Poster designed by Sarah Contos
Ooo baby, watchful lines
Vibrate soft in brainwave time
Silver pictures move so slow
Golden tubes faintly glow
Electric faces seem to merge
Hidden voices mock your words
Fade away, radiate
Fade away and radiate
— Blondie, Fade Away and Radiate, 1978
Periods of my 1970s-80s childhood were marked by the absence of TV in the family home. This probably explains why my brothers and I once repurposed a large cardboard box into a television set. I cut out a window on one side to emulate a makeshift screen and drew texta knobs where the channels would go. We hopped inside and pretended to be ‘People on TV’, presenting the News and playacting scenes from make-believe TV shows to an imaginary audience (until we got bored and played ‘Pretend Radio’, using my tape player to host a program of Top 40 hits taped from 2SM). Later when we got a TV, I had a love/hate relationship with it because all we got to watch was M*A*S*H – knowing that when it was over at 7pm we would have to go to bed. Domestic governance of the worst kind.
In 1992, TV came to my southern Sydney neighbourhood as I was finishing high school in western Sydney. The Donaher family from Sylvania Waters exploded on the ABC as Australia’s first reality television program (though it was more like a soap opera or documentary series than the game show social media hybrids of today). After the media hullaballoo died down and Sylvania Waters became a “where are they now” curiosity, I would fantasise about resurrecting in some way the fabulous bogan matriarch, Noeline Donaher. If only I could paint, I would enter a portrait of her in the Archibald Prize – was one such recurring day dream. As it happens, dreams come true. At Hazelhurst Regional Gallery in 2009, I curated their comeback with Reality Check: Watching Sylvania Waters, inviting 10 artists/collectives to respond in some way to the legacy of the show and its connection to the local Sutherland Shire community. In a meta twist of fate, the ABC produced a ‘making-of-the-exhibition’ doco, effectively turning the camera on the artists and myself as if we were flash in the pan reality TV stars plucked from the artworld.
Almost a decade later, here I am changing the channels further south at Wollongong Art Gallery. When John Monteleone generously invited me to curate this show about TV—The TV Show—I was immediately enthused by the idea of exploring how much the small screen has changed in my own lifetime. Television is no longer necessarily the dominant mode of entertainment in everyday life. If anything, it evokes nostalgia for a bygone era when the domestic TV set played an active part in shaping our way of thinking and being in the world. The word ‘television’ seems like such an anachronism in an age where the phrase ‘Netflix and Chill’ has entered popular consciousness. To invoke ‘television’ as an idea is to conjure the past and the warm duplicity of nostalgia. Deriving from the Greek, nostalgia literally means “pain from an old wound”. To dwell in nostalgia is to base experience in unreliable memories that stir a belief the past was better than the present. In my opinion, life was superior only if you consider how the amount of crap on TV was lessened by the limited network options. In 1992 when Sylvania Waters was on Australian screens, there were about five stations from which to choose. In comparison, if you listen to the Bruce Springsteen song from the same year, in the US there were ‘57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)’. In the present, moving pictures come at us all day, every day and everywhere. The saturation is so rife, it is like the interminable number of channels available on our screens and devices are all on at the same time. At peak volume, brainwave time snaps to white noise: fade away and radiate.
As much as I treat nostalgia with suspicion, I am drawn to its false consciousness when considering the impact forms of popular culture like television have on my life and work. It was perhaps for this reason that I gravitated towards younger, early career artists while developing this project. TV makes me think of time and schedules, reflecting on my own age and identity as a 40something white gay Australian male. It is certainly from this perspective that I consume and filter televisual content online. From varying social and cultural backgrounds, each artist in this exhibition has an entirely different experience of what they watch and how these images inform the work they make. What unites these artists is their immersion in the image soup of contemporary life. For The TV Show, this preoccupation with visual culture has enabled a diverse range of responses to the shifting role TV plays in our digital age.
Curatorial catalogue essay for The TV Show at Wollongong Art Gallery, 30 November 2018 – 24 February 2019.
Published by Wollongong Art Gallery in 2018.