November 30, 2004

On The Process and Future of Termite Television

Note:  This essay was written as part of my MFA Thesis in Media Arts at Temple University, in August 1994.  It feels historical, not just in the discussion of obsolete technology, but in the sense that it was written by a different person.  Ten years later, I've changed some, but just enough to recognize the difference. (Note: Links have been added, this was written pre-www.)

The shows comprising my MFA thesis are two instances of an ongoing collaborative project that will continue beyond the university. This Is Only A Test, produced by the Termite TV Collective, was begun in graduate school by Ospenson, Kuetemeyer, and Perlson, three committed videomakers who sought to collaborate with their local arts community in the production of experimental television.

As video artists committed to documentary our specific goals, grounded in a theoretical framework, were to produce work that would question, challenge, and confront mainstream TV, and by extension, dominant American culture and a telecommunications system owned and operated by the most powerful fraction of the population.  As artists with a populist bent, we sought to move experimental video in general, and our own personal work in particular, out of an elitist museum and gallery system and onto the telecommunications grid through which the great majority of Americans get their information and entertainment. 

Using camcorders and relatively inexpensive editing tools like the Video Toaster, we strive to present people and viewpoints rarely seen elsewhere on television; to create personal and socially relevant work for display on this medium where the norm has an impersonal, corporate viewpoint; to use the artifacts of television to critique TV; to avoid textual closure and encourage active interpretation by the audience; to refuse authority by constantly shifting voice and perspective, mixing fiction and documentary; to respond in a topical and personal way to television's representation of current events; and to connect with an elusive audience who may be channel-surfing from their armchair.

Our long laundry list of goals has led to the development of certain characteristics of form and content in a typical  Termite collage show.  The collage shows, of which WORK and FIRE are examples, are of length 27:30 with a standard open, composed of numerous segments of various genres and textures produced by different makers.  These segments circle obliquely around a particular culturally resonant show theme, separated by fades-to-black, and sequenced to comment on each other.  One show may contain straightforward documentary segments next to segments that are image processed, pseudo doc, old industrial films, first-person personal statements, long-take talking heads, animation, or that use appropriated and recombined TV imagery.  The juxtaposition of this profusion of voices and textures is designed to undercut the textual authority of any one segment, as we strive to create an open television text.


A peculiar fact about termite/ tapeworm/ fungus/ moss art is that it moves always forward, eating its own boundaries, and likely as not leaving nothing in its path but the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.  (Manny Farber, 1962)

Making a collage show of this type is a decentralized and organic process that culminates in an intuitive and improvisational online edit.  The development of a show begins by selecting a shot theme and approach, one which the contributors feel is culturally resonant and aesthetically provocative.  We then brainstorm informally, bouncing segment ideas and approaches off each other to make sure that important thematic aspects are addressed.  At this point, "ownership" of ideas is loose.  We develop and assign a list of segments that may compose a show, select a coordinating producer who tracks all deadlines and shepherds the project into the online edit, maintaining or modifying the show's theme as s/he sees fit.  Then the individual contributing producers go off to make their pieces, working in a supportive, yet decentralized manner, offering technical help and critical feedback as needed.  Of course, the thrust and content of any of the segments may change as the producer begins working with the material.

As the online date approaches, we screen work, offer suggestions for incomplete segments and try to sequence or program the show.  At this point, it may be determined that more work needs to be completed to fill holes in the show, either thematic holes, strategic linkage piece or bumpers to unify a show, or simply pieces of flexible lengths will take up time.  (Often the individual segments may be completed early and of fixed length, while the 27:30 show length demands that we fill some holes of indeterminate length.)

For an online, when the edit master of the show is constructed, we screen all of the work, paying special attention to segment length, attempting to identify pieces that will play off of each other in interesting and provocative ways.  We then generate the final sequencing of segments, generate the credits, and assemble the show with a  rough audio mix split on two tracks, and paying special attention to the technical specifications of broadcast video:  level, setup, chroma, and hue.  This last is especially important since many broadcast masters will eventually be struck for each local cable operator, and frequently these are several generations removed from the Hi8 camera original.  A final audio mix is performed when the dub master is made.

This rigorous and fluid process, combined with the need to fill a lot of space (a season's series may contain six hours of material) has led to a general attitude of "plunge always forward."  We try to incorporate critical feedback in the next attempt, rather than continually revising a piece.  In large part this is due to the time demands of making TV:  often a piece has been broadcast before we can get substantive critical feedback from our peers.  Since the work has already reached its audience, further revision is to some extent pointless:  as video artists and Termites, we must learn to celebrate the happy accidents of chance in the editing room and more importantly, to trust our instincts.  This is in line with the Termite manifesto by Manny Farber, which notes that

I should note that the production of these two shows took place substantially without the intense camaraderie described above, and as a result, I feel that a lot of energy was defused, time wasted.  However, my partners came through at critical times, and I am pleased with the final results.

The Future of Termite TV

In its first incarnation, this experimental TV series sought to break into the television landscape, establishing a place for experimental video in ordinary living rooms nationwide.  This effort can be seen in the standard show open for the first season, in which a shattered TV screen becomes whole.

The challenge now facing the Termite TV Collective is to continue the project outside of the cozy institutional support of academia, with its easy access to equipment and supportive critical community.

These two shows, Test #12: WORK and Test #13: FIRE, are the opening salvo in a second season of Termite TV. Having successfully broken into the TV landscape, and completed a series of eleven shows that not only aired on Philadelphia cable access, but was broadcast on both local PBS affiliates, and reached millions of homes nationwide on the 90's Network, the question now becomes "what can grow here?"  To this end, the standard open for the second season shows the ritual planting of a television to ensure creative fertility.

As the series name indicates, this is an experimental project, and these two shows can be seen as signposts along the road.  A second season will be produced by an expanded Termite TV Collective as we seek to expand beyond Temple University, and as the original members have moved away from Philadelphia and onto other projects.  Currently we are designing a written contract for new Termites, outlining rights, benefits, and responsibilities.  Each collective member will produce two shows for this next season, one of which will be a collage show. We are also designing the new season, to include shows on New Tech vs. Old Tech (to be completed in the next two weeks), Promises, Pets, Secretions, Culture vs. Nature, India, Hawaii, Orion Climbs, Happily Ever After, etc.  We hope this to be ready for broadcast as a series for January 1995. 

The series which continues to evolve in relation to participants, show themes, current events, and the particular circumstances of production. My role as coordinating producer of these two shows encompasses the roles of executive producer, segment producer, camera operator, editor, distributor, and especially curator, but I look forward to contributing to next few shows as a mere producer.

November 30, 2004 in Art, Film | Permalink | Comments (0)

November 19, 2004

White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art

This is the full text of a manifesto by Manny Farber, written in 1962.  Since disavowed by Farber, this piece has nonetheless served as fierce inspiration for me and the other members of the Termite Television Collective. [Emphasis is mine].

Most of the feckless, listless quality of today's art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece.

Advanced painting has long been suffering from this burnt-out notion of a masterpiece - breaking away from its imprisoning conditions toward a suicidal improvisation, threatening to move nowhere and everywhere, niggling, omnivorous, ambitionless: yet, within the same picture, paying strict obeisance to the canvas edge and , without favoritism, the precious nature of every inch of allowable space. A classic example of this inertia is the Cezanne painting: in his indoorish works of the woods around Aix-en-Provence, a few spots of tingling, jarring excitement occur where he nibbles away at what he calls his "small sensation," the shifting of a tree trunk, the infinitesimal contests of complementary colors in a light accent of farmhouse wall. The rest of each canvas is a clogging weight-density-structure-polish amalgam associated with self-aggrandizing masterwork. As he moves away from the unique, personal vision that interests him, his painting turns ungiving and puzzling: a matter of balancing curves for his bunched-in composition, laminating the color, working the painting to the edge. Cezanne ironically left an expose of his dreary finishing work in terrifyingly honest watercolors, an occasional unfinished oil (the pinkish portrait of his wife in sunny, leafed-in patio), where he foregoes everything but his spotting fascination with minute interactions.

The idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area, both logical and magical, sits heavily over the talent of every modern painter, from Motherwell to Andy Warhol. The private voice of Motherwell (the exciting drama in the meeting places between ambivalent shapes, the aromatic sensuality that comes from laying down thin sheets of cold, artfully cliché-ish, hedonistic color) is inevitably ruined by having to spread these small pleasures into great contained works. Thrown back constantly on unrewarding endeavors (filling vast egglike shapes, organizing a ten foot rectangle with its empty corners suggesting Siberian steppes in the coldest time of year), Motherwell ends up with appalling amounts of plasterish grandeur, a composition so huge and questionably painted that the delicate, electric contours seem to be crushing the shalelike matter inside. The special delight of each painting tycoon (De Kooning's saber-like dancing of forms; Warhol's minute embrace with the path of illustrator's pen line and block-print tone; James Dine's slog-footed brio, filling a stylized shape from stem to stern with one ungiving color) is usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece. The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist's signature, now turns into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today's esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art.

Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators (Laurel and Hardy, the team of Howard Hawks and William Faulkner operating on the first half of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep) seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement. Laurel and Hardy, in fact, in some of their most dyspeptic and funniest movies, like Hog Wild, contributed some fine parody of men who had read every "How to Succeed" book available; but, when it came to applying their knowledge, reverted instinctively to termite behavior.

One of the good termite performances (John Wayne's bemused cowboy in an unreal stage town inhabited by pallid repetitious actors whose chief trait is a powdered make-up) occurs in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Better Ford films have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with golden sunset behind them, and repetitions in which big bodies are scrambled together in a rhythmically curving Rosa Bonheurish composition. Wayne's acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him. In an Arizona town that is too placid, where the cactus was planted last night and nostalgically casted actors do a generalized drunkenness, cowardness, voraciousness, Wayne is the termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against a wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting -- a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.

The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is no where in evidence, so that the craftsmen can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke are and not caring what comes of it. The occasional newspaper column by a hard-work specialist caught up by an exciting event (Joe Alsop or Ted Lewis, during a presidential election), or a fireball technician reawakened during a pennant playoff that brings on stage his favorite villains (Dick Young); the TV production of The Iceman Cometh , with its great examples of slothful-buzzing acting by Myron McCormak, Jason Robards, et al.; the last few detective novels of Ross MacDonald and most of Raymond Chandler's ant-crawling verbosity and sober fact-pointing in the letters compiled years back in a slightly noticed book that is a fine running example of popular criticism; the TV debating of William Buckley, before he relinquished his tangential, counter-attacking skill and took to flying into propeller blades of issues, like James Meridith's Pale Miss-adventures.

November 19, 2004 in Art, Film | Permalink | Comments (0)