The one thing television neglects the most is itself, as a medium. We all know TV can be extremely entertaining, but usually it's what's "on" that's diverting us -- the program content -- not television per se.
To see what can happen when television is treated as an artistic palette, to be manipulated, transformed and configured in surprisingly absorbing and exhilarating ways, tune in to today's "Alive From Off Center," which launches a third, 10-part season on PBS at 12:30 p.m. on Channel 26, WETA (and 10 p.m. on Channel 32, WHMM).
"Alive From Off Center" is a pioneering series that brings together artists in various performance fields -- music, dance and theater, mainly -- and artistically minded video directors and producers, often with combustible results. This season, for the first time, the series host is performance artist Laurie Anderson, whose zany persona and symbiotic relationships with audiovisual technologies make her an ideal choice. In the segment that leads off this show, she carries on a dialogue with her "clone" -- it's a bass-voiced Anderson superimposed onto the screen with her "normal" self.
The show itself, titled "As Seen on TV," matches postmodern clown Bill Irwin, the MacArthur Foundation awardee whose "The Regard of Flight" has become a classic of new vaudeville, with imaginative videographer Charles Atlas, a frequent past collaborator with choreographer Merce Cunningham.
The conceptual premise of the piece is droll -- Irwin as trapped within the TV "box," unable to escape and scurrying between one program and another, when he isn't imprisoned within the color bars. The actual comedic material, however, is only sporadically equal to Irwin's many talents as a mime, dancer, juggler and buffoon. In a sense, video takes the upper hand -- the program is most effective as a demonstration of visual and technical possibilities. But as such, it tends toward giddy and simple-minded repetitiveness, like a robot toy with a limited repertoire of tricks.
The most rewarding moments are those that afford Irwin the chance to exhibit his hilarious powers of movement, as applied to appropriately satirical contexts.
The show starts with Irwin hustling down a New York sidewalk, responding to a newspaper notice about television auditions. Once in the studio, he finds a room with a TV monitor and a tripod-supported video camera and goes into a marvelous funny bit wrestling with this apparatus and its connecting cords. In the midst of this bout, he falls out of a skyscraper window, dangling from the sill, dropping out of sight, and then returning -- not into the room space, but somehow inside the monitor and on its screen.
From there on, Irwin shuttles between spoofs of daytime soap opera, music videos, old-fashioned ballet and a standard TV newscast, with himself as the "on-the-scene" story -- man dangling from upper-story window. The piece ends with an amusing new twist on a very old device.
Most television continues to be in the mode of radio with pictures, or two-dimensional theater, or miniaturized movies. Those who have ventured to deal with video as an art form have generally been confined to museum installations or video festivals, even though many of their innovations have been put to strenuous use in commercials, station logos and the music video repertory.
"Alive From Off Center" is a valiant attempt to put adventurous video where it belongs -- on the video tube itself. The Irwin-Atlas "As Seen on TV," despite its flaws, shows that creative collaboration in this realm needn't be esoteric, puerile or abstruse. It's a bracing, lively, inventive and mirthful start for the new series.