This just in: ‘Breaking News’ at The Getty
In the relentless, 24/7 world of broadcast and online journalism, truth can become blurred by constant breaking news alerts, opinion masquerading as objective journalism and shouting matches between pundits. This past election cycle has, in particular, tested the news media’s abilities while bringing into question whether audiences seek information or confirmation.
The Getty Center’s upcoming exhibition “Breaking News: Turning the Lens on Mass Media,” on view Dec. 20 to April 30, explores how artists interpret journalistic coverage of current events. The survey spans the last half century and includes photographs, video and collage by Catherine Opie, Robert Heinecken, Donald Blumberg, Sarah Charlesworth and many others.
One highlight of the exhibition is Israeli-American artist Omer Fast’s 2002 piece “CNN Concatenated.” The 18-minute video collage includes hundreds of clips recorded in 2001 and 2002. It is edited so that each reporter or anchor says a single word, or sometimes just takes a long breath, but together they create a poetic and often absurd monologue about the desire to rise above the clutter and noise and seek deeper meaning. The quick-cut video also parodies the implied urgency of CNN, the world’s first 24-hour cable news operation.
The project began in 2000, after the Jerusalem-born artist finished his graduate studies in New York and was working as a layout designer for a large media company.
“I was surrounded by monitors with news feeds all the time and it seemed like a good idea to collect footage and to start building a large archive, with the eventual aim of collaging the footage into short statements about life and work,” Fast said in an email interview.
Fast moved to Berlin on Sept. 1, 2001, and learned about the World Trade Center attacks while sitting in a German language instruction class.
“After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the edited narrative took a more urgent turn and became a reflection about what was happening and a release for all the pent-up emotions the horrible events and the disastrous reactions to them involved,” he stated.
The video contains footage of Wolf Blitzer, Christiane Amanpour, Larry King, Candy Crowley and others delivering headline news stories about the 9/11 attacks, an anthrax scare in Washington, D.C., and the Chandra Levy murder. But strung together, the talking heads express a collective sense of fear and uncertainty. One section includes the lines: “Where do our responsibilities begin? Where do our needs end? What have we done to deserve this? What could we have done to prevent it from happening?”
“CNN Concatenated” (“concatenated” refers to linking things together in a chain or series) was one of Fast’s earliest works. In other experimental video projects, he’s examined the Holocaust, pornography and the war in Iraq. “CNN Concatenated” used the words of the news media and the images of flags, maps and military troops to examine how the news media both reflected and shaped the post-9/11 reality.
“With the passage of time, the work has also become a kind of time capsule that reflects these events, how they were processed by mainstream news as a heroic narrative of a nation wounded and fighting back,” Fast said. “In this context, it is worthwhile recalling the culpability of mainstream news in the Bush administration’s disastrous intervention in Iraq and the consequences that are still unfolding from that.”
Fast’s video was created just as the United States launched the war in Iraq and the so-called “War on Terror.” Los Angeles-based photographer Catherine Opie’s series of Polaroid photos from 2004 and 2005 continues the story. While working on the series “In and Around Home,” Opie took hand-held Polaroids of her television screen. They reflect her own frustration with the news media’s coverage of the invasion of Iraq, threats to civil liberties, the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina’s destruction along the Gulf Coast in 2005. The photos are arranged in groups that either show different perspectives of the same event, or juxtapose stories to show unexpected parallels.
The “Breaking News” exhibition also reaches back to the Vietnam War to look at how artists responded to the coverage of that deeply unpopular conflict, and helped shape its public perception.
“In the 1960s, there was this real revolution that happened with television sets entering the homes of more and more people. And as a result, a lot of artists were inundated with images in both print and televised media,” said Arpad Kovacs, assistant curator of photographs at the Getty. “And while artists had been responding to the news prior to this period, I think it really picks up speed even more in the ’60s.”
The exhibition begins with Donald Blumberg’s photos of newspaper articles about the war and its toll, paired with photos of a TV screen showing the 1968 presidential campaign. Martha Rosler’s 1967-1972 series “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” places LIFE magazine images of the conflict onto the backdrops of sumptuous modern home interiors. By juxtaposing the suffering of Vietnamese civilians and the luxury of American homeowners, Rosler calls attention to the dissonance between the war and how it was perceived in American living rooms.
Some of the artists featured in the exhibition examine how the media prioritize certain stories over others. For her series “Modern History,” Sarah Charlesworth photographed the front pages of various newspapers between 1977 and 1979 after she masked out the text, leaving only the masthead and photos floating in white space. The Getty selected images related to the coverage of the 1978 abduction and assassination of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by a terrorist organization. By allowing viewers to see only the size and placement of the photos, Charlesworth reveals otherwise unnoticed editorial decisions.
Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar also questions the motivations of the news media in his photographs of magazine covers. One series shows covers of Newsweek magazine from 1994, pairing each issue’s cover, usually something of domestic interest like O.J. Simpson’s arrest or Kurt Cobain’s suicide, with text detailing the casualties from the Rwandan genocide during the same week. It ends in August of that year with the first cover story dedicated to the genocide, showing a Rwandan boy standing in a field of bodies with the headline “Hell on Earth.”
A second, related series by Jaar called “Searching for Africa in LIFE” collects every LIFE magazine cover story from 1936 to 1996. Of the 2,128 covers, only five were devoted to the world’s second-largest continent, Africa, and they showed only images of animals.
The most contemporary work in the exhibition is the 2011 book “War Primer 2” by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. The two Jewish artists based their project on Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 book of press photographs “Kriegsfibel” (War Primer). Brecht repurposed press photographs from World War II, many from LIFE magazine, with four-line poems that lamented the horror of war. Broomberg and Chanarin replaced Brecht’s images with ones of the War on Terror, including torture scenes at Abu Ghraib and Saddam Hussein’s execution.
It’s fitting that Broomberg and Chanarin found inspiration in Brecht, who famously said: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” The Getty exhibition “Breaking News” shows that while news has the power to shape reality, art can shape our perception of the news.