A Window Into the World

Foam #30, "Micro," Spring 2012

"[Television] is used as a window into the world. For many it is the world and not even a surrogate one."

John Baldessari

By the late 1960s television had become one of the pillars of consumerist capitalism around the world, both as a communication medium and as one of the essential appliances, which had come to symbolise the newly consumerist and wealthy Japan. Television entered into the holy trinity of the ‘Three Cs’ (a colour television, a car and a ‘cooler’ [air conditioner]), a tongue-in-cheek phrase that was coined in reference to the Three Sacred Treasures of the Japanese emperor. It was in the context of this newfound importance as a symbol of affluence, but also as an increasingly dominant medium, that Masao Mochizuki made television his subject for from May 1975 to the end of 1976. Television 1975 – 1976 consists of a series of photographic grids made up of multiple images of a television screen.

To create these montages Mochizuki developed a specific process by drawing a grid consisting of five columns and seven rows on the focusing screen of his twin-lens reflex camera. This customized camera was set up in a darkroom where the television was the only source of light. He would then align the screen of his television in one of the squares of his focusing screen grid and take a picture. The camera was moved to the next cell in the grid (from top to bottom and then from left to right) to make each subsequent exposure. Each finished 6x6” plate contains 35 images combined into a seamless grid of television screens. Over a two-year period Mochizuki used this process to make 200 of these plates consisting of a total of 7,000 exposures.

The complexity and fastidiousness of Mochizuki’s television montages begs the question of why he did not simply take individual exposures of his television screen and assemble them into grids subsequently? His method gives importance to the screen itself and its significance as a window onto the world. By choosing to include the edges of the multiple screens and the characteristic blur of their surface, Mochizuki emphasizes the act of watching a particular event on television, rather than simply focusing on the subject matter of the event itself. UFO is less about UFOs themselves than the ways in which television seeks to dramatise them. The characteristic edge of the screens and their accumulation into grids also serves to underline the distance between the viewer and the subject. These are not images of Solzhenitsyn being interviewed or of a baseball game, but images of TV’s interpretation of these events.

 Ali vs. Frazier, October 1, 1975

Ali vs. Frazier, October 1, 1975

Mochizuki was not the only photographer to use the television screen as a subject. As television reached a position of dominance within the media and be- came a universal household appliance, many artists began to create bodies of work using the TV screen. Much of this work focused on the specific aesthetic that results from photographing a cathode ray tube (CRT) screen. In his Perpetual Photos series (1982–89), Allan McCollum took photographs of television scenes where picture frames appeared in the background. He would then enlarge these images photographically, cropping each one to represent a detail of the framed picture.The result is a series of abstract images of pure form that are virtually impossible to connect to the artworks from which they derived.

Other artists such as Harry Callahan and John Pfahl (Video Landscapes, 1981)—who generally worked in a more ‘classic’ photographic vein focused on creating the most refined and detailed image possible—also made use of the cheap look of the CRT screen, which contrasted so drastically with the perfection which they sought in their photographs of the ‘real’ world.

While Mochizuki’s pieces also replicate the TV screen’s specific aesthetic qualities, he is less interested in exploring these than in giving a photographic form to the medium’s inherent characteristics. His grids emphasize the proliferation and constant flow of images that emanate from television. As opposed to Pfahl’s Video Landscapes or McCollum’s Perpetual Photos, which freeze television’s incessant rhythm into a single image, Mochizuki’s method subordinates the individual image to the collection and mirrors TV’s perpetual motion. Most other artists who chose to use television as their raw visual material tended to drastically recontextualise this stolen or borrowed imagery. In Version Originale (1978), the French artist Colette Portal collected individual images from subtitled films "every time that the subtitles and the image combined to set off a mechanism of seduction." In his Blasted Allegories series from the same year, John Baldessari sampled random images from commercial television, overlaying them with colour filters and associating each of them with a different word in order to assemble a literal dictionary of photographs. These artists used televised images by removing them either partially or entirely from their original context in order to create a new system of their own making.

Mochizuki, on the other hand, remained faithful to his source material. Each piece is strictly devoted to a single programme: if he had not made sufficient exposures to fill a grid before a programme had ended, he would fill the rest of the grid with images of the snowy pattern caused by electronic noise. The programmes that he chose to photograph reflect the breadth of television as a medium for the coverage of major events. The works in Television 1975 – 1976 span domestic news (a 300-million-yen robbery), global current affairs (the appointment of Jimmy Carter to the Presidency of the United States, the docking of the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft), major sporting events (the Indy 500 race, the Ali vs. Frazier heavyweight title fight), art (a documentary on Salvador Dali, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) science (a documentary on volcanoes) as well as more entertaining stories (Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Tokyo, a documentary on a set of quintuplets).

 The Volcanos, n.d.

The Volcanos, n.d.

Although Mochizuki chose to explore many different subjects in the series, he did not wander into television’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. Television 1975 – 1976 contains no signs of the vast swathes of the trashy soap opera and game shows of day-time television or of the dingy back alleys of night-time horror and pornography. In his book TV Junkie ‘83 (Tokyo: Byakuya shobo, 1983), a fascinating companion piece to Mochizuki’s work, the Japanese photographer Mutsuko Yoshida revels in the crassness of the televisual language. The book is presented chronologically as a single day of television beginning at 6am and finishing in the early hours of the following morning. While Mochizuki explores television at its most serious, Yoshida focuses on its underbelly, emphasizing television’s tendency to collapse the space between information and cheap entertainment.

In his choice of subjects, Mochizuki seems to have been interested in exploring the notion—popular at the time—that television was a tool, which would allow us to witness history before our own eyes. By the 1970s, television’s ubiquity meant that most people’s memories of major events were created through the filter of its screen. With television’s newfound dominance of the media, the function of photography had been relegated to rendering "visual confirmation of what we had already seen on television." Mochizuki’s grids reflect this new paradigm. Although they are made up entirely of photographs, they reflect the nature of the medium from which they are derived. By combining these images of major events, they function as visual representations of the universal collective memory that television was creating, forming a shared visual history of a specific period.

Interestingly Mochizuki’s images were seldom shown until they were published 25 years later in the book Television 1975–1976 (Tokyo: Snap-sha, 2001). Whereas the series was made at a time when television was newly crowned as the dominant media, this work was published as its reign was coming to an end. Just as television replaced photography as the primary filter for major events, it has in turn been overtaken by the Internet. Today we experience these events in a fragmented way, through a variety of media: TV news, websites, blogs, social networks, amateur video, camera phone photographs...

 The Mummy from Peru, July 7, 1975

The Mummy from Peru, July 7, 1975

In a piece written in 1988, the critic Andy Grundberg suggested that, "More than an environment for today’s artists, television is a site for the image-making process and a fertile source of its images." When television became ubiquitous, the infinite number of possible images that it offered gave artists the opportunity to explore it as an alternative reality. In the current new media cycle, the sense of infiniteness of online imagery is even more pronounced than with TV and this same artistic approach is taking hold. Artists such as Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman have used Google Street View technology to wander through its virtual streets acting as street photographers looking for a specific moment. For a recent and ongoing project, Penelope Umbrico collected hundreds of thousands of pictures of sunsets on the image hosting website, Flickr, cropping the suns from these images to create a grid of 4x6” prints entitled Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr. She describes this project in much the same terms as were used for television 40 years ago, referring to the Internet as an "infinite (...), cool electronic space," "a virtual window onto the natural world." This exploration of the infinite nature of the Internet and the fascination with its function as a "window into the world" illustrates why Mochizuki’s approach remains as relevant as ever. 

By Marc Feustel

(Photographs by Masao Mochizuki)