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Mass Media and Art in the 1990s: From Rodney King Incident to O.J. Simpson Trial

Kim Jina 1

1전남대학교

Accredited

ABSTRACT

In recent decades, the United States had undergone a series of striking political and social events—the Gulf War, the Rodney King incident, LA riots, the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the Iraq War, to name a few—that raised profound questions on the issue of national identity. It is also notable that news such as the O.J. Simpson trial had entered a new phase that somewhat resembles show business. These events together constitute a revolution in communication where the audience can witness such historical events live in their living rooms. Blended with commercial mechanism and cutting-edge technologies, the news does not reflect what actually happened. Rather, it manipulates the event itself and constructs history. This paper will investigate the way American art has reacted to television news that deals with major historical events such as the Rodney King incident, LA riots, and the O.J. Simpson trial. A videotape of the police beating Rodney King, accidentally taken by a plumber George Holiday, was repeatedly broadcasted throughout the US and became a revelation of the deeply rooted racial conflict. Because police officers involved in the incident were all acquitted, it later became one of the major motives behind the so-called LA riots—the first multi-racial conflict in U.S. history. The most striking aspect of the Rodney King incident and the LA riots was that they were delivered directly to the audience through videotapes and live broadcasts. During the trial, the King videotape was fragmented into a row of still images and different connotations were interpreted. This process exposed a paradox where there was violence but no one could identify it. This suggests that even real-time videos can tell different stories depending on the point of view and how they are interpreted. Adrian Piper’s work Black Box/White Box(1992) features, in two enormous roomshaped boxes, the Rodney King videotape repeating itself, president George Bush’s statement to the nation when he sent troops to Los Angeles, the photo of the president and an LA police officers shaking hands, and Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” released in 1971 in the climax of anti-war and civil rights movements. President Bush declares the use of military forces to deal with the incident, while King, who is supposed to be the victim, says “Let’s get along” in an interview, and Gaye’s lyrics call for love. Meanwhile, when the Rodney King video itself was exhibited in 1993 at the Whitney Biennial, it signified a new power in the art institution. Holiday’s video and others seemed to be connected to the appropriation art in the earlier periods that directly borrowed subjects and styles from mass media sources such as TV, advertising, and photo journalism. However, the insertion of the Rodney King video worked in quite a different manner from the earlier appropriation. What was at stake in this selection for an art exhibition was the institutional power; in this case, it was the curator’s power to include or exclude a certain work rather than the artists’ choices. Here the curator acts as a mega-artist. Warren Neidich’s Camp O.J. employs a more novel approach to television news, whereas Piper’s work directly borrows videos and photograph images. The Simpson trial in 1995 changed the way television approached and covered news by creating sensationalism. Neidich took behind-the-scenes photographs of the Simpson trial, and this came to be known by the media as Camp O.J.—the press area located across the street from the LA Courthouse. The C-print photo series taken with a fisheye lens appear as if they were reflected through a convex mirror. A closer look of the dizzy image shows reporters checking their make-up and practicing in front of the camera. Sometimes they are indifferently looking around or even dozing off, which will never be broadcasted on TV. Neidich’s work also captures fragments of the news-tainment industry. Many mail orders were created such as a local newspaper advertising a wager on the trial, a USC football team helmet, and a videotape of the trial. Neidich’s decision to photograph Camp O.J. discloses a different, new reality existing behind television screens to viewers. Art works mentioned so far in this paper emerge from a keen question on the 1990s news images that often resemble an entertainment business mingled with live broadcasts on violence and crime. Furthermore, by revealing the structure of the ever-expanding myths underlying visual information, these works lead to a number of ethical issues such as whether the reality reflected by media actually exists, what values society is willing to compromise with for entertainment, and the way in which the media repeats and expands images of crime and violence, driving viewers impassive to justice.

Citation status

* References for papers published after 2022 are currently being built.

This paper was written with support from the National Research Foundation of Korea.