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Nov 23, 2020
In 1975, poet and critic David Antin wrote that commercial television had “provided almost all of the background viewing experience of the video [art] audience and even of the video artists.” If one found early video to be boring, long, or disorienting, for example, this was because one could not help but compare it to TV and all of its habitualized appeal. “No matter how different from television the works of individual video artists might be,” Antin continued, “the television experience dominates the phenomenology of viewing and haunts video exhibitions.”
Antin was right. So much of early video was determined to free the medium from the conventions established by standard commercial fare. If TV aimed to lull viewers into a state of passive consumption so complete that hours might pass before they even considered mustering the energy to get up and change the channel or click the set off, video artists aimed to break that spell. Artists working with the medium in the early 1970s, such as Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, Martha Rosler, and Ulysses S Jenkins made work that labored to disabuse viewers of their expectations of gratification from television in its form, content, temporality, and flow. Work of this era often forced viewers to confront their total passivity in the face of television. The aggressive denials of pleasure in early video, Anne M. Wagner has argued, should be “conceived as necessary refusals, however masochistic that might sound: rejected are the public pleasures of television, which, like the offers of advertising, center on illusions of presence, intimacy, and belonging.” True participation with television was impossible—its unidirectional structure and limited controls made sure of that. Unless one was in a network studio or buying commercial time, there was no significant way to affect what was on the screen or how others would see it. At least one could break the hypnotizing enchantment and expose television’s manipulations by presenting a negative image of its seduction.
Looking at Gretchen Bender’s video work from the early 1990s, however, suggests an update and reversal of Antin’s proposition: Is it possible to think of video art as providing the “foreground” to television? Surely, the average viewer of commercial TV doesn’t have video art front of mind when plopped down on the couch, but by 1990, one might have begun to question what kinds of pleasure television—especially cable television—was aiming to provide. This was the moment when 24-hour cable news programming rose to prominence (finding its mature form during CNN’s coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War), relying on a constant stream of crisis and commentary to justify and propel its incessant narratives. Pleasure no longer appeared to be the hook that kept viewers tuned in. Anxiety was the new engine of attention. Bender’s project in Aggressive Witness—Active Participant (1990) proposes how video art might stage an intervention in the foreground of the infinite flow of programming. She devised a simple yet subversive mode of reframing television and all of its content on a vast and near endless scale by appearing on the screen rather than in the image.
For Aggressive Witness—Active Participant, commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts in its inaugural year, Bender did not create any video content for eight of the 12 monitors in the work. Rather, she applied vinyl lettering to the centers of screens playing non-stop cable television, interceding between viewer and image. The usually invisible interface becomes alarmingly present. In all caps, Bender refocuses television content through an ideological lens. The image is obscured but everything is somehow in sharper focus. Graphs of stock prices rise and fall under the cover of “PUBLIC MEMORY”; the screen screams “BODY OWNERSHIP” over dapper sports commentators discussing potential trades of athletes, while Black bodies framed in the background performing astonishing feats of skill and prowess. Text on top of a lonely image of the White House with an angry and recently defeated president inside reads: “NUCLEAR WARHEADS.” “GAY AND LESBIAN RIGHTS” overwrites a true crime show about a grizzly murder. No sound plays from the monitors, so Bender’s words are the screaming captions for what appears beneath. The interplay between image and text is always astonishingly apt. Bender’s words cover the image and reveal it at the same time. “DEATHSQUAD BUDGET,” “RACE, CLASS, GENDER,” “LIVING WITH THE POOR,” “NO CRITICISM”: her text reveals the subtext of every image stream and the ideological operations of television in American culture. Lest we forget, Bender reminds us, these are the real issues.
Interspersed between the cable feeds, the four other monitors show another world: a grid of electric-blue lines slowly bend and warp, rise and fall, then unfurl into twisting Lissajous curves and swirls, as if mapping the breathing and brainwaves of some unseen electronic beast. In place of television audio, the gallery hums and squeals to a synthesized soundtrack of machinic noises that seems to come from these screens—grinding metal, crunching glass, the rhythmic drone of insects, like a plague descending upon the gallery. The quotidian news images appear as the fever dreams of this monstrous media machine.
The installation’s effect is undeniably anachronistic. The monitors’ bulky cathode ray tubes and fat metal casings cast everything that appears in the glow of the analog era. At the same time, everything on the screen points to the present moment. Masked newscasters chat in split screen and point at maps in blue and red, while text flashes across the bottom of the screen: disputed declarations of victory, tens of millions of COVID-19 cases around the globe, dancing in the streets, armed protesters surrounding elections offices. The scene is very 2020. Despite the distance between writing and this iteration, Bender’s words are still insistent and still timely.
When Antin was writing about video art in the 1970s, artists were using their energies to attempt to force television to become a participatory system. To be more than just a passive consumer, one need actively create content for our proliferating screens, or at least, force the viewer away. To get this idea across, the artist, per Wagner, took an aggressive, “coercive …posture toward the viewer, by which a new mode of awareness might be urged.” But could this strategy work two just decades later, in Bender’s 1990s? Could one really hope to be seen or to channel the flow of rushing waves of cable television? And what about now: we are all producers in the era of social media, but can any one voice be heard above all the noise? Bender’s work seems to suggest that it is not—or, perhaps, not just—the artist or producer that needs to be aggressive, but witnesses need to be as well. Easy and endless consumption is fine, as long as we are actively, aggressively witnessing and participating by processing the information that seeks to overwhelm our senses and rewrite our realities. One need not look away but read text and subtext simultaneously.
Kris Paulsen is Associate Professor in The Department of History of Art and Program in Film Studies at The Ohio State University. She is the author of Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface (MIT Press, 2017).
 David Antin, “Television: Video’s Frightful Parent,” Artforum (December 1975): 36.
 Anne M. Wagner, “Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence,” October, Vol. 91 (Winter, 2000):80.
 Artists did do both of these things. For example, PBS stations in Boston, San Francisco and New York invited artists into the studios for residencies, and artists such as Chris Burden paid steep sums for commercial spots on broadcast TV.
 Wager, 80.
Top of page: Kris Paulsen photo courtesy of the author
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