CHICAGO — Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that television is cool and radio is hot. This isn’t a temperature thing, but rather a classification of media based on the participation it involves from viewers — TV watchers can be more detached, whereas radio listeners are completely engaged. In the installations of artists Nam June Paik and Gretchen Bender, though, TV becomes the central, interactive medium. As the temperatures this week hovered in the negatives, I channeled heat by sipping tea and watching TV as video art from my global perch on the internet.
Nam June Paik’s “Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii” (1995) considers the intersection of the American highway system, which used to be powered by automobiles produced in the once-thriving city of Detroit, with the electronic media highway, powered by TV culture. In a towering media installation that measures 15 feet tall by 40 feet wide, Paik creates a map of the United States out of neon lights. TVs of varying sizes are slotted into each of the 50 states, and they loop media images: clips from The Wizard of Oz flash over the state of Kansas; Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches play in Alabama; South Carolina is just a bunch of cigarette advertisements. “There’s no place like home,” the images seem to say, as they flash inside an America that projects its identity through and onto screens. Much like McLuhan, Paik also predicted the internet.
Gretchen Bender’s “Total Recall” (1987) is a menacing, 24-monitor video installation experience. Revived by a 2011 survey of the artist’s work at the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, in 2013 it traveled to The Kitchen in New York City, where it had been originally shown the same year it was produced. The piece takes its name from the Arnold Schwarzenegger dystopian sci-fi film of the same name (which came out in 1990 but was in production when Bender made her work). An ominous tune that would normally signal a turning point in a thriller plays as the monitors flash different fragments of films, news clips, and graphics all at once; the atmosphere is manic. Three projections show crowds of people making their way down the sidewalks of New York City, suggesting that everyone, eventually, will become a part of the media landscape. If Paik and McLuhan predicted the internet, Bender predicted the immersive, corporate-controlled media environment that we live in.
In a 1984 text by Bender, which was displayed on the wall in all caps at the Kitchen last year, she considers this environment in a broader sense:
We live in the Memorex life in preparation for accepting expanded mental, emotional and physical visual concepts. The short-circuiting of reality by the media no longer applies. We manipulate the manipulations of ‘reality’; skillfully depicting a society already living outside its own reality. This double-distancing allows a criticality that frees us to exchange one present tense for another.
Bender sees, in the future, a complete media culture in which the internet plays but a supporting role.
Working in the space between art and advertising, Paik and Bender effectively complete McLuhan’s notion of the maker in a visual culture. “Any artist, any musician, sets up to create an effect. He creates a trap for your attention,” said McLuhan in a 1977 interview on Australian TV. In their immersive installations, Paik and Bender transform the cool medium of television into a cacophony of hotness that’s made for today’s global internet.