Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Favorite Funeral: An Interview with Anuska Oosterhuis

My Favorite Funeral was a media arts program created by Dutch artist, Anuska Oosterhuis. The project started in January 2008 with a website where people could leave a message with their favorite funeral wish. Other people could vote for the wishes they thought to be most special and which they liked to be shown on TV.   In May and October of 2008 a series of three episodes were broadcasted on Dutch Television.  
Although presented as "Reality TV", the main characters of the episodes were actors, playing from scripted material. The show got a lot of attention, during a few months Dutch national papers and radio programs interviewed the candidates and spoke about it in the media. The projected ended with a debate between the Ms. Oosterhuis, along with some of the projects collaborators, and intellectuals in the fields of art criticism and medical ethics in a public forum.
Ms. Oosterhuis has graciously agreed to share a conversation about this fascinating project on The Daily Undertaker.

My Favorite Funeral - Episode 1 from Anuska Oosterhuis on Vimeo.

Pat McNally: Your project challenges the role that media plays in our lives. Starting out with your website soliciting ideas for novel ways to remember the dead and lay them to rest.  Participants interacted by submitting their ideas and by voting on the ideas that would be used in the program. Then, viewers were challenged with death and funeral choices on the program that were ethically difficult.  Each of the three episodes featured a funeral choice that included the intentional death of the protagonist; or in one case, the protagonist’s partner. In the end, the public discussion that took place brought to the surface a great deal of discomfort by some members of the public about being confronted by these issues.

First of all, we are living in a world where the media brings content that is considered private or taboo into our homes regularly in the form of  ‘reality TV’. All kinds of social issues from sex to drug use to ethically treacherous surgical procedures are brought to light, along with public documentation of intimate and dysfunctional relationships.  Your project takes this kind of programming one step further. In doing so, we are challenged to ask some questions.
As much as the media portrays itself as a passive observer in these ‘reality’ situations, it indeed helps to shape the outcomes.
What role does and should the media play in shaping the outcomes of the reality situations it creates, and should it be held responsible for the outcomes it helps to shape?

Anuska Oosterhuis: First of all, thank you very much for adding my project to the The Daily Undertaker. The questions you raise, are exactly the main issues of My Favorite Funeral.

At the time I was angry and fed up with reality shows. As an artist I had to earn some extra money, and I did so by working as an editor for a Dutch TV channel where I edited a lot of reality TV. Broadcasting self-centered stardom agitated me, and the way these shows used sensitive and personal subjects as content for their formats. I realized it didn’t really matter what was brought on stage: with the structure of formats, all outcomes were more or less the same.
To find out if this was really true, I fantasized about a new show that would deal with one of the remaining taboos in The Netherlands: death. I thought it would be impossible to create a show that celebrates death as a final party in which anyone can star. Death, I thought, was the last bastion that could not be destroyed. Death is irreversible, it often surprises us and we can’t bring it under control.
But as soon as I started, I knew I was wrong. The website got a lot of attention, and to my surprise it was all positive attention. Three funeral directors and a TV network called; they wanted to participate in the project, while the intention behind it was unknown to them. Commercial parties were waiting for funerals to become more personal and extreme. So my idea was not exaggerated, but more likely an indication of social developments.

The MFF- project made clear that it really doesn’t matter what you show on TV. It’s not about the subject or the people portrayed. When using certain formats, anything goes. 
About media responsibility: I do think media are responsible for the outcomes they help to shape, although it might be hard to know the long term effects of these outcomes beforehand. Therefore I would rather spread the awareness of the effects of formats among viewers than summon mass media.

PM: In your project there was a fuzzy line between what was real and what was fiction.  The program was presented as a reality show and the website indeed offered the public the opportunity to participate and to vote on which funerals should be featured on the program.  We know now that the episodes were fictional and featured mostly professional actors. Did the voting actually determine the outcome of the episodes, or was that prearranged?

AO:  No, the voting did not determine the outcome of the episodes. The voting was prearranged to enlarge the credibility of the TV program and to get people involved before the program was broadcasted.

PM: In light of the pervasiveness of ‘reality’ programming, I was surprised that discussing death and funerals was so disturbing to the public and to the intellectuals on the discussion panel. Obviously you have stirred up some dialogue with your project.  Was it the kind of dialogue you had hoped for?

AO: It strikes me as odd. Opinions shared in certain papers, panels and debates are very ’correct’ in an almost ‘old fashioned’ way. In the mean time, the whole world is changing. New values arise. I see two different worlds clashing; let’s call them “the world according to mass media” and “the Age of Reason”. I think I would have liked to discuss this clash instead of recalling the Age of Reason values concerning funerals and death.

PM: An issue that came out in the discussion was a claim by many that they knew that the participants were actors because of the outlandish nature of their desires.  When I first watched the series, I wasn’t convinced that the participants were real either.  However, I am convinced that many of the mainstream ‘reality’ shows use actors and contrived scripts too. I’m not sure if this was one of the discussions you wanted to start, but at this point in our cultures the real and fictional worlds have a very blurry distinction. Do you think that as individuals our sense of reality and fiction about ourselves is as murky as that of our society?

AO: Yes I do! That’s why I think someone like Amy, the girl of the first episode who wants to cast her body in plastic to retain her beauty, is very real. There is a big interaction between the real and the fictional world, between mass media images and stories and the way we understand ourselves.
By the way: Journalists wrote about the show and its candidates, whose pictures and stories were widely portrayed. Mass media made my characters come to live. This triggered me a lot, because in my personal world mass media images and physical experiences merge with little distinction. The fact that I personally enjoy this mingle and like to play with it, did not hold me back from attempting to create awareness of what mass media formats may evoke.  

PM: Are you familiar with the 1992 Belgian mock documentary film ‘C'est arrivé près de chez vous’ or  ‘Man Bites Dog’  in which a film crew follows a serial killer through his crimes, eventually becoming entangled in his activities and his fate?  I feel that there is a strong parallel between your project and this one, in that as an audience we are shocked and challenged by this portrayal of the media essentially condoning terrible acts in the name of objectivity. In both projects, the message is the same despite questions in our minds about the reality of the situation. However, in ‘Man Bites Dog’, we are relieved that we are watching a fiction, while the audience at your discussion seems upset about being tricked. What are your thoughts on this?

AO: You found an interesting parallel: media condoning terrible acts in the name of objectivity. Terrible acts or not, media are accessory to what we see and perceive. “A picture holds us captive!” Media are highly involved. With the help of my friend and philosopher Martijn Pieterse I wrote a manifesto about the role that mass media formats play nowadays, based on ideas like these. You can read this Memetic Manifesto on my website if you like ( 
Concerning mass media stories, you may wonder why people feel tricked by the fact MFF used actors and contrived scripts. When the first newspaper wrote a small article about a MFF episode, other media immediately picked it up. They copied each other’s falsehoods instantly, without doing research. Media is a fascinating world on its own. Its connection with reality is not obvious.

PM: In the website that started your project, there is a remarkable array of different creative ways for the disposition of human remains. Ideas such as exploding the body, burial in unexpected places and freezing the body in sub zero environments are offered up for votes. Along with this refreshing variety of ideas, however, came an overwhelming sense of the self centered nature of all of these ideas. Nearly every idea was a way to put the individuality of the deceased on center stage.
Certainly the idea of a personal legacy has never been far from funerary traditions, but do you think that this selfish theme is the wave of the future?
AO: I often wonder what causes this self-centered stardom. Is it something that exclusively belongs to youth? Is it the result of how we are approached by companies and their commercials trying to seduce us by making us feel special and unique, celebrating our individuality in taste and choice? Have we started to believe them? With the latest techniques we can spread our entire lives in photos and videos over the Internet. Did our Western society become more exhibitionistic by the compulsion to display private issues? And do we feel more happy about ourselves and the lives we live?
Questions for a new project…

PM: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.  I look forward to discovering more of your work!

For more on this project and others, visit Anuska Oosterhuis' site: Medium is the Message
and the My Favorite Funeral Site

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