Monthly Archives: February 2014

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Televisual Surrealism

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Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry is a two-part series presented by writer Jonathan Meades. Through the course of the two programmes, Meades presents a rationale for the artistic and architectural merit of 20th century concrete Brutalist architecture.

Meades’ narration throughout is continuous and the speed at which the information is given can be rather overwhelming for those not familiar with the history of this architectural movement. This combined with the somewhat monotonic nature of the Meades’ mode of address demands that the audience pay full attention to the words being spoken in order to make sense of the audio-visual essay presented throughout the programmes.

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This notion of the audio-visual essay is reinforced by what could be described as ‘subheadings’ being displayed on the screen to introduce and group together each point of Meades’ argument.

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The programme features the typical on location shots of the presenter standing in front of concrete buildings, and stock footage and images of Brutalist architecture. Black and white images of concrete structures also feature at various points throughout the programmes, a stylistic choice that mirrors the nature of the architecture being discussed.

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However, interlaced between these more conventional shots is studio footage that takes a more bizarre stylistic approach.

 In many of the studio shots Meades is shrouded in darkness, standing next to images being projected on a screen. The use of shadow in such shots creates a somewhat film noir vibe.

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Continuing with this cinematic theme, there are various dreamlike scenes throughout the programme similar in style to that of avant-garde and surrealist cinema. Indeed, a number of shots would not look too out of place within a David Lynch film.

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Post-production editing is used to create scenes that disrupt the audiences’ perception of viewing ‘reality’ through the television. In one scene Meades stands in a room facing himself to illustrate a particular point about outward appearances.

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A number of shots have also been edited in post-production to create scenes in which Meades is superimposed upon other images, creating compositions that are striking in their irregularity.

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These superimposed images often feature Meades as semi-transparent, creating a ghost-like visual effect of not quite being there. Even more disconcerting is that Meades is often still and silent in these transparent images while his audio narration continues.

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Even some of the on-location filming breaks the usual conventions of the pundit style. Shots of Meades stood still and silent are accompanied by his narration, creating a discrepancy between what we see on screen and what we hear.

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Television’s mediation of reality is often something that is hidden from audiences. We do not usually see the cameras, studios, production crews and so on that construct what we view on screen. The surrealist approach to programming displayed by Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness demonstrates how arts programming can be experimental in regards to how reality is presented on screen. The dreamlike scenes juxtaposed between more conventional shots draw attention not only to the ways in which television mediates a view of the world, but also how our own senses construct our everyday lived experience of reality.

The Shock of the New: To Define is to Limit

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Robert Hughes’ pundit series The Shock of the New (1980) takes a thematic approach to modern art, examining key social and cultural trends throughout history that have influenced its production.  Although the pundit style of the programme seems to be heavily influenced by Clark’s Civilisation, there is also the critical analysis that echoes Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

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The programme predominantly presents information through video and images with Hughes providing accompanying narration. Although there are pieces to camera that echo the style of Civilisation, they usually just serve as short linking sequences between clips. The rich array of clips and images used throughout the programme takes full advantage of television as a medium to be used to show as well as tell.

However, The Shock of the New does highlight a couple of issues that can arise when taking thematic approach to arts programming.

Firstly, viewers not somewhat familiar with the development of the artistic movements being examined may be a bit confused and put off with the constant shifting back and forth through time and geographical space. With many arts programmes, most notably Civilisation, being chronological in their approach, this divergence from the usual format can make it quite hard to follow. Although The Shock of the New was designed to be a popular series with its heavily edited presentation that seeks to entertain as well as inform, the information illustrated by a multitude of clips and images throughout each programme is not clearly bound in a way that lends itself to clear interpretation by mainstream audiences.

Secondly, the thematic approach used by The Shock of the New also creates limitations in terms of how art is interpreted. Having programmes dedicated to certain social themes such as politics or technological advancement gives the impression that these are separate social contexts in which art is either a product of one or the other. If one programme in the series is dedicated to how politics influence art, is that to say that the art examined in other episodes is created within a political vacuum? Although Ways of Seeing also takes a thematic approach, it had an underlying discussion throughout (the mass media reproduction of art), which not only made it easier to follow, but also presents each thematic episode as being part of a larger argument that is constituted through the series as a whole.

It would seem that the issue does not lay in the thematic approach itself, but rather the way it is executed. When taking a thematic approach, there still needs to be either an underlying argument, as in Ways of Seeing, or a sense of a journey or discovering something, as demonstrated in Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness, throughout the series. What The Shock of the New does is present a series of mini essays around art in which it attempts to be thematic in both its approach to art and the social context in which it was produced, thereby creating a rather narrow reading which does not situate art within a dynamic social world.

This format also alienates mainstream audiences. Without an understanding of the development of modern art throughout history, audiences may be lost by the shifts back and forth through time, and the numerous changes in geographical location. When producing a series that informs as well as entertains it is important to still provide a linear narrative to follow. As discussed, the illustrated essay presented by The Shock of the New does not lend itself well to mainstream audiences. Although television provides the means to seamlessly jump between time and place, there still needs to be a sense of linearity for viewers to follow and make sense of the information being delivered.

Fake or Fortune?: Arts Crime Drama

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Fake or Fortune? seeks out missing masterpieces of art using ‘cutting edge science and investigative research’ to distinguish the originals from the convincing fakes. As the title suggests, the programme focuses on the monetary value of art, with this value being a product of an original painting’s unique authenticity. Any discussion around the artist themselves, or the style of art is always a means to gather evidence to determine the authenticity of a piece, rather than to judge and appreciate its aesthetic value. In this regard, aesthetics take a backseat to monetary value and the art becomes an object that is defined through its authenticity.

Along with its Sunday evening 6pm slot on BBC 1, the familiar face of news presenter Fiona Bruce is an attempt to appeal to more mainstream audiences. The focus on monetary value, as opposed to aesthetic critique also goes some way to separate it from the niche category of other arts based programming, as viewers are able to understand and feel engaged with the series even if they do not possess a vast amount of knowledge around the works and artists being featured.

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The form of the programme really sets it apart from the majority of traditional arts programming, and again, gears it more toward a mainstream audience. Both the stylistic themes and narratives throughout the series are reminiscent of a detective or crime drama. To begin, the overall concept lends itself to this genre with the mystery of “is it real, or fake?” thread throughout each programme.

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To answer this question, clues and evidence are gathered to determine the painting’s authenticity. Fiona Bruce travels to various locations to talk to experts within the field who analyse the style of the painting, and others who examine legal documents and letters to track when and where the painting was sold. The painting is also analysed by a number of scientific methods, in which elements such as the paint can be traced back to the date it was used. Throughout the programme graphics are used illustrate this scientific analysis of paintings, reinforcing the idea of looking beyond the aesthetic qualities.

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This physical ‘dissection’ of artwork is a stark contrast to the way we are accustomed to seeing great paintings hanging in a gallery, even if that gallery is on our television screens. The viewer is no longer experiencing the aesthetic effects one feels when viewing a painting, but is interpreting its physical properties.

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The music used throughout the series is also evocative of the crime-drama genre. It comes in during key moments throughout the programme to build tension and create a sense of suspense.

Controversy arose when a Chagall painting the programme discovered to be fake was to be destroyed under French law. The destruction of ‘fake’ reproduced paintings protects the authenticity of the original while ensuring that any reproductions may not be sold under false pretence. The controversy surrounding whether the fake Chagall should be burned raises questions not just around issues of authenticity and ownership, but also reproduction.

The irony when watching Fake or Fortune? is that television itself is a form of reproduction. When exploring arts broadcasting it is interesting to consider if the cultural value that is embedded within a piece of original art changes, or even decreases, in a mediated world in which these images are freely transmitted. Great paintings are now available in millions of homes around the country, even if they are not hanging on the walls.

Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness

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Rococo: Travel, Pleasure Madness is a three part series presented by art critic, and former Head of Arts for Channel 4, Waldemar Januszczak. The series focuses on the social context in which the art of this historic period was produced, with little discussion around artistic techniques or critique of the style. Rather, Januszczak sets out to provide an understanding of this artistic movement beyond the aesthetic value of the works produced in order to enlightened the viewer with the rococo’s ‘wider achievements’ beyond the ‘pink frilliness’ that has come to define the era.

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The series is shot entirely on location. The audience is given the sense that they are going on a pilgrimage to gain a deeper understanding of the art produced during this period that is informed by experiencing it in its original context.

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When artworks and galleries are shown, they often feature other people wandering around, observing the paintings to reinforce the sense of first-hand experience and physical presence.

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This sense of presence is also furthered by the use of handheld camera shots following either just behind or beside Januszczak as he walks and talks. This, along with Januszczak’s informal style of address, gives the impression that you are accompanying him on this journey to discover the deeper meaning behind the art of the rococo. Rather than the presenter being portrayed as an authority figure in the style of Civilisation or Ways of Seeing, Januszczak acts as a travelling companion, or at most, a rather over-enthusiastic tour guide.

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Throughout the series there are instances of people in period costume acting out scenes to illustrate Januszczak’s discussion. During these scenes the camera is positioned to capture Januszczak watching the drama unfold with us. This combination of the contemporary and historical throughout the series gives the impression that the viewer is being taking taken on a journey through time as well as geographical space, emphasising the importance of situating art within a historical context.

Most strikingly, there are also points within the programme where actors dramatise scenes from paintings:

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Such scenes demonstrate how through the medium of television art can be brought to life in a way that transforms how we relate to it. It is no longer a static image of a past moment; it has become a contemporary moving image that has the ability to capture a range of moments and emotions that can alter and distort the meaning of the original piece.

However, with the strong focus social context, you sometimes get the impression that the art featured is merely a backdrop for extensive accounts of particular popular figures or cultural trends from the rococo period. Rather than an analysis of artistic methods, viewers are given the contextual knowledge to interpret the art at a deeper level and understand the moments that have been immortalised within the pieces. This, along with Januszczak narration with its multi-textual references throughout, suggests that this programme is aimed at an audience that possesses a certain level of education and understanding in regards to ‘high-culture’. This imagined audience is also evident in the scheduling of the programme. Being broadcast at 9pm on BBC 4 puts the series in competition with primetime shows on the more mainstream channels such as BBC One, ITV and Channel 4, creating an alternative choice for viewers interested in more niche programming.

Ways of Seeing: How Television Changed Art

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Written and presented by John Berger, Ways of Seeing was both highly influential and controversial. The four part series of thirty-minute episodes aired on BBC 2 in 1972. Being broadcast only three years after Clark’s Civilisation, Ways of Seeing could not escape being compared to BBC 2’s most popular pundit arts and culture series. However, despite the familiar style of a presenter providing pieces to camera and narration, there were a number of fundamental differences between Ways of Seeing and Civilisation in regards to both the style and ideologies of the programmes.

In contrast to Clark’s celebratory traditionalist approach to Western culture, Berger provides a far more radical critique of art, analysing the social conditions in which it was produced, reflecting his own socialist political leanings.

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 Berger’s underlying focus throughout the series centres on the ways in which the very medium of television inherently alters the reception of art. In the first episode, clips taken from Dziga Vertov’s influential Man With a Movie Camera are used to illustrate this idea of a new constructed reality presented through the medium of film.

The series takeScreen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.58.43s a self-reflexive approach, consistently making the audience aware that they are watching something constructed, rather than viewing reality through the window of a television screen. This reflexivity is most apparent during the first episode when the camera cuts to a long shot of the studio to include the other cameras, lights, crew, etc.

Fundamental to Berger’s analysis of how art is presented on film is the concept of reproduction. Berger argues that the means of reproducing art strips it of its original context and meaning, making it susceptible to multiple meanings that arise from the many different contexts in which it can be presented and displayed.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 10.29.34Berger’s mode of address is similar to Clark’s in that he speaks directly to the camera, often for long periods of time without any cuts. This again creates the sense of immediacy and a one-to-one encounter with the presenter. However, in contrast to Clarke, Berger is informally dressed and speaks with a degree of persuasive conviction.  Most notably, Berger’s pieces to camera are predominantly shot within the same studio against the same plain backdrop.

Ways of Seeing received a substantially smaller audience than Civilisation when it first aired. However, it had a long afterlife with the publication of articles and books based on the series. The series was also shown in art colleges and other educational institutions. The prevalence of the series being used within educational contexts demonstrates how Berger’s style of critique provides groundwork on which to discuss the theories presented within the programme. Whereas Civilisation brought works of art to the masses, Ways of Seeing opened up these works for critique and debate.