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Lost Signals

Wily exhibition pays respects to a possibly vanishing aspects of a mass medium


By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 3/4/2009

Of all the technology debates, digital or analog has been the most enduring. Some directors still swear by celluloid, vinyl is making a comeback among consumers, and purists still take photographs with film. But as of Feb. 17, television was the first media to give up the analog fight. Since a few weeks ago, Fox and CW in Baltimore are digital only, and by June 12, televisions nationwide will only receive digital signals over the air. The Metro Gallery exhibit Dead Air, curated by the Creative Alliance at the Patterson film and video booking director Kristen Anchor, collects five single-channel video pieces that all address, in a way, the imminent demise of analog broadcast television.

The work that best captures the sense of the show is Anchor's piece, "The Ends," which stitches together a dozen or so ends of Hollywood movies and then dubs and re-dubs them until they fade away. The 30-minute piece, the same length as the typical television program, begins as nostalgia, celebrating the golden age of movies on television, and ends as amnesia, with nothing left of the past except fuzz or, when the signal dies, a blank screen.

Dead Air, which cleverly combines contemporary and older works, struggles to define what the end of analog precisely means for art or society. In a piece produced for the show, an old television set is shoved off the top of a building and captured in freefall before it hits the windshield of a parked car. The piece is screened on the monitors of a sculptural work that includes several television sets covered with loose videotape, suggesting that these are the sets that survived the trash heaps.

By using television sets instead of the usual art gallery flat-screen monitors, the show implicitly suggests that the problem isn't so much dead air as dead television sets. Despite the last minute extension of analog broadcast, some stations have already shut off their analog signals, leading a man in Missouri to shoot his television set after he couldn't get his digital converter box to work. The end of analog is, in a way, the end of television as a mass medium, the culmination of a process that began with satellite and cable stations in the 1970s and accelerated with the mass adoption of time-shifting television viewing.

Phil Davis's "BE-278," is not about television, exactly, but it captures the surprising difficulty of making work that pays homage to something that it also wants to destroy. The piece alternates between showing the destruction of what appears to be a VHS video camera, the kind used to record entries for America's Funniest Home Videos, and footage that is, presumably, being recorded by the video camera that is being destroyed. The footage from both cameras is being recorded during a chase, as if the images recorded are themselves dangerous.

The furtive aesthetic of Davis' video is matched, in an odd way, by Scott Huffines and erstwhile City Paper contributor Tom Warner, whose public access show Atomic TV gets a retrospective here. Although the public access series ended in 2005, with the bulk of the episodes having been produced in the late 1990s, its inclusion acknowledges that with the loss of broadcast television, other things, such as public access, may go as well. Huffines and Warner acknowledge that many changes in the new millennium, from digital videotape to YouTube to the sour economy, led to the discontinuation of their project. To see it here is to remember what's possible when you can assume that a viewer will watch something for more than a minute and, more importantly, lives in your hometown.

The most successful piece in the show is also the oldest, Vin Grabill's "Homage to the End of Analog TV: 8 Short Processes," which shows video works from the early 1980s on a small television that is half sunk into a plain white table. The eight pieces use the technical capacities of early video machines to make playful works that instantly recall how fresh portable analog video felt in its early years.

Like the show itself, the piece celebrates the possibilities offered by analog video and, by extension, television, while simultaneously burying it. Before the Feb. 17 date was pushed back, Anchor said the show had planned to do a countdown, waiting for the analog signal to go away for good. Plans changed with the June extension, but as this exhibit shows, the analog age is already far behind us.

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