A HANDFUL OF US took it in turns to wear the TV head, standing there before the giant screen that now hangs in Birmingham city centre on New St, right outside the Bullring. We made a silent and passive image; an interlocked non-dialogue between screen and being, between transmitter and receiver, between industry and humanity.
* * *
QUESTIONING MEDIATION GETS HARDER AND HARDER as time goes on, because as time goes on it becomes harder and harder to imagine anything apart from it. Other places and other worlds are known almost exclusively through the screen, and even in our own spheres it is through the screen that we navigate half our waking lives. When something exciting happens before our very eyes, half of us will still stand there beholding the scene through the tiny screens of our phones, absorbing the spectacle into that other realm. The screen has become a higher reality, a celestial sphere, the realm of higher powers. Its two-dimensional representations of things are more important to us than the things themselves.
A parallel example: the Roman imperial cult. It’s thought unlikely that the imperial cult came about in any conspiratorial way. Nothing romantic or fantastic like that, it just developed. But it did become a pivotal structure for organising and unifying a huge and disparate empire. It came with a dream of freedom and individual expression: under Rome a people could freely practice whatever their religion may be, but they were also required to include the deities of the imperial cult in their worship, notably the emperor himself. This is how the image and the authority of the emperor were mediated to all the peoples of his empire. His image was projected in their presence and a sense of his power was evoked. This religious mediation organised the people of the empire in obedience and preserved the power of the mediators.
So, our spectacle was to present mediation as religion and religion as mediation. The realm of mediation is inflated with its patronising zeal for Western rationality, and for man’s conquest over superstition and religion. Meanwhile it has become the most incredible expression of organised religion the world has ever seen. It gives the people direction and meaning by inspiring them with dreams of a better world. It unifies the people in a common “morality”, a common sense of identity and purpose, and a common rhetoric and belief system. It presents the people with deities against which to reckon themselves. It unifies the empire and it controls it by the constant assertion of itself. Guy Debord says this:
The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.[i]
It pacifies, numbs and amuses. If religion is the opiate of the masses, then mass mediation is religion.[ii]
* * *
HOW DO YOU MAKE A TV HEAD? It’s very difficult. It’s also very hazardous in a few ways. The plastic hull of your classical old-school television contains a few circuit boards and such, but mostly it’s just full of a giant bubble of very thick glass. Inside the giant bubble is, a) some dangerous chemicals of some kind, and b) a pressure vacuum which commands six tons of force onto itself or something awful like that. This is why old TVs have their own special destination at the dump. Like fridges, they’re hazardous waste.
And then, when you take a hammer to the back end of it (wearing goggles and a helmet and oven gloves and whatever else you can find, and also having covered the TV in layers of blankets – all to protect yourself from the force of the implosion)… when you take a hammer to the back of it, there is a good 50% chance that the glass will crack all the way round to the screen. You don’t want that, because you want the screen to stay intact. If the screen does stay intact then you have hours of hacking away the excess glass and sanding the evil teeth down and then covering the sharp rim with bathroom sealant. There’s glass shards and glass dust everywhere. It’s horrible. And don’t forget about all the poisonous chemicals inside it. You have to wash it out really well. Maybe we should’ve worn face masks for that part. I’m sure I’m taking a month off my life every time I try to make one of these.
Then you need to put some rocks in the back part of the television to counter the surprising weight of the screen. You seal those in with some expanding foam stuff, and you wedge into the foam a bicycle helmet with a chunk sawn off the top.
Finally, when it’s ready, you’ll find its bad for a bad back, and I can’t imagine the terrible mess if you fell over in it with the big glass screen in front of your face.
So be careful. Don’t get hurt.
* * *
OUR SPECTACLE WOULD HAVE BEEN a pitiful and despairing gesture against the almighty power of the screen, like attacking a mountain with a hammer or drinking the sea… is there any point? We pity those kinds of people, who pick hopeless battles and are doomed to a lifetime of unbearable whining. We suspect that their anger at such things is probably just a facade, hiding some petty personal bitterness.
As is our custom we were not addressing the screen but the people. The screen’s ultimate power is not change, but the opposite. It pacifies. For change we appeal to the people, especially since it is ourselves as people that must change first. Any change besides that is superficial. Our spectacle exists to challenge a way of thinking (or a way of not thinking), and the mediated religion exists to propagate that way of thinking: that we believe we are rational, because we were told so from a realm of illusion… that we believe that we have outgrown the religious, because we were told so by the our religion… that we believe we have superseded God because of our irrational belief that God would obediently reside wholly within the discipline of religion, and because of our hypocritical belief that we are too wise for religion.
Our spectacle was to stir doubt and to propose a certain heresy. We presented nothing that wasn’t already somewhere in everybody’s minds. Our heresy is humility; the audacious admission that our beliefs came not from enquiry, but from a drip.
* * *
BULLRING SECURITY moved us away. They can do that because they own the area around where the brass bull stands, so it meant moving to other side of some bollards about ten yards away. Ten yards didn’t make any difference to us, we didn’t mind, but the question is what was on their mind? What difference did it make to them? Do they have a blanket policy against any kind of open expression by the public? Was there something about this particular spectacle that was threatening to them? What were they afraid of?
The police on the other hand (and there were a lot of police because of an anti-cuts protest nearby) were quite the opposite. They came and said hello and said we should just ask them if we needed anything. It was a similar story at the January action. The police were quite happy about it and the private security of the retailers were not.
Most people stopped, looked, laughed, made shocked and giddy exclamations, took photos. People were constantly asking us directly, what did it mean? So we asked them what it meant to them. The worst answer was, “you’re advertising television?” The best was, “you’re saying we’re all TV heads…”
[i] From Society of the Spectacle. The word ‘spectacle’ is used in this book to refer to the realm of mediation. Confusingly, I’m in the habit of using that word to refer to our public actions. Guy Debord was involved in the subversive political arts movement Situationist International, who have been influential on ABH thought.
[ii] Religion is the opiate of the masses… however, we are now warned against the monotheistic religions not because they pacify the masses, but because (we are told) they will radicalise them. Pacification of the masses is the current ideal to be preserved.