The 95-year-old father of public-access television sat on the stage, frowning. “I’d like to say that if what we saw on the screen tonight is all that is public access, it would never have lasted,” said George Stoney. The crowd laughed awkwardly. “I think what we saw was the worst aspects of public access.” There were a few scattered claps among the audience. “I thought that this show did a disservice to the whole idea of public access!”
Mr. Stoney was sitting next to a man in a full-body bunny suit. The occasion was the opening night of “TV Party: A Panorama of Public Access Television in New York City,” an exhibition, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, compiled to celebrate the 40th anniversary of cable access in New York. The audience of aging hippies, shut-ins and nerds was silent for a moment.
“That was pleasant,” William Hohauser, also onstage, representing the sketch-comedy series The Vole Show, said.
“I’m not denying that you people,” Mr. Stoney sneered, “represent an aspect of public-access history. But I want the audience to know that there’s a whole different view of accomplishment that public access has done. City councils, the youth channel, all the other things. Please do not judge what you saw on the screen as representing all of public access.”
What the attendees saw on the screen included Robin Byrd lecturing about safe sex on her pornographic train wreck of a series, The Robin Byrd Show, as a caller came on the line to ask, “When are you gonna take your top off?”; Coca Crystal of The Coca Crystal Show getting high on camera, talking about the latest in marijuana news and bragging that she offered “television’s only pot symposium”; the Ben Vaughn Combo performing live on The Scott and Gary Show, singing, “I feel like I got Phil Spector’s bodyguards/ On either side just to keep me from harm/ when I’m in your arms,” while kids dressed like Morrissey danced around in a dingy basement; and Jaime Davidovich, host of The Live! Show, walking up to a little girl in a shopping mall and asking her, “Do you know what video art is? It’s using television as art.”
Onstage with Mr. Stoney afterward were Mr. Davidovich, Mr. Hohauser and Ron Grunwald and Tony Arena of Wild Record Collection (a show that mostly consists of stuffed animals dancing in front of a record sleeve while a song plays); Lisa Yapp of the gossipy Yapp’s Raps; Scott Lewis and Gary Winter of The Scott and Gary Show; and–in the full-body bunny suit–Rapid T. Rabbit from the puppet variety show Rapid T. Rabbit and Friends.
The exhibition confirms that certain aspects of public-access TV–not those that Mr. Stoney prizes–exist in a lineage with the video art that was gaining influence in New York galleries at the same time that cable was giving amateurs an opportunity to cultivate, and broadcast, a personality. One video shown at the screening was of Paul McMahon, a nearly forgotten singer and artist, performing his song “How I Love Your Paintings.” Mr. McMahon ran in the same circles as John Baldessari and was surprisingly–though appropriately–included in the Met’s exhibition “The Pictures Generation” in 2009. In the video, he plays a conventional doo-wop chord progression on a Gibson SG, wearing a tuxedo and bow tie, his hair parted and receding. He sings in a shaky tenor, “How I love your paintings/ They thrill me so much.” He falls to his knees, his face distorted in pain, as if at any moment he will start to weep. “I like the one on the left/ I’m screaming for your paintings.”