Like TV: On Barbara Kruger's Twelve

Article excerpt

Technology, that rdentless magic show, has changed our lives while both enlarging and shrinking the cultural field. It is now obvious that segments of society are not discrete categories, but rather simultaneous processes that collide, seep, and withdraw with, into, and from one another.

-Barbara Kruger


Some years ago I was invited to contribute an article to an academic journal's special issue on video art, but the editor (of the journal, not the special issue) objected to the publication of my essay.' The problem, I was told, was that the piece was "sociological." This was in the 1980s, when this term was tainted by associations with empiricism. Although I protested the editor's rejection, I didn't object to this characterization of my article, which considered

how institutional, economic, and political factors-all staples of sociological research-shaped the contours of what was then called video art.2 This incident came to mind recently, when I started to think about writing an essay on Barbara Kruger's Twdve, because I seem to have upended my priorities. Here is a video installation that projects, literally, a cross section of contemporary interpersonal relations. As several reviewers have pointed out, the work enacts fraught communications ranging across the cultural landscape in a series of condensed exchanges among representative social types and groups-classmates and professional associates (including art critics), members of families, friends, and rivals.3 Someone with a sociological mindset might propose analogies with Georg Simmel's catalogues of patterns of small-group interactions or Erving Goffman's studies of individuals' social strategies.

Such an approach might assay the compatibility of sociology and art criticism, but my interest in Twelve lies elsewhere-not in what it has to say about the difficulties of social life in twenty-first-century America or the prevalence of petty insults and backbiting sarcasm in everyday conversation. It's not that these aspects of the piece are unremarkable. In fact, Kruger manages to hit these marks consistently and with an economy of words and images that we might expect from this artist, a feat that reminds us that the installation is the work of a virtuoso. Instead, what intrigues me about the work is how Kruger turns her twelve pithy teleplays into an experience of being inside a TV set and, after spending time inside, being left with a peculiar perspective, as if the place just exited is where televisual representations coincide with ordinary life. In writing about the work I am not so much concerned with what it tells us about the sorry state of interpersonal discourse as with how it reorients us to what we already know but might want to reconsider. In other words, I will concentrate on how the piece works, not what it means, on how its social critique can be found in its architecture, not in the sociological theses it may illustrate.


The materials that Kruger employs in her work have been so varied that her use of video projection in Twelve might be dismissed as beside the point. But I think not, because video, which she has employed only rarely, allows her to take advantage of the malleability of this medium while summoning associations with the ubiquity of television. Kruger's 1997 show at Deitch Projects in New York City, entitled Power/Pleasure/Desire/Disgust, might be seen retrospectively as an anticipation of the 2004 installation. The former exhibition consisted of verbal statements inscribed on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, with three video monitors displaying different talking heads at the end of the long, narrow, cavelike room. The overall setting prompted corporeal metaphors for the authors of two notable descriptions of the piece. Lynne Tillman likened the exhibition to "a body, with words and sentences pulsing on the walls and floor.The space was active, alive, almost breathing. …