Publication Type:Journal Article
Source:Afterimage, Visual Studies Workshop, Volume 13, Issue 10, Rochester, NY (1986)
It is only recently that dramatic fiction and the context of television have become issues in video art. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, most artists chose to position themselves against the television establishment. However, in the current postmodern climate such distinctions between high and low culture, between mainstream and fringe art, are no longer viable. Today, many video artists make a point of defining their videotapes as "works for television." For these artists, the ideal audience is often a hypothetical one: they are creating innovative works designed to be shown on television, a system of dissemination still closed to them. While public television is sometimes a broadcast opportunity for these artists, they are interested in the audience that sits down to watch television on a regular basis, an audience that gains its perceptions of the world from the broadcast medium.
Fictional structures have also been peripheral to most video art as well as to most experimental film. Perhaps the process of writing a script, directing actors, and setting up shots seemed to video artists too similar to the established ways of using a camera. However, over the past decade a group of artists has emerged that has chosen to explore fiction with its cameras in unconventional ways; among them are Matthew Geller, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto, and Ed Bowes. (I use the term "fiction" here because the word "narrative" has been used very loosely in video to mean just about anything in which something happens.)
Of all these artists, Bowes was one of the first to think consistently in terms of creating works for television and making feature-length video stories. Bowes worked in and learned the craft of the film industry before starting to make tapes on his own, so his view of the relationship of television and video is necessarily different than that of many video artists. His perception of his relationship to the audience and his ability to manipulate them also stands in contrast to that of many artists, in large part because of the context in which he sees his audience. Bowes aims for the context of television, yet his tapes are narratives that would be startling and unusual television fare if shown on a commercial network. (Several of them have been shown on public television.) Bowes thinks of himself not as a video artist but as a dramatist, not unlike an author or playwright except for his chosen medium. He has made three tapes to date; each is quite different although they share a similar approach to language and fiction.
The first tape is Romance (1976), a black and white drama that runs over two hours. The plot revolves around Tom (played by Bowes), his relationship to his girlfriend, Kathleen (Elizabeth Cannon), and what happens when her mother and her androgynous brother, Tommy (Karen Achenbach), come to visit. The central story, however, is one of sexual ambiguity, symbiotic relationships, and self-identity. Tom is receiving transcripts of his innermost thoughts in anonymous letters. His obsession with this has created tension between him and Kathleen, which increases when her disturbed brother disrupts their lives and forms a kind of uneasy triangle with them. Eventually, Tommy loses control and murders a friend of Tom. At this point, the characters decide to go on vacation and arrange by telephone to have the mess cleaned up. The last shot of the tape finds them by the sea, each wandering in his or her own world, as the camera roams the
Formally, Romance (with camerawork by Tom Bowes) is a stunning piece of work, especially given the fact that it was shot on ½ inch equipment. It is structured in long, uncut takes, with the camera wandering through each scene in a complex choreography of movement. The real-time aesthetic of the work is also the result of the script, in which much of the action takes place in drifting conversations. On a formal as well as narrative level, the tape is in many ways circular rather than linear.
Better, Stronger (1978) stands in contrast to the lilting pace of Romance. It begins with an intense monologue by its main character, Lana (played by Achenbach), which continues at a fairly relentless pace throughout. It is not a seductive story like Romance, but an aggressive one that often jabs and pokes at the audience. Lana's character is a high-energy, talkative actress who has returned to New York from California for a brief visit. She visits her family and cousins, who are a rowdy and obnoxious bunch, and storms from one scene to another. The tape ends, or refuses to resolve, in a scene where Lana disappears into a club and a producer looking for her tries unsuccessfully to follow.
Bowes made Better, Stronger as an artist-in-residence at the Television Laboratory at WNET/Thirteen. The tape is distinguished by its preoccupation with and relentless poetic use of language. There are so many words in this tape that we hear and digest only a small percentage of the thoughts and ideas they convey. The tape also has a subtext concerned with the process of making television. It reveals the artifice of constructing television in several scenes-within-scenes of Lana acting her TV role on location. There is, in particular, a wonderful moment when we watch Achenbach's expressions and movements as she watches her own actions on an offscreen monitor while waiting for her cue on an audio dub. While Better, Stronger, like Romance, would seem to have a direct plot line, Bowes has structured the action loosely with no central crisis or resolution.
How To Fly (1980), a collaborative venture with Tom Bowes and Karen Achenbach, broke from the central narrative of the previous tapes to explore a completely nonlinear collage of unconnected scenes. It begins with several quick takes, as the narrator instructs the viewer to "take a number, you'll need it later," in a smoothly familiar tone. Disparate scenes follow: a novice learns to fly a plane with his instructor on the ground giving instructions via the radio; a young man has a lengthy conversation with a rat while sprawled on a city sidewalk; a girl does a flip in her classroom; a mother and daughter fight in their front yard about television; and two shady characters in an alleyway have an enigmatic and unresolved conversation, among others. There is a humor and cleverness to many of these scenes: the rat informs her captive audience, "I've been watching you. You've got a clouded attitude. Here you are sitting on top of the foodchain"; when the flying student loses power, his instructor coolly asks, "you goin' down fast?"; the father comes in on the quarrelling family and informs his daughter, "You should be watching TV outside"; and an enormous man complains about a photo in which the girl he is posing with "is too small." Ultimately, the tape feels like a quirky commentary on television in which the metaphor of learning to fly has to do with taking control (or trying to)-of one's life, of all this information, of all of these images. Ultimately, How To Fly is not about how its disparate scenes relate but the way in which they slide by and inform one another.
Bowes is currently working on "Oh, No. Paula!," an eight-part series that involves the lives of a large family along with other characters in a sleepy seaside town over the course of a 24-hour period. The script embodies many aspects of these earlier works. It involves a real-time aesthetic of exploring everyday actions in which the action is often fragmented into scenes of simultaneous yet not necessarily related events. The primary feeling of the story is the dynamics and ambiance of a family, the way in which the siblings relate to one another and to their parents. The characters are all quite warm and sympathetic, and somewhat quirky.
In addition to producing tapes, Bowes has also served as a spokesperson for media artists. He was a member of the media panel at the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) from 1982 to 1985 and the Board of Governors of the Artists' Fellowship Program at the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, NYSCA, CAPS, and the Rockefeller Foundation, among others, and he teaches at the School of Visual Arts. Bowes lives in New York City.
The following interview is an extensively revised and edited transcript from two interviews in November and December 1985. This interview was funded by a media writing grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.
Marita Sturken: How long did you work in the film industry before making tapes of your own?
Ed Bowes: Almost 10 years. My movie career was a little eccentric in that I treated it more like school than work. Treating movie work in a nonprofessional way provided a lot of opportunities to do things that most movie workers don't get to do; it allowed a lot of variations in the jobs I was doing, from assistant editor to associate producer to writer, among others. After about eight years, two things became apparent to me: I was learning less and less and what I was learning had mostly to do with aspects of the business that didn't interest me. I had just written two scripts on topics-supplied by a producer-that I hated. l couldn't have cared less about them actually being made. Making movies takes years and an enormous amount of effort, and the movies I was involved with, which were grade-B feature films and television docudramas, hardly seemed worth that effort. At the same time, I was writing scripts that I thought were worth the effort and that I knew would never be made because they were not on the surface saleable or commercial. I finally left the industry because 1 felt ready to make movies. The idea of making movies excited me, and it seemed easier to do it somewhere else.
MS: Why did you choose to work in videotape?
EB: It began as a convenience that soon became a clear choice. Romance was my first tape and the only one that wasn't written as a television show. I wrote it as a movie, and even while shooting it on tape I imagined it as a film. But tape was cheaper and alluring; and I was very flexible. This was also the first time chat I'd directed, and being able to see the final image on the spot gave me a kind of control that I wouldn't have in film.
Romance was designed in very complex master shots; there's no cutting within scenes. Complex masters are tricky, and if they're not done well they can be very boring. There is a lot of choreography that has to be blocked between the camera and the actors. For complicated scenes, and Romance was almost all complicated, I did a lot of camera rehearsals on location, sometimes for days. Because my cameraman, Tom Bowes, and I could see exactly what was happening, we were able to try things out, take chances, and refine. We were able to do much more, especially in blocking and lighting, than we would do in film. In film one always has to hedge one's bets, because no matter how talented or experienced you are, it's impossible to know exactly what the image will look like until the film comes back from the lab the next day. Can you imagine a painter, choreographer, or writer having to wait 24 hours to see the results of a brush stroke or movement or word? Besides falling in love with that tremendous workability of the tape image, I also fell in love with the texture of the image. I still think tape is much more beautiful on a TV set than film. 16mm film looks just dreadful on TV; it's flat and grainy and indistinct. Also, I should add that around the time that I did Romance, I became more interested in TV than movies.
MS: There are a lot of subconscious cultural associations that we have with seeing either tape or film. We associate a grainy film look with evidence and history or something serious, and a clean, studio-lit videotape image with mediocre TV.
EB: These are cultural associations that are the result of our previous experiences in watching the two. The most important point is that, in practice, the two are used quite differently and for different subject matter. The only television dramas we experience on tape are soap operas, sitcoms, occasional "playhouse" productions, and more occasionally "young people's" dramatic specials. With the exception of ["young people's" dramas], all of them are shot in studios with multiple cameras. For , purposes of lighting, coverage, acting, choreography, and picture making, studios and multiple cameras are very limiting. Several angles have to be fit at once, so the lighting has that clean, flat studio look, and the angles are severely limited by having to avoid the other cameras. There are many more design and blocking problems.
"First class" TV drama-that is, all weekly dramatic series, TV movies, and most commercials-is always shot on film using a single-camera technique. We're used to seeing real drama as film, and we're used to it being less compromised than multiple camera tape. That's one reason why film looks different, "better," and more "natural" for drama.
It is also important to note that film has a 70- or 80-year tradition of craft and technique. Video has far the most part not been involved in this craft tradition. Film art directors, directors of photography, directors, and sound people are just technically better than their colleagues in tape. Historically in tape, it's been the engineers who determine much of the visual look, and engineers tend to be more concerned with signal quality than picture quality. Finally, producers tend to put far less time, effort, and money into tape. However, things are changing; video people are starting to develop craft. I think that the psychological difference between tape and film can be overcome as tape production becomes as visually rich as film production.
MS: What do you see as the primary concerns in Romance?
EB: I am concerned with people's consciousness and am often alarmed at how little it is directly dealt with in drama or, for that matter, in most human enterprises. There are pictures, words, and ideas, sometimes whole stories, going on in people's heads. I'm interested in both the specifics of that material and in the general realization of its presence in drama. Romance begins with the story of a guy who claims someone !s sending him transcripts of his thoughts. 1 didn't feel I could duplicate those transcripts but 1 was looking for a chance to talk about consciousness and how disturbing it can be when that consciousness is brought into a world that seems to ignore its existence.
MS: There is a whole plot element introduced with the character of Tommy. The tape becomes progressively more unreal and abstract, but you bring it back with the last shot of the characters by the water, which is the most beautiful shot in the tape. It has that resolved/unresolved feeling.
EB: Tommy is like a personification of consciousness. This is very disturbing to Tom. However, while there are similarities between them, Tommy isn't exactly a personification of Tom's thoughts. After the murder, Kathleen convinces all of them that the best thing to do is just go away for the weekend. It's very dreamlike. On their way, the implications of the murder are wiped out with a simple, unlikely phone call.
MS: You don't even hear the conversation; it's very removed.
EB: Right, you don't see the murder and you don't hear the phone call. Kathleen comes back in the car and says, "Well I called a friend who said he would get rid of the body. She was a foreigner anyway. They'll think her visa just expired." This is no resolution of the murder. It's totally transparent. One of the things that I tried to do in writing that tape was to create a set of expectations for the audience and then to say, "No, you were wrong. That's not what's about to happen, but this other thing which is possible is about to happen." I think that by the end of the story the audience has learned not to have any expectations.
MS: The storyline in Romance does have a central crisis like a conventional drama, but it occurs so late in the tape that you don't spend the narrative trying to resolve it.
EB: Any writing student knows that the essence of a story is a problem or series of problems that the protagonist encounters and then successfully or unsuccessfully overcomes. As a result of this notion, the events in the narrative are chosen to a great extent either to further the plot of the central problem or to provide information about how the protagonist is likely to handle it. I find that structure tedious and unrealistic. Of all my personal work, Romance is the only story with even a hint of a central crisis and, as you said, that crisis is not very important to the story. I'm much more interested in the variety of events that happen in people's lives, events that are ignored in most fiction. I think that if our fictions are going to help us in our lives, it might be best to base them in the daily lives of people and their consciousness.
MS: How do we learn from fiction?
EB: We learn from the atmosphere, the action, the pacing, the content. People learn about themselves, about the people and the world around them. Fictions create expectations and patterns of analysis. As such, they have moral implications.
MS: Your choice to write scripts that take place in short periods of time seems to be related to your interest in real time and to your interest in relating events in everyday life. But, why bother with the whole concept of a drama based on everyday life? The fact that the camera is there removes it from everyday life.
EB: The stories are fiction. They are not quite like everyday life, but that is the background. The action tends to parallel the action of daily existence while the pacing tends to imitate the pacing of films and television. I'd like to think that the metaphors people take from my tapes are more useful and realistic than the metaphors they might get from the Carringtons in Dynasty. The Carringtons present unwarranted expectations, actions, and goals. It's unlikely that we will ever live in mansions, be replaced by our evil double, or find out that our mother is not who we thought she was.
I've always wanted to be a fly on the wall so that I could watch people carrying out their everyday lives without knowing someone was watching. A lot of the assumptions we make about ordinary actions are just not true.
MS: So why not make documentaries?
EB: Documentaries are a kind of fiction too. Making a documentary is very much like being a guest in someone's house, and guests do not get to see ordinary life, the real stuff. Also, I am basically a dramatist, and I want control because I have something to say.
MS: It seems to me that there is more of an explanation here, though. It's not simply that you're presenting familiar contexts to an audience. For instance, the contexts in Better, Stronger are not all that familiar to many people, but the texture of the action and conversation is. There is a continuity in Romance and Better, Stronger of devices that you use to allow characters to have inner dialogues. In Romance, characters are always looking in a mirror or talking to themselves or maybe talking to another person who isn't really listening, but I felt that the ambiance of many of those conversations is more important than the conversation itself. These are ambiances and conversations, not situations, that we have associations with.
EB: Right. The conversations are of two general varieties: same have something specific to say in which the content is more important than the literary value, and some are more emotional and literary. They rely on tone.
MS: What do you mean by literary?
EB: Concern with making interesting sentences, in which the words, sounds, and syntax are the dominant features, like certain kinds of poetry. When 1 began to write dialogue, a lot of it was dramatically typical in that it was about conflict. One person would say something, the other person would question it, and so on. I got tired of that after awhile and started to think there must be more interesting kinds of conversations than arguments and exposition. I started to listen to conversations and realized that they're not very hard to imitate. I also realized that their grammatical structure in terms of sentences and even paragraphs was not all that simple. There were not well thought-out sentences and paragraphs that had closure and were complete. I began to see that I could use wards to my own purpose. For instance, I could just repeat a phrase, as if someone were thinking out loud, merely because it sounded nice. I saw an opportunity to sometimes write songs instead of dramatic sentences and that these songs were in fact closer to real conversations than traditional dialogue was.
MS: Is your interest in conversational syntax related to your use of nonactors?
EB: To the extent that actors don't fumble with words and meanings the way people do. They are either too welt trained or maybe too poorly trained. The question of actors and nonactors is a very complex one, and one that a lot of people who are working in contemporary narrative are grappling with in a heroic way. There is little that makes an audience more nervous than a nonprofessional actor. In fact, the more sophisticated the audience, the more nervous they get. Most of us don't want to make our audiences nervous (well, sometimes we do), but in any case we would like to deal with what we see as problems in contemporary acting. I think we all see the problem differently. I see it like this: when most actors say a line, they say a lot about the implications of the line but at the same time too little about their immediate presence. In some sense, they know too much about the history of the character they're playing and, with the best intentions, they try to let the audience know about that history. When nonactors say lines, they're just trying to get the words out of their mouths and that creates a tension, much like the tension that two people experience when they are interacting. It's a tension in which another thought process is clearly present. It's not necessarily an uncomfortable tension but one that holds the conversationalists together and pulls them apart with things that are said and unsaid, with little movements that belie their motivations and point toward their active consciousness. So I use nonactors because they can't completely become two-dimensional characters; their selves shine through. The problem is that when nonactors act, their selves are mostly a bundle of nerves about the act of acting, and sometimes you can't understand what they say. That can annoy an audience.
MS: So it's a trade-off. Don't you think that really good actors can get beyond that, or is it more a casting of people in different aspects of their personalities that you are interested in?
EB: I think there are perhaps a dozen actors in the world who consistently present complex personalities. I have a lot of respect for TV audiences. I am certainly part of them, but their demand for third-rate actors is not part of my respect. Interestingly, in "Oh, No. Paula!" I have too many intentions to allow me to continue my exploration of nonactor actors. It's a compromise that makes me quite mad.
MS: Why do you feel you have to use professional actors? Do you mean in order to reach a larger audience?
EB: I think so. It's strange. In some ways, the more sophisticated the audience, the more traditional and simple are their expectations about acting. It's ail quite parochial.
MS: Let's talk a little about your process of working. How do you begin a script? Do you think in scenes or in characters? EB:I think I probably think more in scenes, if I can make that distinction. How To Fly is different than the others, but generally I start with a person or a place, whichever comes first, and I literally try to figure out what might be going on there, and then I try to make a human being who would interest me and to think of something interesting that he or she might do. From then on, depending on what other characters walk into the scene, I decide what could possibly happen next. I like to think that every one of the scenes (except in How To Fly) could logically follow from the scene before, that it is something that could really happen to a person.
MS: Narration has often been a key part of your tapes. How do you perceive its role?
EB: It was different in each tape. It seems silly to call something the length of Romance a novel, but there I was establishing a storyteller.
MS: So you were talking directly to the audience. Then in Better, Stronger the narrator is a character, but aspects of the storyteller are also brought in.
EB: In Better, Stronger, the narrator is less a storyteller and more of the character Lana. In How To Fly, it's a game show host.
MS: It's that voice that we all are familiar with. We don't even worry about who it is, it's just that voice on the TV set, the voice in the aspirin commercial.
MS: And in "Oh, No. Paula!" it's the author again.
EB: Yes. It's very direct to the audience. It's almost like a novelist who talks to the "gentle reader."
MS: So it is self-reflexive. Is it your voice?
EB: It's the voice of the storyteller, and I guess I'm the storyteller.
MS: How do monologues, like the characters thinking to themselves in Romance or Lana talking in Better, Stronger, function for you? Are they opportunities to think out loud some of your own ideas?
EB: They are opportunities to mouth off. In real life, one feels compelled to say something useful or to the point or reason-
ably true. But when I write monologues for characters, I can say things that are useful to say but that I know don't really hold water. That's an important aspect of fiction; you get an opportunity to try out things that you know aren't true, whereas that can be a little dangerous in real life. Fiction is a safe place.
MS: How do you see the role of fiction on television. It seems problematic to define what is fiction and what is not on TV.
EB: Very problematic. Even the stuff that isn't straight fiction has fictional structures to it. For instance, sports are a kind of improvised fiction. If someone hadn't said, "It's very important to start at this end and get to the other. Here are the rules. A lot of people are going to try and stop you," football wouldn't exist. The game itself has most of the essential things that traditional fiction has. There are goals to accomplish and obstacles in the way. The central metaphors even exist; I don't know any sports fans who don't make analogies of sports to politics or business. When the plot becomes predictable, when the game is a runaway, even the most die-hard fan loses interest. Sports also supply the traditional Aristotelian catharsis. Games shows are similar. Even the news has its dramatic structures. Certainly the fact of a fire in Brooklyn is not new, pertinent information. It is a little drama, although a factual one. Even outside of television, fictional and factual narratives have a lot in common, although TV tends to capitalize on the drama.
MS: Certainly the role that the visuals play in creating that drama is a powerful one. How do you perceive the history of fiction and how it relates to the current dominant role of television fiction? In the beginning, fiction's primary purpose was to explain why-why we are here, why we suffer, why you should be good to other people.
EB: Exactly. First, I'd posit that the structure and format of fictional stories is very similar to the telling of "true" stories. True stories are told to pass on information so that people can coordinate their actions, or so that everybody doesn't have to do everything, as in "Bobby was out in the meadow and got some apples that just turned ripe." The points of that story are that Bobby has apples and the apples in the meadow are ripe. Or maybe it's that Bobby, who should have been doing something else, was larking about in the meadow. Whatever the point or points, the story was told for a reason. The same is true about fictional stories. We tell them to pass on information, but usually the information is less specific than it is in true stories, unless of course we are telling an out-and-out lie to deceive.
Fictional stories usually tell us about the nature of things that we really don't know all that much about, such as early religious stories about the creation of the universe or its current composition. Also, stories aren't very interesting unless there is a need to hear them. They have to answer some questions that we have or reinforce a principle. Stories also have something like a cathartic value; they allow us to experience things that would normally be out of our reach. When they're fiction, they tend to deal with the emotions and the intellect. As such, they have social and moral implications. Their texture deals in aesthetics, which is just as real art area of human activity as communication. Therefore, entertainment is more than time wasting and gum chewing; it is a principal way we inform and nurture our intellects and psyches. We're fools if we leave that up to General Foods or Proctor & Gamble or Exxon.
MS: It is frightening to think about the moral implications of most television fiction. As alternative approaches, I see all of your tapes as being very different from each other, especially in their approach to the audience. Better, Stronger is more complex than Romance. It is harder to watch, which has a lot to do with the relentlessness of Lana's monologue.
EB: Yes, and it also has to do with the attitude of the program towards the audience, which is not friendly in that tape.
EB: My intention was to try to create a new set of expectations for the audience, but I was also mad. There are different reactions to Lana. There are people who like her character and then there are people who don't.
MS: The opening section of Better, Stronger is very seductive. What she is saying is interesting, and there are pastoral images of a country airport. Then there are moments of incredible tension, like the scene with Lana in the car with her cousins, which is very effective but to the point where it makes you uncomfortable. It has a real visual tension.
EB: The cousin sequence lasts more than five minutes and about three-quarters of that consists mostly of four characters in the front seat of a car with constant talk, teasing, and roughhousing. The scene is exhausting to the point of irritation.
MS: As viewers, we are not used to having these very active visual elements within the frame that distract you from what you think you are supposed to be hearing.
EB: I think those distracting visual elements are just as interesting as the story. Since I often use the texture of conversations to convey emotion and meaning, it is not always so important what the characters say, at least not immediately. In Better, Stronger I never expected anyone to hear all of what was being said. I simply hope some of the lines stick in your head.
Most of my work, taken on any level, has sections that are difficult in content or form, which I know are jarring for the audience and that deliver rewards that aren't easy or that the audience is not completely comfortable with. These are often my most important dramatic or content statements. But it means pushing an audience, even a sophisticated one, to places ii may not want to go. The one area where this usually doesn't happen is the pictures, the visuals. I use the pictures, which often have quite active visual elements, as rewards for the audience, to keep them watching.
MS: So in Better, Stronger the pictures offer relief from the barrage of words. Can you refresh my memory a little on some of the issues that Lana is talking about in Better, Stronger?
EB: Her character is an actress who is on vacation, who has been working hard, and who is very tired. She is returning to New York, which is where she grew up, and she has mixed feelings about it. She really hates the movies at this point although she clearly likes to act, so when she talks she is expressing that ambivalence and frustration. She has the added function of being the narrator, so that besides expressing things about herself, she expresses her opinion to the audience, which narrators usually don't do. I knew that Better, Stronger was going to be on Channel 13 at 11 p. m. after some English plays, which are all so edifying. 1 thought that was a really safe position for the audience to be in, and I was angry with them about that. There was also a sex scene that I wanted to do, and when I realized that I couldn't do it that made me very angry as well. So in that scene Lana says "I can't show you this. Why? Is it too private for your home?" She talks a lot to the audience about the audience's position.
MS: How do you perceive that audience? Complacent?
EB: The PBS audience? Middle-brow, middle- to upper-middle class.
MS: It's not the same audience your other tapes were made for?
EB: No, I don't think so. That was specifically made for a Sunday night on PBS. How To Fly was also made for television and was also going to be on PBS, but it was directed to a more general audience. The biggest difference between public and commercial television is its class orientation. In fact the content and structure of the programming have many more similarities than dissimilarities, certainly in fiction. The aesthetics of moss public television are some place in the nineteenth century.
MS: The relationship you have with the audience seems to be a sympathetic but aggressive one, as if you have your arm around them while you are poking them. How do you see that relationship?
EB: It has become a gentler relationship with "Oh, No. Paula!," which is a more specific piece of work than my other tapes. There are more things that I actually want to get accomplished, so it's not just throwing the audience off the track in order to open them to other avenues. It's actually directing them towards certain tracks as possible models. It doesn't seem like a good idea to slap the audience around too hard because the environment, or the model, that 1 am trying to create is not a model of normal drama. That is enough of an adjustment.
MS: How To Fly seems a very different approach from the other tapes.
EB: How To Fly was an experiment. I wanted to do this series called "Adelaide and the Foodchain" and to do something for which I was not the only writer and director. I also had this notion that we could put together a dramatic progression very similar to a traditional plot in terms of the pacing and emotional progression, with scenes that had nothing to do wish each other. How To Fly was like a workshop; there were a couple of scenes that Karen Achenbach directed, a couple of scenes that Tom Bowes directed, and there were a couple of scenes, not necessarily the same ones, which they wrote.
MS: It is the only work of yours that is really nonlinear in its approach. How do you see those scenes as coming together in intention?
EB: The scenes come together because you get from one to the other. There is certain dramatic, emotional content to one scene followed by a dramatic, emotional content to the next scene that is not unlike the relationship of two continuous scenes in an ordinary storyline.
MS: It was interesting the way the scenes moved by one another and didn't really have any connection beyond the way in which they were put together.
EB: That is the connection. It is as if you had a special remote control that magically made a drama for you, although [guess it's more as if I had the remote control.
MS: So, is the central impetus for "Oh, No. Paula!" writing about a family?
EB: It was the initial impetus; impetuses tend to build on one another. I've seen families where there is tremendous affection and love, even though nobody seems to have too much control over anyone else. More often the opposite is the case. An.example of how I work might come from how I constructed the Timms, the principle family in "Oh, No. Paula!" The parents are in their late thirties-very young, considering their oldest son is 19. The 19-year-old is something of an overactive giant, 6'6" and speedy. Even if they wanted to, the parents would have little success in controlling him. The younger kids are 10-year-old triplets. I felt like I needed three of them if they were to be as powerful as their older brother and their parents.
MS: How do your characters present alternative models to the characters on television who reaffirm certain roles and stereotypes in our society?
EB: They are in somewhat less control, more curious, and wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are a bit less defined. They all have eccentricities about them. It is extremely important that there be room for eccentricity.
MS: I think that a real key to understanding what you are doing is defining how you choose to position yourself. It is important to distinguish what you are doing from television on one side and video on the other in terms of your approach. You are the only artist 1 know who really constructs work toward a very specific television audience or time slot. Is that because you reject the other outlets?
EB: No, but television is my primary interest.
MS: It's very calculated in terms of the way you are constructing these tapes. If a restricted and conventional medium like television is your final goal, how far can you really push the forms of your work?
EB: I think that television is restrictive if the work intends to be mainstream or to be saleable. I chose TV because it is our principle means of cultural expression. t should also say that I don't think TV is the worst thing that ever happened to a society. I'm an artist who wants to tell stories and make fictions that are useful for people, for lots of people. TV seems an obvious place to do that.
MS: It seems to be a fine line that you choose to straddle. It's a different mentality than that of the artist working toward a museum or gallery context.
EB: I don't think that the categories of television and art are mutually exclusive, so I don't think I am straddling any lines. Television, as it is practiced, has a highly restrictive, intellectually or critically set system of boundaries. Art has some advantages in intention, since it is not produced to sell products; it only tries to sell itself. TV tries to do both. Something that further muddies the problem is the history of video art. At its inception a mere 15 years ago, video artists appropriately believed that all of the history of TV had to be diametrically opposed. Much of that history was drama. Because few video artists were dramatists and because TV drama was so transparent and dreadful, there was little inclination to pursue that area. Certainly no one in the industry thinks that I'm straddling any lines. They know just where to place me. It's hard for people involved in video art to think that work that is intended for TV could possess any art.
MS: What I find problematic in what you say is this notion that it means less for this work to be seen in another context. A lot of work would took real interesting if we tuned into it by mistake on NBC. Look what you are comparing it to, some pretty mediocre stuff.
EB: (laughs) That's a good place to start. But to be fair to myself, it is not as easy as it seems. Comparison is not the point of the work, although the question does speak to what I am saying. There are lots of talented people working in television and making mediocre programs. That happens for two reasons: their intentions are limited by the programs or series they're writing, and they have almost no respect for their audience. By merely choosing to work as an artist, those limitations and supporting structures disappear. No one is going to encourage me, reward me, or define my intentions.
MS: So, in art world contexts, viewers bring associations of fine art to your work that you don't want them to?
EB: The reason that I find my tapes not as exciting In a closed-circuit context is that literally and contextually it doesn't have the closed-circuit antecedents to use as manipulative points. I am not interested in showing my work in museums. l am just not interested in 20 people. Let me put it this way: Much art resonates the history and practice of its medium. This resonance is not just passive, it's something the artist uses to achieve his or her goals. My work resonates TV and film. It has a humor that is something like, although not an imitation of, sitcoms or Billy Wilder. There's dramatic movement that is a little bit like the soaps. How To Fly sometimes seems like a game show. These resonances are devices that I use to direct the audience so that 1 can change the forms and the content that the forms carry. Resonating video art wouldn't work for me, because it is so new. There just isn't a large, familiar enough body of dramatic work there.
MS: Now do you see the relationship of video art and television?
EB: I think your question really concerns high art and popular culture. There seems to be a need to define high art from a firm critical base, and in video there is a compulsion to talk about the lack of a critical base. It's interesting that in painting there has been a series of well-defined critical bases, one more off the wall than the last. I certainly think one can say that this is good art and this is bad art. The reasons tend to be complex and variable. Those reasons, like much of what we are learning about our humanity and our world, are not enhanced by being put into rigid formal structures. They have always been destructive for art.
MS: But, on the other hand, there is not an adequate amount of discussion that takes place around the work, certainly about video.
EB: That is because we are talking about a field that is very young, that has not produced a great volume of work, and that has had limited aesthetic and societal impact.
Because I am an artist, "a worker of art," it will come as no surprise that I have no great affection for criticism. That's a simple psychological condition. Why should I be affectionate toward something that can be very damaging to my ability to work, my ability to find production money and to reach an audience. It's especially irritating to me since criticism is often arbitrary, emotional, or grounded in some interesting but hermetic system of values.
Video has, to a great extent, been spared the types of destruction wrought by contemporary parochial criticism. I think Screen magazine is a good example of the destruction I mean. Screen can be interesting if somewhat arcane, but the school of criticism that has come from it has paralyzed a large number of filmmakers and has in fact set certain circles of independent filmmaking back five or more years while the filmmakers try to recover and to formulate ideas that aren't bounded by the theories of some English writers. Does video really want to cripple itself the way painting and music have been limited and defined by criticism? I guess when critics become more open and less authoritative, I'll be more sympathetic.
MS: Well, it should come as no surprise that 1 disagree with a lot of what you are saying. The example that you give is a branch of criticism which reties heavily on psychoanalysis in discussions of art and can certainly be a dry and clinical way of looking at the work. On the other hand, many of the issues that we are discussing here need to be talked about more, and a lot of that discussion has to happen on paper. Yours seems like a pretty conventional view of criticism to me.
EB: Most criticism is pretty authoritative and conventional. This seems more like a discussion, and it doesn't seem at all confining.
MS: Perhaps, but writing about video shouldn't be restricted to description. What kind of a dialogue do you think that we/ they should be having about television?
EB: Some dialogue as opposed to disdain. Television is a cultural phenomenon that is begging for some interest. It is undeniably the dominant cultural form in our society. The people who grow our food, teach our children, make our cars, chose and elect our leaders, and are our leaders, watch it four or five hours a day. Unfortunately what most intellectuals do about TV is decry it. It's interesting to note that our principle academic center for the study of television is at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania. That's a school built by the man who made his fortune with TV Guide. I don't think we can just let them have it all. We can either let TV work for us or let it manipulate us for the purposes of commerce.