LONDON – On April 4, London ditched the old-school analogue TV signal for its digital successor. The timing of “Remote Control” couldn’t have been better. Conceived by Matt Williams of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, this curatorial musing on artists’ complex relationship with television deftly avoids the pitfalls of a large-scale film and video exhibition. True, there’s a lot of stuff on screens. You could easily spend a day watching Gerry Schum’s iconic “TV Gallery,” TVTV’s mordant documentary “Adland” (1974), Joan Braderman’s hilarious comment on the gender politics of “Dynasty” (“Joan Does Dynasty,” 1986), and pieces by the likes of David Hall, Richard Serra, and Marcel Odenbach presented in the lower gallery. And if you can, you should. But “Remote Control” manages the rare feat of gratifying on a purely formal and sculptural level, presenting television as more than a picture stream, artistic or not.
The films in the lower gallery are part of an installation by Berlin-based artist Simon Denny. Each is shown on custom-made cathode ray tube monitor that had to be ordered from China, as they are no longer available for domestic use in the U.K. Modestly sized, their frame a glossy claret color, the monitors have the look of adolescent-bedroom TV sets, establishing a comfortable intimacy between videos and viewers. Facing those screens, a huge machine, once used to transmit Channel 4 to part of East Anglia, stands like a monument to an already bygone analogue era. This daunting statement on technology's rapid obsolescence gives television – too often considered as a disembodied medium – an imposing physical presence. Ira Schneider’s oversized wall drawing of the “Center for Decentralized Television” (1971), picturing the office/viewing room/living and meeting place of self-proclaimed “media think-thank” Raindance Corporation, is an inspired prefiguration of the rhizome-like development of media, the moving image in particular, in the decades to come.
The formal and the political continue to cohabit in the upper galleries. The three vertical screens of Hito Steyerl’s “Red Alert” (2007) play on loop a deep, glowing red redolent of both Constructivism’s monochromes and the unnerving hue picked by the United States Homeland Security Office to signify the highest alert level. Harun Farocki & Andrei Ujică's documentary on the Romanian revolution, stitched together from amateur footage, is a fascinating reminder of how cheap video cameras launched a first assault on the dominance of official media outlets — an assault that turned into a global landslide with the rise of digital technology.
The show’s precise splicing of different techniques, concerns, and generations of artists is a stimulating and timely addition to the discourse around television. The small screen isn’t — as it too often is — presented as a wicked and increasingly obsolete instrument of mass decerebration, nor simply as an exciting artistic strategy, but as the technology that radically transformed the way we conceive and deal with images.
“Remote Control,” April 2-June 10, Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH