“Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
When he uttered these words in 1966, Dr. Timothy Leary inspired that decade’s counterculture movement, but he could just as well have been speaking today about a new multimedia art installation scheduled to debut in front of the Mint Museum in Uptown developed by local artist Rick Lazes.
Centered around television, the exhibit raises a series of questions that Leary might have sanctioned: Why do we turn on to media in the first place? Have we tuned in too much to the new digital reality at the expense of our relationships? Is it time to drop out from the information onslaught to get our bearings?
In fact, now may be the perfect time to reconfigure Leary’s epigram. Today, amid a resurgence of civil rights and anti-racist protests, we turn on and tune in to the onrushing information fire hose that is social media.
Perhaps dropping out could provide a much-needed sabbatical, a chance to step out of the overloaded data stream to find context and meaning in events and in our lives.
Lazes seems to think so, and with “Tune In,” the artist and entrepreneur has come up with the perfect tool to help us recontextualize media while encouraging us all to take an introspective break.
The installation features a precarious tower of 1960s TV sets screening snippets of television programming from that decade.
“’Tune In’ is constructed from six different TV sets from the 1960s that have been cut, sliced and reassembled in a way that says something symptomatic of society today,” Lazes offers.
The TV screens flash 30-second video clips culled from over 100 hours of footage.
In addition to iconic television programs from the ’60s, snippets of entertainers like James Brown, Little Richard, The Supremes and The Beatles flicker across screens, in a digital collage designed to get people talking about television again. The display also takes the viewer through a series of historical events, like the launch of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon.
The irregular jumble of TVs, indicative of the dysfunctional state of our society, is housed in a 4,000-pound outdoor diorama that replicates a TV room in a 1960’s home, complete with vintage wallpaper, pictures and linoleum.
The room is a self-contained, temperature-controlled and waterproofed art installation. It was devised by Lazes and built with the help of fellow creatives at the Art Factory. Though Lazes lives in Cornelius, he works out of a studio in the north Charlotte arts incubator.
“[Tune In] can be placed [outside] even with restrictions due to COVID,” Lazes says. “People can stay a safe distance and wear a mask and still enjoy the experience, even if museums remain closed.”
Museums are a key piece of Lazes’ curious TV puzzle.
If North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper’s third phase of his gradual statewide reopening plan rolls out in a timely manner, “Tune In” will sit squarely on the sidewalk in front of the Mint Museum’s Uptown location in late July.
Charlotte will be the first stop on the exhibit’s 10-city tour, which includes layovers in Washington D.C., Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.
If, as recent record infection rates suggest is possible, Mecklenburg County locks down further, Lazes’ plan B has him trekking with the exhibition to Martha’s Vineyard Museum in Massachusetts before swinging back down to Charlotte to resume the tour.
Either way, people can safely enjoy the exhibit because “Tune In” is installed outside the museum, not inside, Lazes affirms.
Prepping for the big broadcast
Multimedia projects are nothing new to Lazes. The three-dimensional artist works in wood, plaster, steel, glass, plexiglass and marble. His first studio was heated by a coal potbelly stove in rural West Virginia.
The world of TV is nothing new to him, either. Lazes has also produced TV shows for HBO and Cinemax, and found time to direct documentary features. His most recent film project, Tough Love, is the story of heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis.
“It’s about who we adopt as our heroes,” Lazes says. “It questions why we’re attracted to the train wreck.” Lazes explains that his unconventional boxing film contrasts the controversial Mike Tyson, whom Lewis defeated, with his subject, a diligent, disciplined, hard-working family man who went on to become an Olympic gold medal winner and undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Tough Love debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Lazes moved to New Orleans in 1980, where he promoted concerts in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in collaboration with Live Nation. He traveled up to Charlotte often to produce an annual outdoor music festival on South College Street called Center City Fest. With his son Noah, Lazes built the 30-acre North Carolina Music Factory (now AvidXchange Music Factory), including the Fillmore and Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheater.
Then, after Lazes had lived in the Crescent City for 25 years, Hurricane Katrina hit.
“After that, I decided to move my family to higher ground in Charlotte,” Lazes says. He opened two art studios for himself, one in Mooresville and the other in The Music Factory. When AvidXchange needed more room in the latter facility, Lazes moved out of The Music Factory to the studio on Bancroft Street, next to Camp North End.
“Several artists who were looking for studios asked if they could join me in this artists consortium – sculptors, painters, photographers, videographers and other two-and three-dimensional artists,” Lazes offers.
From that agreement the Art Factory was born, a collaborative comprised of Lazes and fellow artists Paul Veto, Seth Koch, Dana Gingras, Gifford Cordova, Nick Plesz and Stewart Milsaps.
“We work cooperatively and individually,” Lazes says. “We work on our individual projects and we also collaborate as we did on ‘Tune In.’”
“Tune In” had first seen the flickering cathode light of day as an installation and video collage five years ago. Recently, Lazes decided it was time to update the installation for a new reality.
“With the advance of … the COVID crisis and social unrest across the county, it seemed appropriate that we program the scenes in a manner that was relevant and responsive to the state of life in America today,” Lazes offers.
‘There is nothing wrong with your TV set’
All of which begs the question: “Why did Lazes choose to reflect our era with TV clips from the 1960s?”
“Our goal is to start a conversation with the viewer to start looking back at where we were as a society 50 or 60 years ago and where we are today and to maybe understand … where we are going,” Lazes offers.
Like our own time, the ’60s was an era of political and social upheaval, a time when minority voices began to be heard and old power structures lashed back at a changing world with reactionary zeal. (A member of the right-wing John Birch Society 50 years ago would recognize himself reflected in a Trump supporter today.)
In the ’60s, America was torn apart by a corrosive war that the establishment seemed incapable of handling. Today we have forever wars perpetually simmering on the back burner, and while they may be out of sight for much of America, the fabric of today’s society is being ripped apart instead by the onslaught of a deadly pandemic. And once again, we have leaders incapable of, or uninterested in, handling the problem.
The ’60s was also a time when television as a medium became self-aware. TV shows in the ’50s had been about cops, cowboys and private eyes. All those genres carried over into the next decade, but the ’60s also introduced TV shows about TV.
Dick Van Dyke played a TV variety show writer on his titular sitcom. Candid Camera televised practical jokes with hidden surveillance television cameras. Variety shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Dean Martin Show featured skits lampooning other TV shows.
Long before Cambridge Analytica and Facebook manipulated media to shape viewers’ reality, the 1960s sci-fi anthology The Outer Limits posited outside forces controlling the world we saw. Every week the show opened with a static-filled TV screen accompanied by a dispassionate narrator:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.”
For his part, Lazes says he’s not trying to draw any political parallels between the tumultuous decade 60 years ago and the one we’re living through now.
“I’m not trying as an artist to make any kind of social statement,” he insists. Instead, he hopes his work inspires viewers to start a conversation about where we were, where we’re going, and whether or not we’re better off.
“When we watch the TV shows of the ’60s, we notice how misogynistic and chauvinistic they were, but they were acceptable back then,” Lazes offers. While video programming has become more politically correct, Lazes feels it’s unclear whether American culture and society has become any fairer or more equitable as a result.
“Television in the ’60s brought families together,” he says. “Often, they were in a TV room, living room or basement where they watched their favorite TV shows together. Then in the later part of the 20th century, electronic media separated us with social media, the smart phone and the internet.”
Lazes believes we became isolated when we no longer came together with friends and families to take in a shared media experience. We “tuned out” to personal interaction as a result of our preoccupation with an alternative — and often private — digital reality.
One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it brought families together again in front of the TV, Lazes believes, whether to catch their favorite shows or to watch newscasters and politicians brief us on the latest COVID-19 news. That is why the ramshackle TV tower of “Tune In” is housed in a stereotypical 60s TV room.
“It’s kind of come full circle, and we think it’s a good time for people to take a minute and reflect on where we’ve gone,” Lazes asserts. “With all of the discord and alienation in society, we are all in need of some introspection.”
A Cultural Crisis
Lazes also hopes his 10-city “Tune In” tour will draw attention to the financial plight of art museums in the wake of the COVID-19 onslaught.
With museums, galleries, and performance spaces closed since March, arts organizations and the artists who relied on them are financially stressed, Lazes says. Essential cultural institutions are scrambling to adapt to the new normal by exhibiting online and reaching out digitally to their communities.
But Lazes believes it’s not enough. Museums, galleries and art institutions, the keepers of the nation’s cultural heritage, have lost over $2 billion since the pandemic began. He questions why the government is bailing out airlines, cruise ship companies and banks while neglecting the country’s most valuable — and vulnerable — cultural assets.
“Museums are in dire need of support,” Lazes insists.
Lazes has also launched a film project to travel with “Tune In.” During each stop on the exhibit’s tour, Lazes and his co-director Aaron Atkinson plan to interview and film local artists and creatives to document how they are leveraging their talent to bring hope and inspiration to their cites.
“Aaron is a local videographer that has worked with other artists on documentaries,” Lazes offers. “He and I got together to start this project.” Lazes reveals that Atkinson has filmed 10 Charlotte artists already.
“We’re [making] a document of museums and artists in each city,” Lazes says. “We’ll go to their studios and see what they’re working on during the pandemic.”
The documentary, Artists in Quarantine: American Creativity During the 2020 Pandemic will examine sequestered creatives spinning bleakness into beauty, Lazes promises. Despite the pandemic, American artists are continuing to hone their craft alone in their homes and studios, he insists.
“Some do so in anticipation of better times when cultural institutions re-open and the arts market reemerges,” a press release for Artists in Quarantine reads. Many turn to creativity to quell their anxieties, while others marshal their talents to document this historic moment that we’re all living through.
Lazes hopes that all the artistic activity they document will encourage people, not just to support the arts, but also to be a little more introspective and to embrace living in the moment.
“People are waiting for the return to normalcy, but in my view, it will never go back to the way it was,” Lazes maintains. “But the good news is it may be better for many of us. We will get a chance to reflect and create a society that is more inclusive and accepting of people from all different walks of life.”