Super Convergence January 27, 1991
(The Day That Mickey Went to Baghdad)
Art Installation by Dawn DeDeaux
Super Convergence is a large scale photographic grid of over 100 images of a televised broadcast, installed on an adjoining wall and floor. The work documented three hours of live broadcast in a mega-convergence of American culture reflected in the 1991 Super Bowl Game and the live coverage of the first war with Iraq, The Gulf War.
This captured event is “the media spectacle of real time” featuring the world's largest simultaneous viewing audience, and the most expensive television commercials of the year. Added to this extravaganza was a super war between civilizations oldest and youngest cultures. These statistics form a media age super convergence.
The photographic stills capture the inseparable manner of presentation used by the network to present a war and a football game. It displays an exploitation of patriotism and violence revealed in the commercials and the CBS Network promotional spots. The following is a transcript of a lecture given by Dawn Dedeaux at Houston Center for Photography in 1991, published in SPOT Magazine.
Super Convergence January 27, 1991
Lecture by Dawn DeDeaux
Lecture Transcript published by SPOT Magazine
In conjunction with
Houston Center of Photography exhibition:
War: Controlling the Image
May 24 through June 23, 1991
This work is a documentation of the unique convergence of American culture presented on Super Bowl Sunday, January 21, 1991. It was an extraordinary day when the political economy was fully realized - a day when propaganda and advertising fused.(1) Pulled together for this three-hour event was the largest-ever televised, simultaneous worldwide viewing audience for the media spectacle of real time - The Super Bowl. The world’s most popular entertainment event collided with the most expensive television commercials of the year - interspersed with live coverage of the Gulf War that started a week earlier. Add to these stats the interspersed live coverage of a real war between civilization's oldest and youngest cultures and you have a media age super convergence like no other.
This work was fully spontaneous and happened on a late Sunday afternoon while I was in the deadline frenzy of another project. I suddenly remembered that it was Super Bowl Sunday and that the game would soon begin. I am not a devoted football enthusiast nor cynic, but the importance of football in American iconography had been very much on my mind in the prior days. It was less an interest in cultural theories like how football might thread back to coliseum-like institutionalized violence and more about the fact that I was uncomfortable that America would host an entertainment simulation of battle when the country was engaged in a real war.
I thought the staging of the Super Bowl was inappropriate and implied that America did not take the idea of war seriously enough, or that we missed an opportunity to show our reverence for the seriousness of war. It would have been a gesture, admittedly rare and incongruous with the prevailing American Rambo cowboy stereotype image that we constitute around the world. If the football game was staged regardless, how could this warrior fantasy be presented tastefully? It was a legitimate concern, but the power of commerce prevailed over wisdom when officially announced - ‘the show goes on.’
The PR machine packaged it pretty, stating that the game was good for troop morale. (But it's not like the war could be put on pause to allow the troops to pull up a chair at the frontline to watch the toss.)
The decision to present the Super Bowl also reflected the new political swagger and mental strategy. It was not good for Americans to look rattled by Iraqi aggression. This stay-cool groove emerged from a post-Iran-embassy-occupation and post-Carter-helicopter-crash optics. Crisis management now adopted a casual look, embodied by President Bush, Sr. as he dictated war policy from his moving golf cart or fishing boat while on vacation.
As kick-off time approached, I could not resist peeping into the magic box to watch how the network would broadcast football and war simultaneously. I was startled by the network’s naive effort to synthesize the extremes, and within the first two minutes there was no question that I needed to produce an eye witness documentary of the absurd. It happened spontaneously, in a bolt of reflex, as though a flying saucer had landed on the fifty yard line, or a volcano erupted near the stadium, or Rodney King was there again, helpless on the side of a Freeway. It was not lost on me that I was producing an eye witness account, not of three-dimensional life but of an electronically transmitted facsimile seen on the flat surface of television.
Super Convergence crystalized, commanding me into hyper-performance. Within minutes I set up both 35 mm cameras and a video recorder on tripods. I had my own film stock, and called in favor to a neighboring photographer who rush additional film stock to my door. The stock random variety defines the work that features both black and white and color imagery throughout the grid assemblage. Over 20 rolls of film were exposed in the transpiring hours, all supporting the relevant discourse about simulacrum where the difference between the “real and the imaginary is abolished in the hyperreal logic of (television) montage.”
This is a stew of "sur-real-isms" I muttered to my omniscient dog who was watching an advertisement for cat food that was being served in a silver goblet.
The coverage started with pre-game reel showing the chalking of a synthetic green field, the search for hidden bombs amidst the bleachers, the installation of concrete embankments, pre-taped interviews with coaches, players and fans; then cut-aways to the boosterism of generals and soldiers rallying from their own field, a parched colorless frontline far, far away.
Cut back to the green for the National Anthem sung by voice supreme, Whitney Houston, in white jumpsuit and patriotic head scarf, and flanked by a stoic National Guard, holding American flags. Fireworks. Station Break. A retro company commercial counsels on fuel conservation followed by a news report on record breaking profits for Exxon, Mobile, Chevron and Shell. Then more petro news, a cut to the Persian Gulf with cameo appearances of seabirds being suffocated by the oil spill. Cutaway. The war carnage of smoking tanks on an abandoned highway. Now a Jeep car commercial, can take you anywhere. Back to the Game. Toss. Kick. Run.
Break. Back to the Ads. Made in America luxury cars starring spokesman Lee Iacocca who is standing at a podium with an American flag. News break. General Schwarzkopf's gives a live war update while standing at a podium with an American flag. So mirrored were these two images, these two examples of masculine authority, there is little wonder that the retiring General has since agreed to become a spokesperson for a rival auto maker. His live audition on Super Bowl Sunday was a grand success in his cross fade with Iacocca.
Super Convergence is not a critique on the travesty of war but rather an examination of contemporary culture and mass media optic strategies - the current tools of propaganda. As infamously penned by Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, "if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth.," and that can apply to car salesmen and politicians alike.
I also steered away from a specific war critique because I suffered a degree of culpability. At first, after Iraq invasion of Kuwait, I found some logic in President Bush's tactic to 'threaten' retaliation as a forceful hand of bluff that might prevent an actual war. Yet on the eve of January 16, 1991, while in a neighborhood dive with multiple televisions, I together with millions of international viewers watched the rockets red glare 'live' over Baghdad. I nearly choked on my slice as clearly the card game had not worked out. I was hoodwinked, too, thinking we were still buying time.
My artistic engagement came only into focus because of what transpired during The Super Bowl game a week later. I like to unravel the subtext in visual symbols and codes and this proved abundant. We are both victims and perpetrators of the consciousness problem that has festered for well over a decade. We have become creatures of habit, commercial seduction and political manipulation - much by way of the repetitive, Pavlovian instrument of television. Why are we the way we are? Unenlightened, we swim naïvely in a sea of sit simulated fantasy, where the swimmers themselves are mostly concerned with their fashion and strokes rather than the abominable condition of the sea it's self. I had not realized how distant we have become from reality until this particular Sunday afternoon. Is television, yes program a major contributor to the Socio political problem?
Sunday in the park
One of the steel frames I have included in super convergence is taken from a promotional spot that aired during a commercial break for a new family sitcom starring Jonathan Winters. The frame depicts the stereo typical American family before the television set watching Sunday afternoon football, complete with the props of beer and popcorn. In the span of a century, Seurat’s Sunday in the Park (which I almost named the installation) becomes something ancient and alien - a lifestyle of ritual promenade and civil exchange displaced by television that has become the arena for most of our contemporary social interaction. Pointillism gives way to pixels.
This has resulted in serious questions now post concerning the Omni presence of television in our lives. One is the current study by an educational psychologist Jane Healy, who theorizes that TV is reversing the evolution of the human brain and the ways in which we process information. She argues that television encourages a passive excepting rather than active questioning in response, which eventually dulls our intelligence. 4
Others are concerned by the way television shapes our personal lives, and its collective influence, for example, on the outcome of political events. In 1971 and experimental television real life filming of a selected typical American family was produced over a seven month period. Selected as the prototype, the happy loud family marriage eventually broke up before television audiences.
Baudrillard asks if the family would have dissolved if the TV had not been there? The same question was asked of CNN's Peter Arnett. Had his coverage from Baghdad become a component of the Gulf War itself?
How did television affect this war? The issues of media coverage were central to any comprehensive treatment of the gulf war saga. By now nearly every American news commentator has contributed some major significance to televisions role in the war outcome. This illustrates part of my disagreement with Alan Sekula of the California Institute of the Arts who recently delivered a paper at the Annual Conference of the Society of Photographic Educators held in New Orleans last March. The intriguing title of his paper was War Without Bodies and I had rushed to attend his lecture expecting him to discuss aspects of the media censorship that gave his title its significance. Instead his paper should have been titled War About Bodies - for it centered on issues surrounding homophobia and comparisons of General Schwarzkopf to Lawrence of Arabia.
While I appreciate some of Sekula’s views, I question the wisdom here of certain references and gross omissions. First, I found it highly nostalgic and inappropriate that Sekula chose a Life Magazine issue featuring the Gulf War as the visual frontispiece of his lecture. Clearly LIFE magazine best symbolizes the documentation of World War II: and it is television, not print, that best serves as document venue for the Gulf War. Secondly, goals for greater political activism on the part of his audience and advises us by all means to turn off the TV. How can anyone successfully wage a politically active campaign without full knowledge of the opposing propagandist’s tactics? Media control is one of the most important weapons of Sekula’s enemies. How will it change the world if a few more intellectuals turn off their television sets? The goal is to excess its fuller potential. I, for one, have not abandoned a McLuhanian optimism that TV can be used for the advancement of society. Was photographer Sekula subconsciously angry in reaction to television’s displacement of photography in this past war? Is this why I resorted to photographing a television for three hours? It was medium and message.
This calls to mind the controversial remarks of museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski in his catalog essay mirrors and windows American photography since 1960, recently brought to my attention in a manuscript of a forthcoming book by James Hugunin. He says Szarkowski tells of the decline of photo journalism and the great picture magazines, such as life. He suggests that their downward spiral in popularity and significance is in part due to the success of televisions immediacy and its ability to read language and image into story, as opposed to the fact that photography's direct report seems opaque and superficial. "He points to an epistemological problem plaguing photography.” And says Szarkowski, good photographers have long since known that most issues of importance cannot be photographed.“ (5)
Hugunin himself defends photography roll stating that "if one views photography not as a means to reveal absences but as a structuring device exploring various conventions for example, the photograph as text… Then the photograph may be viewed as a legitimate second-order discourse with the event discourse as its object. “
My own use of photography is determined by a Works concept. Lou Thomas, curator of the contemporary arts center in New Orleans, where this work first appeared gave me an option for the presentation of the material. I've had considered incorporating video monitors but I chose not to. I believe that the use of photographs is essential to the power of the word by providing its expansion of time. These photographic units uptown are presented in relationship to one another and show their construction more clearly by eliminating the rapid movement of video. I also chose photography to distance the image subject from its source TV and liberate its multiple meanings.
Give example of Whitney super
I have always been intrigued with the type of style image and idealism text that is found in American films of the 1930s through the 1950s and in the early formation of television. The heavy-handed projection of earnest innocence is today somewhat embarrassing, yet in spite, this ideal or longing for innocence - is hard for me to fully extinguish. We all are embedded with a desire for a utopian life in the face of death. This utopia can offer to us in the early days as of the technological age. Fragments of this desire remain with us today. I can sometimes see it in the lines of my mothers face.
Today, as always, there is longing for utopia and I saw this new Hope in the face of the young blonde boy in a football uniform singing in a stylized southern twang before the Super Bowl audience at halftime. Behind him in a field of children waving flags and the faces of a new generation of mothers in the stands. Many of whom share, in some distant abstract way, the belief of a New World order so often spoken of by the kinder and gentler President Bush who together with wife Barbara appeared on television before the nation and the world is a kind of Oz Ozie from the oval office.
Add hitler propaganda film Lin Refnathal
If we gave an Oedipus to an imagined American Utopia we might consider the world of Disney land and it's gleaned mean castles gleaming castles we Mike sitter the world of Disney land and it's gleaming castles is the embodiment logo of American culture. During the Super Bowl halftime and important image was can join with Mickey Mouse join forces with the other great American invention of football. This image followed the halftime news break segment on the war featuring an interview with the leading archaeologists who wanted to draw attention to the dangers the war post to some of the earliest sites of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia Babylon, when suddenly the viewer was catapulted through time and space, back into the future - back into Disneyland back into America. One moment the ancient ziggurat appeared on TV, and the next moment a person disguise is a giant mouse build the screen. Live surrealism it was indeed. It was the day that Nikki went to Baghdad. The French author L Marin in his book Utopies jeux d’spaces has examined Disneyland as a form of you tropic expression. It's called in a deal laws transposition of a contradictory reality NJ please that traces of the aspiration of America. I find its utopian pursuits evident in the mega system organization. It's moving sidewalks instantaneous trash removal, and other underground systems that control the imaginary. Unlike the origin of fairytales that offered the difficult real life lessons to prepare children for the realities of adulthood, contemporary fantasy has been disinfected in the architectonic invention of Disneyland which aims to sell an illusion of a fear free, happy, and more to life. Ironically this was reinforced in Disneyland 64 page advertising supplement that appeared in time and Newsweek issues during the first two weeks of the gulf war. Headlines proclaimed build a snow man that won't melt, and see the northern lights every night. "This Disney land creator must have believed that earthly utopia was possible, or he lacked faith in the other promise paradise to follow. Today the disease Walt Disney awaits an earthly resurrection in the freezer in a frozen state of 180° centigrade.
Fall from Grace
While the Disneyland halftime show he speaks of innocence and a longing for utopia, it is also unfortunately plagued by a subject of inescapable propaganda. Another film reference that surfaced in my memory while watching the elaborate Super Bowl halftime show was the effect of German propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will, commission by Adolf Hitler.
The film is champion for its style and alarming and it's success. Seductive manipulation. Like the halftime performance it was staged in part in a stadium built for the Berlin Olympic games of 1936 before Germany Germany's invasion of Poland. It to employees the themes of athletics, performance, and most similarly, children in uniforms for a masterfully crafted, chilling patriotism to harness mass compliance to an ideology and a purpose for war. Similar tactics were used in other German films and by Mussolini particularly in his films, Colonies for Children. It was with the greatest discipline that I resisted cross fade layers of Triumph of the Will upon my Super Convergence grid. The subliminal were already just too overt.
Patriotism or Propaganda
I had a discussion with my mother about these observations, she was concerned that what I considered propaganda was instead a former era’s acceptable expression of patriotism, and that this patriotism was good for the country, particularly in her coming of age World War II years. My aunt, also a WWII teenager, equally defended the Super Bowl patriotism saying that it was the first time she had observed it in decades.
The danger found in patriotism is the fear that it decreases independent thought. Many argue that freethinking is our best weapon against the evolutions of a Nazi Germany or a Kool-Aid mass suicide in Jonestown. Freethinking gives the democracy its greatest meaning.
It is true that patriotism creates unity and, during the Gulf War disunity was largely crafted on television. To create and maintain a united America, it was important that the Bush Administration exercise control over the image of the GUlf War, which included the cancellation of televised coffin-homecomings for America’s dead soldiers and the creation of the media pools for battlefield frontline reportage. Control the Image. It was the lesson of Vietnam - media's role in the disruption of that war and the downfall of the Johnson administration – that produce what will be remembered as the infamous Gulf War’s “see no evil” censorship strategy.
Insert here: Troop morale and the 1918 Pandemic….
What I impose upon super convergence was the placement or sequencing of images. Following Super Bowl Sunday, I continue to photograph the war coverage for an additional three weeks. However, when it came time to create the installation for the contemporary arts Center, I decided to illuminate all images except those that appeared on television the day of January 27 because I realized that the work would be more effective if it conveyed it's true time and sequence. There are three exceptions - all the same photograph of a soldier playing his saxophone in the desert that I scattered throughout the grid. I insert this is my own offering, a lament for the muse dying live. Ultimately the important issues at hand we're not only the specifics of war, but the greater complexities of American culture. Therefore it became necessary to merge the war with popular culture through a balanced conjoining of war images cultural references generated in the Super Bowl and the commercials that cut through all of the sequential still frames.
Another tough decision was whether or not to maintain the exact time sequence by following the true order of images as they appear on my negatives and contact sheets, or to exercise creative license in the juxtaposition of images for contextual or formal emphasis. I am opted for the latter. I juxtapose the inseparable manner of presentation used by the network to present either a war or a game. For example the graphic devices used to show the strategy of movement in a steel frame of a football replay, or the diagram scribd upon a map showing troops surrounding the Iraqis, the appropriation of the intersecting hairlines of a smart bomb target device by advertisers such as the Budweiser commercials, and again the smart bomb target Mark has used in a super graphic behind the portrait of President Bush and the American flag. The cross hair target behind the President’s head conveyed a symbol of American superiority through its command of new technologies. The pharmaceutical TV ads also featured the new crosshair icon on a pain pill that soon ‘explodes’ your pain to nothingness. The exploitation of patriotism ran amok in the commercials.
Another important decision was whether or not to include color images together with the black-and-white photographs. At the time of the event I photographed in both formats. I decided to proceed using both for formal aesthetic reasons, and clearly the visceral impact of the muse-birds being suffocated by a glistening prismatic oil coverage was far better served in color, and became the central image of the grid.
This work has become for me a cause for greater personal reflection on the gulf war and the predominant media theories of the day, on the excesses revealed in American life, and the language and forms of the art that have resulted. It represents both my challenge to embody or escape from the trend in the arts represented in terms such as deconstruction, intertextuality, appropriation, image-scavenging, society of the spectrum, simulacrum, hyperreality and socio-political documentaries. In the end it is likely a crash runaway wreck of all of these parts.
The last component of the installation is the floor piece - an aireal photograph of the Super Bowl stadium over which is superimpose the ever present intersecting crosshairs of the smart bomb target device. At the first showing of this work in New Orleans of you were asked me if I was implying that I wish to bomb the stadium? I said no certainly no more then I wish to see the ziggurat bombed in Iraq. The floor piece is not a call to arms, but a bed to viewers to join in for a closer examination of our values. The work is less an indictment of society than a mirror held up to it for one's own self reflection.
In a recent issue of the New Art Examiner - ironically its last - Donald Kuspit calls for the end of the moralist-activist art and a reawakening of the aestheticism by way of desire. (9). That seems to play right into the hands of the capitalist-consumerist way, if you ask me. Is the identification of desire what advertising is all about?
With some of Kuspit’s argument I agree, for we as artists delude ourselves if we think that the import of politics into our work and replace the act, and art, of political activism. However, how can we deny the influence of politics and how it defines our lives; and the cultural climate surrounding us shaped through the body politic? This climate, or predicament, is better understood by an earlier art theorist Arnold Houser, in his book The Sociology of Art, that tells of a world forever changed by World War II and the introduction of nuclear inihilation? (10). Desire? I desire to stay alive, thank you; and this exceeds the luxuries of regenerative art.
Certainly, neither the rejection of activism nor the return to base desire offers up a resolution to the confusing dialectical systems that surround us in the Super Wars era. In our paradoxical and frustrating pursuit of truth, artists must caution against the superficial use of politics to cloak a work in ‘substance’ or the ascribing of an undeveloped judgment to seemingly give a work an aura of functionality. Most of the profound works of the past decade have come to us by way of a socio-political response. I for one choose to remain open to this process - even if ostracized because I critique desire rather than apply it for that is the domain political propaganda and capitalist strategy. And no, I am not a marxist - just an average red-blooded freethinking American, and daughter of a retired football player, an all-time center.