Messages in the medium
Chico State student rebroadcasts TV through music and photos
Like most Americans, Mitchel Davidovitz spent much of his childhood in front of the television. Also like most Americans, he never questioned nor thought much at all about his viewing habits, until he started noticing a change in his family dynamic during his high school years.
“We used to eat dinner as a family every night, with my parents and my two brothers sitting at the table and talking while we ate,” Davidovitz recalled. “Slowly, over time, the family meals turned into all of us taking our plates and quietly eating in front of the TV, either alone or together. It got me thinking, even back then, about why that weird transition was happening.”
Now a Chico State recording arts student minoring in photography, Davidovitz decided to utilize both mediums for an undergraduate thesis focusing on television’s relationship to society, and particularly the role it plays in shaping people’s beliefs and behavior. The assignment became a project of passion, resulting in a sprawling multimedia piece called “Window of Normalization – A Musical and Photographic Exposition Created Solely with Sounds and Images Captured from Live Television.”
The three-part project consists of photographed screen captures organized into grids representing recurring images, a 15-minute musical composition in six movements, and a 25-plus-page research paper. All of the images and audio used were captured in 34 hours of broadcast television, which Davidovitz watched over a week-and-a-half period.
The number 34 was significant, he said, because it’s the average amount of hours most Americans watch television weekly, according to the Nielsen Company. He recorded the audio and used a digital camera to take shots of the screen in viewing sessions that lasted an average of five to six hours.
“Watching TV naturally puts you in a passive mindset [in which] you just absorb the information that’s coming at you rather than think about it critically, which is what I was doing,” he explained. He said he found it necessary to take a break every hour or so for physical activity—running up and down stairs or using a chin-up bar—so as to not get zombified.
“It sounds intense, but really I was just sitting there watching TV, which makes it kind of comical,” he said, noting that the material of his project is serious, but intentionally contains some comedic and satirical elements. “Being able to laugh at how messed up things are is empowering.”
For the visual element, Davidovitz captured more than 6,500 images, then whittled them down to 397 pictures organized into 12 grids—or collections of screenshots—of recurring themes. These include American flags (65 separate images), explosions (32 images), images glorifying police and military while demonizing prisoners, white people smiling, and more.
The audio element was even more labor-intensive for Davidovitz, a multi-instrumentalist who said he loves experimenting with sounds. In another of his projects, he plays a “healing” musical saw as his alter-ego stage persona, pseudo-guru Mint Shekels.
Every sound in the musical portion comes from his TV binge, some appearing as they were broadcast and others digitally altered.
“Some are manipulated to convey ideas, and some to make them into musical elements,” he explained. “If I thought I’d like a heavy guitar part somewhere, I couldn’t just plug in my guitar and do it because the concept is it all comes from TV. So I had to find a guitar part or digitally transform something else to make it sound like a guitar.”
The resulting pieces, or movements, are a hypnotic collection of strange soundscapes with strong subversive overtones to televised messages. “Act Normal” focuses on the pressure people feel to fit society’s definition of normality, while “Woman Power/Bad Bra Day” highlights a twisted view of female empowerment espoused by two women hocking jewelry on a shopping network.
Davidovitz premiered the musical portion of his project on Feb. 27 during the student-composers program at Chico State’s annual New Music Symposium, along with a booklet containing the captured images. And he found out last week that his project was recognized by the 2014 CSU Student Research Competition and will be in competition with nine other finalists at CSU East Bay in May.
He hopes to get a gallery show to display his images, but says he would need a lot of space to meet his vision of creating 12 nine-foot-wide grids, composed of 24-inch-tall individual photos.
Davidovitz said the goal of his project is to get people to evaluate their own relationship to television, and he hopes to disseminate the information as widely as possible. Visit www.mitcheldavicovitz.bandcamp.com to download the piece for free, and www.mitcheldavidovitz.tumblr.com to view the image grids.