The end of an era – the legendary Experimental Television Center closes
In 1971 Ralph Hocking and friends founded the Experimental Television Center (ETC) in New York. Now, after a colourful and successful 40-year history, the ETC has terminated operations as of 1 July 2011. This closing marks the end of an era – the era of analogue video and artistic community television.
The catchword motivating the founding of the Experimental Television Center was “˜media access’. Against the backdrop of a series of technical advances, namely the first portable television cameras and video recorders, access to the media for one and all suddenly seemed to be within reach. The ETC fulfilled several functions in this respect: it was a technical development lab, a meeting place for artists, and a non-profit centre for media education and production.
The Center did groundbreaking, innovative work in all these sectors. Technological milestones included designing an image processor that later became famous under the name Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer. Technical equipment, usually consisting of commonly available devices modified to fit the needs at hand (today we would call it “˜modding’) were put at the disposal of artists and non-profit organizations for their own video productions. The resulting works were then shown in exhibitions, but more importantly also on open public television channels such as WGBH (Boston) and WNET (Newark).
Among the early shows that would not have been possible without ETC were for example “Tribute to John Cage” or the weekly programme “Access” produced by Sherry Miller Hocking. During the same period, Nam June Paik was working with Charlotte Moorman at ETC on “TV Cello”. These pioneers had the goal of having their cultural and social agendas reach people directly in their living rooms.
A state-sponsored residency programme gave artists the opportunity to work on projects at ETC. It was later joined by further grant programmes. The Center hence grew to become an important funding institution for video and film art projects. Since its founding the Experimental Television Center has supported more than 1,500 artists. The names read like a Who’s Who of video art. In the early days they included for example Joan Jonas, Beryl Korot, Gary Hill, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton and Ken Jacobs. Many remained true to the Center for years, if not decades. In the 1980s they were joined by a new generation. Paul Garrin, Irit Batrsry, David Blair, Peter Rose, Peter Callas and Kathy High, among others, took advantage of the Center’s offerings. And then in the 1990s came filmmakers such as Abigail Child, Keith Sanborn, Lynn Sachs, Ken Kobland and Barbara Hammer.
The Center has continued to grow and develop till today, remaining as innovative as ever. The switchover from analogue to digital was accomplished early on, and yet the technical and cultural conditions for media production have been altered so dramatically that we can only speak here of a sea change. Further exacerbating matters is the failure to establish amongst the broadcasting stations the idea of television as creative medium. At the same time, video art has been discovered by the art world and by the art market. What’s more, the internet has opened up whole new possibilities for public access and community production, the idea on which the Center was based – in fact, its very reason for being. And one trend that the Center itself fostered intensively and lastingly – that of developing production means and affordable technologies for independent artists and filmmakers – has led to a situation today in which anyone can open his or her own studio at home. In recent years the Experimental Television Center therefore found itself working primarily as an agency for public project grants – an institutionalization process that also led to a growing administrative workload.
In a kind of open farewell letter, Ralph and Sherry Hocking cite further reasons for closing the Center, although none of these was probably decisive on its own. Critical was certainly the discontinuation of institutional funding through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The reason given for the funding cut was that the studio no longer corresponded with ADA standards (ADA=Americans with Disabilities Act). It would have been necessary to remodel the Center or even to move to new premises – not realistic alternatives. The Hockings also speak openly of the fact that they are simply too old and tired to go on as before. And they rail about how the boring and time-consuming administrative work has gotten out of hand due to bureaucratic requirements …
Even though the Experimental Television Center as public production studio is closing, the ETC nonetheless maintains a public presence. In fact, the Center is now devoting itself to a new, equally important task: documenting the history of video art and community television. This includes the restoration and preservation of video works and the requisite technology for showing them, in order to ensure that they remain accessible to the public in future as well. The ETC recognized this necessity very early on in view of the impermanence of the media and technology, and launched its “Video History Project” back in 1994. That’s why the History Project website is already today an inexhaustible treasure trove and information source for an exciting chapter in media history – a chapter that still seems so recent and yet, with all the fast-paced developments in the meantime, so very long ago.
URL ETC: http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org
Video History Project: http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/history/index.html
(see also in Faits Divers “short film online”: The Wobbulator demo video)