[Interview with Jack McFadden about Guerrilla Television]

Interview with guerrilla television pioneer Jack McFadden about his career and the alternative video scene in Chicago in the 1970s. Shot for a University of Chicago BA thesis project called "Alternative Television: A Short History of Video Activism in Chicago." This tape is an audio-only recording of a phone call.

“I worked for Anda [Korsts]. I was sort of a full-time “part-time employee.” I graduated college in ’73 and I basically started working for her right after that. I’m not exactly sure when in ’73 it would have been, but like summertime of 1973.

You mentioned Lilly’s [Ollinger] name, right? Lilly and Judy [Hoffman], who else did we work with? You know, there were kind of a lot of people in and out of there some. And in the email I sent you I mentioned some folks that had come in to work on special projects, too. Joel Gold was basically an artist in New York who did some stuff with video. He was really good. He did some really nice stuff. Skip Blumberg, TVTV–Four More Years. That was sort of one of their classics at the time. I wish I could remember the names of some of the stuff that Joel Gold worked on.

But a lot of what I did was not so much production-oriented as it was sort of teaching and support oriented–community groups. I didn’t work with any Uptown groups. There was a community group on the west side that had some issues with some development things (and other neighborhoods, too) and a lot of what was being done there–of course this was at a point when the only stuff on television was either live TV in a studio or film, largely, and for these community groups to have access to a camcorder or the old decks that we had at the time with the camera, to be able to record and edit tapes that would maybe document some condition in their community or provide interviews with people who could sort of express the community viewpoint about an issue, to be able to do that and then produce a tape that could be shown in community meetings or shown to the political leaders or something, was kind of dramatic stuff at the time. We wouldn’t think much of it nowadays, but it was something that had more of an impact then. So anyways, part of the concept of Videopolis was to work on those things.

We did do some taping of artists. Not only taping performances, but even just sort of practices or folks doing dance troupes. There was a dance troupe called Moming. Troupe is probably not the right word, but a dance workshop called Moming, and there were times when you know, they had requested basically someone who’d come over and tape some folks going through some routines or whatever. Just so that they could see themselves, see what it looked like. So it was, besides the artists, the video for art’s sake, and besides the community action-oriented stuff there was just using tape as a tool for personal feedback. So yeah, I’d say we did more of the working with the community groups and some taping of artistic performances or stuff that folks wanted done.

One of the things that appealed to me about it was not just using the equipment myself, but this concept of teaching the community activists to use it and being in a position to loan them this equipment, let them go out and produce their own tapes. I actually had a bachelors in elementary education. I was interested in how people learn, I was interested in technology, too, so this was kind of a neat combination for me–the idea of being able to use new technology and see how people could learn from it. And see what it would take for each them to use this as a tool. So that was probably the biggest appeal to me for this. I was coming less from the artistic side of things and pure production side of things than some of the other people that were involved with the projects.

Anda had been keeping tapes that were sort of a cultural collection. I got married not long after graduating and one of the things my wife and I did was we taped a guy named [ryder rosenthing] who was a Norwegian in Chicago whose family worked on something called Rosemaling, which is the decoration of cups, plates, things like that. It was a traditional Scandinavian art form that was typically done in the long winter months that didn’t have a lot of daylight, and people just stayed inside and this was and outlet for them. So we did a short documentary piece on that.

You mentioned “It’s a Living,” Maxwell Street. Well, again, Anda did a lot of that herself, the Maxwell street thing. So I was doing post-production editing stuff. But I hadn’t been that much directly involved in the shooting of it.

One of the things that seemed to really appeal to Anda, and she was I think taking a lot of inspiration from people like Skip Blumberg and projects like Four More Years, was the idea of using this tool to capture something about ordinary life and regular people. And rather than a purely, or rather than a classic, documentary approach, you were recording real people, but there was no use of narrative, you let people speak for themselves, and you were producing something that had more of an artistic feel to it than a classic documentary form. So that was one of the things about It’s a Living and the Maxwell street stuff. And even these other things. The Norwegian, [Rosenhall], and the guy talking about working on that.

After that job, Nancy and I ended up moving to Knoxville Tennessee, and I kept working for the University of Tennessee there, doing video. I did some things that were very similar, I was actually working with the school of social work and one of the things we did was take portable equipment out to some of these rural communities where the social workers were dealing with some of their clients. We would document some of those people’s lives and bring back case studies to the school of social work so that teachers in the classroom setting could show this stuff to their students and talk about some of the realities of working as a social worker in East Tennessee. It did plant a seed that led to some similar kinds of work in other places, at least with me.

[How long were you in Chicago?] So I started, let’s say summer of ’73, and it was basically two years–Nancy and I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee in ’75. So it was pretty much two years.

Oddly enough, I don’t particularly remember other groups in Chicago, I thought what we were doing was completely unique, at least in that time frame. Have you followed the thread back to some of what Anda took inspiration from? What I’m thinking about here is cable TV–Chicago did not have cable TV at that time, but in cities like New York, cable television was coming and they had a community access channel and so there was space to show programming of video production that was done by people in the community. There was a woman named Red Burns who had run the Alternate Media Center. That’s going back kinda to the beginning. Alternate Media Center in New York City was working on doing some of the same kinds of things that I was talking about with community groups, except they were showing those productions on this community access channel on the cable television system. And what Anda wanted to do was basically model her activities on Red Burns’. The big difference was she didn’t have cable TV as an outlet for the work. But actually, that’s how I ended up going to school. I ended up going to school in New York later on because of the Red Burns connection I picked up from Anda. I went to University of Illinois at Chicago, Circle Campus.”

 

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