“We had never watched Oprah before this, and we were not aware of her power. Some of the programs are solemn and good, and others are just trivial, but it’s all treated the same.”
Perhaps this is the only way of knowing if anything was ever important to you.
For the duration of 2010, tectonic industries summarized from spoken word to text, every new episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show and published the results online. The summary was typed in real time as the episode played, and was published in blog format. A five-sentence summary of each episode was also posted on Facebook, and a 140 character or less summary also posted on Twitter. For the Art(ists) on the Verge 2 exhibition at the Spark Festival, the Twitter-sized summaries of all the episodes viewed to date were displayed scrolling horizontally across the front of the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota.
By transcribing the show, all drama and visuals have been removed for the audience, neutralizing the often-hysterical aspect of the television show. The stream of words extracted from the episodes references media events, trivia, world news, issues close to Oprah, celebrities and wellness tips, forming a time capsule of sorts of the collective preoccupations of the year 2010, as reflected through the media empire of Oprah Winfrey. In this way, tectonic industries want to communicate the necessity of re-examining that which we take for granted, by giving viewers the opportunity to examine our aspirations from the mundane to the fantastical.
At the end of the year, the three streams of recorded information will be available in a limited edition three-part book set.
America through the Lens of Oprah
tectonic industries’ Perhaps this is the only way of knowing if anything was ever important to you is an elegiacally titled text piece that is anything but poetic. It’s a textual account of what will be an entire year of the daytime television talk show Oprah, transcribed as best the artists can, and then projected as text into the night, through the curved second-story windows of the Regis Center.
tectonic industries is Danish artist Lars Jerlach and British artist Helen Stringfellow, who have been collaborating now for over a decade on work that “focuses on the artifice inherent within the creation of the modern myths and belief systems of popular culture, with a concentration on our seemingly endless quest for self-improvement” (from the artists’ statement).
Jerlach and Stringfellow are perhaps “strangers in a strange land.” In Denmark, says Jerlach, there are perhaps 2 television channels. In England, there are more, but media is certainly not the infinite carnival of desire that it is here. Their work relies on an implied distinction between pop-culture artifice, or “artificiality,” which seems to them perhaps hysteric or delusional, and the artifice that is part of all artmaking, from the first chthonic myth to the last biennial.
Their work here attempts, through hard and relentless work on their part, watching every episode of the Oprah show (not something they’d ever done before) and transcribing its language, to outline the true content of the Oprah phenomenon with the white light of the written word—almost literally.
This is a cultural difference, says Jerlach, who teaches at UW-Stout. “My students watch the film, I read the book. If they like the film, then perhaps then they will read the book.”
About his and Stringfellow’s experience of the Oprah show Jerlach remarks, “I think that the made-up world the way we are watching it on Oprah, it is kind of hysterical, it’s artificial, everyone is addressed the same way, the audience is managed. I think that when we just use the language, then it is an equal playing field, and we can see what is being said more clearly.”
But after viewing many episodes of the show, with the knowledge that 70 million people watch it, Stringfellow and Jerlach have acquired respect for the woman who creates it: “We had never watched Oprah before this, and we were not aware of her power. Some of the programs are solemn and good, and others are just trivial, but it’s all treated the same. From child abuse to weight loss, it is so diverse.”
About this mix of the fluffy and the deep, Jerlach says, “We have come to see this, that everything is organized, there is a deep-rooted system, calculated. She is a phenomenal person, a phenomenal actor, she can pretend that everything is as important as everything else. She is America’s mother.”
I am not sure I trust the very European faith in text over spectacle, and the implied assumption that most people’s preference for spectacle makes them easily gulled. To my mind, the lifting of text from its context of affect and emotion, and from its source in the very real physical body of Oprah Winfrey, is something of a betrayal.
Europeans may not understand fully that there are reasons that text is not as trusted here as it may be in Denmark or England. Our culture is finally publicly acknowledging its hybridity, its multicolored and multicultural nature. Oprah is the queen of popular culture along with the bleached Lady Gaga; biracial Obama is our president.
American culture is composed of the gifts of Europe, yes, but also of the gifts of Black culture. Complex ideation here may not be primarily a matter of text; mind and body are less separate and the body does not carry the Cartesian stain (see the Eurovision song contest for proof of this difference!). In Black religious traditions group emotion is traditionally a great source of loving strength, not hysteria. Traditional Black bodily aesthetics don’t reject flesh. Many of the aspects of Oprah that have been flensed away by the analytical scalpels of tectonic industries are not mere obfuscation or hysteria; they are containers of meaning.
That said, to read the flow of language in the night, across the clean arched glass of the university art center, is quite wonderful. The alienation of the words—that is, the coolness of their presentation, the relatively slow speed at which one assimilates them—this does make them amenable to thought in ways very different from experiencing them on television.
The idea of meaning itself is, by any reasonable account, artifice—it is constructed. Human beings are the species who can make shit up. That’s who we are. Playing in the same neighborhood is the play The Oldest Story in the World—the tale of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu. Four thousand years ago people constructed this lie-that-tells-the-truth. “Artifice” is the root word for “art”. To attempt to reveal truth by stripping artifice is, perhaps, naïve; truth can only be gotten at tangled up in all the lies that give it life.
Electronica and virtuality bring us, again, to the root questions of humanness: Can we create our selves? Can we create our own world? Are we at the mercy of our creations? Are they, rather, under our control? What do we want from what we make?
Ann Klefstad is an artist and writer in Duluth.
tectonic industries examine the artifice inherent within the creation of the modern myths and belief systems of popular culture. Ultimately these created worlds become a pervasive form of reality, universally meaningful within the mainstream collective memory. At the heart of the investigation lies a fascination with visual, literal, televisual and cinematic pop culture that centers on appearances and narrative. Borrowed language is distorted, manipulated and morphed to heighten the artificial. Referencing immediately identifiable cultural signifiers in conjunction with our seemingly endless quest for self-improvement, tectonic industries create mixed-media installations that scrutinize our all-encompassing desire for instant gratification and immediate satisfaction.
tectonic industries is a collaborative art partnership of the Danish artist Lars Jerlach and the British artist Helen Stringfellow. The members began collaborating in 1999, while pursuing their MFA’s in Sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland. In 2001 they relocated to the USA, and they currently live in the Twin Cities.
tectonic industries has had solo exhibitions at Franklin Art Works (MN), artDC (DC), and ONEZERO Projects (UK), and have participated in group exhibitions and festivals including The Soap Factory (MN), Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (MI), Urban Institute for Contemporary Art (MI) and You Are Here Festival (UK).