Boundaries and Beyond: The Termite TV Collective

Article excerpt

Termite ... art moves always forward eating its own boundaries and likely as not leaves nothing in its place but the signs of eager, industrious unkempt activity.

--Manny Farber

Pennsylvania is a sprawling, forest-covered state where real estate agents warn potential buyers that the termite is the state "pet." To a homeowner the termite is something to watch for and fear. With this reputation, it is fitting to find in the heart of Philadelphia a different genus of termite, also busy in their eager activity, eating any boundaries in their path. However, these termites should only be feared by those invested in television as status quo, for this band of termites challenges the culture as they expand the aesthetics of television.

Inspired by the Manny Farber quote, the Termite TV Collective has, since 1992, created their own path through television culture, producing work that challenges their audience to address, head-on, current cultural and political issues as they unfold. But unlike Farber's statement, the Termites are accumulating an impressive body of work which, after nine years, continues to provoke thought and action from its audience.

The Termites began as a small group of MFA students at Temple University, (Mike Kuetemeyer, Jim Ospenson, and Meryl Perlson) in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film (since reorganized as the Department of Film and Media Arts). There they found a philosophical approach to film and video production that allowed them to question "industry" standards, both technical and contextual. As part of a media writing class in 1992 they were asked to propose projects for the course. Encouraged by Temple faculty member Alan Powell, the future Termites decided on using television to work out their ideas. Adapting the name from a Madison, Wisconsin based public access series, the Termite TV Collective formed and secured a weekly half-hour time slot through DUTV, a Drexel University based television channel. With a time slot and a potential audience, all they needed was a program.

From this beginning grew the weekly series, "This is Not a Test," a program now broadcast nationally on Free Speech Television. The collective devised a structure where each program is organized around a theme, yet each Termite is left to interpret that theme in any way he or she sees fit. The opportunity of a weekly program affords producers immediate reaction to issues of importance for both themselves and their audience. Perlson explains the freedom of experimentation offered to the early Termites: "Termite work, like television, was made to be forgotten. We were given this wonderful opportunity to experiment with the medium." [1]

Program #1, "Rizzo's Brain," aired in spring of 1992. "Rizzo's Brain" took a posthumous look at the legacy of former Police Chief and Mayor Frank Rizzo who, for decades, was a controversial presence in Philadelphia politics. With its opening image of a television being smashed by a pickax, viewers realized this was not a conventional news program. Mixing reenactment with appropriated television footage the program careens through the Philadelphia landscape with the subtlety of an itchy finger on a television remote. "Rizzo's Brain" juxtaposes such diverse pieces as a dancing bunny, footage from a Mummer's parade accompanied by a textual analysis of then current Gulf War atrocities, weaving these images with a video portrait of potholes, all held together by Rizzo's own commentary. Rizzo's outrageous statements, reenacted during the beginning of the program, lead the viewer to think that these comments may have been ironically created in the spirit of Rizzo philosophy. At the end, the viewer is treated to an actual Rizzo news interview concerning the MOVE bombing of the late 1970s. As the interview unfolds the viewer realizes, with increasing horror, that all the previous commentary could be directly attributed to Rizzo. This first program was but a promise of more disruptive things to come. …