Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Seeking Life in the Mediated World: an accidental TV and newspaper review.

O ne weekend, I watch Freeview TV and read a broadsheet...

Is TV today actually targetted at connoisseurs of formats, ads and idents? More radically, is it an exercise in contentless form; a way to keep tele-forms alive, in their shimmering, ersatz state, until the arrival of the saviour entities who will reinvest them with purpose?

Even in Britain, where TV "isn't as bad as in America", the conceptual integrity of any TV programme is more and more limited to fitting in with a given format. Viewers are faced with a palette of variations in which producers push and pull, mildly, at the limits of whatever format they've banked on to get some sort of project past gatekeeper executives. I presume.

To the average programme maker, I am a demographically awkward, unrewarding viewer: a fifty-something, financially non-viable middle-class male, living in The North. I'm not interested in buying, selling or altering my home; building a dream-home; elaborate meals; or anything that requires middle-class amounts of money. But because I have a smattering of middle-class education I'm not interested in the top-feeder approach to ideas, either. I'm a snob, with no spending power, and, to make matters worse, an artist.

To me, TV reflects a popular culture that has become even more exclusionary than it already was, even more fiercely limited to orthodoxies, especially around corporatised entertainment, and a self-serving media/celebrity culture: the stock in trade of all the formats in which TV and entertainment people talk among themselves. Released from the sofas, the same actors and personalities fan out in squads across TV-land, emoting for talent shows; scowling, weeping and wailing for overwrought soaps and crime tales, huffing and puffing through nostalgic costume dramas: many of these being formats with interchangeable narratives and roles.

I might be interested in not seeing the invisible reality programme 'I'm a Celebrity: Please Ignore Me from Now On' (copyright © me, 2015). For this, a very large number of celebrities are taken to a rudimentary camp in, say, the Gobi Desert, under false pretences. They're left there without any camera crews, satellite or Internet connections, never to be seen or heard from again (especially if they make it back home: this to be a clause in the contract that the celebs cannot be allowed to see, in order to ensure their participation). 

The Freeview experience is maddening. On the one hand, programme makers seem terrified that the viewer might not be able to follow a train of thought for more than two minutes. On the other, the viewer's interest is constantly frustrated by repetitious advertising and padding. Inside, I'm screaming: I can remember what happened in this oversimplified narrative, and what the consequences were, because, you know, the programme itself explained those very things not ten minutes ago.

The experience is made worse by the tendency of non-commercial programming to imitate the breathless flow of commercial channels. The noisiness of commercial broadcasting makes sense as a sensory fog intended to induce a dream-like state in which viewers might spend more money. In the non-commercial realm the viewer is constantly nudged and prodded for no other reason than the channel declaring its own presence, its qualities, etc., ever more explicitly, even though the viewer, by definition, has already elected to watch the channel.

Of course, it's possible to find thoughtful programmes about politics and economics, arts and sciences (albeit with a strong metropolitan bias), and even one or two films that don't involve Steven Seagal. That is, as long as the BBC manages to maintain its autonomy as a nest of lefty-liberals, or right-wing reactionaries, depending on your analysis of the BBC. [1] And as long as Channel 4 isn't totally consumed by brain-eating controversialitis.

As guest editor-curator of  BBC's Artsnight, Maxine Peake affects to arrive in Salford in a White Van, all bleached-out like a white knight, or the saviour who will reinvest the arts magazine format with new purpose. I enjoy the sections on women in television and on Shelagh Delaney. And I think I know what Peake means when, in another item, she says that the post-punk post-hip-hop duo Sleaford Mods have come to 'save us' (from conventionalised pop music). But I don't like the Mods that much, musically, and I don't know what Peake means by 'the working class'. [2]

The White Van is no doubt returned to Media City, Salford; and Peake to London.

I do appreciate Adam Curtis's film Bitter Lake (BBC iPlayer only). It's about Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism, and the playing out of Saudi and British interests throughout the Middle East, as far as Afghanistan. The film is much too complex to synopsise here, which is a reflection of the fact that it does not oversimplify its subject matter. There is some ambiguity about the "voice" behind the film, and the purpose of certain sequences in it, but I prefer coping with that to fighting the sense that I'm wasting my time, and being patronised for it. [3]

I also like The Great European Disaster Movie, by Annalisa Piras (apart from the acted bits featuring Angus Deayton as a future "archaeologist" of old Europe, on board a repeatedly re-routed airliner). I find a German woman talking about her forbears particularly moving. Whenever I see German people engaging critically with their past I despair of the idiocies of self-satisfied Britishness. The film features few exemplars of that quality, too. [4]

I find a programme about owls. I like to think that this and my enjoyment of it are exemplary of an altogether different kind of Britishness. [5]

After a struggle with TV, I need to reconnect with my roots in free-thinking, radical contemporary art.

It's International Women's Day, and the editors of the Observer newspaper have put contemporary art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist on the cover of their arts section, under the heading 'Is this Britain's Most Original Thinker?' [6]

Predictably, the bait question on the cover is not addressed in the article. Coincidentally, though, Obrist is shown in a position analogous to that of Deayton's character in the Piras film. We're told in detail of his long-standing obsession with travelling the world, engaging with artists (a back-story that will be familiar to anyone who knows a little bit about Obrist, or looks him up online). As far as the curator's thinking goes, it seems to be that of the classic aggregator; here gleaning ideas piecemeal from the artists he meets, formalising them, post hoc, into something which acquires quasi-philosophical, academic or historical merit.

Neither Obrist nor his interlocutor, Rachel Cooke, choose to discuss how much this perceived merit has to do with the dedication, energy and original thought of the curator, and how much to do with his acquired power in a relatively exclusive art world. Nor do they connect non-artworld issues with what art could or should be doing today. In terms of addressing the vitality of contemporary art, these are significant omissions, made more noticeable when Obrist's global reach is invoked as if it were a professional qualification. Lacking much interrogative drive, the article reinforces the familiar impression that important art and its curators are defined primarily by their ineffable metropolitan-ness: a quality of being, rather than a quality of thought.

...overall, the weekend is educative, informative, slightly entertaining, and a little depressing.

T'wit, t'woo.

[1] "One of the most bizarre myths about the corporation, recycled ceaselessly in the conservative press, is that the BBC has a left wing bias [but] the opposite is the case. From the coverage of wars to economics, it has a pro-government, elite and corporate anchor. The BBC is full of Conservatives and former New Labour apparatchiks with almost identical views about politics, business and the world. Executives have stuffed their pockets with public money. And far from programme outsourcing increasing independent creativity, it has simply turned some former employees into wealthy “entrepreneurs”, while enforcing a safety-first editorial regime."
Seamus Milne: 'Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the Nation 1974-1987 by Jean Seaton review'

[2] Artsnight., BBC Two:

[3] Adam Curtis: Bitter Lake (2015)

[4] The Great European Disaster Movie (2015, Dir. Annalisa Piras)

[5]  Natural Word: Super Powered Owls.

[6] Rachel Cooke, 'Hans Ulrich Obrist: "Everything I do is somehow connected to velocity"'

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