“Television is supposed to make the world one big culture,” pronounced the late Glenn O’Brien in the debut episode of his weekly hour-long public access television show, TV Party (1978–82). “Well, we never believed that, did we?” The eruption of public access — and the colorful, chaotic, eccentric programming that ensued — was a watershed moment in media history, when the opium of the people became its own antidote. An exhibition currently on view at BRIC, “Public Access/Open Networks,” offers a sharp, immersive crash course in the work of the artists and activists who tapped the power of the cathode ray and how their incendiary blasts of free speech have rippled into the internet age. Presenting seventeen hours of videos and featuring the work of a hundred artists working individually and collectively, the show is a timely reminder of the necessity of outrageous, creative dissent.
Public access was born in America in the late 1960s during the transition from analog to cable broadcasting. As mandated by the FCC, in exchange for franchise rights, service providers were required to dedicate certain channels exclusively to noncommercial public programming. The idea: to break up the cultural monopoly, to put the cameras in the hands of the people to ensure that television reflected local interests and served local needs. After all, democracy should be built — at least in part — on the free flow of information. The first public access channel went live in 1968 in Dale City, Virginia; Manhattan, New York City, was its next test site, with two channels debuting in 1971. The rest of the country soon followed suit.
For video artists and collectives — not to mention political and social activists — the timing was impeccable. Portapak video cameras had hit the market in 1967, offering a lightweight and affordable alternative to the cumbersome models of yore. Public access became not only a new means of distribution, but a new puncture point into American culture. Without stores of corporate cash to count on — but sometimes with the support of NEA fellowships and grants — the artists who first took to public access TV seduced (and sometimes repulsed) viewers with low-budget, oddball, DIY aesthetics. Their productions were often subversive riffs on popular forms: the talk show, the variety hour, the man-on-the-street interview, the newscast.
Doug Hall, Chip Lord, and Jody Proctor created The Amarillo News Tapes as artists-in-residence at KVII-TV in Amarillo, Texas, in 1980. Theirs was a near pitch-perfect mock newscast that included reporting on a recent tornado hit — a not-so-subtle metaphor for how the whirl of news language and footage rearrange our understanding of world events. Wilder and less formally structured, The Live! Show was an experimental variety program by video and installation artist Jaime Davidovich (1936–2016). It aired from 1976 to 1984 on Manhattan’s Channel J, featured guests and performances from New York’s art scene, and was hosted by the artist’s alter ego, Dr. Videovich, who promised he could cure viewers of their television addiction. (“Put more art on TV!” he stumped in a promo for his show.)
With TV Party, O’Brien bucked the generic oneness of pop culture by hosting left-of-center guests such as Fab 5 Freddy, Klaus Nomi, Amos Poe, Fred Schneider of the B-52’s, Blondie, and the Clash. With musical performances, poetry readings, conversations with callers, and whatever else happened to happen in the studio, TV Party ran on the platform: “the TV show that’s a party, but which could be a political party.”
Art and activism went hand in hand on public access. “It’s 8:30. Do you know where your brains are?” was the opening salutation for every episode from Paper Tiger Television, one of the early adopters of public access and longest-running video collectives, invested in producing “myth-smashing media.” On view is “Martha Rosler Reads Vogue,” one of its best-known episodes, which aired December 1, 1982, and comprised a taped performance of the artist flipping through the pages of Vogue, dissecting it for its messages about “having it all,” damaging to women and, by default, to men.
Relevance is always a sticky virtue for a work of art, proof as it is of humanity’s failure to move forward. Specters of the present loom unhappily in the 1972 documentary Four More Years by TVTV (the collective Top Value Television), shot at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, which saw the nomination of incumbent president Richard Nixon for re-election. In one sequence, a portly white male delegate is asked what he would do to a flag-burner. “I’d shoot them,” he replies matter-of-factly, proceeding to give his opinions about welfare, mixed-race marriages (“it’s the child who suffers”), and how Nixon is the greatest president we’ve ever had. Although we in 2017 know the fate of that president, we also know the present fate of the American presidency, and how long-simmering the poisons that fueled his election.
The exhibition makes a hairpin turn to contemporary artists who’ve inherited the spirit of public access, whether they appear on television or — more readily — its unruly stepchild, the internet. E.S.P. TV may be the most direct descendant, organizing live events and broadcasting them on local networks, with a DIY look and feel reminiscent of its elders. The collective URe:AD Press (United Re:Public of the African Diaspora) showcases moving-image works by artists from all over the globe — from Harlem, Portland, and Chicago to the Netherlands, South Africa, and Switzerland — giving glimpses of what it means to be and think and create in the contexts of cultures wrapped around other cultures.
Artist, critic, and character collapse into one for Jayson Musson and his alter ego Hennessy Youngman, host of the YouTube series Art Thoughtz, which Musson produced from 2010 to 2012. In one of the videos on view (on a laptop), Musson-as-Youngman forgoes a lecture on institutional critique in favor of a critique of institutions such as Rikers Island, Auschwitz, and the transatlantic slave trade, “the reason why capitalism is the predominant economic system in the world today,” he explains. “For global capitalism, slavery was like” — Musson then cuts to a clip of Damon Wayans as the character Whiz from In Living Color chanting “MO’ MONEY, MO’ MONEY, MO’ MONEY!” Times may (or may not) be changing, and capitalism might certainly be winning, making this freedom to broadcast more precious than ever.
Public Access/Open Networks
647 Fulton Street
Through May 7
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 19, 2017