Vanesa Cvahte


The exhibition project - exhibition, internet projects, television spots, film screenings

Mass audio–visual media, like television, film, and recently the Internet, which stand as mediators between man and the source reality, create textual and pictorial information which symbolically surround us with a new, media landscape.

The mechanisms developed in particular media for the creation of this landscape, this new reality, are various, and the defined modes in which the users are supposed to use these media, change constantly. Conventions, clichés, and structures of these media, function according to the rules of market and profit, which enable their existence, but which, in relation to art, turn out to form a monopolised and closed system.

The discourse of the criticism of mass media, which we can follow for decades yet in theory and art practice, actually moves between the criticism of media and utopia. The essence of this utopia has already been identified by Brecht in his appeals to change the function of radio: “Radio should change from a device of distribution into a device of communication.” 15 The reproducibility of mediated contents is the basis of distribution, and it is precisely this reproducibility which is the reason why these mediated contents (via radio, film, and television) no longer have their unique, aural value (which a work of art is supposed to have), but acquire the nature of commodity, the value (the saleability) of which depends merely on distributive repetitions. But it is precisely this market nature of the contents mediated through media, that the first media critics (Anders, Adorno, Horkheimer) took to be one of the essential arguments about alienation through media. And alienation is not communication.

The aim of the artists who were the first to deal with media, however, was precisely communication with the recipient, the viewer, through media. But from the very beginning, the first video artists have faced the highly monopolised and hierarchically structured, closed system of television with established codes of mediation which were commercially and market oriented, and which did not allow for artistic innovation. In the sixties, the role of television became questionable, among other reasons, because of the claim that television promotes a new, media culture which has been–with regards to its market orientation–both limited and questionable. The first video artists, like Vostell, Paik, Kahlen, and also Beuys, and others, did not have a chance to explore the formal qualities of the video medium (which provides a technical basis for television distribution), since these expensive technologies remained simply inaccessible to them (this, in a wider context, remains the same even in the nineties). The first works by these artists were thus realised as installations, actions and general (political) protests against television: gestures of destruction, modification, alienation of the purpose of television and television sets. In his event, TV Funeral, Vostell symbolically buried a television set artefact, wrapped in barbed wire (1963); Beuys dressed a television set in felt and turned it towards the wall which was also laid with felt–a denial of the content on the screen (1968). Evidence of artistic attitudes towards television can be clearly seen in the title of some of Paik’s work from this period: The best television is no television at all.

In the seventies, the television companies became more open to artistic production. However, the direct intervention of artists in regular programmes were more of an exception than a rule. In the early seventies they were executed, among other forms, as a criticism of the passive role of the viewer–Fred Forest (France) cut the course of television consumption with a complete grayness of the screen. But over and over again, the artistic and innovative interventions within ordinary television programming turned out to be contradictory, since they were oriented towards the production of “anti–television” which, of course, largely interfered with the comfortable stereotypes of common broadcasting. Dara Birnbaum and Dan Graham (USA) analysed the structure of the institution of television on the Free–Access–Channel (cable television), and they began from the so–called Happy News formation, in which the television announcers (actually actors) tried to make contact with families who were watching the programme (1978). In doing so they also unveiled the backstage aspect of the creation of news programmes, and the influence of the news on families in their living rooms.

A prominent case in the criticism of unidirectional television (from transmitter to recipient, and never in the opposite direction) is The Austrian Tapes by Douglas Davis (1974). In this video, Davis invited viewers to communicate with him, suggesting to them that they lay their hands, their faces, and their backs against the equivalent parts of his body, shown on the screen. Video from that period should not be understood as an alternative to television, but rather as an instrument of interpretation, as a bearer of the analysis of this medium.

The Media in Media project comprises works by Peter Weibel from 1972, which were broadcast on Austrian national television as an example of the criticism of media through direct intervention in the medium itself. Beside television, Weibel also problematises the taboo surrounding the live transmission of death, as he shows an aquarium full of fish, from which the water is flowing out (TV Poem); before the water has drained out, the transmission ends.

The eighties were the period when visual media, like cinema and television, flooded the world with images which refer to the images from these media instead of images from the human environment. The images acquire autonomy, they become the images of images. We could speak of the inflation of the system of signs (of the source reality) of these images. Weibel speaks of “mediatised visuality” (mediatisiert Visualität) –we no longer face the visual in a primary and innocent way, but via media. This phenomenon, which in the nineties has been acquiring new dimensions because of the Internet, is one of the starting points of the Media in Media project.

The art practice of the eighties and nineties reveals the need for reevaluation and evaluation of the mediated images which create new meanings. We could say that there is a need for the recycling of these images–literally in the sense of “cleaning” and re–using through art. Art theory has applied the term Appropriation Art to this programmatic orientation, while in the theory of experimental film the term found–footage is used. If these two denominations present the appropriation of images from whichever visual system, the Media in Media project introduces the works which have appropriated images from audio–visual mass media (television, television–broadcasted mainstream films, the Internet) –the appropriation of images from the world of popular, commercial and widely distributed media culture. This artistic appropriation and critical thematisation of images from the media can be manifested in various ways and from different aesthetic and theoretical standpoints. From the formal point of view, Conner, Müller, Arnold, Tscherkassky, Jacobs (in experimental film), and Birnbaum, Martinis (in video), have selected, edited, and assembled media images, or else, the source (ready–made) media material has subsequently been electronically manipulated–Gržinić/Šmid. These authors have criticised the source medium in the adequate medium, while Bole, Brodsky, and Dreier have presented the photographic cut–outs of media reality. Mayer has transferred the media ready–made onto a canvas in oil. Quite conceptually different media criticisms have been expressed in the installations of Kracina, Korschil, Kovačič, and the Brueck/Scmoll tandem.

The title of the exhibition project thus points to the formal intertwining of various reflections, whose common ground is the discourse of the criticism of media by means of art practice. This is a criticism of audio–visual mass media (the central theme being television) in various art media, and a different use of media like video and film which, in the system of market economy, are being used (misused?) for commercial, simulative, and manipulative purposes, while in the art context they become the instruments for disclosing the aesthetic, substantial, ideological, and psycho–social mechanisms of this system.

We know from history that the criticism of media was realised with the help of various artistic models and strategies–with the intervention in the medium itself, and earlier with protest actions and appeals; as a criticism of the disposition of the television medium, focused on the analysis of the role of subject defined by the medium; and–last but not least–with the appropriation and critical evaluation of original media material. “The art of media discourse”, however, has been and remains problematic in connection with both institutions to which it refers: the institution of media on the one hand, and the institution of established art on the other. On the one hand we have the “disclosure” of media mechanisms, new forms of perception, and the suggestion of new prospects of communication, and on the other hand a possible location and presentation of these ideas, products, initiatives, installations, actions, videos, films, etc.

The modification of the paradigm of art work as an expression of the absolute individual truth (referring to materialisation, to the object of artistic expression) into the model of artistic expression as a producer, bearer, and result of the given or appropriated social context, originated in the avant–garde movements of this century. This tendency is only heightened in the art of media criticism, since the social relevance and wider social perceptibility are essential dimensions and tendencies of this art. When such artistic practices enter institutions of high art, like museums, galleries, etc., the danger of ghettoisation and closed dialogue within the domain of high art becomes evident, and a contradictory situation emerges: the works which develop and appeal to new forms of communication with the masses by means of the media, acquire the cult nature of art in classical art institutions, and therefore the masses do not perceive them. Such dilemmas and related reproaches had already surfaced at the Documenta 6 exhibition, Art and Media (1977). The interactive video art from that period has changed, in the nineties, precisely because of the technological aspects and developments (the Internet!), but the dilemma remains. Interactive, multi–media projects, like Piazza virtuale from Van Gogh TV, first presented at Documenta in 1987, and again in 1992, as well as at Ars Electronica; projects by the Austrian group Stadt Werkstadt TV; and similar media–laboratory initiatives and groups employing high technology (Kulturdata–Kriesche, Hoffman & Co. from Graz, and elsewhere), opened the field of activity and experimentation precisely in the sphere where “normal” television fails: in the active and direct dialogue, in the interaction with the viewer, the recipient. But despite the fact that at the last Documenta exhibition, television viewers had literally created the Piazza virtuale programme for as much as 100 days, the question has been raised about the actual influence of this project–and its counterparts–on the regular, monopolist and centralist concepts of the big television companies. Therefore it is not surprising if the former intendant of the Styrian Autumn festival, Horst Gerhard Haberl, states: “Utopias from the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, claiming that the media space could actually be controlled or at least largely influenced, and that different aesthetic emphases could develop within it, were not realised: the electronic media, as much as it is used by the artists, once again fall within the sphere of high art, and they have no chance in the domain of mass media, not even at midnight. One could hardly find a museum in the world which would offer the electronic media in their representable form.” 16

Despite the scepticism about the power of criticism, the discourse of the criticism of media through art practice is still alive and developing. Actually, this discourse is maintained and constantly renewed with the development of new technologies, new social situations and contexts, and new possibilities for communication, and it preserves the balance and ambivalence of the ensuing actions and reactions.

Works are being created within the framework of the exhibition project, which in their "television work" refer to the tradition of the direct intervention of artists in the television broadcast. In the works by Irwin and Marko Peljhan we do not see the explicit criticism of the media itself, but the analysis of the decisive role of this medium in the wider context of the market economy.

In the case of Irwin, we have a television advertisement campaign for their product, a plush teddy-bear, which runs for the duration of the exhibition. However, the promotional video for the teddy-bear is not only ironic, or symbolic, deed thematising advertising aesthetics, but an act aiming to promote the sale of their teddy-bears with the Black Cross trade mark. As with all trade marks, this one also has its political and ideological emphasis. At the time of the exhibition, the Slovene national television medium becomes a place of advertisement, and the gallery becomes a place of sale for the promoted article, the plush teddy-bear. With this act, Irwin define their criticism of the media regarding the medium itself and also regarding the space of art - in this case, the gallery. This does not mean, however, that they have found themselves somewhere between these two spaces, but their gesture rather places both institutions - the institution of medium and the institution of art - in the context of the market economy and the post-capitalist period. Irwin transfer the mechanism of the economic system which functions according to the sale/non-sale code, to the art system of an artistically devised project which is supposed to function according to - at least the remains of - the visual aesthetic/non-aesthetic code (where the non-aesthetic also plays a decisive role). With this move they are actually present in both systems (market economy and art), while at the same time they elude evaluation in either. Therefore, their contribution to the project is not (only) a visual intervention in the medium, but a complete replication of the economic mechanism in which the medium plays one of the constitutive roles.

"In the face of the machine we are all equal ... everybody can be its master or its slave" (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, The Constructivist International, 1922). One of the starting points of this exhibition project is the balanced evaluation of art terms in relation to the discourse which is critical of the media.

The problematisation of the Internet actually follows the patterns already known from the television medium. As an example of the external corrective it comprises the project by Michael Brodsky, which thematises the world of images and their censorship on the Internet, manifested in a photographic series.

Peter Gerwin Hoffman and Vuk Ćosić will realise their projects directly on the net, and during the exhibition the projects will be "displayed" - via the on-line link - in the gallery.

The Internet, which is actually a globally accessible space for the presentation of art projects, has been transferred to the gallery, which again evokes contradictory feelings. Namely, artists understand the Internet as a possible space of manifestation which is not burdened with the hierarchic judgement of the institutions of established art. But when projects on the Internet become institutionalised, they find themselves inside the above-mentioned art system. However, the strategy of including such projects is actually a practical one - the probability of general perception of critical (art) projects on the Internet, saturated with economic and commercial information, is very low, while within the framework of an art project such as this, it is probably higher.

Translation: Borut Cajnko