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ThemesOverview of Media ArtMassMedia
Television—Art or Anti-art?
Conflict and cooperation between the avant-garde and the mass media in the 1960s and 1970s
Dieter Daniels

Television as a world power

In the 1960s television became the world's dominant mass medium, wielding an opinionshaping power that took it well beyond the press and radio. The current term ‹mass medium› was coined at the same time. This can be seen quite clearly from linguistic usage, even without detailed etymological examination. The press, radio and film are mass media as well, but only television seems to comprehensively embody the concept as a synthesis of their collective effects. It tends to have negative connotations, however, and these are distinctly different from the enthusiasm that greeted radio in the 1920s. And television is indeed the most hopeless medium of all for the arts. It emerged and developed along tracks that had already been laid by the established mass media. There was scarcely a phase when everything was open, allowing creative investigation to define the medium. The only available alternative is between the commercial principles of the American film and radio industries and the state-controlled European radio station model. This was predictable even before television was introduced, as can be seen from Rudolf Arnheim's statement to thisrespect in the final chapter of his 1933 book on radio.[1] This did not prevent David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America, from alluding in his emphatic address at the start of American television broadcasting in 1939 to «the birth of a new art … which shines like a torch of hope in a troubled world.»[2]

Since the 1920s, the worlds of radio and television have developed very differently in Europe and America. In the USA the commercial stations funded by advertising held the field, but in Europe it was usually the state that was fully in charge of programs, implying lofty cultural aims as well as political influence. This conflict between commerce and culture continued into the 1980s debates about the introduction of commercial television in Europe, and ended with the worldwide triumph of the American model. So viewing figures became the sole criterion for success or failure, and they favored commercial TV from the outset. In the USA, the average family in the 1960s was already watching about five hours of television per day. There was also a choice of over ten channels according to region. They broadcast round the clock, increasingly in color from 1957. Until 1963, viewers in Germany were offered only one black-and-white channel, in the evenings only. Even so it can be assumed that from 1965, with currently ten million television sets and statistically 2.5 viewers each, «television is already reaching the whole German nation.»[3]

A medium without art

Television is the most efficient reproduction and distribution medium in human history, but it can scarcely be said to have come up with anything in the last half century that could be called an art form unique to that medium. The high-low distinction never took hold here in the way that it did in film. There is no form of high television culture that could be seen as a lasting cultural asset to be preserved for future generations.[4] The only exception is the music clip, which has emerged since the 1980s. Selected examples of this form have attracted accolades in the context of art and become part of museum collections. They are often seen as a continuation of the 1920s avant-garde absolute films. This analogy, which is entirely justifiablein certain cases, should not conceal the fact that they are primarily music industry advertising and therefore not part of modern art history, unless we accept that it lost its absolute autonomy with the onset of postmodernism. It is significant that in the 1980s MTV in particular spearheaded the advance of Americanstyle commercial TV against the European public service model with its state-anchored cultural role. For all these reasons, television has given far less of a boost to cultural, and certainly not to artistic, utopias than did radio or film since the 1920s. It was only welcomed before it was introduced, with vigor unclouded by actual experience of the medium. This applies to the Futurists in 1933 («La Radia») and to Lucio Fontana in 1952. In the early 1950s, the introduction of television did trigger the beginning of a debate about its possible artistic characteristics. But in Germany in particular many authors pretentiously brandished the term ‹art› even in the title of their publications, as if it were the universal weapon against media skepticism, a skepticism that was justified both by American commercialism and National Socialist propaganda, which was boasting even in 1935 that it was running the world's first regular television station.[5] And then, as if none of that had happened, what should we read, brimming with optimistic confidence, in 1953, the first year of West German television: «Television is already an art form. It will certainly be the art of tomorrow.»[6] But Adorno, drawing on his American experience, places television within the «scheme of the culture industry» as early as 1953, when it was introduced in West Germany, as it «continues that industry's tendency to surround and capture public awareness from all sides, as a combination of film and radio. … The gap that still remained for private existence in the face of the culture industry, as long as this did not totally dominate the visible dimension, has now been plugged.»[7]

The social influence of television was also a central issue for the 1960s emergence of media theory. Marshall McLuhan predicted that the audio-visual media would bring the Gutenberg era to an end, a thesis that he both illustrates and substantiates by his own frequent radio and TV appearances. Umberto Eco devoted the conclusion of his book about «the open artwork»[8] to live broadcast television experience,where he saw a structural relationship with the non-predetermined ‹open› art forms of his day. Like the American and European media systems, these two theories cast art in very different roles: for McLuhan, progress in the technical media has a crucial effect on artistic development in that it makes art forms feasible that previously only existed in the artist's imagination. But for Eco, art offers the model for a self-determined alternative to extraneous determination by media power.

Three time-windows

In the following, three snapshots will provide examples of the developing relationship between art and television over three decades. Various artistic attitudes and changes in the media landscape will be revealed. Even in the 1950s, Lucio Fontana, John Cage and Guy Debord were staking out possible artistic positions relating to television, radio and film, ranging from total enthusiasm to radical rejection.[9] Then around 1963–1964, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell and other artists tested television's practical suitability in the art field for the first time using primitive resources, still completely without video technology and also without support from the broadcasting stations. The first programs created by artists date from 1968–1969, and beginning in 1970, various models were developed for cooperating with TV stations. It is astonishing that the developments in these three time-windows took place simultaneously in different places, without the participants being aware of each other. This synchronicity occurs in both technological development and art history from the nineteenth century onwards. Photography and electric telegraphy were developed around 1840 by several inventors at almost the same time, abstract painting emerged around 1910 and absolute film around 1920 in several artists' studios independently of each other. «There are hours in the thought of mankind at which a certain idea crops up at the same time in different places, endemically, so to speak,» writes the photographer Nadar when patenting his process for aerial photographs taken from balloons, pointing out that this idea is described at the same time in a book by a scientist called Andraud: «Hence the expression: the idea was in the air.»[10]

I → First Time-Window: 1962–1964—Fighting the boob tube

The television set as art material

The development of intermedia art forms brought about close links in the 1960s between art, experimental theater and film, which had become expanded cinema. Video was involved only minimally until the late 1960s: Sony did not start to market its Portapak as the first video equipment for private individuals until 1965. What possibilities were there for artists to work with television as a medium in this situation? The chances of an individual being given the right to create a ‹TV art broadcast› are extremely slight. Video art does not start to make any impact on television in the USA and Germany until 1968–1969. So artists find themselves in the same role as everybody else: they are viewers. Several artists addressed this by making the television set, as it stands in the front room at home, the target of their attacks or attempts at transformation. The following section takes a key point around 1962–1964 to explore the emergence of this artistic examination of the TV image.[11] It should be pointed out that these early steps in media art were taken on a much more modest basis than any of the utopian or political demands made in the first half of the century: artists do not work with television as a broadcasting station and institution, but just with the terminal device, the television set. Just as in Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage «Just what is it, that makes today' s home so different, so appealing,» television is only one of many new features enriching the modern home. So artists are just ‹exemplary viewers,› working with the tube as a symbol of the mass medium as a whole, using the normal television schedule rather than making programs themselves. So here it is no longer a matter of making television into an art instrument; its institutional status as a media system remains unassailable, artists can only change it as a model at the point of reception. The following examples are modelled on Cage's[12] receptive-analytical approach and not Fontana's[13] emphatic/utopian one. As in 1951–1952, there is astonishing synchronicity in 1962–1964 as well, even though the artists usually come to work with television independently of each other, and via various routes. Allthe following examples show that the artists were working with the electronic TV image before the industry launched the first affordable video equipment on the market from the mid-1960s. So art is not waiting for media technology to progress, but relies on its own resources to come to terms with the dominant mass medium of the day.

From Cage to Paik and from music to interactive art

Nam June Paik is generally seen as the father of video art today. His path leads from studying classical music in Korea and Japan via his discovery of Arnold Schoenberg to John Cage and an interest in electronic music, and finally to work with electronic images. His first major presentation was called «Hommage à John Cage—Musik für Tonbänder und Klavier»[14] and was made in 1959 in Jean Pierre Wilhelm's Galerie 22 in Düsseldorf, where Cage had performed the year before. Cage and Paik are linked by their mutual interest in random creative processes, using new techniques, including electronics, to question the role of human intention and the ideal of the artistic ‹idea.›[15] Two examples will make this clearer: in his first tape composition «Williams Mix,» 1952, Cage uses random processes to compose a graphic score that is then used to edit and assemble eight tape tracks of found and generated sounds. So Cage is abandoning the well-established system of European music notation in order to manipulate sound as a material with the new medium of audiotape, thus producing a musical composition with graphic structures. Paik develops this principle in his 1963 pieces on the theme of «Random Access Music.» He also uses several tape tracks with found sounds, but does not run them through the tape recorder; he sticks them on a substrate instead, next to and on top of each other. Cage works with the software of sound material recorded on the tape, but Paik intervenes in the hardware by detaching the playback head so that visitors can run through the various sound tracks by hand. This individual ‹random access› approach creates a new sound sequence each time, without a beginning or an end. A device intended to reproduce music in a linear fashion, as faithfully as possible to the original, is converted into an instrument for interacting with the musical rawmaterial. While Cage allows the musicians and the ambient sounds to modify and cocreate his pieces to a substantial extent, Paik builds an interactive installation from which sounds emerge without any compositional guidelines only when the visitors intervene. Comparably, Paik adopts the receptive-analytical strategy of Cage's 1951 composition for radio sets and transfers it to television, but then takes a decisive further step from participatory reception to creative intervention by the public.[16]

Paik's «Participation TV»

Paik's first major exhibition «Exposition of Music—Electronic Television» took place from March 11–20, 1963 in the Wuppertal architect Jährling's private Galerie Parnass. The title alone shows the transition from Paik the musician to Paik the visual artist, achieved by extending the above-mentioned audiotape pieces to television work. The exhibition was distributed all over the building and even spilled over into Mr. Jährling's private quarters. Visitors at the time often took scant notice of the room containing twelve modified TV sets. It is only from today's perspective that this is seen as one of the key starting-points for what was later to become video art. But this should not let us forget that the whole enterprise was considerably more complex. Four prepared pianos, several disc and tape installations, mechanical sound objects and a freshly slaughtered ox's head above the entrance all formed part of the event, which was open for ten days only, for two hours in the evening from half past seven to half past nine. «Practically no one but the participants' friends came to the opening, and almost no one at all on the other evenings.»[17] Even so, this exhibition's twenty hours still made 1963 into zero hour for the history of video art—and that is true even though no video equipment was used here.

These short evening opening times were to fit in with the broadcast times of the only German television channel at the time. That was the only time an image, albeit modified, could be seen on the TV sets.[18] This shows how important these experiments, scarcely acknowledged by visitors and the press, were for Paik himself. The televisions used were of various makes and various ages, distributed ‹at random› in the space. The best description of the different electronicmodifications comes from the Fluxus artist Tomas Schmit, who helped to set the exhibition up: «eleven televisions in the room between the hall and garden; arranged—like the pianos— at random; one TV set is on top of another, the others are on the floor. the starting material is supplied by the normal TV programmes, but they are scarcely recognizable on most of the sets. (…) one of the TV sets shows a negative picture overlaid with a different one. the picture on another has been rolled up, so to speak, into a cylinder round the vertical centre axis of the screen. in what paik calls the most complicated case there are three independent sinusoidal oscillations attacking the image parameters. the group of two: the lower one has horizontal stripes, the upper one vertical stripes (the upper one actually shows the same picture as the bottom one, but is on its side as opposed to its feet). a single, vertical, white line runs through the middle of the screen of the ‹zen tv.› one set lies face-down and shows its pictures to the parquet floor (paik said today: «that one was broken»). in the top eight TV sets the picture composition (in television, the term picture also includes a temporal dimension) is derived from more-or-less predefined manipulations of the set's electronics, in the four bottom sets the manipulation is such that external influences determine the picture: one of the four is connected to a pedal switch in front of it; if you press the switch, the short-circuits of the contact procedure bring about a fireworks of instantly disappearing points of light on the screen. another set is hooked up to a microphone; anyone who speaks into the mike sees an explosion of light dots similar to the other set, but a continuous one this time. the ‹kuba tv› is the most extreme; it is connected to a tape recorder that feeds music to the TV (and to us): parameters of the music determine parameters of the picture. finally (on the top storey) you have the ‹one point TV› that is connected to a radio; in the middle of its screen is a bright point whose size is governed by the current volume of the radio; the louder the radio, the larger the point, the quieter the radio, the smaller the point becomes.»[19] So the chaotic impression made by the TV ensemble is deceptive, insofar as the whole thing is more like a laboratory situation with various experiments set up in it than a classicalexhibition. Cage's ‹prepared piano› liberated and transformed the instrument of European musical tradition and symbol of the prosperous middle-class home. Paik's treatment of the television, which succeeded the piano in the 1960s as the most expensive piece of domestic furniture, is equally anarchic and liberating, but at the same time very differentiated and media-specific. Each of Paik's modifications shows various possible approaches that viewers can make to television, ranging from meditation objects («Zen for TV») to interactive objects. Even if artists do not start making television themselves, they can show models for new ways of handling the medium. Paik's idea of «participation TV»[20], which allows viewers to participate actively rather than remain passive consumers, anticipates current discussion about interactivity and multimedia as twenty-first century mass media.[21]

German public service television was not interested in this kind of suggestion about the future of the medium and ignored Paik's exhibition. But by coincidence shortly afterwards, on April 1, 1963, the second German television, ZDF, came on stream, thus allowing viewers a choice of programs for the first time—provided they had equipped themselves with the appropriate set-top box. It should be remembered that until then, in Germany at least, the viewer's only means of interaction with the TV image was the on-off switch.

Vostell's TV Decollage

Wolf Vostell's first public show of TV works took place from May 22—June 8, 1963 in New York, in other words only two months after Paik's Wuppertal project. According to the invitation, the private, non-commercial Smolin Gallery was presenting «Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage.» As this suggests, the exhibition, similarly to Paik's, consisted of several sections, which Vostell lists as follows: «6 television sets with various programs / the picture is decollaged—6 fusions / pots with plastic airplanes that melt in the heat—6 grilled chickens on a canvas / to be eaten by the public from the picture—6 chicken incubators / on canvas / the chicken should hatch on the day of the exhibition—everyone receives an ampoule of liquid he can use to smudge magazines.»[22] The said ampoule of liquid washanded to visitors at the opening, and photographs show that this offer of «Do it yourself Dé-collage» for magazines hanging on the wall was enthusiastically received. Vostell uses this procedure himself in his creative work. It introduces the term ‹dé-collage,› which Vostell coined in the 1950s, when his work was still driven by pulling down posters in the manner of the ‹affiches lacerées› by Hains, Villeglé and Rotella. Unlike the collage, which creates new layers of meaning, the ‹dé-collage› is an aggressive act of tearing down, smudging and disturbing found pictorial structures, which could be posters, magazines or television images.

Shortly before the exhibition opened, the YAM Festival in New Brunswick, also organized by the Smolin Gallery, took place on May 19, 1963, featuring happenings and actions by Dick Higgins, Chuck Ginnever, Allan Kaprow, Yvonne Rainer, Wolf Vostell and La Monte Young. Vostell's action was called «TV Burying.» In the course of it the television had cream cake thrown at it while a program was on, and an old oil painting was stabbed and hung in front of the TV image. Then the set was wrapped up in barbed wire in a symbolic coronation, also kitted out with turkey steaks and finally buried in a grave dug with a pneumatic drill and a shovel.[23] The associations extend from custard-pie slapstick to clear echoes of religious depictions of the Crucifixion and Entombment.

It is clear in both the exhibition and the action that Vostell is relating the TV image to the panel picture. The act of ‹dé-collage› is applied equally to posters, magazines, pictures on canvas and the TV image. The link between Vostell's TV works and painting can be seen even more clearly in his first drafts for television pieces, which he himself dates inconsistently to 1958 or 1959: «Clean white canvas—behind that 5 television sets installed var. sizes—television right next to canvas—Interference is built into the televisions so that there are constant changes.»[24] Along with a rough sketch, this note serves as a basis for several later versions, as shown for example at the major Vostell retrospective in 1992 as «TV-Decoll/age no. 1.» The incision in painting's virgin canvas quite obviously relates directly to Lucio Fontana's «concetto spaziale.» But unlike Fontana, who is looking into the unknown, Vostell already senses that the flickering electronicimage is waiting behind painting's broken surface. It is not known whether Vostell knew Fontana's Manifesto on television. But the destructive thrust in Vostell's TV decollage seems much more to be continuing Debord's media criticism, which was quite prepared to terrorize the public with its message.[25] Then in 1963, at the «Nein—9 Decollagen» happening in Wuppertal, Vostell even staged a public ritual shooting of a television set showing a program. At another point in this event, which was organized as a bus tour, participants were taken into a cinema with a filmed TV decollage showing on its screen, accompanied by wailing sirens, while people lay motionless on the cinema floor. This film, «Sun in your head,» can be seen as the first artwork using recorded moving images of television. But what about this assertion by Vostell: «I am the first artist in the world who has been using television sets for images since 1958»?[26]

Paik or Vostell?

As I have said, in about 1962–1964, several artists simultaneously hit on the idea of using the television set as artistic material. It is missing the point to ask «who was first?». As in other comparable cases of such astonishing synchronicity, it is more important to look at the differences and the common, time-related context. But there is a particular sense of competition between Paik and Vostell: they knew each other, and so it is perfectly possible that an idea was taken over in this case. I would just like to say this about the point here: there is no doubt that Paik was the first to show his TV works. He worked on them for about a year in advance, but then kept them hidden in his «secret studio,» so that no one could get ahead of him.[27] Vostell and Paik were aware of each other's similar ideas, and Paik refers to «Vostell's idea (Décollage television)» in 1963 in the leaflet accompanying the «Exposition of Music—Electronic Television.» But it remains difficult to assess how much Vostell had already developed ideas and sketches for TV pieces as early as 1958 or 1959, and above all how much he put these into practice.[28] He had definitely not published any references to his TV concepts before his visit to Paik's Wuppertal exhibition, which he easily could have done in the magazine «Dé-collage,»which he published himself.[29]

In terms of content it is clear that Vostell's work with television is closely linked with his pictorial work, and that he did not undertake any sophisticated interventions into the sets' electronics, but just interfered with the TV image externally or by changing programs— and anyway according to his score he had thirteen stations at his disposal because of the larger range of channels available in the USA. In terms of strategy, it was certainly clever of Vostell to place his events in New York, right in the middle of the emerging 1960s art scene. Paik's Wuppertal exhibition reached a very limited public in comparison. Shortly after this Paik also moved to New York, where he started to work with video from 1965.[30] As well as having access to the latest technology, a decisive factor for him was that something that had already been done in Europe had to be repeated in the artistic metropolis of New York to attract the art world's attention.[31] Instead of using Debord's destructive strategy, as taken up by Vostell, Paik opted for extending Cage's receptive strategy to productive work with the medium.

Parallel concepts—the television set as an art object in the work of Wesselmann, Uecker, César, Isou and Gerstner

Paik and Vostell are not the only artists to be addressing the television set as an art object around 1962–1964. It is surprising that artists who knew nothing about each other were producing work of this kind at the same time, but the difference between the contexts in which these works emerge is also revealing.

Tom Wesselmann

Tom Wesselmann built working TV sets into some of his pop art paintings in 1962–1964. He also uses this juxtaposition of painted interior and real objects like telephones, radiators or radios in several other works, right down to an object box that needs a female breast to complete it. In «Great American Nude #39,» 1962, a painted female nude is lying between a real TV and a window with a real blind. Wesselmann shows television as part of everyday American life, as something that is not watched deliberately but running in the background, and just as much part of the interior as the furniture and the pictures on the wall. Despite the moving images he calls some of these TVpaintings still lifes, the best known being the 1963 «Still Life #28.» The picture is crammed with American symbolism, and the portrait of President Lincoln on the wall relates to the topical events on the screen.[32] The picture seems to be saying that this is where politics is played out today: one of the reasons for Kennedy's win in the 1960 presidential election against Nixon was that he made a better impression in the television debate.

Günther Uecker

In the same year, Günther Uecker processed a TV set, «TV 1963,» by covering it with nails—over-nailing—as well as painting it white. The object is part of an exhibition called «Sintflut der Nägel» in which Uecker over-nailed all the furniture in a living room. A TV broadcast by the Hessischer Rundfunk accompanying the exhibition showed Uecker buying the brand-new television set, and then subjecting this valuable object to artistic treatment.[33] Thus television as a consumer fetish becomes an object reminiscent of primitive rituals, of the kind found in African nail fetishes, for example.


César also uses a television set sculpturally in his piece «Télévision» in 1962. He strips a television of its casing and places it on a scrap sculpture. The whole thing is covered with a Perspex hood, with holes for the aerial, loudspeaker and operating knobs. The idea of the ready-made is transferred to the wonders of modern civilization, entirely in the spirit of Pierre Restany's Nouveau Réalisme manifesto.

Isidore Isou

A TV object by Isidore Isou, the founder of Lettrism, dates from the same year, 1962; it is called «La télévision déchiquetée ou l'anti-crétinisation.» Lettrism is a movement that has been somewhat unjustly forgotten. In the early 1950s, it anticipated many 1960s developments in conceptual and inter-media art. Isou proclaimed the destruction of the film in 1951, actually implementing this with a montage film and thus causing the scandal that brought the young Debord to Lettrism.[34] The movement was best known for Lettrist hypergraphics, a set of meaningless signs that anticipated the development of comics and advertisingin many ways. In his TV object, Isou puts a template of such hypergraphic elements over the screen. This simple gesture makes the TV into a reservoir of constantly new signs, created by overlapping the hypergraphic matrix and the moving image. A key fact is that both César and Isou exhibited their TV objects in Paris in March 1962.[35]

Karl Gerstner

The Swiss artist, graphic designer and advertising expert Karl Gerstner changed an active TV image in a much more complex visual way. He developed various models of his «Auto-Vision» from 1962–1963: «The name identifies the difference from television. The aim is not to broadcast programs, but to create programs directly. For this we use daily television programs that are abstracted through a ‹pair of spectacles,› and alienated to the point of being non-representational,» is Gerstner's comment on the process.[36] These Perspex ‹spectacles› have something in common with Op Art. They can be swapped around, and each pair creates a different effect. Twelve different ‹spectacles› versions of «Auto-Vision» were shown on a monitor wall at the «Crazy Berlin» exhibition in the Haus am Lützowplatz, Berlin in 1964. Each screen was showing the same program, which was also running in undistorted form on a thirteenth television. The single «Auto-Vision» model was put together with designer perfection. It has a complete set of ‹spectacles› that can be changed, and in its day would have fitted in well with progressive home design à la Verner Panton. But Gerstner is not just interested in superficial effects. He explains in an elaborate film including a demonstration of the work that he sees his «direct program creation method» as a substitute for manipulating images digitally, which the computer could not do at that time. Two working examples of «Auto-Vision» have survived—unlike Paik's and Vostell's early TV works, which have disappeared—but they have been largely ignored in the history of video art.

TV interiors in painting, photography, action art and theater

As well as the pieces that integrate or manipulate the television as a functioning object, there are of course numerous examples of television appearing in painting or collages. I will just single out Paul Thek as arepresentative; he painted perhaps the most lucid and radical picture of this kind in 1963 in his series «Television Analyzations,» in which the tube completely fills the canvas with a detail of a face.[37] TV is a subject for photography as well. Also in 1963, the American photographer Lee Friedlander examined the relationship between the television and the domestic interior in a series of pictures.[38] And in the same year the actor and artist Dennis Hopper photographed the «Kennedy Suite» series, which focuses even more sharply on the TV screen as a principal theme. Artists other than Vostell use television in action art, but like Wesselmann they use it as a natural feature of the interior. Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg staged «Leben mit Pop. Eine Demonstration für den Kapitalistischen Realismus» in a Düsseldorf furniture store in 1963. The artists themselves sit motionless on the available furniture «like sculptures on pedestals, their natural distances apart increased to give a sense of being on show.»[39] The television is also on, showing the news punctually at 8 p.m., as the action begins. In the 1963 happening «Push and Pull,» Allan Kaprow also invites visitors into a furniture arrangement with a television showing a program in it, but here it is up to the visitors themselves to create new constellations. But the most important model for future cooperation between artists and broadcasting institutions comes from literature and the theater. In 1966, Samuel Beckett produced his first television play, «He, Joe,» which was later followed by others with the south German television station (Südfunk). Beckett both wrote and directed the piece, which shows only a slow tracking shot up to the only performer in a bleak interior. The formal resources of his television plays are reduced to a minimum. They are entirely comparable with the equally minimalistic early video performances of the 1960s, however Beckett's route to television has no connection with contemporary video art, but is based on a much older genre, the radio play.[40]

Summary of the first time-window—from intermedia to multimedia

Nothing much remained in the 1960s of the utopias of the first half of the twentieth century as designed by Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin, the Futurists and also LucioFontana, who saw radio, film and television as a universal extension of art. Television and the other mass media became economic and political power factors of a magnitude that went well beyond questions of aesthetics or cultural significance. Rather then a source of utopian hope, most 1960s artists saw television as unduly powerful and as an objective for attacks whose widespread media effect made the pictorial world of art seem insignificant. And yet there were an astonishing number of attempts to redefine television, and there are various approaches to demonstrate this, going back well before the beginning of video art. Alongside the critical and aggressive positions (Vostell, Isou, Uecker) and the neutral and contemplative ones (Wesselmann, César, Friedlander, Richter and Lueg), Gerstner and Paik in particular design models for work with the electronic image as artistic material. Paik is the first and only artist to intervene in the electronics at this stage, so that an image can be formed as it emerges. His vision is: «As collage technic replaced oil-paint, the cathode ray tube will replace the canvass.» [sic][41] The synchronicity with which artists started to work with television as a medium in 1962–1963 remains surprising. There is no more a sense of clear priority among them than in the case of other invented and found image-making processes in the early twentieth century. For example, around 1920 Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Marcel Duchamp were also all working on the first abstract films at the same time, to an extent without being aware of each other. One key fact is that the artists started to work with TV on the basis of different genres: Paik comes from music, Vostell and Wesselmann from painting, César and Uecker see the TV above all as object sculpture, Gerstner uses it as a source of optical signals, Isou's starting points are film and literature. The new medium is at a point of intersection between the traditional disciplines. So the artistic ‹reconquest› of television is symptomatic of the new interdisciplinary direction being taken in the 1960s, working towards removing the boundaries between genres and the cultural institutions linked with them. The milieu of new music, happening, Fluxus, expanded cinema andconcrete poetry helped to shape this early phase, which can only be reinterpreted as the beginning of media art from today's perspective. However, at the time the term ‹intermedia› emerged, introduced by Dick Higgins, which was certainly a more apt description than the later restriction to ‹video art›; in the light of the sweeping ambitions of those days, which embraced all the media, this is something of a retrograde step into terrain that has clearly been cordoned off again.

When the digital multimedia age is proclaimed thirty years later in the 1990s, the forgotten 1960s intermedia concept comes back into its own. But there is one important difference: the artistic transformations of the TV set that took place around 1963–1964 are just one symptom of this interference with genres with an impetus derived from art—but in the 1990s the computer is de facto the driving force behind the media's convergence to multimediality. In this respect the interrelations between culture and media technique have reversed from the 1960s to the 1990s.

II → Second Time-Window 1968–1969: Artists go on the air

Television—the art form of the future?

Around 1968–1969 it suddenly seemed as though television could become the art form of the future—and conversely that the Muse's kiss could wake the «sleeping lion» television.[42] At almost the same time, in both Europe and the USA programs started to be made by TV stations and artists working together that were historic milestones in the interplay between art and the mass media. In an astonishingly short time, the TV art attempted around 1963–1964, which had been skeptical and distanced in terms of content and usually quite primitive technically, was overtaken by a reinvigorated utopian spirit: «What happens if artists take control of television? … reaching a vast audience, creating a museum for millions.» This was the kind of futuristic emphasis used to introduce the program «The Medium Is the Medium» on WHGB-TV from Boston. And in the same year Gerry Schum pronounced on the occasion of his first broadcast of his Television Gallery on Sender Freies Berlin: «The circle of people that can be reached by galleries and museums is minimal. …Compared with the book market, it is as if a successful writer could only keep in touch with his public through poetry readings, with his novels going through print-runs of millions. I am forced to the conclusion that in terms of possible communication between artwork and art public we are at about the same point as literature was before Gutenberg's invention of the letterpress. … I cannot see why modern art can only be publicized on a wider scale when it is no longer modern.»[43] In this situation, Schum's credo was: «The only chance for Fine Arts I see, is the deliberate use of the medium TV.»[44] And the year before that, WDR Cologne had opened its new TV studio for electronic image manipulation with the elaborate «Black Gate Cologne» intermedia event, staged by the artists Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini. And in Sweden and England, and also at other American TV stations, cooperation with artists started at almost the same time around 1968–1969.[45] How did this enormous change of mood come about, with TV programs as the white hope for art, rather than wearing yourself out at the boob tube as a representative of some criticism of the system? The impetus comes from the artists as well as the broadcasting institutions. Around 1970, an electronic image still meant a TV image. This is clear from the titles of the first major exhibitions in 1969: «TV as a creative medium» (Howard Wise Gallery New York) and also «Vision and Television» (Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MA) and the magazine «Art in America» called its special issue «TV—The next Medium.»[46] Video art has scarcely appeared yet, even though the Sony Portapak was on the market from 1965 as the first video camera for private use that was viable both financially and in terms of weight. Artists like Bruce Nauman work with it, but their real-time video tapes, technically primitive but intensive as a result of their permanent repetition, were made by performing directly to camera, without any subsequent editing.[47] But videos of this kind are extremely unsuitable for television broadcasts. They are more like exhibits to be shown in the white cube of a gallery, alongside photographs or objects.

But the possibility of autonomous video production also stimulated political media work, thus producing and provoking a counter-public to mainstream TV: «Guerrilla Television» was the program aim of the groupthat formed around the magazine «Radical Software».[48] But sooner or later the underground video movements usually fell between the two stools of professionalization and adaptation, or radicalization and marginalization.[49] This dilemma caused by the elaborate technical demands of TV as a medium was more successfully avoided by the pirate radio movement. But for the video underground, television remained the master medium, as expressed in the ironic doubling in the name of the group «TVTV» (Top Value Television).

So television as the art form of the future was to take place on several platforms— in exhibitions, in broadcasts and in alternative screenings. But it was not to have a neo-primitive video aesthetics. It was going to try out perfect exploitation by artists of the professional possibilities offered by the medium. The initiators of the three programs that mark the beginnings of these hopes in 1968–1969 were in complete agreement about this point. But otherwise they are started from very different agendas—and that is why the three programs look so different.

«Black Gate Cologne»—a happening in the studio

Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini's «Black Gate Cologne,» 1968, is often called the first TV art broadcast. But the concept was not originally produced for television, rather it is based on a multimedia live action involving audience participation that had already been performed in New York. Tambellini's films are projected on to light objects and inflatables by Piene that the audience playfully move around the space—«expanded cinema» in the literal sense, as the subtitle «Ein Lichtspiel» (= ‹cinema film› and ‹play on light›) suggests. WDR did not broadcast the piece live, but recorded it in the new electronic ‹Studio E.› Possibilities for superimposing and mixing images from five television cameras were fully exploited. The pictorial aesthetics of the program, which was edited from two recordings and increasingly condensed through a number of working phases, is thus based on combining artistic direction and TV-specific implementation by close teamwork between artists and the television directors. It remains difficult to decide whether the electronic image manipulation synthesizes with the intermedia art action, or whether both compete to make the mostpowerful effect.[50] But the WDR could not make up its mind to tie television in with the pioneering work of its 1950s electronic music studio so that artists could be taught to use the new techniques, hence the experiment remained unique.[51]

«The Medium is the Medium»—everything is possible

The WHGB-TV station in Boston is a public service institution that may not have the range and financial clout of the national commercial networks, but it can permit itself more experiments with its programs. From 1967, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation, it set up an «Artist-in-Television» program, in other words, precisely what The WDR failed to do in Germany. Fred Barzyk, the creative producer, invited musicians, artists, writers and dancers to take part in experimental projects. Unconventional production methods were going to be used to break down the barriers between technicians and artists. Barzyk says: «We adopted some of John Cage's theories: many times we'd have as many as thirty video sources available at once; there would be twenty people in the control room—whenever anyone got bored they'd just switch to something else without rhyme or reason.»[52] The most distinguished product of work with artists was in 1969, «The Medium Is the Medium,» a program with contributions by Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Otto Piene, James Seawright, Thomas Tadlock and Aldo Tambellini. A really heterogeneous mixture of different styles is the result. It tries out innovative electronic image generation devices, running through all the variations available at the time. This ranges from abstract video patterns and Tadlock's effects equipment to Kaprow's complex two-way communications event «Hello.»[53] Paik invited two hippies from the street into the studio to join in. He continued this open concept for WHGB in 1970 with the four-hour live broadcast «Video Commune.» The Videosynthesizer[54] developed by Paik and Shuya Abe was used to generate and manipulate electronic images, accompanied by Beatles music. The invited audience was also allowed join in with creating the program, thus transferring a collective creative event into the medium of television.

Schum's «Fernsehgalerie«—art without a place

The German filmmaker Gerry Schum developed a clear concept for the artistic use of television from 1968. His visionary «Fernsehgalerie« (Television Gallery) was intended to produce and present art exclusively in the medium of television and not use any normal exhibition galleries. «One of our ideas is communication of art instead of possession of art objects. … The TV Gallery is more or less a mental institution, which comes only into real existence in the moment of transmission by TV.»[55] Schum sees television as a new way for conveying artistic processes and concepts beyond the object. His conceptual purism is the counter-pole to Otto Piene's and Aldo Tambellini's multimedia actionism and WHGB's techno-euphoria. He does not work on the basis of technical feasibility, but addresses current artistic developments, which can be summed up by Harald Szeemann's programmatic exhibition title «When Attitudes Become Form: Live in Your Head.«[56]

Schum's collaboration with television stations is therefore restricted to broadcast and finances, and then staging something like a gallery opening in the television studio before the broadcast begins. But the programs themselves are completely produced by Schum, and both for him and the artists working closely with him the individual contributions definitely have the status of an autonomous work of art. This is also why Schum refused to take notice of the desire for more information or commentaries raised by the first broadcast. In fact he insists on aesthetic autonomy: «During all the 38 minutes of the ‹Land Art› show there is no word spoken. No explanation. I think an art object realized in regard of the medium TV does not need a spoken explanation.»[57]

His keen sense for developments in contemporary art led him straight to the most important artists of the day.[58] Many of these artists made pieces for a television film for the first time with Schum—very few of them carried on working with film or video after Schum's early death. The medium is not in the foreground in their contributions; they are interested in consistently conveying their artistic approach, andso no electronic image processing is used. «In a television object the artist can reduce his object to an attitude, to a mere gesture as an indication of his concept. The art object presents itself as a unit made up of the idea, a visual presentation and the artist as demonstrator,» says Schum in his introduction to «Identifications.» In a similar way, he combines contradictory roles in a single person. He simultaneously mediates between television and the artists, is the curator of the program and the producer of the contributions. But his attitude, which is consistently slanted towards art, inevitably leads to increasing difficulties with the conditions of television, which are tuned to wide-ranging acceptance. His hopes for making the «Fernsehgalerie» into a permanent institution were not fulfilled, and so finally he withdrew into the context of art to set up a «Videogalerie» to sell videos as signed objects in limited editions. He thus gives up his original vision of a work of art that exists only on television, but remains equally unsuccessful on the original-fixated art market.

III → Third Time-Window—Intervention and cooperation since 1970

Conceptual intervention

The three examples examined in the second time-window represent the search for an art form of its own for television, a search that is ultimately unsuccessful. Either they worked too narrowly on the basis of art, like Schum, or they tried to use art to analyze questions about the meaning of TV as a medium, like the WHGB workshop. But art became increasingly conceptual and context-related in the 1970s; it dematerializes itself, as Lucy Lippard puts it. But the material battle of the technological demands involved in a real TV production established conditions that can never be disregarded. A number of TV interventions and disturbances respond to this dilemma. They are not announced as ART, but suddenly and unexpectedly interrupt the flow of the program. They acquire meaning only in the context of the broadcast, not as something preserved on video. And as we have now come to expect after several examples of the synchronicity of artistic concepts, these acts ofintervention also emerge almost at the same time, but usually independently of each other, around 1971.

Playful disturbances—Dibbets, Weibel, Export and Hall

Two 1969 Gerry Schum productions were the forerunners of this type of intervention, Keith Arnatt's «Self Burial» and Jan Dibbet's «TV as a fireplace.» The latter was broadcast at Christmas, and turned the domestic TV set into a flickering fire in a fireplace. Peter Weibel and Valie Export were able to place several acts of intervention with ORF from 1969 to 1972, all relating directly to the home viewer's situation. To name but two examples: Weibel's 1969 «The Endless Sandwich» gets the ultimate couch potato to stand up, and in «Facing a Family» Export makes the television image into a mirror for the family in 1971. Also in 1971, David Hall's poetic «7 TV Interruptions» were broadcast on Scottish television; one of them made the TV set into a water container. This kind of intervention almost developed into a genre in its own right, with additional examples extending right down to the present day.[59] For example, Bill Viola's 1983 «Reverse Television» shows forty-four television viewers for half a minute each. These were shown by WGHB in 1983 in the form of unannounced inserts, and Stan Douglas' 1991 «Monodramas» place short, poetic yet meaningless events between the blocks of commercials.

Without going into all the examples of such intervention here it is possible to say that some of them capture television's influence very precisely, and even anticipate its future developments. Export's symbolic transfer of everyday family life into the medium became reality two years later when the Loud family were accompanied by a TV crew for seven months, thus allowing the American public a glimpse of their lives that provided enough material for a mini-series.[60] The move on to today's Reality TV shows the consequences of this breaking down the barrier between private and public.[61] Television advertising has also adopted the strategy of unexpected intervention for itself. And an electronic fire of the kind that Dibbets gave his television as an ironic touch is now available on video as a completely normal product.

Radical intervention—Burden

The above-mentioned acts of artistic intervention dating from 1971 were all made in cooperation with the television station concerned, which allocated slots for them in its program and also took over part of the production. But this interventionist strategy became more radical, and indeed illegal, a year later. When Chris Burden was invited to appear on a talk show because of his sensational action «Shoot,» in which he had himself shot in the arm, he took the hostess hostage while the show was on the air and threatened to cut her throat if the broadcast was broken off. Following the current pattern of terrorist aircraft hijacking, Burden's «TV Hijack» action took control of a live program.[62] Just as the sense of a fresh political start in the 1960s ended in radicalization after it was disappointed, here we have a clear rejection of any utopia involving peaceful symbiosis between art and the mass media. John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1969 film «Film No. 6, Rape» is equally radical. It was produced and broadcast by ORF, and shows a camera crew following a passer-by down the street. She tries to get away, but finally they follow her into her home. The logical continuation of all this is a series of TV commercials that Burden had broadcast at his own expense at the usual price per minute. The best-known example «Chris Burden Promo» consisted only of the words «Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Chris Burden,» and ends with «© 1976 paid for by Chris Burden—artist.» This commercial was broadcast in Los Angeles and New York over twenty times in the normal commercial break at a peak viewing period. Statistics state that the first five artists named are the best known in the USA, and Burden «convinced several station managers that my name ‹Chris Burden› was also the name of an art business, and they agreed to sell me air time.»[63] The staged megalomania of this commercial stands for the hubris of all artists who believes that TV can disseminate their message and thus bring them greater fame than would be possible in the context of art, which is marginal in comparison with the mass medium. It is obviously completelyridiculous to hope that the commercial could trigger some random viewer's interest in Chris Burden. But it did make Burden better known in the art world, and you did not even have to see the broadcast, as «Promo» was one of the works featured at documenta 6 in 1977. So the television broadcast is effective only as a concept, in other words ultimately symbolic, but not as advertising through the real impact of the mass medium.

Burden not only examines the way the medium functions commercially, he looks at the technical side as well: he built, again for documenta 6, a television set using the Nipkow disc system invented in the nineteenth century. He had only the most primitive equipment, and no technical support. He used the name «C.B.T.V.» which sounds like an American station but only stands for «Chris Burden Television.» This takes the magic out of the medium and shows the banality of its functions. All these works by Burden have in common with the «Shoot» action that they probe the boundary between the symbolic and the real, which is at the same time the boundary of art. If Burden had died in «Shoot,» or the TV hostess in «TV Hijack,» then art's so-called freedom would have been annulled and prosecution initiated. Equally, «Promo» had to have a ‹genuine› product and «C.B.T.V.» shows how television ‹really› works. All of Burden's television actions stand as appropriations of the reality of the medium, but at the same time they show that no artist is in a position to compete seriously with the industrial production of television as a technique, program and institution.

Radical cooperations—Paik

Nam June Paik must be the only artist of the pioneer generation who has never given up hope that artistic work is possible and necessary in the mass medium of television. Art historians writing about him often forget that almost all his videos were made for television. His 1973 video classic «Global Groove» is like a TV manifestofor the future. In the opening sequence it says: «This is a glimpse of a new world when you will be able to switch on every TV channel in the world and TV guides will be as thick as the Manhattan telephone book.» Picking up McLuhan's vision of the «Global Village,» the video is an invitation to a fun journey through the whole world of television, to a party on television's global village green. Thus it is taking up the utopia of understanding between nations proclaimed by radio in the 1920s, and also anticipating the utopias of the global Internet community in the 1990s. This was the spirit in which Dziga Vertov sketched out his utopia of a combination of radio and film as early as 1925, so that all the proletarians in the world could see each other, thus creating a sense of international solidarity.[64] But the colorful surface, anticipating the effect-aesthetics of video clips, conceals a clear and committed concept that Paik formulated as early as 1970. He sees the one-sidedness of national TV reporting as a motif for forming political opinion that leads to wars and racial conflict. His counter-proposition is the world-wide exchange of television programs simulated in «Global Groove»: «If we could assemble a weekly television festival comprised of music and dance from every nation and disseminate it freely via the proposed Video Common Market to the world, its effects on education and entertainment would be phenomenal.»[65] Current satellite TV technology has now made Paik's idea an achievable reality for every TV viewer, but the political effect Paik hoped for has yet to happen. So in terms of media technology, Paik's ideas for the future of television are being fulfilled but without providing the social utopia he associated with it. Thus they are a typical example of the role of media art as a memory and refuge for the unredeemed utopias of media history.[66]

In «Global Groove,» as in all his other videos, Paik uses an editing technique that is close to musical composition. It makes no attempt at narrative, but is based on a large number of recurrent motifs. This also includes the recycling of early videos in later works, sothat we still see material from the 1960s appearing as quotations in Paik's work today.[67] «Global Groove» recycles Paik's contribution, broadcast by WHGB, to «The Medium Is the Medium.» The video itself was produced and broadcast by the WNET-TV station, which meant that the first step towards realizing its mission had been taken. Paik made similar concepts the basis of his 1984 live satellite broadcasts, «Good Morning, Mr. Orwell,» which reached an audience of about thirty-three million in the USA, Canada, Europe, Korea, Japan, Mexico and Brazil. On an even larger scale «Wrap around the World» (1988) is said to have reached over fifty million viewers in twenty countries world-wide. There is no doubt that by achieving this Paik successfully surmounted the limitations of the avant-garde, as proclaimed programmatically in the 1920s and 1960s—but he paid the price that his work was scarcely seen as art any more. These satellite TV projects are thus in the same place that his first television experiments started from in 1963: between two stools. They made little impact in art circles because of their entertainment character, and their conceptual side did not subsequently lead to anything in the TV world.


In retrospect, the failure of Schum's «Fernsehgalerie» and his withdrawal to video can be seen as symptomatic in the art context. It becomes clear that possessing autonomous production devices in the form of video cameras and players has not broken the power of television as an institution by a long shot. The habit of equating television and video, which linguistic usage still suggested around 1970, was replaced by the concept of ‹video art.› But this produces a completely new paradigm: the demand for a mass effect is dropped, and instead the private, indeed intimate and personal dimension of the video image is discovered by body art and performance art. This change can be seen very clearly in the publication «The New Television: a public / private art,» which accompanied the 1974 conference in the Museum of Modern Art. The title still refers to television, but the contributionsare almost all about video art.[68] This distinction was expressed very clearly indeed at documenta 6 in 1977, when the sign «VT ≠ TV» (videotape is not the same as TV) was resplendent above the entrance to the videotheque. But the opening of this media documenta was still accompanied by a live satellite broadcast, and a wideranging program of art videos was shown on television, this time not so much at the behest of the artists as of the exhibition makers, who thus achieved an instant media presence for their concept. Ulrike Rosenbach, who was closely associated with Schum, sums up the development like this: «The television set, the ‹altar› of the modern family, would make it possible for at least 60% of all fellow citizens to receive our broadcasts. Those were our theories, our dreams. We wanted to use video broadcasts to reacha breadth of dissemination for culture that no museum, no gallery and no book could have achieved. … What we overlooked was the television's position of power, its rigidity and its social ideology, which must have found our Walter Benjamin theories naïve and comical.»[69]

Prospects: Four post-utopian strategies

The younger generation of video artists have known television since their childhood, and it holds no utopian charm for them any longer. Instead it is looked upon with a certain fatalism, like an unalterable force of nature. And so in the late 1970s, as in the early 1950s, various strategies developed in parallel in relation to the mass media.

* Analytical deconstruction of the mass medium using the resources of art (Dan Graham, Dara Birnbaum, Klaus vom Bruch, Marcel Odenbach).

* An approach to television that abandons the exclusivity of artistic purism to some extent (Laurie Anderson, John Sanborn, Robert Wilson, Zbigniew Rybczynski).

* The subversive strategy of artistic occupation of niches in the expanding media landscape (Rabotnik TV, Paul Garrin, Kanal X, Brian Springer).

* Direct cooperation with television to develop innovative media techniques (Douglas Davis, Van Gogh TV).

All these strategies can be called post-utopian, and some of them post-modern as well. They will be examined more closely under the subject headings «Reality/Mediality» und «Social Technologies.» The continuation of these strategies to the point of ironic and final disillusionment, also in terms of the Internet alternatives, is to be found in the artists' project «Making Sense of It All» by Blank & Jeron for MediaArtNet.


Translation by Michael Robinson

© Media Art Net 2004