The Grassroots Video Pioneers

Ed.’s note: The following is adapted from Dara Greenwald’s chapter in Realizing the Impossible: Art Against Authority, edited by Josh MacPhee and Erik Reuland, which was recently published by AK Press.

Images of street medics with home-made red crosses adorning their clothes, protest marching bands, cops in riot gear, tear gas in the streets; ideas and practices of decentralized organizations, anti-copyright, shared resources, networked communications, ecstatic experience, DIY media, pirate broadcasting, communal living, participatory culture, collective process. I’m not talking about the twenty-first century alternative globalization movement, but rather the documents and practices of the early 1970s video movement in the United States. These tendencies and images which, in recent years (since the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” and the birth of Indymedia.org) have emerged as an exciting aspect of current Left political movements were also here in the USA in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and were documented and practiced by a little known, but highly productive media democracy and experimental art movement. This movement focused its experiments with social relations and cultural production around the use of portable video technology.

I first became interested in video groups from the early ’70s in 1999 when the Video Data Bank (VDB) in Chicago (where I worked) acquired the collection of the Videofreex, one of the early video collectives. This was an incredible collection made up of over 1,300 videotapes, the majority of which were on obsolete tape formats. These tapes were mostly raw footage shot between 1969–78 and some edited programs. After seeing the first tape we preserved and converted to a viable format, an interview with Black Panther leader Fred Hampton from the fall of 1969 just before he was murdered by the Chicago Police Department—it became apparent that this collection would have significance and resonate with today’s media activists, as well as anyone interested in the history of radical culture. Upon further investigation, I found that it wasn’t just the video documents themselves that would resonate with anti-authoritarian media makers, but also the communal context and non-hierarchical process by which they were produced as well as the video movement’s practice-based critique of centralized communication structures. They weren’t just criticizing the media, they were making their own.

Video’s origins are in radio and broadcast technologies, rather than in film or photography, thus early video users and critics were responding more to television than to cinema. By the 1950s, televisions were becoming basic furniture in people’s homes. By the late 1960s, when portable video equipment became available, many people in their early twenties had experienced TV both as ambient noise/images in their living rooms and as a focal point of their family and social development. Unlike cinema, rarely was there a focused viewing in a darkened theater surrounded by strangers; TV watching was an intimate experience in the private sphere. Unlike film, video was quick to process and easy to reproduce. When people shot video, they could immediately watch it, talk about it, and get feedback. Videotape’s ability to be cheaply and infinitely copied, and thus distributed and screened in multiple contexts was crucial to the development of ideas about the medium’s democratic potential.

Sony Corporation introduced the Portapak (its generic name was VTR for Video Tape Recorder) to the US market in 1965. By 1968, Sony was widely advertising the technology to educators, artists, and general consumers. The Portapak was one of the first portable and relatively affordable video cameras. Before that, video technologies were quite heavy, expensive, and only used by broadcast professionals and the military. But this was 1968, and counter culture and revolutionary thought and movement were gaining momentum. Quickly, these video technologies got into the hands of artists, activists, and participants in the counter culture. By 1969, several video collectives had formed, including: The Videofreex, Commediation, People’s Video Theater, Raindance, Revolutionary People’s Communication Project, Ant Farm, and Global Village. Some began using the technology as a focal point for their experiments in social organization as well as to document the changing world around them. Essential to many of the alternative video makers of the time was a critique of communication structures and a desire to challenge corporate TV broadcasting’s tendency toward the centralization of information and one-way communication from the corporation to the viewer, but not vice versa. Some video users were also interested in challenging what was represented or rather excluded from representation on corporate television.

The Videofreex

Three people (David Cort, Parry Teasdale, and Mary Curtis Ratcliff) founded the Videofreex in 1969 and their numbers quickly grew to ten (to include Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, Bart Friedman, Davidson Gigliotti, Chuck Kennedy, Carol Vontobel, and Ann Woodward). Although they did not share a defined ideology, they did share the belief that, “placing video cameras…in the hands of ordinary people would make the world a better, more just, and beautiful place.” In 1971, they moved from New York City to Maple Tree Farm in the upstate NY town of Lanesville to live communally and make videos. This context helped them continue to develop a collective support system to make individual and group video projects. At Maple Tree Farm, the Videofreex began a pirate TV station called Lanesville TV. In the beginning, they broadcast three times a week, later reducing to one. Lanesville TV was on air from 1972–1977, making it the longest running pirate TV station in the US (I have been unable to find evidence of any other US-based pirate TV broadcasts.) The Videofreex programmed both their own experimental work and local content such as town hall meetings or news from the local farms. They believed media should be interactive and participatory, and broadcast their phone number so that viewers could call in and comment on the broadcast. They also had plans for a media bus—a kind of touring video production studio—but this remained unrealized. The collective’s practice was informed by a do-it-yourself, self-sufficiency ethic and a belief that users of technology should be empowered to fix it. They did not want the movement to have to rely on Sony to repair their machines, so they published a book on how to use and repair video equipment called the Spaghetti City Video Manual. They also had a production studio on their farm which was visited by up to 200 people a year. These visitors would come to learn video skills and contribute to Lanesville TV programming.

Each member of the Videofreex brought different skills and interests to the collective, and their documents reflect their diversity (from art to social action from community building to video erotica, among other things). In addition to the TV station, they made their work available to viewers through screenings in NYC and through what was called “bicycling” the tapes, meaning trading tapes through the mail via a network of other collectives and through listings in the movement periodical Radical Software.

Their documents were often raw unedited footage, shot hand-held without voiceover. The footage is gritty, black and white—the technical limitations were incorporated into the style. Their aesthetics were influenced by learning the new technology while using it and by a belief in process over product. Some members saw themselves as artists with cameras who were making TV experiments.

I asked Parry Teasdale, a founding member of the Videofreex and author of Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station and the Catskills Collective That Turned It On (1999) about the politics of the video collectives. He responded:

I think the Beatles, Stones, and possibly Dylan were far better known and more frequently quoted than Marx (except for Groucho). I can’t claim to have read Das Kapital and certainly wasn’t a Marxist. I had read McLuhan and did read Michael Harrington’s Socialism, and later Wilson’s To the Finland Station, but theoretical politics was not a topic of discussion at Videofreex or among the other groups that we knew, at least to the degree I am aware of their internal dialogues. Certainly none of the video groups in and around New York City were modeled on any particular social experiment or based on a particular theory as I understand them. You should check with the others, though. This is not to say that we had no political outlook. But most of it was colored by a universal (among the groups) opposition to the war in Vietnam. I suppose we accepted the language of the political people that the war was in pursuit of American imperial ambitions. But anyone who went around spouting doctrinaire phrases like that would have been ridiculed or been made the subject of a tape. We did spend a lot of time in the early days taping Abbie Hoffman and other Yippies. And we had shot some footage of Tom Hayden, who was probably the most politically articulate of the anti-war movement people. But they were grist for tapes, and what we did we did in the service of furthering a more liberated television medium, not in service of a broader political purpose. Or so I see it.

Even in Teasdale’s reporting of history he takes an anti-authoritative position—revealing his subjectivity, encouraging me to ask others for their version of that history.

Other Groups and Tendencies

The Videofreex were just one group from this period, and they often collaborated with other video collectives. In 1971, the May Day Video Collective came together in Washington, DC to document the protests against the Vietnam War. People from around the country participated in the May Day Video Collective (including members of the Videofreex) by traveling to DC, shooting tape, and sharing footage. There was a cultural rejection of individual authorship; everyone was able to use any of the footage that was shot. This convergent and shared media practice to document the streets from an on-the-ground perspective evokes the atmosphere in Indymedia Centers during recent national protests (1999–2004). The documents created from these different historical moments not only overlap in their confrontational imagery of protest and repression, but also by the collaborative process in which they were created.

Many of the 1970s groups worked in a style termed “street tapes,” interviewing passersby on the streets, in their homes, or on doorsteps. As Deirdre Boyle writes in Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (1997), the goal of street tapes was to create an “interactive information loop” with the subject in order to contest the one-way communication model of network television. One collective, The People’s Video Theater, were specifically interested in the social possibilities of video. On the streets of NYC, they would interview people and then invite them back to their loft to watch the tapes that night. This fit into the theoretical framework that groups were working with at the time, the idea of feedback. Feedback was considered both a technological and social idea. As already stated, they saw a danger in the one-way communication structure of mainstream television, and street tapes allowed for direct people-to-people communications. Some media makers were also interested in feeding back the medium itself in the way that musicians have experimented with amp feedback; jamming communication and creating interference or noise in the communications structures.

Video was also used to mediate between groups in disagreement or in social conflict. Instead of talking back to the television, some groups attempted to talk through it. One example of video’s use as a mediation tool in the early 70s was a project of the students at the Media Co-op at NYU. They taped interviews with squatters and disgruntled neighbors and then had each party view the other’s tape for better understanding. The students believed they were encouraging a more “real” dialogue than a face-to-face encounter would allow because the conflicting parties had an easier time expressing their position and communicating when the other was not in the same room.

Groups were not only interested in making their own media but also in distributing it. At Antioch College, the Antioch Free Library (1966–1978) was set up so people could distribute their tapes by sending them in and requesting tapes in exchange. During its time, the Antioch Free Library copied thousands of tapes for free, sending out twenty-five to fifty a week.

Theories of a Guerrilla Television

Many of the ideas these video groups were working with influenced or were influenced by the periodical Radical Software started in 1970 and the book Guerrilla Television, authored by Michael Shamberg in 1971. Both of these publications were developed by the group Raindance. Raindance got its name from R & D (research and development) and after the influential think tank, The Rand Corporation. They fancied themselves a think tank for the early video movement. Raindance was supported financially through the donation of $70,000 from a member’s family money. Its mission was promoting video as a tool for change. Raindance and other participants in the movement were heavily influenced by the theoretical work of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Gregory Bateson.

Eleven issues of Radical Software were published between 1970–1974. The magazine acted as a networking tool for these media collectives. In the first issue alone, there was contact information for over thirty groups and individuals. Every issue included lists of available tape titles for sale and trade, contacts of video enthusiasts who had resources such as cameras or editing equipment to share, and articles crucial to the theoretical development of the community. Some of the ideas written about in the pages of Radical Software included: media ecology, the information economy, technological utopianism, media democracy, and video’s therapeutic potential. In this space, art, cultural theory, community media, and activism all came together.

Michael Shamberg’s Guerrilla Television borrows heavily from different theories expressed in Radical Software, but claims that the movement is not political at all. He argues that, “In Media America, real power is generated by information tools not by opinion. The information environment is inherently post-political.” Guerrilla Television places a strong emphasis not on replacing content on broadcast TV (old structures) but actually transforming information structures of both production and transmission and building alternative support system for information. He states, “No social change can take place without new designs in information architecture.” And only through “radical re-design of its information structures to incorporate two way decentralized inputs can Media America optimize the feedback it needs to come back to its senses.”

The aesthetics of guerrilla TV documentary or “do-it-yourself TV” differed from broadcast news in that there was no spokesperson or mediator, it was mostly shot from inside events not outside, it included environmental sound, was from a first person perspective, and didn’t have the traditional documentary “voice of god” voiceover (which was considered authoritarian). There was an emphasis on a multiplicity of voices. There was concern with not exploiting the subjects and giving the subject the option to destroy any footage they did not want recorded. In Shamberg’s words, “a participant should be given maximum control over his own feedback.”

Some of the concrete suggestions the book offers for decentralized communication projects include storefront information centers, wiring apartment buildings for closed circuit TV, pirate TV, micro broadcasts, mobile shows, taping police behavior, taping broadcast TV crews, having festivals in domes and inflatables (challenging dominant architectural structures), using tape to decode bureaucratic structures, multi-monitor juxtapositions, and using tape to analyze behavior for therapeutic purposes. There is also a section in the book that attempts to help the reader figure out how to access enough money to make videos, which includes, among other suggestions, “sell your car.”

Connecting to Today

There seems to be some continuity in thought of the media democracy movement over the past thirty years. Tendencies in thematic content include that regular people’s voices, countercultural voices, and social movements matter. Engaged media attempts to include the subject as a participant and allows the participant to have a say in how they are represented. Process is as important as content; it is not just that alternative media is being made that is important, but how it is being made. Sharing resources, technological knowledge, and video footage is crucial to the process. Distribution is important. Non-institutional spaces for communication and information sharing are crucial. These may include storefront theaters and infoshops, artist-run spaces or community centers, bicycling/mailing media through informal countercultural networks, and pirate broadcasting. Publishing journals and magazines also supports the alternative social networks. Media should be decentralized and both localized and internationalized—reflecting local lived experience and struggle, and at the same time being shared through a global network with other groups interested in survival.

The media landscape has shifted dramatically since the introduction of the portable videotape recorder, but surviving in the information environment is no easier. The media democracy movement has grown alongside access to the tools of media production at lower costs (i.e. digital cameras, personal computers, copy machines, the World Wide Web, etc.), yet corporations still seem to have a hold on our media, and the art market often absorbs our experimental cultures. The dream of the early video collectives is far from realized but it is still informative. Flipping through the dozens of channels on cable TV, there are certainly more offerings than the 1970s, but nonetheless, a monoculture of expressive forms and commercial values persist. The one-way communication structure of mainstream television itself has not changed dramatically. The World Wide Web has been the strongest threat to corporate controlled, one-way communication structures, and anti-authoritarians have been quick to pick up and participate in this medium. Interactive communication structures on a global scale have finally seemed possible, yet currently a battle rages with corporations (and the State) attempting to control access and use of the Internet. Like their early ’70s forerunners, media activists today must continue critiquing the coercive power of dominant media structures and representations while at the same time creating alternatives that prefigure a media world we want to live in.

Contributor

Dara Greenwald

Dara Greenwald is a writer, social artist, and media maker. You can check out her work at www.daragreenwald.com.

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