"Via Los Angeles", Michael Asher, 1976

From Situation Aesthetics, The Work of Michael Asher, by Kirsi Peltomaki, 2010, MIT Press

Documentation of the live feed of the control room at kgw (radio and television). (Photograph courtesy the artist.)

Documentation of the live feed of the control room at kgw (radio and television). (Photograph courtesy the artist.)

“…Three years later, in January 1976, Asher explored the affective thresholds of normalcy by devising a television program that literally turned the camera back onto itself by filming the scene of production in the control room of the television station, and broadcasting the footage of the backstage activities to viewers at home. Produced with the support of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts in Portland, Oregon, as Asher’s contribution to the exhibition “Via Los Angeles,” the program aired as an episode in the regularly scheduled arts program Eight Lively Arts on kgw-tv at one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. “Andy Warhol should have been in Portland Sunday,” declared the local newspaper Oregonian on its front page the following day. “He would have appreciated the Michael Asher ‘visual art’ presentation on kgw-tv. Numerous viewers didn’t.

They thought it was ‘an accident.’ ”During the Asher broadcast, the station’s telephone feedback line received around 140 phone calls about the program.

Some of the callers, disturbed by the situation, wished to alert the station to the fact that there were technical problems with the broadcast. “[O]ne call came from a television technician… who, thinking there was a faulty transmission, called the station to let us know that there was a camera in the master-control area,” Asher recounted. “A number of other callers… also communicated the same observation, some of them noticeably upset.” Although the act of calling kgw-tv to notify it of a perceived problem might have been an altruistic deed resulting in no immediate personal gain, it might also have been prompted by a more acute psychological need. The tone of the calls underscored the viewers’ urge to protect the television station from error—as they perceived Asher’s backstage view to be—and their desire to prompt the station into restoring normalcy to the broadcast. Ultimately, this impulse might have been linked to the caller’s own identity, to the degree that the caller’s sense of normalcy was affirmed by recognizable television content.

Although it would be easy to stereotype the Portland callers as cultural dupes who were naive or ill-informed because they missed the point of Asher’s project, such a reading would miss the power of personal response that Asher’s program unleashed within the callers.64 The callers were perfectly aware of the normative boundary that the project unseated when it crossed over the lines of conventional broadcasting. Immediate feelings of anxiety became more than ambient affective states when these reactions turned into acts of calling the station. The perceived irregularity of Asher’s program moved these television viewers into attempts to correct the situation and restore normalcy to what they considered normatively irregular television content. Their experience of the project was based upon par- ticular forms of cultural knowledge, assumptions, and rules, but these collec- tive aspects were modulated by individual response. The experience of the work mobilized in these viewers what Foucault might call relations to self and others, relations that were articulated in the emotional and practical care these viewers demonstrated in attempting to remedy the situation.”