Resurrecting Guerrilla Television: Nick Despota’s Tooth Stories

An ongoing series reflecting on our favorite videos from the Resurrecting Guerrilla Television project.

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In 2021, Media Burn, along with the University of Chicago and other partners, began the “Resurrecting the 1970s Guerrilla Television Movement” project, which is funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources. That grant has funded the digitization, cataloging, and sharing of hundreds of essential tapes from the early history of video, with hundreds more to come. These tapes range from abstract visual studies to documentaries to home movies. They include the work of major artists like Julie Gustafson, Jane Veeder, Eleanor Boyer, Barbara Sykes, Pat Lehman, and Nancy Cain and vital organizations like People’s Video Theater/Survival Arts Media, TVTV, Global Village, Kartemquin Films, and Ant Farm as well as anonymous or uncredited videomakers documenting protest marches and landlord neglect and the aftermath of strip mining in rural Appalachia, or, simply, goofing around with the camera. These tapes are all crucial parts of our cultural heritage, stories told by people who never saw their voices reflected in mainstream corporate media. This is “the people’s television” – a version of the media that encouraged active participation and that gave voice to the concerns and interests of ordinary citizens.  

Video is an incredibly fragile medium that begins to deteriorate after only a couple of decades, and many – if not most – tapes from the 1970s have experienced some level of damage or decay. Media Burn is working tirelessly to ensure these videos will endure and that their contents will be available to the public, often for the first time.

This newsletter is part of an ongoing series from curator Adam Hart highlighting some of our favorite videos from the Guerrilla Television project. You can browse the full selection of videos here – a list that will continue to be updated as tapes are digitized and logged. Previous newsletters have been written about Eleanor Boyer, Terra Levin, and Jeanne Meyers documentary Rugby Women, Pat Lehman’s image processing classic Video Vitae, and The Politics of Intimacy, by Julie Gustafson. 

This edition’s video is Tooth Stories, by Nick Despota. 


Tooth Stories, by Nick Despota.

Running through much of the work produced in the early independent video era is a spirit of playfulness, a jokey irreverence that seems inextricable from the nature of the medium: cheap, re-usable, and, at least at first, unlikely to be seen by a large audience. And although there were plenty of playful independent or experimental films, there was also a basic financial limitation to celluloid: wasting footage could result in a project becoming very expensive very quickly. Video could be a medium for incredibly serious matters, but it could also let artists just… try stuff out.

That led to a lot of spontaneity, a lot of iconoclastic, subversive videos, and a lot of silliness. A lot of our favorite videos from the 1970s are fundamentally goofy, balancing insight and observation with absurdity and humor. And few could find that balance as well as Nick Despota.

 Despota was part of Chicago’s video scene in the 1970s, moving on to commercial production after producing a small but intensely memorable body of work of quirky, fun documentaries that add up to a diverse, charming portrait of the city and its inhabitants. 

 Chairs, which Despota made with John Mabey and Bob Snyder, is a short exploration of a snowy Chicago in which folding chairs have claimed every available parking space. Municipal Mirth, made with Mabey and Scott Jacobs, travels around the city to capture the events of summer 1979’s neighborhood festivals. The National Arts & Culture Quiz, by Despota and Mabey, is an absurdist survey directed at both a handful of people on the streets of Chicago and the viewer. Similarly, in The Bicentennial Quiz, Despota approaches people parked in their cars or stopped at an intersection, offering them a prize if they can name fifteen states in fifteen seconds. 7 ½ lbs/second is another joyful snapshot of Chicagoans, this time at the park, where each subject details the astonishing quantity of food they’ve brought for their weekend barbecue. Insights is maybe Despota’s least jokey video, a truly lovely documentary about Gail Simon, an artist-in-residence who works with blind children at the Skinner School.  

Nick’s films, he says, “set up two complementary performances: those of the people in front of the camera, answering a curious question or accepting a playful challenge; and my own performance behind the camera, helping them ignore the artificial quality of the encounter.

 “My objective,” Nick continues, “was to elicit spontaneous and authentic reactions from strangers – both for its entertainment value and for its affirmation of our common humanity (something I didn’t realize at the time). I had fun making these pieces, and because I found people who were ready to play along, they worked.” 

Tooth Stories is the perfect encapsulation of what we love so much about Nick’s videos. A series of interviews with people about their teeth, he has them cover their eyes with cardboard so that all we see are their mouths. The subjects are a delight, wryly telling stories about their trips to the dentist and various ailments and other dental mishaps. They speak anonymously – again, their eyes are completely covered! – and yet every story is revealing, a vivid glimpse into each person that feels genuinely insightful even if it only lasts a few seconds.

At the end of the video, three boys pass around the mic and the cardboard and start goofing around and mugging for the camera, eventually breaking out into song.

It is both spontaneous and authentic. It could never have been scripted, or even anticipated. The fact that it stays in the video even though the kids have completely abandoned the original concept of the “documentary” shows how much delight Nick takes in the people he’s filming – much more than he does in a video’s ostensible topic.





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