For Nighthawks

Published February 10, 2016

It could be argued that television is a form of art. The Sopranos, Mad Men, True Detective, Breaking Bad, and many other series sweeping the small screen in an era aptly dubbed television’s “The Golden Age” portray visual narratives in artful ways. But “art,” as one traditionally thinks of the word, is usually left to museums, galleries, and practitioners who shy—and even decry—deep associations with agents of fame and Hollywood. It is precisely these associations, or rather disassociations, that make the latest television program from Iceland so intriguing.

Night Transmissions, a public program streaming online internationally and airing on RÚV Icelandic National Television from 1:30am until 7:00am, now through February 22, showcases artworks by the foremost pioneers and current risk-takers in video art. “RÚV is equivalent to PBS in Iceland,” says Margot Norton, an associate curator at the New Museum, who curated this season’s Night Transmissions (the program first aired last year, but was not available to stream worldwide). The program, founded by sisters and Reykjavik art-mavens Edda Kristín and Ingibjörg Sigurjónsdóttir, could be categorized as a companion to public access television from the 1970s and ’80s, when Glenn O’Brien hosted “TV Party in New York,” or as Norton continues, Chris Burden aired late-night performance commercials in Los Angeles.

“There’s a whole history of artists using television as a platform that was done in the early ’70s, like Chris Burden,” Norton explains. “The only way to get themselves on television, apart from being connected to [a] network, was to buy airtime. Being a broke artist, Burden bought the least popular airtime possible, which was at 4:00 in the morning for 10-15 seconds.”

Given this history, it makes sense that when Night Transmissions premiered two nights ago, it was with a selection of Burden’s TV commercials. The programming will continue with 38 artists that work extensively with video, including Ragnar Kjartansson, Camille Henrot, Aida Ruilova, Carolee Schneemann, Agnieska Polska, Laure Prouvost, Zachary Drucker, and Cally Spooner. 

“Television is another body in the room,” Norton continues, “I love how it turns every living room in the country into an exhibition space and an intimate setting for experiencing art, and how different and powerful this experience is than seeing art in a gallery or museum.”