CUT TO: A cluttered interior space, live-work, the Hollywood sign in forced perspective gloats outside a window. Laurie Anderson sits, legs crossed in an armchair, the day’s paper unfolded and opened to mask her. In the foreground her clone, a male-gendered version of her, types vigorously on an old desktop computer. The whole scene vogues in Hawaiian patterned shirts. The first skit of Season 3 begins…
Alive From Off Center was a contemporary art-focused program presented on PBS and aired on public TV stations from 1985 to 19961 for an impressive 12-season run. Each 30-minute episode, which broadcasted new experiments by artists across a range of mediums, was a mishmash of genre-bending vignettes often capitalizing on the currency of regular TV formats—soap operas, news reports, educational programs—as a base for subterfuge. The program included cameos by various art world celebrities (perhaps clearer to us now than to the Minneapolis public access TV audience of the late 1980s and ’90s) such as peripheral performances by the vibrant dance duo Dance Noise or Meredith Monk’s iconic singing lips in close up, filling the frame. Talking Heads’ David Byrne composed the show’s rousing theme music; the award-nominated electric title sequence set the stage for the lo-fi yet cutting-edge uses of modern technology throughout the program. “In this show you’ll find out what television might look like in the hands of artists,” the opener proclaimed. “The artist we will see on this program grew up watching television and now they use the medium to poke fun at itself.” The show, created by the Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA), was set up to play on TV’s tropes, its tagline simultaneously invoking artists making art for television, using new technologies experimentally, while referencing the content habitually hosted by mainstream channels—and all in a new kind of exhibition space. Each episode’s theme and participants were introduced by a host—the program’s equivalent of a docent—“walking” you through this museum of the future.2 Over the show’s 12 seasons, a few artists took on this scene-setting role, including one season presented by the charismatic and poised Laurie Anderson in tandem with her “clone.”
Although inconsistent in the merit of its content throughout its run, AFOC showcased pieces that nevertheless remain significant from an art historical perspective—such as Charles Atlas’s Parafango and As Seen on TV (with Bill Irwin), Trisha Brown’s Accumulation With Talking Plus Watermotor, Spalding Gray’s A Personal History of the American Theater, or Laurie Anderson’s What You Mean We—alongside a large subset of lesser-known artists featured in episodes thematically focused on dance for the screen, theater, animation, and photography. It was a forum for experimentation, for the premiering of newly minted pieces, for the re-contextualization of existing works—and therefore an opportunity for the truly weird and absurd, across a range of disciplines, to make an appearance on TV.
Alive From Off Center is a riff on Live From Lincoln Center, the still-running (since 1976!) performing arts series transmitted from New York’s midtown epicenter of dance, opera, and musical concerts. It was titled as such to state its premise as an off-off-off Broadway production, but the title’s acerbic flavor sets the show’s contributors up as an avant-garde pointedly divorced from the eminent cultural cradle: an avant-garde in the spirit of Edward Said’s public intellectuals in exile3 or Giorgio Agamben’s poet who stands outside of her time, in the margins, in order to get a better vantage point on the proverbial “middle.”4 That said, its snark should not be overlooked. In fact, the brand of humor showcased in AFOC is worth contemplating: while it teased various registers of comedy throughout its 12 seasons, the first three seasons strike me as prototypically of the 1980s, with their sly, low-brow sarcasm. It’s a cynical worldview reminiscent of late Cold War/early consumer culture-era coping mechanisms.
Indeed, the subjects addressed in the series were responses—sometimes oblique, sometimes direct—to then-contemporary concerns that included an assortment of chyron items and cultural phenomena such as the acceleration of product consumption; the exponential increase of images circulating in our daily lives; the late ’80s stock market crash; the abstract and therefore foreboding threats of the lingering arms race with Russia; the first Gulf War; and so on. Often funneled through the show’s dark humor, these themes were addressed via artistic vignettes that positioned art on television as an opportunity to respond and react rapidly to contemporary issues via the same platform on which they were distributed to the public: their household screen.
By positioning art in this way—in the crosshairs of an audience habituated to TV’s programming as information or mirror—the show raised the stakes of contemporary art’s function. Some artists took on the challenge directly, literally, through pieces that fringed on cultural criticism; others delved deeper into the escapism afforded by art, resulting in output very much about themselves or their process reenacted for the small screen: a “performance of process.” An example of the former would be Spalding Gray’s A Personal History of the American Theater, in which he deployed his autobiographical monologue strategies, retelling his own experiences of performing in plays as a lens through which to appraise contemporary politics. An example of the latter is Laurie Anderson’s What You Mean We?, a deadpan sketch in which she contends with the demands of being an art-celebrity by inventing a clone that ultimately creates its own clone out of the same necessity. Each new iteration of Anderson degrades like a bad copy, stressing the disturbing losses and flaws in new technologies’ ambitions, farcically, ludicrously, with bite—but residing in a very specialized realm: that of art and artists.5
Overwhelmingly, new technologies tend to seduce artists into “baring the device”—i.e., making the “making” a part of the work, showcasing its new (sometimes crude and unresolved) tricks, its backstage, or its undergirding to the audience. This was exacerbated in Alive From Off Center’s tendency toward pseudo-pedagogical or mockumentary vignettes: for example, a photography lesson from William Wegman in which the photographer, wearing a faux mustache, teaches a young Mike Smith how to think about content, appropriation, and meaning. Or Zbigniew Rybczyński’s Steps, in which a studio-tour audience is invited to a green screen stage on which they are composited into the bloody war scene of the 1925 Russian classic Battleship Potemkin. The audience—a series of ’80s archetypes, from a camera wielding tourist to a pair of corporate businessmen to a miniskirt-clad bombshell—views the film’s climactic mutiny scene and its violently maimed victims from within the movie, snapping photos and snatching keepsake souvenirs. They remain in color, in stark contrast to the black-and-white film surrounding them. In this instance, showcasing the green screen technique visibly converges with social commentary; baring the device also means making apparent the social contracts being upended and the passivity, or perhaps voyeurism, of viewership.
In the mid-1980s, Alive From Off Center was not alone in airing art on television. There were concurrent programs in various parts of the country (and the world really, as public access is a globally local affair) doing this as well. In Atlanta, for example, American TV Show was thriving as a platform for drag performances and amateur musical numbers. It even famously served as the stage for RuPaul’s first televised lip-sync act (a precursor to the competition peak of RuPaul’s Drag Race, currently in its ninth season on television). Between 1985 and 1987 in New York City, Andy Warhol launched three public access shows with a vignette/skit structure similar to AFOC: Andy Warhol TV (and later Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes) was committed to art, fashion, the intersection of disciplines, and frequently featured interviews—it was a moving-image spinoff to Warhol’s Interview magazine, and similarly inspired by Warhol’s love of character-driven, pop-cultural phenomena. These TV shows had many ripple effects, one of which was a conscientious queering of mainstream programming: making the often alternative or freaky underworld of art and creative practices visible to a general public. Shows like AFOC, American TV Show, and Andy Warhol TV rode the wave of television’s popularity, using the medium to challenge what it could be and pushing against the “high culture” narratives that generally pronounced it as “bad for you.”
Early television, with its limited channels, initially acted as a kind of ‘social commons’ (think moon landing); beyond the space analogy, it was also a forum for the public display of national values (a consensus or “moral commons” enacted via fictional and non-fictional celebrities). But over time, the increased multiplicity of TV programming fragmented its ideological output, producing a far more accidental audience, strange juxtapositions effected through channel surfing, and therefore an ideal place to make the unfamiliar familiar. TV’s scale-plus-speed equation is a unique opportunity for a subculture to pivot into “culture.”
This impulse continued TV-wide throughout AFOC’s tenancy—all while leaning into the general distrust of institutions and social conventions that fueled the 1980s (think Guerrilla Girls, established in 1985, or ACT UP, formed two years later). For example, in the 1990s artist Tony Conrad launched his Studio of the Streets, a TV show in which he and his collaborators interviewed passersby in the civic spaces of Buffalo, New York such as the courthouse steps, offering citizens a forum to discuss their ongoing grievances. This project shifted the visibility—and audibility—of the general public, redefining the notion of a “court of public opinion” and transmitting people’s concerns directly into their fellow citizens’ homes. Studio of the Streets blurred the line between viewer and participant: the actor is the also audience, the public is its own the consumable content.
By 1985, when AFOC began, there had already been a couple of decades of precedents: “public access as a platform” came with a rich history of interventions by artists and activists. Indeed, in 1968, when the portable camera made its way into the hands of the general public (and by consequence, grassroots movements), it empowered new forms of citizen journalism and a wide range of psychedelic and narrative experimentation with the medium. This endeavor was augmented by a federal mandate that forced local cable systems in the US to sponsor public channels, thus turning the TV waves into an accessible new platform for the distribution of the aforementioned experiments. Between 1968 and 1986, many video collectives formed and disbanded, with varying degrees of success at infiltrating the airwaves with provocative content.
The Videofreex, for example, tried (and failed) to partner with CBS to posthumously broadcast a rare interview with Chicago Black Panther Chapter Head Fred Hampton. TVTV (Top Value Television) produced on-the-ground reports from the second Super Bowl and the 1972 Republican Convention, which included, respectively, strikingly candid interviews with players and their wives and politicians and their constituents.6 In the late ’70s, Chris Burden and Lynn Hershman Leeson co-opted the strategies of marketing and broadcast commercials by using the advertising format as a conceptual art parameter. Soul!, hosted by Alvin Poussaint and featuring guests ranging from Amiri Baraka to Stevie Wonder, broadcast the voices of the Black Arts Movement and adamantly refused a division between so-called “high” and “low” cultural modes in black American culture. Artist Jaime Davidovich’s popular The Live! Show (1979–1984) was billed (similarly to AFOC, though earlier) as “the variety show of the avant-garde,” and, like AFOC, aired in the standard 30-minute sitcom-length slot. This list names a few of the multiple avant-garde TV presenters of the era; it is by no means exhaustive.
There is, of course, a reason to be writing about all of this now. Placing contemporary art in a forum shared among a mass audience—a viewership comfortably equipped with the regular experience of viewing—is not only a strategy to insert art (et criticism, criticality, and critical thought) into the common vernacular, it also levels contemporary art with entertainment and the news, in terms of both accessibility and relevance. It also lends visibility to aesthetics and ideas that are generally more marginal, more radical. In other words, to be seen is to be normalized; visibility lets “a thing” be assimilated by and therefore belong to, its audience. “Tonya Harding is the latest national punch line to find pop culture redemption,” the Washington Post callously stated last week.7 In 2018, culture, like the airwaves on which it sometimes surfs, is public space.
Early public access led by example in being adamantly “alternative”: it was weird, and made weird around it. This is an important distinction to make, as our contemporary practitioners—ones who similarly use new technologies and new modes of distribution in their work, albeit updated by the times—enact a feedback loop: on one end they appear interested in infiltrating the mainstream with their own tactics, and on the other they employ commercial tactics as tools. For example, Martine Syms’s Lessons, a series (2014–current) of 30- to 60-second videos, collages found-and-shot footage of ‘moments’ or representations of African American culture into an advertising format. The series is sometimes publicly broadcast (as it is at this moment on TV in West Hollywood) while also residing in MOMA’s collection. Meriem Bennani’s Fardaous Funjab, about a creative hijab designer whose story is layered with “garage” VFX and burlesque humor, was originally available online as a web series. Sophia Al-Maria, Mohamed Bourouissa, and Hassan Khan (among others) are making use of the raw, handheld quality and ubiquity of cell phone footage to build music videos or telenovela-like artworks. Ed Atkins, Agnieszka Polska, Cécile B. Evans and Rachel Rose create elaborate, immersive CGI environments reminiscent of gaming culture, a participatory practice that is even further mimicked by the responsive environments of Ian Cheng’s ever-evolving, algorithm-based landscapes. The 3D works of Trisha Baga, Anicka Yi, and the perennially avant-garde Charles Atlas are intentionally unpolished and screened in museums but definitely IMAX-worthy/IMAX-culture-related, accessorized by charged glasses, handed to you by an usher.
AFOC’s uses of technology and appropriation of pop-cultural phenomena (in terms of both images and ideas) ran parallel to non-TV broadcast video practices of the time. In the decade of its tenure, AFOC’s concerns and strategies were in conversation with its contemporary video-art landscape: a mélange of artists experimenting with new technologies as they were made available (e.g., Otto Piene’s kinetic experiments); artists addressing identity politics and AIDS (e.g., Marlon Rigg’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, in which five HIV-positive men describe their experience); current events and phenomena (e.g., Julie Zando’s Hey Bud, which addresses the televised suicide of a government official); or Dara Birnbaum’s sculptural screen installations8 reminiscent of TVs stacked in an electronics store and hosting found footage of brands in hallucinogenic feedback loops. These appropriation-driven practices—conceptual, strategic, and material—are comparable in tone and humor to Alive From Off Center from its very start.
In the end, like at the beginning, I find myself coming back to humor when pondering AFOC, since its self-defined intention is to poke fun at the medium of TV (and perhaps, let’s be frank, its viewers). AFOC holds a significant position in a long lineage of art and activism on public access television: while it intends, similarly to other programs, to create a direct line from artist to public, via a platform in which the audience is fluent, the tone of AFOC differentiates it from its counterparts. Rooted in Reagan’s America, the packaging and tone of these ideas reflects a cynical time. Positioning AFOC alongside contemporary practices and entertainment paves a road from sarcasm to satire in our cultural production, and that seems somewhat hopeful to me: a nihilistic bend for an idealist upshot. To satirize is to believe in something better—to criticize constructively—as opposed to the dark doomed humor of earlier times. Though, ultimately, they are similar strategies, namely humor as an inclusive response to current concerns (along with its associated risk). As we see on our contemporary late-night stages and YouTube feeds, satire can galvanize but it can also deceivingly satisfy: scratching an itch and leaving the viewer passive, neutralizing culture-consumers’ potential as a participatory citizenry.
CUT TO: Season 1, Episode 4. Artist Ann Magnuson presents a work titled Made for TV, and sets the tone for the series by illustrating the feeling of channel surfing, accelerated. Cindy Sherman-esque, the artist wears costumes and plays out stereotypes: a televangelist desperately and transparently raises money for her own needs, product testimonials that fringe on the absurd, commercials for incoherent products, soap opera scenarios, talking head debates, aerobic videos…
1 Ending alongside the popular television show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
2 In fact, Season 2 Episode 1 showcased “A Museum of The Future,” a fully CGI environment: an invented space whose walls and architecture defy gravity, where the artworks themselves are bulbous synthetic-seeming masses floating, spinning, buoyant. No human is mocked up in the space, stressing its “for-camera” quality.
3 Edward W. Said’s third lecture in the 1993 Reith Lectures “Representations of the Intellectual” was titled Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals.
4 “Those who are truly contemporary, who truly belong to their time, are those who neither perfectly coincide with it nor adjust themselves to the demands. They are thus, in this sense, irrelevant.” —Giorgio Agamben, “What is Contemporary,” What is an Apparatus, 2009
5 Other vignettes delve even further into abstraction, such as an episode on dance that showcases vibrant colors and movement, screensaver-esque in their hypnotic quality, void of any other intention than a study of choreography and form on video.
6 The show foreshadowed the unfiltered, direct line we, the tweet-consuming, have come to expect from our celebrity athletes and politicians.
8 Consumption—thematically, dramatically—was a recurring theme for Birnbaum, but also among her contemporaries such as Harun Farocki, in films like Indoctrination, wherein Farocki presents a five-day seminar designed for executives to learn to “sell themselves” better.