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More Utopia than Ever Before: Media Art and the Public Image from Nam June Paik's "Participation TV" to the Big Brother Shows

Richard Hamilton: Just what was it that made Yesterday's Homes...,
1991, Deutsche Bank Collection

When art discovered television in the nineteen-sixties, the mass medium's cultural revolution was yet to come. Artists the likes of Nam June Paik or Valie Export created television performances that blurred the boundaries of the private sphere; although they were the pioneers of video art in the years between the onslaught of "global village" thinking and Reality TV, their influence has nearly been forgotten. Did their concepts provide the models for today's talkshow exhibitionism? Anja Osswald on media art as self-reflection, political platform, and technological spectacle.

At the beginning of video art was the death of television. In the framework of the 1963 Yam Fluxus Festival in New Brunswick, New Jersey. initiated by Robert Watts and George Brecht, Wolf Vostell buried a running television set into the ground. His TV Burial, decorated with barbed wire, turkey schnitzel, and music stands, was an ironic and polemic attack against the power apparatus of television; it was a symbolic act in fine Fluxus manner.

Günther Uecker: TV, 1963
©Günther Uecker
Wolf Kahlen: TV-Mirror, 1963/1969
©Wolf Kahlen

Other works from those years also addressed the transformation of the image-generating machine into a mute and patient object: Joseph Beuys' Felt TV turned the information carrier into a typical Beuysian energy carrier; Günther Uecker's TV presented a television set and table half covered in nails; Wolf Kahlen's TV Mirror replaced the television image with the viewer's own reflection.

These attacks, both polemic and poetic in nature, heralded the approach of what is today known by the term "media art." Whether it's a matter of single-track video or room-sized multiple monitor installations, interactive net art or computer-generated images: media art has long since become emancipated from its exotic existence on the outskirts of art history, installing itself as a real force in the international art establishment. There's hardly an exhibition of contemporary art that can get along without a monitor these days, hardly an art academy whose curriculum can do without the image-enhancing factor the "new media" guarantee. At the very latest, the fact that media art has become socially acceptable was proven in 1997, at the opening of the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe; as well as running its own museum, the center conducts interdisciplinary research in its various technological laboratories in the field of digital (image) media.

Over the years, throughout the course of the development of media art, or rather the media arts, the professional title "video artist" has acquired a certain patina. From today's perspective, it seems out of date, even anachronistic. That wasn't always the case, however; on the contrary, when the first video art generation emerged in the late nineteen-sixties, the label "video" signalized change and revolt, not only in an aesthetic sense, but also, and particularly, in a social sense.

Wolf Vostell: Untitled, from "Weekend", 1972,
Deutsche Bank Collection

In view of the rapid spread of the communication and media industries into nearly all areas of life, artistic interest became concentrated on a "different" application of the available technologies. Supported by the media-critical theories of various advocates such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Umberto Eco, and of course the visionary Marshall McLuhan, criticism became directed at television's one-way broadcaster/receiver structure, which relegated the recipient to the role of passive consumer.

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