Statuesque Reality

Originally published 10/08/2009, updated 05/09/2009

Art is a reflection of reality, right? Or is reality a reflection of art? Never have two questions been more in perfect symmetry as when the subject of performance art comes up and a recent best example is, of course, oneandother. Performance art is something I've never been completely comfortable with, even though I admire some of its representatives. Too often, it can end up as an inane stunt, such as a mime artist throwing prawns from a bucket at a brick wall to represent the stalemate of the War On Terror. However, when I heard about the oneandother showpiece in Trafalgar Square, I was genuinely baffled as to how it was going to work, despite my faith in the chief artist, Antony Gormley. I could understand his motivation behind such the piece, though. A member of the public would stand on the fourth plinth for every hour, on the hour, for the next 100 days. It would be a brilliant piece of 'living art', but the performance art itself wouldn't be Gormley; it'd be the individual random members of the public. But my bafflement can be asked with two questions; how would you administrate such a thing and surely that would just attract the same members of the public that would audition for reality television? You'd get a rather skewed section of a supposed Great British public. While that question hovered in front of me, it appeared to be answered decisively by a close friend of mine, Louise, who promptly announced that she'd be doing it; and said close friend is eminently sensible and has zero interest in chasing fame. In fact, she was even a sort of an ex-boss of mine who used to keep me in line. We worked in an office where we couldn't move the fishtank from the previous office, so we replaced it with a computer piping forth the "Big Brother" Channel 4 live feed. This was about the most literal upgrade replacement I could think of. All done irony-free, of course. It's about a year since I wrote about "Big Brother", Channel 4's reality TV series, and it's generally recognised as the granddaddy of reality shows (loved and loathed in equal measures, but no-one can deny it te granddaddy title), but that ain't what this article is strictly about.

Because I hate "Big Brother". There, I've said it. Weirdly enough, not because of any contestants who have gone into "The House" this series (or, indeed, from any series). Yes, there's wannabes, exhibitionists, et al, but I always have a sneaking admiration for anyone who lasts till the end. My occasional co-writer, Spiderboz, and I have had chats about the series and are distinctly confused as to why anyone would want to go on it. Spiderboz tends to go from a privacy angle (e.g. why would you offer your entire life on a plate for people to watch?). Mine is more pragmatic - I can't stand people in general and love living in a flat by myself. In fact, I'm always impressed by the "mediator" characters who are in the final, as they've essentially got to the end with the patience of Mother Theresa living in a habitation full of closeted adults afflicted with attention-deficit disorder and/or juvenile dementia. I've gone hiking and hosteling before and you always end up in an enclosed place with at least one asshole, usually in the middle of nowhere. I'm nearly always the one to make the "first call" on said asshole, much to the embarrassment of the rest of a hostel group and am therefore, "evicted" (usually to sleep in someone's car boot or in a tent outside). In fact, often the said asshole is me. Case closed.

I might've shocked a few of you by saying that I can't stand "Big Brother", while others that might have seen my odd Twitter/Facebook status update will be thinking, "Hang on, I've seen you pollute my news feed up occasionally with the odd BB reference, what gives?". For the haters, a lot of them use a superiority position and claim a "tabloid" or "lowest common denominator" argument. For others who know me better and who have seen me write about BB (from over a year ago), they'll know my dislike of producer-choice edits. Oh, c'mon, production companies have got into trouble for re-editing the Queen, for fuck's sake! Conversely and perversely, my friends will also know that the reason I liked it (certainly in the olden days of the first few series) was because it allowed voyeuristic ex-psychologists like me to observe a social experiment unshackled of any pesky psychological ethics committee intervention; this was pre-OFCOM obviously. However, there's a very simple reason why I don't like BB. It eats up too much fecking time. I had an entire Summer eaten up by the seventh series (sparked by an ex-school buddy going in) - as a result, I've decided to just read two very funny blogs on it and dispense with the long silly hours spent watching producer-constructed storylines and go and enjoy slices of real life.

This leads back neatly onto oneandother. The phrase 'slices of real life' is a fairly good subtitled description for it. There's no supposed storylines, so you can tune in and out of the 'live feed' whenever you want to. In that respect, there's a pleasing symmetry to oneandother being a simple live feed, while the granddaddy of reality shows has perversely dispensed with theirs. It shows an understanding that spectators want another model of reality to perceive, as opposed to one individual egocentric's take on it. If you live in London, you can even go along and have a good old gawp at whoever is on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. However, this still leads back to my original question of who would go up there? And, like I said, I appear to have got half-an-answer when my dear friend, Louise, travelled down to London to, well, go up there. For the past year, I've also been in occasional online contact with a former reality TV contestant, who has offered up some feedback on televison's take on reality soap opera when reading my blog entry on the subject. My conclusion is that the common thread through all of these people is very simple - and it's not actually exhibitionism or wanting instant fame. It's impulsiveness. It's "why the fuck not?".

There's a strong element of wanting to take one's self outside the usual rules and conventions of dull everyday life, if only for a little while. This doesn't have to include exhibitionism, or getting your face on telly, or getting a magazine deal to talk about romance. It can do, but it doesn't have to be like that. I'd actually say that oneandother is scarier than any edited reality television construct. In a television gameshow, you're at least cocooned within a studio environment that is ringed by security and then eventually ejected to possible audience ridicule for, oh, about two minutes. Then you can admire Davina McCall's improbably shiny and conditioned hair, as well as shelf-life fame afterwards. As part of oneandother, you're exposed to unexpected weather changes, random strangers and Sky Arts cameras delivering live feed video footage to bored Guardian journalists, online Messiahs and giggling students. Who'd have thought it would be an ideal replacement for "Blockbusters"? With this in mind, I'm glad I travelled to Trafalgar Square a week ago. I felt surprisingly protective of Louise. I say surprising, because I'm always trying to give the projection of being aloof and distant. Because I am both of those things, I generally succeed. When I encounter an emotion that is outside of that, I don't try and repress; I tend to go and follow it to see where it leads me. The results of this journey can be seen in the live blog entry version of this. You see? In the traditions of the earlier Big Brother series, there's actually a "live feed" version of this blog entry; this blog entry is the "producer edited highlights" (for those wanting to read the live feed version, I recommend playing assorted birdsong noises while reading it and watching the recorded feed of these people - click on Wednesday, and check them out from midday).

The conclusion from my "live blogging" is two-fold. Firstly, it's as much about the way the audience perceives the plinth inhabitant. About which, more later. Secondly, it's another spin on using different media to try and make some sense of day-to-day reality. From the crude modelling of real life in reality television to the scarily natural uptake of social networking devices to advertise what we're doing, this is the modern art's take on day-to-day living and, by rights, it should really win the Turner Prize. It overshadows the posturings of Tracy Emin, because Antony Gormley has always had a very clear-sighted vision of what he wants to achieve. Every single plinth person has done something immeasurably different from everyone else. So, Gormley has been able to illustrate the innate uniqueness that exists in every human being. However, the audience reaction is far more interesting, particularly as I spotted something fascinating that may well-and-truly spell the end of reality television series like "Big Brother". I've christened it the Fifty Minute Fame Mark.

Put briefly, there seemed to be an almost unnoticeable shift in peoples' perceptions of dear Louise on the plinth at about the 50 minute mark of the hour she was up there. I've described it in more detail in my 'live blog' version of this blog article. Yes, you heard. It takes approximately 50 minutes. Ok, fair enough, it's maybe an ephemeral sort of fame - did you expect any less? Oh, it doesn't even need TV cameras either, although that does help. How do I know it takes 50 minutes? Well, empirically, I don't. But after observation over a decade of "instant fame", plus a gathering of qualitative data while watching my friend on the plinth in Trafalgar Square, I reckon this is a good ballpark figure. The ephemeral fame is obviously variable too, depending on your performance value. Remember Susan Boyle? I think that was about the 50 minute mark in an hour long show too - the ephemeral fame was rather extreme, obviously, as the 'reveal' of her singing voice occurred at just the demographically-targetted moment and for maximum effect.

I think the Fifty Minute Fame Mark (FMFM) will be a substantial nail in the coffin of reality television. We're already seeing it anyway; the extremely low audience figures for the granddaddy reality TV programme is one example. Mark Lawson argued that all TV brands have a finite life anyway and used examples like DIY programmes lasting for about 7-8 years. A lot of hardcore devotees of reality TV would claim the loss of a live feed and having to rely on producer edits is the kiss of death for "Big Brother" - indeed, such is the anger at the lack of a live feed this year, I've seen a discussion thread with a ludicrous number of posts, as well as a rather sweet former reality TV contestant asked to lobby the powers-that-be for it to be returned (her reply was an understandably baffled, "Um, I can't do anything, why do you ask me?!?"). As I alluded to before, social networking ensures we're constantly living in an environment viewing the unfolding reality show of other friends' soap operas. TwitVid, which is the latest add-on to Twitter, is effectively the real-life version of "Big Brother" anyway (celebrity or otherwise).

A lot of reality TV shows, as we know them now, will increasingly look like they will soon be added to the ranks of curious zeitgeist mementos, such as "The Adventure Game" from the 1980s or "Treasure Hunt" from the 1990s. Also, rather like politics being ruined by the emergence of the professional career politician, TV programmes like "Big Brother" are being ruined by professional reality TV careerists; they literally live from one reality show to another (two examples of this just left the BB house recently). They do it to keep the profile up, as well as the cash that comes their way. Perhaps tragically, the prediction that I made a few years back about there being genuine casualties amongst reality TV's depleted lifeblood of careerists looks to be becoming true. Already we can count more and more cries for help, particularly this year with Sree and the aforementioned Susan Boyle, as well as the case of Kat McKenzie's post-series suicide in "Paris's Best Friend" (accompanied by a hugely suspicious lack of coverage for that last one). But the FMFM rule means that you don't have to sit in a badly hoovered TV studio for three months to achieve fame, because it takes 50 minutes. Ask my friend Louise. At the 50 minute mark, the schoolkids had all suddenly decided she was a Goddess, one bloke (a few yards away from me) decided he was in love with her and I was suddenly getting calls on my mobile phone from mutual friends who suddenly wanted her to acknowledge them in some way while she was up there. Instant fame? Either use your own personalised social networking tool with video plug-in, constant daily updates and make your own reality show with your friends. Or just add water and a picnic to Trafalgar Square.

Update: 05/09/2009

The tenth series of "Big Brother" ended last night. Next series will be the last, as broadcast by Channel 4. The announcement that the franchise will no longer be shown on the channel occurred last week. The above blog article had already predicted some sort of reality television cancellation, so it didn't surprise me at all. Of interest to me was that two former contestants from the "Big Brother" series commented on the cancellation with the same criticisms that I mentioned in my article.

Nick Bateman argues strongly for returning to the earlier roots of the series, with meddling from producers cut down to a minimum. It chimes strongly with what I'd said about producer-edits actually being a turn-off.

Meanwhile, Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace is trying to put forward the idea of attracting people who are not fame-seekers with the intriguing concept (not to mention funny concept) of chucking ten bankers in the house. This strongly tallies with what I said about attracting a genuine cross-section of society, as opposed to reality TV careerists.

In short then, if the concept of reality TV is dated, it needs adapted. But I still think in the world of social networking, it'll need to be substantially revised.