Mar 23, 2018

The Exhibition Will Be Televised

Ava Tews

Broadcasting: EAI at ICA arrives on the heels of a milestone in television history: fifty years after the landmark Public Broadcasting Act was passed in November of 1967. One of the “Great Society” achievements of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the law established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and boldly declared, “it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes…[and] to encourage the development of programming that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences.”

Though not without flaws, the bill was much more than an idealistic pronouncement—it spurred substantial growth in educational and cultural programming nationwide. Several public television studios, including KQED in San Francisco, WGBH in Boston, and WNET in New York, established experimental television labs in the late 60s with funding from the CPB and private foundations, and for the first time gave American artists access to the mass media of the era.

Broadcasting: EAI at ICA, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

Broadcasting: EAI at ICA investigates the rich history of artists’ use of broadcast media, and with its multigenerational selection implicitly traces the radical transformation that broadcasting has undergone in the intervening decades, from transmission over television airwaves to social media feeds. But the show does much more than present a history; it investigates broadcast not only in presentation, but in practice.

By turning the exhibition’s installation into a television studio and presenting a series of live-broadcast events that air on television via PhillyCAM and live over social media feeds, the exhibition has itself become a site of broadcast, harnessing the innovation and radical possibilities that the works in the show themselves investigate. Broadcasting explores how an exhibition can meet the same demands and ideals that artists working in broadcast media strive for: access to an audience beyond the gallery walls; an audience varied in race, class, and background; an opportunity to investigate from within the cultural, social, economic, ideological, and political power of television and other communication technologies; and an ability to share art for free over the air with anyone who tunes in.

Broadcasting: EAI at ICA, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

When Howard Wise founded EAI in 1971, he was interested in these very opportunities that provided artists access to an audience outside of the gallery and enabled them to engage with mass media directly.

Wise was a visionary arts patron and gallerist who entered the art world after a successful run as a businessman. In 1957 he founded the Howard Wise Gallery of Present Day Painting and Sculpture in Cleveland, and in 1960 opened a New York branch. He was a bit of an outlier in the New York art scene with his pleasant Midwestern demeanor, his gallery’s wall-to-wall carpeting, and his interest in promoting art over making money. He only sold out one show, his last—in his words, “it was one piece, and one person bought it”—and he did not take a salary from the gallery.Wise’s concern was supporting artists at the vanguard, and he was steadfast in his dedication to artists’ investigations at the intersection of art and new technologies. He exhibited artists such as Jean Tinguely, Len Lye, László Moholy-Nagy, Thomas Wilfred, and Group Zero—artists now considered among the forerunners of new media art.

When video emerged, Wise commissioned works from artists for a new show: TV as a Creative Medium. The landmark exhibition opened at his New York gallery on May 17, 1969. A seminal moment in video art history, the exhibition announced video as an art form and was a catalyst for the emergence of a community around the new medium. The show had a substantial influence on artists and on Wise. At the end of 1970 he closed his gallery to found EAI, whose mission was to support video as “a means of personal and creative expression and communication.” In an early manifesto for EAI he states, “In order to integrate art with contemporary life, it is necessary for the artist to gain access to the system,” referring to access to the means of making television and video art.

In a letter to patrons notifying them of the closure of his gallery, he wrote of his goal of contributing to video projects with a social impact, “particularly to those which are susceptible to diffusion over television.” He continues, “I cannot stand idly by when the existence of our society and ourselves as individuals is so darkly threatened.” Wise felt deeply that artists working in broadcast had the potential to reach people in meaningful ways—to educate and have significant social and political impact.

Broadcasting’s selection from EAI’s rich catalogue provides an essential primer in how artists have harnessed the power of broadcast for political and social influence as Wise envisioned—from early media artist Shigeko Kubota’s personal video diaries to the political impact of the Trans-Voices interventions and the guerrilla television works shown in the offshoot of the exhibit at Slought. The show traces a history from the Sony Portapak to YouTube and beyond; it provides artists and audiences with tools and tactics to reclaim mass media for creative, social, and political use. It also begs the question: what power and potentials do our new broadcast technologies hold?

Broadcasting: EAI at ICA, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

As the exhibition demonstrates in its broadcasts of events connected to the show, even in just the last several years the concept has radically opened up to now also include live, instantaneous social media broadcasts—free and easily accessible broadcasting for millions. In this sense, our era’s latest mass media has surpassed the wildest dreams of what artists working with broadcast media in the 60s hoped for; access to the means of production, distribution, and exhibition have never been so readily available as they are on the internet.The instantaneous broadcast of social media feeds in some ways fulfills the ideals of what visionaries like Wise and video artists were hoping for in the 60s: that everyone would be a producer and broadcast their message. As the editorial statement of Radical Software, the first publication dedicated to video as an artistic and political tool, boldly declared, “Television is not merely a better way to transmit the old culture, but an element in the foundation of a new one.”

Our new broadcast technologies have incredible power, and some of these citizen broadcasts have become monumental media events with the potential for real impact. But the idealistic vision of a citizen broadcaster proves to be more complex. The powerful and disturbing examples of citizen broadcasting in police brutalities—from the footage of Eric Garner being put in a chokehold to the Facebook Live footage of the shooting of Philando Castile, and many others—prove that access to tools by which to record and share events does not unequivocally mean change and justice. Broadcasting can play a powerful role in prompting action and building the foundation of a new culture, but its power does not meet all of the idealistic pronouncements of the 60s and 70s.

However, the question of truly open access is key here. As the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 secured access to public television in service of the common good, and one that gave artists and citizens access to a portion of the airwaves, the question of net neutrality now demands that our Congress act to secure a truly free and open internet, “in service of the public good.” The potentials of these new forms of internet-based broadcasting can only begin to be achieved with a truly free, open, and equal internet.

Ava Tews is an artist and curator based in New York. Tews is Director of Communications & Special Projects at Anthology Film Archives, where she is also a contributing programmer. She is the Board President of the cinema arts nonprofit Mono No Aware.