Public access cable hasn’t always sucked. Since the late seventies, it’s also been a place where the local freaks regularly lay claim to their very own twenty-eight minutes of camera time, for better or worse. You didn’t have to tune in for The Robin Byrd Show or The Grube Tube or artist programs like The Live! Show or SoHo Television, but chances are, if you lived in Manhattan in the early 80s, you passed by them on your way from the Eyewitness News to MTV; without already having search terms in mind, as on Hulu or Netflix or YouTube, they were there for you to find. With a shittily-filmed ecosystem of softcore porn, infomercials, poor taste, and raw pathos, public access has been a place where artists could thrive.
Now, it seems they’re coming back. A wave of young artists fondly joined Manhattan cable art shows like The Kostabi Show and Acid Rain when, in January of last year, Scott Kiernan and Ethan Miller developed a rotating show of performers, video, and sound artists called E.S.P. TV. The show has been taking off.
Most viewers probably won’t get all the references. Frequent host Bradford Nordeen plays washed-up gallery owner Mary Boom!; it’s a play on gallery owner Mary Boone, but her intern drives and sloppy introductions sound much closer to the drunkish rambling of late night sex show host Robin Byrd. The average channel surfer probably won’t recognize the names of the many influential underground artists who’ve been on the show: Shana Moulton, Amy Lockhart, Rachel Mason, Martha Colburn, and Bradley Eros, to name a few, along with musicians like Xeno and Oaklander and C. Spencer Yeh. Most performances are inexplicably green-screened with interlacing video lines in the background, often with the at-home, ad-libbed quality of a live-streamed party—an anything-goes, no-turning-back, “fuck it” spirit that was born of public access.
And, yeah, fuck it, because the idea of the uninitiated makes E.S.P. TV even better. Imagine, for instance, what a nice surprise it might be when what looks like static turns out to be Ania Diakoff’s “Derivative of One” (E.S.P. #9). Or maybe what you thought was “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” ends up being Bradley Eros and Tim Geraghty’s remix of the film’s violence with Futurist poetry (E.S.P. #15) (“Our cinema is a joyful deformation of the universe” appears as a subtitle over smashing robots.)
But past that, what happens doesn’t seem to matter so much as the artists’ presence on the screen, without the pandering soul suck of Work of Art or Jeff Koons on The Colbert Report.
All of these were great reasons to give co-directors Scott Kiernan and Victoria Keddie a call. Our interview below:
Whitney Kimball: Would you mind telling me a little bit about your backgrounds?
Scott Kiernan: E.S.P. TV started out of a project space called Louis V E.S.P. in Williamsburg, which ran from 2010 to 2012. E.S.P. TV started off as one of the shows at the space, and then it kind of took on a life of its own.
Victoria was organizing something called the Index Festival last summer. We started working on that, and then she became involved with the show. So [E.S.P. TV] has been going since January 2011 with pretty regular pacing, kind of on a monthly basis, more or less.
WK: Did you start out at Louis V E.S.P. with the intention of a performance-based program?
SK: It was pretty heavy with performances and screenings and stuff, and then the E.S.P. TV project was kind of one show that was curated, and we had a lot of fun doing it, and so it was a way for people from different disciplines to come together in a different way. So we kept doing it. It’s evolved a lot since then.
WK: How did the idea for the cable show come about, and how did you get a slot for it?
SK: There are other interests we have about broadcast and cable, but we actually knew a guy at MNN, who was able to get it on there when there was a free spot, and once we started doing it, we got a regular slot like everybody else.
WK: And that was you and Ethan [Miller] who started the show?
SK: Yeah. [To Victoria] Do you wanna talk about your background more?
Victoria Keddie: My background is working as a media archivist and curator, so I work to preserve sound and film and video collections, primarily, and my interest has always been in broadcast media. When I put the Index Festival together in 2011, I was privy to a couple of the shows that were on E.S.P. TV, so I knew there was something there that I really wanted to be a part of. So we quickly teamed up to make these programs.
The idea of doing a broadcast station geared for art—basically just generating ideas—it’s not necessarily developing community, but getting people to know each other and show each other what everyone’s doing.
SK: The live aspect is super important, because everyone sees what’s going on, and we can’t really go back, because it’s mixed live to tape. It’s not something that’s edited posthumously, people have to be there. They witness it being made. I know when we started, we were interested in people gathering…we’ve had screenings when it airs, we try to have people get together and they wanna see it. We’ve had it in bars, and rooftops, and people stumbling upon it is great, but also the idea of people getting together to watch something and not be in their normal, isolated laptop environment is pretty important to us.
WK: So you actually do the live taping out in public…
VK: We literally have a nomadic set-up, where we’re bringing a broadcast studio set-up to different venues in the city and internationally. We’ve toured the West Coast, the Bay Area, we’ve been overseas, we’re going to Dublin, and we’re planning to keep that up. To use this nomadic model—and it’s really a viable one—correlates closely to broadcast media itself, and it’s kind of exciting to have events like this all over the place.
WK: As this has gone on, has the interest developed from people randomly stumbling across it?
SK: Yeah, definitely [Laughs]. At first, you know, we were probably only able to fit about thirty people in the front part of Louis V E.S.P. They mostly knew the artists who were performing, or it was artists themselves, so it’s definitely evolved a lot since then. People were waiting out in the hallway and couldn’t get in. People approach us about being on the show, and when we travel different places, people are starting to already know about it, so I guess the interest has definitely gone up.
VK: Well, especially the interest in places other than our own city. It’s kind of nice to know that this is actually reaching—even if it’s on a web or a digital platform or however they found out about it, who knows—it’s reaching out. And that’s kind of the goal anyway.
We feel that it’s important to utilize broadcast media as a form of communication internationally, and in between artists, as well as interested people—and it’s something that’s been snuffed out purposefully, without getting too political—but it’s also something that is a really viable form of communicating with sound, performance, video, film, and a conglomeration of any of that.
SK: Plus the live event of the taping and the broadcast of it, people getting together to watch it, there’s all these different opportunities for a different kind of space to happen. You gather in a different scene, you work in a different way.
VK: It’s theatrical, too…
SK: Right. And people know that coming in, they’re adapting their work or they’re working under these different constraints, but it develops into something more under those constraints.
WK: That brings me to this question– who do you hope is watching this? Do you hope people stumble across it latenight, anywhere, or is this something you’re hoping the art community is watching?
SK: I would honestly want anybody to see it, but it’s also a cool idea to think that somebody is going to come across it. There are definitely people who do look for it, too.
VK: Well, there is a community that is doing similar things. And so, there’s that community, but there’s also a community or artists in particular who, let’s say they work with varying media, who still don’t have too many outlets. I mean, it’s a way to show your work, it’s a way to team up with other folks, it’s a way to do something out of the standard monitor-in-the-back-of-the-room or a video show. It’s definitely a different model, and I think that’s what excites artists who are using different media and are finding themselves trapped into some formulaic showcase.
WK and SK: Yeah.
VK: And so this is a different model. Our definite area of interest, as artists ourselves, is with artists; however, we are hoping to reach out and into communities that are looking for ways to communicate, to make connections internationally. Right now, in terms of our research, it’s really trying to tap into areas that don’t have an outlet and are trying to find one.
SK: Right, it’s funny, I’ve heard of a lot of places that don’t have cable access—LA, I think, doesn’t have public cable access, major cities don’t have any of that. And that’s a thing, people can go into a studio and get something out there, and they don’t need to have the equipment that it’s generally assumed that people have access to. There are schools, but this is the kind of thing that’s for the community…
VK: Our set-up is made from detritus…
VK: You know, found for really cheap on eBay or Craigslist…
SK: Or like on the street, we found a lot of the monitors, some cameras.
VK: Stuff that was deemed worthless. It’s like obsolete media, but at the same time, it works, and it’s been working quite well.
SK: It’s just great to see that when we have tried to— when we ask people to be on the show, or they ask us sometimes— the level of excitement about people being involved in it was kind of surprising at first. But now it doesn’t surprise me, I think people are into it, they get excited by the idea of it. I’d say that more than nine times out of ten, if you ask somebody if they wanna do it, they wanna do it.
WK: And how do you choose the artists?
SK: Well, there are people we know, then there have been a lot of times on the show where, music-wise, for example, some people I would see perform, I didn’t know at all before, but I would ask them if they would wanna do it. There’s also more deliberate pairing of certain artists who we know have something in common. I don’t know if “curate” is necessarily the word, but…
VK: Yeah, I’d say “curate” is the word— not in a snobby sense, but yeah. What we’ve been working on, Scott and I together, has really been about curating these shows and about reaching out beyond our own parameters. Yes, we might know so-and-so, and we really love what they’re doing, and we think it would be really amazing to try and get this person. We have no idea how to reach them, but [we’ll ask] how can we?
Curating a show that isn’t necessarily just centered on music or artists working in video, it’s trying to kind of create something else, something that pulls in from other areas, and that kind of defies category. I don’t know if we’re entirely successful in that yet, but we’re trying to push for that.
SK: I think the people who are on it, too, kind of go with it. It’s part of the game, just be part of it…
VK: It’s also nice when we’re dealing with musicians who are used to playing bills or concert venues, and they have their set-up, they want low lighting, they want this, they want that, and this is a completely different set-up. So in a way, everyone we’re pulling together has been pushed into this place where they’re out of their element, and what happens is really interesting. And I think, at the end of that, everyone loves it.
SK: [Laughs] People don’t always come in so comfortable, but they get comfortable really quick.
WK: There is a history of artists working on cable TV, like Jaime Davidovich and Cable Soho and the Experimental Television Center. I was wondering if you guys took any inspiration from that history, or if you’ve been connecting with any of those people?
VK: Well, Experimental Television Center is an amazing place that I wish was still around. These are definitely references, and they’re quite strong ones.
SK: Even our—we have a host who’s on pretty regularly, Bradford Nordeen, who does the Dirty Looks [screening series]—and his character on the show is Mary Boom!. It’s definitely a take on Mary Boone, but it’s also Robin Byrd from the Robin Byrd Show. His whole character is developed around a person who had an early eighties cable access show. And the neon sign keyed behind him, that used to hang in Louis V E.S.P., mimics the neon sign she used to have on the show. We definitely consider those things and greatly appreciate them.
WK: And it’s all taped straight to VHS and then edited afterward?
SK: Yea, for time. The shows can only be twenty-eight minutes, and we have to do three or four hour-tapings, and the cameras are line outs (can’t record separate tapes), so we have to chop the live mix to VHS…
VK: The editing we do is just for time, so it’s cutting off before a song or before a video starts or before a performance starts, for example.
SK: We like having all the mistakes…
VK: I like the variable for failure, you know.
WK: Is the VHS any connection to the video and TV movement of the eighties? Or is it just an aesthetic or convenient thing?
SK: It’s not convenient. It would be more convenient for us to do it on laptops, we wouldn’t have to drag all the gear out. Instead, we have this massive parade of big old TVs and seventies tube cameras. We have an affinity for the look and feel of analog things in general, but also as far as the way the show is taped and the approach is that we want the spontaneity— as far as the live event is done, we want to be authentic about it. We don’t think it should be edited out afterwards.
VK: As an archivist working with obsolete media, I definitely have a love for this, and I share an interest with Scott here. But I think it’s the same sort of thing as using broadcast media itself; it’s an antiquated medium, it’s something that people don’t necessarily associate with something that’s active today, aside from some bad psychic network or something like that. Utilizing media itself that’s kind of deemed dead is also part of the language. It’s saying, look, this is a viable medium, and actually, from a preservation standpoint, it’s much safer than digital. But we are using what may seem dead or discarded to show that there is actually quite a bit of life happening.
WK: So where to from here? What’s your hope as this continues?
VK: We’re doing a festival upstate, and then we’re going to Dublin. We’re looking to travel more internationally. We’re also realizing that there are a lot of people or organizations in certain countries who are quite excited to have something like this. To be able to broadcast. There’s still this idea of broadcasting in New York, and that’s kind of interesting because…people in Manhattan are like, oh, okay…
SK: Yea, you have to actually be in Manhattan to watch the show on TV…
VK: True, but at the same time it’s this need to get out there in a weird way or to be a part of some sort of tapestry, and I love that. I think it’s really about creating a bond that way. The problem with media has always been this castration, whether it comes down to format or anything else, there’s always been this…it’s a bit more difficult to travel with your work. You can make everything in a digital format, but if you’re not working with that, you’re in a lot of trouble. So this is a way to kind of cross borders, I guess.
SK: We’re trying to do a Dirty Looks holiday special, also.
VK: Yeah, we’re teaming up with them, we’re going to do a nice holiday special where we’re bringing them on. It’s definitely a lot of fun, it’s going to be focused on performance, video, art, sound, you name it; it’s a holiday special. We also have shows lined up for the fall.
WK: That would be really cool.
VK: [Laughs] You have to come!
WK: Are there any interactions that you guys have had that you don’t think would have ever happened in a gallery setting?
SK: Definitely. Sometimes people don’t really tell us what they’re going to do, and then they get up there and do something a little bit more…[Laughs]
VK: This is becoming really interesting to me, that there are people who get a kick out of being on TV. And it’s this childish, deviant thing, where it’s like “I’m gonna get on TV no matter what, because it’s TV. And I’m gonna see what I can get away with.”
VK: So we’ve had a couple of recent surprises…definitely a little more X-rated, so we can’t broadcast it, but if you were at the event, you were there.
SK: There are some things we can broadcast. We’d have to broadcast [the X-rated stuff] after midnight, because now we go on at ten o’clock.
VK: That being said, we don’t necessarily want to censor anything either, so we are looking for after-hours slots to broadcast what can be shown after-hours.
WK: What happened? Did somebody flash you?
SK: No, we had that a long time ago, we’ve had more, uh…You’d have to just watch the show, I think, I don’t think we can divulge just yet. [Laughs]
VK: We’ve had everything from streakers, public masturbation, swallowing of dildos…This is not what our show is necessarily about, and the fact that I’ve seen one too many dildos lately…
SK: It’s just the last couple tapings…
VK: I chalk it up to summer heat [Laughs] Because we don’t have this any other time! It seems to be the summer that brings this out in people.
SK: But yeah, they’ll be coming up. We’ve got a backlog of episodes airing in the fall.
VK: We’re actually really excited, we’re going to be broadcasting our episodes that we’ve done in the Bay Area. We’ve teamed up with a new project space called Liminal Space and an older one, Queen’s Nails…One was in Oakland, one was in San Francisco, and it was great, and it was just amazing the energy that was out there, and they were so excited and thrilled to work with us that it just kind of kept our energy going for travelling around.
SK: We also formed a partnership with another show in Portland called Experimental Half-Hour. They don’t tape their thing live, but they have some similar interests as us, and they did a tour, and they teamed up with us on our last taping. They co-produced with us. So we definitely invite collaboration, not just in performances, but also lately behind the scenes, even just getting the synthesizers, electronics. It’s kind of a way for almost anybody to do something on the show, in some way or another. That’s what’s cool, that’s one of the things that’s great about it, as opposed to some standard gallery-like show, like in the past. It’s become a very exciting project with lots of places to go…we’ve got a lot more to go.
WK: So when you’d tape a show in San Francisco, would you broadcast it there as well?
VK: Actually, we’ve been talking about that. Someone came to our show from Berkeley public access, and they wanted to show our event, broadcast it on their network. So, yeah, there is this idea of broadcasting locally, as well as in New York…
SK: And the other thing, that wasn’t clear when I said it, but Experimental Half-Hour shows our show out there sometimes, and we show their show out here sometimes, so we trade shows occasionally. The partnership kind of arrived because we realized artists who had shown on E.S.P. TV had connections with people involved in that show. They’re different things, but they definitely have really similar interests.
WK:It seems like there’s a resurgence right now; a lot of people are getting interested in screening series and TV and performance…
VK: I think it has to do with our generation. We had a TV to start and ended up with the internet…
SK: Which I think people are realizing is not the democratizing medium they thought it was going to be. [Laughs]
VK: I think this funnelling into one medium can be highly problematic. We’re the most adaptable generation, I think, in terms of technology. And I think the idea of just utilizing one as the be-all and end-all is a problem, especially for artists, people who are looking to think a little bit outside of the box. It’s kind of looking at things that were deemed dead or no good and saying, “Wait a minute, there’s something else here.” And that’s the same with sound, listening to vinyl again, or listening to reel-to-reel, or things like that. It’s looking again at media that an industry has deemed dead so they can market something else.
SK: Right. There is something kind of nice about people not thinking so much that they have to have nicest HD this or that camera, that they have to have the newest thing. People are embracing something that already exists, and not just deeming it [obsolete] but finding that it exists for a reason, and has very good qualities, and [that they] may actually want to use that. They may find some potential, and that is encouraging to me, instead of spending more money…
VK: Personally, for me, coming from a working-class background, I can’t wait in line for the newest and latest all the time, so…
SK: But people can just use what’s around.
WK: Is there anything else you’d like to add that you think people should know about?
VK: It airs on MNN.org on Channel 4. We are going to be doing a fundraiser soon because we need to keep ourselves going.
SK: We just moved our headquarters to a new place, and we’re trying to develop the equipment and travel…We will be doing a fundraiser soon [which will be on E.S.P. TV’s website]. Most of the tapings have been free, or very cheap.
WK: How have you been funding it til now?
SK: The majority has been out-of-pocket, sometimes we have a door charge of five dollars or something when we pay for travel. This is not a money-making venture, this is definitely a money-losing venture. But it’s a passion…
VK: Well, we’re just trying to sustain ourselves, and that’s the way a nonprofit, I guess, works. Trying to find the means to keep yourself going without charging twenty bucks at the door.
SK: Yea, I don’t want people to pay a lot of money to come to the taping. Because you get a lot out of going to it.