Friday, November 04, 2005

Breaking the News


On Friday November 11th at The Wormhole Saloon at Whitechapel Art Gallery, I will be performing with Tom Wallace (aka DJ Wrongspeed) what is loosely billed as a live version of The War on Television.

A few days later the original video version will screen in the 10th Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin festival in Paris, sometime between 15th - 27th November.

The video was made almost entirely from manipulated sequences of Freeview digital television broadcasts, mostly 24 hour news channels. I had discovered the distortion that happens to digital TV images with variations in the signal strength: the image stutters, freezes, breaks up, reconstitutes itself with fragments of frozen subsequent frames, populates the screen with crawling coloured pixels. Inevitably as they both use MPEG2 video, it’s a little like the distortion one sees on damaged, dirty or degraded DVDs, but somehow more so, and it’s possible to manipulate in real time. When I had collected several such sequences I reworked them through a number of iterations using the ‘scrubbing’ technique I had first used in Sevenths Synthesis (and have used to greater or lesser degrees on a number of subsequent digital video works), literally scrubbing the playback head along the timeline in Final Cut Pro, backwards and forwards fragmenting and confusing temporal continuity and velocity. This combination of appropriated TV images and scrubbing seemed to me to be something like an update on the Scratch Video project of the 1980s, videos made by the likes of George Barber and the Duvet Brothers. However the damage done and the abrasive dynamics are a lot more severe, due to the sheer abstracted glitchiness of digital video gone wrong, than 80s analogue video editing could have achieved.

Here also is a perverse reflection on the nature of contemporary television, whose vast increase in channel numbers has lead to the situation where, on Freeview alone, three dedicated news channels broadcast 24 hours a day. The impression given is that just as news is presumably always happening in greater or lesser concentration, the media can respond to events quickly, rapidly disseminating, acquiring a hitherto impossible immediacy. As reporters with satellite phones on the front line in Fallujah, send pixellated compressed images back to the station to be broadcast immediately, live, or what passes for it.

The War on Television, set against the background of the Iraq war, is something of a delinquent exercise to demonstrate the mutability of the always-on digital reliability and presumption of authority. It takes the news and breaks it. It takes the attempts to make sense of the world and makes them incoherent. It uses the material deficiencies of digital technology to produce digital entropy. It creates jarring abstraction from illusion.

I had been working on the idea of a ‘live’ version of The War on Television, or something that used similar processes. Tom Wallace had achieved some notoriety as DJ Wrongspeed by remixing London pirate radio into a kind of part deconstruction, part homage to the parallel mash up musical universe broadcast across London and managed to get his Pirate Flavas banned from Resonance FM. He seemed like the ideal person to fuck with the sound while I fucked with the picture. So this is what we will do at the Whitechapel as I distort and mix the digital TV news broadcasts from two Freeview boxes, Tom will sample and manipulate the sound. The risky part is that we don’t quite know what will be on TV at that time, and perhaps more crucially, how good, or bad, the reception is in the Whitechapel.

In July this year the video screened at the Hull International Short Film Festival. The festival had done a deal with the BBC which allowed them to present some programmes on the Big Screen, a large TV screen in the centre of Hull that the BBC has thoughtfully erected for the good citizens of Hull who it presumably thinks can’t bear to be out of range of a television broadcast for too long. The screen presents its usual fare within a frame of weather forecasts and ticker tape style news headlines running across the bottom and side of the screen, for not only do the Hullites need to be broadcast to as much as possible they have to maintain a high level intake of multimedia information, they have to be kept informed of as much as possible as often as possible. The festival programmes were no exception to this rule, and I can imagined that some of the more delicate films might have suffered badly, and most filmmakers justifiably irked by this. The War on Television however, already being a parasitic mutant, thrived in its new environment. The fragments of headline text in the video and the broken news images echoed in the big TV headlines and weather forecast text, and it looked as though there was something seriously wrong with the Big Screen. Which of course there is.

Update: Stormbug posts a nice contextualization.

2 Comments:

Blogger ps said...

Perhaps that should be the ongoing war on television…

SB says…
“The War on Television, set against the background of the Iraq war, is something of a delinquent exercise to demonstrate the mutability of the always-on digital reliability and presumption of authority. It takes the news and breaks it. It takes the attempts to make sense of the world and makes them incoherent. It uses the material deficiencies of digital technology to produce digital entropy. It creates jarring abstraction from illusion.”

David Hall on This is a Television Receiver (1976), interviewed by Chris Meigh Andrews in 2000
“….For example my mother- forget the art elite- was absolutely distraught when she saw that piece, because she believed in Richard Baker. He was, and had been, the principal news reader. The one person for whom you could suspend all disbelief was the person reading the news. Someone well-loved and seen for so long. Then when his image began to disintegrate and he started to be critical in a sense, of television indirectly, through what he was saying, that whole deconstruction, floored her whole belief. She wasn't involved in the intellectual argument behind it, but it was very disturbing to her that her belief in what was coming out of that box had been fragmented and destroyed. So what one was actually saying, of course, was that none of these technological devices can be given the credibility of actuality. Of course we are then into a philosophical argument about where is reality, and so on. But those kind of arguments seem to become even further removed when you get involved in those kinds of technological communication systems that we have because its moved on further from this problematic that we have anyway with existence- the 'here and now”

Saturday, November 05, 2005 8:20:00 am  
Blogger Steven Ball said...

Nice quote! What I didn't mention is that TWOTV does include a small homage to DH, and the image at the top does echo Television Receiver across the years. But I do think the context has changed considerably since 1976. In many ways nothing could ever have the same impact as TIATVR, the contemporary mediascape is wider, no individual has quite the same authority as Baker might have, and the viewing audience is used to TV 'deconstructing' itself, used to fast editing and decontextualization. This is why I describe TWOTV as 'delinquent' as really it is more a kind of vandalism, which is why it is perhaps closer to Scratch than DH as it playfully revels in fucking things up, if it were a teenager it would be get an ASBO, it is a minor irritant not a major threat!

Saturday, November 05, 2005 10:05:00 am  

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