Free Press in Free Fall

The Athens (GA) Institute of Contemporary Art is currently presenting the exhibition Free Press in Free Fall. Curated by Allie Goolrick, a graduate student in the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism, the exhibition aims to address the current state of the media in the United States. It features a number of US-based artists including, Kathryn Refi, Wayne Bellamy, Gary Duehr, Melinda Eckley, John English, M. Ho, Franklynn Peterson, Marie Porterfield, Phil Ralston, Hannah Lamar Simmons, Ed Tant, Jordan Tate and Michael Thomas Vassallo. These artists have each been selected for their topical focus upon our country’s news media. These artists (whose work unfortunately cannot all be discussed) address timely issues such as the status of printed news in the digital age, the over abundance of information, and the reality of omissions and biases in the media. Rather than declaring ‘the fall of the free press’ – which would be a dubious claim – these artists seek to understand and critique news media today. In this way, the title of this exhibition would be better phrased with a question mark.

Jordan Tate Breaking News (2006)


According to the online catalogue (by both Goolrick and Artistic Director Lizzie Zucker Saltz) this exhibition asks whether digital media threatens the very idea of the free press in today’s society. As new media is unavoidably brought by globalization, many understandably lament the current proliferation of layoffs and financial difficulties of many local newspapers. Hannah Lamar Simmons’ work Newspaper Blanket is a decidedly nostalgic visualization of the decline of the news press. It can be read as a consummate expression of the familiarity and tangibility of the newspaper – furthermore as a part of our cultural fabric and the tradition of story telling. The installation is conceived entirely of newspaper woven into a ball of newspaper yarn draped over a rocking chair, placed alongside knitting needles.

Exhibit curator, Allie Goolrick, in collaboration with photographer Wayne Bellamy, examines the decline of traditional news media at a local level in a similarly reverent fashion, through the depiction of loss. An Echoing Emptiness presents digital photographs illustrating physical evidence of job loss and financial struggle at the Athens Daily Herald. These photographic images are alternated by quotes from well-known historic figures on the merit and importance of journalism in society. The gallery visitor is not only shown ‘emptied offices’, but ‘disassembled darkrooms’ that nostalgically point to the move from film to digital photography.

Franklynn Peterson’s photojournalism work from the 1960s and 1970s illustrates the darkroom approach to photography and its utility in capturing important historical moments and social issues. Importantly, Peterson’s photographic portrait of Marshall McLuhan from 1974 is projected as a 35 mm slide. The inclusion of this portrait begs brief address of what some art historical scholars determine to be our post-medium condition. Should we pay any mind to Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase that ‘the medium is the message’? If we do, it is certain to reveal that the multiplicity of outlets in which we receive today’s news reflects the globalization of today’s world. Globalization is both the determining force for the movement away from print and the defining context of today’s news coverage.

Kathryn Refi All Things Considered (2007-2008)
Kathryn Refi All Things Considered (2007-2008)

Athens artist Kathryn Refi, who received her MFA from the University of Georgia, critiques news from a traditional source. In doing so, she contributes her own unique take on the prominent theme of mapping, which has gained ascendancy in our contemporary period. The artist examines news radio in efforts to map the geographic location of news coverage and illustrate its incomplete nature. Refi’s All Things Considered marks the geographic location of the news stories included on the revered NPR program to which the artist tuned in for one hour every day for the entirety of 2007. Dots were placed on blank white paper (underneath which the artist temporarily placed a map for guidance) to carefully record the areas from which news was reported. The blank paper, which excludes national boundaries and territories left vast blanks – pin pointing the relativity with which we view the world. The catalogue points out that Refi’s work ‘condenses’ a year of news into ‘visually digestible form, making it apparent how much is excluded’ – unwittingly or not. Regardless of efforts by NPR and other news sources, coverage seems to be unavoidably biased and incomplete.

Despite the pains of transition new media must be seen to have many advantages, which include an arguably lessened environmental impact. Furthermore, its ‘grassroots’ character allows greater access and a more global audience as internet access increases. Anyone can ‘participate’ by commenting on online news paper articles while also blogging and tweeting their opinion. New sources such as podcasts, iReports and news websites emerge online, serving to replace and supplement print, radio and television. The contemporary individual can usurp traditional impediments and become a visible journalistic force. The new grassroots possibility of the internet news medium came powerfully to the fore on the Huffington Post, for example, during coverage of Iran’s recent election uprising. As traditional media outlets were banned from the nation, Iranian citizens submitted their own accounts and videos of events taking place.

In the context of globalization, information travels faster than ever before through increasingly complex and virtually instantaneous networks. Therefore, it is now more important than ever to question the source and integrity of the news we consume. Internet opens each of us up to a global network of ideas and stories – thus to the possibility of increasing awareness. While the possibility of new media is truly global, it is important that we do not overlook the need for an intellectual filter in order to discern what is reliable from what is not. Artist Jon English’sClassic Babel, investigates the over-abundance of information in today’s world. English places speakers that play all of Athen’s local radio stations inside of a visually classical column. Through speakers on the column’s facade, an indecipherable cacophony of noise is emitted for the gallery visitor.


English and other artists featured in Free Press in Free Fall choose to create work that is stark white. As the catalogue points out, this artistic decision can be viewed as representing or reflecting the concept of white noise, which is defined as the ‘”heterogeneous mixture of sound waves extended over a wide frequency range”‘. The omnipresence and wealth of daily news can combine to become ‘background noise’ that is too overwhelming to process.

Free Press in Free Fall ultimately demands that the gallery visitor approach news media with a critical eye. It remains at the Athens Institute of Contemporary Art through 8 November 2009.