by Mary Billyou
E.S.P. TV’s Unit 11
This is the second of a series of articles covering current film work that expands the traditional space of the cinema. These investigations include communications of “unofficial” culture, ephemeral pieces “not going anywhere,” bootlegs (and their sale), and the decay of “pink prints.” The emphasis is on small-scale productions emitting from satellite alternative spaces.
Currently located between the familiar red circle of “You Are Here” and the “Back of Beyond” is E.S.P. TV’s Unit 11. Operated by artists Victoria Keddie and Scott Kiernan, E.S.P. TV is best known for live television tapings that feature experimental broadcasts via their mobile television studio, Unit 11. Transmitting orchestrated events, E.S.P. TV foregrounds self-aware performances via the artificial control of the “set.”
Once part of a triumphant fleet of mass communication vehicles, Unit 11 is a former electronic news gathering vehicle. Integral to attaining “coverage” of a story, it materialized the cynicism behind “If It Bleeds, It Leads.” Just as highway speeds slow suddenly so that drivers may glimpse death in its proximity, televisual disaster is regular fare for living room viewers. Shocking, it causes a quickening of the pulse where before there may have been only dulled alienation. This excitement of feeling is similar to what early cinema audiences might have experienced in “the cinema of attractions” and its associated carnival sideshows.
Deaccessioned in the late ’90s by Austin’s Channel 8, E.S.P. TV’s Unit 11 is a relic of modern mass media. As media infrastructure, the news van shaped the social relations of a diverse network of workers. Maintenance and use of the vehicle required electricians, drivers, transportation captains, sound and camera personnel, editors, satellite technicians, reporters and mechanics. When the global media corporation Time Warner purchased Channel 8, they renamed the station YNN, an abbreviation for the more shovel-ready Your News Now. Implementing top-down changes in technology and in programming, the local station shifted into the twenty-four-hour news cycle, ushering in the new industry trend of one-man-band reporter/camera operators. This current format, at fifteen dollars an hour, quickly rendered ENG vans neither fast nor cheap enough. Once the likes of Unit 11 were sold off, so went their interrelated group of workers and the shared, combined knowledge which buoyed them.
Now, like the Videofreex, the rogue freelancers of 1960s CBS News, E.S.P. TV’s Unit 11 is free to do what most of us fantasize about: escape from New York. E.S.P. TV toured the United States in 2015, making stops in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Austin, Marfa, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Portland, Minneapolis, Detroit, Owego, Putney, and Lowell. Along the way, they developed a network of over fifty media artists and musicians across the country. Unit 11 has hooked up with more than fifteen organizations, including cable access stations, radio stations, museums, alternative spaces, and drive-ins. Traveling distances like a time machine, Unit 11 has recorded over eighty live tapings with time-based media artists such as Constance DeJong, MSHR, Lary 7, Jennifer Juniper Stratford, Alex Waterman, Martha Wilson, Nate Young, and Alivia Zivich. From these tapings, over one hundred episodes have been produced. These episodes can be seen and heard on New York City’s cable access station, Manhattan Neighborhood Network, on Wave Farm Radio, and online.
On the van’s rear door, the unassuming E.S.P. TV logo reveals a deadpan humor, bringing to mind an irrational Monopoly board where you can buy a Sixth Sense Utility. Unit 11’s function is to “strengthen the ephemeral,” as E.S.P. TV states. Implying a world in-process, the ephemeral conveys the urgent sensibility of time when all we have is now. “Liveness,” once a value of early broadcasting, is the nature of video, and E.S.P. TV returns to it. All activity is “On Air”—there are no interruptions, and no cuts. There is only “switching” between cameras. Experience is durational, as an electronic signal passes from camera to monitor through connecting cables.
Analog pulses of electronic waves of sound and light transmit in real time. E.S.P. TV performances, often a collaborative form of peer production, rely on the important skills of living consciously: preparation, listening, flexibility, and knowledge. As if televisual technology were a musical instrument, technicians play with effects produced by multiple elements and patterns. Elements may be sound envelopes, non-signals, drones, and tape music. Patterns may be “straight,” double-time, in delay, or in distillation.
This past summer, while at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, E.S.P. TV retrofitted Unit 11. Like mad scientists, Keddie and Kiernan pulled out tangled ligaments of cable and replaced monitors, dead SVHS, BetaSP, and dvCam decks. Recordings have been restored, along with a four-channel video mixer and a signal generator. These analog elements have been recombined through an HDMI matrix, creating, in effect, a live composite signal with 3D effects. Ins and outs flow again via Unit 11’s hull. Software engineer Ethan Miller is currently coding anagrammatical software for Unit 11’s captioning and prompters.
Describing a form of conveyance, the word “media” doesn’t point to any particular format. E.S.P. TV’s Unit 11 is part of the nonspecific, interlaced history of cinema and television. A cinema without walls, it is a mobile cinema. En route, Unit 11 brings traveling shows of experimental films to sites off interstate exits.
In April 2016, Unit 11 hosted its first resident artist: the civic-minded Ed Bear. Installing a version of his radioOrgan, he built an eight-radio receiver synthesizer from obsolete electronics. Continuing his Open Source practice, Bear’s approach is as an inventor and trickster: he shifts between art-making, scientific experimentation, and experiential learning. Building a radio from the minutiae up, Bear’s care for craft mark him as an artist with interests in design. He asks, “How can we, as artists, thinkers, hackers, and designers break the cycle of electronic waste that is perpetuated by planned obsolescence and bad design?” It is a good question. Repurposing commercial electronics like iPod Nanos, Ed Bear teaches workshops in re-engineering techniques. Deconstructing the figure of the “expert,” Bear brings us closer to “The Great Whatsit,” and toward empowerment in the shadow of the looming scrap heap.
Bear’s work is further deepened by his commitment to the social formation of the Commons. Fostering the public occupation of Hertzian space, he dispels the belief that the airwaves are off-limits. He states that this access is controlled exclusively by electronic technology. Utopian, Bear’s work is an exercise in what is possible while it remains an illustration of the impossible. Bear’s handmade radios transmit locally with a legal diameter of fifteen feet.
In New York, it is illegal to dump electronics like televisions into the trash; you’ll get a hundred-dollar fine. And yet, there is no federal or state-supported plan to deal with the problem of e-waste. When the system falls short, as in other situations, noble independent organizations take up the slack. The Lower East Side Ecology Center is one of the places (if not the only) to respond to this urgent situation. Organizing with community groups to pick up local electronic waste, a truck is parked and packed with discarded computers, monitors, printers, scanners, fax-machines, copiers, network devices, peripherals, tablets, components, TVs, VCRs, DVRs, DVD players, digital converter boxes, satellite receivers, portable music players, audio-visual equipment, video-games, cell phones, pagers, PDAs, and telecommunications.
Why is there so much dead tech? Obsolescence is central to a capitalist economy. Even after the fall of the Fordist assembly line, our world hurtles forward blindly in a global state of overproduction. We believe the illusion of progress; a new device glows, shining its aura on whomever it possesses. E.S.P. TV’s Episode 89, taped in Detroit, included a short film by Anthony Marcellini, called Obsolescere: The Thing is Falling. A panoramic studio shot of a dusty, busted Ford circa 1980 is surrounded by a female voice speaking a fantasy, which may be commercial advertising copy. Curiously, she speaks both in the past tense and the present:
I was a game changer. A benchmark of Engineering Excellence […] I was made for you. Quality and luxury […] Adapted for all your driving needs [...] Offering you High Performance. Power. And Fuel Efficiency.
I was made to fit your body [...] more than any other tool […] We move together, gripping the road...
Offering the bought welcome of privilege, where everything is good and nothing is wrong, custom details like wood paneling and embedded software make us feel even closer to our chosen brands. Further, electronic devices supposedly activate the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love. Interestingly, this is also the location where synesthesia is produced, where our neatly defined five senses overlap into perception, a defining characteristic of consciousness.
Conspicuous consumption, an expression of identity in late capitalism, presents a community of isolated user profiles. Algorithms suggest, “Since you bought this, you might like that,” or, “People who bought this also bought that.” Held closely in our pockets, driven fast on a road, and admired from across the room, products of the just-past are infused with rosy memories, lost potential, and wish-fulfillment. We are reluctant to give them up. Our relationships are rife with disavowal. The casual fantasy of “if only…” turns in repetition to the more subversive, “Would buying in really be a way out?”
E.S.P. TV’s first solo exhibition, WORK, is on view at Pioneer Works through March 26.
MARY BILLYOU is a practicing filmmaker whose work accesses cultural memory by directing attention to institutional frames and their supporting mechanisms. Combining the amateur, punk and feminism, she consciously engages film as a readerly text. In Spring 2016, she completed a new 16mm film entitled GUN, HAT, GIRL?