Deconstructing Television from Within: the Alternative Aesthetics of Paper Tiger Television

Curator's Note

This year is the 25th anniversary of Paper Tiger Television (PTTV), an alternative media collective best known for its verbal deconstruction of mainstream media programs, products and practices and its aesthetic deconstruction of television. This long running public access cable program pioneered a punk, DIY look that included painted backdrops, handmade and handheld graphics, a mix of black & white and colored footage, rough edits, meandering camera work, informal hosts, and irreverent cutaways.

PTTV has diffused its theory of aesthetics over the years through the training and participation of hundreds of video makers (myself included) and the exhibition of its programs. This clip, taken from the retrospective program, "Paper Tiger Reads Paper Tiger Television" (2007), left me with same exuberant feeling I had the first time I saw a PTTV show. I thought then, “Wow, television doesn’t have to look like it does.” You are viewing this clip on the Internet, where it no longer deconstructs television from within that very form. Yet, I think the clip retains its power to prompt viewers toward a more critical stance on mainstream media aesthetics.

In his book, Radical Media, John Downing appeals to radical media makers to pay more attention to the aesthetic dimensions of their work, to draw on arts movements (Situationism, German Expressionism, Surrealism, Dada) and art critics (Brecht, Benjamin) concerned with public communication, and to search for more innovative ways to engage people. Much alternative media is long on counter-information and short on aesthetic innovation. PTTV’s work asks us to think about how alternative media can expand its practices to convey aesthetic and intellectual impact, and how media educators might draw on alternative media to offer students both a critique of mainstream aesthetics and some tools for re-envisioning the look and substance of the media.


Laura's discussion of alternative aesthetics in Paper Tiger reminded me of Nam June Paik's "The Medium is the Medium" which was broadcast on WGBH in Boston in 1969. His work contained a series of what seemed like unrelated images, many of which were distorted (like a swirling image of Richard Nixon), and included a voice-over of Paik instructing his viewer to open their eyes, close their eyes, partially open their eyes. Paik's piece challenged viewers both to reconceive what television looks like and to question who had control over the images and content that passed over their screens. It illustrated one of the initial goals of public television: to provide opportunities for aesthetic creativity and innovation in programming that commercial broadcasters were unwilling to entertain.

Some months ago, Dorothy Kidd and I had an interest conversation about alternative-media-for-mobilization in contrast to alternative-media-to-speak-the-world-in-different-terms. More and more, I am convinced that we need to value the revolutionary potential of expression, re-codification, re-invention of languages to express experience.

This is a very interesting discussion indeed as it shows how our understandning of alternative media would gain from input from the field of art. Do anyone know of studies leading in that direction? Do artists and media scholars use the same definitions of "media", "communications" etc?

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