Yes, kids, there was actually a time in the pre-selfie-and-Instagram age when resources for self-expression were nearly non-existent, especially if one had an alternative viewpoint or were from a marginalized subculture.
Long live the local public access channel.
“Test Pattern,” a new hybrid performance series at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, uses the do-it-yourself, everyman grittiness and lo-fi cheapness of old-school public access programming — right down to those smeary lo-fi wipes and pans — and makes it chic, reimagining its analog setting as a place for artistic collaboration and examination. The first of the “Test Pattern” programs, “Black Vibrations,” is slated for Friday, March 25th.
“It’s inspired by the history of public access TV and public alternative video movements of the past,” says David Riley, the producer and assistant ICA curator who created the three-performance series. ‘Test Pattern’ is an homage to that, and we’re using the ICA’s auditorium, which is state of the art, as a production studio and experimental space.” The live episodes will be “broadcast” (aka streamed) on the ICA’s website and available later as an online rerun.
Riley got exposed to public access through Brooklyn’s BKTV when living in New York, and acknowledges Virginia’s place in community broadcast history, pointing out that the first public access channel was started in Dale City, Virginia in 1968.
There’s also Richmond’s once-vibrant access scene. At one time in the mid ’80s, more than 200 different locally-produced programs were airing on Comcast’s Channel 95, including offerings from firebrands such as August Moon and, yes, future Governor L. Douglas Wilder. And the fondly-recalled Color Radio, an ’80s channel on Continental Cablevision, featured a lively and eccentric roster of alternative music programs with titles like “Two Ton Tony’s Lost Highway” and “The Bubba Show.”
With three cameras and a full lighting and sound setup, the “Test Pattern” programs will be a bit more complex than the typical one-angle, no-budget fare found on those old cable subscribed shows. “We’re not trying to make a perfect retro replica,” Riley says, adding that the performances are meant to tie in with the subject matter, like “Black Vibrations,” which aligns the peak of ’80s cable access with the rise of Detroit techno.
“Black Vibrations” features musician and author DeForrest Brown Jr. and madison moore [Editor’s note: They prefer their name in lowercase, although Associated Press Stylebook rules call for capitalizing all proper names], artist-scholar, DJ, and assistant professor of Queer Studies in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at VCU. Their multimedia presentation will explore how Detroit’s public access TV helped to popularize and bring the city’s machine-music creators to the mainstream.
Scholar and philosopher Alexander Weheliye, an expert on the music, will follow with his own thoughts.
“The intent of Detroit techno was to make a sort of a kind of sonic fictional music,” explains Brown, the author of the forthcoming “How to Assemble a Black Counter-Culture,” which charts the evolution of house and techno music. “It wasn’t necessarily to make dance music but to take available technology and turn bedrooms and warehouse spaces into impromptu studios, and into broadcasting tools.”
He notes that there was a vibrant techno scene on public access TV in Motor City long before the music ever hit the clubs. “The goal was always to make techno a high-tech jazz or high-tech soul that was made by the creators on their own terms using available technology.”
The following “Test Pattern” performance is scheduled for April 15, with artist Shawné Michaelain Holloway’s work, “DEWCLAW,” which mashes up S&M iconography and vintage pro wrestling promos. According to the ICA notes, Holloway’s provocative piece examines “the forgotten memories, habits and desires that are stored within our bodies and identities.” Professor Julian Kevon Glover, at VCU Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, will speak.
On June 3, Moor Mother, poet, musician and Afro-Futurist, will pair with Richmond’s own Ohbliv, who co-produced her debut album “FetishBones” — for a “Test Pattern” show that will also include VCU printmaking professor Caitlin Cherry.
Curator Riley says that there are tentative plans for “Test Pattern” to expand into the fall but, first, the ICA needs to see the ratings for the first three episodes. “Hey, this is a test for me as well.”
For more on the “Test Pattern” series, go to icavcu.org/test-pattern/