SOOB: Celebrating oppositional television

Danni Zuvela

Gerald Keaney, David Hinchcliffe (Deputy Lord Mayor of Brisbane), Keaneysville

Gerald Keaney, David Hinchcliffe (Deputy Lord Mayor of Brisbane), Keaneysville

“Television can no more speak without ideology than we can speak without prose. We swim in its world even if we don’t believe in it.”
Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time

“If young people are not engaged in the gathering and trading of data that directly informs their perception of the society, the potential for a widespread tactical overthrow of the system is threatened. And if activist content producers are not willing to use all the means at their disposal to compete with the mainstream broadcast spectacle, then they are not serious about building a movement to silence it.”
Stephen Marshall, Guerrilla News Network founder

The histories of video practice are characterised by regular confrontations with its ‘frightful parent’, television. Brisbane-based anarcho-activist video collective Kill Your Television (KYTV), in producing a series of works designed to screen on TV and stream on the web, represents a particular mode of engagement with video’s forebear: oppositional television.

Audiences at the 2004 Straight Out Of Brisbane Festival (SOOB) sampled a cross-section of KYTV’s boisterously political endeavours from the last 2 years. Although openly hostile to the central role of television in the mass media’s production of spectacle, the manufacturing of consent and cornerstone support of consumer capitalism, KYTV does not tread the same formal ground as previous radical television collectives. Unlike many radical videomakers, particularly from the 70s and 80s, the group is less interested in the aggressive pursuit of viewer alienation through form than the subversion of television’s representational regimes. Political articulation is central to most of their work, but KYTV eschew radical video works’ earlier myopic fixation on foregrounding formal devices. Rather, the programs generally seek a specifically televisual aesthetic and audience engagement.

Crowning the popular SOOB screening program, the episodes of KYTV looked and felt like 3 hours of variety-style television, albeit with a distinct political bent. Comprising a plethora of segments, ranging from news, animations, short documentary, skit-style comedy and fly-on-the-wall observation, the anarchic, fast-paced concatenation of the KYTV format could feasibly unsettle some viewers’ expectations of television. ‘Reality’ TV is a particular target, as mercilessly lampooned as that other contemporary newspeak phrase requiring quotation marks, the ‘Pacific Solution’ (the subject of Laura Krikke’s clever stop-motion animation Overboard, in which ‘Phil’ and ‘Johnny’ meet natural justice when marooned at sea). The Keaneysville segments saw experimental poet/street philosopher Gerald Keaney accosting bemused market shoppers and demanding they define ‘freedom’, or debating the merits of reform versus revolution with a local councillor, upturning the narrow conventions of the managed confessional talk show.

The greatest challenge to the normative artifice of Reality TV emerged in the short observational fly-on-the-wall documentary segments. Some of these were warm but not particularly consequential conversations with artists and activists. However, in the more intimate observations, KYTV offered some truly unique, if not easy-watching, television. In a particularly memorable segment viewers were confronted with the paranoid delusions of speed psychosis as a member of the artist colony at the Chateau House (for a time, the nerve centre of KYTV) repeatedly checked the window for the police car he was convinced was waiting for him.

However challenging the individual segments, the collective’s conscious employment of broadcast television’s conventions and appropriation of the youth-oriented, attention-deficit aesthetic of music television and other cable shows made the work intelligible for a substantial audience. Co-founder and independent filmmaker Sarah-Jane Woulahan sees the central goal of KYTV as challenging the “moribund, artificial, dishonest, manipulative and repetitive” mediascape by creating works that “challenge viewers to construct their own meaning from what they see…We are making media ourselves that seeks to challenge, offend, incite, excite, educate and entertain…We want KYTV to feel like it’s your friends speaking directly to you without all the candy filters, lies and desperate attempts to sell you something. KYTV is about simultaneous television consumption and action.”

In this, they differ profoundly from previous radical television undertakings such as Jean Luc Godard’s characteristically introspective forays into a “television of opposition.” The high production values and manifest confidence of the KYTV program not only evince the expertise of Woulahan, Squareyed Films partner Sean Gilligan and other experienced video and filmmakers in the collective, but invite comparisons with other alternative television projects. In its marriage of pop aesthetics and politicised content, exemplified in Michael Tornabene’s cutting to the beat in a piece showing the most graphic imagery of atrocities in Iraq an Australian audience is likely to encounter, KYTV resembles the video work of the Guerrilla News Network (GNN, www.guerrillanews.com).

GNN’s Stephen Marshall argues that activist television “can either snobbishly reject the ‘populist’ approach or take our cues from the mainstream realm of advertising and music television and deliver socio-political commentary in the most charismatic style possible.” GNN’s short, rhythmic political documentaries have enjoyed significant international festival success, are featured on community access TV and streamed on the web—all long-term goals of the KYTV collective. However, where GNN’s aim is to seriously compete with mainstream corporate media, KYTV’s orientation is less ‘serious-leftist’ and more ‘chaotic-libertine.’

Indicative of KYTV’s anarchic style was a piece in which a member of a prominent Brisbane band related his experiences standing at a urinal after playing at the World Cup next to “this short little man in a suit and a scarf…then I realised who it was and wondered if in that moment, I would piss on the Prime Minister’s shoes.” But suddenly he is frightened by the little man’s “evil presence, like someone who is very angry and his vibe is like a hot coal up your arse, it freezes you.” With painful sincerity, Paulie apologises to Australia: “Sorry…I just froze…and passed up the opportunity…Hopefully if you have the opportunity you will be more brave than me. I’m sorry.”

KYTV’s anarchic approach was also evident in the way their program unfolded at SOOB—a mad jumble of heterogenous segments, punctuated by Gilligan’s acutely constructed newsflashes—and in the other activities of the group such as mobile guerrilla screenings, underground film and music nights, and staged, videoed actions. The overwhelming aesthetic is of an insouciant, freewheeling onslaught with committed subversion at its core. In its libertarian reinvention of political protest, KYTV employs tactical media to counter the media manipulation of neo-conservative governments and global corporations. In this weaponisation of the tools of representation, KYTV has the same transformative goals of GNN and other new wave video warriors.

Kill Your Television Second Annual Screening, Straight Out Of Brisbane Festival, Village Twin Theatre, Brisbane, Dec 12, 2004

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 19

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005