Los Angeles

EZTV: Three Decades of Video Antics

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

By David Evans Frantz

EZTV is a video and digital art collective that has been in long-term residence at 18th Street Arts Center since 2000. Founded by pioneering video-maker John Dorr, EZTV first opened its doors to the public in 1983 at a storefront space located on Santa Monica Boulevard in what was then the unincorporated area of Los Angeles County known as West Hollywood. Perhaps the country's first micro-cinema dedicated exclusively to video, EZTV was both a screening venue and production house tracing its roots to earlier video screenings held by Dorr at the West Hollywood Community Center. During the early 1980s, video technology was increasingly becoming accessible, especially to individuals who didn't necessarily have a background in film or art. It was a medium just taking its first steps out of specialization and into a wider circulation of creators, and EZTV was at the forefront locally. The space's scrappy, DIY spirit -- they often salvaged used tapes from Hollywood and rigged equipment to produce advanced effects -- attracted artists and video-makers whose work wouldn't or couldn't be made in either the film industry or the traditional art world.

Explaining EZTV's vision, co-founder Michael J. Masucci stated, "We get criticized for too much diversity but we take our cue from television: programming as opposed to curating." Indeed, in comparison to other venues for video in Southern California at the time - most prominently the Long Beach Museum of Art - EZTV's viewpoint could be characterized as free-for-all (in the best sense of course). While regionally well recognized throughout the 1980s, EZTV's role as a video center and contributor to queer video history has gone largely unacknowledged and undocumented. The exhibition EZTV: Video Transfer at the ONE Archives Gallery & Museum in West Hollywood looks to excavate EZTV's rich history of supporting queer video, as well as its involvement more generally with alternative video practices, performance, art, and community-building. Organized by ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, the largest LGBTQ archive in the world, this exhibition also marks the recent donation of the EZTV video collection to the archives' vast holdings. Concurrently, 18th Street Arts Center is hosting EZTV: Hacking the Timeline v3.0, an exhibition of the history of digital art in Los Angeles curated by Masucci. The public art event ONE Night: EZTV, LA ACM SIGGRAPH, and Digital Art in West Hollywood presented in West Hollywood by the ONE Archives and LA ACM SIGGRAPH looks at this under-recognized aspect of EZTV's history as well. Suffice it to say, EZTV's aesthetic viewpoint was highly eclectic.

EZTV: Video Transfer installation photograph, April 2014. Courtesy of ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

Narrative, experiential, documentary, shorts, installations, and all other kinds of video-antics came together at EZTV. As surmised by EZTV's Kate Johnson: "To me EZTV was a philosophy. It was taking the medium of video and looking at it from as many ways possible and being curious and experimental. How can we mash-up live performance with video or use it with sculpture or within other art mediums? That's why the space was so electric for me." The projects EZTV supported were various. Founder John Dorr placed early emphasis on feature-length videos, akin in style to traditional films. This was perhaps best epitomized by Dorr's first video Sudzall Does It All (1979), a low-budget, high-camp satire of commercial success shot over two days on a borrowed black-and-white bank security camera. Others explored the possibility of something closer to television, though unlike TV that came into your home, you would have to visit EZTV to watch the next episode. The communal screening event was often an important facet of EZTV's programming. "Faculty Wives," a send-up of the soap-opera genre chronicling the scandals and tribulations of higher education and departmental politics at a fictitious university, and the documentary series Hour 25 on science fiction, are two notable examples of this type.

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Not all of EZTV's productions were so tied to Hollywood in style and format. What could be indiscriminately termed "video art" also found a home at EZTV. Later on, EZTV would become a hotbed for experimentation with early digital art, computer graphics, and large-scale projection. Though it was not founded to produce or present video by or for the LGBT community -- the medium of video was the common denominator at EZTV, not gender identity or sexual orientation -- producing work that explored queerness was indeed in the minds of many of its early members. The space was, after all, located in Los Angeles' gay neighborhood -- an area, it should be noted, that then had a wildly different and more diverse socio-economic profile than West Hollywood has today.

Still from John Dorr's "Sudzall Does It All," 1979. Analog Betamax, 90 minutes. EZTV Video Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

The exhibition at the ONE Gallery and accompanying public events also look at other examples of EZTV's queer video history while attempting to point to the spaces' numerous roles. The exhibition includes documents and flyers from screenings and events held at EZTV as well as original videos including: works by EZTV's artistic director James Williams that place the body in relation to the medium of video and the visual language of abstraction; psycho-sexual narrative videos on obsession by T. Jankowski; the lushly visual odyssey "Lemuria," a collaboration between ia Kamandalu (Kim McKillip) and Michael J. Masucci; abstract digital art by pioneering computer artist Ron Hays; and an excerpt from EZTV's soap opera "Faculty Wives." The exhibition also includes documentation of performances presented at or videotaped by EZTV including video of the late, Bay-area artist Frank Moore, whose performances tackled ritual, disability, and eroticism; documentation of a performance by Chicano artist Luis Alfaro; video footage of a private performance by Johanna Went; and documentation of a restaging of plays by Shakespeare organized by punk musician and artist Tomata du Plenty; among numerous others. The show also includes a video tour of EZTV's facilities led by Dorr from 1986; video footage of the unveiling of the West Hollywood sign; and impromptu interviews with people on the street at the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade. The parade footage was immediately screened without editing that evening at EZTV for those who perhaps missed the morning's festivities or were just such videoholics they couldn't get enough EZTV.

Artwork for John Dorr's unrealized project "The Cruising Game," c. 1980. EZTV Video Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

Though it only plays a minor role in "Sudzall Does It All," Dorr's video makes reference to KGAY, a fictitious television station billed as a "department of boys-town broadcasting." Additionally, Dorr's writings for unrealized projects that proceeded EZTV further expand on the possibilities of a gay-themed TV channel. These notes muse on cheeky game shows ideas such as "The Cruising Game" or a narrative video set in a leather bar at a beer bust. While the current commodification of gay-identity through mass media feels ubiquitous and to say the least, not very radical, one can't help but feel inspired by Dorr's playful visions, even if they were never realized. These were after all ideas for TV outside of mass media and commerce -- TV made "EZ" at the very local level.

This exhibition has also explored EZTV's connections to other video spaces and collectives. Though scant records remain, at one time the spinoff group EZTV Dallas was founded in Texas. More notably, early on EZTV had strong connections with the group Video Free Earth in Washington D.C., a video collective formed in 1982. Like EZTV, Video Free Earth had its start focusing on narrative, gay-focused video projects, their early tour-de-force being a trilogy of drag videos that imagined an alcoholic, manic-depressive Joan Kennedy as the first lady. EZTV and Video Free Earth traded videotapes for screenings and collaborated on various projects, a little-known history of queer video exchange between L.A. and D.C.

Luis Alfaro, Documentation of performance at EZTV, July 14, 1990. 12 minutes. EZTV Video Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

EZTV's early history was previously highlighted in 18th Street Arts Center's Pacific Standard Time exhibition "Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists & The Artist Space Movement," curated by Alex Donis who first introduced the ONE Archives to Michael and Kate. Donis wrote, "In effect, their inclusive and unbiased attitude locates EZTV as a birthplace of the West Coast's DIY desktop revolution." This exhibition at the ONE Gallery marks a renewed focus on the group's history, and a look into the organization's influence on local queer video production during the 1980s and early 90s. This will undoubtedly be the first of many projects to emerge from EZTV's vast archive now at ONE.

EZTV: Video Transfer continues at the ONE Archives Gallery & Museum through June 1, 2014. Find more information on the exhibition and accompanying programs organized by ONE Archives here: Hacking the Timeline v3.0: Digilantism and the LA Digital Art Movement (1985-2005) continues at 18th Street Arts Center through June 27, 2014. More information on this exhibition here.

Frank Moore, Documentation of Journey to Lila at EZTV, September 9, 1988. Specific section related to Moore's performance

Johanna Went, Documentation of private performance conducted at EZTV in anticipation of a public event, 1992. 20 minutes. EZTV Video Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries

Still from Jamie Walters and Chasen Gaver's "Fresh Out of Ideas," 1984. 2 minutes. Video Free Earth Production Company records. Special Collections Research Center. The George Washington University

Still from Jamie Walters and Jack Guidone's "First Lady Joan." 1980. 28 minutes. Video Free Earth Production Company records. Special Collections Research Center. The George Washington University

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Top Image: Still from James Williams' "Clear Canvas," 1984. Analog Betamax, edited on 3/4″ video, 5 minutes. EZTV Video Collection. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.

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