Public television gets momentarily and hesitantly adventurous tonight with the premiere of a new eight-week summer series, "Alive From Off Center," at 10 on Channel 26. About five years late, par for the PBS course more or less, "Alive" acknowledges the existence of a video art movement producing ambitious, innovative, whimsical and merely nutty works that utilize and manipulate television technology.
Host Susan Stamberg, of National Public Radio, calls this "new wave television" in her introduction tonight, but no one label seems to fit all the pieces on the program. In the first half-hour, the mood swings take a viewer from a percussionist who "plays" New York City by beating its lampposts, garbage cans, signs, grates, buildings and pavement with drumsticks ("Ear to the Ground" by John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald) to a loopy "Butoh dance" performed by white-powdered members of Japan's Sankai Juku dance troupe, who pose, scurry and emit silent screams inside the underground Battersea power station in England.
"Ringside," by Michael Schwartz, bounces red-garbed dancer Elizabeth Streb around a blue platform on which two yellow dots have been painted. She is bounced by the shock editing, so abrupt that the piece is physically tiring to watch. Director Zbigniew Rybczniski is presumably just trying to be cute, meanwhile, with "The Discreet Charm of the Diplomacy," in which barnyard animals appear to walk upside down under a table at a recreation of a White House reception.
Two of the most celebrated auteurs in the still infant video form are represented on tonight's uneven sampler. Laurie Anderson, whose "O Superman" was a particularly pivotal piece of video-musical exploration, contributes "Sharkey's Day," a lighthearted trifle in which Anderson appears with an electronic face, half minstrel man, half "Mr. Bill," telling a sort of rap story that doesn't make sense.
Not making sense -- literal, linear sense anyway -- is a badge of honor in this field, of course. "Alive's" theme music was written by David Byrne of Talking Heads, for whom "Stop Making Sense" has served as motto and movie title. Anderson always fails to make sense intriguingly. She synthesizes poetry, music, choreography and video in a way that keeps you from noticing the seams.
But when it comes to accessibility, nobody working in video seriously has more sheer, unassuming fun than William Wegman, who deserves a full-scale public TV retrospective of his own (video art is young, yes, but still old enough to merit retrospectives). "Singing Stomach" is just what it sounds like, a solo by Wegman's own midsection, his navel becoming a puckish, pockish mouth. Less cute and more disarming is one of several pieces Wegman shot with his magnificently videogenic dog, the late Man Ray; in this one, Man Ray patiently goes over his alleged answers to a spelling lesson in which a few of the words represent some of his personal favorite places on the planet: "beach," "park" and so on. The TV camera loved Man Ray in the way the movie camera loved Garbo. Or in somewhat the way.
It's too early to say if new borders are really being bravely crossed by these video artists, or even, maybe, if all this video is "art," but then that word may simply be out of date anyway. For the moment, which is all that seems to matter any more, "Alive From Off Center," produced for PBS by KTCA of Minneapolis-St. Paul, offers welcome and rewarding sights for sore, and bored, eyes.