Category Archives: My Mediocre Life

My debut as a music video director!

For my friends, the awesome electro-pop band The New Division. Also featuring Sam Brown (of The Whitest Kids U Know) and Cale Hartmann. A big thanks to Colson Knight, who helped out a ridiculous amount.

Hopefully this is the first of many.

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Cable TV in the 90s (Part 1): The 90s


When I was a kid, I was obsessed with cable TV. As compared to the fairly polished digital look of even the scrappiest television networks today, deep cable of the early and mid-90s was a weird and wonderful no-mans land, full of absurd and unusual video of questionable origin. Cable networks that are well-known and well-funded today were then flimsy, low-budget affairs. E! Entertainment Television had just launched, and its programming was a daily 2-hour loop of a languidly-paced Entertainment Tonight-ish newsmagazine. TLC actually stood for “The Learning Channel,” and was mostly horrifically dry demonstrations of math problems. And Spike TV was then called The Nashville Network, home of endless Hee-Haw reruns.

I was always proud of our cable service, since it offered nearly 100 channels in total (as opposed to 65 or so in the adjacent suburbs), but most of these extra channels were chaff at best — public access and local school district channels, whose programming usually included home movie-quality footage of high school lacrosse. At best, you could see some middle school talent show. Pretty dire stuff.

But past even the public access garbage, there was treasure to be found. My two favorite channels were the very pictures of obscurity: a channel called “The 90s” (channel 69) and an obscure pay-per-view channel called “Action Pay-Per-View.” I’ll write about my oddball pay-per-view obsession another time, but for now I’d like to talk about The 90s.

The 90s

In retrospect, it seems amazing that a channel like this could even exist, let alone get national carriage. Born out of a Chicago-area art college, The 90s (“The New Channel for the New Decade”) featured video art, ranging from independent documentaries to video essays to weird and experimental stuff. Most of it was sourced from a non-profit video art library called Video Data Bank.

Now, as a bored pre-teenager living in whitewashed suburbia, I was simply not prepared for anything this outside-the-norm. But unbeknownst to me, the era’s advances in video technology was beginning to make it possible for near-amateurs to create truly personal, if not always good, video works about their lives and their unique experiences. While video art had been around since the 70s, the low cost and portability of new, higher-quality formats like Video8 and SVHS resulted in something of an artistic boom time. “The 90s,” its very name hopeful of the new directions in media and information this would open up, was the first cable network for this sort of content.

And so, 24/7, this cable network would show an eclectic selection of experimental weirdness, probably carefully curated but to the untrained eye, seemingly an unfiltered firehose of bizarre imagery, of experiences far removed from my own, with production values too low to remove the stench of reality. I was like a sponge for this stuff. It was all so inexplicable, and so completely outside the realm of every other piece of media I had access to at the time. At the same time, it felt provocative and dirty, and even a little bit dangerous. It also, as would be important to any teenage boy, occasionally featured nudity.

I will never know the names of most of the works I saw on The 90s. I remember seeing food vendors in Vietnam, demonstrating how they lit a dish on fire in a wok before flinging it over the heads of their patrons and catching it on a plate. I remember hearing the narration of an American, isolated and homesick, as he tried to make his way through Japan, camcorder in hand. There was the story of the guy who was preparing a car to run in a demolition derby, despite constant nagging from everyone that he had a death wish. (The ending made it seem like he might have, in fact, died in the derby, though the narration sure seemed like it was recorded afterwards.) There were animations, poems, visuals. I do recall the name of one work, which I took in on an early Saturday morning with the volume turned low, so as not to wake my family. “Delirium,” a 23-minute very personal documentary of a the artist’s mother and her strange, non-specific “female hysterical disorder,” which may or may not have been real, but nonetheless was a label that affected both their lives. Light-hearted but disturbing and thought-provoking, even though I couldn’t have been more than 14 or so at the time.

There was a lot of chaff in there too. I recall seeing one program open with the title cards, “What you are about to see is a play. The dialogue is part of a script, and the people you see are actors in an open environment. The arrests you see, however, are real.” Following this was amateur hand-held footage of a protest rally for god knows what. There were also a ton of panic-stricken left-wing documentaries, trying desperately to shine a light on poverty and corruption, but usually just tripping over themselves.

“The 90s” didn’t, in fact, last the decade it was named after; in fact, I don’t think it lasted more than a few years, most probably having lost its funding in that decade’s culture wars. Today I can barely even find evidence online of its existence. When it finally disappeared from our channel lineup I was crushed. Lacking even the concept of the internet at this age, The 90s, for all its faults, was a window into a strange adult landscape that, to a young teen, often didn’t make sense but was nonetheless intoxicating. The very raw and emotional nature made it feel like a direct line into the confusing and often terrifying world around me. I loved it.

I’ve had brushes with video art since, especially having gone to art school and frequently visiting Museum of Modern Art in NYC. As with most people I’m put off by the genre’s inherent pretentiousness, and its crap-to-quality ratio is, like all forms of modern art, impenetrably high. In the modern age of YouTube and Vimeo, where video is something that can be produced by the phones in our pockets, video art seems like a conceptual antiquity: the novelty of once-new technology that has since achieved ubiquity and is no longer even a remotely curious object. But even though it might feel more established and less exciting, there is still amazing work being done, if you know where to dig. And thanks to YouTube and Vimeo, most of it is easily available.

But I do miss having a place like “The 90s,” where I could stumble upon something weird and interesting and have absolutely no idea what I’m watching or where it came from. If the internet has robbed us of anything, it’s the mystery of the unknown.

Pilot from peter philip on Vimeo.

Adventures in Culture

On this particular Saturday afternoon I found myself in that awkward combination of boredom and stir-crazy, where I simply must get out of the apartment but have no real idea to what ends. After a brief subway detour around my old haunts in Brooklyn Heights (where I was honored to spend $9 on a “gourmet” fast-food hamburger) I found my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now, I hadn’t been to the Met in some years. If I feel in the mood for a museum, I usually go to the Museum of Modern Art, which never fails to inspire me while simultaneously making me question what the hell some artists are smoking. But the Met’s cavernous size meant that it might be good to get lost in, so I paid my $20 and got the little metal “M” lapel pin.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I ever felt so bored by art. I came to an important realization, as I walked through the halls adorned by centuries old paintings and sculptures: I don’t really give a shit about most artistic time periods.

The REALLY old stuff from truly ancient civilizations is fascinating to a point… But let’s face it. You’ve seen one clumsily-scribbled upon clay pot from 5000 B.C. and you’ve pretty much seen ’em all. Whether they’re from China, from Greece or from Egypt they all pretty much look the same. The statues are interesting from a “look at how talented they were back then” point of view, but one quickly tires of those as they begin to blend together in the mind as well. There is nothing here to relate to, to identify with, or to learn beyond what we were taught in grade school. Nothing until the last few hundred years, and often the most interesting things have been said in the last 50.

Now, you might be saying, “but Justin! It’s all about the culture! The thousands of years of humanity! Isn’t it interesting to imagine how people lived back then?” Well, frankly… no. We already know what people did back in the middle ages, and it was mostly trudge around in muddy, shit-strewn streets, eat bad food, get sick and die. In between, they prayed a lot, self-flagellated because the church told them to, and that was pretty much that. There’s no great romanticism about it — they were miserable, dirty people. I have trouble watching any remotely accurate film about those days because people are so filthy and live in such a state of self-delusion that I quickly tune out. These people have nothing to teach me, other than what it’s like to shit out a kidney.

So as I walked the halls of the Met, being stared at by fat naked women that more closely resemble giant throw-pillows than anything human, pointing at some magical event from the bible recreated, I began to wonder… what, if anything, does any of this art actually say about us? About humanity? If those halls are to be believed, vast stretches of art history serve no other purpose other than to either illustrate the bible (or, in the East, some other religion), or get a paycheck for painting soulless work-for-hire portraits of the rich and the royal, with ne’er a hint of irony or cheer or anything other than cold dead seriousness. Moments of joy, humor, and humanity in general — the whole purpose behind all the art that I love — don’t even seem to come along until the late 1700s.

Gee, does this mean we’ve actually advanced as a race?