In the 20-odd years since I first met Chris Matthews, I have never seen him, on television or off, with his mouth shut. Until now. I am standing in the Conner Contemporary Art gallery in Washington, D.C., taking in the art installation, "Face Time." The work consists of 17 flat-panel video screens playing raw satellite feeds of various important people waiting patiently for their turn to appear on a TV news broadcast. Matthews is one of them. And even though there is no sound, I can tell he isn't talking. He's just staring into space.
The video monitor showing Matthews is one of six mounted in a V pattern straight ahead as you enter the white-walled gallery. These six screens display raw feeds of network and cable news anchors. To their right is a line of four screens that show raw feeds of political "experts." On the back wall, two screens, arranged horizontally, display raw feeds of government officials. On the third wall, two horizontal rows of five screens show raw feeds of this year's presidential candidates. The pervasive quiet ensures that no one will mistake this for a control room.
The fascination of raw feeds—the useless video stream bounced off satellites before and after the "real" video stream appears on live programming—is an old story. As long ago as 1985, the writer David Owen marveled in the Atlantic about a phenomenon he called "network television in its underpants," wherein owners of home satellite dishes could eavesdrop on, say, an unsuspecting Max Robinson—now deceased, but until 1983 the Chicago anchor for ABC's World News Tonight—as he yelled at colleagues, told dirty jokes, and purchased consumer goods by phone. In 1992, documentary filmmakers Ken Rafferty and James Ridgeway fashioned a movie, Feed, from raw feeds of presidential candidates noisily making asses of themselves as they stumped through New Hampshire. Since then, most celebrities have wised up and learned that while you're waiting to go live, it's best to be silent. You never know who may be listening.
It is this silence that sets "Face Time" apart from attempts by others to place raw feeds into a distancing context. The artist is Harry Shearer, the radio host, filmmaker, occasional Slate contributor, and actor best-known as the voice of Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, and assorted other characters on The Simpsons. For years, Shearer has been collecting (and posting on his Web site) raw-feed "found objects." He has a particular fascination with silent feeds, and since 1988, he's worked in that medium on HBO, at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, and even in the window of Barney's New York. "The whole project," he told me at the opening of "Face Time," "is called 'Non-Talking Heads.' "
Why is the silence so disconcerting? Perhaps because it underscores that these non-talking heads are stuck in a no-man's land that's neither public nor private. Each has his own strategy for negotiating this TV purgatory. Larry King, peering at a monitor off-screen as he waits to go live at Ronald Reagan's funeral, chews popcorn with open-mouthed abandon. He looks like your Great-Uncle Ira pigging out on the Early Bird Special. Peter Jennings, sitting in the ABC newsroom, takes notes and strokes his mouth, not inelegantly. Bill Kristol smiles, and smiles, and smiles, and, finally, gives up. Judy Woodruff, standing outside Boston's FleetCenter during the Democratic convention, knits her brow worriedly. Henry Kissinger looks bored. Newt Gingrich looks tired and eventually closes his eyes. (Is he asleep?) Ralph Nader endures the application of hair spray; God knows what toxic chemicals are contained therein, but it's a small price to pay to change the world. John McCain looks expectant, light shining in his eyes. I'm going to be on television! Paul Begala scowls.
In the raw feeds, the non-talking heads seem both more and less human than they are on "real" television. More human, obviously, in the sense that each has developed an idiosyncratic style of waiting his or her turn. But also less human because every facial expression is placed inside the frame of a TV screen, which in turn is placed inside the larger frame of the work as a whole. These aren't people; they've been cruelly objectified into absurdist art. Sad to say, they are much more compelling in silent repose than they'll ever be once they finally get to speak about the Iraq war, or the budget deficit, or the latest political polls. We'll stop staring as we listen to what they say. But we won't listen very hard.