Television as Performance Space

TechnoDumbShow_John Gillies and The Sydney Front Image

Television as Performance Space
By John Gillies

Television’s great innovation was that it could be everywhere at once and in real-time.  Broadcasting could be expanded sculpture, as artist Lucio Fontana dreamed; as immaterial as electrons in space, made visible in flashes of light and constellations in time and space, connecting inner and outer worlds, forms and voids. [1] Television was different from the movies.

Down to earth in the television studio, and fresh from directing coverage of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics [2], the resources of French state broadcaster Radiodiffusion- Télévision Française (RTF) were marshaled by director Jean-Christophe Averty to startling effect. He turned the television studio into a site of performance, creating the modernist avant-garde drama of Raymond Roussel, Jean Cocteau and Alfred Jarry. He embraced variety, jazz, and pop music. In our rationalized age it seems extraordinary that the French public broadcaster should allow a television director to become an auteur and to create such masterpieces of television. Averty, a jazz pianist, had a musician’s sensibility and skill, which he mixed with the innovation of an electronic Méliès. He almost single handedly invents compositing, by extending Picasso and Braque’s innovation into television studio collage; a collage where he draws and paints with cut-outs of painted card and later blue screen Chroma-key. No videotape or recorder for early Averty, as it wasn’t invented yet, it was live multi-camera or sometimes film when the budget was larger. But when videotape and later colour came along in the late sixties he used it to composite, like layers in After Effects and other software. But always the performers and their kinetic energy are central to his work. The joy and dreams of children, and perversity and creativity of adults, mesh in an electronic theatre beamed across the Forth and Fifth Republics.

Also playing with the electronic image in the television studios of American commercial television, comic Ernie Kovacs’ pop surrealist skits influence a later generation of American video[3] artists.

Briefly alongside US Public Television’s Children’s Television Workshop that produced the long running Sesame Street, is WGBH’s New Television Workshop where artists were invited to work with the resources of the television station to produce videotapes for broadcast. The experiment sometimes produces masterpieces. In Peter Campus’ Four Transitions (1973) the artist creates formalist actions that illustrate a deep understanding of the architecture of the television studio. Each piece uses two video cameras mixed to tape, or alternatively one live camera and one prerecorded camera on tape. The artist/performer stands in the studio, demonstrating a simple action. You can feel and hear the apparatus of the studio, the air conditioning, the dead space of the studio and the tension in the air as the crew goes for another take.  Though not broadcast, Peter Kennedy created video performance a number or years before, using CCTV[4] in the Idea Demonstrations series with collaborator Mike Parr. An audience watches these video actions in the Inhibodress Gallery latter documented on film in 1972.

Under Nam June Paik’s name the producers of the New Television Workshop cut together works by Paik, Moorman, Yakult, and others work as Global Groove 1973, a tour de force montage of mostly prerecorded studio performance: tap dancing, Fluxus actions, classical Korean drumming, experimental theatre, kitsch. Forget its dated media utopianism, Global Groove is ür music video at its most hyperactive, not afraid to cut in the middle of a bar or word; not afraid to record video effects and synthesis in all their lurid psychedelic analog glory as performance, and not afraid to use television as the transmitter of human energy.

Another form of television performance appears in the 80s in the form of the video essay or video lecture, for example in the work of Jean Luc Goddard, or his work in collaboration with Ann-Marie Miéville, or Joan Braderman for US cable program Paper Tiger TV. In Australia, TAPS’ 1988, The Bicentennial will not be Televised was also broadcast on Paper Tiger TV via the Australian Video Festival.

1979: Australian midday television’s Mike Walsh Show, featured European guests from the Biennale of Sydney, Marina and Ulay, as they were then known. After a few tense questions, with a wink, wink and nudge nudge to the live studio audience and the viewers at home Mike asks, “so what is this REALTIME you are talking about?’. Abramovic expressionless, leans forward from the low studio chair, “ Realtime is…., Well if I pick up this glass of water….’” she says very slowly and deliberately in her strong Serbian accent. She holds the glass of water in her hand for a television moment, which seems an eternity, then drops it smashing onto the studio floor. The look on Mike’s face changes and the director urgently cuts to a commercial.

Time literally stands still again, when during an Italian election campaign the Anarchist Party use their allocated political broadcast time on RAI to say absolutely nothing. Their spokesperson sits mutely staring back into the camera and into the little bars and living rooms of the Republic. Television stops, time stops, space is continuous. It’s almost like a vernacular reprise of British artist David Curtis’ This is a Television Receiver 1976, commissioned for BBC2’s Arena Program, where a newsreader repeats nothing more than the line ‘this is a television receiver’ over and over again.

Time disappears in Sydney at the end of 2013 as the analogue television broadcasting signal is turned off; then flogged off to the highest bidder.  But Yvonne Speilmann[5] makes the perceptive call that video is neither analogue nor digital, it is flow and live and so video and television are still everywhere and in every possibility.

Thanks to Anne-Marie Duguet and Bill Seaman.

John Gillies is a video artist known for his collaboration with performers. With Peter Callas he started up the experimental video course Video New Techniques, UTS video studio, 1985.  He latter became head of Time Based Art at COFA. His new video installation Granite premiers at the Kasseler Kunstverein in November.


[1] Lucio Fontana et al, Television Manifesto of the Spatial Movement, Milan, 1952

[2] Melbourne 1956 saw the permanent introduction of television broadcasting to Australia, as Berlin in 1936 saw the consolidation of television broadcasting for Germany, the catalyst also being the broadcasting of the performance of sport.

[3] Video is simply electronic moving image.

[4] Closed Circuit Television, often used for surveilling space.

[5] Yvonne Speilmann, Video the Reflexive Medium, Leonardo Publishing, 2008


This work is part of the official program guide here by John Gillies


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