subliminal screens

This idea began with a visit to "Gomi" clothiers in Austin, TX. In a window display, their owner had spray-painted, in negative stencil, the store's Hello-Kitty-motif logo on the screens of several small black-and-white TVs, which were turned on and tuned to a dead station. The effect was such that the image of the store's logotype showed up as a positive image in gyrating TV static. I had seen Nam Jun Paik's retrospective at the New York Guggenheim when I was there in 2000, and I recall a scene from La Femme Nikita which featured a spray-painted operating TV screen, and the idea of using the television set itself as a medium for physical art appealed to me. It seems to me an appealing way to "talk back" to the otherwise unidirectional and nondemocratic cultural institution that is Television. So when I got home I had to try it. The results are below. Gomi's version looked slightly better than my own, I think, because the spray-paint I used was too thin (or I applied too few coats of it), and so I got a transparent rather than a completely opaque effect on the unmasked parts of the screen. Still, the principle is clear enough.

An animated .GIF showing the effect of moving static as a positive image.

I prepared the stencil in Photoshop and printed it on an Avery full-sheet 8.5" x 11" white mailing label, which was the perfect size for the little 12"-diagonal black-and-white TV I bought for $10 at the thrift shop. I stuck the label on the screen and cut out and removed the stencil negative spaces with a razor blade. I then partially dissassembled the TV so I could spray-paint just the tube without getting overspray on the case. I put on one coat from a can of blue automative touch-up paint I had lying around, reassembled the TV, and removed the stencil, which had an unfortunate tendency to rip and leave gunk behind on the glass. Some work with a paper towel and lighter fluid was necessary to get the glass clean. This seemed to have little if any lifting effect on the dried paint.

The splash screen of my RCA DVD/VCR combo, which does not include any screensaving provision and has burned the letters

At this point, as it so often does in the creative process, serendipity intervened. About a year previously I had bought an inexpensive combination VCR/DVD player which displayed, as most of them do, a "splash screen" featuring the manufacturer's logo onscreen when the player was on but inactive. Because I am in the bad habit of falling asleep watching a movie, the TV and DVD player end up being on most of the night, every night. Once the movie ends, the splash screen comes up, and because it's a cheap DVD player it does not include a "screensaver" to prevent phosphor burn-in of the splash screen image. So one day I was watching a movie and noticed, very dimly, the letters "RCA" showing through the picture on the screen. With the idea of using the TV screen as canvas so lately in my mind, it then occurred to me that a a person could deliberately burn an image into the phosphors of a TV tube, and use this technique as a means of "painting" on the screen. Whatever image was burned into the phosphors would be indelible, but would still allow the TV to be used for its "normal" function. The burned-in image would simply float in the background as a "ghost" behind whatever happened to be on the screen.

MicroSoft's TV PhotoViewer, though discontinued, is still readily available.  It is a cheap and easy way to put images on a screen for long periods of time to create burned-in phosphor ghost images.

The problem of making an image, and then displaying it on a TV screen without interruption long enough to create a burned-in image in the phosphors, found an easy and inexpensive solution in MicroSoft's TV PhotoViewer device, which accepts a 3.5" floppy disk containing a digital "slide show" of image files, prepared using the bundled software on a PC, and displays them via an RCA out on a television set. Although discontinued, the PhotoViewer is readiy available on the used market. I bought two through eBay for less than $20 each. A "slide show" containing only one image will display that single image forever, as long as the TV and PhotoViewer are left on. The PhotoViewer does not include any screensaver feature, which, in this case, is an advantage. I was--again serendipitously--able to come by two medium-sized TV sets for next to nothing.

A 25-inch TV set with the word OBEY burning in to the phosphors, displayed in the window of my apartment. A 21-inch TV set with the word CON$UME burning in to the phosphors, displayed in the window of my apartment.

With the technology to "paint" the phosphors of a TV screen in place, I spent some time thinking about just what I would paint. My first thought had been to do a series of "TV Tombstones" featuring the image of a dead person I had known, at some point in my life, above the letters RIP and the dates of that person's birth and death. Although slightly morbid, this motif was appropriate to the emotional response I wanted to make to television as a cultural institution. Looking at a TV and seeing the literal "ghost image" of a dead person staring back behind the picture, it seemed to me, would give most people pause and, perhaps, make them consider spending their time more productively. I began to fear, however, that the necessary resolution and saturation depth would not be available to make a recognizeable facial image in the phosphors, and so I elected to start off, experimentally, with something less visually complex--words in block capitals. "OBEY" and "CON$UME" were selected, rather obviously, for their ironic effect. The implicit "subliminal" messages of broadcast TV are made explicit by words which, while not really subliminal, will (hopefully) look as if they're trying to be.

As of this writing, these two TVs have been sitting in the window of my apartment, "burning in", for four months without interruption. The images were prepared in MicroSoft Paint. The brightness settings on the TVs were turned all the way up to maximize wear on the phosphors. My goal is one year of uninterrupted "burn." At that time I will post pictures of the results here. If the technique proves successful, I will probably go on to more complex "ghost" images. Although the photographic detail necessary to record a real person's face will probably remain unachievable by this process, a stylized face is probably possible, and I'm still enamored of the idea of making a TV that "looks back" at the viewer.



So it's a year later and the results are in. Here's the OBEY model in action:

Lift and thrust and kick!  Jazz hands, people!

The problem with America is that too many people are thinking for themselves...

Join me or die.  Can you do any less?

CON$UME has not fared so well. It is a more recent model television set than OBEY, and has circuitry to automatically adjust the tube brightness, contrast, and color balance to optimum levels. Thus the technique of manually turning the tube brightness up to its maximum intensity, which worked so well with OBEY, wasn't possible with CON$UME. Or, rather, I should say, wasn't practical. After about nine months of continuous burn-in on both models, when it became apparent that OBEY was outstripping CON$UME, it occurred to me that the CON$UME television had probably been equipped with an internal manual brightness pot in case the automatic circuitry failed. So I took the casing off and, sure enough, there it was. I cranked it all the way up and set it back to burning-in, but as of this writing, it still has not caught up to OBEY (which has been turned off for some time), and the letters, while visible, are extremely dim. The process continues.

Oh, and for those who are interested in specific makes and models, CON$UME is a Daewoo DTQ-2046FC manufactured in December of 1993, and OBEY is an RCA S20520WN manufactured in May of 1989.

So, the proof of concept is complete and essentially successful: It is possible to deliberately "write" on the phosphors of a television screen in a reasonable period of time. As the lawyers say, however, what is or is not "reasonable" depends mostly on who's doing the reasoning and why. All of which begs the question: What the hell does one do with a surplus tube television set--which is a large, heavy, and space-hungry appliance--that has been rendered useless, or at least annoying, to the normal user because of nearly-subliminal writing on the phosphors inside the tube?

well, first off, one could watch it anyway.