The Stuttering Machine: Melrose Place and The GALA Committee

Joe Coleman

This is a true story...
Melrose Place is an Aaron Spelling Production.
It is produced and set in affluent Los Angeles and burbles along like most American soaps do: love triangles to be resolved, confessions to be made, rivalry to be avenged, generation gaps to be breached. The scrubbed and gelled actors recite scripts made entirely of wood and it is all highly addictive. A recent episode of the American sit-com Seinfeld centred around the charactersÕ reluctant admission that they actually watched Melrose Place. But beneath the surface of Melrose Place, during the 96-97 season of broadcasts, other stories were unravelling. In a scene where one of the central characters has had a miscarriage candles light the room and bathe her in a comporting light. But the candles look strangely like babies' dummies. She holds a cushion to her breast and on that cushion the formula for the abortion drug appears as a proto modernist design. The word 'abortion' does not officially exist in Melrose Place but the word 'miscarriage' can serve as a metaphor. Meanwhile the prospective father celebrates his successful impregnation with a cigar from a box of 'Cubans'.

The scene changes
A poster hangs on the office wall, looking every bit like an Athena product; anaesthetically aestheticised by sub-deco lettering, neutral in every respect - but look closely, isnÕt that a picture of the Oklahoma bombing ? The side of the building is blown away and the floors collapse into the street. That picture was in all the papers and has appeared since on countless news bulletins. In fact the works of the unabomber are displayed in similar ways, discreetly, almost invisibly. ItÕs as if the things we aren't allowed to see or talk about on prime-time American TV soaps are being covertly displayed. ItÕs as if matters of substance are riding along on the insubstantial narrative of the soap.

Perhaps there is a minor language at work here, someone is infiltrating the hermetically closed world of Melrose Place, and the chatter, indistinct and disguised, is about the things which are not within the vocabulary of the soap's major language.

And what about the artist in Melrose Place? She paints landscapes in a similar style to Hockney in his 'Californian air conditioned phase'. Houses of the rich and famous, but isn't that Marilyn Monroe's house and aren't there clues about her ŌsuicideÕ embedded within the picture? This is mischievousness of an heroic order and to unravel the language you need a stuttering machine: the video rewind and pause buttons. To rewind and pause on the picture in the hospital corridor, rewind and pause on the Hockney look alikes, rewind and pause on the other works of art in the gallery in which our artist heroine is showing.

Fast forward:
At the private view of our artist heroine's art an Ivy League beefcake, perhaps majoring in baseball, admires a semi-abstract picture of fire flies trailing on a field of black. It might remind one of the gentle action paintings of Matta. The beefcake smarms, smoothly and seriously to the painter: "The Baghdad bombing". He manages to simultaneously display the ability to unravel the cryptic laws of abstraction (that they are all essentially representational) and show an understanding of near contemporary politics. And by God he's right it is the Baghdad bombing and, furthermore, they've got the script. Somebody has been tinkering with the representation machine.

Scene change:
On American prime-time TV you would not be allowed to show an unfurled condom, and yet here in Melrose Place there is a couple in bed, beneath a quilt which has a design made totally of drawings of unfurled condoms. The design looks very 'ethnic', a line drawing of a single repeated motif. It only becomes a representation when you learn the language and get hold of your stuttering machine.

Scene change:
In America you get your Chinese take-away in a paper bag with Chinese writing on them.The Chinese viewers of Melrose place will notice that the bags are carrying texts like 'Human Rights' and 'Turmoil and Chaos', perhaps a reference to China's human rights record (the show is sold to China).
Constance Penley, Professor of Cultural Studies at Santa Barbara University, who (we might euphemistically state) is not a million miles from the studio of Melrose Place, describes this work as a Ōbenevolent virusÕ. These things were first brought to our attention by 'Eliza' who set up a Melrose Place web site to draw the attention to these strange media aberrations, but there is confusion as to whether the web site she constructed is itself a plant. The project gets into video, the web and TV and then spreads out into articles like this one and a forthcoming TV programme (to be aired in the spring.) If we are going to call it a minor language lets take a small detour into speculation what a minor language might be and its implications.

Scene Change

Melrose Place and the GALA Committee.

Maybe Mel Chin started all this: 'I watched [Melrose Place] for fifteen minutes and a virtual gallery started to appear. I wondered what would happen if you added a context to those props that was independent of their usual purpose.' The works that followed, in a collaboration between Cal Arts, Universities of Georgia, New York and Kansas City, 'were a result of the collective brainstorming among associates. Every work was some sort of collective enterprise, but individual activity was not discouraged.' The GALA collective began to infiltrate the set with ever increasingly bizarre interventions, and in the end the people working on the show became increasingly complicitous in the game, an exhibition at MOCA was organised in which the 'GALA products' were displayed, which was scripted into an episode of Melrose Place, eventually Aaron Spelling himself go to hear about it and... gave it his blessing.

You donÕt have to thump the tired old socialist tubs too hard to see the political efficacy of GALA's approach. In inception it was subversive, collective and also demonstrated how everyone (with any sense) wants to give the institution they work for a swift kick up the arse. But on the other hand you donÕt have to be an arch cynic to recognise how easily the project was subsumed by the industry on which it hitched a ride. ItÕs another example of how the media (all those representation machines) appear to have infinitely generous girths. The Melrose Place project may be a virus which extends the possibilities of what the media can carry, another example of the perseverance of minor languages, but itÕs worth remembering that when Ripley's clone took on the genes of the alien she had nothing more to fear, because she was, in part, one of them. So, maybe we are all cyborgs now.

Maybe we can get more done, have more fun, reach more people by accepting the fact that viruses work both ways. In this new formulation, and in the light of the Melrose/GALA experience, the hacker, the hoaxer, the webster and the conspiracy theorist can be seen as contemporary practitioners, particularly if they consciously work to understand the grammar of the mechanisms within which they are working. Perhaps we are witnessing the development of an art which rides on existing communication channels, speaking in a language which is on a different plane, and the development of new communities who speak in an encrypted voice and where a host of virtual and semi-virtual, fictitious and semi-ficticious characters, places and institutions spring up. In the sense that the art is divesting itself of its material substance it is concurrent with the worthy traditions of what used to be called the avant-garde but in the sense that it is creating a virtualised substance, that its substance can be described as meta-technological, it seems to be something new, as if the spewling humunculus of the self-reflexive meme is finding its critical feet.

In this formulation the old arguments about opposition no longer hold. What we seem to be witnessing is something more than a mischievous run around within the expanding field of representation as the subversive is now part of the hard drive. If, as Zizek contends, [see also Inke Arns on NSK] every ideological system is now marked by cynicism, every critique internalised and, furthermore, as every ideological discourse anticipates its own critique, an initiative like Melrose Place would appear to be right on the money.

We are all Ripleys now.

(Thanks to Carey Young and Lisa Haskel for help on researching this piece.)

© Steve Rushton1998