Magazine article Artforum International

TV, or Not TV: David Frankel on Alex Bag

Magazine article Artforum International

TV, or Not TV: David Frankel on Alex Bag

Article excerpt

What is the point of like making work for people that are so smart that
they don't even watch TV?
--Alex Bag, Fall'95

Alex Bag is the queen of pout: Forehead forward, brows raised, chin in, lips pursed, she can deliver a look you'd get out of the way of. In a brief sequence from her video Untitled (Project for the Andy Warhol Museum), 1996, she fights with a soon-to-be ex-boyfriend: "You are a selfish, arrogant pig Zach Tyler!" she cries. "Well, it takes one to know one," he answers, and here it comes--the pout--the assessing, leveling gaze--but instead of the devastating riposte we might expect (particularly if we already know Bag's scathing satires), we get its opposite: "Can't you see? We belong together! You have to give me another chance Zach!" And so the quarrel ratchets on, an exercise in humiliation, until Zach's final "We're history." Which elicits an abject appeal: "But history repeats itself!"

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You'd pity the poor girl but Bag's just striking poses, jumping from hauteur to humility within one character, no facade more than skin-deep. The whole work is set up as a play of types, a series of short takes each separated by a static buzz signifying channel surfing: We're hopping from program to program, watching none for over a minute or two, catching Bag's versions of ads, self-help shows, soap operas, news fragments (raging flood--solemn voice-over--"Disaster struck today--"--bzzt--next channel), starlet interviews ("Actually acting and modeling are really similar, because it's, like, a lot of sitting around ..."), the usual TV dross. Bag's video art in general is formally inspired by television: by the Saturday Night Live-type skit sequence, the infotainment show, the ad. "I'm not embarrassed by having TV style and pacing; I'm not ashamed of being inspired by that whole world," she says, distinguishing herself from the many video artists she sees as inspired less by TV than by movies, or rather Cinema. In embracing her mass-media source, Bag is the classic Pop artist apres la lettre.

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"There are so many good things about Pop art," says Bag, "but other things I think are awful. The Pop artists accepted their place and time and allowed themselves to reference the world around them, look at it, be inspired by it, examine it, not be so isolated from it, not be in an ivory tower. But at the same time they limited themselves by being so much about surface gloss. They repeat popular imagery without saying anything, really; it's devoid of politics." The politics of Pop can stand up to more inquiry than that, but Bag's work makes her meaning clear. Complicity or critique, love-in or lament--Pop's attitude to mass culture takes infinite deciphering; Bag's targets, on the other hand, know they've been hit. In Coven Services/Demo Reel, 2004, a glassy-eyed young man, played by Ethan Kramer, tells us about himself:

   I'm embarrassed when I think about what my life was like before AOL
   Time Warner was in it. I was such a loser. I used to waste my spare
   time doing pointless things: horseback riding with my ex-girlfriend,
   hiking with a bunch of technophobic hippie losers, volunteering at
   the No Suicide No Crisis hotline, painting these stupid little
   paintings.... I was a total loser. I didn't pay any attention to the
   world of media that was all around me. But everything changed when
   AOL Time Warner changed me. Their television networks, magazines, and
   Internet services rush a steady stream of warm, sticky infojaculate
   right into my eyes.... And porn. I can't forget the porn.

"Television is the most awful thing," says Bag. "But I can't stop watching it. It's so expected that that's what your leisure time is supposed to be--that the accepted way to spend your free time is just to be an absorber, a zombie. …

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