Stills from Forever.
In the fall of 2013, Texas's Good/Bad Art Collective created a one-night event called CURTAINS in a make-shift television studio on the vacant floor of a downtown Dallas office building. They lured art fans inside and recorded them as background players for a film. This later culminated in a 28-minute infomercial, FOREVER, which sells the secret to immortality, but ends with the host accidentally dropping dead on live TV. Is the infomercial real? No, it's art. Rather than screen the piece in a gallery, or simply put it on the internet, Good/Bad infiltrated broadcast television networks. With their eye on the forgotten, but still-thriving, world of late-night infomercials, the artists convinced local ABC and CBS affiliates in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Dallas to air the program next to regular half-hour ads for products like shake-weights. Recently, I spoke with Martin Iles, the director of Good/Bad Art Collective, about the carnage they have wrought on broadcast TV.
VICE: You're airing a half-hour infomercial on broadcast television where the host appears to accidentally drop dead on camera. How do you think unsuspecting viewers will react?
Martin Iles: There is an attempt with this thing to conform somewhat to a certain type of infomercial format, but at the same time tear it apart. When you describe something as an infomercial to most people, they think about an expanding hose and face cream, but infomercials are also self-help, religious, and spiritual programming as well—if you had to categorize our program, it would fall somewhere in the latter group. We basically took a television format and used it as a device to tell a larger story—a man with a philosophy and a pitch, who slowly disintegrates in front of you.
Several times you run a commercial-within-a-commercial with a 1-800 number. Do you expect people to call?
I hope so. It's how the host's secret is revealed.
Do you think people might call 911 instead, to report seeing someone die on TV?
Maybe. I doubt the police are going to have the secret to everlasting life. There are moments in the thing where we purposefully want to put viewers on their heels. Unless they actively seek out the program, it's unlikely most people will see it from the beginning, so they might fall right in at eight minutes, which will make steady ground hard to find.
Was it difficult to convince television affiliates to air the program?
It has been a challenge. We've learned some eye-opening stuff about television-viewing habits and beliefs. Local television affiliates have a special challenge in that they have a home base in the town where their viewers live. Some of these affiliates have made it clear that there are a minority of regular viewers in their community that believe everything on the local network affiliate happens at their headquarters. You understand why these guys would be hesitant to deliberately provoke. Because of this, we've had to make concessions with disclaimers within the broadcast. At first we were hesitant to have the disclaimers, but we understand now.
There have been some famous cases of people dying on live TV. Is this a genre?
We pulled inspiration from a number of real events, like the death of actress Edith Webster, who died onstage during her death scene in a play, and Jerome Rodale, who passed sitting in the guest chair on the The Dick Cavett Show. But the real source of our story is the passing of Tommy Cooper, the British magician and comedian who died on live television in 1984. His act was centered around failing at his magic tricks until, seemingly by accident, a trick succeeds. Purposeful failure. A brilliant act really. On the night of his death, with his arms outstretched, he collapsed, body halfway on-stage and halfway off and bisected by a stage curtain. This was on live television, and the audience, thinking it was part of his meta act, laughed and went along with it. It wasn't until stagehands struggled to drag his huge body behind stage that the audience realized something was wrong. But with this project, I see our host's death as just the conclusion of a larger, more complex concept.
I'm assuming you didn't make a parody of an infomercial because it would be easy to process.
Absolutely. Avoiding parody—as well as the kind of easy visual cues that might make viewers comfortable—was important.
When I watched it, it seemed creepy, but then I called the number and it kind of wrapped up in a way that was almost sweet.
Coupling this dark—or creepy, as you describe it—atmosphere with a vaguely optimistic end message is a way of defying expectations. That's not to say the end message is not sincere, because it is a sentiment that the group believes in.
Why put this on late-night broadcast television instead of public access television or the internet?
We want the back alleys of the best real estate to broadcast this. When considering TV, to me personally, public access is a no-go. It's easy and expected, even though I love it, but with broadcast television, the experience of watching it late at night can be a fever-dream emotional state, maybe a state people associate with the past. At least it was a more common experience prior to the dearth of information people have grown accustomed to now—we wanted to capture the feeling of intercepting something late at night that you can't quite decipher.
Yes, I think the experience of things being easy and expected has slowly become true about the internet as well. Now when people look at things online, their eyes are opened with a pre-existing set of expectations.
Yes, with the web you're dealing with jaded eyes now. Dropping this thing in a medium where people are in a bit of a vulnerable state was a goal. That's why these infomercials are there, right? Insomnia, boredom, vulnerability, and sales? Considering this, it is not unintentional on our part to direct our message of immortality to a medium that is in transition. The average audience age for a late-night infomercial is 50 plus. [I have] no doubt that these viewers will find our offer appealing.
Your host is film actor Fred Spiker. How did you get him to do it?
We auditioned a lot of older men actors. Fred made the most sense. He lives in Denton, Texas, which was a coincidence we couldn't ignore. He has a weight and a presence that made it work.
Was late-night TV legend Dr. Gene Scott an influence?
Dr. Scott looms large. His presence on late-night television for decades was a source of endless fascination to me—cutting to Arabian horses and toll-free numbers to punish the audience for not calling in, talking endlessly about stamps, a horror vacui chalkboard filled with diagrams on top of diagrams, staring contests on television. If you gravitated to the feeling of late-night television, you knew Gene Scott could hook you up.
What about Chris Burden's art commercials broadcast on Los Angeles TV stations in the 1970s?
We love and respect those, but our project is a bit of a different animal. We're a collective, not a single artist. We see Burden's commercial project as a necessary inspiration, not an end-all.
You filmed the attendees at an opening reception, which included a make-shift TV studio, as background players in the commercial. Were they even aware they'd be on TV?
All our guests had to sign waivers before entering the studio spaces where we were filming. Afterwards, they waited in the studio where we shot the bulk of the infomercial—a giant room surrounded by curtains designed to look like television color bars. The guide led them through three color-coded studios (red, green, and blue) and directed them with a list of instructions. Interestingly, being filmed didn't seem to hinder anyone's inhibitions, but finding out they were being watched in the physical world during filming seemed off-putting and embarrassing to some guests.
US air dates for FOREVER are listed below. More dates will be announced at the collective's website.
KTXA 21 (DFW) - 02/08/14 (3:00 AM CST)
WFAA 8 (DFW) - 02/09/14 (1:40 AM CST)
WCBS 2 (NYC) - 02/14/14 (2:07 AM EST)
KCBS 2 (LA) - 02/16/14 (3:30 AM PST)
WFOR 4 (MIA) - 02/16/14 (1:05 AM EST)