Reality TV has come to define our cultural landscape. The Kardashians, Real World, The Real Housewives—we all know they’re not exactly real, but we dutifully keep watching. Even if these shows weren’t completely scripted, it’s hard to know if anyone can be completely themselves in front of a camera. That’s why Victoria Keddie and Scott Kiernan present the only aspect of television that can’t be altered—production. For their first solo exhibition in the United States, the duo, known as E.S.P. TV, has taken over Pioneer Works to present a large-scale installation that harnesses the drama of inaction. Putting everything behind-the-scenes in front of the camera, along with Pioneer Works employees and the exhibition visitors, Work is an exploration of the line between truth and narrative. The contemporary office set becomes its own sculpture inside the larger production machine, and everybody is a participant. Through a six-episode arch, E.S.P. TV takes us deep inside the world of television where we learn everything is a labor, even being yourself.
BULLETT caught up with the artists and Pioneer Works curator, David Everitt Howe, to talk about the installation, production and Maury Povich.
Tell me about Work.
D: Victoria and Scott moved our second floor open plan office at Pioneer Works onto the first floor, and redid it as a contemporary office with gleaming white desks and chroma blue walls—Miami Beach meets Chase Bank. They’re just recording us working in the office for 6 weeks and are turning it into a weekly serial episode, and we’re just sort of figuring it as we go along.
V: It’s really hard to explain all the different components of this project. Just listening to David, it kind of just sounds like an office. But when you come in here, it’s not just an office. It is a televisual set, we do have a full broadcast console here, we do have a 10 foot satelite dish which is also a cinema dome, we have monitors everywhere, playbacks everywhere, and also, components of our instrumentation are framed artworks on the wall. So it’s a hyper real but also hyper surreal working environment.
What’s the goal behind it?
S: Part of our purpose with this was to displace that part of the building down here, but also to make it so the taping and the process of taping are actually part of the performance. We basically wanted to take all the production stuff, all the behind the scenes aspects and make it into a set. We wanted to expose the things from behind the scenes, so the production itself, becomes performative, and all the things they’d already normally be doing become performative, as well.
D: That’s the most interesting part to me—how our everyday working habits are performative to begin with, but we never realize it. The act of switching that to being behind the camera and with the addition of the live edit, adds a layer of narrative that might not normally be there—a level of performance and mediation.
Why did you decide to create an installation, rather than just a regular TV show?
V: We’re not necessarily looking to revisit televisual tropes or create character personas found on TV. It’s more about the reality of production, and how that interacts with the reality of a working office. Scott and I are obsessed with liveness on TV and the idea of what is real, what is live, what is aesthetic and how they all interact and dance with each other. There’s always a couple different worlds coming together to create this aspect of ‘real,’ and I think, instead of pushing a narrative, we decided to let the action become the narrative.
D: To me, the drama is more about the apparatus of the image, rather than the people themselves, even though there are people working here who are the performing subjects—it’s really more about where the camera moves and the machines around you.
S: Also, the fact that you can’t just come and see the show—the show is constantly going to be different, and your perspective is crucially important because the cameras will also be capturing you. If you’re inside the set, your perspective is instantly different, because it’s looking back at you.
When I think of a live TV audience, I think of Maury. This is the opposite of that manufactured high drama.
S: I don’t think of reality TV and talk shows as live TV, because they’re scripted and set up and actually not very real at all—they’re about the people’s reactions, not about the apparatus itself. Reality TV tries to have that, but it doesn’t because it’s a scripted idea.
I also think in this case, the drama is the lack of drama.
V: Totally. But also, the audience has to kind of find their way, or tune in where they want, because they aren’t the ones being catered to—they’re actually part of the larger vehicle.
S: I also don’t think television is something anyone would normally think of as a sculptural media—that’s the way we’re trying to treat it. Television is usually just the feed of stuff that’s constantly coming at you, but because we’re treating it as a sculptural media, that also includes all the language, all the apparatuses, all the equipment, everything.
What is it about television that interests you?
V: It’s a vehicle I’ve been brought up with, and television has always been this entity that’s in every home. But it’s also characterized a lot of the information that we gather, whether it’s entertainment news, or other means—it’s how we continuously approach communicating through a large brand, or a large broadcaster to a large body of people. It’s a phenomena—the phenomena of liveness, but also the phenomena of telling a story. That’s what makes television, and the whole experience, so fascinating.
D: What I find interesting, is that the television image is flat on the screen, but it is an object somewhere. We’re making both sides completely apparent by showing the way the camera lens flattens space, and the space itself, as well as how everything is framed.
S: Television really has it’s own language. We’ve done projects in the past—and somewhat here, too—that really focused on that ling, and in a different context, they take on different meanings. So we’re really moving all these different elements of television around, physically by looking at it sculpturally, but also with the language.
What’s it look working not just with each other, but with so many other artists in a project of this size?
V: E.S.P. TV has always been a collaborative process that takes us into a space where we’re working with other artists. For this project, the idea of our collaboration involving a larger group of people in a larger space—that’s not foreign to us, and it really excites us. Historically, as well as now, when we work, we are very site-specific and that will always involve a new group of artists that are particular to that place. We’re always visiting, so the architecture is a component, the other artists are a component and the audience is a component—it’s never just us and our work.
S: We’re on the set, too, so that nebulous control center where all the mixing and everything is happening—you can see it, and we are on set just as much as everybody else. That removes any sort of hierarchy between producer and performer. Because of that, we are performing, too.
Do you think filming automatically takes away a level of reality?
S: I don’t think it really matters because I don’t think reality is what we’re going for—it’s the space between.
What do you want the audience to take away from the experience?
V: I think I’m just as interested in what we take away from it, or what the other collaborators take away from it. Because they’re part of the story, I don’t see the audience, even though they are coming from the outside, as a separate entity. I understand we’re putting on this exhibition, if that’s what we’re going to call it, but really, the exercise itself provides a few things we could all take away—the strength in nuance, and in the mundane, these kind of exchanges that happen in the strange rituals of human exchange. But also, all of the elements that are part of a production are exposed and that’s something you should take with you—you’re seeing everything and I think understanding the work that’s involved can give you a different viewpoint of what you’d experience otherwise, when you just see the finished product.
D: Also, an appreciation for the camera image, an appreciation for performance, and an appreciation for labor and how that can be performative, and how you can take the mundanity of being at work and make that extraordinary.
S: There’s no fixed message in what you should take away. But also, as much as there’s this equipment here, and we’ve made the effort of moving their office downstairs into the set—that level of control, or inaction, has the opposite reaction, which is that everybody is just going to do what they’re going to do, and there’s no way for us to know what that is or to script it. So we always have to be open to what’s going to come out of it or doesn’t come out of it.
Work is on view now until Sunday, at Pioneer Works in Red Hook.