Going to the ICA feels good again. Deeply annoying, of course, but strangely invigorating, too. Every nation needs an ICA: an institution so immature that you want to send it back to school, so hip that you want to cut off its clothes allowance, so irritating that you want to stop its pocket money. Within seconds of stepping into Remote Control, a preachy event prompted by the seemingly adult topic of the TV switchover from analogue to digital, I was frothing at the teeth. Surely even students don’t think as studentishly as this?
So, the ICA is back. It has an agenda: to annoy the bejesus out of sane people. And its timing has returned — it was smart to make a show out of the digital switchover. True, it has not yet sunk to the depths of baseness it managed in the past: there hasn’t been much nudity or any nerve-tingling biology. But that’s surely a matter of time. I bet the new director, Gregor Muir, is on the phone to Cosey Fanny Tutti as I write, persuading her to dig out her old tampons. I’ve read his autobiography. It was called Lucky Kunst. I can, therefore, put my hand on my heart and confidently announce that the debauched Muir is absolutely the wrong person to be handed the train set that is the ICA. In other words, he’s the perfect man for the job.
Remote Control claims to be an examination of the relationship between art and television. But, as far as I can tell, there is not one artist among the 50 or so involved in this flash mob who actually likes the medium. Or understands it. Or, indeed, believes it to be a medium. Instead, this typical display of angry disestablishmentarianism from the ICA has seized the opportunity to give television a good kicking in the digitalia.
The show’s most spectacular exhibit greets you as you enter. Dumped in the centre of the downstairs gallery is a cliff-face of old analogue equipment used by Channel 4 until recently to broadcast to East Anglia. Grey and sullen, the huge pile of stuff features countless levers to pull, dials to watch, warning signs to heed and circuits to monitor. It’s the kind of sight I remember well from my days at Channel 4. A monster like this lived in the basement. There it would bleep and buzz relentlessly for hour after hour, week after week, month after month, year after year. Occasionally, somebody would go down there and push a button or clear a blockage. Most of the time, it just pulsed there happily on its own. It was the beating heart that kept the smile on your screen going.
Placing this sinister readymade at the centre of the display is Remote Control’s most cunning move. The sight of all those worrying levers and dials transports us immediately to every evil control centre we’ve ever watched on film or TV. This is the kind of machinery that Bond villains hide in their volcanos and aliens take over on spaceships. I’m not sure how much editing was involved in making the actual equipment used by Channel 4 to broadcast to East Anglia appear so damn creepy, but damn creepy it certainly appears. There’s even a skull and crossbones attached to a door at the centre, warning you not to open it. Presumably, if you do, 1984 will leap out.
Thus, Remote Control immediately nails its colours to the aerial. Basically, the entire show considers television’s impact on the rest of us to be manipulative and dangerous. Opposite the Churchillian bank of broadcasting equipment is a row of old-fashioned tellies, flickering through a partial history of art’s involvement with the medium. It begins positively enough, with a selection of land-art pieces broadcast in Berlin in the 1960s, on Gerry Schum’s TV Gallery. A plastic funnel on a beach fills up with water. An unseen vehicle careering through the landscape leaves a trail that connects America to Canada. A minimal cube on the shore withstands the sea. None of it is explained. None of it is contextualised. None of it makes any quotidian sense.
These are the kinds of films that can be intriguing when encountered in the special white-cube environment of an art gallery, but have no chance on the telly. At home, in between the ads, they fight with the rhythms of the day. It’s a lesson most artists since the advent of television have been scandalously slow to learn: TV is a different medium with different rules.
Alas, just about everyone who follows Gerry Schum and his TV Gallery onto the screen here has even less talent for that medium than he does. I was surprised to see Richard Serra, who is these days best known for his hulking outdoor sculptures made of rusty steel, popping up with a video piece from 1973, called Television Delivers People, which consisted entirely of angry sentences rolling up the screen: “It is the consumer who is consumed”; “You are the product of TV”; “What television teaches through commercialism is materialistic consumption”.
It’s not that Serra is wrong that is so disappointing here. In most respects, he is right. But it takes a particular kind of artistic boneheadedness to believe that presenting effortful anti-TV sentiments on a rolling screen constitutes an imaginative use of the medium. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at one of Serra’s rusty totems with a straight face again. The man has the intellectual agility of a bucket of concrete.
As you go along the line of old-fashioned analogue TVs, specially imported from China, artist after artist has a swipe at the box. In Joan Does Dynasty, “a classic work of feminist media deconstruction”, Joan Braderman pops up in the corner of an old episode of Dynasty, like someone providing subtitles for the deaf, and snipes away laboriously at the display of “capitalism, patriarchy and consumption” taking place behind her.
Upstairs, the tone grows even preachier. Adopting the persona of a worried newsreader, Adrian Piper — whose work I last saw at the Alice in Wonderland exhibition in Liverpool, where she exhibited wonderfully psychedelic LSD paintings — lectures us gravely on our racial responsibilities. “I’m black. Let’s deal with the social fact of my stating it together,” she oozes unctuously, like Fiona Bruce breaking the news of a presidential death. Where’s the zapper?
The only TV any of these angries seems to have watched is the news. Richard Hamilton shows us a victim of police brutality at Kent State. Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujiica give us an archive of images shot in Romania during the fall of Ceausescu. Taryn Simon features an Arab-language satellite station whose broadcasts are banned in America.
How unimpressive that all these artists, from all these countries, working at all these different times, look as if they have all misunderstood television in the same way. They really ought to stay in more.