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Turn On, Tune In, Go "Off the Air": A Psychedelic Trip into the Heart of Experimental Television for the Digital Age

Turn On, Tune In, Go "Off the Air": A Psychedelic Trip into the Heart of Experimental Television for the Digital Age

On Christmas Day, 2006, Time magazine named “You” the Person of the Year, marking a shift in the meaning of “celebrity” for the 21st Century as the rise of social media platforms, namely YouTube, ushered in a new era of broadcasting and mass communication. Popularity in the entertainment business was no longer reserved for Hollywood elitists, but could be achieved by the universal everyman, as demonstrated through the success of “internet stars,” proving that almost anyone could gain a following, so long as they gave the people what they wanted or at least appealed to a niche of the population. Video-sharing websites thus became seen as a more global, more freeform spiritual successor to public access television, dominating internet culture and acting as a creative outlet for anyone who dared to broadcast. Jokes that “video killed the TV star” (much like the Buggles lamented it had done to unsuspecting singers (ironically) during MTV’s original launch) became symbolic of the Millennial Generation, until television began to fight back, taking advantage of the emerging mediums to further its own agenda. Through the unexpected merging of two “cool” mediums, a term coined by theorist Marshall McLuhan to describe media in which audience engagement and interaction are required to make sense of the information being conveyed, the fragmentary nature of the internet and television could be mutually enhanced by the creation of a sense of completeness via transposition of one medium onto the other. While shows such as Comedy Central’s Tosh.0 took a more direct approach in utilizing social media platforms, channels such as Adult Swim employed a more sophisticated method of integrating internet culture into the network’s style and programming.

Ever since its initial launch during Labor Day Weekend, 2001 (nine days before the September 11 attacks), Adult Swim has earned the unofficial title among its current fanbase as the “MTV of the 21st Century.” Though criticized in recent years as being a “dumping ground” for reruns of syndicated FOX programs, Adult Swim has still managed to produce plenty of original content, most of which is wonderfully unique and bizarre with an unmatched smart, strange sense of humor. Harkening back to its original roots, which mostly lie in the quirky animated talk show Space Ghost Coast to Coast (considered to be the prototype for Adult Swim, as well as the parent series of the short-lived Brak Show and the long-running Aqua Teen Hunger Force), the brilliance and weirdness of programs such as 12 Oz. Mouse, Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Xavier: Renegade Angel, and the notorious short film “This House Has People in It” have been instrumental in helping Adult Swim to garner an international cult following. However, there’s never been much question as to the network’s intended audience: loners, stoners, misfits, “creative types,” fourteen-year-olds who shouldn’t still be awake, night owls, insomniacs, and all-around weirdos. Aspects that might appear mundane or routine on any other network are given a degree of artistic priority, such as the channel’s hallucinogenic identifications and “bumps,” all of which have become iconic of Adult Swim’s visual design since first hitting the carrier waves.

In fact, Adult Swim’s stylistic history is as interesting as the channel’s original programming (or perhaps even more so, depending on who you are). Originally launching with idents featuring footage of senior citizens engaged in community center swimming exercises and the thinly-veiled content warning/channel slogan “All kids out of the pool,” the network later became associated with black and white intertitle cards containing witty and sarcastic text accompanied by ambient hip-hop beats and other obscure tracks from underground artists. More recently Adult Swim’s bumps have consisted mostly of color-saturated (albeit eerily nondescript), live-action shots of landscapes, cityscapes, and other scenes from nature, evocative of the “slow TV” sensation that has gained popularity in parts of Scandinavia. The influence of Adult Swim’s artistic brand on fans, however, unexpectedly helped launch a cable television phenomenon that has sparked extremely positive review and discussion among late-night audiences.

During the early hours of the morning on New Year’s Day, 2011, a strange show in the tradition of Adult Swim’s aesthetic style was broadcast unannounced. Introduced with no other explanation besides the simple title of “Animals,” viewers turned to internet message boards to inquire about a psychedelic montage of footage that included a video of a goat being dragged off of a cliff by an eagle, in order to make sure that the previous night’s heavy drinking and God-only-knows-what other activities hadn’t taken too much of a toll on their mental state. Some of the audience were clever enough to check the TV guide listings, only to encounter the words Off the Air and to be mistakenly lead to believe that Adult Swim was playing a loop of bizarre filler material because there was no scheduled programming yet for the new year. The roughly 11-minute spectacle was aired twice in a row– just for kicks. In late May of the same year, however, a second installment of Off the Air was broadcast on Adult Swim, titled “Food,” indicating that the footage viewers described as a vibrant, glorified music video would perhaps be developed into a full series.

The concept behind the show is simple. Creator Dave Hughes and his team search long and hard all over the internet for trippy and surreal content on video-sharing websites that can potentially be edited into a continuous, hallucinogenic theme-driven episode à la predecessors such as MTV’s Liquid Television or USA Network’s Night Flight, among other anthology series. In keeping with Off the Air’s admittedly limited budget, however, Hughes and the gang collect video and music clips uploaded by mostly unknown artists, as well as frequent the Prelinger archives for episode content. Thus, Off the Air has become a showcase for various types of underground animation, music videos, live action clips, and even puppetry, allowing relatively obscure creators “a little piece of real estate on TV,” according to Hughes himself. Off the Air reflects the sense of global community that dominates the 21st Century, and plays on the idea that, since information virtually transcends time and space limitations in the digital realm, the amount of new material being created and discovered via the internet is, for all practical purposes, infinite. The video clips that are chosen to function as episode components not only “cooperate” with each other to create a seamless, kaleidoscopic visual parade, but also interact with the television medium itself to give audiences a unique viewing experience. McLuhan states in his acclaimed book Understanding Media that “no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media,” as demonstrated by the integration of “cool” internet media (no pun intended) with an otherwise comparatively dated communication platform: television. In order to fully appreciate Off the Air, viewers must take into consideration the methods and effort that go into constructing an episode, along with the context surrounding their production– that is, a celebration of individuality in the digital age, and a wide-spread fulfillment of Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” prediction.

Last week, Off the Air debuted what appears to be the final episode of the show’s sixth season, titled “Words.” Twenty-four themed episodes have been made since the series’ strange premiere in early 2011, and three specials, two for which electronic musician Dan Deacon provided an incredible score, have all graced the air waves at least once. In the spirit of its bizarre style, new episodes of Off the Air are broadcast at 4 o’ clock in the morning on weekdays, often with limited, cryptic advertising beforehand on their home station. But loyal fans always tune in to make the numbers soar. Hughes knows his audience– those who want to see his latest creation will find it.

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