It was raining the Monday after Easter when we arrived in Vienna, Austria, so Takayo and I headed over to Museum Square, following the Andy Warhol signs that plastered the subway walls like some plastic yellow brick road. The Museum of Modern Art‘s current exhibition focused on Art and Television, which , given the state of today‘s programs, sounded like a shameless oxymoron. However, television here would consist of homegrown endeavors by early-era media geeks, between 1963 and 1987. On account of Austria’s close proximity to Eastern Europe, there were hundreds of old, bubble-screened television sets pumping out video relics on a continuous loop. Moments after handing the woman our tickets, we were transported to another dimension.
Most often, I find museum goers just as entertaining as the exhibits. My favorite pieces are the armchair critics, those folks who openly discuss how an artist “bridged” some gap while petting their scarf. They use words such as ‘oeuvre’ seven times a minute, and they really feel the artist’s pain -- as does everyone else in a twenty foot radius. We’ve all got our quarks, but I have to tip my hat to someone for behaving this way alongside a Schiele.
And that was my initial gripe. Finding any type of voyeuristic pleasure here was like scouring a room full of duplicate screensavers. Everyone just sat around, watching television. The museum accommodates this couch potato mentality. There were padded seats everywhere. At the bottom of the staircase, a plaques revealed our location not with a ‘Floor’ number, but rather by ‘Lounge.’ As in, there was a plastic bucket under a leak on Lounge 3.
It was hard to imagine anyone sitting down to actually watch these videos without the help of hard drugs. The rush we got after hearing the ticket price would have to do. Films ranged anywhere from 10 seconds to 75 minutes, the average running about seven minutes. When the artists made these films, their motives were geared toward consciousness and expression. In a sense, these were the quintessential doodles inspired by childlike madness. Within these walls it became apparent: Television grew up to become a boring, middle-aged slob on the couch.
Watching television in public wasn’t exactly my idea of a well spent vacation. Then again, I’m not exactly the type of guy that spends his vacation building schools or scrambling mountainsides with a rucksack full of orphans. A happy medium might be somewhere in between. My wife and I don’t even have a TV in our home. But like all old habits, the groove was easy to get back into. Too easy in fact.
I stood before a showing entitled The Medium is the Medium, in which black and white slides flashed upon the screen in trance-rousing succession. An off-screen voice, that of the artist, instructs you to turn off the TV set at the end. I took off the headphones and thanked God that I wasn’t epileptic. I walked over to another TV and watched a length of yarn being flushed down a toilet. Just when you thought the film was over, they gave it another flush and the string danced wildly into the unknown. On another screen, a man steps out of the shower to have his hair blown dry, literally, by a chorus of women. These movies were appealing in a raw sense. Here were folks fearlessly exploring a new, virtually unlimited media. You could tell they were on the verge of greatness, but the presentations all seemed to lack that certain ‘something.’ Thanks to these TV pioneers, today kids on acid have something to stare at during Phish concerts.
We headed upstairs to Lounge 4 and came across Kevin Atherton’s Video Times, a movie in which our hero, illuminated by a television screen that is our viewpoint, sits on the couch watching us. At 32 minutes long, this might have been suicide-inspiring if not for the TV-guide magazine that complemented the movie. It gave a play-by-play description of the man’s activity in 5-second intervals. There is a timer in the lower right hand corner of the screen. We arrived at minute 23, second 10. I opened the guide:
Knee Moves: His right knee which is crossed over his left leg moves slightly from the left of the picture towards the center. Uneventful.
I looked to the screen and, sure enough, that’s what happened. The film was made in the 80’s and had an edgy feel to it, similar to those public service announcements about drunk skeletons that scarred me for life as a child. Sometimes, I have to drink just to forget them. Thank a lot, America.
At minute 24, second 45. I looked back in the TV-guide:
Silence: (The man) Continues to bend his toes as if in an attempt to crank up some music from somewhere, succeeds. An amusing coincidence.
Coincidently enough, I passed wind.
The great thing about this exhibit was that it’s basically a big ‘Screw You’ to TV, its viewers, and the artist himself. I just loved that. My grandfather used to record everything my sister and I did on our summer trips to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He had one of those over-the-shoulder contraptions, but when the camcorder was developed, that thing never seemed to leave his hand. He captured endless amounts of footage: Pastel putt-putt balls rolling over Astroturf; overweight children slogging around water parks (“where’s Noah?”), and my grandmother, mouthing her signature phrase “Get that god-damned thing out of my face.” My sister and I admired the way she bridged the gap between repressed animosity and family bonding.
We were at minute 27, second 50:
Knees Up: First the right knee goes up quickly followed by the left. No respect for the furniture.
There were a couple of TV-guides laying on the bench. I rolled one up and stuck it in my pocket, figuring I’d get some pleasure from looking at it later, perhaps on the toilet. Four hours later, we had to get the hell out of there.
It was still raining so we walked under the umbrella to a pizza shop. My brain was muddled from hours of television, but I was feeling inspired. We had just finished eating when a family of four came in. From behind me, I could hear coats being unzipped and dropped on the booth. The kids were huffing and judging by the voice of the parents, I pegged them as American. One of the pizza boys walked into the dining room.
“Hello, do you take credit cards?” Said the dad.
“Nein,” said the pizza boy. I could hear him bussing a table.
“Do you take American money?”
The whole conversation was loud. The family let out a collective sigh and then gathered their coats off the booth. Takayo had a look of apprehension in her face.
“Should we offer them some money,” she whispered.
“Of course not,” I said, but that was just a knee-jerk response to the idea of feeding white folks on a European vacation. Offering to trade Euros for dollars did cross my mind, but they were already heading out the door when the mom announced, “Back to McDonald’s!” She really said that.
We occasionally hear stories of the inept American traveler, and maybe that’s why a lot of us don’t leave the country. When a few brave ones finally do venture out, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I tried to imagine how a family of four managed to find themselves half way around the world with no appropriate currency. What were they doing here, and why did the parents have to drag the children into this sick experiment? There’s probably no straight answer, but tune in next week for all new storylines, subliminal messages, and other 'neat’ things swirling the toilet bowl for your enjoyment.