Welcome to the TV Party

Gavin Butt

On February 17, 1981, the writer Glenn O'Brien appeared on public-access cable television in New York and announced: "We're going to try something now that has never been tried in the history of televi­sion. . . . We're going to have the first mass television orgone link-up."# Dressed in a jacket worn backward, dark shades, a wig-cum-sporran at his groin, and a plastic bowl on his head, O'Brien drew on Wilhelm Reich's idea of orgone energy to eroticize and make reciprocal the one-way direction of television's information flow. "We have supercharged ourselves with television . . . and now," he points determinedly at the remote TV viewer through the camera lens, "we can turn the force around and make it work FOR YOU!" As typed instructions unfold across the screen—"TURN OFF LIGHTS / INCREASE VOLUME / REMOVE CLOTHING / PLACE HANDS ON GENITALS / BLANK YOUR MINDS"—a band plays a kind of groaning incantation, and O'Brien offers further encouragement to his viewers: "We are going to complete the circuit! Keep that orgone coming!"

This scene was broadcast as part of O'Brien's weekly show TV Party, which ran on Manhattan Cable television in New York between 1978 and 1982. Conceived as a downtown version of Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse (1959–60) and Playboy after Dark (1969–70) in its mingling of talk show and party, it was cohosted by O'Brien and Chris Stein of the new wave group Blondie, along­side the regular TV Party "orchestra," led by the musician and Warhol assistant Walter Steding. Guests were culled from the post-punk worlds of fashion, music, and art and included figures such as Steven Meisel, Debbie Harry, Fab Five Freddy, Arto Lindsay, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Robert Fripp, Klaus Nomi, Chris Burden, and George Clinton. Viewed from the vantage point of the present, TV Party now stands as a document of a remarkable down­town scene, in which black graffiti and hip-hop artists mingled with white gallery artists, and queer performers occupied the same billing as straight film directors and musicians. As a writer for both Inter­view and High Times magazines, as well as for the art press, O'Brien was socially and professionally well placed to bring together these diverse people and to create the hip TV Party scene, the core of which revolved around his circle of friends, who also worked as the program crew.# The show moved chaotically from interviews with and musical performances by guests to phone-ins and improvised set pieces led by O'Brien and his team. It had a deliberately brazen DIY production ethic, which often resulted in poor sound, a "toxic" editing style of sometimes manic switching between camera feeds, and arbitrary shots of people's shoes.#

O'Brien's foray into television, we might say, "appropriated" the existing televisual format of the talk show in order to open up its possibilities, while at the same time purporting to challenge the institution of television itself. Hefner's Playboy programs were styled as sophisticated and exclusive cocktail parties to which television allowed its viewers the thrill of virtual access. TV Party was "a cocktail party which could also be a political party," as the show's tagline would have it. This telegraphed O'Brien's belief that "in a democracy the only form of government is television" and to intervene in—or take on—TV was to engage in a kind of alternative form of politics.# Emerging scholarship on TV Party has begun to address its would-be subversiveness as something more than a "kitsch pastiche" of Hefner's original by focusing on its playful attempts to break open the "closed circuit" of 1970s network TV. As the media scholar Benjamin Olin has written, in finding a space on public-access television, as opposed to the corporate broadcast networks, TV Party constituted a form of TV made by people with relatively little economic capital (youngish and largely New York–based artists, performers, poets, and musicians) but also, in its attempt to "orgonize" TV producers and consumers, gestured toward a radically synesthetic and libidinal remodeling of televisual communication.# Given this reading, it is easy to see how we might place TV Party as heir to both the democratizing moves of guerrilla television in early 1970s California and, as Olin himself points out, early twentieth-century explorations of synesthetic experience by the European avant-gardes.#

But what interests me here is how TV Party, by reworking an existing talk-show format, can be seen to typify something almost paradoxical about postpunk culture and its relationship to acts of cultural appropriation. As Simon Reynolds has argued, postpunk music on both sides of the Atlantic, in its drive to "rip it up and start again" between 1978 and 1984, might be understood as the last gasp of a modernist sensibility bent on producing new, original forms of music—the likes of which had never been heard before.# Thus bands such as Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, and Scritti Politti initially eschewed characteristic rock sounds and rhythms and/or embraced electronic instruments in order to frustrate any easy assimilation into established musical genres and, ultimately, com­modification by the rock and pop industry. But looking again at such music, it is clear that—even despite its modernist hankering after the new—postpunk was widely engaged in a renegotiation of the old.# Talking Heads reworked elements of funk and disco; Throbbing Gristle practiced an aggressive re-versioning of 1960s psychedelia, and early Scritti Politti replayed dub reggae rhythms, albeit overlaid with scratchy, angular "punk" guitar work. Thus postpunk's attempt to fashion the new was almost always, from the start, involved in a citation of the old. This means that the line between "modernist" postpunk music and avowedly postmodernist art by "Pictures" artists such as Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo, characterized by its explicit citation of preexisting imagery, looks increasingly blurry the more you focus in on it.# Appropriation—of specific images as well as of cultural forms and styles of music—was a fundamental feature of much innovative US art and music in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is particularly true of the "scratch­ing" of early hip-hop, as practiced by the likes of DJ Kool Herc, involving the selective remixing and replaying of old soul and funk records to create new rhythmic music for block parties in the Bronx. 

Total Recall, by Gretchen Bender, 1987
Total Recall, 1987
Estate of Gretchen Bender. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; photography by Brian Forrest

What O'Brien's TV Party demonstrates, then, is how the self-conscious citations of appropriation art, on the one hand, and the antiestablishment drive toward the new of postpunk and hip-hop, on the other, fed a critical, often irreverent interrogation of TV by New York artists working in late 1970s and early 1980s culture. For visual artists such as Dara Birnbaum, already by 1977 working with appropriated footage from the mainstream TV networks, the point was to critique TV not as medium but "as an institution," evident perhaps most clearly in her deconstructive take on the gendered messages communicated in Wonder Woman and other mainstream TV shows.# In Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978–79), actual footage from the TV series is reedited to form an "aberrant" and disrupted version of the origi­nal, which implores the viewer to reflect on the conventionally seamless structuring of such popular entertainment programs.# For a slightly younger generation of artists and critics who became associated with the Nature Morte gallery in New York's East Village in the mid-1980s, including Gretchen Bender and David Robbins, television replaced cinema as the mass form of contempo­rary communication requiring artistic engagement of its forms. That didn't always mean being "critical" of television, as Robbins notes: "We were conscious of being the first generation of American artists not to regard TV as an enemy . . . but instead the linchpin of a con­temporary informational infrastructure."#

Excerpted from Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. Copyright © 2014 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.

"The Crusades Show," Glenn O'Brien's TV Party, aired February 17, 1981 (Brinkfilm, 2006), DVD.

In addition to Stein, these included the photographer Edo Bertoglio and the film director Amos Poe, who became TV Party's cameraman and director, respectively.

The description of the editing as "toxic" is Debbie Harry's. On-screen interview, TV Party: The Documentary, directed by Danny Vinik (Brinkfilm, 2006), DVD.

O'Brien, on-screen interview, This Is Not a Dream, directed by Gavin Butt and Ben Walters, produced by Performance Matters and BURN (2011).

Benjamin Olin, "Circuit Breakers: Glenn O'Brien's TV Party 1978–1982," draft chapter of PhD dissertation (New York University, 2010), 5. Olin's full project is titled "Underground Networks: Artists' Television in New York City, 1974–1986." See also Kara Elizabeth Carmack, "Anton Perich Presents and TV Party: Queering Television on Manhattan Public Access Channels, 1973–1982" (MA thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2010).

Olin, "Circuit Breakers," 13. See also David Joselit, Feedback: Television against Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 87–131, for a useful account of guerrilla television in the 1970s. In addition to these geographically and historically remote precursors, TV Party was also indebted to more proximate experiments with public-access TV in New York, including Anton Perich Presents (1973–78) and Coca Crystal's If I Can't Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution (1977–95).

Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984 (London: Faber, 2005).

Simon Reynolds also acknowledges this point but without blunting his claim that postpunk music constituted a kind of last gasp of the "artistic imperative to be original." Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past (London: Faber, 2011), 176.

Pictures was the name of an exhibition organized by Douglas Crimp at Artists Space, New York, in 1977. See Douglas Crimp, "Pictures," October, no. 8 (Spring 1979): 75–88.

Dara Birnbaum, interview with Norman Klein, in Rough Edits: Popular Image Video Works, 1977–1980, ed. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1987), 90.

Dara Birnbaum, on-screen interview, This Is Not a Dream.

David Robbins, "ABC TV," Artforum 38 (October 1999): 118.