9/20/07: Guerrilla Television at Conversations at the Edge

Thursday, September 20, 2007, 6pm, Gene Siskel Film Center. The 1970s gave rise to a network of radical video makers who set out to create a feisty alternative to broadcast television. Decades before the so-called media democratization offered by YouTube, cell phone cameras, and hundred-channel cable, these artist-activists turned their Portapaks on protesters, politicians, and the men-, women-, and children-on-the-street to create startlingly candid documentaries that aired on a system of closed-circuit, pirate, and early cable stations—even infiltrating broadcast television itself. Hailing from seminal guerrilla collectives Videofreex, Ant Farm, and TVTV, artists Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, Chip Lord, and Tom Weinberg present an overview of their pioneering work and discuss its legacy today, in conversation with Amy Beste.

3:42Copy video clip URL Skip: Well, first of all, I want to thank you, Amy, and this beautiful theater where the sound was so clear you could hear our bad audio from those days. It was great. And the projectionist, for putting up with all of the technical instabilities. It was great screening. I sat in the back–I feel sorry for those of you sitting in the very front ’cause it was like blasting your face with these rays. But in any case, to answer, prevalent, it wasn’t prevalent, it didn’t exist. Video didn’t exist. It wasn’t like I heard about video. Through Nancy, I met these really crazy people who were just running around, did whatever they wanted and recording it. I had been fooling around with Super 8 film, which cost, you know, money for every three minutes, and this was videotape that you can just shoot over and over again, so it was just really fun, you know, it was an adventure. I’d say I got into it for the adventure part.

Nancy: I have one… yes! Yes, I do. I have one too. I found video just by chance because I had a job at CBS and I was working for a producer there who wanted to do video. There was no video, he wanted to do film documentaries, he wanted to do something real, something authentic, but he didn’t know how or what exactly. And fortunately for us, as I was working for him trying to figure out what might be interesting television, we ran in to a group of people called the Videofreex, who had just come back from the Woodstock festival with a lot of videotape of the exact reverse angle of everything that no one had ever seen before. We had seen the stage, and we had seen the acts, and we had seen the music, we’d even seen that it was raining there, but the Videofreex showed us a line maybe two miles long of people waiting to go to the Porta Potty. And it was an eye-opener for me because it showed everything that I hadn’t seen before. So we hired them right away and everyone got a portapak and we began to shoot, searching for what was happening in the summer of 1969. Which was a lot, if you think back, the summer of 1969–men were walking on the moon, and they were shooting really bad video up there, you could hardly see it, but it didn’t matter because it was the subject, you know. It was the location, it didn’t matter if it didn’t look good, it was men on the moon, or so we thought… It wasn’t, yes it was handheld.

Chip: No, it was kind of mechanical pan and zoom.

Nancy. Ok, it wasn’t handheld, but that and all the other stuff: Charlie Manson–people stopped hitchhiking, it was really very scary–the Mets won the World Series, lots of things happening. Also, what was happening was the trial of the Chicago 7, right here. And so I was assigned to go with these new Videofreex to come to Chicago to cover the trial of the Chicago 7 and that’s when I first held a video camera. And I remember driving to Chicago and driving in in the gray morning and past all the smoking belching industry, and I thought and said out loud, “It really would be great to be able to record this, just driving to Chicago, as the beginning of the whole thing, like America,  [poof!]” And Parry Teasdale said, “Oh yeah, we can do that.” And he got out the portapak and he threaded it all up and he turned it on and I realized at that point that if we just left the camera running we were gonna get things that no one had ever seen before. And we did, and I just never looked back from there.

Chip: Well, I would say for me it was like discovering a new drug. Because it was so exciting to actually play it back after you’d just shot it. And you did see yourself in a way that was different from looking in the mirror, you saw it in a more, you saw the perspective orientation. That was mainly it. I’d been interested in multimedia and slideshows but video had this immediacy that was just really exciting in that moment.

Amy: Chip Lord was trained as an architect. I’ve always been curious how that related, how your move from Ant Farm originally started as this design and architecture collective, how you moved in to video from that?

9:07Copy video clip URL Chip: Well, I always thought video was the opposite of architecture because it was small and black and white and you really couldn’t portray space at all all, and architecture was all about space, and it took a long time to realize anything. You know, we were young and impatient, and so video was the right medium. We didn’t want to wait around to get something built, really. And so later, because in the beginning we didn’t edit–we didn’t have access to editing equipment–but when I started editing then I realized that there was something about architectural training that was kind of perfect to be a filmmaker or a videomaker that structure was involved in making something, you know, in media as well as in reality, physical reality.

10:06Copy video clip URL Tom: You got an answer to the question. For me it was television. We were the first ones on our block to have television, people came over to watch it. I was three. And when I found out about fourteen years later–or, I don’t know, more, it was like 20 years later–that you could do it yourself, and you didn’t have to do it the way they do it on TV, that was my moment of drug, you know, it was my moment of, “Ok! We’re gonna do it that way! I don’t need to do it the other way.” Which I have done, some, in television studios and whatnot. But, the real drive is to do it, to put things, images and ideas on videotape that haven’t been seen before and that, I must say, I care about, and my friends care about. So, that’s my answer to that.

11:15Copy video clip URL Chip: And also, there was, at that moment in time, the counterculture, there was this idea that there was something new being created, so to make television yourself was a completely appropriate to idea that there was a new culture being created and you could repudiate and ignore the old culture and just go out and do it yourself.

11:41Copy video clip URL Skip: And just to embellish that, in this counterculture there was sort of a parallel universe, like in architecture there were these radical architects who were trying to discover temporary housing and new ways of housing people and building buildings, new materials, there were underground press, newspapers, giving you news that you didn’t get from the mainstream news. There was new developments in how classes were taught, where there weren’t like fixed desks where everybody held their hands and people sat in chairs and moved around. So throughout the culture there was, the young people at that time were creating this parallel universe and we existed in that parallel universe a lot of the time and our job was to create alternate television, to find new ways of using this new medium but also to bring it to the audience, to bring this new information to the audience.

12:42Copy video clip URL Amy: I’m curious then, do you think that what’s happened now with YouTube etc and the internet, is this what you envisioned? Does it do anything like what you were hoping to get at when you were working on this stuff?

13:04Copy video clip URL Nancy: Absolutely yes. yes. This is it, yes! Yes, YouTube, and all the new media, that is exactly what I had in mind.

Tom: Conceptually.

Nancy: Yeah, conceptually. Right.

Tom: Certainly not content-wise.

Nancy: What do you–but the thing is, yeah, sure content-wise. Anything and everything, what difference does it make? Whatever you want. If you’re a teenager and you want to dance in your bedroom in your underwear? Ok, there’s plenty of people that want to watch you do that. Plus, if you want to be on the front lines in Iraq and see some really horrible stuff, that’s quick cut to music and sent out on email, yes, all of it. I was saying earlier today that I ran in to a bunch of kids who were doing YouTube, and I said to them, “I invented this, you know.” And they said, “Oh yeah, right, uh huh.” But yes, I think it is, it’s exactly what I had in mind. I want to teach you how to do it and I want you to go and do it yourself. And they say “broadcast yourself,” and I agree totally.

Chip: Well, the tools themselves have also gotten so small and portable and ubiquitous that anybody can and does have access to them. Of course at the same time, everybody always had access to a pencil, but not everybody writes a novel.

Nancy: But not everybody wants to either.

Chip: True.

Skip: But a lot more people write them than actually get them published.

Tom: The phenomenon of people wanting to be on TV is something that completely escapes me. But that’s the bottom line of YouTube, is people having their own face, their own selves, sometimes certainly their own ideas, on TV. “I want to be on TV!” You know, in Adland, which is a program that all of us worked on at some point in 1973, where somebody said, “I want to be the me in the billboards up there!” So why do they want to be on TV? ‘Cause it’s there. You know. It’s how reality is defined, ok? So that’s it.

Skip: I’m afraid that I got a little serious, and you know, it’s true about the internet being democratization in a big way. And certainly with viral effect, you know, if you do something really interesting it can get out there really quickly to a lot of people. When we started doing TVTV there was something really thrilling about going out, having just made videos for a really long time in my lifetime–for three years–and just dealing with people who were like me, and then realizing that this camera that I was holding was going to reach millions of people at one time, all at the same time, throughout the whole country. And it was thrilling and it was powerful. It’s really scary, cause I had to do a good job, keep it in focus, people would see, clean the lens, things like that. We were prevented from getting on the media a lot. And like The 90’s, the show that Tom produced that we also all participated in, after we had this one controversial show, we were cut off. I mean, clearly when big corporations control the media it’s gonna keep the message on their message. The pitfall of the internet is how do you make an impact when there’s so many choices? How do you if you work really hard on something and you want people to see it, you have to have a lot of capital to back it up to publicize it so people know it’s out there. So there’s still the same sort of limitations. I was just in these Balkan countries teaching people how to use video and putting them on the internet. And here’s people who are like cousins of each other, who live together, who look very similar to each other. But they’re culturally different. And there’s borders between them that they place. And the internet erases these borders. That’s fantastic. But if you want to make a big impact, you still need power and money and we hope that we learn from history, except we look at the Vietnam War and what a mistake that was and we’re stuck in that right now. So that’s why I feel very serious because it dramatizes our powerlessness and how do we–everybody I know happens to be a better decider than the president of the United States. Everybody I know and probably everybody here. But how do we get ourself into this terrible situation? This is bigger, I’m sorry about that.

18:50Copy video clip URL Amy: I think that’s a really good point and I also think that the internet, while it offers the sense of being ubiquitous and totally democratic, that it’s still owned by corporations so that there’s a level of censorship there that’s always sort of threatening, not only that, but that’s not the same around the world. Other countries are dealing with a great deal of censorship, so there’s this sense that here in the U.S. we think it offers this real media freedom and yet there’s this shadow of state and corporate censorship around the world. You know, one of the things that I got really curious in watching this program is the transformation from this initial collective activity that you were doing to these other projects that you moved into. And how that happened, like what happened to the original guerrilla television movement and how that informed then your later work? How you moved away from these early collectives into this secondary sort of career like with Camcorder Network, or with the work you’re doing with the documentary pieces that you’re doing.

20:20Copy video clip URL Nancy: I feel like I’ve a lot of continuity. I feel like it’s not that different. I worked with a group of people from the beginning and…

Tom: We’re still here.

Nancy: You can’t get rid of them! But it’s true, what I had in mind… I feel like the thread, the thread continues from the Videofreex all the way up through The 90’s. And Camnet, was always, I felt, a collective effort. Of course I always like them to do what I say, but you can’t always get that. But yes, and I didn’t move on into anything really lucrative or have any kind of really great successful career but I’m still here, so. I don’t know. Ok.

Chip: I would say also that a creative collaboration is a really special kind of interaction and it’s difficult to maintain it over a long period of time. And if there’s not an economic structure to maintain it, in other words, if you’re in a band the band gets a name, it becomes very successful and there’s a huge incentive to keep doing that. Even though the spark of the creative interaction might not be there anymore. And I think all of us continue, have continued to work, I know I have, collaboratively, but Ant Farm, you know, really, was only this moment in time. It was ten years, which was a long period of time, but it wasn’t, in a sense, sustainable longer than that.

22:13Copy video clip URL Skip: Well, just to go back, I have to say that there was something really magical about working in a collective and how we got things done with no like, chart of responsibilities, how we stayed together for the ten years that we stayed together is sort of a miracle. I don’t know, I tend to start believing in fate and things like that when I think about it. Because it is difficult to keep that kind of thing going. But it was glorious and to be in a collective meant something very powerful because you’re bigger than just your own skills, you have resources, you can do more, you’re getting something done even when you’re asleep, you’re getting something done. And not only that, here we were all in different parts of the country and the collectives formed a larger community so that we also had like even a bigger power. There’s something to be said about a homogeneous culture where we thought similarly and we trusted each other. I fell in love, and left with Janie. Left the collective with Janie. She was sort of the Yoko Ono of the Videofreex. And I also left because I wanted to, first of all, I was teaching people how to do something that I barely knew how to do myself and I felt I really had to concentrate on my skills and bring them up if I’m going to teach people. And also I wanted to do something on my own after, I mean, we really merged our identities, we didn’t sign anything, everything we made belonged to everybody, so I did want to have that propriety over my own work.

23:56Copy video clip URL Amy: Tom do you want to talk about your involvement with TVTV?

Tom: TVTV was an amalgam, what did you call it, the meta collective? Well, it was not a collective, really, it was…

Nancy: a business?

Tom: You think it was?

Nancy: Yeah.

Tom: Well, the problem was it was a lousy business.

Chip: Initially it was just an ad hoc collection of people coming together to do one project.

Tom: Right, and we all just went. We didn’t ask any questions, whoever went, went, and whoever had the camera had the camera, and then four or five of us went to New York and edited the first bunch of it. [inaudible discussion]

Nancy: I’m saying that people who, some people who put together TVTV had something in mind that you know, I did not necessarily know where it was going. I didn’t sign any of the papers and I didn’t make any of the deals and I didn’t parlay it into a multi-picture deal.

Skip: She’s not naming any names…

Nancy: I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

Tom: I believed at the time. I thought there was a way to make it economically viable. Ha.

Skip: And he still is.

Tom: So we set up a corporation, TVTV, and then it’s like what are you doing? How do you work it? So goodbye Ant Farm, goodbye Videofreex, goodbye me about a year later, cause they wanted to move to L.A. and make TV and sell it to HBO, which didn’t exist, whoever it was. First it was NBC, and so on. Who cared? I mean, that wasn’t why we were doing it. Ok? So that was the end of the collective sense of TVTV. Maybe it was never there. Except that it had a wonderful function to bring people together who wouldn’t have been together at all and it served the function of becoming a brand in a sense. An identity which one way or the other we all identified with for a period of time.

Skip: But by the end they cut us all loose, started hiring Hollywood DP’s, and worked for NBC.

Tom: Exactly.

Amy: Well on that, I want to open this up to the audience to give you an opportunity to ask some questions, maybe about some of the specific pieces or anything else that you were wondering about to pick at some of the secrets maybe a bit more?

Paul Krassner: I just want to ask Nancy to describe Channel 75 in the place where she’s staying and the significance of that in terms of the history of video.

Nancy: We’re staying at the artist residency at 320 N. Michigan Avenue. On Floor 25. And there’s TV there there, there’s everything, it’s really nice and we really appreciate it. And on TV there’s, I don’t know, like 50 or 60 channels, but I’ll tell you the channel that we watch is channel 75. Which is the camera that’s on the lobby. It’s totally riveting! Unbelievable! You know, first of all the woman who works the daytime shift has a crick in her neck that I can really relate to, it’s like this and like this. People come and go, some people swipe cards, some don’t, there is no sound but it doesn’t matter, because you never know whose feet you’re going to see coming through that revolving door and there is a certain tension and also there’s a certain meditative nature to it. And we had it on for over an hour this morning ’till we realized that this is what we were watching, you know?

Skip: And you could have gone downstairs.

Nancy: I did at one point and I waved at everybody and I said to the lady, “You know, we’re watching you up there,” and she said “Oh yeah.” It was wonderful and it was live, and thank you for asking.

Skip: Do you think it was better on TV than it was when you went downstairs?

Nancy: Well it was different because I was performing when I went down so I had an awareness of my participating. There’s something that’s to be said for participatory… But really the other thing was the voyeuristic element that was the opposite.

Tom There’s also something quickly something to be said for live. We were talking about video and putting it on videotape and all, but the fact is that for me at least, and where we came from, TV is something was happening right in front of you, nobody knew what was going to happen, no seven second delay, no nothing. Which was one of the reasons, probably a small reason, why we love to watch the ballgame.

Nancy: That’s right.

Angela Aguayo: Hi. I was wondering what your thoughts were on how your work has or does play a role in the process of social change?

30:12Copy video clip URL Nancy: I hope so. I hope so even just a little bit. Just even the little bit, just by letting people speak, to say what they want to say, getting it out to as many people as possible, just to try to keep the camera on and put it out there. I don’t think it could hurt. But I hope it could help.

Tom: It’s not NOT art.

Nancy: It’s not NOT art. It’s not NOT communication. What do you think?

Chip: I guess I don’t know how to answer that. My recent work is more in the realm of art and I like to think that making people think and contemplate what they’re seeing has a kind of social value to it. I have sort of one foot in the documentary world and the other in the experimental and I often work mixed between the two and so to me, it’s not so direct but it’s a little bit more mysterious, that mixture.

Tom: Ten second version. The answer for me is that it’s like always a track that’s running through everything that I’ve done the last 30 something years. Doesn’t mean that I don’t want to do something fun or funny or whatever. It’s about informing and changing and it’s always there.

Skip: You know, it’s discouraging times as I was just saying, but we still have to band together. I think it’s important to vote, I think one vote doesn’t make a lot of impact compared to like a $2500 contribution to a candidate, but we still have to vote, we have to join together, we have to vote for whoever the Democrats nominate at the next election and get rid of the Republicans. And I hope you all vote and will vote Democratic, otherwise please don’t vote. And you know, it’s an urge, you know, it’s an urge to communicate. Why are we sitting up here in front of an audience? We have this urge to communicate even if it’s… You know, some artistic works do have a direct impact, the guy who wrote the book about the slaughterhouses here, Upton Sinclair, I mean the point is, you do what you can do and sometimes it makes a big impact and sometimes it makes a lot of money, so you hope that it can make some money. I just sent my tapes to Senegal and they were used to show young Senegalese filmmakers. And they made a video of the feedback for playing the tape that you all saw and they talked about how bold it was. And it I mean, first of all, hearing these people talk about my videos on the other side of the world, in a culture so different from mine, for so many reasons brought a tear to my eyes to see that it was having an impact on these individual people. And hopefully it does embolden people who don’t realize that you have to be, whether you’re Jewish or not, an aggressive videomaker, if you have the video in your hand, you know, and you’re trying to make an impact, it’s ok to walk up to strangers, you know what I mean? Some people are shy. But if it emboldens people to do that, you know, is that having an impact, is that having a social impact? It’s small, it’s satisfying for me, since I haven’t made the big money, that’s where I get my satisfaction.

Q: I’d like to hear more about Lanesville TV. [inaudible]

Nancy: It wasn’t nightly, but it was a couple of times a week.

Skip: In the beginning it was nightly. In the beginning we were doing like seven shows a week and that burned us out quickly. So we went to one nightly show and Buckaroo Bart was a kids show on Saturday.

Nancy: We had a little transmitter that was donated to us by Abbie Hoffman and…

Skip: In exchange for writing in his book “Steal this Book” a section about how you can transmit. Which is obsolete now.

Nancy: But we did and whenever we would crank it up and turn it on, the signal would go up the road and down the road, so there were about maybe 300 people who lived in Lanesville. Let’s see, we did it for about seven years and we brought artists, visiting artists would come to Lanesville anyway because we had an editing facility for them, so they’d come there and post produce there and then they’d come on to Lanesville TV and play their tapes for our neighbors, basically. And then we’d eat! “With something nice for dessert,” as Skip’s grandmother said. “And a nice appetizer.” I’m trying to think. It wasn’t legal, exactly. Because we didn’t have a license to do it, but it didn’t cross any state lines and so…

Skip: As a result of the work that we did, Parry and Michael Cousens helped write legislation which legalized low power broadcasting. In fact it was not legal, it was illegal what we were doing, but it was a small valley and we didn’t care.

Tom: But it made a big difference. I mean, if that’s what came out of it, and it is. I mean, Parry was one of the original guys, and Michael Cousens worked at the FCC, who was a TVTV guy with us. So what happened is they said well, “Why don’t we make it legal, make it straight?” So Cousens, who was the straightest of all, made that happen with Parry who really understood how to…

Nancy: I told them it was a bad idea, don’t do it.

Skip: And we would play, not only would we play our friends’ tapes, we would play our raw footage, and then we would play our first rough edit, and then we would play the fine cut. And so these little people in Lanesville, you saw some of the citizens there. You know, Rabbi Kelly and John Benjamin, you know, they became like very sophisticated video art aficionados because they saw all of our stuff as it developed.

Nancy: That’s right and we did a lot of things that included all the people. We would do, you could say dramatizations or improvisations. Like we did a show about “a saucer lands in Lanesville.” Everybody in town got in it: “Well, it was big and flat and it went up over the hill there and I didn’t know what it was” and we had everybody in on that.

Skip: Tom was the UFO, he was the Air Force guy who was really the UFO guy.

Nancy: Right, Tom came to investigate what it was and we made a flying saucer which we chroma keyed…

Skip: Two falsies glued together

Nancy: Two falsies glued together and we went “woo, woo, woo” and it would come down into the valley. And we did many shows like that. We would put out the word and people would just get out. “We was waiting for the school bus and there it was,” you know, everybody just knew their part. It was a lot of fun, and it really brought the community together in a very sweet way.

Skip: Another live thing was, we had our show in our studio, or in the living room or in the kitchen or the porch, and one time the cops pulled over a motorcycle guy and started beating him up. And we stretched out, we said “We’re going off for a minute!” and we stretched the cables out, you know, we unhooked our camera, we stretched the cables out long and we played it out live of the cop and the motorcycle guy right on the street in front of us. And we did a lot of live TV and experimental.

Chip: I think there’s a lesson there in the sense that the local is a really rigged subject for any filmmaker or videomaker. And you know, watching it tonight I was struck by how fascinating it was when really there was kind of like nothing going on, it was a deconstruction of what news usually does. You have the wreck and the fire and here was the other side of it, so it was kind of the opposite of broadcasting, right, which was always focused on the big event, the spectacular event, the disastrous event, and I think there’s a lesson in that for participatory videomakers.

Tom: One quick one, one quick one about that, and this is that there is no local TV. Right now. There’s the news, which is a profit center, and there’s what else? Can you think of any live TV, local? Anything. Right now. Chicago Tonight is actually live on Channel 11. That’s news. Anything? On TV, live and local in Chicago? [inaudible]

Chip: C-Span.

Amy: There’s no mass broadcast where everyone tunes in at the same time.

Tom: The reason is that the people who own the channels–the corporations that own the channels–are not in Chicago, they’re not in wherever you go, they’re in Los Angeles, and they’re in New York, and they, well, Tribune is here. And that isn’t their interest. And you can’t blame ’em on some level, their interest is to make money for the stockholders. But in the end, what happens is that we, all of us, aren’t served by seeing ourselves on TV like Scotty Benjamin was.

Amy: On that note, I’d like to thank everyone here for coming out.



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