Just Call Me Homer: Thoughts on the First Day of Tele Visions from Dr Ben Byrne

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Tuning in to the opening day of Tele Visions was an incredibly strange experience. Far stranger than I had expected. Living in Melbourne, well out of range of the UHF transmission, I had to rely on the stream on this website. I hit play on my iPad while eating my lunch – TV and food, I must admit, deeply and more than a little problematically linked in my psyche. However, instead of the broadcast I was immediately confronted with a variety of error messages, ‘Unable to load movie’ and ‘The requested URL was not found on this server’ to name a few, interspersed with snippets of images and, I swear, the faint but familiar babble of The Simpsons. It became clear, if it wasn’t already, that I would not be spending my evening fighting the snow that had fallen on the SBS broadcasts of my childhood, moving rabbit ears around the room hopefully before curling up in front of the warm glow of a cathode ray tube in a romantic celebration of analogue television. I would spend it in front of the computer and, once I could be bothered setting it all up, on the couch watching the stream from my laptop on my 32-inch digital flat screen TV while making notes on my smartphone. After finishing my food, I moved to the desktop computer in my study and fired up the stream – success.

Frances Barrett and Kate Blackmore appeared on a couch in front of me. It was Box Set. The familiar voices that I was sure I’d heard earlier were now assaulting me from my left speaker. I could see Fran and Kate talking but all I could hear was The Simpsons and the longer I watched the more I was convinced that I was in their TV, the voices in my head coming from the speaker on the side of the screen from which I peered into their makeshift lounge room.  Wonka vision. Reaching the midpoint of their marathon effort to watch every episode of The Simpsons, Fran and Kate explained, after turning down the TV, that they are fasting while watching the show so as to try and reach a point of nothingness, inspired by the frequently made claim that watching television requires less mental exertion than sleeping. Each felt that, like it or not, they were reaching their goal, and I couldn’t help but feel I was too.

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Up next was Heath Schultz’s The Society of The Spectacle, a re-working of Guy Debord’s 1973 film of the same name. Now some theory to explain the uneasy feeling that was beginning to overcome me. ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images’ the narrator declared. I realised that part of what I was finding increasingly unnerving was that I wasn’t watching television. I was watching a stream online and it just didn’t feel the same. Sure, what I was watching was happening live – despite the discrepancies I’d already noticed in the now offered by the stream on my various devices – and being producing by an inspiring bunch of artists and creative types in Sydney, many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends, but there was no sense that I was watching what everyone else was watching. I wasn’t part of things – the spectacle was going one but I was missing it. Kate and Fran, themselves feeling the isolation of being positioned in front of a screen, had asked for viewers to contact them but I was too slow to write down the phone numbers they offered and when I sent them a message on Facebook they weren’t able to read it, apparently without decent phone reception, the mention I got as part of the broadcast just serving to emphasise to me that I wasn’t there.

It was time to cook some dinner so I decamped to the living area, set up the stream on the laptop, plugged it into my TV and turned up the amplifier so I could hear Nick Keys and Astrid Lorange live from The Cockpit of Pampered Isolation while I got the spaghetti bolognaise going. Thankfully Nick and Astrid offered further analysis of my condition. Homer Simpson, they explained, is not just the everyman patriarch of The Simpsons but a character in Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust, an anti-hero consumed by desires to such an extent that his attempts to actualise them result in self-violence and rage. Sound familiar? As my hosts explained, this is mirrored in the way in which the emotional stupidity of Homer inThe Simpsons repeatedly leads to an objectless rage, but more importantly it explains the way I and I imagine many of you often feel as a result of watching TV. Just call me Homer, Homer J. Simpson. The novel and subsequent film version, they went on, focus on what it is to be constructed by the gaze of others – the transformation of the self into spectacle that should be clear to all with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, or even just family photos on the mantle.

Gradually I got more focused on cooking than watching, my partner got home from work and we settled down to eat our spaghetti in front of the TV, complete with deliciously evil store-bought garlic bread. Astrid and Nick had wrapped up their discussion but still had some time to fill and so Nick had resorted to questioning ‘is there anybody out there?’ – clearly suffering the same affliction as Kate, Fran and myself – which I took as an excuse for some channel surfing. I switched over to SBS for some food-porn, Italian Food Safari to be specific, followed by Gourmet Farmer, a favourite of mine fuelling as it does my typical middle class city-slicker dreams of ‘getting away from it all’.

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Dinner was finished as quickly as it usually is in front of the telly and it was soon time to switch back to the stream for Lara Thoms’ wake for static live from Carriageworks. Fond of both static and wakes, being of Irish descent and possessing a more than healthy taste for stout, I watched with interest. The TV flicked to what looked, in the best possible way, like a Playschool reproduction of static, a rough assortment of clear, black and white objects strewn about, and as I attempted to decode what I was looking at slowly a variety of arms, heads and upper torsos appeared, seemingly fiddling with the bits and pieces onscreen.

Aboard a green screen enabled floating couch, Lara appeared along with Joy Hruby, a community television presenter of TVS fame, discussing the festival and in particular their farewelling of analogue television and its accompanying static. Joy pointing out joyfully that they were farewelling static as if its departure is a sadness when really ‘it’s wonderful!’ However I must, as Lara seemed to, disagree. Generally, I very much enjoy the possibilities of digital technologies. Although given a choice I’ll still take a couch and TV over a computer screen and clearly I’ve had my share of problems with online streams, I found on more than one occasion perusing the Tele Visions schedule that I wished I could just pick a program on demand as I am now so used to doing and even used Vimeo to check the quote from The Society of the Spectacle that I’ve used above. Still, I will miss static.

Static offers a glimpse outside of the spectacle of television. It is not only electromagnetic radiation that signals a lack of signal, strangely enough, but represents that which is beyond representation – the metaphysical. This is demonstrated particularly well in its use in horror films. Do you remember the ghosts in Poltergeist slipping into the house late at night out of the portal to the otherworldly offered by a television screen full of static? ‘They’re here!’ Or perhaps the awful Michael Keaton film White Noise in which his character searches for his dead wife by making audio recordings while playing static from TVs and radios, hoping to record her voice? An example of the widely mythologised electronic voice phenomena or EVP. Maybe even the largely forgotten film Static in which the central character builds a machine that allows him to see heaven but with which others see only static? All of these show how static is used to represent a metaphysical outside. This has implications for how we experience television too, for static is the only way that we can get a sense of what is outside the signals that surround us. I’ve grown up with a version of television that allows me to see and hear what happens when there is no signal, or at least no intended signal, but with the switch to digital television this is no longer possible. Instead of static, or interference, digital signals collapse in a mess of key frames and pixels, eventually leaving, somewhat perversely, the signal ‘No signal’ or something of that ilk. Digital broadcast signals are situated in a striated space in which they are surrounded only by other, regulated, signals, leaving us no way of seeing outside the spectacle.

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1398135_10151797577297361_1538124723_oGetting back to the broadcast, the wake featured Joy and a series of guests intercut with the static I’ve described above. It never really becoming clear who was interviewing who, but the cast of characters nonetheless together introducing the festival and its contents. Tele Visions co-director Emma Ramsay was among those to appear and although I’d become distracted with something or other I heard her mention something about getting a shot afterwards. Ahhh that’s it, I realised. The static must have been a smorgasbord of drinks provided for the wake, consumed by various mourners who then replaced their empty glasses.

All of a sudden the stream crashed and I was left with just the Tele Visions logo, no static or test pattern, my repeated attempts to reload only yielding the message ‘Error loading media: File could not be played!’ No more for me. Dreaming of the photosonicneurokinaesthography Botborg have subjected me to previously I looked to Youtube to find something to – ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD.

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Ben Byrne

All photos from Tele Visions by Lucy Parakhina.

 

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