Talking Back To The Media project update

Camie Karstanje
Blog post
Still from the Talking Back to the Media broadcast on Kabeltelevisie Amsterdam, 10 november 1985

Still from the Talking Back to the Media broadcast on Kabeltelevisie Amsterdam, 10 november 1985

David Garcia: The basis of the experiment was: Can you produce an event for a city where all the basic platforms of mass media are combined so that the artist's media-presence has an equivalent  impact to  corporate and state media?'

As one of the initiators and together with Raul Marroquin the co-creator of the concept, David Garcia was an important person to contact for our research on Talking Back to the Media. David lives in the United Kingdom, but luckily he had a conference in the Netherlands in December. Early in the morning before his conference I met David at Raul's home. While Raul was making a wonderful breakfast David talked to me about the manifestation, his previous experiments on Kabeltelevisie Amsterdam and his hopes for what could be on the threshold of media development. 

After talking for a while about what we did and did not find in the archives, David started talking about how he looks back at the manifestation after so many years: 'There were a lot of good things coming out of the manifestation and there was a lot that was less good. It was a gigantic experiment. And the basis of the experiment was the question: can you produce an event for a city where all the channels of mass media are combined so that the artist's media-presence in the city has the same impact as corporate and state media? Can we as artists, who since the advent of Pop Art have been “talking back to the media'', design an event which gives the practice of art the possibility of that level of city wide impact? It was very ambitious and in a way it was only conceivable in Amsterdam. Because Amsterdam has the quality of a capital city but the scale of a small town. 

Camie Karstanje: Was that what attracted you to Amsterdam?

David Garcia: 'When I left my college, the Jan van Eyck Institute, I came to Amsterdam with a desire to use the unique possibilities of the city’s cable TV network and design experiments for it. During the 1970s, Amsterdam had a cable infrastructure that was governed by an organisation called called KTA (Kabel Televise Amsterdam) and they had developed (in part because of pressure from pirates and artists) a little bit more flexibility in local media than other cities in the Netherlands. Raul and I have been making experiments on the Kabel Television for years, and from a technical standpoint the Netherlands was very advanced: it was one of the only cities in Europe with a totally established cable infrastructure. Amsterdam was (along with Berlin) the only city in Europe where you could test the boundaries of cable TV provision to local audiences. 

When I first came to Amsterdam, the thing that excited me were the krakers (squatters). Their campaigning energy went beyond the issue of housing. The krakers had their own social outlets of squatted bars as well as their own media outlets. The thing that exited me as an artist was that they also had their own TV channels, pirate TV channels. This is how it worked: KTA had a big parabolic disc on their roof which was their means of receiving the programs; they imported content from England, Germany and Belgium under-license. The Pirate media squatters such as Rabotnik and PKP set up their transmitters close to the organisation’s building and transmitted the signal to the disc, they treated the periods when the channels were not transmitting like empty buildings there to be occupied. TV wasn't 24/7 in those times. The experimental television they were making made a big impression on me at the time. Most of Dutch television was quite boring at the time, with the exception of VPRO and their experiments. But the work of Rabotnik and co were taking that experimental approach of the VPRO to a wild extreme. 

    So as a (so called) video artist I wanted to do art but take from the squatters the idea that you don't have to make discrete video to put in museums or even conventional TV formats and make television as an artist in ways that use cable to disrupt the established models of what television can be.'

Excerpt from Underpass, a video by Lous America, David Garcia, Henk Wijnen and Annie Wright, 1983

Cable from the Underground

DG: 'With three other artists in the early 1980s I initiated one of the earliest legal experiments with public access TV using cable in the Netherlands. The project was the Underpass. And we realised it in a multilevelled pedestrian underpass running under Amsterdam’s Waterlooplein. Since those days it has been transformed into an amazing urban concrete kid’s adventure space full of fabulous climbing frames. But back then it was a gloomy pedestrian pass-through that was pretty much deserted except for junkies and of course graffiti artists who turned it into a kind of graffiti gallery. And architecturally it was amazing. So anyway we started a television channel in the tunnels and transmitted highlights weekly to Amsterdam’s TV public. It was a public access channel and many people came into the underpass to perform, express themselves or just hang out. We were there with a camera and the message went out. In the end we had to boil everything down to deliver a one hour U-matic tape. So it was ridiculous, people came in expecting to use it like a 24h channel. And that is what it should have been 24hour live television. We could only achieve that later on.'

Raul Marroquin: 'You couldn't do live at that time.'

DG: 'So we had to edit the work of contributors and we had not developed smart enough ways of managing collaboration. So making television was not (to put it mildly) the best way to make friends. In a way, we were still too conservative about what television could be. But it was a bold experiment. For me this was the pre-cursor for other projects such as ‘Talking Back to the Media'.'

CK: 'How do you look back at TBTTM?'

DG: 'I think a serious analyses and bold representation of Artist Talking Back to the Media cannot escape its position in local history, in Dutch history. And the transformation of the Dutch political landscape. From it has mutated from an incredibly open, adventurous, welcoming, tolerant society to one that is narrow, nationalistic, obsessive, and inward looking. The Netherlands is not alone, like many other European countries it wants all the benefits of globalisation but refuses to engage with the many challenges that globalisation brings. Some of these changes were understandable. At the time the foreign was fetishised. There was a presumption that the most exciting culture came from abroad. And there was nothing to be proud of in Dutch art. These tensions between the metropolitanism of the international art scene and local politics can be seen in the problems that preceded the recent departure of the director of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

You could say that TBTTM was one of the late expressions of a previous era which rather than taking a defensive position it celebrated the position of the Netherlands as an important European hub or hinge-point to an international critical post-modernism. It attempted to reboot the Dutch tradition of a trading nation not only trade as commodities but also trade as ideas.'

CK: 'Were all of the tapes commissioned or did some of them already exist?'

DG: 'No they were commissioned, and that was part of the achievement. Not only works by artists of the stature of General Idea, with their piece ‘Shut the Fuck UP’ but posters as well. Although I suspect the Barbara Kruger one might already have existed in some way.. But in principle they were commissioned work. And there was a major exhibition in Aorta, which was a fabulous space in those days that exhibited important works from the likes of John Baldessari. 

We were able to get the major critical post-modernists and post pop-artist at that time, who's reputations are now huge. We were able to capture them at their heights, to do major shows: John Baldessari came over to give a lecture, and so did Barbara Kruger.'

CK: 'How did you get those people to become involved? Was it right before the time they got big?'

DG: 'No, no they were very well established artist with major reputations.' 

RM: 'Baldessari was God.'

DG: 'Yes! And he is double God now!' 

RM: 'He was the mentor of all of them, Barbara Bloom.'

DG: 'Eric Bogosian, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman. I would argue that what we were able to do was turning a city into a platform, not a museum, a whole city. We ignored the museums.'

CK: 'Was that a conscious decision?'

DG: 'I don't think we calculated it. But what was conscious was that the city was our platform. The mass media were our platform. Television, radio, cinema, theatre, bill boards for posters. All the modalities of the mass media communication were combined. No other project encapsulated that scale and vision and succeeded in the way that we did. And that is something worth bringing to public attention. 

Also it would be interesting to imagine what the possibilities of an experiment as radical as this implies for today. If it was possible to have that scale of ambition, what could we do ? What would have to happen in the age of social media to have an comparable impact? Although the quality was variable to be honest, the scale of ambition and actually succeeding in making that happen was exemplary and impossible today in Amsterdam.'

CK: 'I had the feeling that Talking Back to the Media is more focused on being critical towards the media itself and that Tactical Media is more about using the Media to be critical towards to society.'

DG: 'True. One of the disappointments of Talking Back to the Media was the sense that it was at times too much of an uncritical celebration it missed the darker political tonalities of the best of pop-art and the post-modern media inflected artists we were showing. As you know we brought a girl group together who sang the jingle 'Talking Back to the Media', a remake of the popular song 'Walking Back to Happiness'. That was my idea and I have some regrets, although it was catchy, it was pure celebration. For us the post-modern collapse of boundaries was a celebratory moment, we missed the darker implications of this collapse.'

Excerpt from broadcast Talking Back to the Media on the Kabeltelevisie Amsterdam, 10 november 1985, including jingle.

CK: 'How did you select the artists?'

DG: 'There was a board of organisers made up of curators and artists associated with Time Based Arts. Some of the artists we selected were ourselves. Actually once again I think this showed our inexperience. As organisers and initiators we should not have included ourselves in the shows. Although in retrospect when I look at the works that were made the results justify our selection for example important artists such as Ulises Carrión, who was one of the organisers and one of the selected artists.  

There were also multiple curators, there was Rob Perrée, Sébastian Lopez, Max Bruinsma etcetera. So I think that's another side of it, you can't really talk about it being curated, there were pockets of curating. In that way the curatorial side of it was only professionalised inside these pockets. There was no overall direction. It was a group of associates getting together and hammering things out. And there is the good and the bad to that. Today I am sure that levels of accountability would be far greater as people are much more aware of the cost of events of any real scale. And I can understand that, you would never want to do something like that now. It was a period of abundance, and abundance sometimes produces waste. And in this case waste was very productive. It's like evolution in nature, nature is very wasteful.'

Excerpt from White Nights, a video by David Garcia and Annie Wright commissioned by Talking Back to the Media 1985.

CK: 'What do you think of media art nowadays? You wanted it to be more accessible to everyone and now this is achieved by the internet. How do you look at it now?'

DG: 'I think now is the biggest moment of challenge of all. The last fifty years have been the struggle for access. In the 1960's and 70's the gorilla media people had this fantasy that society would be transformed through public access to media tools and platforms. Now that everybody has a camera, do-it-yourself media is the norm. We have moved from a situation in which only a privileged few had access to media to a ‘radical multiplication of the singular point of view’. And that is something that Dutch media theorist Eric Kluitenburg has described as the media ‘singularity’. The long predicted moment of media activists has come to pass. And yet, as it has only just occurred, nobody knows what is on the other side of this singularity and what the large consequences  are for human subjectivity and, I would argue for how we do politics, the social and art.  

If I had the power of doing another Next Five Minutes, or another major media event..'

CK: 'Would you like to do it again?'

DG: 'Yeah I would do it. I am writing a book at the moment with Eric Kluitenberg, an Anthology of Tactical Media. This is our theme; to look back in order to look forward. To talk about that singularity and about what is on the other side.' 

CK: 'What do you hope that is on the other side?'

DG: 'I would like to see a further radicalisation of the democratic process. To say how people can be optimistic about changing the political framework in which we live. Not to overturn everything immediately, but to transform things bit by bit by bit. To refuse to live under the ‘dictatorship of no alternative’. I think we have to remain ambitious in art and media theory. We need a return to radical pragmatism. There are still some pockets in the Netherlands, for example Geert Lovink’s Institute of Networked Cultures retains an extraordinary track record of ambitious thinking about mediatised futures. His recent event Money-Lab was an extraordinary project. 

We need to rethink the dominant rhetoric of the new cultural and creative industries. The industries that design a technology to generate new social media platforms. Economists used to believe that the economic predictions of their impact was just a hype. However all the new research shows that the hype was real. These industries are the primary drivers of new economic growth. But it is growth that has sacrificed the traditional benefits and securities of employment. What the Dutch call ZZP life is precarious and not well-paid. The benefits of freedom and creativity which those industries are real enough but we must as artists and citizens imagine ways in which they can be more widely distributed. The creative benefits spread far more widely than they are now.'

CK: 'In the project I am working on, as well as now in tactical media, you have always been quite positive towards media. It was never your enemy.'

DG: 'Media itself is neither good nor bad. You also have the people who just see it as a means of accumulating, creating revenue and capital that is then hoarded. There are plenty of reasons to be angry.'

CK: 'Did you ever see it as utopian?'

DG: 'Yes, at the beginning, and it was, because it wasn't yet occupied. It was like building houses in the ‘old west’. You didn’t build a house in order to sell it on, we were not creating commodities to exchange. Like all media the early days tend to be the utopian. And you have to move and take the advantage of that. And I don't have any regrets about the illusions. I think you need those illusions otherwise you are too cynical to act.'

CK: 'When starting so idealistic, did you at some point became disappointed?'

DG: 'No but you must move on to a more developed understanding of the true nature and dynamics of society. At the heart of the Next Five Minutes was the realization that we must resist naive utopianism but on the basis we still wanted to create utopian conditions. So the event and its various participants represented (for the most part) a critical leftist alternative to what has been called the ‘Californian ideology’. In that sense everything that happens simply bears out what we believe. That is that we continue to have these two parallel lines. The utopianism, the libertarian dream of a free market market utopia and the utopian expressions of radical politics such as the free software movement that is sometimes called the ‘commons’. You have the two happening simultaneously. What makes it particularly interesting now is the fiscal crises where people have to go back to basics and examine all their assumptions of what the market place can and can't do. And the utopians have to go back to basics with their flawed expectations and even if they cant reinvent new paradise, they should at least attempt to recreate solidarity.'

CK: 'Interesting time now.'

DG: 'Well it's on the other side of the singularity. But that moment that we predicted would be the ultimate destination of tactical media, mass self-mediation has arrived quite recently. With the mobile media en the social media combined, that fusion has produced the singularity. And if I could do an event now it would be to interrogate what's on the other side.'