“Television,” the third chapter of Elena Shtromberg’s book Art Systems, uses Helio Oiticica’s installation Tropicália (1967) as an inroads toward a realpolitik theory of Brazilian video art in the 1960s and 70s. Shtromberg, refreshingly, deals in common sense—the sort of material-historical analysis that sometimes evades Joselit. Brazil and its Ministry of Communications, Shtromberg tells us (one would say “contends,” were it contentious), used television as a political tool. (See her quotation of Raymond Williams: it is “a new and powerful form of social integration and control” ). Video artists, then, retrofitted the same media for response and retaliation.
I appreciate that Shtromberg recognizes the material of Tropicália as “kitsch:” the term is perhaps more useful to me than Oiticica’s precise (but mystified) “Tropicamp”; for where Tropicamp accounts for the dispersion of Brazilian culture, “kitsch” generates a connection between the kitsch object (universal items) and Tropicália as environment (access via penetration and immersion—itself paralleling McLuhan's “engaging” television. Compare McLuhan's remark that the TV marks “the end of bloc voting” and the resemblance between Oiticica’s penetrables and voting booths. All single-use structures, but to what end?)
A cleverer writer than I might here riff on the dual meanings of “camp”: on one hand, Sontag; on the other, the slum, lean-to, or provisional shelter.
But here, as elsewhere, Shtromberg’s analysis feels a little pat: she takes the television to be Tropicália’s “gotcha” moment, while I find it to be the only possible conclusion. The juxtaposition of television and “favela architecture” should surprise no one, because it is lived experience. Shtromberg tells us as much: Oiticica dramatizes the “uneven unfolding of modernity […] where basic services [are] precarious at best, but where, paradoxically, the television [reigns] supreme.” (91-92) The truly incongruous element appears to me to be Roberta Oiticica’s poetry: in its inscription upon the environment, is it implicated in the ”Carmen Miranda” thematic? (91)
Shtromberg's essay, in any case, ultimately becomes a survey of the video art of the era. Though I hate to say it, my imagination was more often caught by Shtromberg's paraphrases of McLuhan than her own writing: I wonder if McLuhan's theory of Cuban TV as quasi-participatory might be compared with reality TV and phone-in voter, or how reality TV's own renaissance being rooted in political conditions, i.e. writers' strikes.
This, however, made the Brazilian critiques of McLuhan which Shtromberg introduces particularly useful. Interestingly, in writing on Pignatari, Shtromberg uses the same word I had been grappling for last week to describe McLuhan: “optimism.”
Even if I rolled my eyes at “a veiled (literally) reference to censorship” (98) or the attention devoted to Trademark and branding (considerably less interesting than the topography/cartography conceit introduced in class), Shtromberg's chapter is helpful both as an expansion of the Brazilian video art canon and a crossection of the conditions which produced it. The focus on TV Globo is particularly useful (to say nothing of the executive she quotes on page 100, who unwittingly substantiates a yet more interesting reading of Oiticica and video art, as in “[making] concrete an abstraction...”)
The “Padrão Globo de Qualidade,” too, gets at my interest in a more network-oriented video art (i.e. Nielsen ratings)—but if there is a possibility that it could map on Shtromberg's selected video art, then this point goes underdeveloped. (My sense is that Tucuman Arde does precisely this work—riffing on the censorship and the standardization of propaganda—the catch being that it does so sans video).
Shtromberg almost seems to share Frederico Morais's pessimism on the possibility of a unified theory of Brazilian video art (quoted on 102)—but why, when there seems to be such a tight circulation of motifs (body, pain, excess, video) within her selected works? One wishes the chapter had put futher pressure on the relationship between these motifs and state use of video.