Bob Zahn, The Television Will Not Be Revolutionized, 2018
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[21Jan22] I first encountered Bob Zahn in an online article (Romanov, 2020) about Michael Rababy's photo-compilation, California Love (2020). Zahn's work must have made the shortlist but not the final cut, as (when I eventually managed to source a copy not charging scandalous shipping fees) he did not feature in the book, but there is still a wealth of great material shown that may well appear in future evaluation pages.
img: Columbia Film School
image label for fig. A1
img: Bob Zahn
It was Zahn's striking image that stayed with me from the original article. It is a colour photograph in horizontal format: the file name from Bob Zahn's web site is ...televisionwillnotberevolutionized_panorama.jpeg and the aspect ratio of 2.14:1 bears out the suffix as significantly larger than widescreen (fig. B1).
The subject is an art work by Flip Cassidy, The Television Will Not Be Revolutionised. This title echoes a poem by Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, recited with percussion backing on the 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. The poetry title itself was a slogan taken from the US Black Power movement in the 1960s. There is a video of a later performance by Scott-Heron here.
As a single image, the photograph’s importance is in bringing Flip Cassidy’s piece to a wider audience. As part of Zahn’s extended series on an unusual and diverse community, the image provides an element in a fascinating, traditional documentary and portrait portfolio.
The poem highlights the vacuous nature of commercial television, news coverage and advertising and the complacent and supine acceptance by the TV audience that consumes it. As stated in the title, the poem implies that the most important social revolutions that occur in society go on while the establishment and the privileged remain in ignorance.
Cassidy's art work reflects this but by rearranging the title, it extends the argument and now suggests that TV management, production and output is not capable of change. It comprises around one hundred defunct televisions, assembled in a wide rectangle to resemble the size and shape of a large cinema screen. Each television screen is filled with a hand-written sign, a single word or short motto (and occasionally a crudely drawn cartoon) in red capital letters. The mottoes, sometimes spread across several screens contain such sentiments as,
The Television Will Not Be Revolutionized,
img: Bob Zahn
YOU'RE TOO FAT
REPUBLICANS ARE EVIL
WE OWN YOU
I GOT KIDS TO RAISE
DEMOCRATS ARE EVIL
YOU'RE TOO THIN
and right in the middle,
THE TELEVISION WILL NOT BE REVOLUTIONISED (fig. D1)
The bank of screens is located outdoors in a built environment on ground that it is difficult to identify, but is grey and barren. The screens look to be attached to a crude frame (maybe pallets). There is the corner of a building to the right of the frame with a colourful vehicle parked nearby and some uncoiled barbed wire on the ground to the left of the frame. The camera is looking over the backs of eight assorted cheap, plain, office-type chairs arranged in a single arc as though for a small “cinema” audience for the artwork. The chairs are fully visible and there is a band of some form of loose flooring or perhaps tarpaulin of a similar grey colour on the ground between and roughly parallel to the chairs and the “screen”. There is some vegetation behind and to the left of the artwork.
The extended series of which this image is part, American Gothic Revisited: Slab City - The Last Free Place In America, documents the ad-hoc community squatting on an abandoned desert military base (a WW2 marine barracks, Camp Dunlap), comprising mostly portraits (with an accompanying quote) and some architectural pictures (usually with a brief explanation).
In an interview with Julia Dean (2016) in Issue Magazine (available online), Zahn describes his career, studying at the NYU Film School, followed by behind-the-scenes jobs in the film industry.
Zahn's previous documentary series include NY street performers and Hastings on the Hudson (a film about pollution). He first learned about the Slab City community from Sean Penn's film Into to Wild (2007), began to make visits to photograph the residents and gradually increased the scope of his work to include images of dwellings and lifestyles and detailed interviews.
In 2014 he moved from New York to live a few miles from Slab City so that he could spend more time on the project.