Peter D'Agostino, editor. Tanam Press, New York, 1985.


 "Video 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.   

Transmission is 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 various elements.
   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 into print?
   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