IN DEPTH// Living in the Cinematic Moment: Kera MacKenzie and Drew Mausert-Mooney’s “MCA LIVE: ACRE TV”

A clip from “The Set Speaks,” the ACRE TV live-broadcast soap opera residency at the Propeller Fund studio at Mana Contemporary Chicago. Left to right: Alex Herrera, Cameron Gibson and Andrew Mausert-Mooney. Image courtesy Michael Workman and the artists.

By Michael Workman

This is the third year you’re working with ACRE TV, the project you started streaming in February 2014 with Drew, Nick Wylie, Nicholas Bacon and Tony Balco. What has changed since you first started out and now?
Drew: For me, the biggest change in ACRE TV has been the increased time we’ve been able to spend on our two month thematic shows, simply due to the fact that we’ve been able to bring certain ideas, like our most recent The Set Speaks, to fruition after thinking about them for more than a year. When we started talking about making ACRE TV, we were only two months away from our initial show so we had to move very quickly. This sometimes meant broadcasting a lot more canned video works that you might already be able to find on artist’s web or Vimeo page. Also, by now we’ve been able to make a bit of a name for ourselves among other like-minded or like-scaled organizations, and so we’ve been able to approach or be approached a lot of interesting collaborators (such as ESP TV, Chi-ca-Go-Go, Media Burn Archive, Open TV, Rebuild Foundation, the Luminary, etc.) with a body of work that we can point to, to demonstrate what our interests and methods look like. Because the work isn’t archived in a typical, video-on-demand way, it sometimes takes people a little bit longer to understand what we are doing and why. The project definitely has benefited from the two years of people catching a little bit of ACRE TV, here and there. Besides all that, we’ve gotten a lot better at making and programming live television with all the practice.

Much of what you do with Acre TV is rooted in this notion of “liveness,” and of “live cinema,” often realized as work that is transmitted out through the internet, so that if you fail to engage with it in the moment in which it occurs, viewers may not have an option for seeing what they’ve missed. Can you explain your view on the value of this approach in your work?
Live cinema, and particularly live cinema sent out over a distance (tele-vision, in other words) is interesting to us in so many ways. There’s the looseness of it. If you fail in live TV, the embarrassment only lasts for a moment, which encourages a kind of experimentation and prolific pace of making that we are both very excited by. In a practical way, the ephemerality allows us to play works that artists might not want to have living somewhere online permanently. We’ve shown a few world premieres of works that go on to play at high-falutin’ film festivals, for that reason.

“The Set Speaks” poster, with Alex Herrera.

Also, there’s something exciting about broadcasting live because you know that viewers are witnessing what you’re doing in separate places at the same time. It creates a concept of a community of viewers in a way that video on demand doesn’t. There’s a political aspect to that live audience, because they are all experiencing and negotiating “now” together, which is why news works so well on television. Also, a big reason why we started ACRE TV is because the live television format has been relatively inaccessible to most artists who don’t have a relationship to corporate or commercial interests. There are some great and important examples of artists taking advantage of cable access and even commercial television formats, and when we realized we could run our own network cheaply, using live streaming and have as much access as we wanted, the project took off.

For the sake of context for readers, please discuss some of the history of ACRE TV, what you would consider your benchmark programs produced under its moniker, and why these are important to you and your collaborators. Please also discuss the successes and failures of the project, and how the media you are working within may or may not have contributed.
Kera: So far we’ve had eight two-month shows, three one-month shows, and a number of standalone live shows and off-line screenings. The two that stand out for me personally are the live show we produced for Direct Object/Direct Action at Threewalls, and our most recent show, The Set Speaks. Those two shows were both instances where we started by pitching a form and a question about liveness to a group of artists and then got to be blown away by their responses and collaborations with us. With Direct Object/Direct Action LIVE, we asked four artists to consider the stream as an instrument in a “live action” so that what was going out on the stream was secondary to the experience of being in a room with the performer. The pieces were great: Neal Vandenbergh gave a talk about the process and reasoning behind his leading role in unionizing Terry Dowd Inc., an art moving company based in Chicago that he worked for. He used ACRE TV as a funny, didactic, power-point-like tool, which probably seemed very enigmatic to viewers online. Melina Ausikaitis performed a story about being lost in the woods as a kid, when suddenly, a first-person video she made swimming laps underwater came on to the stream, accompanied by a really beautiful, fragile whistling soundtrack. Because many of the viewers in ThreeWalls were watching ACRE TV on their cell phones, the sound played all over the room, with nearly-but-not-quite-synchronous playback.

For The Set Speaks, we invited seven groups of Chicago artists to take over our temporary studio and our stream. We asked them to think about what a real time studio practice/performance can look like in a frame, over distance. Because of the duration and a sometimes shifty internet connection, there were of course many moments of failures… the signal going down, or audio not working, etc. But throughout the process Drew and I and thousands of other viewers were able to watch some of the most hilarious, touching, smart and ambitious work that we’ve broadcast so far. Some personal highlights include Adela Goldbard auditioning actors and musicians for a destruction of a makeshift building that she constructed over the week in the studio, a four-hour broadcast/dance party hosted by Open TV and TRQPiTECA, featuring performances by Molly Hewitt and Ariel Zetina, and a totally ambitious and absurd 10 day soap opera called By Way of Today, produced by Kyle Schlie and Cameron Gibson.

Drew Mausert-Mooney at the broadcast terminal for ACRE TV. Image courtesy Michael Workman and the artist.

So many other highlights come to mind, including Joseph Herring’s live shows in Psychedelicatessen and These Streams; Leslie Rogers, Anna Ialeggio, Ellen Nielsen and Mark McCloughan’s live show in Psychedelicatessen. Seeing other artists work out what it means to go live in totally different ways has been more powerful than I could’ve imagined.

When we met during your residency at the Propeller Fund space, we discussed the political value of object-less art. Can you elaborate further on the material concerns as they relate to the project, and how this aligns with your politics and approach to art-making? Is presenting in a museum context counter to that political artistic stance?
We both come from experimental film/video backgrounds, where the occasions of attention or interest from art markets are already pretty rare. When you add ephemerality to the equation, like with ACRE TV, there’s even less of an acknowledgment of the work’s value by a market. Online video, if it can get enough views, can have a monetary value in relationship to advertising, but in a real way ACRE TV is by its nature anti-viral, because what happens on our stream comes and goes. There’s no object or video to be distilled and shared everywhere. If you miss a performance, you miss it. This is not exactly a point of pride or purity for us (both of us make money creating moving image works for commercial interests in our day jobs) but it does mean that as long as someone has the time and sweat, ACRE TV can continue to be an open feed for artists to play with form and expression without worrying about losing the big Proctor & Gamble account. Part of this equation is keeping our material costs low and manageable, which we are able to do with live streaming technologies and a generous but modest annual stipend provided by our big sister organization, ACRE, to pay our internet bills. Also the occasional grant, like we received from the Propeller Fund.

Kera Mackenzie, image courtesy the artist.

It’s also equally fun to feign existence as a “real television network”, as equally accessible as NBC or Netflix, which might encourage the tone of the work to be a bit more vulgar or less precious than what you might see at a video gallery or film festival.

Presenting in this particular museum context feels pretty right for ACRE TV. From the MCA we’ll be broadcasting to viewers all around the world, with the help of a studio audience, two actors, two performers, two playwrights, a musician, and three television producers. It’s part of the MCA LIVE, their free-to-the-public, Tuesday night programming and we hope everyone in Chicago can make it out to be a part of the production. If you can’t make it, be sure to watch LIVE on acretv.org.

Each of the projects, from the Direct Object work at Threewalls, to your upcoming MCA event, usually involve large numbers of participants. Please discuss the collaborative nature of the work, and why or why it isn’t important to you.
Kera: Sometimes it seems like the collaboration is the work itself. Especially when we do live shows. Getting a group of people to sync their clocks in a room together and make something is the best thing in the world, and I think you can really see it in the work when lots of different people’s energy goes in to holding a scene together for a moment. It changes the scale and when you’re a part of it you get to stay constantly surprised by the work you're making.

Between shootings for “The Set Speaks,” left to right: Kyle Schlie and Cameron Gibson. Image courtesy Michael Workman and the artists.

Drew: One of the coolest and most distinct parts about television proper is the lack of an “auteur,” which has stayed true for ACRE TV. Additionally, the platform has allowed Kera and I, and all of the folks on our curatorial board, to approach artists and groups we are interested in with a real opportunity… to make television. This project, more than any other project I’ve done in the past, has functioned as a way to get to know people by working alongside them.

Discuss the MCA performance. What do you hope to accomplish with it? How did it come about? Who’s involved, what are the artistic goals of the work you’re presenting? Describe it, and explain how you may view its potential art-historical value.
ACRE TV LIVE at the MCA is a two part broadcast in front of a live studio audience. For the first act, we’ve commissioned playwrights Calamity West and Nathaniel Whelden to write a scene that takes advantage of the delay that occurs between a real-time performance and the playback of that performance on ACRE TV. Two actors, Monette Mclin and David Hamilton, will be performing a one-minute evolving loop, as past iterations of their performances play back (via ACRETV.org) on a rear projection screen behind them, in infinite regress.

The second act features an improvisational conversation between Chicago artists Kelly Lloyd and Jesse Malmed, while live video images are created by us (Kera MacKenzie and Andrew Mausert-Mooney) and a live soundtrack is created by musician Ryan Sullivan (of Golden Birthday). Neither the conversationalists, image makers, or sound makers will be able to see or hear what the others are doing, but will abide by a predetermined time structure. The audience (both in studio and at home) will be the editors… the first to combine the three aspects of the piece. Kate Bowen will be helping to produce both acts.

Hopefully, the form we describe above tips off some of our artistic goals, but we also are very enthusiastic about the cross-discipline collaboration involved in this piece. We’re legit fans of every one of our collaborators, who hail from many different parts of the Chicago cultural landscape.

For more information, and to tune into the MCA and future broadcasts, visit ACRE TV. MCA Live: ACRE TV takes place April 26, 6–7:30pm CST.