bench or is it a clone? just as in La Invención de Morel, the novel in which Bioy Casares tells the story of a virtual love affair, all these images and their possible interpretations impart a solitude every bit as cold as the beauty of the virtual images is heartrending, and as terrifying as the physical and philosophical fear we may feel before them, always supposing that they do not disappear, perhaps taking us with them, as we view or rather make our way through them.

We cannot but creep nervously around Installations, knowing that the "crime" could take place anywhere and suspecting that we ourselves could be the victims. It is a relief, though, to think that the victim might just be virtual - or is it we who are virtual?

 

1.-John Handhart."Dé-collage/Collage: Notes towards a reexamination of the origins of video art" inIlluminating Video. Selected by Dough Hall and Sally Jo Fifer. Aperture/Bay Area Video Coalition, New York, 1990.

2.-Antoni Muntadas. "De la subjetivité critique" in Communications, Vidéo, nº 48. Selected by Raimond Bellour and Anne-Marie Duguet. Editions du Seuil, Paris 1988

3.-Jean Braudillard. El crimen perfecto. Anagrama, Barcelona 1996

4.-Eugeni Bonet. Señales de video. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid 1996

5.-AA Bronson y Peggy Gale. "Preface" e "Introduction"in Museum by Artist. Art Matropole, Toronto 1983

6.-Gilles Deleuze. La imagen-tiempo. Paidós Comunicación, Barcelona 1985

7.-Tete Álvarez. Tete Álvarez, becario de la Diputación, interviewed by Angel Luis Pérez Villén in Cuadernos del Sur, Córdoba 1994

 

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