The Video Data Bank, a nonprofit Chicago-based distributor of video art, will try to break through the broadcast-TV status quo this weekend. Friday and Saturday nights “A Crack in the Tube”–a free outdoor video projection event–will turn Grant Park’s Petrillo band shell into a walk-in “drive-in movie.”
However, the fare projected on the giant screen will depart from commercial TV’s “business as usual” pose. Kate Horsfield, executive director of the Video Data Bank, says, “Since democracy means representation of the people by the people, ‘A Crack in the Tube’ includes that which is all too often omitted from the television landscape–artists, people of color, gay and lesbian producers–and innovative work that challenges the conventions of the medium while speaking about personal experiences, controversial ideas, and the diverse heritage of our population.”
Over TV’s brief history, critics have dwelt on the dialectic of television and democracy. “Television is democracy at its ugliest,” protested Paddy Chayefsky, director of Network. “Television has no democratic potential” because it’s “inherently anti-democratic,” argues self-exiled advertising exec Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. He concludes, “I have finally faced the fact that television is not reformable, that it must be gotten rid of totally if our society is to return to something like sane and democratic functioning.” The book includes a transcript of a telephone conversation with a network producer who wanted Mander to appear on a national TV show to plug the book itself. Mander declined, claiming TV would trivialize his point, and the network guy hung up in disbelief.
Despairing of a cultural democracy, leftist analyst Michael Parenti charges that “the entertainment industry is the centralized domain of a rich oligarchy.” In Life After Television, conservative author George Gilder writes, “Television at its heart is a totalitarian medium. Because television signals originate at a single station and are sent top-down to the masses, tyrants everywhere push TV sets on their people. The top-down television system is an alien and corrosive force in democratic capitalism.”
The uneasy nexus of TV and democracy was dramatized during the Republican National Convention last week. Increasingly conventions and networks seem made for each other. Party leaders and news chiefs prattle and mew about their unseemly symbiosis, and the democratic process starts to look like a codependency syndrome. Considerable newspaper space was devoted to comparing network TV coverage of the event with C-SPAN’s uninterrupted treatment. The image mix was upset only when Houston’s cops charged into ACT UP marchers. Swinging billy clubs from their saddles, the officers routed a streetful of rowdy protesters, who had tossed a few empty Evian bottles and torched a flag and Bush placard. Neither the protesters’ point nor the police tactics emerged as issues–videotape of the event was simply absorbed into the Republican iconography.
Viewers/voters are mutating into hybrids who enjoy a pseudo-participation in politics. The voting-booth ballot seems less rewarding than the remote control, which promises more choices and greater convenience. Even the delegates down in Houston did little but watch their own convention on giant monitors. Their duties amounted to wearing funny hats to humor the home viewers. Roving minicam crews trolled the convention floor in a perpetual hunt for touching facial expressions and farcical button ensembles.
Spectators of politics are rarely given the choice of entertainment enriched by critical self-consciousness, however. “A Crack in the Tube” is a timely opportunity. Horsfield and the other four curators have packed the two nights of videos–34 on Friday, 32 on Saturday–with fast, smart, odd, and witty pieces, many of which were designed to subvert the flow of glow from the tube.
Several artists have reworked the public-service announcement to clever effect. Laurie Anderson deconstructs “The Star Spangled Banner” in one of hers, reading the anthem as “Just a lot of questions, written during a fire. Things like, hey–do you see anything over there? I don’t know, there’s a lot of smoke. Say, isn’t that a flag? Hmm, couldn’t say really. It’s pretty early in the morning. Hey, do you smell something burning?”
In a poetic tour de force directed by Gus Van Sant, William Burroughs, whose larynx sounds as if it’s been bathed in vinegar, intones his acrid “Thanksgiving Prayer,” dedicated to John Dillinger. Burroughs thanks America for “bounties on wolves and coyotes,” as well as for “decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, and bitter evil faces.” He signs off with, “You always were a headache and you always were a bore. Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.”
A sweeter note is sounded in “Strawberry Shortcut,” a surreal recipe for hostesses facing dessert emergencies, offered by drag artistes Sister Dimension, Billy Beyond, and the Lady Bunny. Jenny Holzer’s ten-second messages zip in between other clips, with offbeat exhortations to viewers to “dance on down to the government and tell them that you’re eager to rule because you know what’s good for you.”
“Despotism,” an Encyclopaedia Britannica film from the 1940s, is the most intriguing and ideologically ambiguous segment of “A Crack in the Tube.” One of the longest clips–it runs almost ten minutes–it’s hosted by former University of Chicago political scientist Harold Lasswell, who instructs us on how to rate the degree of despotism in our community using social-scientific scales of measurement. At one point in his lecture, illustrated with melodramatic vignettes, he draws a graphic parallel between pledging allegiance and fascist lynching. “When a competent observer looks for signs of despotism in a community, he looks beyond fine words and noble phrases,” attests the narrator.
If TV is inimical to democracy, as some critics suggest, can watching more of it–even this weekend’s line-up–actually correct our perception of the rest of it? By assembling an audience in front of an outdoor screen, the Video Data Bank’s drive-ins take a step toward reforming the mass aspect of this medium, which we normally partake of privately. Watching TV, a secular sacrament, is becoming a global rite. As psychologists Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observe in Television and the Quality of Life: How Viewing Shapes Everyday Experience, “The people of the world spend upwards of 3.5 billion hours watching television every day. . . . Today, the thing hundreds of millions of humans most have in common with another, aside from their humanity, is television.”
“I saw the future at the 1992 Republican National Convention” reads a button handed out in Houston by Zenith and AT&T. They were plugging digital HDTV, not exposing the video spectacle of a nonconvention. But strangely enough, the nonstop flow of coverage on C-SPAN–which Vogue tagged “a kind of anti-television TV”–is as radical an alternative to the news industry as “A Crack in the Tube.” This cable channel’s excess and dullness are spectacular. As C-SPAN head Brian Lamb told TV Guide, “We put on some of the dullest stuff you’ll ever see–on purpose.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Video Data Bank is putting on some video fireworks to spark a keener concern with democracy.
You can go to the video drive-in at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park, Columbus Drive at Monroe Street, Friday and Saturday, August 28 and 29, at 9 PM. Admission is free. For more info, call 899-5172.