9 November 2012

Tabitha Jackson, Commissioning Editor for the Arts at Channel 4, kicked off the day with an inspiring introduction to the Random Acts programme and her vision for the arts on television. Tabitha's approach is full of vigour for the possibilities offered to artists by the medium of television and it was uplifting to hear her outlook on arts programming. Tabitha spoke of her desire for television to express what it is 'to be alive today' and to depart from the lull that arts content has fallen into, tending to repeatedly revert to staid documentary coverage, as if television and art are mutually exclusive. She reminded us that art programming can actually be art.

Tabitha provided a refreshing outlook onto the medium of television, proving that far from being antiquated, it is still very much the dominant vehicle of our shared culture. After all, the reach and flow of artists on television is unique to this form of broadcast.

The relationship of viewer control and level of interactivity in new media is a factor that is continually and rapidly evolving, and rather than leaving television behind in the past, this evolution offers us bold and new ways of conceiving of the power that television can offer the contemporary artist. We discussed artists who oppose cultural conventions to subvert the 'mass media' form, and who use those conventions to achieve genuine intervention in a manner that the 'user-controlled' online world cannot achieve. Tabitha provided the outlook that rather than make television obsolete; the development of online media gives us the chance to see what television can do that other platforms (i.e. internet, smart phones) cannot. 

Taking a look at the history of artist intervention into television, the legendary Chip Lord of Ant Farm spoke about the relationship of the cutting edge art world with television and the media in the 1960s and 70s in the USA, talking us through Ant Farm's Media Burn, a performance event in which a souped-up dream car drives head on into a wall of televisions. This exemplified the kind of guerrilla TV that was part of a general anti-television culture that existed in San Francisco, making its way onto television screens via stealth and media curiosity. The delightfully inane reception of the television presenters to the work they were tricked into broadcasting, Chip showed us, displayed an innocence that was particular to television in the 1960s and 70s, providing the perfect venue for the subversive work of Ant Farm.

Internationally renowned artist Judith Barry also joined us for the day, presenting a fascinating mini-history of the attitude of the television industry toward artists' work. She raised poignant questions about the value of artists and filmmakers in the industry and the politics of a culture wherein artists are compelled to work for free for exposure. Speaking of the differences between the gallery-based art world and that of television, Judith identified a widening schism between these cultures, far from the days of the experimental, artist-led and organic culture of MTV in the early 1980s. Running through some of the inspired moving image work that came out of MTV at that time, Judith also provided a great reminder of television's artistic potential by using a series of historic case studies, which included her own broadcast experiments.

A stimulating discussion on the future of television saw John Hill and James Early of Lucky PDF presenting a very different view of broadcast. Lucky PDF is an artist group who produce online TV shows, immersive film shoots and media intervention; John and James work in a form borrowed from the conventions of television, yet eschews it as a broadcast platform.

John Hill commented of television's possible obsolescence, while as a set of conventions it offers us a series of choices: which do we select to use, which do we abandon and do differently? This provocative statement indicated a need and a desire to see the 'new' in television. In the 1950s this was the technology of broadcast itself, but today it has evolved into a genre, offering all the excitement and possibility of a set of conventions begging revolution. Conversely, James Early voiced the opinion that random, subversive programming on television is a problematic endeavour, given the ways in which people watch television have changed so vastly.

It is true; of course, that the way people watch television is vastly different and more varied than it once was. The popularity of view-on-demand modes of consumption is swiftly corroborated by the adaptation of commercial advertising to these channels (think YouTube ads). From a cynical perspective, this is a way in which television and online media are becoming one in the same. The question is posed as to how much control we really have in the purported 'user-controlled' medium of online broadcast? As it has become such a mainstream platform, has this concept deteriorated, or was it always an illusion?

Mike Stubbs, Director of FACT, commented that he watches television as a form of recreation, to relax, suggesting that it is the surrender of directed interactivity and control that is the boon of television for the viewer. This places the autonomy of viewership into a different light, suggesting that the less invasive and less demanding mode of television holds an appeal that online platforms cannot. Television may thus have the potential provide a more effective platform for artists to reach an audience who are more open to a range of content, rather than armed with the defensive distraction blinkers of the hardened online user of today.

Ending on a high note, 'Famous New Media Artist' Jeremy Bailey' contributed in a tele-present augmented reality performance, aptly titled The Future of Television. In this performance Bailey showed us the ultimate accessory in broadcast and haute couture: television channels on your face! The logical extension of user-controlled broadcasting: who needs facial features when you can express yourself with your favourite channels plastered over your face? This entertaining take on self-broadcast put a fitting cap on a day that asked the broad questions about the place of television in artists' work today.

You can watch highlights of this fascinating event on Art Player.

This event was held in collaboration with Channel 4, Liverpool Biennial, Arts Council England and Art Player.

The full list of speakers, panellists and performers included: Jeremy Bailey, Judith Barry, Richard Billingham, Jacqui Davies, Lucy Dusgate, James Early, Liam Fogarty, Ronald Fraser-Munroe, John Hill, Tabitha Jackson, Omar Kholeif, Chip Lord, Zineb Sedira and Mike Stubbs.

FACT have co-commissioned 25 new short films for Channel 4's Random Acts series. Find out more here.