A STAR BEHIND THE SOAP

by Carolyn Tennant for the Our Time Digest (catalogue), 2012

For her media arts residency, Sarah Baker has produced a work that continues her investigations of popular culture and employing the soap opera genre as a point of entry, attempts to reveal how the serial drama– with its archetypes and cliches– represents both the romance and the horror of the American Dream. At the project's core is an episode of "Our Time" (currently in post-production), which demonstrates the ways that daytime dramas operate. Additionally, the publication in which this essay will appear, takes the form of a soap opera digest. These printed materials typically expand upon plot lines and, as with Baker's publication, provide visibility for sponsors. Here she recognizes the businesses that have generously underwritten her project, which serves as an homage to the memories of this former Buffalonian.

When the artist commenced work on her residency project at the beginning of 2012, she immediately began an exhaustive immersion process. A period of research, fieldwork, and re-acclamation, it was undoubtedly informed by pangs of nostalgia. She toured neighborhoods with community activists to reacquaint herself with her hometown, to better understand the current reality facing those who still call Buffalo home. She met with media producers, students, and scholars to discuss the economic, political, and cultural landscape of the Queen City, learning how mythologies of progress continue to inform the lived experiences of its residents. Such themes will be communicated within the plot, dialog, and mise-en-scene of "Our Time" and reinforced through the display of visual ephemera produced for the gallery exhibition.

Two noteworthy architectural landmarks that resonate within the larger text include City Hall and the Darwin Martin House. Baker was inspired by a trip home in Spring 2011, when she attended public proceedings held by Buffalo's Common Council at City Hall. During the meeting, members of the buisness and the arts community voiced their concerns about the funding crisis facing cultural organizations. The artist choose to use the chambers as a setting for a "ripped from the headlines" debate over the expansion of a family-owned restaurant. During the heated confrontation the female lead (whose ultimate goal is the demolition of the Elmwood village) exaggerates the binary divide between "quality of life" and "progress" claiming it's "backwards Buffalo all over again." In stark contrast, the Martin House exemplifies not only what this city has lost at its own hands, but what it has successfully reclaimed, and rebuilt with a spirit in keeping with that innovation that once was its legacy. As Horatio Alger's myth personified, Darwin D. Martin sold soaps as a young boy while working at the Larkin Soap Company, where he was mentored by Elbert Hubbard. The salesman, who founded the Roycroft artisan community in nearby East Aurora, pioneered direct marketing strategies including giving premium gifts to customers who purchased directly from the factory.

Another component of her project that serves the plot and anchors "Our Time" in an economic history is Baker's inclusion of advertisements. Within today's mediated landscape, locally produced commercials may in fact function far more effective at a subliminal level than their national counterparts. Kitsch factor notwithstanding, these regional commercials exhibit a hand-crafted quality that appealed to Baker. As a continuation of her interest in the ramifications of globalism and the roots of westward expansion as materialized by the precious metal gold, she was naturally drawn to Airport Plaza Jewlers' advertisements. Baker discovered that Don Hoffman was not only the buisness owner and star of the "Cash for Gold" commercials, but also the force behind The Kiosk Presents, a production unit that produces televised and streaming content. Hoffman conducts interviews at his studios, with community members representing various causes as well as with Hollywood celebrities such as Michelle Williams, who recently discussed her Oscar-nominated role in My Week with Marilyn. Baker met with Hoffman and his associates at the Kiosk and devised a collaboration that featured Hoffman in her project (a cameo role as a local celebrity interviewed by a group of high school students). In exchange, she appeared as a celebrity guest during an episode of The Kiosk Presents and secured a lead role in one of his ads as the "I buy it" Girl. Interweaving the commercial and the narrative of Our Time allows Baker to insert herself within a project that, for the most part, has found the artist working off screen. Neither an intervention nor a critique of commodity culture, instead the commercial serves as a celebration of it– as the artist's persona is wont to do.

Our Time will be broadcast on ArtGrease, the Cable Access program co-produced by Hallwalls and Squeaky Wheel (date to be determined). The full weight of the project can never be assessed by Nielsen ratings. If the concepts behind social practice have informed Baker's production model to any degree, she is clearly indebted to this Rust Belt community, for its stories and for the talented people who collaborate to represent them. The scope of this residency project is hard to articulate not only because of the constraints of space and time. At this point an exploration of the drama surrounding the end product might not only make for better copy, but also better analysis. A variation on this theme then may be this project's success is best measured beginning at an earlier moment of encoding. Given the space and the time of this residency, perhaps Baker has realized a much larger role, that of the producer of a lived soap opera. Our Time functions as a fragmented episode that reveals the drama in an archetypal community, one that struggles with progress and tradition, reality and fantasy. Here friends and family, on screen and off, are driven by the will of an artist, participating in her attempted reenactment of the "power play" as enacted by the female media moguls who defined the Women's Genre.(1)

 

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      (1)           Known as the matriarch among the female writers and producers responsible for developing and popularized the "Women's Genre," Irna Phillips was an originator of Soap Operas whose stories often involved controversial themes like drug addiction, and women's reproductive health. By 1965 she was involved in programs on all three networks, and Proctor and Gamble had hired her to develop exclusive content. She understood that the success of a show was measured by the number of customers delivered to its sponsor, and she helped perfect a mass media system that yielded the greatest possible return on investment. Eventually, however, those codes and conventions could function without her participation. In 1973 the P&G Corporation dismissed Phillips and shortly thereafter, alienated from the very object of her labor–a perpetual motion machine generating narratives without end–she died of undisclosed causes.