Video entered the U.S. cultural vocabulary in the mid-1960s as a technology and as a discourse. Like the post-World War II selling of the 16mm camera (the portable, trusty Bell and Howell was used by a single operator to record the war for movie screens), which coincided with the beginnings of the U.S. underground film movement in the late 1940s and 1950s, Japanese video technology was mass marketed during and after a televised war, Vietnam. Video zigzagged between the cultured art world and ragtag counterculture communes; the parallel politics, usually collapsed, did not necessarily intersect—one lodged with the art scene, the other with activist politics.
The founding video art story begins with Nam June Paik’s purchase, with U.S. grant money, of a Sony portable video camera and recorder from Japan’s first U.S. shipment to the Liberty Music Store in New York. As the tale is remembered, Paik’s initial video recordings, taken in a cab on his way home, were of the pope’s visit to the United States; they were previewed to an art audience that same night; “video art” was born. The art historical tale is, of course, more complex; also suspect is the inscription of a founding video father, no matter how anarchic or international his paternity. But while history has inscribed the man more than the machine, the star of video theory and practice was the Sony portapak. The irony today of Japanese consumer technology triggering an art movement funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation is inescapable and logical. Video art allied itself with performance art and happenings, including Fluxus, pop, kinetic, and conceptual art, and coincided with the U.S. 1960s revival of the historical avant-garde, particularly surrealism, but the relationship between video and the museum was, and continues to be, hesitant and unstable.
Portable electronic technology coupled with a mystical/futurist metaphysics, linked up with communication theory, and nestled within the counterculture, particularly the student protest movement and the drug culture. The results, video art, guerrilla TV, or just plain video, were portrayed as personal, innovative, radical. It was fervently believed that simultaneity, feedback, delay, satellite/cable capacity, and electronic visions would foster, like drugs and random sex, new states of consciousness, community, and artistic and political structures. With its immateriality, erasability, easy operation, reproducibility, and affinity with mass culture, video was imagined as challenging institutions of commercial television and art, including the status of the precious art object and the central figuration of the individual artist, both of which were considered to be leftovers from “product” culture. No longer would the museum be the repository of culture in the form of rarefied commodities. If anyone could be an artist, and if art were no longer a product which could be sold or collected, then the structure of the art world would alter. Through cable TV, videocassettes, and amateur/home video, the television network monopoly would be dispersed, decentralized.
Dropping out, turning on, protesting, and experimenting with life-styles (like other key words, this collective concept in the 1960s has taken on opposite connotations in the 1980s: vapid celebrity and excess, as in “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”), were 1960s and 1970s counterculture responses and solutions to the increasing privatization and consumerism of daily life, which was filled with “consumer durables” and labeled “upward mobility.” (Consumerism was then a Ralph Nader movement against corporate malpractices, but is now a negative practice, the first meaning in Webster’s now subsumed by the second; and Nader is now a star reporter on Inside Edition.) Theodore Roszak was the guru and analyst of this making of a counterculture.1 In opposition to technocracy and scientific discourses, including nuclear war and the military, Roszak prescribed a visionary culture of psychedelic drugs, Oriental mysticism, alienation (neither Marx nor Brecht), and communitarian experiences, an adversarial culture of romanticism whose heroes were Blake, Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau, and Tolstoy rather than Marx and Jung rather than Freud.2 In the 1960s, when Peggy Sue did not necessarily get married, perhaps because she was wearing blue jeans rather than blue velvet, the global village of Marshall McLuhan, under the slogan (and theory) “the medium is the message,” with elaborations of “hot” and “cool” media, was the electronic Utopia, designed with the architecture of Buckminster Fuller, accompanied by the conceptual music of John Cage, and fostered by the drug experiments of Timothy Leary. In 1969, two art events addressed this confluence of cultural figures, technologies, and discourses: a thirty-minute videotape, “The Medium Is the Medium,” produced by an educational station, and the Howard Wise Gallery exhibition “TV as a Creative Medium.”3 Inspired by acid and dope, the disciples of modernism’s electronic triumvirate acclaimed Sony the new god of visionary liberation. The history of video includes citations of the purchase date of equipment, with editing decks available later; as Bill Viola says of much early video, “Life without editing is just not that interesting.” (Unlike ships, cars, countries, and cinema, Sony, only a letter away from sonny, is not a goddess. However, the 1984 show in Paris, under the banner of “Electra: Electricity and Electronics in 20th-century Art,” gives pause to this remark.)
Along with the stoned, high, and radical romanticism of these Canadian and U.S. visionaries, another more political discourse was also influential: Hannah Arendt’s introduction to the United States of Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in a 1968 essay in the New Yorker and the appearance of Benjamin’s essays in translation in 1969.4 That same year, the Museum of Modern art staged “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age,” arguing in the catalogue that “electronic and chemical devices which imitate processes of the brain and nervous system”5 were continuing the historical trajectory analyzed by Benjamin in his famous 1936 essay on art in the age of mechanical reproduction: that the passage of techniques of reproduction from manual to visual and now mathematical, the brain, replicated the passage from photography and cinema to television, electronics.
Indeed, Benjamin’s essay suggested television as much as it pointed to cinema, as is seen, for example, in his quotation of Paul Valery: “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign” (219). Remote control and rapid channel switching are indeed “hardly more than a sign.”
Benjamin’s emphasis on exhibition versus cult value, his distinction between distraction and contemplation, describes both U.S. audiences of commercial television and video makers who took to the road in their vans. As Benjamin wrote, “the original meet[s] the beholder halfway . . . in new ‘situations’ and liquidates the traditional value of the cultural heritage” (220-221). Given that in the 1930s tinkerers and physicists alike were inventing uses for the electromagnetic spectrum, advertising do-it-yourself kits in trade periodicals, and promoting surveillance and ham TV, the compatibility of Benjamin’s prescient theory (modeled on cinema) with television/video is neither far-fetched nor merely a handy analogy. (Benjamin was deeply influenced by Soviet filmmakers, one explanation for his translated revival in 1968, a critical year marking the resurgence of revolutionary commitments, including the question of the artist’s or intellectual’s relationship to the people. I think not only of Eisenstein’s theory of shock and conflict but also of the agit-prop trains and steamers taking cinema and revolutionary thought to the rural peasants. Like Eisenstein, who embraced technology and mass cultural production, even wishing that he had made John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln—a remark which may have triggered the Cahiers du Cinema textual analysis—and writing treatises on sound and color, Benjamin also situated himself within modernity in the 1930s.)
Besides Benjamin’s differentiation between contemplation and distraction, a model drawn from comparing painting to film, he argues that another dimension of this shift is from art as ritual to art as political—a key distinction for the video guerrillas: “mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual . . . the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics” (224). This is also a shift to reception, to exhibition, so important to Soviet film theory and practice. At the same time, avant-garde film and video, in some cases virtual theories of reception, have also operated within the premises of contemplation, within the contours of ritual. It has been assumed and desired by longtime proselytizers that U.S. avant-garde, its reception often structured as an event, was tied to ritual, with Benjamin’s “criterion of authenticity” upheld in the name of the person and uniqueness. This reading is reinforced by various artists’ interest in ritual, for example, Kenneth Anger’s fascination with his guru of myth, Aleister Crowley. As I try to argue throughout, this presumption needs to be reassessed, as do the films.
Another of Benjamin’s criteria for progressive art was the linkage between popular and critical reception: “The progressive reaction is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert” (234). To close the “great divide” between popular reception and expert reception was one significant goal of video practitioners.
For video visionaries, the centrality of alternative systems of distribution and exhibition (Benjamin’s “new situations”) cannot be emphasized enough, especially since critics (including me), who fetishize the commodity by focusing only on production, largely ignoring distribution and exhibition, enact precisely what they critique. In an uncanny mimicry, the history of video, with its emphasis on access, systems, and distribution, parallels the development of commercial television, which directed its resources and energies toward distribution by the creation of national networks and exhibition by the manufacture and marketing of television sets. But there are critical distinctions: video advocated decentralization over network centralization and process over product. (By 1952, most programs were filmed, prerecorded rather than live, or filmed off the screen as kinescopes, so TV had tangible, visible objects which, like “I Love Lucy,” could be sold and transported around the globe before videotape or satellite transmission was available.)
Like other manifestations of the counterculture, video theory was fashionable as well as useful. In big but zany books published by mainstream presses, video proselytizers like Michael Shamberg argued into existence a bricolage of renegade thinkers critical to the counterculture. The passionate premises of this eclectic melange of intellectuals were taken into video practice and daily life—a conflation of art and the everyday in a new coinage, “life-style” (which was not without precedent, however, among the surrealists). Because echoes or inversions of the late 1960s and early 1970s media visionaries can be heard in postmodern critiques for and against television (and mass culture), it might be pertinent to remember their specific claims, dated by a mere two decades.
Shamberg, a writer for Newsweek (and later the producer of The Big Chill), was a member of New York’s Raindance, a video collective, and the author of the movement’s bible, Guerrilla TV, a book commissioned in 1970 by a CBS subsidiary, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (with proceeds going to Raindance).6 The first sentences declare a fundamental position: “The moon landing killed technology. The death of hardware is the ultimate transformation of America to Media-America. It embodies our total shift from a product-to a process-based culture” (3). Radical Software, the magazine distributed by Raindance, defined video (like drugs) as “software.” In Guerrilla TV, key words—some now arcanely naive, others laden with inverse connotations—signal intellectual premises. “Media America is my own phrase. Other terms . . . are . . . words from videotape technology which seem to be analogous to thought processes. Still others, like ‘junkie’ and ‘heavy’ and ‘hip’ are taken from the dope/rock subculture. And finally, I have appropriated ‘feedback’ and ‘software’ and ‘parameter’ and other words from the vocabulary of cybernetics and systems theory” (6).
For Shamberg, Media-America was a positive concept linked to youth and the future. Video and other electronic systems comprised “an evolutionary stage in human development”; videotape was “a natural outcome of media evolution, giving us increased control over our psychological environment” (31a). This convoluted bio-logic (which paradoxically also argued a radical break with the past) was permeated by McLuhan and perched on Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. In Shamberg’s words, “What Weiner passed off as an elegant scientific breakthrough is also a major conceptual re-structuring” (5). For these “video freaks,” information structures (which were “global,” international rather than national) had to be “redesigned.” Information (whose base was data) was energy, process, and power which had to be dispersed; “power to the people” meant access to information and video. Feedback was a central concept: “Only through a radical re-design of its information structures to incorporate two-way, de-centralized inputs can Media-America optimize the feedback it needs to come to its senses” (12). “Survival” and “ecology” pepper Shamberg’s arguments. “The ultimate aim of Guerrilla Television is to embody ecological intention through the design of information structures” (9a). Whole Earth Catalogue is the paradigm—it had “use” (information) and “survival” value, as well as “feedback,” telling the reader about the conditions of its production.
Print culture, the government, schools, and corporations, along with network television (what Shamberg called “beast television”), embodied product, centrality, and homogeneity rather than process, diversity, and heterogeneity (I think of Barthes, Deleuze and Guattari, and Paul Virilio). Beast television was regressive, tied to radio conventions, with spokesmen speaking above and for us, outside events. Shamberg: “Because radio men have been unable to model a visual language, only abnormal modes of behavior are considered news.” “A lack of a true video grammar. . . also means that the actual experience of being at an event can’t be communicated and therefore isn’t considered news” (33). Along with “feedback,” Shamberg advocated “action” against commercial television’s tactics of “reaction.” Government, he wrote, “is geared towards crisis management, not anticipatory response . . . the government doesn’t know what to do unless there’s a crisis or something stridently visible to manage” (14). Neither does network news, which wallows in crises.
Like crisis or catastrophe, media celebrity was another earmark of product culture, and Shamberg warned against the co-optation of the counterculture via celebrity: “Abbie Hoffman thinks he’s getting his message across by going on the Dick Cavett show, but as somebody . . . once said: ‘The revolution ended when Abbie Hoffman shut up for the first commercial’ ” (27). (That Hoffman was indeed a celebrity, even more nostalgically famous in the 1980s, was apparent in the front-page coverage of his death in 1989; his drug overdose was a deathly commentary on, a logical conclusion to, the false premises of the counterculture drug glorification.) Many of Shamberg’s predictions have come true, as I realize when I read observations he made almost twenty years ago: “The Black Panthers . . . were created by TV. . . . But just as the media created the Panthers, they can destroy them, because the Panthers have no ultimate control over their own information. . . . No alternate cultural vision is going to succeed in Media-America unless it has its own alternate information structures, not just alternate content pumped across the existing ones. And that’s what videotape, with cable-TV and videocassettes, is ultimately all about. Context is crucial to the amplification of an idea to prevent co-option” (27).
Shamberg’s critique of commercial television was an acute prophecy of television’s 1988 content: catastrophe, gossip, scandal. His assessment was very close to Baudrillard’s on trivia, scandal, and publicity. “Movements and personalities burn themselves out very quickly when they’re devoured by publicity” (28), wrote Shamberg in 1970, anticipating Baudril lard who, a few years later, also refers to Hoffman: “But transgression and subversion never get ‘on the air’ without being subtly negated as they are: transformed into models, neutralized into signs, they are eviscerated of their meaning.”7 Of course, this is simulation. While the two men’s epistemologies are radically divergent, either could have written this: “The totality of the existing architecture of the media . . . always prevents response. . . . This is why the only revolution . . . indeed, the revolution everywhere . . . lies in restoring this possibility of response . . . presupposing an upheaval in the entire existing structure of the media. . . . No other theory or strategy is possible. All vague impulses to democratize content, subvert it, are hopeless.”8
While Baudril lard claims a Marxist position (a perplexing conundrum for Marxist critics), the U.S. video counterculture uncritically embraced democratic pluralism and the politics of diversity. (These arguments are echoed but inverted in 1980s celebrations of the “subversive reception” of commercial television; however, this is the flip side of the video countercultural activists who wanted to open up production, providing alternative representations.) “Guerrilla television,” asserted Shamberg, “is grassroots television. It works with people, not from up above them . . .” (8a). The critical flaw was brushing over social systems in the belief that video was “a tool which promises a whole system that makes politics irrelevant, both right and left. . .” (9). Or, “The communications systems themselves, not philosophy, are what shape social structure” (9).
The confusing key to the entire superstructure (played out on a physical base or level; for example, an intellectual opposition to violence and war was carried out by bodily, passive resistance, equating thought and action, elevating body over mind), explaining why sex and drugs were so central (aside from pleasure and “liberation”), was that these “cybernetic strategies” were not envisioned as philosophical but biological, not ideological but technological, the dominant opposing dyads of countercultural thought. Herein lies the catch-22, the critical flaw: the choice of biology and technology over philosophy and ideology, with the latter terms taking precedence in 1970s theories which can be seen as countermands to the earlier beliefs. At the same time, the assault on classical philosophy’s hierarchy of mind over body, reason over emotion, and men over women, reversing these poles of domination and subordination in favor of affect and the body—denigrated as the domain of the feminine—undermined the philosophical values of violence, torture, and rage, the privileged and masculine emotions in Western thought playing themselves out in the Vietnam War. The problem was the equation of sex with advanced technology, and viewing both as neutral or “natural”; the pleasures of both were masculine. As it has turned out, the medium is not the only message, although, as Baudrillard pointed out, McLuhan’s assertion, “although not a critical proposition . . . does have analytic value in its paradoxical form” (172).
Technological determinism prevailed. Portable and affordable video equipment promoted artistry, populism, and utopianism. Like historical revolutionary movements, the political and artistic/social countercultures of the 1960s were marked by this instrumental conception of technology, which viewed the medium in terms of ontology or neutrality rather than as a system of social relations and discourses, including gender, race, and economics. With a fervent naivete and idealism in the face of massive commercial programming, the women’s movement, the civil rights struggle, the Vietnam War, and cold war politics of containment, “video” would bring global salvation via access, circumventing institutions and going directly to individuals of conscience—“the people.”
Conceived in opposition to commercial television, countercultural practices of video emerged in collectives on both coasts. People’s Video Theater, Videofreex, Raindance, Global Village, and Video Freaks comprised a sub-cultural network and imagined liberation via the democratic pluralism of video: anyone could control the means of production, anyone could and should be an artist. In 1968, Ant Farm, a zany and ambitious group with outposts in San Francisco and Houston, founded by Chip Lord and Doug Michels and soon joined by Hudson Marquez, Curtis Schreier, and others, was created as “an army of termites in the subsoil of American officialdom.”9 Ant Farm has been described as a “family consisting of environmentalists, artists, designers, builders, actors, cooks, television children . . . university trained media freaks and hippies interested in balancing the environment by total transformation of existing social and economic systems.”10 This “underground lifestyle” was concerned with “education reform, communication, graphic design, life-theater, and high art.” Aspects of the historical avant-garde reverberated in Ant Farm, including its mission to intervene in the everyday by using technology and its challenge of the sanctity of the art object and its author/artist who was imagined by Ant Farm as a worker, a builder, a constructivist, a member of a group of divergent interests and talents (an Ant/art colony). “Ant Farm accepts only worker ants, and by regulation, no queen ant or leader ant is admitted” was one of their tenets.
Along with the denial of hierarchy, Ant Farm’s method of collective work included the systematic use of drugs to unleash “psychophysical information”; the use of grass, it was argued, brought the community closer and released creative energy; “free association” was encouraged by their “trips.” Dope, like video, was defined as radical software in the magazine of that name distributed by Raindance. Or, in the words of Shamberg, “As with sophisticated uses of videotape and computers, it [dope] gives access to radically different ways of knowing” (18). Distinguishing between heroin (which was bad, linked to junkies and Vietnam) and marijuana (which was good), he asserted: “Americans will simply have to realize and sanction the notion that the widespread experimentation with drugs is not a symptom of decadence but, on the contrary, one of adaptation” (19). “For better or worse, it’s perhaps the best psychological software we’ll have until the electronic media are made more accessible” (17).11
Ant Farm sought commissions, toured universities, and won awards for architectural projects (for example, a polymorphous, organic, concrete house outside Houston and various inflatables, including a design for a convention center for the 1976 bicentennial).12 The climactic moment of the group’s video work is dated by the purchase in 1970 of a black and white Sony Portapak which, like so many 1970s video makers, was without an editing system. Their fascination with cars and critique of TV resulted in Cadillac Ranch in 1974 and Media Burn in 1975, both videotaped. The “customized dream car” in Media Burn and the car in Eternal Frame are central icons, as was “motorcade” a repeated signifier of the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination.
(This fascination with cars and culture has continued in the work of Chip Lord, culminating in a big book and a seventy-minute videotape, The Motorist. His 1989 tape of a cross-country trek to deliver a T-Bird, which the dealer/driver bought from his high school sweetheart at a class reunion, to its new Japanese owner in Los Angeles, demonstrates that the love between boys and cars continues well beyond adolescence, with struggles and identification with father along the road. This is the history of the family car as Oedipus. Opening with the Diego Rivera murals in Detroit, intercutting advertisements and corporate films, and then traveling through fast-food America spreading over the desert landscape, the work is also a history of mass culture—not monolithic, not infinitely reproducible, as the Edsel demonstrates. The tape illustrates the passage from the mechanical age, concluding in the decade after World War II, to the electronic era of automotive production, the transition from a culture of difference and several choices—Ford, Buick, Cadillac—to an era of differentiation and hundreds to thousands of choices and fancy names. The car is history, memory; driving cross-country is a Bildungsroman, triggering adolescent flashbacks of the family and mass culture. John Ford meets Henry Ford, when men were men in Detroit or Monument Valley. In the last scene, the 1962 Thunderbird is loaded on a freighter/barge. The young Japanese man drives the car, the American icon, through the streets of Tokyo, as country western music wails on the sound track; the car has become a collector’s item, now taken out of context; the divide between art and mass culture is no safer or more secure than our memories which can break in, altering the present.)
In the seventies, video vans spread the video gospel in a proselytizing/ pedagogic return of the agit-prop trains and steamers of the Soviet constructivist filmmakers, who would have loved the speed of video but would have been dismayed by the early problems of editing. Like the Soviets but without Marx, projects encouraged audiences to participate in productions, as well as preaching the new visions of society. For two months in 1971, Ant Farm went on the road with its Truckstop Project, a name which declared allegiance to working-class travel; yet it visited universities (a locus critical to the counterculture as well as video) in a “customized media van with antennae, silver dome, TV window, inflatable shower stall, kitchen, ice, inflatable shelter for five, solar water heater, portapak and video playback system.”13 The ecology movement combined with technology and mobile, unfettered domesticity as counterculture tourism. (Would any of this have been possible without the German Volkswagen bus/van?) Much has been said about video techniques; Ant Farm was insightful in addressing auto-technique.
Ant Farm collaborated with other groups, among them Video Freaks, T. R. Uthco (Doug Hall, Jody Procter, and Diane Hall) for Eternal Frame, and TVTV, Top Value Television—funny names of anonymity that identified shifting groups against the cult of the individual, the artist, the star. TVTV taped the last Apollo mission and interviewed the astronauts; Chip Lord of Ant Farm somewhere called NASA “a technodream state.”14 With funds from cable TV companies, the expandable group taped the Republican and Democratic conventions in Miami (they received a good review for the latter in the New York Times).15 Unlike the networks, the group used Portapak equipment, producing “alternative” readings of the events from the convention floor, backstage at political parties and rallies, and from network booths (theirs is a fascinating and revelatory critique of network reporting which, for TVTV, is an integral part of the problem and spectacle). The result, Four More Years, is an unsettling trailer for Reagan’s presidency, completely unfathomable and impossible then. In the 1980s, “Entertainment Tonight” has assumed this function, transformed into TV gossip, celebrity, and business.
Ant Farm’s policy was to record real or imaginary events, disregarding distinctions between them, a structure of acceptable and necessary “paranoia” tied to drugs and TV. Like Lucy and Ricky and George and Gracie, Ant Farm did not need Baudril lard to tell it that TV confused the real with the imaginary, conflating reality and fiction as simulation. Although explicitly stated as a position of opposition to technocratic society and mass-mediated culture, its stance toward mass or popular culture, like its response to technology, was ambivalent or postmodern: Ant Farm used it while condemming it. By undermining the authority of print or book culture and posing audiovisual culture as a positive alternative, the poles of high versus low, or elite versus mass culture were slightly tipped.
Lest this all remain unfamiliar if not naive, I will detail one of Ant Farm’s collaborative projects which resulted from all this video thought. For me, it is a complex critique of television, representation, audiences, history, art, and simulation.
Eternal Frame, a 1975 performance and videotape made by Ant Farm and T. R. Uthco, is a simulation of a catastrophe, a remake of the film of John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The recreation dissects representation, moving from the grainy film image imprinted in our memory as Greek tragedy, through the copy of the actors’ preparations, rehearsal, and performance to a model—the videotape. Thus, it shifts from film to television, without a real except the Zapruder film which it takes on its own terms (it does not incorporate the point of view of the assassin, nor is it framed by the commentary and presence of network news reporters). The copy matches the original, which is only an image—an indelible one. That historical, silent image—along with the spectatorial mechanisms of disavowal or suspension of disbelief (reception)—is the mystery rather than who killed Kennedy and how, the usual concerns brought to bear on the Zapruder footage.
Unlike Baudril lard’s theory of the simulacrum (which in large part was predicated on one of his trips to the United States, on his real experience of the many exported representations of the United States in films and television, an example of tourism producing theory), the videotape works through a series of contradictions, not the least of which is a definition of “art.” It argues television as history, as a set of social relations and as a challenge to historiography and mastery which can provide a truth, a real. At the same time, the performance and tape grant answers and closure and reveal mastery through professionalism—the satisfactory perfection of their recreation and its effects. (The British television trial [broadcast on HBO] of Lee Harvey Oswald [which adjudged him guilty, to no one’s amazement], the first in a series of planned restagings of history as courtroom drama, the “You Were There” approach, conducted by “real” lawyers interrogating experts, witnesses, and culprits and based on “real” evidence and documents, is a simpler investigatory simulation—looking for an imaginary real rather than interrogating its displaced representation.)
The resemblance of Eternal Frame to the work of Baudrillard is not coincidental, given the period and the common source in the thought of Mc- Luhan. However, this work preceded by at least ten years the boom in the United States of Baudrillard’s books, Simulations (imagine Simulations as the script for The Last Judgment co-starring Yves Montand as Charlton Heston, with Baudrillard in a cameo as a working-class God quoting Cecil B. De Mille) and In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities. While Baudrillard awaits the apocalypse (a process initiated by the postwar invasion of Europe by U.S. mass culture and thought, which heralded an end to mastery and classical education, so lucidly pointed to by Meaghan Morris16), a celebratory Ant Farm critiques catastrophe, collectively signaling the conclusion of 1960s rhetoric of youth and generational crisis. Fredric Jameson has suggested that “for many white American students—in particular for many of those later active in the new left—the assassination of President Kennedy played a significant role in delegitimizing the state itself,” with Kennedy’s “generation gap” setting off “political discontent” of American students.17 This positioning of “Kennedy” within the U.S. left—glaringly emergent in the obsession of many of those on the left with uncovering the conspiracy of the assassination—is also undermined by the tape’s irreverence, which paradoxically pays tribute as well. The tape also marks another ending—of a cultural politics of collaboration.
As the poster announcing the showing of the videotape to a San Francisco art audience cogently states, the piece is “An Authentic Remake of the Original J. F. K. Assassination.” Early in the tape, the artist/president, Doug Hall, reprising his role in Media Burn, declares: “I am in reality nothing more than another image on your television set. . . . I am in reality nothing more than another face on your screen, I am in reality only another link in that chain of pictures which makes up the sum total of information accessible to us all as Americans. . . . Like my predecessors, the content of the image is no different from the image itself.” Thus, Eternal Frame (“I am in reality an image”) embraces the imaginary as dilemma rather than as tragedy, which is implicit in Baudril lard’s view (“The space of simulation confuses the real with the model”18). This is, of course, the “hyperreal” in which all is statistic, memory bank, or miniature, abolishing representation. While Kennedy’s death was, as the tape asserts, both a real and an image death, far from liquidating representation it enthroned the film image. Eternal Frame critiques that powerful hold of the image as history on our memory and emotions.
For Baudrillard, simulation is infinitely more dangerous than an actual crime, “since it always suggests . . . that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than simulations.”19 (This was the premise of the conspiracy theorists after Jack Ruby’s shooting of Oswald on TV. It is an apt analysis of the Iran/Contra hearings, particularly Oliver North’s testimony. If we take this in an opposite direction, nuclear war better be a simulation.) The crime and danger of art is boredom or bad taste, often disguised as an issue of realism by numerous platonic philosophers of false versus serious art. Eternal Frame includes responses to the videotape of the simulated assassination. Near the end of the tape, a middle-aged man, whose reactions were recorded outside the San Francisco theater after seeing the videotape, speaks for Baudril lard’s insistence on denotative distinctions, on his desire for referents. “They didn’t use anything original at all.” They should have “either told what happened or made up their own story . . . they took a theme of a real man getting killed and they played little games with it. . . .”
As Eternal Frame suggests, not only the assassination of Kennedy but particularly the circulation and repeated viewing of the amateur/tourist movie footage, which has been endlessly rerun on television and scrutinized by real and amateur detectives for clues (the classic instance of close textual analysis of film, pre-Raymond Bel lour), signaled the end of (imagined) mastery via brave individuality written in Arthurian narrative accounts of cause-effect logic and closure. (That this period of the Kennedy court was called Camelot is not without interest.) Because it had been recorded, the image, elided to reality and tragic drama, would yield an answer, a truth, if, like the riddle of the Sphinx, we could only get closer, could deconstruct it. But when deconstruction failed, recreation, or simulation, was the next logical step—a cultural shift analogous to the move from cinema to television as the dominant theoretical object or cultural metaphor.
It could also be argued that the assassination, linked as it was to film footage and given that it was not initially covered by the TV networks, was the first and last time for a united television audience: everyone compulsively remembered and minutely described, again and again, like reruns, where they were, in real life, and where they were in relation to television, representation. The assassination represented a cultural moment when television and our daily lives were still separate but merging. (We still remember that Dan Rather was physically there and on television.) While our emotional experience of the event came from television, our bodies remained distinct from television; meaning and affect occurred to us in specific places. Constant coverage of the event realized television’s potential for collective identification and national cohesion—television’s dream that by informing us and setting a good, calm, and rational example via the anchors, the populace will be united, soothed, and finally ennobled by repetition of and patient waiting for information.
Covering catastrophes is the ultimate test of the top anchorman’s mettle. His stamina is measured by words, information, and calm demeanor. Television fancies that if we have enough news, if it stays on the air with us, a vigil like sitting up with a sick or dying friend, we will behave like adults. Baudril lard’s prognoses of cultural (if not nuclear) catastrophe can be linked to television’s instantaneous capacity to present live coverage of (death) events, both shocking and mollifying the audience, mediating and exacerbating the effects of the real which are rerun and transformed into representation. We can await live catastrophe on TV, signaled by ruptures in the flow of programs, a disruption of time, TV’s constancy. Catastrophe argues for the importance, the urgent value, the truth of television. Its watching will be good for us, providing catharsis or, better, mastery via repetition of the same which is fascinating, if not mesmerizing. Castastrophe coverage thus functions beyond the pleasure principle as an essentially verbal rendering of the “fort/da!” hinged on a visual detail, in this case, Zapruder’s footage. Perhaps masochistically, pleasure, aligned with death rather than life, comes from that game of repetition, with catastrophe as potent TV, coded as exception. It is a pleasure that doesn’t come from TV techniques, which are usually of extremely poor quality—shaky, minimal, and indecipherable. Usually there are awkward editing glitches, missed cues and connections, filler speech and delimited language. There is endless repetition of the same facts and simplistic arguments which function like Muzak, overwhelming narrative, regular programming as we wait, with the anchor, either for further events and analysis or a conclusion before TV normalcy can return. The intrusion of the real is also the taking over of entertainment by the news division, the replacement of women by men. If the network merely breaks, momentarily, the crisis was not in the United States: our catastrophes demand twenty-four-hour coverage, nation over narrative. The assassination was “on the air” constantly. Continuous coverage later shocked us with a live rather than a filmed murder by Jack Ruby, an anonymous player soon to become notorious as he shot Lee Harvey Oswald on television, in jail, in footage which was then rerun and scrutinized.
After this riff of speculation, Eternal Frame revisited. After a rerun of the brief “original” (the Zapruder film is shorter than I remembered, a clip lengthened by history, slow motion, and stop-frame analysis), the reenactment of the assassination becomes, as the spectators of the rehearsals and real thing acknowledge, “more real” (there are progressively fewer errors or deviations from convention and expectations) until it is encapsulated as “art” and replayed for us as image, which it always was. After the Artist/ President Hall declares the tape’s position in a Presidential Address, the first rehearsal of the assassination occurs in a car in front of rear-screen projection, flattening depth like a 1940s Hitchcock automobile ride. The studio is replaced by location shooting in Dallas (like the title, another bad pun), the scene of the real and artistic crime. Rehearsals of the event are intercut with backstage costuming and interviews with Jack (Hall) and Jackie (played by Doug Michaels), who comment on dress rehearsals, acting, and masquerade. Sexual difference is inscribed as a simulation: Jackie is played perfectly in a pink suit and hat, a performance of minimal film gestures. The hesitant actors, leery of, indeed fearing, reprisal, believing their act to be scandalous or sacrilegious (overstating the “radical” effects of art) emerge for the final performance, and restage the event for passersby, who appear to deeply enjoy it (as tourism, as “live” TV). The final color reenactment is then rerun as a rhapsody six times from various angles, becoming “authentic” and emotive in the process as patriotic music crescendoes on the sound track.
The clever interplay of documentary conventions of late 1960s verisimilitude (black and white versus color, wild sound, camera movement, address, and acting in, for example, the studio-staged speeches and the cinema verite style of the backstage and on the street interviews), document the arbitrariness of film conventions of realism. The interviews with the actors are critical moments of a presumed real; the actors’ feelings as “simulated” rather than heartfelt is an unsettling suspicion. The level of the real intensifies when the tourist audiences react—at one moment with tears. This audience of casual passersby recreates that historical audience which lined the street (and Zapruder’s film) for Kennedy’s motorcade, later to become witnesses, critics, and stand-ins or extras for the nation-audience. Thus, the real players simulated an image, turning a film into a live performance which is measured by historical audiences against the famous footage as reality or later in the tape against standards of “art.” That both memory and aesthetics, or history and art, are slippery calls emerges in the irony that the standard of the real is a bad “original” film, famous because of its singularity and hence “aura.” Its existence is both the ultimate amateur filmmaker’s fantasy and nightmare. “This is really bad taste,” remarks Hall when watching the rear- screen footage on a television monitor in a hotel room.
The distance between Eternal Frame and Baudrillard can be measured by their conceptions of the audience. Baudril lard’s mass audience is passive, fascinated, silent, outside; Ant Farm’s series of inscribed audiences are vocal, actively involved in critique or, surprisingly, disavowal, yet producing, not merely consuming or escaping, meaning (like the end of representation, one wonders how this might be possible). One position is conservative, humorless, and without irony, predicated as it is on a model drawn from commerce; the other is refreshing. The spectators of the piece in Dallas compare the live performance to the real thing which is being recreated, they imagine, as a tourist attraction! rather than “art”: “I saw it on television after it happened . . . it looks so real now . . . the characters look so real.” Shots of these tourists photographing the recreation remind us of the anonymous maker of the original: Zapruder was just a person in the crowd filming Kennedy, and his film was introduced as evidence in the investigation, an unnerving way to become an artist. “He’s re-enacting it. . . . I’m glad we were here. . . . It was so beautiful. . . .” After the performance, an incredulous Doug Hall comments: “I thought the most interesting thing was watching the people enjoy it so much. . . . How could they enjoy it so much?” This is the critical question of catastrophe coverage.
However unexpected this reponse of spectator enjoyment by the performers, who drastically misjudged reception and pleasure on many accounts, Eternal Frame incorporates response. Its various audiences exist in a dialogue with the recreation, acting as a corrective and participant/observer. (When the audacious performers, secure in the acceptance of their masquerade as tourism, enter the Kennedy Museum, a place of memory and souvenirs, they disrupt the sanctity of Kennedy as commerce and are kicked out.) The “live” event was edited into a videotape for a San Francisco art audience, which responded with the following remarks, later incorporated into the final piece: “bad taste but impressive,” causing “bad dreams, disturbing but entertaining.” Reception (“reciprocity,” “feedback”) alters interpretation. Chip Lord recently informed me that the screening of Eternal Frame in San Francisco (with a screening in New York the same day, November 22, 1975, the anniversary of Kennedy’s death) was at the Unitarian Church, an event promoted by a local TV news station, another example of Ant Farm’s galvanizing the media to cover art which critiques media; reporters are invariably baffled by work which crosses the boundaries between art and popular culture. Lord: “We traded them a copy of the Zapruder film for this plug on the air, but of course they described it as a ‘who killed Kennedy?’ presentation, so the audience included conspiracy buffs from the public at large as well as an invited art audience. I would imagine that the disappointed school teacher. . . was one of them. Our copy of the Zapruder film came from conspiracy theory sources and was originally bootlegged out of the Life magazine lab.”
This sophisticated construction of and respect for audiences is a canny treatise on reception and context which resembles Gilles Deleuze’s model of simulation. For Deleuze, the simulacrum circumvents mastery because it already includes the spectator, the angle of the observer. Thus the spectator/ auditor is in tandem with the maker and can transform and deform the images. Deleuze argues that the simulacrum “subverts the world of representation” and is not a degraded copy but rather a positive one which denies privileged points of view and hierarchies.20 Clearly another modeling of power is at stake—one which might unsettle “classical” scholars as well as patriarchy’s parameters. Particularly intriguing in both the tape and Deleuze is the inclusion of the spectator’s point of view in the very definition of the simulacrum—a position which is consonant with Eternal Frame (and the practice of Ant Farm, with their predilection for art works as events which critique and incorporate “the media” and audiences) and divergent from Baudril lard, who posits the “mass” outside as a skeptical force of negativity, for most critics the most troubling aspect of Baudrillard’s position.
What fascinates me is the ping-pong dialogue of postmodernism with the counterculture. I suspect the game is determined by the age and memory, along with “class,” of the writer, but leave my intuition of generational difference, including a personal history of television, untouched. But I am convinced that the passions of the counterculture sowed the seeds of their own reconstruction. For example, Shamberg praised “Media America’s discontinuity with the past”; postmodern critics bemoan television’s “eradication” of history. While postmodernism sighs with sad longings for the (realist or modernist) past of narrative, biography, art, and originals, video visionaries celebrated immateriality and the unraveling of print-product culture. While video culture brazenly hawked communications as salvation, believing that political inequities would, like the domino theory of foreign policy, inevitably fall into line, postmodernism has disparaged “media ontology.” On a more esoteric level, the “theoretical object” has shifted. If in the mid-1960s it swerved from cinema to video, this time it is shifting from film to commercial television. An unspoken image of U.S. television haunts postmodernism.
The counterculture’s opposition to corporate, scientific, and technocratic structures is reiterated in Baudrillard’s critique in 1972 of Marshall McLuhan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Roman Jakobsen, who are linked through communication models (which are perhaps most dangerous in their boring and depleted language). Baudrillard: “The entire conceptual infrastructure of this theory is ideologically connected with dominant practice . . . still . . . that of classical political economy.” For him, this “scientific construction is rooted in a simulation model of communication. It excludes, from its inception, the reciprocity and antagonism of interlocutors, and the ambivalence of their exchange.”21 While Baudrillard disputes thought cloaked in science as mystical, apolitical, and empirical, he shares the belief in “feedback” (what he calls reciprocity) and advances a critique of “media” which, as I stated earlier, is remarkably similar to Shamberg’s (and, Nam june Paik’s). For Baudrillard, by the 1980s, McLuhan’s collective Utopia of the 1960s, anticipating an electronic future, has soured into an obscene, private dystopia, marking the passage from pop art to postmodernism in the United States. (The shift has also been accompanied by a return to the Frankfurt School, endrunning French theory in many accounts, with New German Critique in a 1980s ascendancy over Yale French Studies of the 1970s. More of this later.)
Rather than going back to the future, I will fast forward to the past and back on my own analysis, and argue the bleak underside of visionary video politics and its “instrumental” view of technology: because the issue of consumer capitalism, like gender, was subsumed as an after-effect, the ultimate dream of TV populism—the home market or audience—is returning as a dystopia.
Because the enemy then (and now) was commercial television, it is ironic and logical that the networks, like academics in reverse, are rewriting the counterculture—containing the radicalism of the 1960s via parody and nostalgia for a lost, noble youth. For example, in “Family Ties,” Steven and Elise Keaton are lovey-dovey parents, formerly Berkeley war protesters, seen in flashback wearing hippy, flower children clothes, looking very silly. What was an unimaginable nightmare then, a Reagan presidency, is the program’s central joke (and reassurance) via the star of the show, Alex, the adorable, funny, conservative son and famous movie star, Michael J. Fox. A cliche of reversal twenty years ago has become a top-ten weekly situation comedy, a series with inventive “situations,” elegantly clever scripts of one-liners and perfectly gauged, comic timing.
The ennui laden “thirtysomething” documents the hippy turned handsome yuppy family, surrounded by remnants of a discarded, outmoded past, living the suburban, big old home life filled with work on personal relationships and the everyday, proclaiming the quintessential virtue of the nuclear, central couple relentlessly focusing on their pivotal fetish, the baby girl. Of course, the mother prefers staying home and looking at her child, and, needless to say, the husband is “sensitive” and “involved” with the star of the series, domesticity. Sex is excellent. Their past drops by, embodied as the single, artistic long-hair and the single, neurotic female; for them, sex is not great. Unlike the upwardly mobile, central and married couple, these dissatisfied friends/dinosaurs have failed to make the successful transition into the familial, corporate materialism of the 1980s. Like the loyal, secondary, but inferior characters they are, they visit and relive their shared protest past as the good old days; no matter how many forays these misfits make, they cannot break into the secure stronghold of the united couple now sealed off as “nuclear” family via many meaningful glances and long, bated pauses. The with-it message is clear; the past is childish, unproductive, unhappy. Grow up. Adapt. Get married and pregnant. Buy an old house. Get a real job. Cut your hair. What is startling is not the intricate conscription and defusing of the student protest movement via memory (the number of TV characters with countercultural pasts seen via flashbacks wearing hippie clothes is staggering), but the current recuperation of this blatant content. “Family Ties” is hailed because of the “liberal” producer Goldberg, who demanded a daycare facility on the set and stumped the Maine primary elections for child- care programs, including “maternity” leave for fathers; “thirtysomething” is praised by critics for its timely relevance, its innovative, “radical,” hip-slick-‘n’-cool style.
Baudrillard’s “obscene” perfectly describes another contemporary manifestation of portable, video, consumer culture, for women, very “rough trade.” At the Merchandise Mart in Chicago in the summer of 1987, the now multiple video gods, JVC, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, devalued by competition, hawked their allures and wares at a collective ritual which travels to major cities in the United States each year, culminating in an orgiastic gathering in Las Vegas. When it comes to crude commerce, Baudril lard is right. The ritual was perversely fascinating and frightening. Dominated by the huge “seeing eye” of an enormous surveillance image/screen, the cavernous, echoing space was filled with suited business men eyeing and fondling the merchandise: old and familiar sexual technologies, the software of women and the hardware of video equipment. Burlesque collided with electronics.
The female carnies, garbed in flashy costume, used an old technique to sell a newer one, interlocking technologies and sexualities. That gender was technology and technology was gendered was literalized in each manufacturer’s miniature show: the male figure was robotic; the female was a real tease, a come-on; masculinity was the modern, high-tech machine, that place of invisibility and power, watching, taping while the low-tech women sang “Buy me”; video and the female body were available, multiple techniques for sale. (In defense of the original god, Sony, his display didn’t discriminate and it was cute; both male and female were animated robots.) Consumer rape—(1) the powerful realization of the dream of accessibility and pluralism and (2) politics and art gone sour, taken into the home market—was metaphorically reenacted in a quiet scene on the lower level. A line of men with downcast eyes had very patiently formed. What awaited them, at the end? Pat Robertson and the new, electronic fundamentalism? The demeanor of devotion, including silence, provided clues. However, another object of desire was being worshiped: at the end of the line was a female porno star selling video cassettes of her films, provocatively autographing her image, flirting, available, with cascading, enormous breasts spilling everywhere—an image now real, a sight oddly prophesying the Jimmy (Bakker and Swaggart) sex scandals.
The private home as the modern theater of pornography might not have surprised the counterculture (who viewed home pornography as a positive “freedom of speech” cause, as well as a market for their work). In 1987, video, like TV, rather than meaning shared precepts, a common politics, means leisure, industry, domesticity—video bars, videodrome, video dating, the Video column of Time, rock video, video movie rental at “Video Visions” and other cassette supermarkets, and most importantly, amateur, home video equipment, and the circulation of video pornography, the latter a mass subculture, a real paradox.
At the risk of my own determinism and given that technology is not neutral, it could be argued that the way portable video equipment is currently being produced and marketed parallels the fetishistic history of the home stereo system; both have been taken into social/gender relations. Unlike machines marketed for women, machines addressed to men often have excess power, e.g., 160-mph sports cars, rifles, machine guns and hand-held missies, and the unearthly decibel levels of stereos. Washing machines or vacuum cleaners with excess power become either sit-com jokes, as in “Mr. Mom” or “Lucy,” or a horror film nightmare. For women’s machines, excess power is rarely a desirable, salable component. As well as being excessive, machines marketed for men are often infinitely extensible—there’s always more to add, to buy, to build—linkages to do-it-yourself frontierism. Might one profanely suggest that these extensible machines evoke multiplicity and plurality, and are endless texts which demand endless mastery? In relation to stereo, the system—like certain theories of diffuse pleasures and sexualities which exist without referent or example—has become the dominant text; the content of the record is secondary, something which needs mastery by a system—like the actuality, the details of politics and events and personal experiences need mastering by a theory—which can jump over all those messy facts of oppression, cultural difference, and history?
It is not coincidental that the television set was introduced in the 1950s into the American home as a piece of furniture, a woman’s dilemma and resistance handled by extensive campaigns in Good Housekeeping and other women’s magazines; it was imagined as a potentially disruptive element which, however, could be smoothly managed by spatial redefinitions—the building of family rooms (TV as a baby needing a nursery, just as the home computer needs its own space) near the kitchen and accessible to and for Mom and food, or located in rec rooms away from the rest of the house. In this appeal to women to determine a predetermined space, Dad controlled the programs and, like Archie Bunker, lounged comfortably in the front-row center comfortable chair in numerous ads. Mom sat in straight-back chairs, darning, or she served Dad by turning the dial in this antediluvian era before remote control. Now that we are purchasing infinite “video systems” of component TV parts (including stereo systems) rather than single pieces of furniture, Dad has become the major buyer and assembler—not an uninteresting historical development. Rather than providing the mass, plural, Uto pian, alternative market for art (although forays and reconnoiters are still ventured), home video is a family plot, is video about the private home and the nuclear family—another replication in technology of ideology—of privatized spaces of unequal economics and labor.
Finally, without the intent to heroicize a spirit of an age or to portray a nineteenth-century drama of generations, but with the advances of the women’s movement in mind, the countercultural stance against polarities, particularly the reassessment of private versus public spaces, art versus commerce or life, word over image, the book over cinema or TV, mind over body, as well as hierarchy among media, cultures, and nations are important, perhaps—in the dazedly conservative United States—more now than ever. However visionary, apolitical, and in the end at least quasi-patriarchal, the moment was a brief space in which, to quote Althusser, “the ideological state apparatus did not reproduce itself automatically.”