The Eternal Frame is an installation which recreates a typical living room space from 1960s America, complete with sofas, standard lamp, carpet and wallpaper. Two sofas are arranged around a television set and the walls are covered with memorabilia relating to American President John F. Kennedy. Produced as a collaboration between two key California collectives of the time, Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco, the video, screened on the television, re-enacts the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on 22 November 1963 as a critical examination of the role played by the media in the creation of historical spectacle and myth. The installation takes as its starting point an excerpt from the only filmed record of Kennedy’s assassination: Super-8 footage shot by Abraham Zapruder, a bystander on the parade route. These now iconic few frames of film are transformed in The Eternal Frame into a dark, brutally direct, multi-layered event that is simultaneously a live performance spectacle, a taped re-enactment of the assassination, a mock documentary, and a simulation of the Zapruder film itself. Performed in Dealey Plaza in Dallas — the actual site of the assassination — twelve years after the event, the re-enactment elicits bizarre responses from its spectators, who react to the simulation as though it were the original assassination.
The work was first installed at the Long Beach Museum of Art in 1975 and reconstructed by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles as part of its California Video initiative in 2008. The Eternal Frame was subsequently exhibited in 2010 in Changing Channels: Art and Television 1963–1987 at MUMOK, Vienna.
In an interview with Getty curator Glenn Phillips in 2007, Doug Hall, founder member of the T.R. Uthco collective, commented on the media coverage of the Kennedy assassination:
It was a galvanizing moment in the history of popular media, and it was a moment where everyone was kind of locked in step for a short amount of time. There have been other events since that have had similar galvanizing affects, but this was the first of the great televisual spectaculars. The event – the tragic assassination of an American president and the aftermath – became convoluted as it unfolded over time, its original meaning mutating as it was filtered through the media. As the event became popularized, it lost its relationship to its source and spread out into the culture, as an evolving narrative that sort of folded back on itself like a mobius strip.
(Quoted in J. Paul Getty Museum 2008.)
Ant Farm and T.R. Uthco were innovative countercultural collectives working in media, architecture, performance and spectacle from the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Their media events, site structures, performances and videos merge an irreverent pop humour with cultural and political critique. These provocations towards the mass media and the cultural icons of post-World War II, Vietnam-era America are emblematic of a moment when artists began to address television’s pervasive presence in everyday life. In often irreverent re-stagings of major media events, they cast themselves as the primary participants and then documented these ‘cultural happenings’ on videotape. For The Eternal Frame, Doug Hall impersonated Kennedy addressing his audience with the ironic observation that ‘I am, in reality, only another image on your screen’. Doug Michel underwent a drag transformation into Jackie Kennedy, furthering the grotesque juxtaposition of circus and tragedy and calling into question the viewer’s media ‘experience’ and collective memory of the actual event. In the uncanny simulation of the Zapruder film, the impersonations are not as apparent, raising questions about the veracity of the televised image. Image and reality collide in a post-assassination interview in which Hall discusses his role like an actor having completed a film.
Through a deconstruction of the filmic image, The Eternal Frame explores the importance of the media in contemporary mythology and history, and the extent to which these can be manipulated. By situating the video ‘document’ of the project within the setting of a domestic living room, the work highlights the collapse of public and private space and the fundamental role that television and the media image have assumed at the heart of American family life.
Constance M. Lewallen and Steve Seid (eds.), Ant Farm 1968–1978, exhibition catalogue, Berkeley Art Museum 2004.
Felicity D. Scott, Living Archive 7. Ant Farm: Allegorical Time Warp: The Media Fallout of July 21, 1969, Barcelona and New York 2007.
‘Glenn Phillips interviews Doug Hall and Chip Lord about The Eternal Frame’, in California Video: Artists and Histories, exhibition catalogue, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2008.
Matthias Michalka (ed.), Changing Channels: Art and Television 1963–1987, exhibition catalogue, MUMOK, Vienna 2010.