- Radiohead’s Antivideos: Works of Art in the Age of Electronic Reproduction
I. Introduction: Test Specimens
The blinking icon you see above is called a “test specimen.” Wide-eyed bears with murderous grins, drawn alternately as symmetrical, disembodied heads or frantically sketched, stiff-limbed figures, they punctuate the art of the music group Radiohead, from CD packaging and packing slips to web site images and promotional stickers.
Although directly analogous to easily recognizable character-mascots used to establish a product’s unique brand identity, the bears function like painter Philip Guston’s hooded men, with a difference (see Guston’s “City Limits”). While Guston’s figures, versions of Ku Klux Klansmen, gave a disturbingly organic shape to American civil unrest and racial injustice in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Radiohead’s test specimens are protagonists in a self-referential aesthetic that pastiches the band’s commodification and the operation of capital at large.1
In what follows, I explore the bears’ appearances in QuickTime computer-animated music video shorts released concurrently with Kid A, the band’s critically anticipated fourth album.2 Titled “antivideos,” or “blips,” the short videos (10–30 seconds in duration) were released only on the internet, a virtually inexhaustible distribution channel. Via this medium, the antivideos provide a useful plateau from which to consider popular art’s current state and future potential in the age of electronic reproduction.
II. Commodified Culture, Culturalized Commodification
In The Fragile Absolute, or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?, Slavoj Zizek observes that “today’s artistic scene” consists of two opposed movements. The first is the “much-deplored commodification of culture (art objects produced for the market),” while the second, and “less noted but perhaps more crucial opposite movement,” is “the growing ‘culturalization’ of the market economy itself.” He elaborates:
With the shift towards the tertiary economy (services, cultural goods), culture is less and less a specific sphere exempted from the market, and more and more not just one of the spheres of the market, but its central component (from the software amusement industry to other media productions).(25)3
We can add to this latter list the music industry. The paired phenomena of commodified culture and a culturalized market are nowhere more evident than in the music business, and it is these movements of commodification and culturalization that Radiohead’s antivideos thematize.
Originally released on the band’s web site (<http://www.more-radiohead.com/alps.html>) several weeks before the 2 October 2000 release of Kid A, the antivideos jettison the standard hierarchy between song and music video as elaborated by media critic Jody Berland. According to Berland, “the 3-minute musical single” is a music video’s
unalterable foundation, its one unconditional ingredient. A single can exist (technically, at least) without the video, but the reverse is not the case. As if in evidence of this, music videos, almost without exception, do not make so much as a single incision in the sound or structure of the song. However bizarre or disruptive videos appear, they never challenge or emancipate themselves from their musical foundation, without which their charismatic indulgences would never reach our eyes.(25)
As if in direct response to Berland’s phonocentrism, the antivideos do exactly what music videos do not and/or should not: make radical incisions and changes to the sound and structure of the songs they promote.
The web site’s title introduces the antivideos bluntly as “brief films used as promotional material.” Immediately, visitors are alerted to the antivideo’s situation within a matrix of capitalist exchange, an unusual acknowledgment in an industry that regularly denounces any discernible trace of commercialization. As music critic Lawrence Grossberg has noted, “Rock fans have always constructed a difference between authentic and co-opted rock. And it is this which is often interpreted as rock’s inextricable tie to resistance, refusal, alienation, marginality, etc.” (Grossberg 202). Authentic rock has as its ideal a “collective, spontaneous creativity,” in the words of Kalefa Sanneh, critic for the New York Times, that is unfettered by the crass demands of capital. Co-opted rock, however, is an example of what Zizek calls the...