TV Head

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…”

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[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.

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The Table of Western Gender Politics

OUR AIM WAS TO CREATE A SPECTACLE on Union St in Birmingham city centre, critiquing some advertising images in the shop displays. There would singing, dancing, testy sandwich boards and some doomsday howling. The lady selling flowers just down the way wasn’t pleased, even though we explained ourselves to her, bought flowers from her and even threw in an improvised song about buying flowers for people you love. That aside, a lot of people were very into it. There were voices of agreement speaking up, there were knowing looks from mothers with children, and there was a lot of standing and watching and nodding and holding up mobile phones to capture the situation. People joined the band, danced, did solos even, while security watched from a distance gripping their walkie-talkies.

* * *

THE TABLE OF WESTERN GENDER POLITICS poses the idea that our personal relationships are defined by economic relationships. Ideals of manhood and womanhood come, not from ourselves or from dialogue with each other, or from philosophy, antiquity, education or revelation… but from a very simple formula mediated to us by money making businesses: media, advertising, retailers etc.

The structure is so all-pervading and so tactlessly crude that, as we staged our critique outside BHS and M&S, it felt like we were pointing at the sky. Mass culture speaks its word over us: womankind is perpetually cast in the image of the sexualised product, and all western women must live under the omnipresent force of that dehumanising image. Meanwhile, often by mere inference, mankind must manifest the gaze of the beholder, the consumer and the insatiable sexual appetite.[i]

This is the faith in which we raise our children.

In the BHS images, for example, The man is dressed and ready to seize the day. The woman is undressed and ready to be seized. The man is stood up proud and active. The woman is laid down and passive. The man’s eyes look directly forward to go forth and possess. The woman’s eyes look sheepishly to the side, away from the gaze that possessively beholds her.

The structure is a one way conversation. There’s no apparent way to dialogue with it. It presumes to speak for us and to make claims of us and about us, but it’s not our culture. It’s presumptuously imposed upon us by those who’s concern is not the well being of the people, but only profit. We, the people, are a means to their ends.

The structure subdues, pacifies and controls the people. It cultivates the economy’s cardinal virtues of self interested fear and possessive desire. Meanwhile the people are left to live their lives saturated by this dehumanising and alienating ideal.

* * *

THIS ISN’T ABOUT CENSORSHIP. The images that were subject to our spectacle were not “shocking” or “explicit”. We have no particular notion that these images are more or less suitable for young or old people. Historically, right wing concerns about mediation have taken issue with particular images or films, or what have you, for being “too racy” or “too explicit” to be displayed in such a place or at such a time. We do not take issue with particular sensationalised scandals within the system, but with the ordinary functioning of the system itself. We take issue with the endless repetition of a commodified, self interested and oppressive ideal of gender and sexuality, imposed by unelected masters. Neither image is particularly problematic in itself; it is the juxtaposition of the two, the relationship, or even the disparity between them, and the repetition of those ideals: the man and the woman… the consumer and the product…

* * *

NOR WAS IT A PROTEST. We weren’t there to address BHS or M&S, or to make a public spectacle of them. We were making a spectacle of a pervasive structure and we were addressing the people. BHS are not the makers of that structure, they just passively regurgitate it as a trusted formula. They have no power to challenge it, nor do M&S. They observe the structure in obedience to their god of profit. And even if every retailer in Birmingham stopped spoon feeding us these oppressive identities, and gave us something else instead, the change would be superficial. We, the people, would still be as passive and lost as before, with no culture of our own – only what is given.

We’re doing something else. We would rather see our people awakened and conscious of their oppression. We would rather, as a people, begin to refuse the illusion of culture that’s thrust on us by industries. We want to begin to engage creatively with the world and with each other, in order to create a culture of our own – something that has been hard to find in the formless void of mass culture too long.[ii]

Therefore, we have little faith in the power of big businesses to effect lasting change for the people.

St. Augustine said that the city of oppressors is too weak to escape its own greed: “…a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.”[iii] God’s grace, on the other hand, is with the oppressed, the weak and the down trodden, so that even the city of oppressors may in some way be liberated from its own greed. Paulo Freire said this:

“This is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find within this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed, or themselves. Only the power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”[iv]

It is the people then, who must impose lasting change upon big businesses. Not the other way around. The meek inherit the earth.

Protest is purely secondary and incidental. Our spectacle is to the people first and foremost. It’s not protest, it’s prophetic action.

* * *

SOME PEOPLE TOOK ISSUE WITH THE ACTION because, they said, the woman outside M&S (and BHS) is not a whore – she’s just a model earning a living. For that matter, it would also be ridiculous of us to accuse the man of being a pervert.[v]

What those people said reveals the depth of the illusion, in a sense, because there was actually no woman there to speak of, only a big piece of paper with ink on it. We see a woman where there is only an image, and we’re often not conscious of the ideals that the image imposes on us, or whose interests the ideals serve.[vi]

The purpose of our action was to publicly critique the identities that images (and their non-visible puppet masters) impose. We weren’t calling anyone a whore. We were concerned, not with labelling the image, but with how the image labels us.

I felt very sorry about the people who were upset though. Just one person really. Either she didn’t get it (despite explanations) or perhaps the sexualised identity of women was actually very precious to her. If you’re raised to believe that your only real power and status lies in your sexiness, and then you’re asked to entertain the thought that those ideals were just exploitation for profit… what do you have left?  There’s a lot to lose.

* * *

THE NEXT WORKING DAY we were surprised to see that M&S had removed the image of the woman. We were so busy with the idea of ordinary people gate-crashing the one-way conversation of public space that it hadn’t occurred to us that the powers might also listen in. By the end of the week they’d taken the corresponding man’s image down too, probably because it looked lop-sided. Only at that point did I notice, the Table of Western Gender Politics remains perfectly stated by an army of plastic hearted mannequins.

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Notes

[i] Because of its immediate sensory power we made sex an allegory for every product that could be advertised, and now, finally, it seems to us that every product is merely an allegory for sex.

[ii] Perhaps genuine culture can now only exist in exile – in defiant otherness to the imperialistic momentum of mass culture?

[iii] From City of God

[iv] From Pedagogy of the Oppressed

[v] Nobody said anything about that though, because nobody really perceived the picture of the man. True to the formula the man is not to be perceived – the man is the perceiver. It is womankind who must constantly bear the burden of being watched and judged. Feminist thinkers call it the patriarchal gaze.

[vi] In fact things have been turned quite upside-down. What happens on posters and screens is all unreal, in that it is merely the replication of real things onto a 2-dimensional space. However, it has become a pillar of the faith that the screen is the realm of realisation. She who makes it into the screen is thought to have been realised, vindicated, humanised even. The realm of illusion has become more real to us than reality.

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