Rosalind Krauss diagnoses these early years of video in her seminal polemic, “video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” published in 1976 in the inaugural issue of October. She writes: “In the last fifteen years [the art] world has been deeply and disastrously affected by its relation to mass-media. That an artist’s work be published, reproduced and disseminated through the media has become, for the generation that has matured in the course of the last decade, virtually the only means of verifying its existence as art.”1 Krauss offers a general condemnation of video art as fundamentally narcissistic—video artists are not interested in addressing their audiences, but in seeing themselves on screen. Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971) epitomizes the character of all video art for Krauss. for a long twenty-two minutes, Acconci points to the center of the screen, at the viewer. But in the moment of making the video, Krauss observes, Acconci is not pointing at the spectator but at his own image on the monitor.“…what we see is a sustained tautology: a line of sight that begins at Acconci’s plane of vision and ends at the eyes of his projected double. In that image of self regard is configured a narcissism so endemic to works of video I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre.”2

Instead of being doomed to an endless narcissistic entrancement with video feedback, the artists Phillips has carefully selected for the Getty exhibition avoid this critical fate. The artists’ own bodies do still occupy many of the screens in California Video, but their interest isn’t primarily in using the monitor as a mirror. Instead, they take up the television screen as the most relevant public space, suggesting that its codes, conventions, and content are elements of culture in urgent need of critique. Rather than accepting an art world in collusion with mass media, as Krauss saw it, many of the artists in this exhibition aimed to disrupt the smooth functioning of broadcast television; occasionally, they succeeded.3 Phillips unearths from the archive works that often don’t make it into the canon of early video, giving deserved recognition to artists who were working outside conventional art world spaces, artists who were more concerned with the boob tube than the white cube. while this counter narrative to Krauss’s story is not a specifically Californian one, the early works in the show easily find their place in the mythology of California in the vietnam era. free love, radical politics, psychedelic aesthetics, and collective action are writ large across the exhibition. with the New Yorkers missing, there is a marked absence of formal, “narcissistic,” closed-circuit experiments; Bruce Nauman’s mesmerizing and disorienting Surveillance Piece (Public Room, Private Room) (1969-70) is a lone exception. California Video gives the impression that while artists on the East Coast may have been staring themselves in the face, Californians were on the air and looking for laughs. The Getty presents a daunting amount of early video and nearly all of the works parody the forms and conventions of television with a sharp political edge and humor that directly attacks California’s culture industries of Tv and film. Suzanne Lacy’s Where the Meat Comes From (1976) and Martha Rosler’s Losing: A Conversation with Parents (1977) ape the daytime television genres of cooking and talk shows to offer scathing feminist critiques of our culture’s relationship to food and the feminine form. Tony oursler stages child-like soap operas of domestic dysfunction (Selected Works, 1978-79) and Cynthia Maughan remakes herself into endless stock characters from B-grade horror and romance films (Selected Works, 1973-78).

Suzanne Lacy, Learn where the Meat Comes from, 1976.

Chris Burden, an artist better known for daredevil performance art, was one of the most insightful and innovative artists working with television. Throughout the 1970s, Burden got on broadcast Tv every way he could: he bought airtime to exhibit gruesome performance documentation and ran a series of self-promotional, paid advertisements. The controversy around his performance piece Shoot (1971) landed him a surreal interview on Regis Philbin’s talk show, Philbin and Company (1974).4 Most infamously, Burden “hijacked” Phyllis Lutjean’s live public access television show, holding a knife to her throat and destroying the station’s tape of the incident on air (TV Hijack, 1972). No recording exists of the event since Burden forgot to hit record on his camera. The act went on the air then disappeared into the ether. Big Wrench (1980), Burden’s only piece in California Video, was originally broadcast live on a foreign language television station in San francisco. It tells the story of Burden’s doomed love affair with a broken down tractor-trailer called Big Job. Burden spins the deranged tale of his quest to purchase and then unload the big rig as he hovers superimposed over stock images of Mack trucks cruising along open American highways. In a series of mescaline-fueled fantasies about what one could do with a truck, Burden dreams of a moving museum for his work, an antiques business with his mother, and hunting down his estranged girlfriend with a blowgun. Big Wrench gives the viewer just a small taste of Burden’s television work.

Footnotes

  1. Rosalind Krauss. “video: the aesthetics of narcissism,” October, 1 (spring 1976): 59.
  2. Krauss, 51.
  3. The television work of Chris Burden offers, for this author, the best examples of successful interventions in broadcast television. For an extensive treatment of artistic intervention into broadcast networks during the 1970s, see david Joselit’s Feedback: Television Against Democracy. (Cambridge: the MIT Press, 2007).
  4. Burden’s self-promotional, paid advertisements include Promo (1976), a simple, text-based piece that listed Burden’s name alongside those of da vinci, Rembrandt, and Picasso. He also aired a short clip of his gruesome Through the Night Softly (1973)—in which he writhes nearly naked on a pile of broken glass—on national television. In Full Financial Disclosure (1977) he details to the public how much money he made that year for his artwork, doing his part to continue the trend of “post-Watergate openness.” Burden also built a working model of John Baird’s primitive 1915 prototype of mechanical television, CBTV (Chris Burden Television, 1977).
Further Reading