(Produced by AS220)
Those seeking potty humor, experimental television, and serious conversations about community arts should be advised to look no further than TV220, a cable-access television show produced in the 1990s and early 2000s by AS220.
AS220 is an unjuried and uncensored space for the arts in Rhode Island’s capital city. It has always operated as and continues to be a community center and residential hub for artists living and working in Providence. AS220 was founded in 1985 by Umberto Crenca, Susan Clausen, and Scott Seabolt. At the time, Providence was a struggling post-industrial city known mostly for its corrupt mafia government. (Beloved former mayor—and convicted felon—Buddy Cianci appears more than once on-screen in TV220, most notably in an original documentary about OBEY founder and former Rhode Island School of Design student, Shepard Fairey, wherein Cianci discusses Fairey’s defacement of his campaign billboard.)
Since AS220’s origins, Providence has seen the growth of a burgeoning art and culture scene and has taken on a new identity as the so-called “Creative Capital.” The city’s evolution occurred in no small part due to the efforts and funding of AS220, which has itself expanded from its original location at 220 Weybosset Street—an address that, along with an abbreviation of “Alternative Space,” gave the organization its name—to now cover over 100,000 square feet of Providence’s downtown with spaces dedicated to community arts programming.
TV220 serves as a revelatory and deeply intimate time capsule documenting an underground arts scene in its formation, with all of its experimentation, collaboration, and awkwardness. It includes evocative documentation of local places and public figures: familiar surfaces of buildings, corners of local coffee shops that have not updated their décor since 1997, and the distinct curve of the river cutting between Downtown and College Hill. Nostalgia is solicited both by a fast-paced flurry of familiar Providence icons (recognizable buildings, people, attitudes, accents) and the charming nineties-style cable-access aesthetics of TV220. The show produces the overwhelming sense that it could only be made in Providence.
A typical episode of TV220 opens with a sequence collaging clips of Providence and the AS220 headquarters. The next thirty minutes proceed with a shower of loud, off-kilter clanging noises and snippets of vibrantly colored video art. A slew of choppy transitions are accompanied by a screeching bang. Segments include footage from local performances, festivals, parades, parties, and fundraisers. There are short films and experiments in animation. Excerpts from The Pork Chop Lounge, a weekly variety show held at the AS220 café, are interspersed with clips of the annual Fools Ball, a festival and fundraising event replete with Big Nazo’s iconic creature costumes.
These short works, which range from less than one minute to the entire thirty minutes, appear alongside interviews with AS220 artists in residence, art world stakeholders, and public figures. In “Episode 9: Return to Providence,” aired in December 2003, AS220 founder and former longtime director Umberto Crenca interviews performance artist Holly Hughes, one of the “NEA Four,” artists whose grant proposals to the National Endowment for the Arts were vetoed by John Frohnmayer in 1990 on the basis of their work’s inclusion of what Hughes calls in the interview “art about the body.” This controversy, which eventually made it to the Supreme Court in National Endowment of the Arts v. Finley, came on the heels of the NEA’s censorship of Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment (1988) and opposition to Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987).The interview, which addresses the “Culture Wars” of the 1990s, is preceded by an excerpt from Hughes’s performance, Clit Notes (1996).
Each episode has a quality of being in-process, of attempt, of exploration over exhibition. At times, watching TV220 feels like witnessing a bunch of friends play around on stage and on-screen. There is occasionally a strange voyeurism to this dynamic. But TV220 also demands to be seen and heard. It could be best described through a lens of excess—grainy, clunky, clangy, obnoxiously local, and unapologetically low-budget. It deals in the realm of too-much and over-the-top, like a soda that doesn’t stop fizzing as it overflows from a glass.
I was first introduced to TV220 through my work as an intern in the Providence Public Library Special Collections department. In 2017, the Providence Public Library acquired AS220’s historical collections as part of their budding Community Archives project, an initiative to empower individuals and communities in Rhode Island to document and record their own histories by offering free archival consulting and support. The AS220 collections make up a substantial and essential part of this project. Through this work, I was tasked with creating metadata for and summarizing episodes of TV220 according to standards of archival description.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, from my apartment in Providence’s Fox Point neighborhood, I began to slowly make my way through nearly every episode of TV220 ever created. In total, over the course of two years, I watched over forty-five hours of TV220.
As I dove into the delirium of TV220, I became enamored with a piece of “archival lore” referenced by Arlette Farge in Allure of the Archives. Farge writes of a fabled mistress of the archives who, in order to stave off boredom and sleep during long hours of sifting through dull materials, placed silver rings on each of her fingers so that they would catch the light. The interaction of light and silver kept her alert through the tedious process. While reading this charming anecdote, it occurred to me that TV220 provides its own silver rings. Its combination of humor and sentiment, as well as its sheer sensorial excess, catches the light.
The process of watching these videos was altered by the fact that I was constantly thinking about how to convert them into language, and not just any language, but the language of that vague and vastly specific thing we refer to as The Archives. The stodginess and stoicism of archival description clashed in humorous ways with the nonsensical tenor of TV220. How does one, for example, formally describe “The Farting Evangelist,” an unmissable segment from 2001 featuring unattributed found footage of fart sound effects played over a televangelist’s preaching? I took pleasure in finding the official Library of Congress subject heading (essentially a tag, or topic) for “Penis--Size” to accompany one performance from January 1998 created by the group “Meatballs Fluxus.” I strung subject headings like this one together into short lists for each episode. On lucky occasions they formed delicate and silly poems:
Lamentations; Twins; Bonfires; Summertime; Butter sculpture.
Costume design, Low budget films, Elvis Presley impersonators.
Laundromats; Panic attacks; Riding lawn mowers; Dancing in motion pictures,
television, etc; Brownie Girl Scouts; Selling--Girl Scout cookies; Puppets.
Color blindness; Digestion; White people; Racism.
Halloween costumes; Wrong and right; Saxophone; Pharmacology; Sermons.
Or a personal favorite: “Wrestling; Card tricks; Abduction; Parades; Carnival games; Sexual behavior; Love; Recreational drug use; Pills; Pregnancy.” These lists of seemingly unrelated nouns become a formally fitting way to describe the disorienting brilliance that is TV220, with its variety show format and un-themed episodes.
The historical or documentarian function of TV220—that is, its unique capacity to capture a particular and saturated moment—is at times in juxtaposition with how the show constantly unsettles the viewing experience through its jerky cuts between segments, lack of contextual information, and absurdist portrayal of the art world. TV220 is constantly shifting, and shifting hard and fast, between disparate mediums, genres, moods, and ideas. It is as discordant as the introductory music that begins each episode. In other words, though TV220 is decidedly emplaced, situating the reader undoubtedly in a specific place and time, it refuses to ground the viewer in much else, instead toggling between various modes of encountering and being encountered by art. In this way, the lists of disparate subject headings become a surprisingly generative way to represent the show.
What’s more, over the decades, AS220 has been fiercely committed to maintaining its status as an unjuried forum for the arts. TV220 is evidence of this commitment, making clear through its content alone that anyone can contribute just about anything they want to the show, from a recurring segment called “Crappy’s Shit Shack,” featuring a plumber who lives in an outhouse, to one of my personal favorites, called “Adobe After-Effects Demonstration,” which, true to its name, features footage of someone just messing around with every tool on Adobe After-Effects 2000. The effect is mesmerizing and discombobulating, a relic of truly artist-driven and community-driven work marked unevenly and un-seamlessly by the hands of many different creators.