Location Livorno, IT
Veit Stratmann
March 25, 2021

ripples on air waves - gerry schum’s fernsehgalerie

Gerry Schum and the then director of the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven Jean Leering, during the opening of Land Art, 1969.

A few words on the ambiguous relation between Gerry Shum’s Fernsehgalerie (TV-Gallery) and the medium it was created for

Since the beginning of his work as a film-maker, Gerry Schum was interested in films on art and in particular on the notion of the multiple, its status as a non-original work of art, its economy and its modes of distribution. In this context, in 1967 Schum directed, for the SFB-Sender Freies Berlin (Radio/TV Free Berlin), the German Radio-TV broadcaster of the French, English and American sector of Berlin, a documentary on the 6th San Marino Biennial, Nuove Tecniche d’Immagine. He also directed, in 1968, for the television channel WDR-Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Radio/TV of Western Germany) in Cologne, a film specifically on the reproducibility of the work of art and the notion of the multiple, Konsumkunst–Kunstkonsum (Consumption-Art, Art-Cosumption), in it, the artist Heinz Mack declared that his works presented in the film would be seen only on television and destroyed after completion of the film, thus leaving no material or immaterial original, only the representation of the work.

As a reaction to Nuove tecniche d’immagine Schum was again contacted by the SFB to come up with a proposal for a new TV format. This invitation incited Schum to develop, with his partner Ursula Wevers, the artist Bernd Höcke and the journalist Wibke von Bonin, the concept of the Fernsehgalerie. From early 1969 to late 1970, this concept developed in four modules—two films, the first and the second Fernsehausstellung (Television Exhibition), Land Art and Identifications, and two projects, appearing in the language of the 21st century as mini series, TV as a Fireplace by Jan Dibbets, and Self Burial by Keith Arnatt.

Schum mainly worked with the two broadcasters SFB and WDR because of their unique economical, social and political conditions and traditions, present in, and stemming from their immediate geographical environment.

In this context, the two Fernsehausstellungen were specifically designed for Berlin, or more precisely for West Berlin. They responded directly to the cultural, economical and political situation of the city, then geographically isolated in the middle of what was the Democratic Republic of Germany, show case of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon.

After WWII and the departure of almost any major company for West Germany, West Berlin was very poor and lived almost exclusively on subsidies coming in from West Germany. In the same time, it was very difficult to travel to and from West Berlin. And presumably, visiting an art show was not big enough an incentive to undertake the effort for travelling. Thus it was very difficult to organise a show in Berlin, to ship the works and to gather an audience.

At the same time, before WWII Berlin had been a highly industrialised megalopolis, and the city still had a tradition of the democratisation of science and culture through worker’s cultural associations, adult education centres, evening schools and the like. So the basic idea of not transporting and show material works but to conceive works for the air waves as well as not having the viewers come to the show but the show to the viewers made sense. But another aspect is at least as important as the artistical, pedagogical and logistical reasons for broadcasting the Fersehausstellung in Berlin. The Fernsheaustellungen can be seen as a propaganda operation (and a sign of West Berlin’s resistance) in the middle of the cold war aimed towards the inhabitants of East Berlin and the late German Democratic Republic who could, through probably intended overspill, receive West German television. Thus the Fernsehgalerie played a role similar as the Documenta I, which, taking place in Kassel next to the then so called demarcation line between the two Germanies, allowed for a major cultural propaganda operation towards the inhabitants of the GDR, and through GDR to other countries further afield.

The economical and political environment of the WDR, as the frame for broadcasting Arnatt’s and Dibetts’ work, was very important as well. The conurbation of the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr Valley) or later the Megalopolis Rhein/Ruhr —of which Cologne is the single biggest urban entity— has a long tradition of cultural dissemination. Both as policy of the main political forces —the SPD (socio-democrats) and the trade unions and of the industrialists. The goal of the SPD and the unions being the emancipation of the working population while the industrialists aimed at building employee loyalty at a time of economic explosion and a crucial lack of manpower. Parallel to its economical and thus demographical growth, the Ruhr Valley or the Megalopolis Rhein/Ruhr saw the appearance of figures like Karl Ernst Osthaus, Founder of the Folkwangmuseum in Essen who defined the Megalopolis Rhein/Ruhr as the new Capital of the German west, based on industrial labour und thus in the need of cultural institutions as detached as possible from the Palaces of culture of the 19th century, which were rooted in the traditions of an old bourgeoisie, landed gentry and inherited money. Also there was a long lasting tradition of experimentation on airwaves, induced mainly by the Düsseldorf Art School and the music scene emerging around it and through the installation of the electronic music studio of the WDR, the first structure of its kind in Europe. This studio, via Pierre Boulez who worked there under Karlheinz Stockhausen, became a sort of foreshadowing of IRCAM in Paris. In parallel, the Kölner Kunstmarkt (the Cologne Art Market) started in 1967, now being one of the oldest art fairs in Europe and one of the earliest attempts to invent new forms of art dealing. At the same time, and until the nineties and the take over by Berlin, Cologne was one of the world capitals of visual arts.

While on one hand being totally dependent on the ideology of specific TV-stations and their social economical and political environment, the Frensehgalerie actually directly attacked in the same time the system it was invented for and carried by: “Linear public TV”.

In 1969/1970, only three TV channels existed in Germany, all of them public. The stations were mostly financed via mandatory television licence fees. Those fees were justified by the preponderant capacity of Television to broadcast information, by its ability to reach society as a whole, by its educational role and mostly by its function as the shared institution of comment and societal interpretation.

It was namely the last point the Fernshgalerie played against. Within the system “Linear public TV”, the modules of the Fernsehgalerie were shown without external commentary or introduction. Neither were they commentaries in themselves — “films on art”. But without commentaries or introductions, TV as carrier of the content was immediately deprived of its role as preceptor of society. And by loosing its role as preceptor of society, TV de facto lost its justification for being taken into account as a particularly important societal voice and the reason for its specific and mandatory financing by the viewer. In the same time, without commentaries or introductions, TV no longer offered a unifying position, attitude nor vision for the spectators as a collective. It actually turned this collective into a loose aggregation of countless individuals left alone with their capacity for interpretation and comment. Thus, television, during the broadcasting of the Fernsehgalerie, did actually not broad-cast. It became a pure individually received means of transporting images. Basically, each time a component of the Fernsehgalerie was shown, it dissolved momentarily the purpose and the economical pretensions of the very medium through which it existed.

The efficiency of the Fernsehgalerie to operate the dissolution of TV’s purpose, stems from the fact that each of its components, used intrinsic properties of television broadcasting against itself:

Arnatt’s Self Burrial consists of the capture of a series of nine black and white photographs that document the artist’s progressive self-burial. These photographs were previously shown at the 1967 show Life in your Head – When Attitudes become Forms in the Kunsthalle Bern. Turned into a TV format by Schum, the captures of the photographs were broadcast without announcement nor comment, by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, two by two, between October 11 and 18, 1969. The first image was broadcast at 8:15 p.m. and the second at 9:15 p.m., each image for 4 seconds. The second image, broadcast at 9:15 p.m. was repeated the next day at 8:15 p.m. Thus, Self Burial diverted the rhythmic program of linear TV, the planned and foreseeable duration of components of this program and the slight lags that can be exploited in this system.

TV as a Fireplace, proposed by Jan Dibbets, is basically a still shot of a slowly burning fire. This filming is broadcast –again without announcement or commentary– by the WDR between December 25 and 31, 1969. Each evening three minutes were shown for a total of around 24 minutes. TV as a Fireplace used the strategic moment of the end of the program introducing a small temporary glitch in the highly structured system. It also used the then recent switch from black and white to colour and its placing in the, according to a German expression –week between the years, with its family– and cosiness oriented special programming. TV as a Fireplace obviously also turned away from TV as an institution by using the TV set as an object, the piece of furniture which dimensions are defined by the cathode-ray tube it contained and which organised many of the spectator’s living spaces –serving as a gathering place and as the central light source in an often darkened living space.

The two Fernsehausstellungen, Land Art and Identifications, were broadcast respectively by the SFB on April 15, 1969 at 10:40 p.m. and by the SWF-Südwestfunk Baden-Baden (Radio/TV of South Western Germany) on November 30, 1970 at 10:50 p.m. In those two modules, Schum diverted the notion of comment from something meant to accompany an art work to become one of its constitutive and active components.

Schum did this on four levels : At first, Schum started each module with a specific introductory event. In the case of Identifications, the artworks were preceded by a filmed introductory speech, during which Schum sat behind a desk while reading the transcript and than cutting to show the artworks. In the case of Land Art, the program was preceded by a live “opening“ or “private view” with an actual public, drinks and speeches, the whole event filmed in one of SFB’s studios. TV screens were mounted along the walls, showing in loop the different components of Land Art. At a given moment, a camera zoomed into one of the screens and the program started. In the same time, the different components of the Fersehgalerie were introduced and commented by a voice over spoken by Schum.

Secondly, the Fernsehgalerie presented actual performances. But these performances were solely conceived to exist through their representation on film and in their relation to the other artworks. Thus each film commented on the artwork filmed and the different films commented on each other. Thirdly, each film, being an authors work in itself, became a commentary on its relation to its subject. And lastly, Schum acted out the shift from one layer of commentary and introduction to another, using this interplay between layers as the structural element at the core of the whole project. TV could not come to grips with those shifting layers, except by cutting of the program –which was the reason why Identifications was broadcast by the SDR, since the director of programming of the WDR refused to go for it.

And yet, the medium struck back. In any case, that’s what Ursula Wevers told in 1979: Identifications was again presented in a fragmentary form, this time by the Hessische Rundfunk in Wiesbaden. While being broadcast, Wevers and Schum discovered that the images of Rainer Ruthenbeck’s crumpling papers and Klaus Rinke’s spilling of a water container were intercut with images of an office worker and a farmer doing the same things. This wasn’t just about the broadcasters commenting on the works, but actually destroying them by reducing them to functional gestures. Television attacked those who deprive it of its power of commentary, through commentary itself.