inside the weirdest tv show on nyc public access
E.S.P. TV is carrying on the waning tradition of off-the-wall cable public access television in New York City.
TV has changed drastically in the last decade. Since the first video was uploaded to YouTube in 2005, millennials have rapidly ditched the boob tube in favor of Netflix and chilling. And, thanks in part to this advent of streaming, TV series are at their highest number ever.
But Scott Kiernan, the co-founder of E.S.P. TV (along with Victoria Keddie) — an avant-garde variety show broadcast on cable public access television — believes that something has been lost in this hyper-algorithmically-decided, laptop-based, binge-watching TV universe. "You search for everything now, [but] you don't stumble onto things anymore," Scott laments. "Maybe that's a romantic notion, but I think it's true." The show's unbridled weirdness recalls the "Golden Age" of public access — when the medium handed the outcasts and the oppressed a megaphone — while embracing a randomness that's lost in streaming today.
The show (broadcast weekly, in front of a live audience, on Manhattan Neighborhood Network) mixes together real-time performances with pre-recorded sequences and found footage. The whole thing looks like it was shot through an Instagram filter, but that distinctly 90s look is the real deal, and the result of the two artists' undying devotion to analog. "The idea that something is defunct or useless just because it's not the newest or greatest product on the line only serves to sell people stuff," Scott says.
The duo teamed up in 2010, "when everybody threw out their TVs," Scott recalls. He and Victoria, who are both New York City-based curators and visual artists specializing in analogue video work, met at Scott's Williamsburg loft, which he'd converted into a radically anti-commercial art gallery called Louis V. E.S.P. "There wasn't a fear of failure," Victoria recalls. Likewise, Scott found he was drawn to Victoria's curation, which was driven by "avoiding safe collaborations." And so began E.S.P. TV. Together, they've filmed, broadcast, and archived more than 90 episodes that capture performances by musicians and artists while blending absurdist humor, experimental visuals, and contemporary sounds. "We're kind of meshing one fantastical mindset or world with another," Victoria explained.
E.S.P. TV plays out like a bizzaro variety show, composed of segments that span from the visual equivalent of a noise show (stuff to space out to, like an abstract video collage with blasts of feedback sounds) to performances by well-known music acts like Pharmakon and Jandek. The co-directors coat the shots with visual effects and psychedelic overlays. Sometimes a familiar face will melt across the frame, or a scene will disintegrate into static before bouncing back to sort-of clear. What's more, the co-directors often finagle the effects on the spot. "The show's not edited afterwards," Scott explained. "Some things are planned, but as a whole it's not scripted — we're making decisions on the fly — so the documentation is performative [and] the performance is documented." It's all part of their mission to make "production into a vehicle for performance."
Some major assumptions about how a TV show works are turned inside out with E.S.P.: the producers become just as visible as the artists, and documenting performance becomes less about seeing everything move-for-move and more about watching the camera perform impressive feats. This "wild" approach, as Victoria called it, goes against what most people expect from cable access, namely "the crazy psychic on at midnight."
A huge variety of artists have appeared on E.S.P.- everyone from C. Spencer Yeh to Cult of Youth and Nate Young (Wolf Eyes). "The collaboration has been, by far, the most all-encompassing that I've ever done," Scott said. Recently, E.S.P. embarked on "Coast to Coast" — an adventure Victoria calls their "tour gone mad." They packed into a tricked-out TV van and traveled all over the country, stopping to film episodes in Detroit, Marfa, and Portland.
While that old refrain about television melting your brain doesn't necessarily apply anymore, a new system of filtration threatens to quash the random and the weird. But E.S.P. TV is reviving that arbitrariness, and in a world where tossing out an iPhone is as routine as switching on the TV used to be, E.S.P.'s commitment to blending digital and analogue technologies is an exciting mission of discovery and preservation that goes beyond simple nostalgia. "Embracing analogue and cable access and grass roots ideas, that may seem Utopian or passé or something," Scott says. "But I think they're actually real things."
Text Nicole Disser
Images courtesy E.S.P. TV