Ant Farm Redux: Pyrotechnics and Emergence

By Mellencamp, Patricia | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Ant Farm Redux: Pyrotechnics and Emergence


Mellencamp, Patricia, Journal of Film and Video


DURING 1988, AS THE TERROR of the Cold war began to thaw and the three US television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, were still on top, not yet merged with movie studios or cable channels, but with CNN, MTV, and HBO looming on the horizon, I orchestrated a research year on television at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It involved a large cast of noted scholars and video artists in weekly seminars and a big international conference. I invited those I considered then to be the most creative thinkers about media culture to participate. Most did, and one result was a book, Logics of Television, which I edited.

Sixteen years ago, taking television seriously-as an academic object worthy of theoretical and historical analyses other than sociological or anthropological-was slightly scandalous, if not scorned. Video art, television's counterpart, was still a rarity in art museums outside New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Today, television as a scholarly pursuit is a given, just as video art is ubiquitous in contemporary art exhibitions. I like to imagine that 1988, that year of television, which included a visit by a crew from 60 Minutes and its alternative, "Deep Dish W," had something to do with this shift of intellectual and artistic bias.

Unfortunately, from another vantage point, there is no evidence in 2004 that the brilliant media critique undertaken by video artists and scholars from the late 19705 through the 19805 has affected the US broadcast/cable/satellite industry. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it was so easy for politicians and other talking heads to jump back and forth between the current war in Iraq and the earlier war in Vietnam, as if we had learned nothing in the intervening years-nothing about other cultures (then Asian, primarily Buddhist; now Middle Eastern, mainly Islamic); nothing about wars of intervention; and nothing about Western media effects.

With the influx of digital media in the midand late 1990s, particularly the World Wide Web and the Internet, I believed that my work on television catastrophe coverage, published in my 1992 book, High Anxiety, was outdated. Thus, afterthe horror and shock of seeingthe attack on New York's World Trade Center on television, it was unnerving to notice that the W coverage on every channel, including CNBC, the popular stock market and business-news channel, was repeating the primal pattern of the Kennedy assassination. We should have known then that history, too, would soon be repeating itself. Like earlier cold war fear, haunted by an image of an exploding nuclear bomb, our current terror has its own founding image: the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Shortly after this national and personal catastrophe, "reality" programming grabbed hold of US commercial TV, distracting our attention, as if reality, which had become too painful, were a playful genre. Fear of the known-of being rejected as a suitor, of eating spiders, of jumping off a bridge, of swimming in discarded animal organs, each situation resembling a coed fraternity hazing and each one a mere obstacle on the way to media makeovers and TV celebrity-was displacing the real fear of death, of war, of catastrophe-the fear of the unanticipated, the unknown that is terror or shock.

All of this staged hyperreality, while we watched hundreds of hours of war stories in settings of devastation-first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, with Israel/Palestine interspersed in the lulls. Actually the action images of war were sparse, masquerading as complete, embedded coverage. Cameras often focused on urban parking structures with smart bombs bursting like fireworks overhead, demolishing their reportedly "nonhuman" targets.

It was, and it still is in September 2004, a TV war of talk rather than action, with few images other than of the TV reporter, appropriately costumed in either khakis or military garb. But just look behind the reporter's image and the wasted cities all resemble each other in their devastation. …

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