Cauleen Smith: NTSC
Smith uses the analog TV production standard to probe what's uniform and what's excluded in society as well as TV
Reviewed by Nikki Moore, Fri., Nov. 2, 2007
'Cauleen Smith: NTSC'
Women & Their Work, through Nov. 17
NTSC is one of my new favorite concepts. While historically it stands for National Television System Committee, in 1953 it came to symbolize the new color standard to which all analog-television production in the United States was held. In a time when intellectual property laws, think tanks, and media proliferation have made us more than comfortable with the notion that ideas are material, it may seem odd or even old-school to think about the physicality of art production. Yet the materiality of NTSC has profound effects on which ideas, concepts, and visions can be conveyed to the viewing public. (The TV-industry joke about NTSC is that it stands for "Never the Same Color," owing to inherent flaws in the standard that cause color balance in the signal to be degraded.) In its funneling effects, standardization – be it televisual or social – always works both to produce something uniform and to exclude what falls outside its own established norm. Probing these categorizations and exclusions, Cauleen Smith deftly works through associations with the words "color" and "standards" in a project that questions old-school material regulations and fallback social constructions. Integrating video, Magic-Marker drawings, sculpture, and sound, Smith's "NTSC" conjures, like TV itself for the critical, the fear that the most profound implications lie less in what you are watching than what is stealthily not being watched.
Offering her "mild obsession with Magic 8-Balls" up to the cause, Smith looks at these fortune-telling toys with deregulated eyes. Her work makes obvious the way in which only "yes or no" questions can be asked of Magic 8-Balls in order for the ball to be allowed to "speak" to the circumstance in question. As for the archetypal eight ball behind this toy, Smith writes: "The black billiard ball has long been a metaphor for African-American men and their position in society – the neutral, unmarked white ball gets to propel it relentlessly off the green felt. We laugh about it, but the metaphor would not have endured if we did not also recognize the sad truth of it." Smith doesn't stop at racial questioning, though. Working with and recaricaturing Night of the Hunter, Smith calls out the simplifications of love, hate, and women that occur in this iconic film, which influenced a generation of filmmakers. In a series of videos made by Smith for this exhibition, she interviews, draws on, and problematizes what we choose not to see, what normalization won't let us look to, what color-coding narrows and makes impossible. Things will change when the standard for digital-television production kicks in for 2009, but as Smith's "NTSC" illustrates, that doesn't mean new reductive and streamlining processes will halt their work in either the physical production of media or in the mediatic production of what we take as physical.