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.
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?".
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.
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.