Parrafo magazine

Subversion via the Screen: Matthieu Laurette and the Art of Television

Rebecca Starr

In a recent article in The New York Times, the film critic Armond White made the following declaration regarding the longstanding rivalry between television and film, stating: “As much as I love pop culture, I tend to be a purist about this debate. Nothing beats the big screen. Simply put: Film is a visual art form and television is merely a visual medium.”1 Views such as White’s are not uncommon and have infiltrated debates surrounding mass media, popular culture and so-called “high” vs. “low” art for the best part of the last century. However, such statements disregard the many ways in which television has not only altered our experience of viewing art, but also of the ways in which television has contributed to the production of art itself. One artist whose career is dependent upon the medium of television is Matthieu Laurette, a conceptual artist who, since the 1990s, has been creating a series of works that are only possible as a result of being broadcast to audiences around the world. This text is concerned with Laurette’s Apparitions [Appearances] (1993-), a series of work based on Laurette’s appearances on TV game shows, including Tournez manège (1993) and El gran trueque (2000), to examine the ways in which he has used television within his practice to question the ways in which art is viewed, perceived and, indeed, appears, in contemporary society.

In 1993, Matthieu Laurette made his television debut, appearing on the French game show Tournez manège (The Dating Game). On this show, Laurette stated his professional activities as those of an “artist,” and since then has made multiple appearances on television shows across Europe and North America. Laurette’s debut on a TV game show is one that can be deemed subversive from the start. Television has often been considered as a less superior, less sophisticated younger sibling of film, and various other media associated with the idea of “high culture.”2 Although television allows for the transmission of so-called “high culture” events, such as opera and theatre performances, with the advent of this medium new genres and forms of entertainment were created in an effort to meet the increasing demands of those watching television. One remedy for this was the introduction of the TV game show, a medium that is dependent upon accessibility and audience participation, unlike activities traditionally associated with “elite” or “high” culture.3 For Laurette, Tournez manège provided a platform for which he was able to create an artwork outside of the gallery space that would receive a significantly larger number of viewers than had he featured it within a gallery. However, Laurette’s status as an “artist’” within this setting was dependent upon blurring the boundaries that often define the artist as a person who creates that which is enjoyed by a select few. Such an intervention, thus, raises questions surrounding how artwork is to be perceived if it is only made possible through the medium of television

With the development of technology, artists currently have a vast range of media available to them. While video art, films, and virtual reality are now commonplace in many exhibitions of contemporary art, what is interesting to note is that the presence of television sets are often only there to playback editions of artworks that have been made available to the gallery, as opposed to broadcasting actual TV shows. Following his initial Apparition on Tournez manège, Laurette returned to the game show format in 2000 for El gran trueque [The Great Exchange]. The programme invited members of the public to offer their own possessions for exchange, with the intention being that participants would be able swap their way to a brand-new car that Laurette had purchased. On the surface, El gran trueque provided the basis for a family-friendly game show, albeit one with a format similar to the American game shows described by the marketing scholar Morris B. Holbrook as “all that is worst, lowest and most despicable in consumer culture.”4 However, with El gran trueque, Laurette sought to display the potential of alternative economies. For Laurette, the exchanges taking place as part of the game show were acts that demonstrated how it was possible to circulate goods without any cash changing hands, in a mode resembling pre-capitalist economic formations. Rather than contributing to the consumer culture of the masses for which critics such as Holbrook held such disdain, Laurette’s appearances on game shows attempted to offer a platform for reconsidering the nature of exchange within contemporary society via a medium that could garner the largest audience. Also, the prestige often awarded to artists was something actively questioned and forfeited by Laurette. Given that the television programme was not defined as an artwork until after its transmission, any interested art collectors found it difficult to obtain a unique or limited edition of this work and, as a result, the exclusivity of the work, which in many cases adds to its market value, was significantly diminished after being broadcast to audiences across Spain. As the art critic and writer Jörg Heiser has stated, Laurette’s objective with his work is “not simply [to] stage subversive media stunts,” but also to “test the elasticity of what contemporary art can – almost literally – deal with as a practice.’”5

While the increasing popularity of video art and film in galleries shows no signs of slowing anytime soon, the televisual art of Matthieu Laurette allows for the status of such works and the position of the artist to be called into question. In a time when the act of seeing artworks and exhibitions can be enjoyed without even setting foot in a gallery, Laurette’s Apparitions attempt to subvert our view of the possibilities of art, the ways in which it is produced and how it is displayed.6 Despite criticisms of television as “merely a visual medium,” and as belonging to “low culture,” artists such as Matthieu Laurette demonstrate the subversive potential that is possible only as a result of the far-reaching appeal of television. Although some critics consider game shows as unbearable symbols of consumer culture, their popularity and easy-going nature are more radical than they first appear. Perhaps this, then, is the winning formula behind the subversive techniques present in Matthieu Laurette’s Apparitions, which demonstrate that TV game shows, as trashy as they may seem, are not to be underestimated