The End or Only the Beginning of TV?
Author: Vesta Bartašiūtė
“The alienation from the self is a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class” – this might sound sophisticated, but it was none other than Carl Marx who claimed so in the 19th century. When referring to the toxic culture of our time, Gabor Maté, a Hungarian-Canadian doctor of medicine, mentioned Marx’s theory of alienation and based on it analyzed the sense of meaninglessness that spreads in the society like a virus. The disease first of all affects man's connection with nature and then spreads to relationships, inducing the loss of human bond, intimacy, and trust in others. Alienation also manifests itself in monotonous work, which does not give any meaning to a person’s creative existence. Falling into this vicious circle, one tries to find a way out by engaging in toxic activities or excessive shopping – thus starting to lose touch with oneself. The worst part is that the economy feeds on our meaninglessness and is never satisfied. Sometimes it seems impossible to escape from all the annoying advertisements – we can only close our eyes, but the drawers of the subconscious cannot be locked. I’ll stop at that for now, but I really don’t promise I won’t come back. In fact, I found this lecture by Maté quite by accident sometime after the Puppet Animation Scotland’s international festival MANIPULATE. This is why I decided to start with it when I was writing about the puppet-shadow theater performance The End of TV.
The End of TV is distinct in several unusual aspects. First of all, the story is told through lyrics of the songs performed on stage by an ensemble of art-pop musicians. At the same time, the music brings the action forward and dictates the changing rhythm and mood of the performance. Another important creative factor is the innovative use of old graph projectors – by using hundreds of paper dolls, the actors create a shadow-puppet theater that resembles a live animated film. Although I did not watch the performance live, the precise work of the cameraman gave the idea of what the overall picture of the show was. If we had been in a full auditorium, we would have seen a triple arrangement on the stage: the live creative chaos of the actors, a concert, and an aesthetic shadow theater on the screen.
In the performance shadows are used to create a parallel story of two women – we see Loise, an African-American woman who grew up with TV, and Grandma Flo, who has dementia and does not retreat from the TV screen. Although these two women are from different generations, their lives follow the same line – even if the characters were swapped completely, it would not destroy the plot of the performance. The shadows tell the story where both characters had worked in a factory and lived in a gray industrial town captivated by the fast pace of life. All the rush and the stressful atmosphere directly affect women, thus forcing them to seek peace in a fictional world where thrumming cars and the chaos of the collapsing world do not exist. This chaos of life can also be seen on the stage whereby using green-screen a recreation of the 1990s US TV commercials takes place.
The commercials displayed on the screen of the performance appeal to the emotions of the shadow viewer – they evoke nostalgia and create an artificial sense of closeness with the two lonely women through close-ups of overly happy faces of actors. Apparently, Loise also finds comfort elsewhere, such as in cigarette smoke, partying with friends, and a joint passed around in a circle. However, in this case, there is nothing to get ruffled about, and wonder why a young woman living in a toxic culture resorts to toxic substances. Flo, on the other hand, has the company of TV and TV only, therefore, obviously, commercial advertisements affect her more because her dementia leaves her completely incapable of separating reality from television. It gives her an endless sense of comfort, which is great, however, we also see the other side of the screen where Flo subconsciously tries to drag that TV company into her apartment, which is overflowing with QVC’s advertised shopping boxes. This looks completely absurd and induces a great sense of compassion for the granny because who in the world would actually need a Snoopy-shaped cookie jar? Most probably, a three-year-old kid who would treat it like a real dog or a dementia-ridden granny who does not care about not only bailiffs who regularly come to stick eviction notices on her door, but also the whole system that put her in front of the TV and is forcing all that nonsense down her throat. This emotion is further strengthened by the usage of projectors and the screen flashing with psychedelic lights to convey Flo's confusion and fear, which manifests itself in recurrent hallucinations caused by dementia. In moments like these, she is haunted by the images of her daughter who died in a car crash, and a big green giant from a cereal advertisement who is trying to gently take her by the hand and pull her into nature. The performance shows the great cultural shift taking place in the world of shadows: the factories are being closed, while technologies overtake more and more areas of life. All this economic decline impacts the people’s moral and spiritual decline which manifests itself through alienation and distancing from oneself.
Finally, in the performance, the paths of the two women cross, hopefully demonstrating that goodness and compassion still exist in the world. However, after the performance, very controversial emotions remain, as the performance’s title in this case seems VERY optimistic. The End of TV. And so, the question arises: will it be good that will bring about the end of TV, or is there the end of the human world fueled by the TV encoded in the title?