On Sunday I wake up and get straight on to my assignment. It’s 9am and either Frances or Kate is lying on a couch watching The Simpsons. For a while it’s magnetic to watch her watching The Simpsons, early, before the other artists have emerged. She looks really tired. I like how she looks. Tired but not stressed. Content. Tuned in. Ambient boredom. I make breakfast and return to watch her watching. She isn’t unaware but she isn’t exactly aware either. I don’t feel creepy. I feel as ambivalent as she looks.
When I was a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. My parents sometimes watched after I went to bed, on a tiny set that perched on a high shelf. I usually snuck out of my room, sat on the stairs and watched the top corner intently until they felt my presence and sent me back to my room. When I turned 5 the rules were revised. I could watch one hour of ABC per day. I watched Monkey Magic. Our TV was black and white but I didn’t know that for a long time. I thought it was colour. I made up the colours and they were real to me. Monkey wore a green suit with a light blue sash. I went to a friend’s house and we watched Monkey Magic in colour. I cried because Monkey’s suit was red, his sash was yellow. His cloud was pink, which was ridiculous. I cried and my friend changed the channel. Her TV had lots of other stuff on it. When I got home I asked my mum about all the other stuff but apparently our TV only got the ABC. When I was tall enough I climbed up on a chair and changed the channel. It was liberating.
Later we got a colour TV with all the channels but no sound. On this TV all the commercial channels were soundless. I tried to read lips. I studied gesture and worked out all the ads. We tuned the ABC’s sound in from an AM radio. It was often slightly out of sync and always mono but the discovery that the TV’s sound was on the radio was profound. I had my own radio. I listened to TV with no pictures in my room late at night. I can’t remember when, but eventually we got a fully functional TV. Then I watched The Simpsons.
Now I’m watching my friend Fred lie down on the couch with his laptop. It’s nice to see Fred on TV. Well, to see him on what I’m calling TV. I’m in Melbourne so I’m watching the last analogue signal on a digital device. All this shit is already dead to me. I wish I could watch Fred on that black and white set from my childhood. I wish I could tune him in, make my fingers raw trying to fix Fred’s V hold, make up his colour from memory. It’s been a long time since I saw Fred IRL.
I take the dog for a walk without consulting the program and return to find I’ve missed Holly Childs’ spot that may or may not have been about Aerosmith. I feel a forgotten but very specific anxiety rise up. I scan the program to see if her show will be repeated. It won’t be. I missed it. I am sunk into the remorse of having gone out just when TV got good. What will I talk to my peers about? How will I remain culturally relevant? An Evan Dando line gets stuck in my head: what if something’s on TV and its never shown again? I can shake it though. Holly will probably put her spot on YouTube. I’d search for it now but it feels against the spirit of my assignment. I have to pretend I’m doing all this digital stuff in analogue. I have to real feel the analogueness I think, to watch TV properly today. To do it with a sense of gravitas for the moment
They are turning off the signal.
At Waubra Primary School in 1993 a petition circulated petitioning Channel 7 to keep playing The Simpsons. The petition’s author explained the massivve violation of my rights to me. They can’t take this away from us, she said. I didn’t get it. The Simpsons would still be on Channel 10. No big deal. But everyone was really upset. It turned out many of the kid’s had to do chores during 10′s timeslot. I left the school later that year but thinking back I’m happy for her because soon The Simpsons was pretty much all that was on Channel 10. And in just over another decade it would no longer be possible to have missed anything on TV.
Watching Nick, Kate and Frances watch The Simpsons reminds me how boring TV binges can be. On screen, starvation is making Kate and Frances’ metabolisms shut down. Simultaneously their sleepy, mindless chatter demonstrates how TV can make your inhibitions shut down. All your inhibitions except the ones that might make you turn off the TV and go outside. Or maybe I’m misreading. Maybe they are just comfortable. TV has a way of making being with people comfortable and easy. No one is focussing on anyone else directly. Watching TV with friends is fun.
The biggest TV binge I went on was in the year 2000. I had just finished high school. After the requisite partying my friends and I watched all of Twin Peaks. We watched it nonstop for days. People brought us food but declined to stay. We stank. Talked shit. Slept in front of the TV, left only to go to the toilet. I remember this being very cathartic. Total togetherness and total disengagement.
When I moved out of home I didn’t get a TV. Sometimes I went to friend’s houses to watch Dawson’s Creek but mostly I was one of those people who say TV is a waste of life. Kind of like my mother except for all the time I spent hunched in front of my computer watching Deadwood and Oz. TV imports. Not yet for our sets.
The Tele Visions splash screens remind me of the late 80s and early 90s. And I suppose this is an exercise in nostalgia. Nothing in our lives will change when they switch off the signal. My sweetheart says it’s sad. When I ask him why he says, because that signal has been there our whole lives and now it will be gone. I ask my sweetheart to explain digital frequencies to me. He draws waves with his hands. It turns out the main deal with digital is it’s either on or off. It will freeze or break up before it warps and distorts. There’s no static, no in between, no slippage. With digital, there is no partial picture any more. Distortion and static are the palette of video art. I guess video art of the future will have to work with glitch and nothingness.
Obsolescent technologies often attract artists. I’m not sure if this is predominantly an aesthetic choice or due to the way that technologies open themselves up just before their demise. They become cheap, readily available, easier to use or access in their dying throws than they were in their heady heyday. This is true in regard to Tele/visions. While the community television producers and activists in the Metroscreen doco fought for their broadcast, considered community access TV as essential for democracy, the Tele Visions curators just emailed for a special broadcast licence. Nevertheless, Tele Visions reminds me of the fantasy of the pirate TV station. Can you pirate a digital signal? I Google this but all I get is info on how to steal cable TV off your neighbour. I guess you probably can pirate a digital frequency but would you? You can just put it on the Internet, whatever it is you want to say about or to democracy. It’s not like we are all sitting around watching the same show when the revolution turns everything to static.
The Bicentennial Will Not Be Televised reminds us (among other things) how signals can be put to use. A signal is a source of mobilisation. The activists talk about using radio signals to help organise 10,000 indigenous marchers from all over Australia. They tell their story on the TV. But while I’m watching I can hear something else. I can hear other people watching TV behind the image I’m watching. They are watching The Simpsons. I’m glad I can’t change the channel but I still feel I’m missing something. When David Opiz’s Angel ends I am snapped back to Verge Gallery. Another old TV anxiety arises. I didn’t watch the same thing as my peers. How will I follow the conversation?
Meditations/mediations plays with anxiety. The TV reflects all of Hilary’s anxieties, confusion and health concerns. I start thinking about how consumers of television are usually framed as being passive. The Tele Visions artists are consumers before they are producers though. In fact Tele Visions seems to be a broadcast of tactical responses to the ways that television has structured our identities, our imaginations.
Because the analogue signal is being turned off, Tele Visions serves as much to commemorate as to consolidate the possibilities of that signal. There’s a tone of nostalgia in most of what I’ve watched, from the test patterns and static to the stories of protestors fighting for the preservation of places and concepts long since torn down or renovated.
These days, I have a huge TV. I don’t miss anything if I don’t want to. I can watch anything whenever I want. It’s symbolic, this TV. It represents an adult decision to no longer conceal or politicise my desire to watch. The TV is wider than my wingspan and sits like an alter at the head of our lounge room. To get it, we went out to Doncaster shopping town on a bus. We were very hung over. At the electronics store we asked for the biggest plasma TV with the longest interest free payment plan. I remember feeling giddy, thinking, am I a yuppy now? We didn’t have a car. Had a vague plan to get the TV home on the bus but it was too big. We called a maxi taxi. We dragged it out in to the parking lot just as it started to rain. Eventually one of the shop assistants took pity on us and drove the thing home.
I am reminded by the curators of Tele Visions that what I think of as the biggest TV ever, my first adult TV, is not really a TV. Not like the one that used to sit on the high shelf. It is really something else. It is a giant computer interface networked to a multitude of digital signals. What I have now is not what came before. It’s something else. What came before is spectral. They are turning the signal off.
Brionhny Doyle on watching Tele Visions