Matt Sheridan Smith: I wanted to start by talking about the series of three recent shows called Negative Headroom: The Broadcast Intrusion Incident. Maybe you could tell me a bit about the story behind this and where you first saw it intersecting with your practice in a way where you wanted to make a project out of it.
Simon Denny: Well I was making these works that were dealing with changes in format – looking at the TV set, through some histories of “Video Sculpture” and framing my looking at this around this moment, about 3 or so years ago, when the CRT monitor was in the process of being made obsolete by the changeover to LCD and LED TVs, and the consumer thirst for thinner, flatter TVs (no matter how manufactured) was evident in changing design. I tried to highlight the synchronicity between this physical change and the moment where network television itself was changing as different distribution paths became more prevalent, and the one way feed of TV was being replaced by methods exploiting user generated content, social networks, etc.
After working through these formatting and structural changes, trying to use them as allegories, I was looking to other moments when there was a kind of precursor to this changeover – some kind of maverick example of feedback before user input came to be very central in media structures. And then I came across this example from 1987 in Chicago where there was this truly bizarre broadcast piracy, with this anonymous group, with someone dressing up as Max Headroom and doing this bizarre parodic bit in the middle of an episode of Dr Who. One of the great things about this incident was the way it manipulated the character of Max Headroom – a character that was already so flexible. Headroom was this faux-CGI character, invented for an English TV show, a fiction based in a dystopian TV-dominated future. But then it shifted from its English inception to a US context with a rewrite/remake similar to what has happened to contemporary shows like the Office or Skins. This is in itself kind of odd because the name Max Headroom is taken off car height warnings on buildings in England, but these are not the same in the US – where that wording has no connection to common signage, so already there is this strange displacement to it there.
On US television the character also took on other roles, as a kind of talk show host, and then eventually as the ‘face’ of New Coke, a re-branding attempt at rivaling Pepsi in its years of (supposedly threatening) popularity. So ‘he’ went from occupying a position as a character critical of media domination, to a blabbering talk show puff master, to promo advertiser in a relatively short period of time.
So, to then have the character impersonated in this kind of rough slap-up of the piracy incident was kind of yet another incarnation for this fully flexible, ultimately position-less figure. He/It could stand in for a whole range of alliances, a flickering bust that stood in front of many backgrounds.
MSS: I liked in particular the connection you outlined between the readymade and promotion. Max Headroom is such an interesting figure for this: fictional AI turned promotional figure turned broadcast hacker stand-in, which in turn became adapted as a trope for similar actions….I’m thinking of the anonymous video from the anti-Scientology actions – which itself was adapted from another adaption from the scene in V for Vendetta where the main character interrupts the national television broadcast.
SD: Yeah promotion seems to have been such a crucial part of the readymade from the beginning somehow, right? I mean as this way of finding another meaning for a form or whatever – re-branding? There was the Blind Man, the Steiglitz photo, etc. The whole anti-marketing campaign…. All part of the package.
The 4chan anonymous thing was fantastic also. Proof of just how powerful an example this broadcast intrusion incident really was. This celebrity arena that Scientology plays in is also not totally unrelated to these questions. The Cruise figure? Will Smith? Amazing deployment, totally inspired strategy.
MSS: It’s like a sort of semantic cascade. The anonymous video might have been made by people who weren’t even born yet (or at least were extremely young) in Max Headroom’s “day”, if we can ascribe him a lifespan like that. I like how he ends up occupying this really weird space between a subject, a person in celebrity form – not as a body per se but as a figure disseminated through promotion – and an object. It’s really more of a complex adaptive object than a person, but how it played out resembles a “real” celebrity. Complete with the celebrity meltdown, totally inappropriate “I can’t believe he’s doing that he must have lost his mind!” incident there at the end.
Tell me a bit about the objects and texts. Going back to this idea of a semantic cascade, there seems to be a similar spirit of re-purposing, remaking, promoting, and propagating – broadcasting even – in the work itself across the 3 shows as well. Not to mention hacking – not exclusively in the computer hacking sense, rather in an analog and analogous sense as well, I’m thinking of the modified televisions.
SD: Right. Three shows in three very different venues, almost simultaneously. This multi-format gave me a chance to have object-doubles, similar strategies altered obviously by their setting, seeming repetition… There were kind-of set components that were weighted differently for the different venues.
1. Newscast footage from Chicago networks in 87 reporting the image – always played on a Samsung.
2. A found, spray-painted studio backdrop image of Chicago, stretched like a painting, with a Headroom Merchandise bed-sheet similarly stretched partially obscuring it.
3. Printouts (sometimes on photopaper, sometimes on a4, sometimes on US letter) from a blog story, an attempt at a history of “TV Terrorism.”
4. Various images of actor Matt Frewer being made-up as Max.
5. An original drawing by Sam Viviano for Mad Magazine, illustrating a kind of evolution of talk show hosts ending with Headroom.
6. Samsung promotional material.
7. A poster for one of the exhibitions featuring an image used to promote the bedsheet merch (used in the show as a readymade painting mentioned in #2).
8. Various sculptural renditions of boxes for display – forms in between lightboxes, re-possessd TV casing, vitrines
9. My own merchandising – a woven towel of an icon I tried to reposition as a stand in for the idea of TV piracy in general – a photo of a CRT tube from behind, with a “flip” arrow below it.
10. Archive photographic material from the Chicago Herald Tribune.
In the Halle Für Kunst in Lüneburg– a small kunstverein (city-funded, member-based not-for-profit) near Hamburg– we managed to get Samsung to give the show a full display of its newest, flattest 3d LED 50” TV – total promotional material in a not-for-profit. The second presentation was at Galerie Buchholz’ stand in Art Basel Miami Beach, a zone built for promotion, which couldn’t be further from the small kunstverein. Here the “original” Viviano was repackaged, the Samsung used for display was part of a previous artwork of mine, the stretched studio backdrops were complete doubles of the objects in Lüneburg, the “light-box” forms seeming in this presentation a strange in-between of a Tillmans abstract and the ubiquitous stand-number sign accompanying every presentation in the fair.
The third presentation was at the Contemporary Art Museum in St Louis– although a non-commercial space, a space with a different relationship to its public than the kunstverein. Here I installed a totally black studio background stretched instead of the Chicago one, the Viviano images were photographic prints (without the original drawing). There was also simply a lot less on display here, and the whole presentation was supported by the inclusion of a number of flat-screen mounts owned by the institution, sans flat screens, on one wall. Presentation decisions like this framed a kind of inconsistent object broadcast– an homage to the event altered through space.
MSS: When I was researching your project I came across the “fake” intrusion where, not long after the first incident, station producers essentially staged another Headroom broadcast in the middle of their own sports show as a joke. Of course a lot of people still thought it was real. This was such a quick absorption and redeployment of the incident from by the news station, the original target. That kind of cultural penetration, the embedding we’re talking about, says a lot about meaning and how malleable can be with this kind of media.
SD: Yeah these predictable recycling moments are so rewarding. It was a deceptively complex thing– so obvious and familiar yet so ambiguous as a gesture. There are various transcripts of the intrusion floating around, one I found reads:
“He’s a freaky nerd!”
“This guy’s better than Chuck Swirsky.” (a WGN -TV sportscaster at the time)
“Catch the wave.” (a reference to the New Coke marketing slogan)
“Your love is fading.”
(hums the theme song to the 1959 TV series “Clutch Cargo”)
“I stole CBS.”
“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds.”
“My brother is wearing the other one.”
“They’re coming to get me!”
MSS: Funny. It really reminds me of blog comments, youtube remakes, memes, and web parodies all at once. The whole incident feels really contemporary somehow.
SD: Totally. As I say, these things are what attracted me to the incident, one can read it retrospectively as a kind of precursor to certain structures for discussion that have become the norm. There was also a kind of sculptural feed back to my exhibition that happened – an uninvited comment which fits very well this kind of model, maybe translated into a gestural thing. In Lüneburg one week before the closing of the exhibition the Samsung monitors were stolen from the kunstverein. A real intrusion into space, but also into the logic I set up for these objects.
MSS: During the day or overnight? Did you replace them or take it as such and leave space for it? Were they ever recovered?
SD: Overnight. We can’t replace these things– 7000 euro worth of gear was stolen. Police reports are still in progress, but one doesn’t find these things of course. Hannes Loichinger, the curator and director of the space was under a lot of pressure to close the show early, so that’s what we did. It’s difficult for a space of that size to manage an incident like that. But you can kind of replace what these objects stand for. With the event of the monitors being robbed, my value system, the way I structured this group of objects, was changed. The monitors, a key point in my web of presentation, were stripped of the things I wanted them to stand for. In the theft suddenly the TVs’ only relevant value is as potential for easy money. But if I reintroduce that action back into my system– drawing a casual line between the monitor theft and the illegal signal piracy incident that is the topic of the exhibition, it can be used to support my project again. So a final group of parts of the Lüneburg show were presented in a group show looking loosely at ‘transmission’ enabled that space to reclaim the theft. I presented a Samsung poster of a hand touching the stolen TV alongside the Halle Für Kunst’s own used lightbox and several lightbox sculptures containing Tribune photos, promotional images for my exhibition, images of the robbery and the press release cancelling the last week of the exhibition’s programming.
upcoming: SIMON DENNY: CRUISE LINE at the Neue Aachener Kunstverein