"Some people might fall asleep in front of the television watching something like Masterpiece Theatre and wake up to a provocative image on The Territory," says Museum of Fine Arts film curator Marian Luntz, "and they're not always happy." It's only natural that some tender viewers might think The Territory, the longest-running public television program of independent film and video, is a little weird. The show, after all, has a distinctly experimental, controversial and non-Hollywood format.
An undertaking of Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), The Territory began airing on Houston Public Television/KUHT-TV in 1975, guided by the collective vision of its founders, celebrated filmmaker James Blue and Ed Hugetz, SWAMP's first director. The series was launched with hippie optimism and a community access-type mission. It was the '70s, man, and the advent of the video portapak, cable access television and the combined influences of Marshall McLuhan-inspired electronic democracy and Vietnam-era political revolt gave birth to people's television. The Territory was not alone in its determination. Stations such as WNET New York and WGBH Boston aired "guerrilla television" works by such video artists and activists as TVTV and Ant Farm.
Over the years The Territory has been tweaked and refined into a more conventional television format, but it has avoided the commercial chintz of its cable successors, such as Sundance and Bravo. Its focus has been redirected to short artist-made film and video works curated by subject. Topics have seemed weighted toward cultural identity and women's and gender issues, but the program has included generous amounts of experimental narratives, documentaries, choreography, performance art, gay and lesbian works, architectural explorations and animation, plus a commendable bounty of Texas-made projects. Hot tickets like Sadie Benning, Jem Cohen and Art Jones have been given equal airtime alongside media art veterans such as Nam June Paik and Bill Viola. Programmers even added a panel of commentators like Luntz, former exhibition coordinator, and executive producer Judith Simms to "provide critical insight" and help out bewildered channel surfers. Sadly, the panel has been discontinued because of time constraints. Waking Lawrence Welk fans will just have to fend for themselves.
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The Territory's "Women on the Verge," experimental narratives by Stephanie Henault and Siobhan Walshe, airs on KUHT-TV/Channel 8 Saturday, November 27, at 10 p.m.