Gala Committee

Bedroom sheets adorned with a pattern of unrolled condoms; a computer-manipulated photograph of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City with the bomb crater reconfigured as a vodka bottle and framed by the words 'Total Proof'; Chinese food take-out bags inscribed with the ideograph for human rights; a brooch designed in the form of a mosquito as a symbol of the yellow fever virus; a painting of the bombing of Baghdad; liquor bottles at a bar doubling as a commentary on the complex history of alcohol consumption and related alcohol/culture issues in the United States ...

What is being described here? Theatrical set pieces, art objects, or something else? Actually, the descriptions above refer to hybrid elements that have appeared, perhaps unbeknownst to both you and me, on various episodes of the prime-time soap/drama series, Melrose Place. Conceptual art objects camouflaged as props, or is it the other way around? Is it possible that art has finally infiltrated mainstream TV, entering the cathode ray tubes of millions of Melrose Place fans worldwide? Is this for real? From a certain perspective, nothing on TV is actually 'real,' but it is accurate to say that an unlikely rendezvous has occurred between contemporary visual art practice and contemporary mainstream television.

The project is called 'In the Name of the Place.' Initiated by Mel Chin, it expanded quickly into a more elaborate and exploratory collaboration between the artist and the GALA Committee, which is comprised primarily of students and faculty from the University of Georgia and the California Institute of the Arts. Chin has developed a substantial reputation for rethinking the sanctioned notions of public art in the United States engineering new relationships among the concepts of site-specificity, esthetics, and politics. In a boldly inventive move, he has recalibrated his long-term involvement with the ecological politics of nature and landscape in relation to another type of public space: the wholly public arena of television spectacle. Through its creation of a new model of art-making that involves the participation of mainstream TV, the GALA Committee has effectively moved far beyond theoretical fantasies of critical media infiltration and into an unprecedented framework of cross-cultural and inter-media collaboration. Collective art-making here parallels the fundamentally collaborative nature of television production.

Rarely, if ever, do the visual arts and prime-time television commingle. Many observers have been led to conclude that the two institutions are not only rather strange bedfellows but fundamentally incompatible, and they should be kept as far from one another as possible. As one who has spent nearly as much time watching TV as contemplating art, I cannot recall a single advertisement on prime-time television for an artist or art exhibition. Public television has done a number of documentary-style programs on the visual arts (or occasionally presented a William Wegman or Nam June Paik video), but it has never attempted to configure TV as a public space for the commissioning of new kinds of art. Even with the advent of cable television and MTV (which briefly aired the forgettable Andy Warhol show in the early 1980s, and more recently paid lip service to contemporary artists through something called 'art breaks'), television has truly had no use for art, and art has generally maintained a rather contemptuous relationship with the tube.

As prime-time, entertainment-based television, Melrose Place is often considered to offer moral instruction of questionable value to the youth of America. It is a testament to the uniqueness of the GALA Project that we may consider the possibility that this program might actually become a site wherein everyday issues such as health, violence, gender, sexuality, environmental conflicts, and other social crises are injected (and examined). In a style that has very little in common with the standard delivery systems of news and 'infotainment' programs, artifactual representations of these issues are deftly inserted and virtually hidden within certain episodes of the prime-time L.A. lifestyle show that everyone loves to hate. The art-objects-as-props that comprise the 'In the Name of the Place' project lie in wait, delivering their sophisticated, yet subliminal, visual and verbal messages to an unsuspecting audience. This strategy reimagines the physical set of the TV show as a physical framework for the exhibition of artworks - designed artifacts ('tele-objects') that would be virtually indistinguishable from background props.

The idea of inserting site-specific artworks into the sets of Melrose Place was singular and powerfully idiosyncratic in its own right. Even more astonishing is the fact that the project garnered the early cooperation of the show's set decorator, Deborah Siegel. First, Siegel invited the GALA Committee to design a number of adornments for an upcoming episode of Melrose Place that would feature the bedroom of a doctor known for his sexual adventures. This led to the development and incorporation of the condom-pattern design on pillowcases and bedsheets (entitled Safety Sheets): A new esthetic was thus generated out of an alternately humorous and earnest reflection upon the increasingly popular and commercialized discourse on 'safe sex.' At the early stages of this relatively informal collaboration between the GALA Project and Siegel, executive producer Frank South was apparently unaware (as were many of the actors) of the incorporation of these hybrid artifacts into the visual and narrative framework of the show. Eventually he was informed, and he gave it his enthusiastic and official approval; later he became a GALA Committee member himself! Seemingly against the odds, a truly new type of cultural fusion had been inaugurated.

The relationship between 'In the Name of the Place' and Melrose Place is considered by the GALA Committee to be a somewhat inadvertent coalition between two embattled elements: National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) supported art institutions (and artists, by extension) and a popular but morally questionable TV show. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA), which is partially funded by the NEA, commissioned 'In the Name of the Place' for the recent group show Uncommon Sense. It is well known that the very existence of the NEA has been threatened by some conservative politicians and religious leaders. Similarly, ultraconservative critics of 'Melrose Place' have sought to draw an analogy between the program's dubious version of morality in regard to sexual relationships and the supposed pandemic moral decline of the United States. Of course, there is more than a little irony to the GALA Committee's observation that tax revenue-supported vanguard art-making and commercially funded rearguard television-making have become 'coconspirators' in the subversion of 'real' American values: In other words, they've become scapegoats for those folks who would rather distract our attention from the more serious issues (and from their own hypocrisy). 'In the Name of the Place' forges a temporary, complex alliance between distinct cultural worlds that is at once poignantly real and imaginary where the apparently superficial narratives of Melrose Place are embedded with layers of coded information designed to trigger rich cultural and political allegories.

What is especially significant about this cross-cultural collaboration is the extent to which a real working relationship unfolded among the various students, teachers, artists, and academics associated with the GALA Project and the producers, set designers, and script writers for Melrose Place. For example, when an episode called for the 'Samantha' character to make a public display of her paintings, the GALA Committee submitted works depicting famous crime scenes throughout the Los Angeles area (e.g., the Sharon Tate/LaBianca Murders, the unresolved death of Marilyn Monroe). These various subjects were then incorporated back into the TV script, creating a new kind of reciprocal narrative amalgam.

In the Uncommon Sense exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, hundreds of artworks/props were displayed in tandem with specially edited video clips of corresponding Melrose Place episodes (also included was a faithfully re-created set of one of the show's primary hangouts, Shooters Bar). The public was thus offered an opportunity to locate the discreetly installed objects and embellishments inside the theatrical space of the actual television program. This subtle, mutually reinforcing collaborative interplay between the GALA Committee and the makers of Melrose Place led to a natural, but unexpected, apotheosis: An episode of Melrose Place was actually taped inside one of the museum's galleries. The characters portrayed by Heather Locklear and Rob Estes discuss a Bombing of Baghdad painting (originally commissioned by Carol Mendelsohn, Coexecutive Producer and writer for Melrose Place, also a GALA Committee member) as it appears in the Uncommon Sense exhibition. This scene was then broadcast on an episode of Melrose Place shortly after the MOCA opening. Appropriately enough, Chin and set decorator Siegel, along with other GALA participants, can be seen in the background, bringing full-circle this singular fusion of art-world and TV-world conceptions of visual artifice, fantasy, social narrative, and cultural scrutiny. Here the spectacle of television is 'staged' within the institutional space of a museum, and the context of the art exhibition itself the product of a collaboration that blurs distinctions between 'high' and 'popular' culture is injected back into the pictorial space of daily television. Art is transmitted through television, television through art, and a remarkably hybrid situation is engendered. So don't change that channel, and don't forget to plug into the web site for upcoming developments.

Joshua Decter
New York, NY

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