"You are the product of television. You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer." So says "Television Delivers People," a video made in 1975 by Richard Serra, which also gives its name to a new show at the Whitney that traces video art's engagement with television from the 1970s to the present day, when the Internet now allows people to deliver television. Its promising aim is to follow the media critique of modernity's favorite medium over the last 30 years.
In practice, the nine single-channel videos on view break down roughly into two groups: those commenting directly on television and those parodying it. Mr. Serra's piece sets a remorselessly didactic tone for those in the former camp. For six minutes, as bubbly Muzak plays, statements about television scroll down the screen: "We are persuaded daily by a corporate oligarchy. Propaganda for profit. Television defines the world so as not to threaten you," etc. The truth of the phrases in no way mitigates their blunt and none-too-seductive presentation.
Joan Braderman's "Joan Does Dynasty" (1986) offers a slightly more scenic route through the landscape of didactic commentary. Here the artist trains her critical powers on the '80s primetime soap opera "Dynasty." For 35 eye-glazing minutes, the artist, whose image is superimposed over scenes from the show — at times upside down or jazzed up with other period effects — blatantly reads her quasi-academic "deconstruction," dazzling us with such insights as the fact that Joan (meaning the actress on the show) is in the box (in the accompanying scene she's in jail), while we're outside the box. Such double meanings — two Joans, two "boxes"! — slam into each other like kiddie bumper cars at the toddlers' end of the amusement park.
Still, Ms. Braderman isn't nearly as subtle as Dara Birnbaum, who in "Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman" (1978–79) explores the banality of the sitcom by embodying it. Repeated snippets from the program — showing the main character transforming into Wonder Woman and stopping bullets with her bracelets — give way to the lyrics of the theme song, printed on-screen so that you can sing along, if you'd like. Happily, Ms. Birnbaum's incisive screed lasts only about six minutes.
So you'll still have plenty of energy to watch the second, parodic half of the program, where artists tend to send up the banalities of television by rendering it ... even more banal. The portion of the exhibition in which artists ape television shows is exemplified by Mike Smith's 25-minute "It Starts At Home" (1982), which runs continuously on its own monitor (as do Mr. Serra's and Ms. Birnbaum's videos).
Mr. Smith's epic begins with Mike pulling the plug on the cable television show in which he's been starring. He's disillusioned by the demands the cable exec — played by a chain-smoking raccoon tail (or some such animal's) — has made: that he do the show in his boxers and wear a silly T-shirt. It eventually flashes back to the day Mike had cable installed, only to find himself on television, the protagonist in what we would now call a reality TV show. It being the early '80s, aggressively bland Mike is depicted as being utterly baffled by this newfangled technology — cable — and equally baffled by the executive's attempts to remake his image: casting him first as a swinger in a leisure suit, then as a "pinstriped prince" of Wall Street, as an infant, and as a tuxedo-wearing song-and-dance man. The role missing is adept video artist.
Alex Bag continues the theme with "Untitled Fall '95" (1995), her hour-long faux cable-access show in which a college student gives a monologue while wearing various outfits. "I sound like a cliché," she says. "Don't define me. Don't label me." Such identity issues also trouble the post-gendered characters in Ryan Trecartin's "What the Love Making Babies For" (2003), a surreal, 20-minute long Webcast or "fabby gay" phantasmagoria that actually manages to be fun. And it boasts by far the most compelling animations and visual effects on view.
Mr. Trecartin goes in for bouncy disjunctions. Kalup Linzy, in the 15-minute "Melody Set Me Free" (2007), offers the most coherent narrative here, and one of the most watchable: A young black woman goes to the city to compete on an "American Idol"-like show, and ultimately triumphs over her "arrogant" and scheming rival.
Although Ms. Linzy's video is enjoyable, my favorite work was Keren Cytter's 11-minute "Dream Talk" (2005), despite its tedious-sounding scenario. In a takeoff on a reality TV show, a couple prepares to watch a reality TV show. As they cook something to eat while watching, the guy's "best ugly friend" arrives, and it soon becomes clear he lusts after the girlfriend. The viewer pieces together this classic love triangle through a haze of intercut images and somewhat disconnected, overdubbed dialogue. Yet in the end, it miraculously succeeds as both a witty commentary on television as well as a parody of it.
Video remains a very young medium. And it would seem from the selection offered in "Television Delivers People" that artists are becoming increasingly agile in their use of the medium to critique social phenomena like television. Then again, far too many of these artists seem to revel in the deliberate stupidity television reflects, happily assuming an insouciant, know-nothing manner — which the tube doubtless encourages. The more artists play dumb, the more television will deliver nothing but yawns.
Until February 17 (945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, 1-800-WHITNEY).