Journalism is experiencing a crisis of confidence as of late, with long-running mainstream sources being labeled “fake news,” while extremist propaganda mills are hailed as harbingers of the truth. Although this specific quandary may be unprecedented, the concept that the news should be viewed with a healthy skepticism—considering from where and whom it comes—is nothing new. People living under regimes that lack a free press are often more dubious of the stories coming out of their state-sanctioned newspapers than we are in supposedly liberal democracies. The idea of “fake news” itself supposes that there is a “real news” somewhere, that there is a paper or a broadcast that will provide the truth, as opposed to a spectrum of news sources, each with their own biases and perspectives. Featuring photography and video spanning almost fifty years—from the Vietnam War to the War on Terror—the exhibition Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media at the Getty Center couldn’t be more timely, showing that artists have been questioning the veracity of “the media” since well before our current outrage over “alternative facts.”
Much of the work in the show simply reproduces images from print and televised media, reframing them in subtle but meaningful ways. In the series Daily Photographs 1969–1970, Donald Blumberg photographs newspaper pages, focusing on images related to the Vietnam War while including surrounding text and advertisements. The works reveal the newspaper as a subjective nexus of interrelated information and opinions, instead of as an objective assemblage of discreet facts. His Television Political Mosaics and Television Abstractions (1968–69) are created similarly by photographing evening broadcasts on the television screen. Images of politicians, including Nixon and LBJ, are arranged either in orderly grids or in more chaotic compositions that threaten the intended stability of their original messages. In some works, Blumberg uses darkroom techniques such as solarization to give these familiar faces a more sinister appearance.
Japanese artist Masao Mochizuki also turns his camera towards the television, reproducing images on tightly composed grids in his Television series (1975–76). Mochizuki’s works, however, lack any of Blumberg’s authorial voice. With each frame taken at regularly timed intervals, his composite images do not discriminate between show credits, program drama, or advertisements. The images are all laid out as a constant stream of information and are reproduced at an intimate, miniature scale to draw viewers in, forcing them to actively gaze at content that might otherwise be passively absorbed.
Produced thirty-five years after Blumberg’s photographs, Catherine Opie’s Polaroids are a departure from her highly polished portraits and landscapes. Snapped while watching TV, the photos reflect a raw immediacy and are tinged with frustration and humor. Opie assembles groups of Polaroids, mostly depicting newscasts of hot-button issues of the aughts (John Roberts’ Supreme Court hearings, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina), and arranges them to highlight certain themes, often counter to the original intent. In Terry Schiavo and Pope John Paul (2004–2005), she juxtaposes images of the brain-dead woman and the pro-life Pope, their faces contorted into similar grimaces.
One of the standout works from the exhibition is Omer Fast’s video CNN Concatenated (2002). Cutting and pasting from multiple news broadcasts, Fast takes one word each from a chorus of talking heads and strings them together to form direct, patchwork addresses to the audience, such as, “I need you to stop pretending to care, to get off your ass, and start acting like you do, all right? This is not a lot to be asking for, is it?”
David Lamelas and Hildegarde Duane’s 1978 video The Dictator is one of the only works that doesn’t appropriate already printed or broadcast imagery. Taking the form of a news interview between Duane’s Barbara Walters-like character and Lamelas’ newly deposed Latin American tyrant, the work has a dark humor that takes on a special relevance given our current president’s infatuation with the media, and vice versa. Despite Duane’s probing questions about human-rights abuses or plans for an anti-revolutionary coup, Lamelas’ character evades any judgment or condemnation, revealing the power of media appearances to legitimize the illegitimate.
In addition to the content of the news, some of these artists take aim to reveal its structure. Dara Birnbaum and Dan Graham’s video Local TV News Analysis (1980) is a straightforward reminder that news is not simply facts, put out into the world, but part of a system of consumption that is assembled, produced, and packaged. The hour-long video work depicts a typical American family watching the evening news, while in the upper left corner is an inset video of the newsroom. The piece compresses into one scene: the message, medium, and audience.
Robert Heinecken—an artist who is famous for adeptly reflecting and refracting media images—offers a parodic take on the search for the perfect newscaster with his multi-panel text and image work A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate Newswoman (A CBS Docudrama in Words and Pictures) (1984). By layering images of different broadcasters over each other, Heinecken creates a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, pointing out the absurdity of prioritizing the person delivering the news over the news itself.
Breaking News provides a well-rounded and focused, if not comprehensive, survey of artists who question the media’s subjectivity, using its own images and words to do so. The one missed opportunity is that by featuring works that engage primarily with print and broadcast sources, the exhibition stops too soon, overlooking the way almost all of us get our news today, with tweets and Facebook posts becoming as important as long-standing journalistic institutions. This does, however, leave room for another, more contemporary look at artists examining the current, arguably more fraught state of journalism.
Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media is on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles through April 30, 2017.