Blogs Crosscuts Interviews

Alive From Off Center: Video Art in the 1980s

In the mid-1980s, television became a new frontier for independent and experimental video artists. In a unique collaboration between Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA), Alive From Off Center was born. This ground-breaking series first aired on PBS in the summer of 1984 and featured an assortment of performances ranging in discipline […]

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In the mid-1980s, television became a new frontier for independent and experimental video artists. In a unique collaboration between Walker Art Center and Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA), Alive From Off Center was born. This ground-breaking series first aired on PBS in the summer of 1984 and featured an assortment of performances ranging in discipline from dance to theater to comedy. Though the series was not quite a variety show, the producers brought in different artists every week to create and execute their own episode. To tie Alive From Off Center together, Susan Stamberg—a journalist who was the first woman to anchor a nightly news program— and later renowned musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, hosted the show.

Over the last six months, the Walker has featured eleven episodes spanning the first three seasons of the series. The episodes are available for viewing on the Best Buy Video Bay through February 7, 2015. In the summer of 2013, Film/Video intern Anna Swanson sat down with two former executive producers, Melinda Ward (the first producer of Alive From Off Center) and John Schott, to discuss the series’ conception and legacy.

As Ward and Schott both noted, the 1980s were a golden age in television. Network giants like MTV and ESPN first gained their footing at the start of the decade and reached hundreds of thousands of Americans every day. According to Schott, offbeat, avant-garde shows like Alive From Off Center were also “right there at the moment that this larger cultural change was taking place, across a wide range of mediums.” For the first time, less well-known artists not only had new opportunities to work in video, but “a big new awareness of a mass audience.” Alive From Off Center offered a unique platform that tapped into PBS’s pre-existing viewers while still pushing the boundaries of network television.

The show first got its name as a riff on “Live from Lincoln Center,” the PBS series that broadcasts live music, theater, and dance performances. Alive was its alter-ego that featured experimental episodes from artists like director Jonathan Demme, storyteller Spalding Gray, photographer William Wegman, and dancer and choreographer Trisha Brown. Schott believes Alive came to fruition at an important cultural moment, when “a lot of people came forward who were kind of rooting for PBS to do something unusual.” Though Alive From Off Center never reached mainstream audiences, Schott asserts that “there was kind of a secret audience out there…for whom that show was something really amazing and important to them.”

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In the first two seasons of Alive, funding was limited so about half of the episodes were produced by KCTA-TV in the Twin Cities and the other half were preexisting segments that Ward acquired. But after three seasons and a grant from the Ford Foundation, the series was able to produce nearly 70% of the episodes at KCTA. The series was funded entirely through public organizations: National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, and Ford Foundation made up the majority of the contributions. The structure of the show varied from episode to episode: some included multiple short pieces by a variety of artists while others featured the work of only one person.

As both producers noted, Alive From Off Center pioneered an era of video art in the 1980s. Ward suggests that artists were attracted to the series due to “love of television, as television” because “suddenly anybody could do it for not very much money, and you didn’t have to worry [about cost]…with video you just play.” The show brought integrity and excitement to the medium (the New York Times gave it rave reviews). According to Ward, Alive “validated this idea that you could work seriously in television in some way, or television as a medium, as an art form.”

Alive From Off Center will screen at the Walker through February 7, 2015. Be sure to swing by the Best Buy Video Bay to view this innovative television programming.

Dear White People : Conversation with the Director

Addressing race issues on campuses today, Dear White People director Justin Simien, producer Effie Brown, and actors Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson joined Leola Johnson from Macalester College for an in-depth conversation about the realities of contemporary college life and how this film helps shape the discussion.  Going beyond their work, the creative team also […]


Addressing race issues on campuses today, Dear White People director Justin Simien, producer Effie Brown, and actors Tyler James Williams and Tessa Thompson joined Leola Johnson from Macalester College for an in-depth conversation about the realities of contemporary college life and how this film helps shape the discussion.  Going beyond their work, the creative team also discuss filmmakers ranging from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry. The conversation was recorded in the Walker Cinema the day after an advance screening was presented in May 2014 as part of the Walker’s Next Look series. The film was also presented as a case study at IFP Minnesota’s 15th Annual Midwest Filmmaker’s Conference.

Justin Simien’s directorial debut is a witty satire about African American students on a university campus (shot at the University of Minnesota), where a controversy over race breaks out when a contested student election sets in motion “a plot that is full of intrigue and surprise in a mood of sly, knowing satire” (New York Times). Nothing is simply black and white in this playful portrait of race and cultural identity on today’s campus.

Leola Johnson is Associate Professor and Chair of the Media and Cultural Studies department at Macalester College, St Paul, MN.

Sign Painting Cinematheque Tangier

The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in […]

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The exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada includes films, artworks, and artifacts that speak to artist Yto Barrada’s connection with the social and political realities that shape her hometown of Tangier—its rich and fractured history of migration, indigenous communities, and colonization. In 2006, Barrada founded the independent cinema Cinémathèque de Tanger in a languishing structure in the city’s famed Casbah district as a way to engage with the collective memory and material history of Tangier. Cinema Rif, as the theater is named, was brought to life as both a thriving cultural center and a place to discover the films and remarkable history of filmmaking in the region. Curators Sheryl Mousley and Clara Kim commissioned local sign painter Dan Madsen (Dusty Signs) to recreate a map of Tangier on the gallery wall, which identifies the location of theaters past and present in this coastal Moroccan city. Over the course of 193 hours, Dan and fellow sign painter Forrest Wozniak tirelessly brought the 16-by-25-foot map to life, in what Dan referred to as “sign painter’s boot camp.” It was nice having sign painters in house for a couple weeks, showing us how they do what they do. Below is an interview with Dan about his history of sign painting, the techniques he uses, and the resurgence of interest in hand-lettering.

How did you originally get in to sign painting? Did you always want to be a sign painter?
I came into the sign business in 2007 working for a large sign shop. That same year my grandfather passed away and I discovered that his father (my great grandfather) was a sign painter here in Minneapolis. He worked for the largest outdoor advertising company in America called General Outdoor Advertising. I inherited old brushes, books, drawings, and photographs from him. Lettering was always something I enjoyed because of my grandfather. He was a medical illustrator and calligrapher for the local VA hospital. I remember as a young kid playing in my grandpa’s studio, writing my name with his calligraphy pens. So when I discovered that great grandfather was a sign painter, I decided to practice traditional sign painting. Now its six years later and I work for myself under the name of Dusty Signs.

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s great grandfather Bernard Benson (far right) with his crew at General Outdoor Advertising, Minneapolis

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the V.A. hospital, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Dan Madsen’s grandfather Larry Benson at his drawing table at the VA hospital, Minneapolis

A lot of sign painters seem to be inherently suspicious of modern signage techniques, such as vinyl lettering. Do you look around and feel overwhelmed with the amount of terrible signs there are? How do you understand our contemporary visual environment in America?
Yeah, there are a lot of bad signs out there, but there are also a lot of good ones. Being a sign painter, I don’t think everything needs to be hand painted. I think there is a time and place for everything. I still get a kick out of seeing nicely made neon signs or metal fabricated signs. It is unfortunate though when you look at a sign and you can tell the designer just pressed a few buttons using bad pre-existing fonts and then had a sign shop just pop that out as fast as possible. Nowadays people rely on the computer too much. A computer is a tool and it can do great things, but sometimes you have to put the computer down, pick up a pencil and hand draft. I’ve been noticing more people want signage hand painted lately, so I’m hoping things might get better here in America, at least visually.

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Can you describe the process of creating this wall mural?
For this wall the images were pre-designed, so this is how it went:

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Step 1: First I print out the design scaled to actual size on paper in my studio.
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Step 2: Next I use a machine called an Electro Pounce to perforate the paper where the lines will be. It is basically an electrified stylus that burns a series of holes into the paper.
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Step 3: Then I tape the paper patterns onto the wall and apply charcoal to pounce through the little perforated holes, and take the paper down again. This leaves a faint outline of the design on the wall for me to work from.
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Step 4: Finally I paint over the charcoal outlines with a brush. It’s up to me how true to the charcoal outlines I need to stay, and when I can deviate based on experience. Michelangelo used the same technique.

Were you inspired by any of the Moroccan hand-painted lettering in the exhibition?
Definitely inspired. I love seeing hand-painted signs from all around the world. In some countries sign painting is popular not by choice but because it is the only option people can afford. The signs aren’t always the most refined, but I still love seeing them — they aren’t overly romanticized, in search of some kind of “Instagram fame.” Some of the movie posters in this exhibition reminded me of that. We didn’t actually emulate any particular kind of sign painting for the map, but instead used a simple blueprint lettering. The original image of the map was not very hi-res, so we were free to extrapolate a typographic style that made sense, and translate the original into something new on the wall.

What did you think of the Sign Painters movie (and the book it was based on) that came out recently?
I thought it was really great, although I wish they would’ve acknowledged the type of sign painters you see working on East Lake Street, painting all the windows in Latino shops. Those guys are the real deal. I’ve got a lot of respect for how fast and consistent they can paint. Working at the Walker was cool and we got a lot of positive feedback from folks while working. It was nice to work in the context of an art museum, because sometimes when working out on the street we’re looked at as more industrial house painters. That all depends on the viewer, I guess.

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From left to right: Adjunct Curator Clara Kim, Dan Madsen, Yto Barrada, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley

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Forrest Wozniak and Dan Madsen

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde

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Dan Madsen working on the title graphics for the show, designed by Walker graphic designer Andrea Hyde