Just a few more thoughts about reality tv and performance art, I don’t have too much time today, so these are some comments, not a well thought out essay, of course not, it’s a blog! In her article, “Trashy or Transgressive? Reality TV and the Politics of Social Control” Laura Grindstaff comments
Ironically, the very arguments used by the Frankfurt School theorists to denigrate film in relation to painting and other forms of “high art” were replicated by certain film scholars in their attempts to resist the incorporation of television studies into the academy during the late 1970s. Thus, while Trash TV is currently described as a “virus” infecting legitimate network programming, not so long ago television itself was considered the disease. In his essay “Candid Cameras,” Andrew Ross notes with some amusement that television has been characterized by various presidential committees over the years as a “vast wasteland,” an “electronic Appalachia,” and a “toaster with pictures.” Intellectuals were even less charitable, as television became the latest unredeemable “bad object” in the continuing debate about mass culture. Not only was it particularly debased (“TV stinks to heaven … if you have to study it, hold your nose and take a bath later on”) but it threatened the very stability of society (“next to the H-Bomb, no force on earth is as dangerous as television”). The danger lay precisely in TV’s ability to simulate reality, rather than merely represent it, and the inability of the viewer to know the difference — the “blur effect” that most scandalized Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectics of Enlightenment and continues to scandalize media critics today. As Ross observes, with the rise of live television and the challenges it posed to print media, the capacity to falsely conflate TV with “the real thing” had supposedly increased a thousandfold, and with it, the increased capacity for “false consciousness” already attributed by intellectuals to the mass TV audience.
For Ross, this represents the latest chapter in an old war of persuasion waged around the influence of new technologies over popular taste. The war of persuasion is now further complicated by the popularity of new television genres which use footage of actual events to endlessly narrativize experience, packaging and framing real stories/real crimes/real trauma for mass entertainment, and whose pleasures lay precisely in the link between voyeurism and surveillance, freedom and control. Cameras, as Susan Sontag has pointed out, define reality both as spectacle for the masses, and as an object of surveillance for the ruling elite. Reality-based television muddies this distinction, inviting people to participate in their own and others’ policing, to survey as well as be surveyed. Is this democracy, or social control internalized? Viewers seem to enjoy this programming; are they therefore even more duped today than in the past?
These are interesting, if not obvious, comments. What interests me the most is the connection between reality television and performance art. In fact, does not performance art hint at the very collapse of the distinctions that Grindstaff draws out above (e.g. real/illusion, survellience/voyeurism, ideology/reality etc)? In my last post, I commented on some of these same issues vis a vis the work of Vito Acconci (Seed Bed), Cosey Fanni Tutti (Prostitution), and Rudolph Schwarzkogler’s notorious fake castration. What these have in common, for one, is that the artist as the subject paradoxically distances him/herself from the work itself. So, performance art leaves the object behind it as (I think the artist Franz Walhther commented once) “a narrative vehicle of symbols.” The participation of the viewer, whether through particular objects or the performer himself, create a recognizable space (like tv-viewer). However, it is only when the viewer-recipient moves around in that space (Barbara Smith’s Feed Me comes to mind) does the work complete itself. In this sense, the viewer becomes a co-creator, through the process of handling the work, participating in the work, etc., actually produces an understanding of the piece. Such an immediacy of experience seeks to overcome what separates representation and reality. Compared to the idea that when we watch reality tv we are somehow surveying and being surveyed, the very action of viewing, whether reality tv or performance art, there appears to be a connection in which each aims for similar ends. In fact, both demand some sort of active response that somehow completes the show/work. Grindstaff concludes her article,
There is, of course, a way in which Trash TV, for all its claims to depict real life, is about anything but that. There is room here for an analysis of fantasy, for a reading of Trash TV as an expression of what our culture lacks and therefore desires: a world in which race, gender, and sexual orientation don’t matter, where complex social problems have individual, therapeutic solutions, where deviance is easily recognizable, swiftly and justly punished. Or, more significantly perhaps, where the desire to connect with other human beings at whatever level generates an elaborate, mythical electronic space in which no detail is too small to reproduce, no story too personal to tell. At the end of their essay, Sirius and St. Jude speculate, “maybe there’s some evolutionary force pushing us towards a complete exteriorization of our individual psychic landscapes. Clearly we are wiring ourselves, each to the other. We seem to be creating through media and communications technology what some have called a species-wide nervous system.
One of the problems of writing about performance art , or live art, is that any category I use succeeds only in losing much of the artists’ work. Addressing the same problem in an essay, “Life Strategies” Guy Brett comments that “to invoke “life itself” is not to point to any agreed upon thing or common ground, for didn’t Paul Klee rightly say that in an artist’s work “curiosities become realities, realities of art which help to life life out of its mediocrity?” In this view, wherein performance art fights (often paradoxically) against art becoming a commodity, fights against mass culture, resists institutional categorization, reality tv would seem to be the exact opposite of performance art. However, a few years ago an artist, I think maybe Karen Finley (I can’t for the life of me recall) re-staged some of her most famous performances at the Guggenheim in New York. There was a great deal of publicity about the event, a spread in Vogue, for one. Many were upset that such an underground artists had gone mainstream, but the other side of the debate was that the Vogue spread was part of the performance. So, now, there are three options: 1. Reality TV is a symptom/offspring of performance art (in fact, endurance art and Fear Factor are the same thing, except the latter is staged with good looking people wearing next to nothing), 2. Reality TV and Performance Art are two sides of the same coin or 3. Performance Art and Reality TV are un-related and the connections are accidental.
Finally, I’m wondering what the hell to do with this, a reality tv show about artists.