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Ghosts in the Machine: Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted (2007)

In flickering monochrome on an old tube TV, a figurine of Felix the Cat rotates on a platter. His smiley blankness seems to gradually turn to dread, his eyes peeled back like Malcolm McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange. There’s an undercurrent of interrogation as he spins in the spotlight; the sound of churning equipment, a threatening electric crackle. A rotating daisy wheel chops through the lights like a cartoon buzz-saw, while the analogue image appears to split into its constituent vertical lines, like a set of blinds drawn apart. Circular dissolve. Fade to black. That’s all folks!

Fragmenting throughout the video, Felix looks like he’s about to test-run Star Trek’s matter transporter, and in a way he is: a 13-inch papier-mâché figure of Felix the Cat was the first image broadcast on television, with RCA’s experimental transmissions beginning in 1928. Felix patiently sat out the best part of a decade on his record-player turntable as the TV pioneers tweaked and tested away.  

This setup was restaged almost 80 years later in the studio of Mark Leckey for the 2007 work, Felix Gets Broadcasted.  The artist, who was born in 1964, is a compulsive archeologist of pop culture and a self-confessed wallower in the ‘mire of nostalgia’. In his hands, the image of Felix being conjured, captured and beamed through the vintage TV apparatus becomes part materialization – as if invoking a spirit or a demon –  part execution. It reflects Leckey’s Dr Frankenstein-like preoccupation with animating and reanimating the remains of 20th century culture; the gap between materiality and immateriality and the way in which a 2D image of a 3D model of a 2D character can be imbued with a sense of life. There’s a gleeful wilfulness to Felix Gets Broadcasted. You half expect Leckey to scream, ‘It’s alive!’. 

Leckey’s obsession with the veneer of appearance is grounded in his early life, stranded just far-enough across the Mersey from the city lights of Liverpool in the overspill town of Ellesmere Port, where he cottoned on to the then-current ‘casual’ subculture: young working-class men dressed in the expensive leisurewear of the jet set. “It was a kind of drag, a disguise,” he recalled, “a means of using style to transform yourself.” Leckey became a believer in the power of image, even if that image has no real substance. On first meeting, New York gallerist Gavin Brown remembered: “He was all talk. He hadn’t made anything. But I’ll never forget the way he dressed, the way he walked. I wanted to be around to watch it.”  

In mixing trashiness and perfectionism, the tangibility of the recognizable and the potency of the popular, Leckey’s a little like Jeff Koons – if Koons had grown up on the Wirral. He’s an admirer of the older artist in any case. A 2004 piece, Made in ’Eaven, green-screens Koons’s shiny balloon Bunny into Leckey’s empty London studio. “I like the idea of something that’s almost inhuman in its perfection,” he explained, “like Bunny, it’s as if it just appeared in the world, as if Koons just imagined it and it appeared.” Both artists exploit the impenetrability and strength, the inevitability even, of the cartoon image. Felix the Cat is a robust, appealing aesthetic form, but also an everyman, a clean slate to project whatever ideas we might wish upon; as monolithic as cartoon characters can be they are also fluid, available, becoming whatever we need them to be.

It’s not surprising Leckey employs Felix as something of a personal avatar, the slippery cat appearing in several of his works over the years. For Italo Calvino, the image of Felix walking down a moonlit path was an emblem of simplicity, mercurial quickness and lightness of touch; in the 1923 short Felix in Hollywood, the cat shape-shifts into a bag, using his tail for a handle before detaching it to mimic Charlie Chaplin’s cane. By Leckey’s sleight of hand, Felix takes Chaplin’s place altogether, the frightened cat dazed by the spinning lights a reincarnation of ‘the little tramp’ draped over the factory cogs in Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. A ghost trapped in the machine. 

Jamie Limond 

Image: Mark Leckey, Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, Digi-betacam, 9 mins 50 secs. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London