Up in the Air, An Interview with Brian Springer

Publication TypeJournal Article
AuthorsJackson, Cheryl
SourceThe Squealer, Squeaky Wheel, Volume March April, Buffalo, NY (1989)
Full Text: 

The following is an interview with Brian Springer, one of the founding members of Squeaky Wheel. He has recently returned Buffalo after living on the West Coast for three years. As Hallwalls Video Artist-in-Residence, hes been very busy for the past few months with activities from recording satellite feeds to collecting W.N.Y.ers home videos, to helping all of us with our projects, no matter how large or small. His recent installation at Hallwalls, Viewing Baby From the Blimp incorporated various media technologies: behind the scenes satellite broadcasts, wireless telephone transmissions, intercom interceptions, all presented in a living-room environment. A portable satellite dish presides over the familiar scene like a sentient cipher, and we were asked to recognize and admit our complicity in the project of global media pervasion. Brians current project is called Home Video Theater, a Public Access television series now showing on three different cable networks in W N.Y., which seeks to showcase the video work of people living, working, and playing in the region.

Cheryl Jackson: Brian, I want to talk about both of your recent projects at Hallwalls but first, Im very curious how did you come up with the title for your installation Viewing Baby From the Blimp? All kinds of strange, sort of aerial images come to mind...

Brian Springer: Well, basically the title came from a quote from a Monday Night Football game. Dan Deardorf was talking about getting a view of the football game from the Goodyear Blimp and so he said Lets get a view of this baby from the blimp and I had this artist in residency and had to do something and I was trying to fill in the blanks and that filled in the blank.
CJ: Oh, right! Are we talking blimps being used for satellites? Sorry, Im not following what blimps have to do with your installation.
BS Blimps are big, blimps are big in surveillance and are making a big comeback as a surveillance tool. I worked in a place that sent faxs and this one guy was involved with border patrol and the surveillance blimps that theyre using over the border between the U.S. and Mexico in order to monitor activities there.
CJ: I see. Scary! How dare they make blimps scary?! Theyre so cool to look at. Your Interest in surveillance is an aspect of your general interest in the impact of new technologies on both our public and private lives. Can you tell us a little about how you first got interested in so-called surveillance technologies?
BS: I met this guy, a video maker from Ithaca, Phillip Jones. He and I worked together one time at the Summer School of the Media Arts and he had a magazine called Popular Communications which deals with all kinds of surveillance technologies that are sort of used as an entertainment form by people. Part of it deals with monitoring short wave, scanner communications, police bands and such. But it also gets into tips on eavesdropping, how to tap into car telephone stuff, how to tap into land-line microwave transmissions, satellite telephone transmissions. There seems to be a whole little sub-culture of people who are interested in this sort of alternative broadcasting network, which is actually just people.
CJ: Yeah, Ive always been fascinated by and loved to listen to CB radio, its like, what are these people talking about and what kinds of things are interesting to them?! So is it legal or illegal to go around recording and collecting this kind of stuff, these radio and video waves and transmissions?
BS: Well, it became illegal in 1986. So I stopped all my activities in the field then.
CJ: Yeah sure, tell me some more!
BS: It was really nice before ...Before 1986, everything was under the guise of the Secrecy Act of 1934 which said that you could listen to private transmissions as long as you didnt record it or tell anyone what you heard. It was the Secrecy Act of 1934 so you could listen to any of this stuff without any problem as long as you didnt talk about it.
CJ: And now were not even allowed to listen to it, even though its right out there, accessible to whomever might be the least bit curious or intrigued? Thats crazy.
BS: Yeah, but its not enforceable. Thats the thing thats crazy about it.
CJ: Lets talk about the stuff you pick up on your satellite dish, the T.V. junk which you sort of re-broadcast in your show at Hallwalls.
BS: That was just video, and thats just public domain. Its up there and anyone with a home dish can see this stuff. But it does sort of fit in with my idea of a personal broadcasting system, where you watch people watch television and they are watching some of the behind the scenes goings on, of how television news is made. Its basically just a way to watch people.
CJ: Oh, those newscasters are grotesque! I can see the fascination ...To see the difference between their on and off personalities is astounding. We see haw stupid they look and act when they go on the air and yet they probably think they look really stupid when theyre off and have to do something like itch their nose. In the end, which personality do we believe? Theres one more thing that occurs to the viewer- that what is commonly perceived as the most glamorous job in news is really the most boring because they say a few lines to introduce the next item and then immediately theyre off screen for the cut-away. 1 guess they need time to practice reading their next lines off the teleprompter, huh? Brian, can you elaborate some more about how you perceive the line between public and private domain today? 1 see It becoming very fuzzy at this point in telecommunications times and I know your work is trying to question and challenge our traditional notions about this.
BS: Well for one thing, and this is central to Home Video Theater, we can now have access to what I call a personal broadcasting network, a sort of broadcast network of private communications.
CJ: Yeah, we, the people can show and see something much more true and even very intimate because were the ones actually making it. Its more about humanity than TV has ever been.
BS: Theres something else. I mean when I used to scan I would sometimes feel good about it, like with public officials. Theyre the best people to scan because they should have to be even more publicly accountable than they are. And I think that a certain lack of privacy can mean a lot to the concept of the decentralization of power. Eavesdropping does give a feeling of voyeurism, theres no way around it, but I sometimes have felt real bad, even perverse, when I know Ive crossed a very personal, private line. So yeah, it is a weird kind intersection or overlapping Im still thinking about a lot.
CJ: Its certainly something thats affecting or will be affecting all of us, and there arent, it seems to me also, any clear answers. Now ! want to ask you about the furniture in the installation. It seemed you were trying to set up a living room kind of atmosphere, with the easy chair, coffee table, and stereo and television console. There was also a portable satellite dish with a small monitor mounted in the center. So far so good, it fits together for me... except for one thing. The chair was facing away from the tv sets and I wasnt sure just why? Was it referring to seeing things we arent, as happy news viewers supposed, to see?
BS: No, I wanted people to have to think about the act of viewing and 1 thought maybe, seeing a chair that was empty facing toward them might give them the sense that someone should be sitting there or someone should be looking out from the chair. Also, the monitor in the satellite dish was placed somewhat near the head level of the chair so that it became like the head of someone sitting there.
CJ: Right, so we, the viewer, really arent sure, dont really know, who is sitting in the chair. It could be us, but is it them? What I mean, is that we see them, the newscasters or our politicians, and by believing in the truth of the picture, they have us. They are sitting in our chair, taking our place. Theres one mare thing about the installation, can you explain what was going on in the car telephone conversation? Sometimes I thought it was live because I would always catch different snatches, Im just curious about what it actually was?
BS: It was pre-recorded and it was just one conversation, a re-created car phone conversation of a whistle blower for General Electric who was talking about some price fixing that G.E. had done against the Federal Government to the tune of about $130,000,00 and that G.E. had never paid back. The whistle blower went to G.E. and when asked why they were doing this they decided to hush him up by giving him a promotion and a transfer to California. But when he got there he was laid off and in this conversation hes discussing all of his options with a lawyer.
CJ: So you must have gotten it in California...
BS: It was something that I got before 1986 and its just a loose transcription of a telephone conversation, a reenactment actually.
CJ: A re-enactment? Its not really those two people who had the original conversation? Too bad!
BS: No.
CJ: No. But it is a very good solution to this problem of not being able to record anything.
BS: I  look at the car telephone as a dialogue synthesizer. Where you can have a video synthesizer that produces different video effects and images, well you can look at the car telephone receiver as a dialogue synthesizer, you can just create dialogue from it. As long as you dont treat them as real people and dont literally use whats said or record it but use it as way of getting insight into how people talk and the different things different people talk about.
CJ: The perfect post post-modern device: something to create fictitiousness with ...This interest in finding out about
people, who they are, what theyre Into, etc., does this relate to your other project, Home Video Theater?
BS: Well its part of it. I think its interesting that since 1985 theyve sold like 5,000,000 camcorders in the U.S., so that means theres a lot of tape being produced and no one really knows whats going on in the home. Sociologists dont really know, but heres these people recording bits of life and it might give some insight into what happens in the home in some way.
CJ: Or out of the home, like what people do when theyre out with friends, what they see as important to record on tape. Have you gotten a picture of what you might call a typical modern-day Americana or maybe just the opposite, stuff that looks and feels pretty untypical?!
BS: No, theres not a broad enough sample yet, I havent gotten that much response with people sending in work to really get a really fair assessment of what it is the people are up to. Its just not that broad of a sample to be reflective of the families, of an American family, there just havent been enough.
CJ: I find it quite fascinating because this Idea of home video can be thought of as almost the complete opposite of what a lot of us normally think of as video art and now here are all of these people, theyre not video artists by profession and yet here they are, doing something...dare we call it art?
BS: Yeah, a lot of it is accidental art and such but the other thing that Im trying to address is the fact that given that these 5,000,000 camcorders are out there and that even if only one in every 1,000 is actually creating work that is self aware and actually made for an audience that is outside of their family, that means that theres like 5,000 new video artists in the United States. And if its like 2 in every 1,000 then thats 10,000 already and those numbers are just going to go up. So, in a way, I just wanted to create a forum where people that might be doing that type of video work might see theres options for distributing their work or getting it shown via something like public access television.
CJ: Right, the industry, having profits as their primary goal, wants the consumer to see and use this equipment as something fun, more like a toy, Its not something were supposed to learn from and certainly not something that could be used as a tool for change. Can we view it as sort of a populist Intervention into the buy, buy, buy syndrome where we buy whatever we can just for the sake of having whats new. Now people can talk back, were not as dumb as the tv Industry has tried to make us. Do you think there will be any resistance by the big dudes in TV land, that they would try to stop this wave of home video/tv production?
BS: No, if you give people the tools to produce television and at the same time can make money off of it ...l think profit is
the ultimate thing, if you can make money off it, and if theres a problem that comes up you figure that out later. But I think with public access, even here in Western New York, theres a real ideological conflict because cable systems are owned by companies that are opposed to having alternative forms of media presented on them, on what they perceive as their channels and they discourage public access. Its going on now with Public Access, which is really not public and really isnt accessible.
CJ: Thats heartening news ...What, if any, problems have you had here in Buffalo trying to get Home Video Theater broadcast on Public Access?
BS: Well, I havent really had any problems because its of community interest.
CJ: Yes, but who is deciding whats of community interest? Why does there have to be this sort of censorship? Can you say anything about the laws on this issue?
BS: Well, New York State law says it has to be locally originated and it has to be non-profit and thats the only two curatorial criteria that they have far anything that goes on Public Access. It seems that its the cable systems then exert some control, saying it has to be of community interest. This can be seen as a kind of P.R. tactic, making it look like the cable company has the communitys interest at heart, that they support this sense of pride and heritage, you know, the were lookin good idea.
CJ: Lets talk a little bit more about the community aspect of your project, I see it both as an enjoyable, entertaining thing, something about ourselves that were able to share with one another and as a new communication tool, a way to receive knowledge and learn things that we might never have had access to before. It seems very healthy in a way that TV was never healthy for us before. Can you tell us a little bit more about your ideas and hopes for future projects of this kind?
BS: Yeah, one of the goals of Home Video Theater is not just to show the work but to make people aware of Public Access system and give them ideas about how to access it. So, maybe the real success of Home Video Theater isnt actually the program itself but what it might generate after the program is over, so that people could and would continue to produce work that would be shown on television.
CJ.: Yeah, a virtual (TV) revolution! Thanks a lot for taking the time to elaborate on sme of your ideas, Brian. Well be looking forward to whatevers next!

Brian Springer
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