[Interview with Judy Hoffman about Guerrilla Television, tape 1]

Interview with guerrilla television pioneer Judy Hoffman about her 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."

“I got married at the age of 22, something like that, and moved to New York. I was always interested in film.

Towards the end of high school and the beginning of college, I would cut school and go to the Clark Theater and watch movies. And I envisioned someday it might be great to get involved in film. But that was like a dream, I didn’t know that that really could happen. It was just a wonderful fantasy. I was watching Nick Ray films, Godard films, some of the classic Hollywood directors, and a lot of European New Wave film. I fell in love with that, and really wanted to work in it.

I was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, an English literature major. There were no film courses at that point except for one film history class. There was no film school at the University of Illinois. This was in 1973. And most of the time I would be protesting the war in Vietnam, going on women’s liberation marches, or going to the Clark Theater and watching films. I was not a good student. And I ended up getting a job, a work study job, at the University of Illinois at what was called the Office of Instructional Resources. They provided all the A/V services for the university. They had a film library and got information out to teachers. They also had this one branch called the Media Production Center, which was a film producing unit. They were doing films, not like your typical chemistry lecture or closed circuit type of television. But it was actually producing socially relevant documentaries for use in the social sciences. The head of that department, his name was Jerry Temaner. And I had thought I would really like to work in film. So I went to see him and said, “I want a job. I want a work study job.” And I gave him this whole long talk about how women had been, you know, always imaged in films but never been allowed to… we were stopped from making films. We didn’t have access to the equipment. And it was his duty to hire me because he needed to address these inequities. And he was totally in agreement. So he let me give my whole long spiel, and then he just said “Ok, you’re hired, that’s enough. I’m with you on this.” And it turns out that he was one of the founders of Kartemquin Films. But I didn’t know anything about Kartemquin films at the time.

I started working there and there was a really unique group of people. I mean, Temaner was really an incredible intellectual and quite a good filmmaker. He made a documentary about childbirth called “Marco.” There were a lot of films being made there. There was a guy by the name of Bill [Mayen] working on films about Chicago politics. He was making films with Dick Simpson, who was an alderman, and a professor of political science. And they were making films about precinct captains, also working with labor groups, making a film about freight handlers at O’Hare Airport, doing a lot of educational, but really socially relevant documentary films.

So there were these filmmakers there and there was someone else–I don’t think he was a student at the time, he had graduated–and his name was Jim Morrissette. He pretty much dealt with the facilities of the Media Production Center. There were Eclair [NPR]’s and all kinds of film cameras and [Steembeck] editors and no video, you know, initially. But gradually, half inch video started appearing and I think, the University of Illinois really jumped on this new technology, they saw a lot of potential for it. They set up a place called the Special Groups Lab in the Behavioral Sciences building. There was a political science teacher who was really interested in using videotape–I think more, it’s almost more like behavioral psychology, really. So he had thought, I remember talking to him, and he thought that by videotaping people it could trigger memory. That somehow, it would have this therapeutic effect. And by doing interviews with them, that somehow, something would get triggered. He ended up packing up and moving to Vancouver, British Columbia. He was a hippy, actually. So he was around at that point in time.

Paul [Hawkings], who was in anthropology, was looking at half inch video to use in ethnographic filmmaking. So this technology was really new and was really being looked at by the U of I.

At the Media Production Center we got a hold of a number of Portapaks and at that time there was going to be a Visual Anthropology Conference, which was part of an international congress on ethnological and sociological sciences. It was being held in Chicago at the Hilton–it was a huge international conference. The University of Illinois was sponsoring the Visual Anthropology Conference within this larger anthropology congress. And they decided to introduce Chicago to these anthropologists through video. As a work study student, I started working on a project called “Ethnicity in Chicago,” where we had about, I think about 15 community groups around the city that learned half inch video, and then what we did was access the equipment to them, so they could produce tapes of whatever they wanted to make them about, about their own community. And we showed this at the congress.

So that was my entry into video, was to help people learn how to do this. One Italian community did something very traditional about their ethnicity. Another Italian group did an opera. It was truly wonderful. They did an opera in the alleys of Chicago. There was a Serbian wedding, there were all different types of stuff that we put together. We edited up to one inch and then showed it at the congress.

At the same time this guy Jean Rouch, who was an ethnographic filmmaker, came in for this and I became his assistant. And the things that he talked about went with what we were doing at U of I, which was this idea of shared anthropology. Although we weren’t anthropologists, we were giving people the skills and the ability to speak for themselves. Rouch was also thinking about these same ideas. So I started working with him. We tried to do some films together, but he would go back and forth between Chicago and Paris. And come in like, twice a year or something.

At the same time, the university had a mandate–U of I had taken over a lot of the land in Chicago and moved a lot of people out. The Greeks and the Italians and blacks in particular. So one of the things that they had to do to kind of cover themselves was what they called an “urban mandate” to facilitate community groups.

One of the groups was called Videopolis. And it was started by Anda Korsts, who was a journalist. She worked at the City News Desk, which was like a pool of reporters that would feed into the four daily newspapers and all the radio and TV stations. She had been a journalist there, and became more and more dissatisfied with regular journalism. And I think, one of the things that I don’t know if people will bring up, but we had all the anti-war stuff was going on, women’s liberation, unions, the American Indian movement, Black Panther party, all of the cultural movements that were happening.

But there was also something called New Journalism, where you could report on something and actually refer to yourself. If you look back, Norman Mailer and Jean Genet both wrote about the Democratic Convention. And included themselves in the reporting, so there was this idea of, you know, it was no longer the voice of God, that there were real people looking at these kinds of events. And I think that somewhat influenced what we were doing as well as all the political stuff. The idea that people should be able to speak for themselves, the whole idea of, I hate to say the word “empowerment,” it’s such a meaningless word, but you know, I guess what we would call, at the time, “self determination.” Which people don’t refer to nowadays.

But so video went ideally in to this and I started becoming friends with Anda. I was at the University of Illinois and I was helping Anda, accessing equipment for her to use. We also did a lot of workshops together at the University of Illinois for teachers. So I started learning more and more about her philosophy of half inch video, which was that you had to question who made television, in what settings, and for what reasons. And after examination, you found out that corporations made video; in studio settings, in very closed settings; for sales, to advertise things, to perpetuate the status quo. And to deaden people’s brains.

And we thought that this half inch video equipment was revolutionary. It was very cheap, I think you could get a Portapak for $1200. Ok, so in the ’70s, I don’t know what that would have been. You know, maybe a couple of thousand now, 3000 or something, 4000. It wasn’t extraordinarily expensive. There was also the idea that it was accessible, in that places like Videopolis would get grants to buy equipment, and then people could come learn how to use it and check the equipment out. The whole idea was to get equipment to people. It wasn’t about keeping this for yourself.

Editing was pretty problematic. It wasn’t computer editing, it was reel to reel. Like you would edit tape–audiotape–but you couldn’t physically cut it, you’d have to back it up. But where was I in my rambling? The whole idea was to get this equipment to people so they could start making, you know, “real people make real TV.” There are all these things that we said that are cliched, and scrutinized today: What are “real people”? That wasn’t an issue then. We knew what real people were. Because the corporations weren’t “real.” Maybe things were, things seem so much more complicated today. Then there wasn’t really those issues, I don’t think.

So I started helping Anda while I was at the University of Illinois doing workshops for teachers, there was a group called Urban Gateways, which were art teachers from all over the city of Chicago, working with kids. And we showed them how to use the equipment.

I started getting more and more involved in half inch video. Film was wonderful, I still loved film, but there was something magical about video, the idea that you could pop out into the streets to shoot tape and create edits in-camera. I mean, use half inch video for what it was, which was almost exploring the formal properties. You could erase it and record over it, so that an in-camera edit was doable in terms of sync sound. You could always do that with film: you couldn’t record over it, but you could start and stop it, but you didn’t have sound with film. Here you had people’s voices with their images, and you could show it back immediately.

So we were always shooting video and showing it back, whether it was in the viewfinder in the camera or whether we took a little TV with, we could show it immediately back to people. And that was magical. I mean, we did it at personal levels, just with friends, and we did it at political levels. Some of the first taping I started doing was with labor unions.

But in any case, I’ll get back to Videopolis. I ended up quitting school. I shouldn’t say that. I continued my job as a work study student, and never went to class. So I flunked out of college. There was so much–the war in Vietnam, there were too many things that had to be done. And I maintained my status as a student strictly so I could get this work study position. If I wasn’t a student I wouldn’t be able to work there. So I did that and finally it ran out. And Anda hired me at Videopolis. You could do this kind of thing. I don’t know if you can do this stuff now, but back then, I was splitting an apartment with my buddy Barry Bender and our rent for a four room apartment was $95. I mean, we had great landlords, you gotta admit. The [Gianpaulis] were Italian socialists, they were very cool. But rents were, I mean, you didn’t have that. I think rents are much higher now, in terms of what people earn, so you could do it. I mean there was never a thought like when I was in school–“what am I going to be,” this pressure. I mean, you just did stuff. I don’t know, maybe I was just a fuck up, I’m not sure.

But I started working for Videopolis. It was very little money, but it was just fabulous. I walked to work. We had this studio at Halsted near Wrightwood that was shared with a number of other arts groups and people. There were the costume designer for Stuart Gordon–Warp–I don’t know if you know who Stuart Gordon is, he did a film called The Reanimator. Stuart Gordon’s really like avant garde sci fi, he created a number of plays. So there was this like, group of theater people who would hang out there because the woman who did costuming for the Organic Theater shared space with us. There was some guy Jim [Quarf], who had like a caravan of puppets. He ended up in Minnesota somewhere. You know, just like these bizarre people, and I was like in my early 20s and this was extraordinary. Because most of the people were older and had been working in the arts for awhile, and I just saw this great group of people. And we worked out of there editing, we would edit tapes that we would make and access equipment. It was called the Videopolis Community Video Access Project. We would access equipment to labor groups, community groups… Some of the first tapes I made were for the Illinois Labor History project, interviewing old organizers. Clearly a lot of theater. We would do video installations for like Gary [Huston’s] plays, we would document theater, document a lot of the artists.

We relied on individual funds, but a lot of grant money, so we got a grant from the Illinois Arts Council to videotape Chicago Imagists. It’s a movement, an art movement that came out of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was some very extraordinary artists like [Karl Worsem], you know, downtown that big bug, that pink building, it’s like a power plant, so that’s [Worsen’s] mural there. He’s an extraordinary artist. There was [Roger Brown], Ed Pashke, [Ellen Lanyon,] I know I’m forgetting a number of people. But we started documenting them, and instead of bringing them into a studio, we went into their studios. This was remarkable–with videotape, we could go into their studios, no light, shotgun microphone, and get them to take us on a tour of their studio and have them talk to us about their art as we’re looking at it, as they’re making it. So we did that kind of taping.

There was a coalition of labor union women that had a convention and we documented that, created an edit. Just all different kinds of tapes. People were coming by the studio, we’d do workshops there, or we’d go out into different neighborhoods and try to encourage people to use video, show them sample videos. We were in touch with a lot of different video organizations around the country. I mean, it was new and small enough that you had these associations, so we were friends with the Videofreex from the East Coast, there was a group from the West Coast called Optic Nerve that we worked with. I mean, we would work on projects together, but we would get tapes from all over–Appalshop, which is still going, was starting to get involved in documenting Appalachian culture. We’d get tapes and we’d show them to people, we’d create screenings. And we started a project called Women Doing Video where we curated videotapes made by women from all over the country and showed them at different women’s film festivals. We were part of the Chicago Women’s Film Festival. There was also the Revolutionary Film Festival, sponsored by the Tribune, and so there were a lot of films going on and then it would be me, Anda, Lilli Ollinger, Jack McFadden, showing tapes done by women. And we always had equipment with so that it wasn’t “here are things, here are videos,” we were always there like selling [Vegomatics] or something. We had a table, we had our Portapacks there, and people would go in to see a video and we’d have them look at the equipment and play with it. We wanted to demystify how this stuff was made. So that was always part of it. It wasn’t just screening, it was actually getting people to use the equipment and get familiar with it.

So we continued to do that, and then Anda and Tom Weinberg got a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a $10,000 grant to transpose Studs Terkel’s book Working into half-inch videotape. And broadcast it on WTTW. They sponsored it. And what had to happen, well, Anda and Tom were buddies with Studs Terkel. He gave us the go-ahead to use his book and to get ahold of the people in his book, and shoot them as they were working. And have them talk about their work. The show was entitled “It’s a Living,” and it was an hour-long video, shot all on half-inch.

Color was just coming out, before it was all black and white, so it was black and white and color. And in fact, the segment I worked on, on Yolanda, about a waitress at the Erie Cafe, was shot with a camera with a special tube in it. There were different pickup tubes, a Vidicon would be standard. This was a Tivicon, which was I think developed by the Defense Department for night vision. So that if you took a drag out of a cigarette, the red light from the cigarette would illuminate everything, so you were able to go into a restaurant and not light it–it was a pretty dim restaurant.

So again, the idea of it being portable, unobtrusive, that you revealed yourself, you could reveal yourself from behind the camera, it freed you up from some of the constraints of film. One, it was a half an hour, so long takes, the other was that we could hold it far enough back that we could look at the viewfinder, frame things up and then look around the camera and talk directly to people. So that there’s a real human being that you’re talking to and you’ve got this camera here, but there’s something about poking your head around to talk to people that makes it, I think, less threatening, in a way. So we you experimented with all these kinds of ways of shooting.

So we started working on “It’s a Living” and some people from Chicago worked on it. There was Tom Weinberg, Jack McFadden, me, and Anda, and then Anda brought a number of other people in to work on it. There was Skip Blumberg, who was a member of the Videofreex, Jim Mayer from Optic Nerve, and Joel Gold, who was an extraordinary cameraman. I’m not sure, I don’t think he was with a group. He came in to work on the show.

So I did a lot of the research to find characters in Studs’ book–try and figure out who would be interesting, who would be willing. We spent maybe about a month shooting, just running around documenting different characters and we all helped out on each other’s crew. And then we had to edit it. So certain people stayed on for the edit, certain people left.

At the time, Channel 11 (WTTW) had a news department, they were trying to do news. And they had a studio downtown, like around Michigan and Illinois, somewhere in there, and for some reason we had to take our half-inch reel-to-reel equipment down there. And because they had a transmitter, they could take our signal, which was helical scan, a different signal than what was broadcast TV. Broadcast TV was called quad, 2-inch quad. The tape was two inches, and there were four video heads that went across. Our video was helical scan, half-inch, with video heads that went on a diagonal. So the big problem was getting one scanning system to another scanning system. In New York, WNET had a television lab, and there was an engineer there, John Godfrey, who along with Elan Soltes and some other video people developed what was called the Time Base Corrector that could convert half-inch helical scan to a system that 2-inch quad could accept. So that’s what we had to use with Channel 11, but for some reason we had to transmit it from their new studio to the studio on St. Louis Avenue. So we weren’t allowed to touch the equipment, you know, strict union rules. I love unions but that’s not a union, I mean they were just trying to keep people out, really. I would cue up the tapes, hand the engineer a tape, he would put it on a deck, and I’d give him a certain pre-roll and he would be on the phone with people at Channel 11 on St. Louis, saying “Ok, roll and record,” and he would turn it on, we’d transmit it, half-inch, from Michigan Avenue, and it would get laid down on 2″ quad at their studio on St. Louis. So it was really weird, I mean, it was like we were broadcasting, you know, it was quite strange.

So we finished the tape there. It was cut, and then they matched the 2″ quad to our edit. So that was it. We did that in 1974, into ’75. It was broadcast on Channel 11 and then picked up nationwide in 1975. It was amazing. I, of course, fell in love with Yolanda. You know, you fall in love with the people that you shoot. So I became friendly with her and, you always cross that line, you know, we could do that now. You weren’t allowed to do that before, but part of video was making relationships, and really making new associations–the personal is the political, the political is the personal. So instead of the subject and object of media, we just became friends. And I became friends with the family and that kind of thing.

So at that point though, I was courted by Kartemquin films, a political filmmaking collective. And they needed to make a tape– they didn’t know how to make video. And so I started working with them on making some tape. I had met them at the University of Illinois because they used some of the equipment there, and I started becoming closer and closer with Kartemquin and ended up becoming part of their political filmmaking collective. And I was the video person. I taught them how to use it.

Along with another woman, Sharon Karp, we made an in-camera edit for a labor union. That was a classic, I mean, people actually used this in schools, an in-camera edit. Kartemquin was called by unemployment comp workers, they were out on strike. At the time, we were in another recession, unemployment was really awful and unemployment compensation workers were asked to work overtime. Actually not asked, they were demanded, they had to work overtime, they hadn’t received a paycheck for their work in, I don’t know, over a month. I mean, it was just an exhausting process for them, and they felt really misused. So this one local office went out on strike. Their demands were that more staff should be hired, and a number of other working conditions were in there. But they were only one office, and they needed to communicate this to all the other local offices, to let them know that they were out on strike. Of course the minute they went on strike they were fired. So they thought that a video might be an interesting thing to make to communicate with the other local offices around Chicago. So I met with the leadership of the strike, and the night before we were going to shoot, I tried to find out as much about the issues as I could, and who would be good people to talk to about certain things. To edit it would have taken way too long, and they wanted to go out there and start talking to people immediately. We went that morning and shot a tape, and I would interview people and play it back in the camera, decide where a good point would be to cut it, and start another interview and try to have the interview flow a little bit. Have like where one person stopped an idea, the other person could pick it up. We needed to make it short so that people would watch it and so that a striker could talk about it after showing it. So it ended up being something like an 18 minute tape, something like that. And it was done immediately. That lunchtime we showed it back to the strikers, and then we started going around with the tape for nine weeks. We went around with a Portapak and a monitor and showed the tape in different venues. We couldn’t show it at the other local offices because they wouldn’t allow that, but they would make arrangements to show it in like a local bar across the street, we’d show it at lunch time. And I’d show the tape, and then one of the strikers would talk about why they needed people’s support. And it started organizing people, it became a great organizing tool. And the unemployment workers voted to go out on strike in solidarity with that one local office. It was a one-day strike, and they had a rally downtown in front of the state unemployment compensation office, which was right across from Grant Park. So Jim Morrissette actually helped me figure out how to do this, I got a generator, [baffled] it and showed the tape in Grant Park for all the workers to see. It was great, back then we didn’t bother getting permits or anything, we just did it. Also–part of what we did in alternative media was not just make alternative media, part of it came out of the kind of politic that we grew up with in the ’60s, which was not just to have a model and an alternative, but to try and change the existing institutions and demand things from them. So I went with the tape to Channel 11, because they had that news division, and showed them the tape and demanded that they broadcast news about what was going on. Which they never had, nobody every broadcast labor news, right? Rarely. Certainly not today, but back then there were still unions, there was still something going on, so we demanded that they broadcast information about it. They never did. The upshot of it was, it was a successful piece of media, the strike was settled, the workers were hired back, sent to different offices, but hired back and the head of the state unemployment compensation bureau was fired. Not that the tape did this, but it was part of a whole larger movement of people that video could play a part in. So it was about being an in-camera edit, and getting it to people as soon as possible. So that was really exciting.

And then from there I started working with Kartemquin more and more and I worked on a tape about Cook County Hospital doctors, they were residents and interns who went out on strike. I think a lot of us who came out of the anti-war movement and the women’s liberation movement started making associations with people who worked. We didn’t see ourselves as students or ex-students, being a unit in and of ourselves, but only successful if we could work with other people. So I think there was also this romance with labor, with people. We looked back to our history then, we were looking back to the left movements of the ’30s and finding out more and more information about that. During the anti-war movement, SDS kind of branched off into different groups, there were all kinds of fights, and one of the groups, Progressive Labor Party, demanded that instead of being in school and having that kind of luxury to just talk to the converted, what you needed to do was go out and organize in factories. So people had started making associations with workers. So here I am doing video, and I was a Young Patriot. The Young Patriots were a group that came out of SDS and different groups. Throughout high school I had worked at Weiss Memorial Hospital so I already had this relationship to health care. And part of what I did when I was in college was work at the Young Patriot free health clinic. All these groups, like the Black Panther party, Rising Up Angry, the Young Patriots, we all had different programs to serve communities that we were organizing in. So the Black Panther Party had this [Bergen Jake] health clinic, and they had a breakfast program for kids. The Young Patriots had a heath clinic that I worked at. So I worked at Weiss Hospital part of the time and I worked at the free health clinic another part of the time. So I had worked there for about eight years and in the Patriot clinic for about three years. So I was steeped in doing organizing around health care, and when the doctors at County Hospital went out on strike, and now I understand how to use videotape, I went out and started documenting the strike. And that tape was really complicated to finish, there were a number of different versions, but probably the simplest version is a version I ended up updating in I think it was in the ’80s, when the same stuff was happening at County again. The strike at County Hospital was the longest doctors strike in the history of the United States. And it was a strike where doctors went out on strike not for more money, but for working conditions: having an EKG machine on every floor, a translator to translate for Spanish-speaking patients. These were the nuts and bolts that they needed that they went out on strike for–getting test results in less than 2 weeks. I mean, there’s two systems of health care in this country, one for the poor, and one for the rich. And these doctors, a lot of them had come out of the anti-war movement, so they were politicized, and wanted some kind of parity in health care for their patients. So they went out on strike and the leadership of the strike was put in jail, so I went to Cook County Jail and taped them talking about health care in the jail. So the strike was settled, not that many demands were won, but they got the right to have those demands. And ten years later, the same stuff happened, so the union organizer asked me to recut the tape so people could learn the history of what went on before, so I cut that again. And then I continued working in tape, off and on, but started working more and more in film.”

 

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