artists have always had a love/hate relationship with television," Marita
Sturken informs us in her essay, "The TV Lab at WNET/Thirteen." "It
has the potential to be a powerful showcase for them, yet it
represents the mediocrity of mass entertainment."
This statement is the spine of Transmission, a handsome, bright,
red-covered anthology that brings together excerpts from videology, scripts,
and methodologies, histories, a chronology of video art, and a decent bibliography.
Peter D'Agostino, the editor of Transmission, hopes "that
the ideas within this book, when considered together, will create an 'interference
pattern' within the seemingly continuous flow of television's prepackaged
ideology." Of course this hope is lame, as only the Television Industry
can change itself, and as long as there is no economic pressure for change nothing
substantial will occur. What, however, can be done is to educate the next generation
of industry executives, as well as video artists who can chip away at the corners,
and sometimes foray into the parameters.
divided into three parts, the first of which, "Theory," begins
with an essay by John Baggaley and Stephen Duck. (Many of the pieces
in this book are excerpts, which lead to sentences such as, "The
prejudicial ways in which a message may be interpreted are a central
issue within this book," which is not this book.)
Baggaley and Duck point out how TV began as a transparent medium,
becoming progressively opaque as its novelty wore off, gradually
assuming a style that emulates "the traditional emphasis of
the cinema upon constant variation of the image and the smooth
continuity of the elements..." This visual enjambment
not only applies to "the presentation of drama and current
affairs," as the authors point out, but to commercials as
well, making for a seamless philosophical flow of television's
The broth of this flow is society's selling of its "Way of
Life." Be it capitalist, socialist, communist, or fascist, television is
appropriated as the propagandistic enterprise of choice.
John Fiske and John Hartley, in their book, Reading Television,
from which the second essay in Transmission draws its fire, call
television's method of keeping its audience's allegiance to mediocrity "clawing
back." This tendency, which seems to preclude video art from playing
any central role in television, is reiterated throughout the theoretical
and historical contents of this book.
The weakest section of Transmission is its second part, entitled, "Practice." What
serves to enervate it is a 25-page transcription of Bill Moyers' interview
of Robert Bly. The editor justifies this by stating that "the
program is especially noteworthy in revealing the inner complexity and paradox
of poet Robert Bly's work," as if the mission of Transmissions were
to compile Bly's literary insights. D'Agostino goes on to say that "the
program can serve as a model of presenting poetry's oral tradition on television." Transformed
As further evidence of what I perceive as poor editorial choices,
in this same section we are introduced to Ernie Kovacs, whom Robert Rosen calls "commercial
television's first (and some say only) video artist," with two pages
of text, next to the 25 pages on Robert Bly.
But this section is graced with Martha Gever's history of, and examples
of, program transcripts from Paper Tiger Television. This ongoing project,
broadcasted on public assess cable channels, uses innovative, low-cost techniques
and a wealth of New York critics to read and deconstruct print media, ranging
from The New York Times to TV Guide. Of interest too, in Part
II, is David Ross's "Nam June Paik's Videotapes;" and Deirdre Boyle's "Guerrilla
Television," which begins with, "Video pioneers didn't use covered
wagons; they built media vans for their cross-country journeys colonizing the vast
wasteland of American television." From here, Boyle eases into the
story of TVTV (Top Value Television), a video artists' collective that was destroyed
by its own success.
Part III, "Distribution," relates the story of the
experimental video labs that a few PBS stations, and the British Channel Four,
have made available to artists. Although most of these projects are either deceased
or have been absorbed into regional media centers, their examples are valuable
to the modeling of any relationships between video art and TV that might be formed
in the future.
Transmission, flawed by editorial judgements, and
attenuated by poor proofreading, is still a viable contribution toward
the development of "a new television aesthetics."
(c) Artspace, 1986