It was with great excitement, perusing the Tele Visions program guide (with its satisfying rustle of newsprint) that I noted the inclusion of Emile Zile’s great undergrad work Larry Emdur’s Suit. A small classic of it’s time, I can’t think of a better moment to uncover it, or a better context in which it should be viewed, than this excellent festival of what television was, should have, and could have been.
Larry Emdur’s Suit loomed large in my imagination as a budding media artist. Emile was a few years ahead of me at uni, but light years ahead in his understanding of the medium. I was too young to be awed by the reputations of our lecturers, whose names had not penetrated my north-west suburban enclave. But Larry Emdur was a name I knew, and Emile’s hybrid, cult-y, turn of the century TV stunt raised my antennas to what electronic art could be.
There’s Emile, part Edward Scissor Hands/part Wu Tang Clan, ably filling the frame with studied awkwardness; not just in a video, On Television. The cognitive dissonance of seeing this for the first time was astonishing: it wasn’t just any TV – it was ultimate prime time chew-cud: The Price is Right. There he is cracking wise with plastic fantastic Larry, playing the game, not giving away the joke, carefully treading the line between performance and reality. A line that, in the wake of the 90s talk show phenomenon, and before reality TVs total dominion, had suddenly become very blurred. It was prescient – a death knell to hackish old analogue, sent from the past to the future, sincere, hysterical and knowing.
It was genuinely thrilling to see him there on television, even though it was a joke at TVs expense, that we the art audience were also party to. Of course, I never actually saw it on the box. I saw it at school, in galleries, probably in a bar somewhere once. It was of TV, but not for TV. Encountering it on free-to-air now, it occurs to me that much of the context of this work has been lost in the media churn. Larry is no longer darling of the blue rinse set, notwithstanding a recent failed attempt to revive the PIR franchise[i]). And I wonder whether young artists of Da Ali G/Brass Eye/Chaser generation have ever been so in Television’s thrall as to find an interventionist action like Emile’s as affecting as I did then?
For my part, I was inspired enough to make a fan-girl pilgrimage to be part of the studio audience of The Price is Right. And, like tourists on a Hollywood Homes bus package, hoping they might see a pyjama clad celebrity collecting their mail, I’m sure I thought: maybe something exciting and art-worthy will happen to me too. Of course, nothing had just happened to Emile that was not by his careful design. We were stringently vetted by producers for ‘zaniness’ as we filed into the studio. Having neither Emile’s physical presence, his performative ability nor his sense of scale, my attempts at attention-grabbing were thin and self-conscious. I was relegated to general audience- un-annointed, with no chance of playing, winning, or reliving video art history. On set, we were trapped in a kind of time-warped televisual Elysium. Spurred on by the warm-up guy, and slightly faint from the hot studio lights, we clapped on queue, laughed when we were told and waited patiently for Larry to grace us with his presence. For 3 hours we sat through a weeks’ tapings, back to back. At some point, my companion turned to me and said “I stopped enjoying this an hour ago, but I can’t stop smiling”. We we were stuck til the end.
This one experience of being in a TV audience is my only context for the live elements of Tele Visions I’ve taken part in. But it serves an interesting backdrop to viewing the works created for the festival, mostly (due to access being so expensive and rare) by artists working in the medium for the first time.
What I’ve discovered is that a Tele Visions live broadcast, affording the audience greater agency and autonomy, and as far from the commercial fuckery of The Price is Right as you can imagine, still hews to some inalienable facts of the medium that even artists struggle to overcome. I was particularly aware of this during Lara Thom’s gorgeous, tranqu’ed-out talk show, hosted by community TV legend Joy Hruby. While guests, crew and audience alike were masterfully coralled by Joy, who delicately skewered them from her cosy spot on the couch, I had as strong a sense of the imperative of enjoyment as I did during The Price is Right. Despite the cruisey cross-legged vibes, sitting there under the big lights I was aware that the pulse of the form was tied to its liveness. I was under the spell of a sort of enforced hilarity which was instantly broken by the stage managers ‘cut’ signal, and sharply reinstated when the cameras started rolling. I realised that we the audience were in effect delegated performers, forming a conduit between live performance and the atomised audience, in their homes, watching.
This live energy-on-call component to television is never quite replicated with digital, despite the silent din of online comments, which afford more insight into your fellow audient’s thoughts than is strictly useful. Rarely on digital TV (online or via the box) do you encounter something completely unknown, or for which there is not already a crowd-sourced internet critique to pivot your viewing from. Despite analogue’s recent malaise of predictability and crapness, it has always had the potential to throw up non-sequitirs and put things in the path of the public which they may never encounter otherwise: even small community TV stations have immense reach, compared to art networks. There is something to be said for the one-to-many model: we too easily evade each other in our well-trod online loops.
I for one am thrilled by the idea of people flicking channels only to stumble upon one of the countless great video works streaming every day of the festival. Or to see snippets as they channel surf of Pia Van Gelder’s Television Behaviour Studies – a sort of The Curiosity Show for weird artists, where instead of baking soda volcanoes, or home made batteries, we are instructed to stick our antenna cord into carrots, and ponder the machine dreaming of a vision switcher being plugged into itself. Or perhaps instead of Pia orchestrating video signals, they might be captured by Brian Fuata orchestrating bodies in green screen space, organising and reorganising the continuously expanding TV moment in Wrong Solo’s Forwards Forwards.
These are rich, complex works by significant emerging artists who have exercised the medium to its full extent. They’ve engaged a wide spectrum of television history and conventions – from the use of green screen, to the classic three camera set up, audience participation, educative demonstrations, chatty talk show segments – and rediscovered TVs capacity to stimulate, educate, entertain and challenge along the way.
Especially with commercial TV networks doing nothing more imaginative with their increased digital bandwidth than stuffing it full of yet more aneurism-inducing infommercials, it strikes me that this event, a broadcast of video art on television, will become something even rarer in the digital future (despite theoretically never being more structurally and economically possible).
There was a wonderful moment in Joel Stern’s NEUROVISION- a spoken word green screen psych out designed to reboot your sensory operating systems- where a camera on a long crane swooped through the audience, picking out faces in the crowd. Realising my girlhood dreams of having my name called through Romper Room’s Magic Mirror, or being waved goodnight by Joey on YTT, the camera lit on my face. Where others had grimaced, I could barely hide my glee: this is it, it’s happening! Behind me, I heard a woman say “Oh my god, is that me? I look awful!”. I held back the urge to turn around and mutter something cutting – after all, I got on the TV and she didn’t.