Before the internet, there was public access cable. Back in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, viewers with a sense of adventure — or perhaps a raging case of insomnia — might see Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel dancing, the recently departed writer and Warholite Glenn O’Brien interviewing Debbie Harry and John Michel Basquiat, or, to the delight of half the male population in my junior high, the Robin Byrd Show, where the former porn star broke free of the bonds of clothing. Public Access/Open Networks, on view at BRIC House, allows visitors to experience this unpredictable, experimental, and ultimately incredibly influential world.
The exhibit features work from a broad swath of artists who either began or defined their careers in public access, from pioneering video artist Nam June Paik to socially conscious collective Paper Tiger Television, which continues to broadcast events like the Standing Rock protests, to the chameleonic Alex Bag, whose satirical 2005 dating series Gladiadaters is not all that far off from The Bachelor.
Aside from wall-mounted screens and laptops, much of the work is shown on televisions that are eerily reminiscent of my childhood: a bulky sea of gray and black that could be an installation in itself. Each station plays a different piece, beginning with Paik’s Good Morning Mr. Orwell, a live satellite broadcast in which viewers all over the world could nurse their hangovers with a variety show hosted by George Plimpton and featuring the likes of Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, John Cage, and Phillip Glass defiantly and joyously challenging George Orwell’s prediction for the year.
At another station, a band rehearses in black and white while the words “hot buttered popcorn” occasionally flash across the screen, an audience with architectural haircuts dances along, and eventually Debbie Harry drops in. It’s Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party. On a neighboring screen, a woman wearing a top hat and striped shirt explains the secret to happiness — this is A Chat with Glendora, where, since 1972, she’s interviewed local residents from all over New York State, described her theory of happiness, and made lawyer jokes. A clip from her interview on Late Night with David Letterman is a highlight from a time when he’d have people other than celebrities on his show.
The exhibit is sprawling in scope if not in space. You could easily spend an hour on the material from the ’80s and ’90s that appears at the entrance, bypassing the earlier experimental and politically driven work of Colab. Pacing yourself through the show is key, especially since there are treats at the end, including the aforementioned Gladiadaters, which gives all other dating shows a run for their money. Would a contestant on The Bachelor randomly proclaim “I had sex with a Doberman pinscher” or “I didn’t forget my deodorant, I made a decision”? There’s also Ralph McDaniel’s Video Music Box, one of the first television programs to show hip-hop videos.
Public Access/Open Networks brought on nostalgia I never realized I had for rabbit ears and fuzzy pictures. It took me back to a time when channel surfing felt like an archeological dig performed from the comfort of my couch, even though I spent half the time asking my parents why the TV screen was full of “snow,” the jumbled black-and-white pixels of terrible reception.
Going to a gallery to watch television also seems counterintuitive, depriving the activity of its best features, namely giving in to laziness and embracing the second-best thing you can do without wearing pants. That said, today when I want to watch television, my Roku box gives me endless choices. I haven’t channel-surfed in years, but I also haven’t stumbled on anything quite as exciting as David Byrne on TV Party. The exhibit is worth a visit if only to remind us of these long-lost possibilities.
Public Access/Open Networks continues at the Gallery at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn) through May 7.