Starting Monday at 7 PM and continuing through Sunday, May 24, Links Hall will host the first-ever Live to Tape Artist Television Festival, a celebration of works that blur the line between TV shows and conceptual art. Some of the selections were made for TV, some were made for gallery installations, and some will be created live at the festival. (Each night of the festival will conclude with a performance of some sort—local artists Seth Vanek and sometime Reader contributor Lori Felker will host live talk shows on the first and last evening respectively.) Spanning four decades, these works manipulate the distinct formal properties of broadcast television to create oddball humor, radical political messages, and abstract beauty. It’s as if “Weird Al” Yankovic had designed his beloved cult comedy UHF for the Whitney Biennial rather than America’s multiplexes.
As in UHF, the overarching message of Live to Tape is that TV can be repurposed quite easily as a mode of strange and personal expression. In fact people have been doing this for as long as television’s existed, as festival curator Jesse Malmed recently explained. “In the early years of TV, there was this attempt to retain a certain theatrical perspective. And this could result in [comedian] Ernie Kovacs doing these jokes about literally being inside somebody’s television set. He’d do these simple, and yet very smart formal jokes, playing on perspective and size.” One can find similar examples of formal playfulness on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and in the works that Sesame Street commissioned from such artists as Sally Cruikshank and William Wegman. Fittingly some of Cruikshank’s 70s animations will appear at Live to Tape as part of a program of psychedelic children’s cartoons selected by Alexander Stewart and Lili Carré and which plays on Saturday, May 23, at 1 PM.
Other veterans of artist television represented at Live to Tape include Argentinian-American performer Jaime Davidovich and TVTV, a San Francisco-based collective that produced short, guerilla-style documentaries for network television in the 1970s. TVTV (short for “Top Value Television”) brought a sarcastic, freewheeling spirit to such widely reported events as the Oscars and the Republican National Convention. They’ll be represented at Live to Tape on Monday’s program with a 1972 feature called “TVTV Goes to the Super Bowl,” which is hosted by a young Christopher Guest. The group “found ways to make citizen-made TV really fun,” Malmed explains, “which was why they attracted notable actors and writers.” (Harold Ramis and Bill Murray were among the other major talents to have contributed to the group.)
Some of the younger artists in the Live to Tape line-up uphold the production methods of early citizen-made TV in hopes of capturing its democratic spirit. Portland-based artists Emily Bernstein and Julia Calabrese shot their telenovela spoof Cosmic Serpent (playing in Wednesday’s program) at their local public access station in front of a live audience. The LA-based collective Experimental Half Hour, who will present a live telecast from California next Thursday night, creates their work in a facsimile of an old public access studio. The low-budget studio environment brings with it certain conventions that are familiar to anyone raised on network television, such as a flat backdrops and three-camera setup. Many people find these conventions limiting, but in the right hands they can become exciting creative tools. “When you’re inside the conventions of television—the medium and also the physical space of a television box—what would be a subtle change in a movie could register as a shock,” says Malmed. “I’d say it’s a lot easier to shock [audiences] on television than in performance art, where people are prepared for it.” Classic TV often built upon a presumed intimacy between program and audience—a relationship that artists can pervert to get under the skin of their viewers.
That violation of intimacy has become an established tradition in its own right—consider the popularity of Kovacs or Andy Kaufman or, to cite a more recent example, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. As those men demonstrated, breaking down the formal properties of television can be very funny, and indeed many of the artists represented in Live to Tape want their work to make people laugh. Malmed opines that “since comedy typically doesn’t have this requirement of being tied to reality or believability people are allowed to think in bigger terms—change what’s happening [around them] and change people’s responses.” In Joan Does Dynasty (playing on Wednesday), “stand-up theorist” Joan Braderman literally inserts herself into episodes of the old nighttime soap Dynasty and plays around with it. All of the pieces playing on Tuesday night were inspired by sitcoms.
But as Professor Frink once said on The Simpsons, the selections at Live to Tape make you laugh and make you think. For Malmed, organizing the festival has forced him to reconsider what it even means to call something “television,” since fewer people are watching live broadcasts in their living rooms. “You know, when people call our era a ‘golden age’ of television, they’re really referring to the cinematic quality of a lot of TV,” Malmed says. “So Mad Men, for example, feels like a movie—yet I watch it on my computer. What about that is television? Live to Tape is an attempt to set some parameters around ‘television’ again and offer about 30 hours of what those parameters could be.”