Date: Tue, 1 Oct 1996 12:05:54 +0100
Smile, You Are on 24 hour CCTV
Interview with Brian Springer by János Sugár
Brian Springer is an artist based in Buffalo, New York who has worked with community-based media for years. His work has included promoting access to tools of production and creating forums for discussions about media. Janos Sugar is an artist, filmmaker, lecturer at the Intermedia Department of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, and a founding member of the Media Research Foundation in Budapest.
JS: How did you start with media projects?
BS: I'm interested in examining the role of media in the United States and in thinking about how I can gain access to the press and their process of constructing images which is very difficult since they control the access. So, I'm very interested in new media technologies and the way they provide access to these processes of production. Very simply, my point of access was a big satellite dish, not the little dishes, but the great big ones. There are over three and a half million big dishes called BUDs--or big ugly dish--and so what I did was buy a couple of BUDS. The reason I bought them was because with a BUD you can see people on satellite TV in the US while they're preparing to go on television and, again, during commercial breaks, for example, on the Larry King show. When he says don't go away, I don't go away. I stay there. And when regular cable or satellite viewers are watching commercials on television, on another special satellite frequency you can see Larry King with an open microphone and an open camera, preparing to go back on air. Through intercepting these satellite links when you see people preparing to go on air or during commercial breaks, you begin to glimpse some sort of insight into the objectives and to the sort of subjective underpinnings which make up objective news.
JS: How did you start this kind of activity, this appropriation of satellite images?
BS: I had read in magazines that people could see news anchors having makeup being put on and there were sort of bloopers (a blooper is when a person slips on a banana and falls and hits their head and everyone laughs). So, there were a number of people who owned dishes and where collecting bloopers and I thought that besides the blooper of physical pain, there exists the blooper of the failure of democracies or instances where there is contempt for debate or a contempt for discussion. Those were the kinds of bloopers I was interested in catching. So I went to a satellite dish store, for I did not own a dish, and I turned on the satellite dish receiver. They let me play with it and there was the set for the ABC Nightly News with Peter Jennings, a very highly-rated national program in the US. The huge set is desigened with a map of the world surrounded by clocks. The camera zooms into this big plush chair and sitting in this chair is this technician. He taps a screwdriver on his hand and he's just staring. This goes on for maybe four or five minutes. Nothing happens. There is this huge spectacle of satellite transmission and this set, and it's all kind of reduced to nothing through this boredom of preparing. That's how I kind of found out about it and how I first saw an image and saw what might be a potential project.
JS: How many other people are able to also use this? Is there a community that is working with this use of satellite dishes, catching images from the air?
BS: It's fairly dispersed. When I was doing it I didn't know of anyone else who was necessarily doing it. But on the Internet there are some forums for dish heads. A number of individuals have multiple dish systems that receive this type of programming. It does not require a special decoder; it's not encrypted; it's available to anyone with a home satellite dish system; and there are over three and a half million home dish owners in the US, so it's potentially available to that large of an audience. The channels are usually hidden in noise that is there on a satellite with not much activity and where there's usually static and for maybe a few hours a day this link occurs where you can see this programming. Most people will not hunt through this noise and when they do find something they're not going to watch it because it's very boring. The project was sort of a surveillance project and required several thousand hours of viewing. In 1992, I spent about 2,000 hours watching the links of the networks, watching the links created by the candidates. Much of the time during those links nothing happens. You might have Bill Clinton sitting in a chair and he might ask someone to come over and he'll whisper in their ear, "We need to do our laundry. How can we do our laundry? My shirt smells." So it was very mundane, it was kind of a stakeout trying to catch those moments that represented wanting to use TV to not communicate. That's what I was looking for.
SJ: What was the most astonishing experience during this period?
BS: It's odd because to break the project out from its process into a greatest hits somehow betrays the nature of the project, but there are moments that are more revealing than others. I think one of those moments would be seeing Larry King talking with Bill Clinton a week before the election. He tells Clinton that after Clinton is elected president that he should hire Ted Turner to work for him and make Ted Turner part of Clinton's official White House team, that Ted Turner is a great guy, if Bill Clinton loses the election, Ted Turner is also a great guy to work for, too. So that was an interesting kind of confluence of things there.
JS: Where have you shown this program?
BS: I've shown it primarily at festivals in the US and the UK, and it has shown on public access cable television in forty cites in the US. I don't think there is very much promotion for such channels, so I don't know how many people saw the broadcast. It will be shown on Channel 4 in the UK in January. I think that for the most part as long as it's not on broadcast TV, broadcast TV doesn't care. It will be interesting to see what happens once this tape enters the arena of that type of broadcast TV
JS: I think it's very interesting because most viewers would like to see something like this. I mean people are watching television as a sports event only to see accidents or some unforeseen events, and they would like to see the background of the anchorpersons or what's behind the scenes. That is why rebroadcasting such a program would be very popular.
BS: Yes, I think people are very tired of this media perfection and they're tired that everyday at 6 PM a news anchor appears in their house and they're hair is always well made and their skin is always clear and his words are always perfect. Day after day they develop an intimate relationship with this person and this becomes annoying at a certain point. People would like to see this frame broken, that's more of the mass appeal of the project I think.
JS: For me it was a very big experience during the so-called Romanian revolution. Hungarian television broadcast the whole Romanian revolutionary television program. Hungarian TV was not prepared at all and some news makers and TV journalists were called to the studio in the early morning hours. For me it was a quite astonishing experience that it was the first time when I saw the profile of the anchorpersons. So a revolution had to happen to change this city's very strict and orthodox TV customs. So the question is, do you think that this informal side of television could have an influence on the medium of TV?
BS: I think it gets down to an issue of an investigation and that usually requires the revealing of secrets of what your investigating. It could become fashionable to be off camera. This could become just another technique where being off camera just becomes another stage to perform on, and I think the question is: "How can one investigate to reveal something that is hidden and something that is hidden can only be found where the person hiding the thing thinks there is no access?" If they become really aware that there is access, then it becomes just another stage of performance but it's interesting. I don't know what the situation with satellite dishes in Europe very well. I'm going to kind of conduct a survey while I'm in Eastern Europe on what's available, but I was talking to a friend of mine and he said that there are two different satellite bands. There is a KU band, which is a very high frequency and is what the small dishes use, and there is another band called C-band, which is a lower frequency that requires a larger dish. The C-band is not very popular because there is no MTV or movie channel, but it is used a lot for transmitting news footage. My friend told me that there is only one C-band channel uplink out of Sarajevo for all of Bosnia. So if you have one big dish and you tune it to the C-band channel you see for 8 hours a day raw unedited footage coming out of all the footage that's being transmitted out of Bosnia. It's outdated sort of technology, so it should be inexpensive. If one wanted to play with that, it might reveal some interesting insights into how images there are being portrayed.
JS: What kind of reaction did you receive to this program, to this activity? I would like to focus on the so-called official response--I mean did any of the personalities here have any reaction to these appropriated images?
BS: I haven't heard from anyone that's directly related or shown in the tape. Looking at the press and its reaction, newspapers have liked the tape a lot because it attacks television. Newspapers get off the hook. So there is an interesting play going on, that between the different media and how they compete but as far as specific personalities, not so much. I've had some political consultants or spin doctors (a spin doctor is a person who advises a TV personality how to perform on camera) from major consulting firms for the Democrats approach me. They wanted me to come and give workshops on how they can and cannot use this stage of being off camera. No one really in the tape has complained to me, yet.
JS: If I understand it, the technology for catching these images is not so sophisticated. What do you think: Are any other media using this, like tabloids and private TV channels or not? It could be a very hot, very interesting material for them catching a conversation like Larry King promoting Ted Turner as the future president.
BS: Yes, I think there is sort of a paparazzi interest and voyeurism in this, and I'm not aware of any programs that are using it. In that way humiliation always sells well, so seeing someone humiliated by having makeup put on or kind of embarrassing themselves is always appealing to the baser instincts of TV. I think one thing that was interesting after the election was that there was an article that reported that the Clinton White House was monitoring the satellite TV feeds through the Department of Defense. They were able to intercept and downlink network news stories or the satellite feed of the new story before it was broadcast in Clinton's first days in office. This was a technique that had started during the campaign when the Clinton campaign had intercepted the satellite feeds of George Bush so they would get George Bush's commercial before it had aired and then they would have a potential to create a response to the commercial before it had been on broadcast television.
There's also an interesting episode in the tape where a technician is talking to Al Gore's wife Tipper Gore and the technician explains to Tipper that they use the satellite feeds to examine the crowds as almost a form of crowd control, so the Clinton campaign would watch the satellite feed of a Clinton rally and the camera would pan the audience as almost like a surveillance camera and they would be able to identify people who might be protesters or people who might want to disrupt the image in some way and then the people watching the satellite feed would call the rally and tell them, "See that guy there, edge him out of the frame," or, "Move him out." So, Clinton made an extensive use of satellite feeds during the campaign. I think that it wasn't part of the campaign operation in the beginning of the year. At the beginning, I think it was sort of an unawareness by most of the candidates that there was material on these feeds. I think the reason that a lot of people don't monitor it is that it's time comsuming. I have recorded 500 of footage and cut a resultant one hour documentary.
JS: How did you choose the one hour from the 500 of footage?
BS: My filtering mechanism was looking for instances where media was being used to fabricate public opinion to create a false public opinion. The second criteria was how satellite TV was used to limit debate and discussion on the first issue of fabricating public opinion. There was one technique that was called the video news release where the campaign would construct their own TV news story. It looked like a real news story that you would see on your local news. The candidate would write the script and they would edit the tape and they would put this up on satellite and then the local news station would receive this and there was a study that showed that nearly half the stations which used the video news releases never reported that they were produced by the candidate. So George Bush's video news release would air on TV and never be identified as being part of the Bush campaign and the TV station in turn gets some free footage, it saves them money and the candidate gets free exposure in an uncritical fashion. That could be one instance of the issue of the sort of contempt for debate I think is shown by some footage. Another episode shows a candidate that was getting recognition in the polls but was not allowed to participate in the debates. He was a Democratic candidate and was not allowed to be part of the Democratic debate even though he had strong support in the polls early in the campaign. What was interesting about that is that they refused to give him makeup. The TV network sat him down in a chair without makeup. Everyone else gets makeup except him. He reached into his wallet and sent his staff person to the drugstore to buy him some makeup so he doesn't look ghoulish on television. Little instances like that were the two areas I was interested in.
JS: Is it legal? Intercepting images from satellite broadcasts?
BS: I'm not a lawyer so I can tell you my impression of that. There are interpretations that it's legal and there are interpretations that it's not legal. The images go out to three and a half million people; they're unscrambled; they're available; and these are all public figures. There are people who could consider this to be private, but I don't see how this could be private if it's being spread out to by the broad beam of satellite to so many potential viewers. There is this country and western song by George Jones that says you don't know what the law is till you break it similar to a lot of communications laws, especially with a medium like satellites where precedents have not necessarily been set.
JS: This whole thing means somehow that we live in a society which has a total 24 hour surveillance on us. An artist did a sign that says: "Smile, you are on 24 hour CCTV." Does it mean that since this media technology exists, we can never know for sure that we are not broadcast in some form, somehow and somewhere?
BS: Yes, that could very well be, but I think the more important issue is who is editing our image when we are on and who is telling the viewer who we are when we are on? Who is contextualizing our image? That is more about power than just being broadcast. One way the satellites were used by the candidates was as a way a direct political tool to bypass the national press. What would happen each day during the campaign was that the campaign would turn into a TV studio, complete with a satellite uplink. So George Bush would have a satellite dish in the White House, he would stop governing the nation, go into his TV studio and give, maybe, thirty five-minute satellite interviews with each local news TV affiliate in each state. By doing this he was able to work outside of the national press filter, so he had a direct connection with the local stations. They are talking to the President of the United States, the local anchors, so maybe the questions are not as difficult, not as difficult as the national press who would know the issues and would be more informed as to the policy debates that might be going on. That's one issue. I think another issue is a very interesting development that happened in '92 in the US which was a watershed year in a couple of ways. One was that there became a direct way to make a profit on a campaign for press organizations--in the 1988 election, the candidates gave two talk show appearances ,and in 1992, they gave 100. CNN had their highest ratings since the Persian gulf war at that time. The election became commodified even more, in entertainment terms, through the use of talk shows which also resulted in increased revenue. For instance, '92 was the first year that a national broadcaster made an operating profit on its political coverage. Now the election has become very much a profitable item for the networks, where before it had kind of lost money for the networks as a service to the country. There was a big shift for politics and the media in '92.
I would like to follow in this vein of using new media to investigate power. It could be satellite feeds, but that's old news now and less of an investigative surprise. There are such things now in the States as email recovery where someone can sue a corporation and get their hard drive. If they think the corporation has fired them unjustly, they get the corporation's computer and recover all the deleted e-mail messages from the hard drive. If I was to do this kind of project again I would look at the international aspects. Looking at the images coming from Europe to the States, especially as the US gets ready to deploy 20,000 troops to the former Yugoslavia. What kind of story will the press generate? How will the spectacle be spun for the American home, especially during the Christmas season? How is that going to be framed? That's my focus at the moment and I'm working with a cadre of small international dish owners in the US to see programming coming out of Eastern Europe.