Supplement 1 — John C. Welchman: Joseph Kosuth's The Second Investigation in Vancouver

Joseph Kosuth's The Second Investigation in Vancouver: Art on TV
John C. Welchman

The following discussion of Joseph Kosuth’s exhibition at the Douglas Gallery in Vancouver in the fall of 1969 has two important contexts, neither of which I can attend to in detail here. The first is defined by the situation of this show as one of fifteen exhibitions in North and South America, Europe, and Australia that made up The Second Investigation, which Kosuth conceived in 1968, planned during the last months of that year, and launched between December 1968 (Kosuth’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, opened December 29, 1968) and January 1969 (Seth Siegelaub’s January 5–31 in New York).1 Each appearance of The Second Investigation was based on contiguous text derived directly from one of the eight classes established for the “Synopsis of Categories” developed by Peter Mark Roget for his Thesaurus, a “classed catalogue of words” that he first drafted in 1805 and brought to completion half a decade later following his retirement as secretary of the British Royal Society.2 Specific sections or subsections from the “Synopsis” were identified and selected for a particular “campaign,” typographically transcribed (as necessary), and then relocated into one of more than half a dozen media delivery systems, either by a process of standard submission (such as advertising copy for newspapers and magazines) or by enlargement and reformatting (for the billboards, for example)—in all cases with the minimum possible “artistic” interference. The media infiltrated by the Second Investigation included national, regional, and local daily newspapers published in a wide range of cities and towns in the US, UK, Australia, Sweden, and Switzer­land; weeklies and periodicals such as the Nation, the New Republic, and the Village Voice in the US; special interest magazines and journals, including Women’s Wear Daily and the New York Review of Books in the US and Exchange and Mart in the UK; art magazines, such as Artforum, Art International, Museum News, and Art News; interior advertisements posted inside public buses; billboards sited in both urban (St. Margaret’s Bay Road, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada; Solferino Square, Turin, Italy; Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, California, US; Bern, Switzerland) and rural (Portales, New Mexico) locations; posters (kiosk advertising in Bern); handbills (some distributed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Toronto, Canada; others dropped from an airplane over Antwerp, Belgium); mailers sent from Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and, finally, TV slots intended to be aired on Canadian national television. It would appear that The Second Investigation also spawned an unauthorized, or at least unplanned, radio component in the form of a broadcast connected to the effort to purchase and air the TV segment, which I discuss below. Most of the distributions were effected in 1969 and 1970, but The Second Investigation continued intermittently until February 1974 when what appears to be a final instalment was published in a number of Swedish newspapers.

Progressive public and commercial galleries and educational institutions in Canada played a leading role in The Second Investigation. Hosting the first exhibition in the series, the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, printed five thousand handbills marked with “Sensation. V. Sight” from class five of the “Synopsis of Categories,” which were “placed door-to-door” on Tuesday, December 30, 1968, during an exhibition that ran from December 29, 1968, to January 10, 1969. The Nova Scotia College of Art in Halifax put on an exhibition (October 25 to November 9, 1969) featuring four different media presentations from class one of the “Synopsis of Categories”: “Abstract Relations. X. Power.” Four hundred handbills were printed and distributed; an advertisement placed in the Mail Star T.V. Guide (Saturday, October 25); advertising posters bought for twelve routes of the Halifax City Bus network (October 25 to November 1); and a billboard located on St. Margaret’s Bay Road. My focus here is on the third Canadian manifestation of The Second Investigation at the Douglas Gallery in October 1969, which, uniquely, attempted to program “Synopsis” text on broadcast television.

The second context for these remarks concerns the relation of television—variously conceived as a physical object or broadcast medium, as entertainment or information, public service or licensed commercial business—to avant-garde art in the 1960s. In what seems like a foreshadow­ing of debates over dating, innovation, and prioritization during the early years of conceptual art, critics and advocates of Nam June Paik and Wolf Vostell—including the artists themselves—have made various claims about the incorporation of television in their work beginning as early as the late 1950s. Paik was probably the first to offer an extended demonstration of his interest in television in a public exhibition during his first major show, Exposition of Music—Electronic Television at the Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, Germany (March 11–20, 1963), run by the architect Rolf Jährling. Paik’s deployment of a dozen variously modified TV sets, which were scattered and stacked in one area of the sprawling exhibition (originally titled “Symphony for 20 Rooms”), bore witness to several valences of the first wave of experimental work with television, the stakes of which were quite different from the approach of Kosuth to the medium some half a decade later.

First, as Dieter Daniels and others have argued, Paik seemed to be motivated in part by a critical antagonism toward television flavoured by the corrosive skepticism of Guy Debord and manifest in an often aggressive bid to destroy, undermine, or radically repurpose the normal TV signal (at the time Germany had only one channel with limited broadcasting times—which dictated the brief evening opening hours of the Galerie Parnass exhibition).3 Using both broadcast programs and TV sets themselves as “found” materials, Paik, secondly, intervened in the consumer-oriented technical neutrality of the “set” or “tube” by rewiring, retuning, and electronically recoding its signals: he thus distorted “both broadcast image and monitor by way of magnetizers, rectifiers, and oscillators” in order to “defamiliarize and thus transfigure a visual medium into an expressive instrument operating across multiple senses.”4

Experimental work using or addressing television was present from the very beginning among the diffuse body of work associated with happenings, events, and Fluxus and anticipated by developments in the 1950s such as Lucio Fontana’s “Television Manifesto of the Spatial Movement” (1952).5 A photograph of Wolf Vostell’s TV-dé-coll/age (Ereignisse für Millionen, Partitur [Events for millions, score], June 1959), for example, was included as the second item in a list of ten under the heading “1959” exhibited in the Dokumentationsstrasse (Documentation street)—and published in the catalogue—of Harald Szeemann’s Happenings and Fluxus (Kunstverein, Cologne, 1970). Like Paik, Vostell is a key figure in the early attention to TV as an object and medium: his first “happening,” Theater Is in the Street (Paris, 1958), incorporated auto parts and a TV, while a notebook sketch dated by the artist to 1958 or 1959 (TV-Décoll /age no. 1) outlines a project to mount differently sized TV sets behind and against “clean white canvas” to highlight constantly changing, crypto-pictorialist effects produced by “interference built into” the TV sets.6 While Vostell’s 1958/59 notebooks contain sketches for unrealized projects addressing TV more directly, the first public manifestation of these interests was shortly after Paik’s Wuppertal exhibition, in May 1963 in New York. During the 1960s and ’70s, Vostell and Paik subjected television sets, as well as their programs and signals, to a wide variety of appropriations and modifications. Beginning with their presentation atop filing cabinets in TV-Dé-collage (1963), Vostell, for example, conscripted televisions as headboards for the beds in You (1964), set them in an arena of broken glass surmounted by found and reconfigured objects, including a bicycle wheel, skis, and various comestibles (in Elektronischer dé-collage Happening Raum, 1968), and used them as moulds for concrete sculptures and as units to articulate a fifteen-set-high obelisk (TV Obelisk, 1979); he even posed two giant TV sets in the centre of a freeway intersection in a photocollaged project for a “Drive-in Museum” (1970).

There are a number of parallels between the careers of Vostell and Kosuth, including their early recourse to plans and diagrams for work—Vostell in the late 1950s, Kosuth in the mid 1960s—that was realized later, giving rise to intense debate about the timing and “priority” of their innovations. More tellingly, both also made recourse to dictionary definitions during their early investigations (Kosuth in the photostat definitions of The Protoinvestigations and The First Investigation, which immediately preceded The Second Investigation). Vostell’s exhibition at Smolin Gallery in New York (which opened May 22, 1963) was marked on the front of the folded invitation card as a “presentation” of “Wolf Vostell & Television Decollage & Decollage Posters & Comestible Decollage.” The inside pages provided an exhibition history and details of the participatory possibilities of the exhibition: an invitation to “eat art and to make art by eating” and a “Do It Yourself” opportunity “to participate in the creation of Décollage at the opening” (along with a telephone number to call to “reserve the area in which you wish to create” and a statement that “the gallery would supply the materials”), flanked by a gridded array of Life magazine covers, the axes of which were supplied with the numbers 1–17 (horizontal) and the letters A–O (vertical). The verso of the card, however, was reserved for a photographic transcription (apparently taken from a French-German dictionary) of the German translation and definition of “décoll-age.”7 Of interest for my discussion here is Vostell’s decision to include in his reproduction the first line of the definition that follows next in the dictionary sequence: “décolourer”—to “fade” or lose colour.

Commenced before the advent and availability of portable video in the mid and later 1960s, the interventions of Paik and Vostell were based on the appropriation, modification, supplementation, and reimagination of television as a material object and/or of its broadcast contents. While it often radically refigured or scrambled its materials, the work of Paik and Vostell was predicated on and tethered to the sign system of television as a set of manufactured and broadcast givens—conditions emblematized by the recourse of both artists to devices (Vostell termed them “oscillographs”) that recoded TV signals into other visual or sonic forms.

The Second Investigation arrived at the onset, around 1968, of another dialogical mode that would reorganize the relation between art and TV half a decade after the work of Paik and Vostell was first exhibited. In this model, artists used portable or commercially available video technologies to make “TV”—shown on monitors, and later screens, outside the purview of broadcast television—or, more occasionally, produced material by commission, invitation, or collaboration, which aired on one or another of the now burgeoning array of stations, channels, and programs. While superficially related to this last contingency, Kosuth’s recourse to television was constitutionally different from all of these formations, as he was interested only in TV as a public medium and entirely unconcerned with the particularities of its programmed content or physical formats. Nor did he wish to introduce his own content into the daily digest of programs in the form of innovative “arts” content. In what follows, the terms and implications of Kosuth’s non-auteurist infiltration of the medium of television will hopefully become a little clearer.

Kosuth’s Vancouver exhibition was titled Joseph Kosuth—October 1969 and, according to a title page in the gallery archives, programmed in two chronologically consecutive parts: “Part I Oct 1–29” and “Part II Oct 29–31” (other sources, including the Douglas Gallery “title” label, give “October 4 to November 4,” the revised dates, suggesting that the media arrangements for the show were being negotiated during, and beyond, the dates originally planned).8 The contents of the exhibition consisted, first, of a gallery exhibition comprising only the fifteen (or, according to another account, possibly a copyedit error, twelve) functionally descriptive card labels standing in for the same number of galleries and locations in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Holland, Italy, Switzerland, and the US, where the labels were also shown.9 Each card contained information about the sponsoring/exhibiting gallery or institution, along with exhibition dates; the particular Thesaurus class and subcategories; and, finally, the media “presentation,” with brief details of the newspaper(s) and date(s), billboard location, handbill print run, or other mode of media appearance and distribution. The language used was that of the host gallery with the exception of the label for the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, which was printed in English and French: “Presentation: Cinq-mille imprimé distribuer de porte á porte le Mardi, 30 Décembre.” A simple, hand-drawn diagram annotated by Kosuth with “example” at the top and “this is not a drawing” at the bottom offers a layout suggestion in which the “title pieces” are arranged quite closely together in a “straight line.” The Douglas Gallery and most other locations followed this lead, but spread the title pieces out rather more, in accord with the last directive written onto the diagram: “maybe more space.”10 The second aspect of the Douglas exhibition was to be realized through a media presentation drawn from section “VII Color” of class three of the “Synopsis of Categories.”

In an effort to coordinate the relatively unprecedented collaboration by fifteen venues in nine countries, Siegelaub dispatched planning documents to the participants. As the undated copy sent to the Douglas Gallery had an attachment containing one of the local newspaper advertisements commissioned by the “Kunsthalle, Bern” for the exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (March 22–April 27, 1969) as an example of a media-situated Thesaurus entry, the document was probably produced in the late spring or summer of 1969. Siegelaub’s memo provides information about the project concept under several headings. His “General” comments note the focus of the project on “the placement of advertisements in newspaper [sic], periodicals and magazines” and cites examples of works already made, beginning with “Artforum (January 1969), 1 of 4 different parts; Art International (February 1969), 1 of 5 different parts” and including When Attitudes Become Form, as well as “The New York Times, Museum News, the Nation, the New York Post, Variety, Art News, the New York Review of Books, Women’s Wear Daily and others.” The final aspect of the general description noted that “Each sponsoring Museum or Gallery will underwrite the publication of a work (which may consist of from 1 advertisement up to 7 separate advertisements in as many publications).”11

The second section of the document, headed “Sponsors,” lists twelve “Museums or Galleries who have expressed interest in (or have been asked) to participate in the exhibition.” That, halfway through the year in which the major initiatives of The Second Investigation were realized, several of the listed galleries (Irving Blum, Los Angeles; Ileana Sonnabend, Paris; Yvon Lambert, Milan; Minami, Tokyo) do not appear to have contributed formally to the project testifies to its logistical contingencies and organizational fluidity. Notes on “The Exhibition” itself comprised two elements: one would be supplied by Kosuth (“the actual advertisements (ready for publication)”) and the other by Siegelaub: “We will prepare a 3 foot square poster (1 meter square)—in as many languages as will be represented in the exhibition—and each sponsor will receive 500 (folded) posters for distribution to their local mailing lists.” The second of three attachments sent with the memo was a “(rough) of the poster” featuring headings for the twelve listed galleries, but not the presentational details. Under “Presentation,” Siegelaub suggested—but did not mandate—the form outlined above: “The the exhibition can consist, as some exhibitors are doing, by the entire gallery space being filled only by labels on the wall—with the 10–15 labels listing the data [in the ‘native language’] on each piece appearing in the other cities.” The layout and spacing of the exhibition of labels was, however, left to each participant: “Theoretically, however, all the space that is needed is 3 feet in width (the label space) and how it expands from that is up to each individual participant.”12 The final aspect of the presentation notes that each show “should be considered locally as a one-Man exhibition, and each Museum or Gallery is free to treat the exhibition in their usual manner.”

Siegelaub concludes his circular with a “2-part” note on “Cost,” which specifies that “the placement of local publications” might “range from $50.00 upwards (this is dependent on the amount of parts in the work, the advertising rates locally, and the size of the advertisements” and should be “paid directly to the publications by each sponsor.” The second allocation of costs, in which specific dollar amounts were not provided in the copy viewed, reads (transcription unmodified):

2. To Joseph Kosuth (for Transportation to each Museum or Gallery during the exhibition (October), joint particeipation in the poster, etc.)

a. For participation in the exhibition


b. For participation i the exhibition and the ownership of the work sponsored

The Douglas Gallery contribution was conceived as a unique media intervention, though when and how the decision was made to book advertising segments on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), the Canadian national broadcaster, is somewhat unclear. While supplied with the correct general date for the show (“October”)—and thus to this extent, at least, customized—Siegelaub’s document refers to print media (“newspaper, periodicals and magazines”) but does not make reference to television. However, the gallery archive preserves a letter from exhibition coordinator T. Bjornson to Bob Fortune13 “c/o CBC” in Vancouver dated September 24, 1969, which offers details about “a show of Joseph Kosuth for Western Canada” “in the latter part of October.” It makes reference to previous conversations “with several people at CBC” that gave rise to the “advice” “that this project should be incorporated into a programme such as ‘Hourglass’ with Mr. Christmas [sic] available to present the piece.” The letter duly concludes with a request that “the list of words” (details of which were supplied by Bjornson) could be “projected on the TV monitor for 15–20 seconds” during Hourglass “anytime from October 20–31st.”

It is clear from the September 24 letter that the Douglas Gallery attempted with some vigour to place the segment on CBC, was referred instead to programming, and then identified perhaps the most likely venue in Hourglass, the popular local supper-hour newscast. The shift entailed here from an uncommentated appearance of the entry on “Color” to a mediated gallery presentation was surely at odds with Kosuth’s consistent advocacy of the “anonymous” presentation of the work in The Second Investigation. But it would seem that the gallery had few or no other options. Two reviews of the exhibition, presumably published shortly before or after the formal opening, use similar language to note that “program time and channel [were] to be announced,” indicating the media presentation was not yet resolved at this relatively late stage.14 While there are no documents accounting for what transpired with the Hourglass request (or even if there was a response), three cards in the archive reveal that the gallery successfully pursued its negotiations elsewhere at the CBC, with the assistance of a senior figure in the Vancouver art and media communities. The first card, headed “Joseph Kosuth,” offers a reformulated production credit: “Vancouver Project co-ordinated in part by Richard Simmins in co-operation with Douglas Gallery and the C.B.C.” The second and third cards are both headed “Douglas Gallery Presentation.” One reads: “CBUT Channel 2 / Programme ‘Down Center’ / Thursday November 6 / 6.00 P.M.”; the other, “CBC AM radio / ‘Critics on Air’ / Saturday November 8 / 6:30 p.m.”

It appears that the gallery solicited assistance with the media presentation of “VII Color” from Simmins, who had been director of the Vancouver Art Gallery (1963–67) and in the late 1960s and early ’70s worked as an art critic at the Province (1968–72) before taking up the directorship of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in 1973. Several aspects of this arrangement remain unclear: the precise form taken by the presentation on the topical TV program Down Centre that aired on CBUT-DT, the CBC Television owned-and-operated station in Vancouver, which still serves as the Pacific time zone flagship of the network; whether Simmins and/or Douglas Chrismas, the gallery owner, appeared in the broadcast to offer an introduction or other remarks; and how long the Thesaurus entry remained onscreen. The second media broadcast raises further questions, as a radio segment was not envisaged in the original plan of presentation. Simmins had connections with CBC’s AM radio program Critics on Air and was a contributor, so it is possible that he took the lead and may have made the presentation. But it is unclear, again, how this was conceived and executed—whether the Kosuth exhibition was simply discussed by Simmins, Chrismas, and/or others or was actually “presented,” in the presumably unsanctioned form, for example, of a “reading.” In any event, the gallery documents affirm that “VII Color” was either presented in, or the subject of, two media appearances that marked the first use of TV as well as the unanticipated and unsanctioned first radio presentation of the work.

Entry number “VII. Color” from “Class Three: Physics” in the Thesaurus’s “Synopsis of Categories” commenced with “361. Color” and was followed by twelve further terms, ten of which were presented as nounal colour conditions or effects (“...nesses”: e.g., “366. Brownness” and “370. Greenness”) as opposed to unassociated adjectival descriptors: “brown,” “green,” etc. Two further terms, the second, “362. Colorlessness,” and the last, “173. Variegation,” invoke the conditions of colour absence and colour mixtures or combinations, respectively. It seems clear that in addition to their comment on the constitution of the colour spectrum in the form of a conceptual art palette rendered through the black and white of capitalized, type-written text, the Vancouver/Douglas piece, like others in The Second Investigation, carries with it a subtext that relates to its context. In this case covert reference was made not to the physical location (city and gallery and their associated semantic fields) but to the medium in which the piece appeared: TV itself.

In a note written in 1969, Kosuth pointed to a series of technological feats and their scenes of visual transmission—including “flying to the moon by rocket, or by jet to Los Angeles,” “the lights of Las Vegas,” and “even coloured television and movies”—with which a contemporary artist could not hope to compete.15 The inclusion of TV in The Second Investigation in the same year marks, then, a special moment of resistance to the dominance of such spectacles, and almost the only occasion on which the artist attempted to strike back against the rhetorical force of big media in kind.16 The moment of 15 Locations and The Second Investigation witnessed a new level of power, penetration, and cultural “believability” in the social diffusion of television in the US (which, by the late 1960s, had arrived in some sixty million homes), as well as an acceleration in the intensity of debate about its nature and effects, especially those of broadcast news. The beacon and leading indicator for such mass spectacles as the assassination of JFK, the Apollo moon mission alluded to by Kosuth, and Richard Nixon’s visit to China, TV also brokered the first transmissions of live combat, widespread destruction, and fatalities—beginning with the Korean War in the early 1950s and then, more viscerally and repetitively, by imaging the conflict in Vietnam between 1965 and 1975.

Two events can be said symbolically to bookend an interrogatory turn in the discourse around television at the end of the 1960s, crucial, I will argue, for any understanding of the formation and reception of the TV elements of The Second Investigation. These are, first, the notorious, declamatory speech given by Vice President Spiro Agnew in November 1969 to the Midwestern Regional Republican Committee criticizing the orientations, points of view, and liberal or Democratic bias of the staple TV news providers ABC, CBS, and NBC—which precipitated a mass response to the networks. Two years later, the CBS documentary The Selling of the Pentagon (broadcast in February 1971) gave rise to calls for the revocation of station licenses. At around the same time, a “truth in news broadcasting” bill was introduced into Congress, occasioning further rounds of debate (though it was not passed). Continuing a truth-denominated, media-critical tradition as old as the United States itself, these legislative and broadcast events should be set in the wider context of a wholesale shift in the social perception of the truthfulness of various media.17 In November 1968, just under 50 percent of respondents to a Roper poll (published in March 1971) claimed that TV was the most believable form of media, with less than 20 percent offering the same opinion about newspapers. Importantly, advertisements and billboards registered virtually no credibility at all in this particular test case for media-denominated veracity.18

Of the many social conditions that inform such developments, several point to conceptual contexts that also underwrite Kosuth’s negotiation with media in these years. The first is formed by another horizon of the reflexive criticality that Thomas Jefferson counselled for the sectional restructuring of the newspaper, which now generated circumstances in which even rightist rhetoric—such as Agnew’s—lambasted the medium of television and demanded that its purveyors perform their own meta-critique by “turn[ing] their cultural powers on themselves.”19 As the spaces of the media became ever more contested—and politicized—new forms of analysis and infiltration emerged to challenge the old-order perception of the neutrality or objectivity of the airwaves, and to draw attention to the dominant codes and discourses that made it up, including the provision of “information,” the place of “editorial” comment, the montage of imagery, and the calibration of image, text, and voice.

This last interest is sufficiently significant (both for TV and for Kosuth) that it constitutes a second condition in itself. In an article in Encounter (May 1970), British broadcaster Robin Day pointed to one of the defining emergent features of broadcast TV: its reliance on, and domination by, an endless flow of briefly glimpsed but often highly charged images, the impact of which eclipses their verbal or textual correlates and is often deemed most “powerful” when silent, or unworded. “Words on TV,” he wrote, “tend to have their own limitations. They tend to be put in the background by the pictures, especially if these are extremely dramatic.”20 Day’s notion of words forming a kind of generalized ground on which the figure of the emotive image is superimposed onto, or, more dramatically, poised to leap forward into, the receiving consciousness of the viewer, provides, in its turn, a critical context for Kosuth’s gesture of reverse camouflage. For Kosuth’s texts disturb the priority of both image and voice, driven as they are by the simple imperative that they be consumed by reading alone, or that they pass by the viewer/reader as a textual still life overlooked in the distracted march of the endless syntagm of TV images.

Kosuth’s interruption of the iconic valence of the TV image and its sequences and his forced conversion of the viewing experience into either an act of readership or aversion precipitates a moment of counter-televisual resistance. But the TV slots don’t, in fact, turn the cultural power of television back on itself, or at least not in terms predicated on the kind of reversibility argued for by Agnew and others under the auspices of a political readjudication. Instead they arrest and collapse the imagistic flow of TV by putting it on pause so that it becomes, for thirty seconds, something like a cathode ray page. The words it bears are untethered from the customary idioms of TV text—synchronized speech, caption, or voiceover. “On air” for slightly longer than the duration of their literal readability, they stand ready to distribute information that also appears, at first glance, utterly sequestered from the languages of television—that is, it doesn’t appear to sell, persuade, entertain, amuse, or even to inform according to the purportedly factographic logic of the “news.” At the same time, the visible text is not subject to a mode of legibility that is, in a literal sense—or, on the side of appearance—“difficult.” That is to say, it is not cluttered, dense, intermittent, provisional, or wild. While mimicking the lineation of a Thesaurus entry, it is typ­ographically uninflected and visually stable or neutral.

In 1969, the advent of colour TV was a relatively recent phenomenon. The brief era of monochrome-compatible, electronic colour television (1946–53) had been interrupted by a hiatus during the Korean War, followed by the first successful colour system, designed by RCA, which began commercial broadcasting after authorization by the FCC in December 1953. Prompted by Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (which first aired in 1961), the shift from black and white to colour was cemented in the mid 1960s, though it was not until 1966 (the same year that colour TV was introduced in Canada) that NBC became the first US network to offer blanket colour coverage for all of its programming.21 The Vancouver episode of The Second Investigation thus becomes a dissident marker for the infusion of colour into TV culture, in dialogue with works that comment on the era of colour in print media, such as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1961), which also takes stock of the differences brokered by reproductive technologies between the horizons of colour and black and white, overlaying these with questions of celebrity, pictoriality, and the grid.

The shift in media and entertainment from black and white to colour transacted in film in the early 1930s, in magazines in the 1940s and ’50s, and then on TV some years later, took another decade and a half (from the point of view of The Second Investigation) to effect its popularizing bleed into the format of the daily newspaper. USA Today, a national introduced by Gannett in 1982, was one of the first papers to make heavy use of colour in pictures, maps, and graphics—a move that still remains partial in these traditionalist media, as witnessed by the pink sheets of the Financial Times, the preference for ink dot drawings, or “hedcuts,” rather than photographs of people in the non-lifestyle sections of the Wall Street Journal, and resistance to colour by many non-tabloid titles until recently. Kosuth’s deployment of colour categories on television clearly has implications, then, beyond both the video medium itself and the redefinition of colour through the pixel, which is one of its most unmistakable legacies. These begin with the introduction of type and faces clearly associated with the printing format onto the image- and sound-denominated screen. But they also include wider contexts for the negotiation with colour associated with the strong chromatic regimens of the dominant forms of pictoriality in the late 1960s, notably colour field painting, and with the new spectra of synthetic hues introduced by the widespread use of plastics and fluorescent lights among minimalist artists. Kosuth himself, of course, had already taken up with the neon tube in One and Eight—A Description (1965)—a piece that typically commented on its own constitution out of light and letters—and Four Words Four Colors (1965), in which colour was the subject of the self-affirming statement, among other pieces from the mid 1960s. He also produced an extended body of works using neon two decades later in the It Was It (1986), Word, Sentence, Paragraph (1987–89), and related series and has continued to use neon in both gallery and publicly sited works in recent work, including ni apparence ni illusion at the Musée du Louvre, Paris (2009), and An Interpretation of This Title: Nietzsche, Darwin and the Paradox of Content, his contribution to the Edinburgh International Festival in the same year.22

The neon technology with which Kosuth was one of the first artists to engage went through its own version of the incremental colourization that attended the development of the media of print, film, and TV in roughly the same time frame. The intense, glowing effects of neon were observed in Geissler tubes with the discovery of the element in 1898 (two years after the first public exhibition of projected motion pictures in the US). Following their commercial development in the 1910s, early neon tubes had a very limited colour range until the 1960s, when experiments with phosphor coating materials initiated after WWII generated a spectrum of some two dozen hues. Interestingly, one of the first neon signs—“NEON,” purportedly fabricated around 1904 by Perley G. Nutting, founder and first president of the Optical Society of America (1916)23—was fashioned in a variant of the self-referential redundancy with which Kosuth would later take up under the auspices of the tautological: four neon letters making one neon word that looks forward by implication to Four Words Four Colors.

Throughout his experiments with both neon and public media, however, Kosuth maintained his focus on the relations set out between text (black or black reversed into white by the photostat process): the various “whitenesses” of page, ground, and wall and the use of (generally) white neon light to formulate, illuminate, overlay, or cancel—sometimes all at once—the appearance of printed letters. These investigations and their specific fields of vision often correlated with enclosed gallery spaces, while Kosuth’s earlier public media pieces were, for the most part, received under the available light of the streets or with the assistance of the illumination devices associated with commercial signage. In “Meaning and Responsibility” (1993), Kosuth reflects on his general commitment to the absence of colour: “The elements I use are always achromatic unless there is a reason to use colour for counting, as a code, to articulate, or give a functional, organizational order.” Even when he used them, then, colours “never function as ‘expressive’ in the visual sense, simply as meaningful.” The rationale for this refusal of chromatic connotation relates to Kosuth’s equally indomitable advocacy for the un-art-like appearance and anonymity of his work, coupled with a disengagement from “aesthetics” and a “look [that] remains neutral.”24

Aspects of this orientation were already in place in what was perhaps the first of Kosuth’s conceptual projects, Notebook on Water 1965–6625—which gave rise, in turn, to one of the earliest of the board-mounted photostats of The First Investigation, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) [Water] (1966),26 and launched an intermittent but career-long investigation of the morphological non-specificity of water, what Kosuth termed “its formless, colourless quality.”27 These interests offer another point of contact with, and differentiation from, the work of Hans Haacke, who in the same years took up with both the physical and “systemic” and the social and ecological implications of water in his first solo exhibition, Wind and Water at Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf (1965); Condensation Cube (1963–65), exhibited the following year at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York; and Rhinewater Purification Plant (1972).28 Several of Kosuth’s later public projects, notably The language of equilibrium / Il linguaggio dell’equilibrio, created on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, Venice, in 2007, explicitly addressed the aqueous context in which they were sited—in this case by returning to the definition of “water” that constitutes one of two strands of conceptual intervention in and around the monastic headquarters of the Armenian Mekhitarian Order for which the island is named. The language of equilibrium was also marked by a certain loosening of the austerity, if not the focus, of Kosuth’s commitment to chromatic neutrality, as the neon words appended to four architectural locations—the bell tower, north-west monastery wall, promontory, and observatory—were fashioned in yellow neon, “chosen,” following Georg Andreas Böckler’s Ars heraldica (1688), “because of the symbolic understanding of yellow at the time of the founding of the monastery as meaning ‘virtue, intellect, esteem and majesty.’”29 This is clearly an exception, though possibly one that proves the rule, to David Batchelor’s dictum that “to fall into colour is to run out of words.”30

In addition to their reflexive and contradictory relation to the medium in which they appear, the TV segments drop disorienting parentheses of orderly textual abstraction into the seamlessly claustrophobic, serial flow of images and sounds brokered by television. There is a sense in which Robin Day and other perceptive commentators on the first heyday of TV already saw these segments coming—though not, of course, on the same terms. Day takes pains to point out the defining difference between the image repertoire of death, dismemberment, famine, sex, and violence (in the process of becoming the staples of TV in this era, and addressed in their print-media formats by Warhol) and the nature of anything we might understand through conceptualization; the domineering sight of suffering or gratification, he writes, “may have a much more powerful impact than abstract concepts.”31 I want to suggest that a more relentless version of Day’s observation, beset by conditions outside his purview as a TV personality and critic, furnished the grounds for Kosuth’s intervention. For the core of Day’s observation—made in overlapping and related language by scores of media commentators over the last half-century—surely turns on the sheer unstoppability of the emotive, imagistic run-on of television. How better to catch it off guard or set it up against itself than by administering a thirty-second antidote in the form of an utter reversal of these seemingly inevitable conditions?

Perhaps it takes a philosopher of language who is also a TV viewer and political activist to point out another implication of Kosuth’s interruptive infiltration into the spacing system of television: the question of how we can read through, or back against, the infinite ribbon of sound, colour, and light excreted by the TV set. For John Searle, whose Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (1969) was published in the same year as the launch of The Second Investigation, the uncompromising and ideologically weighted directives of TV can be undermined only by reading between its lines: “I watch TV news,” he writes, “not to find out what’s happening, but what other people think is happening.”32 The Möbius effect of TV’s relation to truth, fact, accuracy—and thinking, or intention, itself—has, of course, become a staple of media theory, with one strand of reflection dating back to Jefferson and another woven from the threads of Searlean discourse. In “Modal Ontology of Television: How to Create Social Objects,” Lars Lundsten, for example, uses Searle’s terminology to argue that “the facts such as they appear on television belong to different types than the facts we encounter when we take part in the events or observe them on location.”33 Using tactics of infiltration and displacement, backed up by propositional logic, to intervene in the question of site, location, and representation, Kosuth points to a related round of constitutional fallacies in the “make-up” of TV, abetted by its new colour compact, underlining its dissembling seductions by brazenly subtracting them from the screen. What stands defiantly in their place is an unexegeticized parable of conceptual variegation, a spectrum analysis pointing to the underlying fact that everything that passes through the tube is truly not just black and white.

  1. This essay is adapted from my longer text “Ideas Being Given: Joseph Kosuth’s Media and Public Projects from The Second Investigation (1968–70) to the 2010s,” in Joseph Kosuth Re-defining the Context of Art: 1968–2012. The Second Investigation and Public Media (forthcoming, Sternberg, 2016).
  2. Peter Mark Roget, preface to the first edition, 1852, in Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (New Edition, completely Revised and Modernized by Robert A. Dutch) (Oxford: Longman, 1962), xxi. Roget’s descendents John Lewis Roget and Samuel Romilly Roget brought out revised and enlarged editions in 1879 and 1936, respectively.
  3. See Dieter Daniels, “Television—Art or Anti-Art?: Conflict and Cooperation between the Avant-Garde and the Mass Media in the 1960s and 1970s,” Media Art Net, 2004,
  4. Chris Salter, Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 118.
  5. The “Manifesto del Movimento Spaziale per la Televisione” (Television Manifesto of the Spatial Movement), Milan, May 17, 1952, was signed by seventeen artists associated with the Movimento spaziale (Spatial Movement), including Lucio Fontana (available online at Media Art Net, Fontana’s visionary attempt to “free” art from materiality, coupled with the proposed presentation of the manifesto during an actual TV broadcast, his interest in other media forms, and his pioneering use of neon, connects aspects of this early invocation of television more directly with Kosuth’s Second Investigation than with the work of Paik, Vostell, and others in the early and mid 1960s. See also Anthony G. White, “TV or Not TV: Lucio Fontana’s ‘Luminous Images in Movement,’” Grey Room, no. 34 (Winter 2009), 6–27.
  6. See Wolf Vostell, TV-Décoll/age no. 1, 1958–63, Media Art Net,
  7. These details are from an invitation card for the Smolin Gallery exhibition addressed to David Tudor and postmarked May 20, 1963, in the Special Collections at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
  8. Douglas Chrismas kindly shared with me copies of documents from the Douglas Gallery archives.
  9. Two reviews of the Douglas Gallery exhibition, by Charlotte Townsend in the Sun and Joan Lowndes in the “Art and Artists” section of the Province, give different numbers: Lowndes states fifteen and Townsend twelve. Townsend may be citing from a gallery announcement or press release based on the Siegelaub memo described below. The Douglas Gallery archive has photographs of fifteen “title-pieces.”
  10. The annotated diagram, marked in what appears to be blue crayon, is in the Douglas Gallery archives.
  11. Discussion and citations in this and the subsequent paragraph are from Siegelaub’s planning document in the Douglas Gallery archives.
  12. Few accounts of 15 Locations 1969/70 / Joseph Kosuth / Art as Idea as Idea 1966–70 have noted these parameters. A partial exception is Charles Green’s discussion of the exhibition at Pinacotheca, Australia (October 31–November 14, 1969), which gives details about the flyer. See The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism (Minneap­olis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 203n10.
  13. Robert (Bob) Fortune (1925–2006) was a radio presenter with CKMO and CKWX Vancouver in the late ’40s; the CBUT Vancouver weatherman (1954–75); and host of CBC-TV Vancouver’s Hourglass from the late 1960s. Quoted by his family in an obituary, the self-described “Left handed weatherman” wrote that in retirement he had “paused to split shakes, probe stars, write (you need a soft cushion), build boats, invent things, sail the oceans, watch barnacles, introduce kids to the magic of the sky, fly in it, carve wood, sweep up, practice Chinese calligraphy (never in the presence of the Chinese), grapple with philosophy, Love the world.” It remains unclear whether his earlier philosophical grappling extended to providing a platform for Kosuth’s Thesaurus entries in late October or early November 1969. See Jack Bennest, June 7, 2006 (8:57 pm), post on “Vancouver’s First TV Weatherman Passes,”,
  14. Preserved in the Douglas Gallery and the Kosuth archives as clippings without dates, both reviews (see note 9) state that “time and channel [are] to be announced” (Townsend) and “program time and channel to be announced” (Lowndes).
  15. Joseph Kosuth, “Footnote to Poetry,” in Art after Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966–90, 
ed. Gabriele Guercio (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 36.
  16. The first two items on the instruction card for “June 7, Saturday” from The Fourth Investigation recapitulate the examples cited in “footnote to Poetry”: “1. Take a jet ride to Los Angeles; 2. (or) Visit Las Vegas,” to which Kosuth adds two further tasks: “Read at random through the McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Space. McGraw Hill, N.Y.” and “Look at Manhattan from the top of the Empire State Building.” See Terza, Quarta, Quinta, Sesta & Settima Investigazione (1968–1971), vol. 2, ed. Jean-Christophe Ammann and Marianne Eigenheer (Lucerne: Kunstmuseum Luzern, 1973), 9. Published on the occasion of Kosuth’s first retrospective exhibition, May 27–June 24, 1973, the Lucerne volumes offer the most substantial documentation to date of Kosuth’s Investigations.
  17. As I note in the longer text, Jefferson’s persistent criticism of newspapers, the most powerful media form from the birth of the nation until the 1960s, was dominated by what he viewed as their patent defection from standards of truth and accuracy coupled with abuses of “freedom” “carried to a length never before known or borne by any civilized nation.” Jefferson to Marc-Auguste Pictet (1803), in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Memorial Edition, vol. 10, ed. Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1903–04), 357.
  18. These details are drawn from a contemporary account by I. E. Fang, Television News (New York: Hastings House, 1968/72), 11–13.
  19. Ibid., 20.
  20. Ibid., 22.
  21. These details are cited in “Color Television History,” Inventors, accessed June 2012,
  22. See John C. Welchman, “Histories and Subjects in Contingency,” in Joseph Kosuth, ni Appearance, ni Illusion, Musée du Louvre, Paris, October 2009–April 2010 (French and English); and John C. Welchman, “A Crab in the Tree,” in Joseph Kosuth, ‘An Interpretation of This Title’: Nietzsche, Darwin and the Paradox of Content, Edinburgh University Library (Georgian/Talbot Rice Gallery), August–September 2009. Republished in Joseph Kosuth, ‘An Interpretation of This Title’: Nietzsche, Darwin and the Paradox of Content (South Yarra, Australia: Macmillan, 2012), 10–15.
  23. See John N. Howard, “OSA’s First Four Presidents,” Optics & Photonics News, February 2009, Howard notes that the suggestion that Nutting’s “NEON” sign was displayed at the “Palace of Electricity” at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of 1904 has been disputed, as it would have antedated by a decade and a half the commercial availability of neon signage.
  24. Joseph Kosuth, “Meaning and Responsibility,” in Ad Reinhardt J Kosuth F Gonzalez Torres: Symptoms of Interference, Conditions of Possibility, January–February 1994, 71. This publication served as the catalogue for the exhibition of the same title at Camden Arts Centre, London, January 7–March 6, 1994.
  25. Kosuth’s contribution to the “Artists and Photographs” portfolio (1970), Notebook on Water 1965–1966, took the form of a 9 1/2” × 12” printed manila envelope into which twelve individual plates and a folded map were inserted.
  26. Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) [Water] (1966) was gifted to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, by Leo Castelli in 1973.
  27. Joseph Kosuth, cited in Fiona Biggiero, “Infinitely Reflective Equilibrium: An Introductory Note,” in Joseph Kosuth, The language of equilibrium / Il linguaggio dell’equilibrio (Milan: Electra, 2009), 5. The catalogue was published in association with the exhibition of the same title curated by Adelina von Fürstenberg on the island of San Lazzaro, Venice, as a collateral exhibition of the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007).
  28. See Hans Haacke 1967, MIT List Visual Arts Center, October 21–December 31, 2011, and the exhibition brochure by curator Caroline A. Jones, available online at
  29. Joseph Kosuth, “The Language of Equilibrium: A Statement by the Artist,” in The language of equilibrium, 11.
  30. David Batchelor, Chromophobia (London: Reaktion, 2000), 85.
  31. Robin Day, quoted in Fang, Television News, 22–23.
  32. John Searle, quoted in ibid., 32.
  33. Lars Lundsten, “Modal Ontology of Television: How to Create Social Objects,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 58, no. 2 (April 1999), 221–40. See also John R. Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: Free Press, 1995), 120–25. For a critique of Searle’s views, see Alex Viskovatoff, “Searle, Rationality, and Social Reality: Extensions and Criticisms—John Searle,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 62, no. 1 (January 2003).
About the Author

John C. Welchman is Professor of Art History in the Visual Arts department at the University of California, San Diego, and chair of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. His books include Modernism Relocated: Towards a Cultural Studies of Visual Modernity (Allen & Unwin, 1995), Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles (Yale, 1997), Art after Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s (Routledge, 2001), Vasco Araújo (ADIAC, 2007), and Paul McCarthy: Caribbean Pirates (forthcoming, JRP|Ringier, 2016). He is co-author of The Dada & Surrealist Word-Image (MIT, 1989), Mike Kelley (Phaidon, 1999), On the Beyond: A Conversation between Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and John C. Welchman (Springer, 2011), Kwang Young Chun: Mulberry Mindscapes (Skira Rizzoli, 2014), and Joseph Kosuth: Re-defining the Context of Art, 1968–2014. The Second Investigation and Public Media (forthcoming, Sternberg, 2016); and editor of Rethinking Borders (Minnesota UP/Routledge, 1996), the writings and interviews of Mike Kelley (3 vols., MIT/JRP|Ringier), and Sculpture and the Vitrine (Ashgate, 2013). Past Realization: Essays on Contemporary European Art (XX to XXI, vol. 1), the first of a six-volume series of Welchman’s collected writings on art and visual culture, will be published in fall 2015 by Sternberg.

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