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People: Anna McCarthy


Video-pool: Anna McCarthy

Video is always site-specific. It is constantly available in the home, but also present in other places too, the everyday locations where we shop, eat and drink, wait, and travel in our daily itineraries. But it is not the same from place to place. It is peculiarly malleable, taking on heterogeneous physical forms: giant videowalls and video banks, flat screens that look like illuminated signs, small and large consoles. The variety is particularly evident in urban space. Some public urban video screens are flat and anonymous. Others are decorated by their owners with all kinds of texts, to say nothing of statuary, plastic flowers, and other items of personal or cultural significance. And when we talk of video in urban public space we are really talking about all sorts of signal forms, from live transmissions to pre-recorded program cycles, to simultaneous mixtures of both. And such divergent forms coexist unproblematically; one need only take a cab ride through New York’s Times Square, populated with more forms of the televisual apparatus than one could possibly count, to grasp the inadequacy of theoretical models that attempt to address the medium’s materiality via an abstracted or idealized sense of its technological manifestation on the level of the everyday.

The eclecticism of video and television as elements of the urban landscape suggest that although the home may be economically central to broadcast television and the commercial video/DVD industry, this does not mean that critics should accept the pervasive ideological association of television with the domicile as an adequate representation of the actual geography of the medium. When we take the diverse proliferation of material forms and places of television into account, the medium starts to look very different. It becomes impossible to argue that the TV set always organizes relations between, say, public and private, subjects and collectivities, participation and isolation, in identical ways across locations. Rather, television’s heterogeneous materiality requires that we accept that its operations upon the subject and its use as a form of communication between individuals must change from site to site, institution to institution. If the flexibility of the technology allows the medium to disappear into the everyday places where it appears, then surely it must simultaneously disappear into the particular relations of public and private, subjects and others, that characterize these places.

The pictures I take document the range of ways that video screens integrate into everyday life in the city. I’ve selected for the video pool images of screens that reflect small-scale, personalized uses of the screen in small retail and service establishments, many of them run by and for recent immigrants to the United States. They were taken in a number of different cities: New York, Paris, San Francisco, Montreal, Philadelphia and Newark. Balanced on top of a fridge, placed near a religious shrine, and nestled on the shelf next to the merchandise, they testify to the ways that the video image becomes part of a complex urban visual culture. These pictures bear witness to the repertoire of decorative conventions and practices people bring to the question of where to put the TV set in the everyday places and practices that define city life.

Anna McCarthy (May 2004)