Toronto – Mercer Union
Mercer Union, Toronto, November 6–December 12, 2009
What ﬁrst strikes the viewer when entering curator Sarah Robayo Sheridan’s exhibition on artists’ interventions into print ads and television is the sheer volume of material on display. Spanning the brief but proliﬁc period between 1962 and 1993 (bookended by the rise of domestic TV sets on one end and the proliferation of the Internet on the other), “We Interrupt This Program” offers a chronological survey of the newspapers, magazines, postcards, posters and videos produced and disseminated by artists as interruptions in and subversions of these mass media formats. It is an ambitious overview that provocatively mixes artists’ critiques of the mediums, such as Chris Burden’s landmark TV Commercials (1973-77) or Valie Export’s study of a family entranced by their own television set (Facing a Family, 1971), with more everyday adoptions of these forms that have nonetheless achieved legendary status in recent art history, including Joseph Kosuth’s classiﬁed ads meditating on modes of relation (1969) and Lynda Benglis’ now notorious “pinup” spread published in a 1974 issue of Artforum.
While these overtly political gestures are important reminders of the critical potential these interventions once held, in many ways the simpler, more ephemeral works are the ones that stand out in the collection. Early TV pieces such as Jan Dibbets’ TV As Fireplace (1969) (a clever precursor to the popular “Yule Log” program that airs on public cable each holiday season), Keith Arnatt’s Self Burial (1969), a sequence of images of the artist disappearing into the earth (a wry extension of the rhetoric of the “dematerialization of the art object”), and Marinus Boezem’s self-reﬂexive effacement of his own ﬁgure in Breathing on the Television Screen (1971) continue to resonate as inventive adaptations of television’s unique structure as a visual medium.
One of the problems in exhibiting these materials as video works in the gallery, however, is the viewer’s inability to see how they functioned in their original context, sandwiched between “real” ads and popular television shows. While works like Stan Douglas’ Television Spots (1988), for instance, still function as compelling, Beckett–inspired mini-narratives in the gallery, it is hard to conjure up the shock they elicited when they were initially broadcast on Canadian channels as commercials (as Sheridan notes in her curatorial essay, viewers often called in to the station to enquire what product was being sold in Douglas’ “ads”). Whether this change of context is due to the recent ubiquity of self-broadcasting venues like YouTube, the legitimizing frame of the gallery or the ability of mass marketing to appropriate even the most radical strategies for its own needs must still be explicitly addressed. But “We Interrupt This Program” offers a compelling place from which to begin to ask some of these vital questions.
Image: Stan Douglas, Television Spots, video still, 1987-88. photo : courtesy Stan Douglas Studio