Category Archives: 06. the thought police

a. Johnsons Handcream Cliffhanger


An Advertising Industry in Panic
1991 0 min 33 sec

The remote control though, didn’t gain any real ground until the 1980s, as previously channel-hopping was limited to just a few networks. By the mid-1980s, however, the vast cable industry and the video recorder had made the remote control a necessity. Being used to targeting their television audiences, the advertising industry became alarmed by the zap-behaviour of TV viewers who were inaugurating a radically different pattern of television usage. Viewers, traditionally sold by the media industry as only statistics for ad revenues, were now suddenly taking control by flipping away from commercials.25

At this point the habit of zapping away from commercials was at epidemic levels, practised by 80 per cent of television viewers. The threat of commercial devastation alarmed the advertising industry.26 The trade press claimed that “advertising as a profession is very much in crisis”.27 In panic, the industry called for “zap-proof” commercials to dampen the power of the serial clickers in avoiding their product.28 Ad agencies clamoured for new research angles to give them a quick handle on the ad-avoiding epidemic.29 Stay-tuned strategies emerged to eliminate channel flipping and hook viewers to the TV set in order to carry them through a commercial break. Ad spots were reduced from 30 seconds to 15 seconds. Time crunching led to “hot switching” to reduce programme breaks, which were moved from programme end to mid-programme. Opening themes were reduced or simply eliminated. Superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna were recruited for cross-over appearances in ads. Spots masqueraded as regular programming, and product placement was integrated into actual programmes.

No need to zap any more; the network did it for us.30 Dense editing à la MTV, with strong lead-ins and closing cliff-hangers, made sure eyeballs were kept glued to the screen. Comedy Central’s Short Attention Span Theater tacitly encouraged viewers to flip over to other channels, knowing they could rejoin the programme without losing the thread of the show.31 MTV tailored the new viewing habits into an animated series featuring two slackers who were addicted to their zapper: Beavis and Butt-head. Obsessively on the hunt for videos that didn’t suck, they satirized the very act of flipping channels. Critics claimed it was “Sesame Street for psychopaths”, but the programme did succeed in making MTV less prone to zapping by keeping viewers glued to the “idiot box”, as it came to be called.32 Ever savvy about influencing our perception of reality, the political arena followed suit. Case in point was the US invasion of Panama in December 1989: it was carefully planned to occur during The Super Bowl, a “low-zapping event”, assuring that the war would be consumed without much public outcry.

Incongruously, reality itself was about to turn into a zapping zone. Viewers’ zapping behaviour also forced the TV industry to refashion newscasts into accelerated MTV-style info-bits. News broadcasts got structured along the lines of the home shopping channel, with one video programmed after another in a constant rotating flow. CNN adopted similar strategies by repeating newsworthy morsels of infotainment 24/7, so viewers wouldn’t miss anything on their channel-hopping tour. The “drop-in” style allowed zappers to grab a beer from the fridge any time for a double dose of instant gratification.33 Moreover, television turned public space inside out: network executives began to substitute dramas for reality shows, reality for entertainment, and ultimately the viewer for the protagonist, beer still in hand. Reality was literally zapped…

b. David Cronenberg, Videodrome


David Cronenberg
1983, 1 min 55 sec

When Max Renn goes looking for edgy new shows for his sleazy cable TV station, he stumbles across the pirate broadcast of a hyperviolent torture show called Videodrome. As he struggles to unearth the origins of the program, he embarks on a hallucinatory journey into a shadow world of right-wing conspiracies, sadomasochistic sex games, and bodily transformation. Starring James Woods and Deborah Harry in one of her first film roles, Videodrome is one of writer/director David Cronenberg’s most original and provocative works, fusing social commentary with shocking elements of sex and violence. With groundbreaking special effects makeup by Academy Award®-winner Rick Baker, Videodrome has come to be regarded as one of the most influential and mind-bending science fiction films of the 1980s.

c. John Cage, 4’33”


John Cage,  McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, CA. USA
2010, 7 min 44 sec 

In a world plagued by Muzak, John Cage needed to find a quiet way to make a powerful statement.

On August 29, 1952, at a rustic outdoor chamber music hall tucked on a wooded dirt road in Woodstock, New York, the piano virtuoso David Tudor prepared to perform the most jarring piece of music ever written. Or not written, depending how you look at it.

Tudor sat at the piano, propped up six pages of blank sheet music, and closed the keyboard lid. He then clicked a stopwatch and rested his hands on his lap. The audience waited for something to happen as a breeze stirred the nearby trees. After 30 seconds of stillness, Tudor opened the lid, paused, closed it again, and went back to doing nothing. He turned one of the blank pages. Raindrops began to patter. After two minutes and 23 seconds, Tudor again opened and closed the lid. At this point, exasperated people in the crowd walked out. Their footsteps echoed down the aisles. After another minute and 40 seconds, Tudor opened the piano lid one last time, stood up, and bowed. What was left of the audience politely applauded.

It was nearly two decades before the infamous summer of ’69, but what had transpired was arguably the wildest, most controversial musical event ever to rock Woodstock. The piece was called 4’33”—for the three silent movements totaling four minutes and 33 seconds—and it was composed by John Cage. It seemed like a joke. In fact, it would redefine music.

d. Craig Baldwin, Sonic Outlaws


Dir. Craig Baldwin, USA
1995, 1 min 25 sec

“In 1991 the Bay Area collage band Negativland was sued by Island Records for infringement of U2’s copyright and trademark.”

Craig Baldwin (b. 1952) has been making subversive experimental films from cannibalized 16mm “found” footage since the late 1970s. His works have always incorporated pseudo-documentarian gestures – such as his seminal Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991), which presents a satirical revisionist history of CIA interventionism in Latin America – but to date, Sonic Outlaws is his only actual documentary.

Rushing to support Negativland in their struggle against Island, Baldwin uses their legal troubles as a launching point into a larger conversation about appropriation, copyright law, and political activism, connecting these practices to their antecedents as well as their mainstream contemporaries.

Featuring interviews with artists Negativland, John Oswald, Emergency Broadcast Network, and The Tape Beatles, Baldwin’s film stands as an artifact of the golden age of “culture jamming,” as well as a record of the cultural moment when the legal concept of Fair Use first began to assert itself into the popular consciousness.

We are now at a point where the re-mix has become a firmly established form of artistic expression, but copyright laws still haven’t caught up. In today’s era of copyright trolls and DMCA takedown notices, Sonic Outlaws remains an incredibly important document of the litigious culture industry and a fiery call to reform a hopelessly outdated legal system.

e. The Yes Men, The Bhopal Case


the Yes Men, BBC
2003, 5 min 51 sec

On November 29, 2004, an email comes in to, our fake Dow Chemical website. (See also the long and twisting story of how that website came to be, and how it came to be often mistaken for the real thing. Hint: it was Dow’s fault!)

The email, from a staffer at BBC World Television, is asking Dow Chemical whether a company representative could come in to discuss Dow’s position on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy—on Dec. 3, the catastrophe’s 20th anniversary, and just 6 days from then.

We can hardly believe our eyes. If it’s real, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to say, in front of 350 million people (the viewership of BBC World, according to our email invitation)… well, something. And that something, if we decide well, could change the lives of thousands of survivors of the 1984 tragedy, and maybe millions of others. But if it’s fake….

We’re pretty sure it’s fake, actually. We decide it’s a police trap, an irresistible honeypot that will get us into a place where the police can easily nab us (as if they couldn’t just find us at home). There’s no evidence for this theory, but it’s easier to believe it than to believe the actual truth: that we’re headed into a golden opportunity to do something so valuable, so useful, that if we flub it, we’ve really flubbed huge and will probably regret it intensely for years.

Knowing underneath our useful paranoia that it actually is most likely real, we act accordingly. We write back and let the BBC know—to their immense surprise—that Dow would be absolutely delighted to appear. We let them know that the BBC’s “usual spokesperson” will be in Paris on Dec. 3, so could we do it there? Andy is already living in Paris, for one thing. For another, we figure there will be a lot less scrutiny of the “Dow representative” at a subsidiary office in France than at the big central HQ in London. It’s settled: Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth’s end) will represent Dow on Dec. 3, in less than one week.

f. Pierre Huyghe, The Third Memory


Pierre Huyghe,, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Bohen Foundation.
2001, 11 min 03 sec

Using time, memory, and the texture of everyday experience as his mediums, Pierre Huyghe conflates the traditional dichotomy between art and life. Working in an array of cultural formats—from billboards and television broadcasts to community celebrations and museum exhibitions—he reformulates their codes and deploys them as catalysts for creating new experiential possibilities. A mode of perception that lies in the interstices between reality and its representation is the subject of his two-channel video, The Third Memory (2000), which reenacts the 1972 hold-up of a Brooklyn bank immortalized in Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed film Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Almost 30 years later, Huyghe provides a platform for the heist’s charismatic mastermind, John Wojtowicz, to relate his version of that infamous day in a reconstructed set of the bank. However, rather than clarify the personal history that Hollywood wrested from him, Wojtowicz appears to have been heavily influenced by the film, a testament to the inextricable merging of real events, the distortions of memory, and the mediating power of popular culture.

The tension between fact and fiction is also at play in One Million Kingdoms, a work conceived as part of the collaborative project No Ghost Just a Shell, in which a manga character named Annlee is inserted into multiple artistic contexts. In Huyghe’s animation, this adolescent girl wanders through a shifting lunar topography and, speaking in a digitally synthesized form of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s voice, delivers a narration blending the actual transmissions from the Apollo 11 mission with excerpts from Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Annlee appears as a translucent outline, an empty cipher for creative interpretation. Yet at the same time, she is literally the author of her own environment: the mutating features of the landscape through which she walks are generated by the inflections of her own voice. Huyghe’s own experience provides the starting point for This is not a time for dreaming. The film documents a puppet show that tells the parallel stories of the modernist architect Le Corbusier’s commission to design the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts at Harvard University, and Huyghe’s own commission to create an artwork to celebrate the building’s 40th anniversary. Shifting back and forth in time, the narrative weaves together historical and contemporary events with fantastical elements, in an allegorical representation of the struggles and compromises inherent in the creative process.

Co-production: Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Service Nouveaux Médias and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. With the participation of: Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris; Myriam and Jacques Salomon; Le Fresnoy, Studio national des arts contemporains

This installation contains footage from the motion picture Dog Day Afternoon (Warner Brothers, 1975), directed by Sidney Lumet, and from The Jeanne Parr Show (CBS, January 25, 1978).


g. Sharyl Attkisson, Astrotuf and Manipulation


Sharyl Attkisson, TEDxUniversityofNevada
2015, 10 min 36 sec

In this eye-opening talk, veteran investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson shows how astroturf, or fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages. Sharyl Attkisson is an investigative journalist based in Washington D.C. She is currently writing a book entitled Stonewalled (Harper Collins), which addresses the unseen influences of corporations and special interests on the information and images the public receives every day in the news and elsewhere. For twenty years (through March 2014), Attkisson was a correspondent for CBS News. In 2013, she received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for her reporting on “The Business of Congress,” which included an undercover investigation into fundraising by Republican freshmen. She also received Emmy nominations in 2013 for Benghazi: Dying for Security and Green Energy Going Red. Additionally, Attkisson received a 2013 Daytime Emmy Award as part of the CBS Sunday Morning team’s entry for Outstanding Morning Program for her report: “Washington Lobbying: K-Street Behind Closed Doors.” In September 2012, Attkisson also received an Emmy for Oustanding Investigative Journalism for the “Gunwalker: Fast and Furious” story. She received the RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Investigative Reporting for the same story. Attkisson received an Investigative Emmy Award in 2009 for her exclusive investigations into TARP and the bank bailout. She received an Investigative Emmy Award in 2002 for her series of exclusive reports about mismanagement at the Red Cross.

h. Kester Brewin, pirates and the commons


Kester Brewin,, TEDxExeter, USA
1975, 2 min 13 sec

Kester Brewin teaches mathematics in South East London and is also a freelance writer, poet and consultant for BBC education. He writes regularly on education and technology for the national educational press, and has published a number of highly acclaimed books on the philosophy of religion. His latest book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us is a groundbreaking re-examination of the culture of piracy, which seeks to understand our continued fascination with these characters whose skull and crossed bones motif appears on everything from baby-bottles to skateboards, yet are still pursued and condemned worldwide for theft and exploitation. Drawing on pirates from history, film and literature, Kester’s work explores how our relationship to ‘the commons’ is central to an improved environmental, political and cultural consciousness, and also tries to work out why his son has been invited to countless pirate parties, but none (yet) with an aggravated robbery theme. His poetry has appeared in magazines around the world and he is currently preparing his debut novel for publication.

i. David Bollier, Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy


David Bollier, USC & Norman Lear Center, USA
2010,  2 min 59 sec

In Spring 2010, the USC Office of Research asked the Norman Lear Center to lead a series of small faculty meetings on the topic of Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy.  In this talk David Bollier asks 3 important questions:

Who are the primary agents of change for stimulating collaborative research in the Academy and what strategy should they use? How can fledgeling projects and ideas in collaborative research be supported, scaled and sustained? How do we imagine new social roles and identities and what design principles should guide us?

What we need to realise it that this is about entirely new genres of knowledge that are being created, we don’t know the character of the social and institutional containers for them.

j. Anonymous, fooling facial recognition


2012, 2 min 17 sec

As a response to the TrapWire scandal, a variety of tips of how to keep your identity private in the presence of a surveillance camera are being listed in this video. Simply wearing a hat, sunglasses or even a mask does little to prevent facial recognition by today’s sophisticated video surveillance systems and security cameras utilising facial recognition software.