In the era of Netflix binges, a TV festival may sound like an anachronism. But out of the networked comfort of the home and into the social space of the theater I went, for Roulette's Optics 0:0 TV EYE festival. Only one night of a three-day event, TV EYE focused specifically on the broadcast medium of television.
Walter Benjamin noted that the social aspect of film, seen in the public space of the theater, was one of its outstanding revolutionary qualities. And while the evolution of the smaller screen has reduced that social content, making consumption of moving images much more personal and private, that condition was reversed during TV EYE, as attendees gathered in Roulette's cavernous theater to experience these broadcasts together.
The verb "broadcast" originally comes from farming, to denote methods of planting that spread seeds over a wide area, rather than those that plant a seed directly into a specific spot in soil. This method of planting is hardly used anymore, given advances in agriculture and precision tools. Broadcasting is also on-the-outs in the electromagnetic spectrum, as high-power, widespread media like television and radio are replaced by point to point, networked media forms on the internet and mobile fronts.
But at TV EYE, one never would have known that the heyday of broadcast television was a thing of the past. The screenings and performance were not as concerned with the mechanics of broadcast, as with the aesthetics that such mediums give to the media. The aesthetics of television are something that has occupied artists for years, and this interest clearly continues into the present.
The screenings began with something of a retrospective. Made for TV, a 15-minute film by Tom Running featuring Ann Magnuson, simulates the act of channel surfing. Dating from 1984, the film, along with Alex Bag's Fancy Pants from 1997, depicts a different age of television, and approaches it from the perspective of ironic detachment endemic to an era when this was the primary mainstream media. JJ Stratford's Future Crew (2016) adds another level of irony to the equation, using what is now an older video technology to film a segment taking place in the outdated cyberpunk future as envisioned by that age of late 80s/early 90s TV culture. All the pieces grasp the aesthetic precisely—the look of the screen wipe, the analog window shot, the low-fi, pre-pixelated dissolution of scan lines. Perhaps most directly, Michael Robinson's 2015 short, Mad Ladders, extended this dissolution to pure creative tool, reducing video feeds to near unintelligibility, a dream transmission from the haze of cathode ray America.
The second half of the evening, the "live" performance of Scott Kiernan with Xeno and Oaklander, brought the screen out into the audience. Utilizing a camera crew, Xeno and Oaklander's music was remixed into the visual mode, as several channels of prerecorded and live video were mixed and retransmitted to the screen, replete with the ubiquitous shifts and fades that one would expect from an on-aesthetic deep dive into television.
Perhaps this is the lingering social aspect of television. Even though the culture of the broadcast has faded along with its technologies, it is still deeply ingrained in our sense of what television looks and feels like. TV was the tool of hypnosis, the jack into the nation's cultural unconscious, the grey screen of our hidden, darker interiors. Today, those functions have gravitated elsewhere, but the aesthetic lingers. It's a space shared by artists, and its depths still have dark places waiting to be explored.
Scott Kiernan with Xeno and Oaklander, photo by Susan Karabush
Click here to learn more about Roulette's Optics 0:0 TV EYE festival.