December 12, 2010 – April 4, 2011
According to Nielsen research statistics, American TV-viewing has sharply increased over the past two years, as the economic downturn has forced people to spend more of their free time at home. Many artists I know now openly admit to sprees of TV-watching, marathon evenings with the boys of Mad Men. I only tune in to a limited number of network channels, but I still feel a bit ashamed about the time I spend in front of the TV. Truthfully, I’m slightly obsessed with reality TV, especially the most low-brow, popular, and long-running hits. I like Survivor, a show about what hungry and manipulative people will do for a million dollars, and Cops, a show about law-breaking Americans living in the margins of poverty and drug addiction. I’m also fascinated with shows like Hell’s Kitchen and The Apprentice, which divide competing teams by gender and seem designed to prove, season after season, that on a level playing field—albeit one that is totally fabricated—women are just as intelligent, competitive, and power-hungry as men.
Long before reality shows came into the picture, artists were manufacturing the paradigms and parodies of gender bias and social control—mediating culture through a variety of artistic models, from performance art to relational aesthetics. The Talent Show, an exhibition originating at the Walker Museum and now on view at PS1, argues for art’s influence and precedence over the forms unique to entertainment today: reality television and social networking. It showcases diverse media and artistic practices, from the 1960s to the present, which provoke and tease out the public’s desire for participation and attention, with some of the earliest works still proving the most relevant. Andy Warhol sets the stage with “Screen Test: Robin” (1965) and his infamous quote predicting that “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” The film is adjacent to Piero Manzoni’s “Magic Base – Living Pedestal” (1961) and Peter Campus’s “Shadow Projection” (1974), both interactive platforms that beckon viewers to try out their own performances.
The Talent Show speaks to the dramas inherent in ordinary peoples’ spontaneous interactions, personal narratives, and unscripted responses, motivations also driving the current state of entertainment. “Over-sharing” and the breakdown of privacy is one of the show’s major themes, as is the broadcast of average thoughts. It’s reflected in the work of Amie Siegel, whose 2009 video, “My Way,” strings together video clips that people have posted of themselves on YouTube, singing the popular Sinatra song in their living rooms; and, more poignantly, in Gillian Wearing’s photograph from her well known series “Signs that say what you want them to say and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say,” which airs one young man’s weary desperation. Adrian Piper’s groundbreaking “Context #7,” an early relational work that opened at MoMA in 1970, invited visitors to control the content of her piece by filling blank pages with their own messages. It’s an important work in concept and in practice, but the actual contributions—framed drawings of stick figures, cartoon-animal graffiti, and trivial “this pen doesn’t work” statements filling four walls of a room in PS1—are tedious in result.
The Talent Show does contain a stunning highlight: “Free Fotolab” (2009), a project by the British artist Phil Collins. Collins posted ads in selected European cities, offering consumers free processing and prints from their undeveloped rolls of film, in exchange for all rights to the images. “Free Fotolab” is presented here as a nine-minute slideshow of appropriated images, a selection of anonymous vacation photos, intimate family gatherings, naked babies, and drunk teenagers. Collins advertised in the U.K. and Switzerland, but also in cities in the former Yugoslavia, and the snapshots belie amusing traces of a culture denied access to more Western trends: from frumpy fashion to home hair-cuts to kitsch-filled rooms. The work is enormously entertaining and engages a number of complicated issues: the lengths to which people will go to get something for free, the artist’s risk of exploitation, the participant’s lack of concern about privacy, and what that might mean in societies once dominated by media control and censorship.
The project perfectly fulfills The Talent Show’s premise, in the transparency and perversity of the exchange Collins sets up, and in the feelings of amusement, and superiority that result in the viewer. Conversely, a few of the works selected to be in the show seem strangely misguided. I was troubled by the inclusion of Hannah Wilke’s “Intra-Venus Tapes,” a 16-channel video installation filmed under Wilke’s direction during the last two and a half years of her life, and edited by her husband after her death. I first saw it over three years ago at Ronald Feldman, and it’s a deeply sad and sobering work of documentary—the artist dying of cancer, in and out of hospitals and at home, in the everyday routine of severe illness. As the exhibition’s original press release describes it:
Partly anticipating the world of reality television to follow, Wilke’s moving work urgently asks us why, and under what circumstances, do we place or find ourselves on view?
Wilke routinely used her own image in works that were pointedly critical of television, advertising, and the mass media’s influence, and the “Intra-Venus Tapes” were created from a set of life-long social and political concerns that shouldn’t be re-contextualized and reduced to the realm of entertainment.
Chris Burden’s work suffers from the exhibition’s context as well. The Talent Show displays the relics of his 1971 performance, “You’ll Never See My Face In Kansas City,” where he hid for three days under a ski mask, behind a gallery wall. His work doesn’t support the theme of the exhibition, and the hiding wasn’t about “privacy”—it was an institutional critique about the limits of an artwork and an exhibition, one that nobody could see. Throughout his career, Burden has staged performances that specifically engaged broadcast television, but like all of his work, they were unequivocally critical of institutions, media, and government, and antithetical in precisely the opposite way from how reality TV and its contestants are now complicit. There are some interesting parallels between the strategies of performance art and the current dynamics of entertainment, and there’s evidence that even the most esoteric performance art is becoming digestible, even acceptable, to a more general audience. But it would be a great disservice for these practices to gain acceptance by glossing over key messages of resistance.