Good TV

What happened to the idea of a European public sphere? Artist Andjeas Ejiksson unearths a forgotten public service channel from the 80s.

Production still from the recording of Andreas Ejiksson’s Television Without Frontiers. Photo: Ricard Estay.

An inflated giant turtle floats a few metres above the Haga cinema in Gothenburg. The monumental plastic toy has been installed for the premiere of artist Andjeas Ejiksson’s “documentary performance,” Television Without Frontiers. The work is produced by the Public Art Agency Sweden as part of their commitment to innovative public art. Ejiksson’s project was chosen by a jury, in competition with two hundred submitted proposals, and provides an insight into the Agency’s vision for a future public art which moves away from the tradition of permanently installed works towards temporary and performative gestures.

Ejiksson’s work is about Eurikon, the European Broadcast Union’s short-lived public service channel from the early 1980s, that also involved North African countries. Basically, the film is an attempt to critically reflect on questions of postnational community and bureaucracy, themes which Ejiksson also addresses in his current doctoral research in fine arts at Valand Academy in Gothenburg. In the film studio, shots from a talk show staged by Ejiksson are interspersed with archival footage from Eurikon broadcasts. The unearthing of this material is interesting from a media-historical perspective, with its bureaucratic hope that interviews from the European parliament and European weather forecasts would mould European citizens.

Production still from the recording of Andreas Ejiksson’s Television Without Frontiers. Photo: Ricard Estay.

I am fascinated by the programme’s retrofuturist vignette, with light beams that shoot up from various European nations and converge in a star. This is followed by animations of a hallucinatory dreamworld with antique sculptures and forested mountain peaks in the colours of the rainbow, which make Eurikon’s project of top-down managerial democracy look like a childish illusion.

Ejiksson’s talk show is filmed in an SVT (Swedish National Public Television) studio that has been converted into a postmodern hybrid with smoke machines, cactus plants and Europop house bands. The studio is lit in rainbow colours and also contains a fully functional ice cream parlour. I recognise the giant turtle being inflated in a corner by a trio of red-clad aviators, and see that the geometric pattern on its back is designed as a test image. This renders it a remnant from a period in which the media climate allowed for such aestheticised and technocratic breaks in programming. In the famous fable, the turtle symbolises a kind of determined inertia, and here it appears as the hope of paradoxically overcoming contemporary accelerations. However, with its emphasis on media specificities, the work doesn’t quite get at the socio-economic and colonial structures hidden behind the rosy dream of Europe.

The talk show accentuates the latent absurdity of Eurikon, but I also get the feeling that the programme has important points to convey. Media personalities from Europe and North Africa carry out more or less sincere conversations about postnational communities, interspersed with mildly funny anecdotes about national characteristics. But it isn’t the message that is important, as much as the form of their communication: they all speak in their native tongues, which are simultaneously dubbed into half a dozen European languages (including Arabic) by interpreters in the studio. Ejiksson has borrowed this at once absurd and democratic vision from the historic Eurikon project.

Production still from the recording of Andreas Ejiksson’s Television Without Frontiers. Photo: Ricard Estay.

During the recording, the panellists and the studio audience were able to choose the language they wanted to listen to through settings on their headsets, and the film makes both entertaining and critical points about how the participants, through this language diversity, talk past each other or make jokes that reach the audience too late. It is an effective device that leads me to reflect on how mass media’s cybernetic search for the intact message has shaped language to communicative ends. By instead amplifying linguistic overlaps and translation’s distorted information, Ejiksson establishes neural paths that would never occur in the monolingually programmed brain. It is as if the European community is given meaning as language philosophy.

Basically, Television Without Frontiers constitutes a kind of anti-television. This emphasis adheres to the Public Art Agency’s avant-garde agenda to experiment and expand categories rather than address the public on its own terms. While doing this, Ejiksson provides pretty good TV. A goat pees on the floor and is then involved in an absurdist fable about submission and hubris. The British illusionist Jonathan Royle hypnotises some of the audience members and turns them into aliens. He proceeds to interview them about life on their planets through an audience member hypnotised into an alien interpreter. It is not only funny, but addresses questions about cosmopolitan community and language that are central to the European project.

During the course of the film, the hosts Jacek Poniedzialek and Sylvie Caspar also stage a clandestine love affair on the level of metareflection. This makes me discern the political divide between the sceptic and the liberal that dominated the EU debate for decades. Where one points to the union’s colonial structures, the other puts its faith in the idea of an agonistic community. The fact that Television Without Frontiers does not take a stand in this political debate makes it somewhat ineffective as a critical tool. However, with its versatile and reflective narrative structure, it does play deftly with the public service format. If there is an argument made in the film, it is embedded in this experiment.

Production still from the recording of Andreas Ejiksson’s Television Without Frontiers. Photo: Ricard Estay.

After the premiere, the audience was served cake (also featured in the film) and given drink vouchers. From my mildly inebriated sidewalk seat, I spot the inflated turtle again. It really is nice, like something by Claes Oldenburg. But it is a shame that it mainly addresses those of us who have seen the film – i.e. the ones on the Agency’s list – and that it will be taken down after the screening. Instead of symbolising the inertia and anachronism of media policy, the turtle appears in the bubbly sunset as somewhat elitist. Perhaps it is logical that the temporal turn in public art leads to event art. At the same time, it is lamentable that this is happening precisely in the ‘event city’ of Gothenburg, where others struggle every day to fight this bureaucratic development.

But the status of Television Without Frontiers as public art doesn’t stand or fall with the giant turtle. There is potential for development in the ambition to broadcast the film in actual public service channels, which would connect in an interesting way to historic ambitions of using television to mediate contemporary art in the public sphere. However, this possibility hasn’t been finalised as yet, and Ejiksson’s piece currently has a limited distribution as public art.

The very premise behind the Public Art Agency’s initiative is that Television Without Frontiers will push the boundaries of public art, and I see a critical potential insofar as the work challenges not only its own devices, but also the form for the public media sphere. Using entertainment as a tool to bring about critical reflection is not uninteresting, but at the same time the approach is built upon an irony that raises questions about who the work really is for. The risk is that the desire for aesthetic renewal forces public art into a formalistic cul-de-sac that could undermine the political idea of making art accessible to the wider public. Perhaps this doesn’t really matter for Ejiksson, but it is a delicate problem for the Public Art Agency, an institution which, since its founding in 1937, has based its legitimacy on being able to credibly handle the issue of art’s place in society.

Production still from the recording of Andreas Ejiksson’s Television Without Frontiers. Photo: Ricard Estay.