Article by Axel Andersson in Berlin; Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013
Before television sets became thin, digital and sterile they were chunky (and strangely anthropomorphic) because they needed to host a large cathode ray tube (CRT). At the base of this tube, furthest from the viewer, was one or more ‘guns’ firing electrons (in colour TV one each for red, green and blue) through a vacuum that would eventually land on a phosphorous layer that made up the screen. A bending of the projected electrons through magnets helped create the image (if not they would merely end up at the centre of the screen). Magnetic impulses controlled by electronic circuits passed through a metal coil around a part of the base of the CRT. Magnetism and electricity were thus two forces transforming a beam of electrons into all those wondrous worlds that televisions would show.
Nam June Paik pioneered the artistic exploration of the television in the early 1960s. In his Zen for TV (1963) a static white line was created by Paik distorting the magnetism of the CRT. The screen had now become the place for a new artistic figuration. Rather than being a somewhat magical transmitter of images it became a material that could be altered, subverted, and made to produce a completely different set of images (this was still two years before the first portable video cameras became available to the public). In Magnet TV (1965) he placed a large visible magnet on top of a seventeen-inch TV set. The electrons were deflected. This time they formed an abstract pattern of vector lines spiralling as though belonging to impossible topological figures. The image changed when the magnet was moved.
Carsten Nicolai’s crt mgn (cathode ray tube, influencing magnet) begun as a homage to Paik’s early TV-works but has grown into a complex commentary on mechanics, technology and reproduction. The exhibition is dominated by the crt mgn installation. On one wall four neon tubes are mounted. Two cameras pick up the image of the tubes and relay it to two CRT televisions sets that lay face-up in sombre dark boxes. The images of the tubes being broadcasted are constantly distorted by two long pendulums suspended from the ceiling that have magnets at both their ends. Both the pendulums and the beam from which they hang are, like the boxes, starkly black against the whiteness of the gallery. The magnets produce two things: they bend the broadcasted rays as they pass over the screens, only a couple of inches below, the pendulums moving irregularly, and the modulations produced are also recorded and transformed into acoustic signals by two microphones attached to two loudspeakers. A low thumping sound, somewhere between a machine and a heartbeat, fills the room.
The rest of Nicolai’s exhibition is comprised of reproduced images generated by the installation. These are presented as duratrans in light boxes (duratrans are often used to create backgrounds in television studios) and as prints. The images, which appear to be blown-up details, show patterns of vector lines, quite irresistibly beautiful in all of their peacock glory in CRT red, green and blue against black backgrounds. In a way, the installation functions as a machine that produces art. There is something industrial about its beat and its pendulums; reminiscent of the pistons of a steam engine.
We are still, with crt mgn, in the world of the mechanical, but it is mechanics behaving more and more like technology. Paik’s attempt to use the television screen as a canvas and his emphasis on the social aspect of information took place in a classic framework where mechanical reproduction was moving away from what could be considered art. It required, in other words, a physical intervention by Paik to transform the TV into works that retained the aura of individual and singular pieces. They could be repeated, but this would be a copy of the original. Nicolai’s work is coolly abstract and makes no immediate social or political statement. This does not however result in a minimalism aiming only at an affective appreciation. The various levels of crt mgn: object, recording, transmission and interference, combine to make this a machine capable of producing a pattern that is so random that it appears irreproducible on a conceptual level (although the prints can obviously be copied perfectly). It is proof of Nicolai’s virtuosity with the material that this effect can be brought to life with components similar to those Paik would have encountered in the mid-1960s.
If Nicolai’s work does not come across as social and humanistic in the spirit of Paik this does not mean that it is disinterested in a human element. Crt mgn is after all a very human machine that can produce a singular randomness that belongs much more to humanity than to the regular and repetitive quality of nature. Paik conquered the TV screen and it no longer needed to dictate a broadcasted image. Instead it became the surface for artistic creation. Nicolai’s installation and images are a step towards a new level, where technologies are given room to comment on their own specificities. Nicolai’s work seems to anticipate the existence of a social world of things.
Axel Andersson is a Swedish cultural historian, writer and art critic. He received his PhD from the European University Institute in Florence in 2007 and is currently working on questions regarding recursive narrative forms and irreproducible events in relation to technological change and media. www.axelandersson.se