This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
When it comes to matters of morality and ethics, TV Networks are notoriously strict on what their shows may or may not depict. Remember the episode of Friends in which Rachel and Monica fight over the apartment’s last condom? After the fuss following Seinfeld’s condom episode, NBC stopped the creators from showing an actual condom wrapper, hence the use of a generic box.
The same went for A Different World episode “Time Keeps On Slippin,” when Producer-Director Debbie Allen was forced to have a character point to a handbag rather than show a packaged condom.
A similar stringent attitude applies to alcohol and drug references. In “The Italian Bob“ episode of The Simpsons when Lisa gets drunk, Fox banned producers from showing her holding a wine glass to her lips. Neither would Fox let the college students on Judd Apatow’s Undeclared be seen to be drinking spirits, necessitating the now-classic red cup booze disguise. That 70s Show developed its “characters sitting in a circle” shorthand because it wasn’t allowed to show them getting high and so had to leave it to the audience to infer that fact.
(Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s Freaks And Geeks actually succeeded in showing lead Lindsay smoke marijuana on NBC, “but we were cancelled the next day!” he told Vulture.)
Also on Fox in the ’90s was Melrose Place, a glossy soap from the Aaron Spelling stable. A Beverly Hills 90210 spinoff, Melrose Place was subject to the same rigid regulation from its Broadcast Standards and Practices department as any other show. Representations of sex, booze and anything that could be considered politically contentious was rigorously overseen.
Although, not that rigorously overseen, it turns out.
In 1995 an art collective formed by concept artist Mel Chin conceived a public art project that would play out on primetime TV. Between 1995 and 1997, over 200 art objects were covertly inserted into episodes of Melrose Place in the form of props and set dressing.
The objects were created by the GALA Committee (named for the cities of Georgia and LA, where the project originated) and snuck onto set with the help of certain of the show’s artists and producers. The committee was granted early access to scripts and thus was able to create story-specific props. The items used in the project were eventually exhibited at MOCA in California before being auctioned off and the profits donated to educational charities.
The operation, called In The Name Of The Place, wasn’t intended to be subversive according to the GALA Committee’s statement, though it inarguably was. They suggest it was designed as “a blueprint on how artists collaborate with commercial production from the inside.” Think of it like product placement, they say. Californian TV studios have shaped global cultural consumerism by embedding goods into their shows; in turn they wanted to use studio shows embed art and educational messages.
What kind of messages?
Remembering the condom stories above, how about this one: the geometric pattern on a bedspread used on Melrose Place was formed of multiple images of unrolled condoms. At a time when network TV was too scared to show a condom in its wrapper, two of its biggest stars were shown post-coitally wrapped in images of hundreds of empty condoms, without the FCC being any the wiser.
Then there’s the hand-stitched quilt on the lap of Courtney Thorne-Smith’s character, then suffering through a life-threatening pregnancy. Known as the RU486 Quilt, its folksy pattern in fact shows the chemical structure for the Morning-After Pill. In other soft furnishings subversion, a pillow used to cover the privates of a philandering man escaping nude from an apartment was embroidered with a visual depiction of the AIDS virus.
It wasn’t just contraception and sexually transmitted diseases snuck onto primetime American television in the ’90s, but world politics. In two scenes where characters are seen carrying Chinese takeaways, the words on their carrier bags translate as “Human Rights” and “Turmoil and Chaos,” messages used by activists in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Along the same lines, a box of Cuban cigars given as a gift in one episode is shown to have metal clasps in the shape of warships, in reference to the US embargo on Cuban imports.
The dark side of Californian history was also covertly included in the show with a series of paintings ostensibly by character Samantha Reilly (Brooke Langton). Reilly’s innocuous-looking landscapes in fact depicted the sites of LA tragedies. One depicts the house where Marilyn Monroe suffered a fatal overdose, another the Brentwood house where Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered, another the hotel at which Robert Kennedy was killed, another the scene of Rodney King’s brutal beating…
Further modern American tragedies featured with the inclusion of a US-issue postal bag complete with an AK47 clip carried by a mailman in one episode (05:25 in the video below). And the reading matter chosen by the owner of a sleazy motel? What else but classic French post-structuralist text, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy?
Traditional “family values” were also prodded at, notably by the inclusion of pro-gay parent artwork being packed away in one scene that shows the silhouette of two men holding a baby along with the slogan “Brave New Family.”The destructive role of alcohol in US history was another of the GALA Committee’s covert messages. Bottles lining the walls of the show’s bar, Shooters, sported labels showing the dubious role booze has played in America’s past. A poster on the wall of the show’s glamorous advertising agency showed the shape of a giant vodka bottle superimposed onto the site of the 1995 Oklahoma bombing.
Since the project went public, it’s unlikely that such a collision of conceptual art, guerrilla activism and primetime television could happen again. If networks were to relax rules surrounding certain conversations on TV, there wouldn’t be any need. Still, as creative people have a habit of finding creative ways around censorship, it can’t hurt to keep your eyes peeled.
Read more about the GALA Committee at Mel Chin’s website, also the source of this video compilation of clips featuring the covert objects in operation, along with a list of his collaborators.
With thanks to Cher Krause Knight’s Public Art: Theory, Practise and Populism.