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Public Access: E.S.P. TV Aims a Lens at the Inner Workings of Work

E.S.P. TV’s “Work” in action.

COURTESY PIONEER WORKS

For “Work,” an exhibition at the enterprising arts space Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, the multimedia collective E.S.P. TV moved the venue’s office operations from back-of-house to center stage. What has traditionally been an open plan workspace on the second floor was transported to the Red Hook venue’s 5,000-square-foot main exhibition area, now the centerpiece of an installation that turns the site into an ad-hoc television office and production studio. The end result is a series of edited TV shows with workers as subjects—potentially the most mundane situation-comedy of all time. The day of the opening, I walked around the exhibition with E.S.P. TV’s two main principals—Victoria Keddie and Scott Kiernan—and Pioneer Works curator David Everitt Howe to peer into the inner workings of “Work,” which commenced February 10 and continues, in real time, through March 26.

“I feel like everyone settled in pretty easily,” Keddie said of workers who moved into position the day before. They were the focal point, surrounded by blocky old TV cameras and blue walls that could be keyed out for easy green-screen-like effects. Photos and ephemera recalled the look of old ’90s instructional videos, with ergonomic chairs, white desks, and a conference room. Howe called the aesthetic of the installation a “pastiche of the contemporary office.”

Although this is its first attempt at building an office environment, E.S.P. TV has been a consistent presence within the New York City experimental-video community for the past half-decade plus, most notably through their regular show on the cable-access enterprise Manhattan Neighborhood Network. Beyond working with a deep list of respected underground artists and incorporating outmoded video technology to definitive formal ends, the project as a whole has a lively spirit that puts it in conversation with arty cable access classics like Glenn O’ Brien’s TV Party and the more recent Let’s Paint TV.

As you walk into the installation, the first thing you may notice is a large van, which ESP has dubbed the “Unit 11 Newsvan” and uses as a mobile studio for guest musicians as well as a residency program throughout the year. Around it is a control room loaded with analog editing gear directly facing the office area; taping is edited on the fly and then condensed into what will be a six-part series to be aired incrementally throughout the exhibition on Manhattan Neighborhood Network and online. “We’re editing for time,” Keddie said. “If something happens where someone breaks a glass or a dog runs in front of the camera and pulls the camera chord—all of these things stay in.”

Editing equipment for E.S.P. TV's "Work."COURTESY PIONEER WORKS

Editing equipment for E.S.P. TV’s “Work.”

COURTESY PIONEER WORKS

On the back wall of the office facing the workers is a series of four photos all depicting a man in a business suit drawing out a sort of rainbow-like figure, modified by what Keddie calls “four pretty big errors in camera production.” One photo is out of focus, while another has tilt on the horizon. The other two display a blurry whip pan and a zoom mistake. “These are kind of things that are errors, but they showcase the motion of the camera too,” Keddie said. “There’s this kind of beauty in the mistake that we like.” Kiernan spoke of exposing “the apparatus itself,” referring to the camera as an “intense presence—almost like a person.” In the center of all of this is an image made out of video feedback that Kiernan called an “uncalibrated still life.”

Like any good office, there’s also a break room, complete with a water cooler. “The water cooler is essential,” Keddie said of a prop that had already attracted people standing around. Also in the break room: a couch, a TV, a VCR, and more than 100 tapes culled from the E.S.P TV archive, free to pick and watch for as little or long as a viewer might like. I asked if anyone is coming in to watch tapes all day. “If they are, I will not bother them—but I will have questions afterward,” Keddie joked. “Nowhere to go?”

The whole scenario put me in mind of the original British version of the TV show The Office. Beyond the antics of Ricky Gervasis’s famous character David Brent, what really resonated was the show’s use of long, often awkward interludes. Instead of the peppy music-driven bumpers that have traditionally driven TV comedies, The Office simply took the mundane moments that happen during any given work day—things like paper jams and poorly timed sneezes—and let them play out on their own. In a sense, “Work” takes a version of this formal conceit to its logical end.

Viewing the first episode (which can be seen online), I was struck by how much E.S.P TV foregrounded the production aspect of process, with evidence of camera directions and internal dialogue as well as directors queuing up abstracted computer-generated transitions. It is a TV show about making a TV show, with different kinds of work happening all at once. On top of this, a generative script spits out quippy captions, adding a layer of dry absurdity to an already pulled-apart look at the video-making process.

It’s also important to remember that, within the all-encompassing concept, there are real people getting real things done. Greg Fox, director of music development at Pioneer Works, was burrowed in his laptop, playing metal music out of a small speaker. I asked him if he had any comments on the rather unusual situation of his surroundings. “I’m just here, don’t talk to me,” he said. “I have to get back to work.”

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