Reflections on David Hall’s 1971 TV Interruptions
Victoria Mariel Paz
Midcentury criticism of television’s manipulatory power foreshadowed our complex engagement with networked media today, which both facilitates and compromises our creative faculties. Victoria Mariel Paz looks at artist David Hall’s TV Interruptions in a new light and considers how imagination, stimulated by derivative consumer narratives, affects our desires, politics and cultural identity.
‘Fast’ was repeated eight times during the 30-second television commercial for Anacin® pain reliever in 1958. The advertisement illustrated a shadow outline of a person, with three boxes drawn inside the skull encasing a hammer pounding, a springing coil, and an intermittent electric shock, respectively: in contrast to Aspirin, even buffered, Anacin worked “fast,” in relieving the graphically portrayed and mind-numbing ‘symptoms’ of tension headache, by a bubble trail, absorbing the pill from the stomach and flowing into the boxes.
The hard-hitting commercial was broadcasted regularly, and recreated over time in slightly different visual and narrative variations, while unrelentingly pushing its Unique Selling Proposition (USPs) coined by the ad’s creator, Ted Bates & Co.’s Rosser Reeves. He confidently acknowledged that the ads were “one of the most hated commercials in the history of advertising,” for their aggressive and unceremonious tactics of linguistic, symbolic and auditory repetition. His smugness, however, was not unwarranted: highly criticised and bluntly scarred into American society’s collective memory, the ad nevertheless increased product sales tremendously. Over a span of 18 months, Anacin sales rose by 200%, and the infamous catchphrase was quickly incorporated into the American cultural lexicon.
Simply imagining headache symptoms through Anacin’s provocations of psychological anxiety and discomfort was successful in encouraging consumer spending, despite the public’s recognition of the frustrating strategy. The politics surrounding American consumer’s engagement with this commercial was exemplary of midcentury advertising criticism. 1950’s post-World War II America saw advertising reap the benefits of the proliferation of television, exponentially increasing airtime for commercials that were inspired by a newly formed baby boomer middle class coming out of the Great Depression with a healthy consumer appetite, and encouraged by government efforts to maintain social conformity, as well as cultural and political antagonism towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Advertising was undeniably bent towards portrayal of optimism and strength in the American economy, capitalist repurposing of wartime technology, and portrayal of the ideal nuclear family surrounded by modern life products made plentiful by the rising manufacturing industry.
By the 1970’s, broadcast television had gained nearly two decades of popularity as a mass-media throughout the western hemisphere. In the UK, the notion of commercial television – which was established later than in the USA – was, from its inception, controversial. The public was sceptical of potential benefits from the American TV framework, as it was redolent with advertiser manipulation of programs and invisible branding of products presented directly by actors without separation from episodes in commercial breaks. Advertising agencies were producing shows themselves, as was the case in the 1954 scandal regarding the quiz show, The $64,000 Question, which was rigged – the results were decided in advance by Revlon, Inc. Independent Television (ITV) was introduced in London in 1955, though under the supervision of the Independent Television Authority (ITA) created with the Television Act of 1954, precisely for the purpose of having a regulatory agency to ensure the country against its overseas counterpart’s fate.
TV Interruptions (1971), one of David Hall’s most celebrated works, was widely considered to be the first case of artistic intervention in British broadcast television. Hall, a pioneer of video art who was initially trained as a sculptor, began working with film and video in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Made for the exhibition Locations Edinburgh, commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council and curated by Alistair Macintosh as part of the 1971 Edinburgh Festival, his TV Interruptions were broadcast on Scottish television over a period of 10 days in August and September 1971, during commercial breaks, randomly and recurring. The videos, reaching an unprecedentedly wide audience, were streamed with no introduction, nor announcements or credits to Hall. The nature of the interruption remained strictly confidential, only known to the operators of the television channel. Audiences watched the pieces and continued with their day, oblivious to the crux of Hall’s work, which was the act itself of the disruption of the TV broadcast.
Arguably the most well-known of the videos, Tap Piece (3:31 secs) displayed a metal tap in the top right corner of the image, accompanied by a blank backdrop. The tap was turned on, allowing water to stream out while appearing to fill the television screen. Water filled past the tap, silence ensued, and the image tilted until it stopped at an unnatural angle. The viewer by all counts would become immediately aware of the video’s physical relation to the television box that framed it, while watching the line of water recede diagonally. To the sound of a drain plug being pulled was followed by complete drainage of the water. Another work, Two Figures Piece (3:12 secs) filmed in a studio in Penicuik, further experimented with the viewer’s awareness of the TV set in their surroundings, along with the technical aspects of video, by superimposing an apparently still image of a person sitting at a table, with another of a semi-transparent person moving at an unnaturally fast pace, both in the same room. The juxtaposition between the abnormal movement speeds and quality of the double exposure again encouraged the audience to visually sense the natural limitations and conditions of the television medium.
Hall’s intent in broadcasting the circa three-minute videos was to highlight television’s political structures, the object’s materiality and the medium’s power of illusion. In each piece, Hall sequentially suppressed and shocked the viewer’s attention system through aesthetic and narrative immersion, cognitive estrangement and oftentimes uncomfortable sensory awareness. The oscillating levels of self-consciousness that Hall evoked in the audience highlighted a societal fear of the TV-centric era: benumbing passive consumption of dynamic visual media that enabled political manipulation and cultural myopia.
This issue is still exercised today, notwithstanding our increasingly complicated dynamics of interactivity with digitally networked media and accountability for fuelling the narratives that we consume. Central to this consideration, are the effects that derivative narratives have on society’s collective memory, and, in turn, on cognition (one common debate being the impact of television on imagination and creativity in children). What was feared then was the risk of mimetic appropriation of media themes that ultimately could undermine our imagination. In brief, although an extremely complex process, the neural basis of imagination is rooted in our brain’s resourcefulness in accessing our memories. While imagining an experience, for example a personal daily regimen, “… your brain simply takes the path of least resistance and reactivates neurone that have been optimised to process this sort of scene.” A scenario anomalous to lived, ingrained memory, i.e. novel experiences and fictions are naturally far more difficult to imagine and as such are the optimal conditions for developing our imaginative flexibility. While our capacity to imagine is largely unconstrained, to widen our cultural framework productively enhances imagination. In spite of the prevalence of visually creative advertising, it is worth considering whether the repetitive tropes throughout the media encourage limited thinking and incite compulsive imitation of the commercial imaginary on a daily basis?
Though originally shot in black and white 16mm film for practical purposes, Hall viewed the pieces as videos, existing within television and its critical dialogues. Ten interruptions were made and broadcast, however, only seven of them were later chosen for re-purpose by Hall, and consequently renamed 7 TV Pieces. The British Council purchased the set and distributed them as films; video tape versions were exhibited in November of that year at the Hayward Gallery, in the Artists’ Placement Group Show, Inn7o: Art & Commerce; and at Ambika P3 in 2012, amongst other exhibitions, commissions and screenings across the UK. It was most recently displayed at Tate Britain for the BP Spotlight series (13 Oct 2014 – 29 Mar 2015). In the gallery the work was shown on 7 separate monitors, distributed randomly across a room, playing each video synchronously. The Tate’s press release described how for each piece the “viewing is interrupted, as sound and image merge and conflict, evoking a similar experience to when the works were originally shown on television.”
In my opinion, the art market’s consumption of the piece has rendered it less powerful then it was in context of its inception. That being said, presenting the work in a gallery setting is far from a futile pursuit – it simply operates on a different register: functioning more as an echo, and an aide-memoir for the original TV Interruptions. However, as is common with much art criticism, viewing the work in retrospect and with all information available about its history, the piece became evocative of its relevance to the times during which Hall showed the work and the cultural symbols associated with TV. One piece in particular struck me, his first “Interruption Piece,” (2.20 secs), which presented the burning of a TV monitor and cabinet, placed in a country field. Alongside the recurring ‘beeps’ one can hear a voice intermittently calling out ‘interruption.’ At first inspection, it appears to be an emphatic metaphor for resisting the temptation of the TV set, with the burning as an act of defiance. While other work in the 70’s confronted television with explicit critiques surrounding advertising, such as Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People and Chris Burden’s TV Ad (both made in 1973), Hall’s intentions for the TV Interruptions were based on subtle gestures of artistic and political subversion, to mirror the media’s coercion tactics.
The Death of Grace Archer
In hindsight, the visual symbols and verbal cues in the videos are reminiscent of the case in September 1955, when the BBC aired the popular radio soap opera The Archers for the first time on television, which was on the same night that the first ITV contractor in Britain, Associated-Rediffusion, began transmission of its channel. Though not confirmed until decades later, it was apparent at the time that the BBC perpetrated the episode as a means of redirecting viewers away from their new competitor, by televising a particularly poignant scene where Grace Archer, a recently introduced leading character, died from severe injuries en-route to hospital after attempting to save horses from a barn fire. BBC’s efforts were incredibly successful: media coverage the following day overshadowed news about the independent commercial channel: the fictional ‘Death in the Family,’ as read the cover of the Manchester Guardian, was heard by eight million people and “led to the BBC switchboard being jammed for 48 hours by heartbroken listeners.”
This reference was almost certainly unmarked during Interruption Piece’s first broadcasts on Scottish TV, and there is no evidence or information corroborating the idea that Hall intentionally referenced The Archers in the video. Airing Hall’s TV Interruptions ironically re-enacted the issues that the public debated in the inception of commercial television; by reworking the beguiling devices of visual narratives, and by concealing the videos’ purpose, akin to early brand promotion in the United States. Just as viewers through their desiring imagination wished that their heroine had continued to live, by what was obviously a political manoeuvre on part of the BBC, the success of the commercials of Anacin were attributed to the consumer compounding the toxicity of the ad with the need to relieve an envisioned headache. In practice, this compulsive behaviour trumped the communities’ own politics surrounding the media landscape.
Through the internet, which nearly 90% of the UK population now have access to, we have established an interface with media culture that is at global reach, with historically incomparable communication speeds. As opposed to the recurring ‘beeps’ throughout Hall’s videos – which frustrated engineers in a television shop to a point where he had to leave through the backdoor while the video was playing  – we now have ‘clicks’, entirely of our own production. Our habitual engagement with repetitive capitalist narratives in advertisements, news, and entertainment is setting a cultural stage for manufactured self-imagining dictated by our narcissistic predilection for virtual socialization, derivative identities, and repetition of ideas. To add to the mix, our creative energies are being reinvested back into online technologies of individuation and mass customization that are homogenizing consumption and feedback into almost seamless streams of information. In effect, it appears increasingly feigned to define the media as a pervasive force and lay blame to contemporary methods of advertising as it becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle the consumption-production nexus.
My engagement with David Hall’s broadcast experiments on several levels was as a reminder that our own internal processes of perception and assimilation, in our everyday engagement with networked digital media, are worthy of our attention in relationship to questions surrounding how we can nurture our imaginative faculties. What is the status of multinational media’s influence on collective memory today, and, accordingly, what governance do we have over our own imaginative resistance to aspects of media engagement that risk leading us to perceiving the world in a way that contradicts our current views, ethics and politics? As has traditionally been the case, in our contemporary society we continue to be actively critical and aware of political and commercial structures. Though extreme, even hypothetically, the question ensuing is over time, could we lose this? On the other hand, could an engaged albeit reflexive approach to our media consumption heighten our self-awareness and increase imagination under contemporary requisites for interconnectivity? Perhaps the answer is in the mobilization of the visual media we consume, as we see that repetition can be a highly loaded device for discourse to provoke innovation and imagination from the substance of the very truisms which we, today, vehemently criticise.
David Hall was a prominent figure in post-war British art, founder of London Video Arts in 1976 (now known as LUX), and a member of the Artist Placement Group. He established the first time-based art degree with a focus on video at Maidstone College of Art in 1972 and was co-organiser of The Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery, (London 1975), which was the first international exhibition of video work by artists in the UK. He studied at Leicester College of Art and and the Royal College of Art in London (1960-1964) and gained early success winning first prize at the Biennale de Paris in 1965.
A full archive of David Hall's work can be found here on Lux Online.
 “The artists were invited to intervene in various ways in the city environment, and besides Hall they included Stuart Brisley, David Parsons and Jeffrey Shaw, all associated with APG, and Ed Herring, Peter Joseph and Graham Stevens.” Mick Hartney. 1996. “InT/Ventions: some instances of confrontation with British broadcasting,” in Julia Knight, (ed.). 1996. Diverse Practices: A Critical Reader on British Video Art. Luton: University of Luton Press, p.40.  The interruptions were viewed by “an audience of 250,000 per night.” Alistair Mackintosh. 1972. “Correspondence”, Studio International, 183 (942), March, p. 45.  Gregory Berns. 2008. “Neuroscience Sheds New Light on Creativity.” Fast Company magazine, October.  “My TV Interruptions were on film (not video) – the reason for this was because STV would not accept non-broadcast standard video recordings at the time and the union would not accept a non-union director using their studios. I therefore had to produce the work outside on an acceptable format, i.e. 16mm film. However, the intention was very much that wet were TV works.” David Hall, in Diverse Practices, p. 353.  Tate Britain, BP Spotlight: David Hall: TV Interruptions. 2014–2015, London.  Tony Shryane, original producer of The Archers, confirmed before his death in 2003 that the storyline was catered for the event of ITV’s launch in order to redirect viewers.  Martin, Nicole. 2008. “BBC killed Grace Archer to ruin ITV launch.” London, UK: Telegraph Media Group Limited. April 16.  InternetLiveStats recorded in 2014 a 89.90% penetration, with 57,075,826 users on internet.  David Hall, in Stephen Partridge et al. 1990. 19:4:90 Television Interventions. Dunning, Fields and Frames Productions, p. 40.
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