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nettime: 24 hours CCTV
Diana McCarty on Tue, 1 Oct 96 11:41 MET


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nettime: 24 hours CCTV




Smile You Are on 24 hour CCTV
Interview with Brian Springer by J‡nos Sug‡r  Dec. 1995. Budapest

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 the media projects?

BS/      I'm interested in examining the role of media in the US,  and in
thinking about how I can gain access to the press,  to their process of how
they construct images which is very difficult because they  control the
access. So I'm very interested in the 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 which there are over three and a half million big dishes,  they're
called BUDs -or big ugly dish - and so what I did was buy a couple of BUDS
and the reason I bought them was because on satellite TV in the US with a
BUD you can see people while they're preparing to go on television and
again during commercial breaks -  so let's say 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
this other special satellite frequency you can see Larry King with an open
microphone, 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 about this in magazines that people could see news
anchors having makeup being put on and there were sort of (we have this
term in the US - bloopers - and a blooper is like 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 is the blooper
of the failure of democracies or instances where there is contempt for
debate or a contempt for discussion and 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, which is a very highly rated national program in the US and it's
this very huge set with a map of the world and there are clocks everywhere
and the camera zooms into this big plush chair and sitting in this chair is
this technician and he has a screwdriver and he's just tapping it on his
hand and he's just staring and this goes on for maybe four or five minutes
and nothing happens.  There is this huge spectacle of satellite
transmission and this set and it's all kind of reduced to nothing through
this kind of boredom of preparing and that's how I kind of found out about
it and how I first saw an image and saw what might be a potential for the
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 -  they call them dish heads - and there are a number of individuals
who 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 two thousand hours
watching the links by the networks,  watching the links created by the
candidates and many of the time during those links nothing happens so 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 and then trying to catch those moments that kind of 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, and he tells Clinton that after Clinton is elected president that
he should hire Ted Turner to work for him, make Ted Turner part of
Clinton's White House team officially, and that Ted Turner is a great guy
and maybe in case if Bill Clinton loses the election, Larry King also
mentions that 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 the channels, so I don't know how
many people saw that kind of 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 and
that is why to rebroadcast 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 and 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, that this TV revolution went on and the 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 and I
think that 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 more,  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 is in Europe very well. I'm going to kind of conduct
a survey while I'm in eastern Europe of 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 and the C-band which requires a
larger dish is not very popular because there is no MTV or movie channel on
C-band, but it is used a lot for transmitting news footage. My friend told
me that  there is only one uplink out of Bosnia and Sarajevo,  for all of
Bosnia and that it's on one C-band  channel.  So if you have one big dish
and you tune it to the C-band channel you see for 8 hours a day raw ad
unedited footage coming out of all the footage that's being transmitted out
of Bosnia and this could be a very interesting investigation and because
it's outdated sort of technology, it should be inexpensive. So if one
wanted to play with that I think 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, how the press has reacted- newspapers have
liked the tape a lot because it attacks television - it examines television
but does not look at the role of newspapers, so newspapers sort of get of
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 this term spin doctor
and a spin doctor is a person  who advises a TV personality how to perform
on camera.   I've had some spin doctors for major consulting firms for the
Democrats approach me and wanted me to come and give  workshops on how they
can use this stage of being off camera and>how not to use it. That's been
pretty much the reaction, that's no one really in the tape has complained
yet to me.

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 private TV channels or not?  It could be a very hot, very
interesting material for them,  I mean  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 downlink network news stories about Clinton's
first days in office and they were able to intercept the news story or the
satellite feed of the new story before it was broadcast and this was a
technique that had started during the campaign where 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 just a lot of time. I have recorded 5 hundred hours
of footage and I cut a one hour documentary from that 5 hundred hours of
footage.

JS/    How did you choose the one hour from the 5 hundred hours of footage?

BS/    My filtering mechanism was looking for instances where media was
being used to fabricate public opinion to create maybe a false public
opinion and when satellite or television revealed the kind of contempt for
was being used to limit public debate. 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 which shows a candidate that was getting recognition in the
polls but was not allowed to participate in the debates and what was very
interesting  about that candidate, is that 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, like the TV network
sits him down in a chair and there is no makeup. Everyone else gets makeup,
but not him.  He has to reach into his wallet and send his staff person to
the drugstore to buy him some makeup so he doesn't look goulish on
television.  Little instances like that were the two areas I was interested
in.

JS/  Why did you choose the title "spin"?

BS/  I chose the title spin loosely because the earth spins and satellites
spin and there is this saying in the US  that to spin a story or to spin a
yarn,  which means to make up a story.  The other part of that is this term
spin doctor and a spin doctor is a media advisor-tells a television
personality how to perform on television and quite often how to spin out of
answering a question.   Another example of a spin doctor would be a
politician who smiles and looks into the camera  and says we're going to
cut all social programs.   You don't hear that he's going to cut all social
programs, you just see the smile.

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 3 and a half million people and they're
unscrambled and 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 this broad beam of satellite,
to so many potential viewers. There is this country western song by George
Jones who says you don't know what the law is till you break it and that is
kind of the way with a lot of communications laws, especially with things
like satellite 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, so 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 and that is more
the power than just being broadcast.

JS/ Can you just say a few words on your view of politics and media, the
relationship or use of the politicians and politics of media?

BS/  One way the satellites were used by the candidates, a direct political
tool,  was as a way 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 affiliate TV station 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,  this local anchor, so maybe the questions are not as difficult,
not as difficult as the national person who would know the issues and 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- in
the 1988 election the candidates gave two talk show appearances and in 1992
they gave 100.  CNN, in the 1992 elections had their highest ratings since
the Persian gulf war and the election became sort of 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. That is
they made more money in revenues than they spent covering the campaign. So
now the election has become very much a profitable model for the networks,
where before it had kind of lost money for the networks, a kind of service
to the country.   That was kind of big shift for politics and the media in
the US in 92'. I think  well, I would like to follow in this vein of using
new media to investigate power. It could be satellite feeds but maybe
that's old news now and it's not so much 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 hard drive, the corporations computer,
and they recover all the deleted e-mail messages of the hard drive. I think
if I was to do this kind of project again I would look at the international
aspects and I think in Europe and images coming from Europe to the states
would be very interesting to look at. Especially as the US gets ready to
deploy 20 thousand troops to the former Yugoslavia and to see what kind of
story, how that's spun as a spectacle for the American home, especially
during the Christmas season. It would be very interesting to see how that's
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.

Brian Springer  brianspr {AT} buffnet.net
Janos Sugar     sj {AT} dial.isys.hu


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