Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 2#2 Walter Schneemann 1 Jan 1987

Desire and Television Autism

In the early days of video, discussions centered on the dichotomy video-television and judging from the number of exhibitions, conferences and symposiums devoted to the subject, this dichotomy is still the focus of much attention. This never-ending debate is a profound reflection on the changing artistic, cultural and political climate and raises questions about the present situation. Once again it was the subject of The Arts for Television symposium, which was held at THE STEDELIJK MUSEUM in Amsterdam in September.


Wim T. Schippers - Intermezzo Stedelijk Museum / VPRO-TV 1987

Roughly speaking, in the sixties and the beginning of the seventies we can distinguish three different approaches towards this field of tension between video and television. All three centre on a specific aspect of the two media.

From a historical point of view, GERRY SCHUM is the most prominent representative of the first approach, which interprets television as purely distributive. In this view, television has nothing of its own. Its technology should be as transparent as possible, and the only function of television is to pass on programs to a large audience. Video, in this approach, is an artistic process, not to be caught in the nets of museums and other institutes, and not yet burdened with a historical tradition. Continuing along the lines set out by ARTE POVERA, LAND ART and CONCEPT ART, representatives of this approach saw in both television and video a means of escaping the traditional framework of art and breaking down museum walls. In the words of THEODOR ADORNO, the museum was regarded as the Erbbegräbnis von Kunstwerken (the family grave of works of art).1) Video was appreciated for its immaterial nature and its quality of being time-dependent, but more especially for its reproductive characteristics. The concept of television as a distribution centre of authentic works of art to the largest possible audience proved to be very difficult to uphold. The denotative and perceptual conditions of television were not taken into account. The means (air-time) and the objective (the public at large) were identified with each other. This type of instrumentalist philosophy was bound to fail, as indeed it has. I shall return to this later on.

The second approach was to regard television as an exponent of and a metaphor for the consumer society. The medium was criticized. It was attacked for its allegedly popularizing and vulgarizing influence. Following in the footsteps of artists such as WOLF VOSTELL, and generally based on movements such as NOUVEAU REALISME, POP ART, HAPPENING and certain tendencies within FLUXUS, television sets became part of a sculptural collage; as an illustration of their baneful influence, television sets were buried, sets on fire, or bombarded with cream cakes. The audience, confronted with ordinary television sets in totally strange, aesthetic surroundings, was invited to discover new associations and meanings, and to reflect upon its televisual experience. The simplicity and subtlety displayed by many of these works was mostly of the rhinoceros kind: as a result of overexposure, these works could only be appreciated on an anecdotal level - as a succès de scandale. This interpretation of television was mainly concerned with the philosophy behind the medium, with its social, cultural and structural significance. This was visualized by using the physical characteristics of the television set in a multi-media context. In this interpretation, video was an object that could be used as in the actions of the various movements mentioned above. Video was seen as a means of registration, as a feedback instrument, and scarcely as an expressive instrument.

This last aspect was important in the third approach, which emphasizes the advanced electronic possibilities of the medium. Rooted in the FLUXUS movement and - partly - in the expanded cinema, representatives of this approach tried to develop a pictorial language and a semantic system of their own. Television was interpreted as a cultural instrument, the epicenter of a new visual culture. Stepping outside the traditional framework of art history, proponents of this approach favored two possible attitudes. On the one hand, the visual repertory of the medium was explored, mainly by using hardware specially developed for this purpose. Others wanted a critical re-reading of the regular television broadcasts, emphasizing not so much the need for deconstruction, but rather for unveiling. As such it overlaps with the second approach mentioned above, with the difference that here the emphasis is on the level of the message. Television was seen as a cultural form, as an institution, as a form of representation that could claim to be naturalist, and hi-fi, Video was appreciated for its expressive possibilities. Both variants of this third approach broke with the hi-fi tradition and instead put forward a lo-fi point of view. In this respect, television is not a window on the world, but a screen.


This is not the place to judge the various approaches dealt with above in terms of success or failure. What they have in common is the theme of longing, of desire. A desire for openness and candour, a desire to integrate art and life, a desire for a new order in the visual arts. This desire is the result of the historical agenda of the sixties and seventies. The aesthetic categories associated with it have mostly lost their validity. It is remarkable that each of these approaches shows a clear parallel with cultural-theoretical analyses current at the time. The most striking cases are the analyses associated with MC LUHAN's media-determinism and those that sprung from the Kritische Theorie (MARCUSE and others). These parallels, this ideological embedding, in combination with the fact that each approach had a more or less unambiguous conceptualization of the television and video media, proved to be quite influential.

The Arts for Television symposium showed that an unambiguous concept is still far away. Now that grands écrits dealing with art and society are no longer credible, video seems to have been left to its own devices. Desire has taken the form of a greedy eye cast at financial support for television broadcasting, the public at large serving as excuse. As such it is a sequel to the first approach. Narcism also plays a part here, neither history nor future being accepted: the time is always now, on the screen. It is caught between emotions and rituals, and the more it is frustrated, the stronger its mythical nature becomes. Two aspects were highlighted at the symposium, aspects that were hardly explored in the interpretations dealt with so far, or were trapped in an aesthetic framework. These aspects are the perceptual side of video and television art, and the question which public is catered for. The desire to appear on the television screen has a few implications for both.

Viewing Conditions

The video project Dialoog, by MADELON HOOYKAAS and ELSA STANSFIELD, in, cooperation with LOUIS ANDRIESSEN, was shown twice at the symposium. The first time was on the premiere of the VPRO/STEDELIJK co-productions. Presented in a rather chaotic fashion and hedged in between short station calls and other video works, it did not come out well. It was given exceptional status by being shown a second time, after LOUIS ANDRIESSEN's lecture. It was even shown a third time as part of a program for VPRO television, on 27 September. The degree to which context and perceptual conditions determine audience appreciation is striking. STANSFIELD's reaction, by the way, was quite sensible: It's a pity, but then again, one should be prepared for these things; it is one of the reasons why we make installations. Dialoog is one of the examples which prove that the distinction SIMON BIGGS made (at the symposium and elsewhere in this issue) between video and art for television, makes sense. This distinction applies mainly to the artist, and is hardly or not at all relevant to the institutions associated with television. It was therefore rather suspect that the program directors of broadcasting stations present at the symposium went out of their way to show their approval of BIGGS' remark. One can hardly escape the impression that they were glad to find an alibi for not appreciating forms of television art that elude the traditional genres of drama, music, or programs about art. The question put by the former VPRO chairman, S.J. DOORMAN, about the criteria for judging whether or not to produce and broadcast something, remained unanswered, save for a reference to this aspect of genre by STEFAN FELSENTHAL from the NOS, In this respect, program producers and television directors steer a subjective and sub-cultural course, The concept of good television as proposed by ROELOF KIERS (VPRO) did not come to practical applicability during the symposium. Which might have made possible the desired access to big television, In the words of ECKART STEIN, program director of das Kleine Fernsehspiel (ZDF), television remains a kind of Vatican. STEIN refers to the monolithic and impenetrable nature of television as an institution which blocks access from below. He feels that his own Kleine Fernsehspiel is one of the tiny islands in the television constitution, a place where video and television art can unfold its strategy of resistance - or using the same metaphor: its liberation theology.

The Audience

The second point discussed at the symposium was the problematic nature of the concept of the audience. The conclusion was that the existence of the audience as such is a fallacy. The audience is composed of an infinite number of segments, having an active and selective attitude towards the programs being broadcast and pursues its preferences with some tenacity. Television communication is a transaction; broadcaster and receiver each have their own reasons for taking part in this transaction. The theorist R.A. BAUER coined the phrase obstinate audience, an audience which - more or less consciously - makes its own selection.2) The first of the approaches we have distinguished, started from the assumption of non-selectivity: the viewer consumes whatever is presented. BAUER's analysis proves that this is not the case. The concept of audience as interpreted by the broadcasting companies is equally vague and problematical. The public seems simply to conform to the ritual and subcultural codes of the broadcasting companies. The audience is just as elusive as the strategy of the broadcasting companies. JULIE LAZAR, curator of MOCA, Los Angeles, discussed the need for developing an audience for the arts for television. This public need not assemble around television sets in living-rooms: they can also meet in galleries or museums.


With some video and television artists, the desire for a large audience, in combination with the inaccessible nature of television, can lead to a form of autism. Autism as a mental disease refers to continuous repetition, fixation, cutting of all contacts, especially on the visual level. The comparison with television and video art is admittedly rather forced, but it pins down the correct therapy: playing the endlessly repetitive game, step-by-step, on the patient's terms and conditions. This is the strategy as described during the symposium by ANNA RIDLEY, a producer who works for Channel 4. Clearly a form of self censoring is involved here, which may be seen as an unwanted precedent. Yet it is exactly this uncompromising and obstinate integrity towards the work of art which has doomed the first approach to fail: they wanted everything, and all at once.

If any conclusions can be drawn from The Arts for Television symposium, it is that this step-by-step process is realistic. With the museum acting as intermediary, the project VPRO/STEDELIjK and the cooperation between the various European and North-American broadcasting companies (Time Code), may be seen as an important step forward. Rituality and autism are questioned and an impulse is given towards making clear-cut choices as regards the influence of contextual signifiers and the concept of television: a distribution channel or an expressive medium. Finally, for the television audience it offers an important and often desired variation on the mainstream programs, which it can watch on its own terms and conditions. The idea of projecting the aesthetic and artistic experience on everyday life, as defended by the philosopher JOHN DEWEY, (this idea was also at the heart of S.J. DOORMAN's lecture), is not only interesting asa relic of a lost Bildungsideal. It is also an expression of a real need among a large part of the television audience: good television, where some space is reserved for art that is made for television.

1) Adorno TH., Prismen - Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, in: Gesammelte Geschriften BD. 10-1, Suhrkamp Frankfurt 1977, p. 181
2) Bauer R.A., Communication as Transaction, in: The Obstinate Audience, Michigan 1965

If you'd like to quote something: Schneemann, Walter. "Desire and Television Autism." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 2 # 2 (1987).

Translation: Fokke Sluiter