Dominance as media critique
By Tore Slaatta
In the meeting between art and commercial mass media, particularly television, one may observe an array of contradictory relations. On the one hand the individual artist’s oeuvre oriented production, and on the other the serial and collectively mass produced television programme.
For Charlotte Thiis-Evensen, who has produced the portrait series Dominance for Safari this fall, one of the goals has been to explore the power balance between the artist and the journalist. Seven artists were given the challenge of making artwork that directly comments on the cultural journalist. The project was, amongst other to follow the web site “open room for discussion and meaning pertaining to the power balance between the artist and the cultural journalist.” The directors of Safari encouraged the journalists to be subjective and visible in these reportages. This found a special expression in Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s work, as she gave as condition that the artists should use her, the journalist, as subject in their art. This journalistic effect was intended to invert the habitual journalist-subject power balance. On the website we read that “the meeting between the journalist and the artist interviewed, it is normally the television reporter that has the power. By giving the artist direction over me as a journalist, I invert this power balance.” The project was completed with eight reportages, one exhibition and a debate at Fotogalleriet (“The photo gallery”) in Oslo.
In view of today’s prevailing ideals regarding art- and culture journalism within NRK (Norwegian broadcasting corporation), Safari is a successful concept, developed within the framework of the public service broadcasting and its exposure to competition. But the circumstance of public service has undergone major changes the last few years, bringing forth fundamental changes in culture journalism and art critique in Norway. Nevertheless, it is still expected that NRK in its journalism covers both marginal and broader cultural topics. The cultural programmes in NRK have in this context shown a great will and ability to experiment with formats and actively explore various formats in order to maintain cultural journalistic activity in NRK. From Pan’s development of the feature reportage in the 1970s, via Kulturoperatørene, Gydas vei, Frifant and Kunst NÅ we see the lines of a continuous development of NRK’s culture coverage in general and the magazine format specifically, towards today’s Safari. During this period of development the technological conditions for television production have largely changed. As soon as feasible, the camera team – costly and demanding in terms personnel – was exchanged with LET-units (light equipped teams) and DV-journalists (digital video). A new television esthetihque emerged, changed by the new technology’s smaller demands with regard to competence and the handling of equipment, coupled with an enhanced editing rhythm, radical cross editing and a handheld camera in motion. Through graphical post-production new combinations of vignette design and studio décor provided a more profiled visual identity, supporting the introduction of a more subjective and outwardly aggressive reporter and presenter style. The increasing esthetizising and use of strategic visual design has gone hand in hand with the transfer of power from the journalist and camera to the producer and designer. Safari is nevertheless a continuation of the Kunst NÅ concept, consisting of individual reportages, with no recording studio or programme presenter. The individual journalist is portrayed to a greater extent and the subjective element is regarded as strategically advantageous in relation to the visibility of the journalist and the realization of his or her symbolic value as a TV-personality. To the extent that Safari has succeeded in problematizing and exposing this issue with its series Dominance, the reportages have had a media critical and self-examining potential.
Art as cultural journalism
In connection with the project Dominance we may discuss if the reporters and the directors have not also functioned as patrons of the arts, as curators, directors, as model and artist. Charlotte Thiis-Evensen herself used the verbal parts of the portraits to accentuate herself as a “journalist” and an “artist”. This direction of univocal roles facilitated that the artistic contributions might be simultaneously interpreted as both Art and Critique. The dramatic direction of the reportages was after a while more predictable than the journalist might have expected. Instead of an open exploration of the relation between artist and journalist, the reportages emerged as instances of tabloid punishment and revenge on part of the artists. In the suffering and humiliation Thiis-Evensen was submitted to, she involuntarily transpired as a replacement victim, a journalist suffering on behalf of the entire Cultural Journalism. The project might in this context be read as an apology for NRK’s cultural coverage, or for the programmes and journalists difficult working conditions.
The fact that we at the completion of the project are faced with an exhibition at Fotogalleriet, confirms and legitimizes the reportages as Art. It is, however, still uncertain when the art was, or is, who was or is the artist, and of what the works actually consist. We can toy with various contexts and interpretations. Given the theme of the project, the spectator can easily read various forms of media critique into the individual piece’s manner of thematizing television and cultural journalism.
The most alluring ingratiating and spectacular piece is without doubt Eline Mugaas’s semi pornographic photography, which in Dagbladet’s revealing reproduction brings to mind classical Cocktail-like soft porn, where it is precisely the mundane context (the vacuum cleaner salesman rings at the door) that creates the framework for the erotic fantasy. The cliché of the male artist’s studio plays a role in this reading, and one is easily reminded of the many male painters obvious use of female models as a form of sublimation and aestheticizing of male desire. But Mugaas’s reference to the male gaze is intentionally insecure, and leads one to doubt the pictures erotic pretensions. It is rather the actual undressing that is documented. The journalist is stripped of her authority as a reporter and equipped with the nude model’s pornographic aura. This photo thus introduces itself as a more truthful image of Cultural Journalism. To a certain extent the image lends itself to associations to reality-TV and the tabloid press’s sensation filled reality-effects by the marketable enticement of the viewer’s Peeping-Tom tendencies, here cleverly paraphrased by the art world.
In Signe Marie Andersen’s photo the Journalist is dressed up in a dog costume and photographed within a limited field of light on an otherwise dark scene, where she sits on all four. The Journalist/Dog sits in a barking posture (low front legs, elevated back), with eyes and body directed against a fish nearby. The analogy to the media’s barking journalism is immediately understandable, and the image thematizes the gulf between the professional journalist’s evident understanding of the immeasurable value of news, and their “actual” importance. As stated in Norway’s biggest newspaper, they reserves their right to call a spade an excavator, or as in this case, a fish as shark. Norwegian media has a longstanding tradition of making it difficult for the public to differentiate between the imperatively important and the obviously unessential.
Talleiv Taro Manum’s staging of the Journalist as a hotdog vendor in his piece reflects the artist’s long interest in the spontaneous and the mundane. There is a tension between the periphery and centre in this work, as the Journalist is the situation’s centrepiece, staged in a rural periphery. The Journalist’s task is serving the customers from an old-fashioned hotdog stand. Both the rural setting and the stand, which is part of the piece, might be seen as a commentary to NRK’s traditional position as public service broadcaster. The old-fashioned and obsolete stand is reminiscent of the hotdog stands placed along the road to the Holmenkollen ski jump, and the many local sports fields and other meeting points around the country that had a central social and local function. Instead of the kiosk’s sausages and the broadcasting monopoly of NRK, completely different goods are today on offer, and Taro Manum’s staging in this piece opens up for a romantic and nostalgic media critique of NRK and Culture journalism. In the rural setting one also senses another form of media critique, related to simple living: Life in the countryside, as supposed to television’s alluring focus on urbanity, the trendy and beautiful. This represents a counter-discourse, which has, as a matter of fact, also been apparent in the media in question.
Vanessa Baird and Mette K. Hellenes's video work makes use of animation technique. Television’s field of reference is situated in the intersection between children’s films and cartoons, and points at both classical productions from NRK’s children and youth division (such as Mr Nelson and Pernille), and to newer cartoons such as The Simpsons or South Park, with their course drawings and static figures. When using this classical puppet technique, an additional three-dimensional effect appears, and the way the puppet is handled is reminiscent of marionette theatre in the Buffa-tradition. The laughter, the constant voice-over for the Journalist-puppet, enhances the visual impact of the red and swollen organ dominating the doll’s face. For a viewer familiar with Charlotte Thiis-Evensen’s easily recognizable laughter, this opens for an interpretation that is a direct and personal commentary. A piece by Baird and Hellenes with a comparative edge against the media has formerly been exposed at Galleri Wang, when two wigs were exhibited as a “commentary” to two female art critics in the Oslo printed press. But viewed in the media-technological and institutionalized perspective the films are produced, the criticism may also be understood as a more general and univocal media critique. According to Baird and Hellenes is of little use to talk to Television, as everything (contemporary art) is hackneyed, simplified and transformed into entertainment (the hysterical laughter).
In the video work by Ina Eriksen a surprising illustration of the theme “power balance” is on display. Eriksen has chosen the new director of the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art to represent the side of art in a dance with the Journalist. As one might expect, the dance is rather static and motionless. Very little tango remains in the final images, and the images remind us that a power balance can also be a terror balance. The dance is laden with tension, and perhaps it shows us an involuntarily truthful image of the two dancer’s position in the art world. They are both institutionalized providers of culture, displaying works and attending to their respective organizations symbolical capital through exhibitions and journalism.
Børre Sæthre’s commentary has a minimalist expression – being more of a happening, a form of non-art. Driving through the streets of Berlin the artist and his assistant try to find a suitable place for an inflatable art installation. The assistant is Charlotte Thiis-Evensen, for the occasion dressed in an airhostess uniform. In spite of their efforts, the project is never completed, the installation never electrified, and we never get to see what is to be inflated, before the artist and his assistant are back in the studio, where the assistant falls asleep (is she instructed to do so, or is it real sleep, and who is behind the camera?). The artist acts as himself, and the content of the film is the artist’s life and busy workday. It is thereby an encounter between the artist’s back-stage and televisions front-stage. The faded glamour of the airhostess is well matched with the project as such, and brings forth some of the same nostalgia as Talleiv Taro Manum’s work. As the once so idealized airhostesses, the television presenters of the 60s and 70s were highly recognizable and popular celebrities. In the installation at Fotogalleriet, only the uniform remains… perhaps a nostalgic souvenir from the former glory of public service television?
In Jon Løvøen’s production of the Journalist the limits between his work and journalism are completely erased, because television is Løvøen’s professional medium. Løvøen makes use of his allotted seconds as guest presenter on NRK television to ask the Journalist to leave a staged dinner party. Leading up to this scene, the Journalist has conditioned the viewers by making them aware of a humiliating situation Løvøen himself has experienced in a personal encounter with cultural journalism. In this scene he gets the opportunity to act out his advertised revenge, and we see the Journalist, blushing, in a revealing, self-inflicted pose. Løvøen has indirectly humiliated the Journalist. The incomplete and untold in his work necessitates in turn the Journalist’s narration: The preceding portrait in the reportage must, in order to bear meaning, become a story about himself as the actual victim. In the voice-over we are told that the artist was invited to participate in a television programme, and subsequently sent home because he “didn’t fit in”. The entire portrait is dedicated to the artist’s elegy, and culminates in the viewers discovering that Løvøen’s commentary constitutes a form of mirror effect, where the Journalist’s blushing invites the to experience television’s cult of intimacy and compulsive enhancement of feeling. The Journalist’s red face induces an understanding in the spectators of television’s highest form of dignity: Authenticity. Both Løvøen and the Journalist are perceived as “real people” on television.
One of the strong points of this project is that the experiences gathered by Charlotte Thiis-Evensen, are made accessible and publicly visible. To a larger extent than before journalistic tools and strategies were made apparent and the method of production made both artists and spectators part of the work. More so than usual “Dominance” invites an exchange of opinions and critique, both concerning media and art. Generally speaking, focus on sales, number of viewers and the celebrity factor is seen as criterions for news value and success in cultural journalism. An increasingly quantitative assessment of quality (as e.g. eyes on a dice) prevails. In NRK and other media a daily battle is fought to ensure that proper choices, based on pure journalistic criterions, are made. It is a constant threat that the importance placed on specialized competence in the field from which one reports loses terrain, in danger of being viewed solely as expensive and inconvenient costs. The institutional responsibility placed on a public service broadcaster is manifest in the fact that the organisation does not comply with marked forces and technology demands, but rather represents a challenge to it. The question is, when the production of the Safari visual arts programme is curtailed, is it because they went too far in this respect – or is it because they didn’t go far enough?