6 – Media criticism by Antoni Mercader

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Taking art activism as the starting point: What is Media Criticism?

In the same way that we regard those actions which are carried out with the intention of instigating or achieving political and/or social change as forms of activism, in the field of media and artistic communication we find a form of activism known as media criticism, which manifests itself through its use of media and communications technologies and information. When this activism uses the medium of video, it is known as video activism.

Media criticism is thus an attitude of adopting a critical stance towards the media and its functional mode, as reflected in the methodologies and forms, proposals and projects of contemporary art in general and media art in particular.

Video Media Criticism in the USA and Europe

It is worth noting that media criticism in the form of video activism first made its presence felt in the 1960s. As a minority social movement committed to openly resisting anything that involved a unidirectional and hierarchical institutionalization of mass communication by governments and those wielding economic and financial power it was very much in tune with the defiant nonconformism of the events that took place May 1968 in Paris. A range of initiatives related to the cultural context of change and the idea of breaking free of consumer society embraced by many young people — for the most part students — served to express the will to transgress the status and status quo of communication and especially the unidirectional, centralized position of television (Watching the Press/Reading Television).

A number of individuals mobilized by the summons to the barricades being issued by collectives and initiatives linked to the art schools were attracted — especially in the USA (Media Burn) — to the radically new tool, which even without any specific training made it possible to document and disseminate images and sounds with which to oust the all-powerful TV and thus to act in some way as an alternative to its hegemonic dominance of the airwaves (Commercial).

Typologies of Work in Media Criticism

The practice of Media Criticism on the part of European artists is extremely diverse and reveals a variety of typologies of work. Among the most widely used are reappropriation and re-enactment, both of which have been present throughout the three decades since this phenomenon came into existence.

The first term refers to the use of elements extracted (recovered) from the media and inserted (appropriated) in order to articulate critical formulations. A clear example of reappropriation is the piece entitled Commercial by Gusztáv Hámos (1981).

The second term refers to the representation or reconstruction of elements intrinsic to the media (as if taken directly from them) in the making and production of critical work. A good example of this adoption of re-enactment as a typology of work is Meta-text-as by Flame Schon (2006/07).

The current state of Media Criticism

This is a phenomenon that illustrates very clearly the extent to which the involvement of art in the realms of media communication gave rise to a level of expectation that was to have decisive implications for the shaping of the media art of the 1980s (Grimoire Magnétique), the 1990s (Frame) and the present (Meta-text-asy + Ars Electronica). In terms of social policy, these expectations were to be found both in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe (SCCA Ljubljana).

The phenomenon has since grown, not only in quantity but also in breadth and depth. There are plenty of examples that make it perfectly clear how far the premises of Media Criticism, which had at first been almost exclusively confined to video art, have increasingly established themselves in the field of interactive art and/or Netart (Ars Electronica).


Six stations for a touchdown


Media Burn. Ant Farm, 1975, 25:44 min (NIMk) 

‘If smashing a ‘59 Cadillac into a wall of old television sets is art then the world may rest tonight with a new masterpiece. If it is culture then we’re all in a degree of difficulty not previously experienced in this society…’


Watching the Press/Reading Television. Muntadas, 1980, 11:24 min (NIMk) 

‘In the opening sequence of Antonio Muntadas’ short video Watching the Press/Reading Television, one immediately feels the seductive power of the medium of television, the face of pop cultural icon Mick Jagger mouths …’


Commercial. Gusztáv Hámos, 1981, 10:06 min (C3) 

To create Commercial, subtitled ‘one-minute adventures in the world of TV’, Hámos and Christoph Dreher taped thirty hours of programming from Berlin television. This appropriated footage of slasher films, Westerns, cartoons and educational programmes is set to the music of The Residents. Nine of the ‘commercials’ are collected here.


Grimoire Magnétique. Joëlle de la Casinière & Jacques Lederlin, 1982, 26:00 min (ARGOS)

An album of images that musically recounts the life and passion of a 10th-century Muslim saint. The poem is sung, illustrated, and translated into gestures by an interpreter for those who have difficulty following the TV news.


Frame [o la rueda de la fortuna]. Julián Álvarez, 1990, 6:00 min (HEURE EXQUISE!)

Television inundates us with events-cum-images, dragged in front of us by the inexorable ‘wheel of fortune.’ Our world is governed by ‘symbols’ which, like slot machines, combine with one another to achieve the ‘top score’.


Meta-text-asy. Flame Schon, 2006/07, 15:00 min (LES INSTANTS)

A trilogy with text which may be viewed as separate pieces. Public Service Announcements (6’00”). Adverts like the ones on a real television channel. Daughter of Dada Returns (1’45”) A panther woman on a busy road. Storyboard (for Daughter of Dada 2) (6’25”).



Two references


(SCCA Ljubljana)

Some of the works related to the Media Criticism item in this archive clearly reveal the extent to which the premises of Media Criticism have been universalized since the 1980s; in the 1990s as in Ausländer (Magnifico) by Mirko Simic (1995), for example, and at the start of this century with the continuity of critical complicities in Important News by Vesna Bukovec (2003).


(Ars Electronica)

The archives of this European event bear witness to the evolution of Media Art. They contain indisputable instances of the complicity of Media Criticism in the developments taking place in Europe, including award-winning works in the field of video art and in those disciplines that are distinguished by its expansion into New Media Art, whether it be the digital communities prize awarded to NewGlobalVision/Telestreet in 2005 or the interactive art award won by Julius von Bismarck’s Image Fulgurator in 2008.