The nice thing about writing for Network Awesome, which is a volunteer gig by the way, is that there’s literally no direction or instruction, meaning more or less complete freedom on my part. That means that when I start researching some deranged piece of video that’s recently landed in my inbox, and I’ve requested that they only send me their most far-out, left-field stuff , I can follow the tangent that interests me most, though how you’ll feel about it I never can tell. Today’s subject, Three Plays by Gertrude Stein, is a good example. Certainly the life of the pioneering writer and intellectual is fascinating enough, and these three productions of her abstract stage works by Dutch graphic designer Jaap Drupsteen, which feel something like watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse on bad acid (when the dancing dog woman stars licking the prism people it’s really…something), definitely invite the kind of misguided deciphering that could easily fill this space in a reasonably entertaining and informative manner, but I wanted to know more about something else. If this was, as it appears to be, a “television special”, who exactly was putting this kind of crazy shit on the air? As it turns out, it was PBS, and they were doing it once a week for over a decade.
Alive from Off Center was a half-hour program originating at Minneapolis-St. Paul’s local PBS affiliate KTCA TV, and ran between 1984 and 1996, spending its last four years rebranded simply as Alive TV. The concept was well suited to the MTV era, basically throwing money at performance artists, video artists, dancers, animators and just about the entire gamut of early 80s creative types to explore the boundaries of the television medium in whatever fashion they saw fit. “We wanted it to be a place for performance video work that was fringey and not mainstream,'' executive producer Melinda Ward told the New York Times in 1987, “The idea was to go beyond simply putting these young artists on TV and to have them make TV as well.'' For the first series, the producers could only afford to fund one segment from scratch, a piece by noted monologist Spalding Gray, and curated the rest from elsewhere, but as the show gained its footing and received more grants, work they commissioned or collaborated on came to dominate. They financed relative unknowns, many of whom were struggling to find any backing, but also showcased work by David Byrne, Jonathan Demme and Laurie Anderson, who hosted the show for a time alongside her creepy, digitally-created male doppelgänger (because why not?).
Reaction to the show was predictably mixed. The New York Times praised it as “a decided departure from ordinary television fare”, while that bastion of culture People Magazine called it “nonsensical, self-indulgent hokum”, but the LA Times’ Lee Margulies was probably most accurate when he attested the show “may leave you excited, intrigued, angry or completely mystified, but rarely bored.” In 1996 however, when the term “video art” wasn’t on people’s lips as much as a decade before, and not so coincidentally around the same time its square cousin MTV entered a sharp decline, it was decided that the show had run its course. The wealth of groundbreaking material the program generated lives on through YouTube, even if, like many anthology or omnibus programs, its mostly been broken down into discrete segments, all the introductions and bumpers, as strange as the works themselves, lopped off and isolated. In its 12 years on the air, Alive from Off Center/Alive TV was probably the most avant-garde regular 30 minutes on American television, with performance artist Mitchell Kriegman describing it as, “The only thing that exists that gives you a full professional shot at doing your work the way you want to work, without any control or compromise.'' Minus the paycheck, it sounds a lot like Network Awesome.