Media Art: Can a Hot Dog Ever Be More Than Just a Hot Dog?
The instigators called it a work of “media art.” The press labelled it a hoax, postal inspectors and police declared it a felony, and in April a federal grand jury said it added up to four counts of fraud, using fictitious names or addresses, mailing obscene matter and conspiracy.
Whatever it was, the “media inversion” produced in San Francisco in March by a trio of Berkeley artists known collectively as Sam’s Cafe was one of the most effective large-scale stunts of its kind. It drew hundreds of thousands of people, including you, dear reader, into its scheme. And it forced the attention of ordinary, non-art-loving people onto a new phenomenon that has been sweeping the chic, relatively hermetic world of avant-garde art for the past few years, known variously as conceptual, process, performance or “force” art — —or non-art, depending on your point of view.
The piece of “media art” by Sam’s Cafe (a husband-wife team, Marc and Terri Keyser, and a roommate, David Shine) came in two related parts. One was an elaborately packaged “press kit” in the form of a glossy gold placard carrying three plastic containers, like the charity contribution boxes propped beside the cash register in a cafe. In this case, the three containers held tiny turds, with the implication that they might belong to each of three garishly costumed figures overprinted in red above, along with the letters “Religious Excrement” and “Touch Our Sacred Stools.” There was also a “Brand New Testament” which prophesied the destruction that could befall the Establishment’s communications network if. . .
While city editors were still puzzling over this strange accretion to the morning mail, switchboards at one newspaper, two television stations and the Bank of America World Headquarters were already jammed with telephone calls prompted by the second part of the “work.” This consisted of 20,000 super-professional-looking bills sent by a mythical Sam’s Collection Agency (using the address of KRON-TV) to an equal number of middle-income San Francisco families. The bill demanded immediate payment of a fictitious and unexplained $76.40, and gave the telephone numbers of the Chronicle, KRON and KQED-TV, and the Bank of America to call for further information.
The whole event was diabolically calculated to strike at the deepest roots of human nature, namely greed, and to take advantage of the Pavlov’s Dog’s Response with which the media react to anything that deeply affects them, like calling a press conference. When something like a thousand calls before lunch happens to the media, it is hard news that can’t be ignored, and for an investment of $2,100 in stamps and printing costs, Sam’s got mileage that any PR firm might envy: frontpage space in both San Francisco dailies, several minutes of prime time on radio and television news, and wire service coverage. They also managed to involve everyone as a witting or unwitting “participant” in the art event. Inspectors inspected, police policed, reporters reported, critics criticized, and camermen took pictures, together creating the “documentation” that is an indispensable ingredient of conceptual or process art, and the “documents” were then placed on “display” before thousands of readers and viewers in their homes.
The whole affair wound up with a bizarre, Felliniesque press conference staged on the front stairs of the First Unitarian Church. At this event, Sam’s brought along some friends with video tape equipment, and they took pictures of press and police cameramen taking pictures of Sam’s. Then they screened the tapes over a TV receiver, and the press and police cameras took pictures of the pictures, like a boggling hall of mirrors.
Well, the affair was not precisely wound up; shortly after the press conference, police busted the trio, and the art work continues to create residual documentation like this story. The coming trial will no doubt be the work’s climactic moment. Sam’s “media inversion” is a far from isolated example of a revolutionary phenomenon that has produced such other art works as:
•A New York artist sent out cards announcing that the first death to occur in a certain city after a specific date would be a work of art — more precisely, his work of art. “In this event, the artist assumes the role of God,” he modestly explained.
•An artistic drifter named A.M. Fine goes around the country signing his name to walls and fixtures, usually in the lower right-hand corner, thereby appropriating entire rooms and buildings as personal art works, or found objects. •
Hans Haacke, a pioneer of the field, was recently banned by the Guggenheim Museum from showing art works that consisted of documentation on slum lords of various New York ghetto properties. •
A San Francisco artist and his friends called several dozen Yellow Cabs to the same location and then took aerial films showing the yellow patterns converging. •
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was closed to traffic for several hours one early morning late last year while a bomb squad cautiously investigated a strange object lying on the lower deck. It turned out to be a wheel of cheese. Actually, no one has yet come forward to identify this as a work of art; it may have been mere accident. If that is the case, I myself could lay claim to it as a “found object” or “found event” under the ground rules of the new art game. Or you could, or anybody else.
“Marcel Duchamp took a shovel out of a hardware store and put it into an art gallery. We’re putting the shovel back in the hardware store,” Marc Keyser explained over a year ago in a daring prophesy of Sam’s media inversion, in a loose paraphrase of the historical facts (the first “readymade” to which Duchamp put his signature was actually a wine bottle rack). His statement provides as succinct a rationale as any for the twists and turns of modern art history which have, with their own inexorable logic, led up to such new means of artistic expression.
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