[Interview with Scott Jacobs about Guerrilla Television]

Interview with guerrilla television pioneer Scott Jacobs 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."

“[You started out as a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, how did you get into video?] I took a workshop at a place called Videopolis, which was where Metro is now. It was run by Anda Korsts. Cindy Neal was the teacher and Annette Barbier, who is a professor now at Northwestern. And I took it because I was very bored with investigative reporting. I had spent two months investigating the Kane County dog pound and I thought video sounded a little more interesting. So after I took the course I took out their little Portapak and I went down to Marshall Field’s just before Christmas in 1975 and I spent the day with Santa Claus and made this little videotape that was the most fun I ever had. So I went back into the paper in January and told them I wanted to take a year to do a leave of absence to study video journalism.

[Did you work on a project with Tom Weinberg?] We did a six-part series based on Studs Terkel’s Working for Channel 11. So there were six different videotapes and it was a group of the old TVTV people who came to town. Tom and Anda were the executive producers, Skip Blumberg and Joel Gold and Maxi Cohen came in from New York, Bart Friedman and Nancy Cain were in, and we went around and made tapes about people’s lives, working. And they ran on Channel 11 and then that was pretty much it. After it ran, I bought my first camera, and threw everything that I had in the back of my little Volvo and traveled around the country for three months and made this dvd, which I just gave you, called True Life Video Stories, that is a bunch of little pieces on the road from Arizona and Las Vegas, San Francisco. The die had been cast at that point, I knew kinda how I wanted to tell stories and so I went out to start telling them.

[Were you involved with the Chicago Videomakers Coalition?] I think they met in my living room. [What did they do?] I guess when I got back in the fall of ’76, I had like 50 hours of tape and no place to put it. And there was a similar kind of feeling among 10 or 20 other people who had bought these little Portapaks, so we all got together and we kinda called up Channel 11 through Tom Weinberg and said “We wanna have a show.” And the we made a little sampler that kinda ran on Channel 11, I think the show was called Nightwatch and its host was Bob [Gene Siskel?], some radio guy, so that was the start of the Coalition. It was a terrible show, but the pieces were pretty good, so we wanted to do another show that we’d have a little more control over and they didn’t want to do that. So we went to Channel 44, to Ed Morris and said “We wanna do our own show” and we made something called Slices of Chicago and it was little 5-10 minute pieces by about 10 different videomakers and we ran it on Channel 44. People liked it a lot. And we still had no money. So the biggest problem at that time was editing with all of this tape. So we started kinda fishing around on where to edit different pieces. We wound up at Bell & Howell, I think, and we did all of our titling by typing on black slides and projecting it across the screen.

[Can you tell me about the Chicago Editing Center?] I think that happened after Tedwilliam [Theodore] got tired of Tom [Weinberg] and I sneaking in to his place and editing and leaving pizza on his desk. He sort of volunteered to kind of do a fundraising effort and Tom and I went to Roscor in town–Paul Roston gave us the initial equipment, we found a space, we brought all the people together, and it was a great idea. It was just at that time when the marvelous 3/4″ video was invented, so we were at that point on cassettes instead of these reel-to-reel machines that you had to backwind and mark with grease pencils. So we started it, Denise [Zaccardi] used it, all the people you’re interviewing probably used it. We set up a gallery space and got McDonald’s to give us a little bit of money to kind of show emerging video artists. And it went pretty well for a couple years.

[How did you get the money to do it?] There was some grant money–there was never very much money. In order to edit there we charged a fee, $25 an hour or something like that, which was about $300 cheaper than anything you could get in town, so it was really kind of a bargain.

[Did you work at all with Communications for Change?] Well, they were in the same building, that was Tedwilliam’s organization and I never did anything directly with them. [The proposal to establish the Chicago Editing Center lists you as an “associate” of Communications for Change.] Anybody got to have any title they wanted.

[Can you talk about Slices of Chicago?] Tom Weinberg grabbed the name about 15 years later when he was doing stuff on Channel [50] and did the same sort of thing I think with Joel Cohen. And I think by that time he was on Hi-8 cameras instead of you know, Portapaks.

[What was the Halsted Street TV Show?] That was fun. I guess that was when Tom and I decided if we couldn’t get our stuff on TV, we’d put it in a storefront and charge people a dollar. So we got a friend who had a gallery on Halsted Street, when Halsted Street was a very rough street. And Tom got a cabbie license and he drove around in the cab and I drove around in the front seat and we took pictures, we made little tapes of whoever got in the cab, and we would show them on friday nights. And the gallery owner went up and down the street and invited other store owners to come in and we did interviews there. And the Art Institute guys brought over their image processors and set up a bunch of monitors and made art. I think the most famous thing we did–Tom had a friend named the Great Dragon, who came to Chicago to do the world premiere of his Electronic Pencils performance, for which I had to get 10,000 pencils. And then we had to sharpen them all, which took like all night, and then the Great Dragon laid down on the floor, we poured all the pencils on top of him, and he sat there for the first 45 minutes of the show. And then when it came time for the Great Dragon to do his piece, he rose up with a chainsaw and started hacking the pencils apart and all the pieces were going out into the crowd. I think we lost a few friends that day. But those who were there will never forget the Halsted Street TV Show.

[What was most important to you about video as a medium that made you want to work with it?] I didn’t have to write anything down, it just it took the picture and it showed what I was seeing. And it kinda gave me a chance to talk to people and I wasn’t there with my head buried in a notebook trying to write as fast as I could, which is what I did at the Sun-Times. I really was very tired of kinda writing short–the Sun-Times is a tabloid and a long story’s about 10 or 12 paragraphs. And this gave me a chance to kinda catch the flavor and the feel of people–one thing video does for me is it conveys feeling.

[Do you feel there was anything special about Chicago as opposed to other parts of the country?] Well, there weren’t many of us, so everybody kinda helped out each other.

[Do you know much about Videopolis?] Yeah. It was Anda’s gig. It was Anda’s gig, it was set up to be a commune, but in the end it was Anda’s gig. So when we set up the Center for New Television we specifically kinda set it up so that it would run differently from Anda’s gig.

[Did the different video groups and individual videomakers interact a lot in Chicago?] Yeah, I think so. Jim Morrissette and Raul [Zaritsky?] were at the University of Illinois and they tended to do instructional style TV. There was a group around the Art Institute and the design department, Dan Sandin and Phil Morton, who were doing electronic visualization in the Electronic Visualization Lab. And that was its own kind of little circle, because they were all in to oscillators and electronic boxes–image processors, they were called at the time. There was Kartemquin, which tended to be do social films, they really came from a film background and Judy [Hoffman] was probably the first to kinda explore video as a community organizing tool. Denise [Zaccardi] was working with kids, and then [Tom] Weinberg and I really just, I think we wanted to do some kind of journalism, without knowing exactly what that was.

[You did Golden Gloves together?] That’s on the dvd. A much better version, I cleaned everything up. Tom’s tapes are not in a good state. Here, hand me the thing and I’ll run through whatever I did at that time. The Golden Gloves, Las Vegas, the Real Realness of the Higher Highness–that was a pretty funny one. We would make tapes about anything.

[How has the video community changed over the last three decades?] It’s a long transition from the ’70s to where we are today. It’s an equipment transition, it’s a people and their lives transition, it’s a transition of what happened to television, and I mean, I can kinda step through it, it takes a little while. My transition after two or three years of doing this–I think I started to change my focus in 1979 when I made the political commercials for Jane Byrne, which were very successful–she was elected. And I after that I was doing other political commercials, I really was trying to work for money as a video person in town. There weren’t that many people who had a camera, shot video, did commercials on video. I also got involved with another couple people who wanted to do documentary called Hobo, so we went to California and rode trains for three months. That was pretty good. I stole my girlfriend’s car for like a month to do it. But that one worked out well. At one point I really kind of split with the Center for New Television. I was very disappointed that they weren’t going to upgrade the equipment. There was more of a focus on, I’m not quite sure what it was, kind of community organizing. And Tom [Weinberg] wanted to get his television station of his dreams going. And I really wanted better equipment that would allow me to do better stuff, so I found three or four people and in my apartment on Webster Street started a company called Independent Programming Associates, IPA, and I ran it for 17 years. And I think we really tried to bring up the equipment level a notch–that was the start of 3/4″ and then Betacam came in. People were getting pretty professional. And corporate video was a brand new phenomenon in the ’80s that paid our bills. People were coming in and editing in our suites so we went from one edit suite to four edit suites, we added graphics and paintboxes and things like that, I built a sound room there, by the time we were done I had 30 people kind of spread around four floors of the building and people say it was a very funky place. And we were thought of as the artistes in town, but we were also very, very good. So we did a lot of documentaries, a lot of Bill Kurtis’ documentaries went through there, a lot of Kartemquin’s documentaries went through there–we finished Hoop Dreams, which was a breakthrough nationally in terms of what the country would accept was a definition of a documentary. And I think it was a wonderful time. I would say that IPA was a marvelous kind of anchor for Chicago video for two decades. It was editing, it was graphics, it was sound, we had a camera, but we didn’t go out to produce anything except what we wanted to produce. Our clients were producers themselves and one of the things IPA did was continually build this community of independent producers in Chicago. So if there were 18 people in the first Chicago Area Video Coalition, by the end of the ’80s when we would throw our annual summer party, we’d have 300 producers around.

[Did IPA become Post Effects?] No, in the year 2000 I merged IPA in with Post Effects, most of the people moved down here, we sold a lot of the equipment, and I’m back to writing and producing. I’m actually more interested in the internet right now than I am in television shows.

[Did you show your work on Image Union?] I have the first union complaint against Image Union for shooting Tom Weinberg out of the back of his car. Yeah, I had different things run on Image Union, we did a very interesting piece the night Jane Byrne was elected. I put a camera crew in her suite and we did a very interesting documentary about Jane Byrne on election night. I think I had a lot of stuff on Image Union.

[TW mentioned there were problems with WTTW requiring union labor to produce the shows, including Image Union?] Well, that was the rule. And as long as he didn’t know about it, and the tape came in as a finished piece, he could have it on the air. It was only when his truck and his face appeared in the tape that I submitted that someone thought, “You know, Tom might not have been ignorant of this.” That was about the first or second show.

[Coming out of journalism did you have any inclination towards broadcast journalism?] I guess I don’t think of myself as an on-camera person. And what I perceived news to be is, and I have a lot of friends who do it, you go in to the station and the camera guy sets up the camera on the tripod and you look into the camera and say, “I’m standing here in front of the fire and now I’m going to interview this guy.” I was more interested in what it looked like from behind the camera and I was more interested in a camera that moved and a camera where the cameraperson was me. And I wanted to do tapes where you knew I was there behind the camera, whether I talk a lot or don’t talk a lot, you kinda know you’re seeing what I’m seeing and you’re kind of hearing answers to the questions I have.

[Is there anything else we’re missing?] Do you want me to go year by year?

[TW talked about WTTW being tricked into having a meeting to get IU started?] Which one? We had a bunch of meetings. [Some compromise that led to IU?] Well, let me tell you how I think it sort of played out. The Chicago Videomakers Coalition was small group of good hearted people who wanted to see their stuff on TV. That led in turn to the Center for New Television, the Chicago Editing Center is what we called it at the time. And the group got bigger and we had a better presence in Chicago. And a fair amount of that presence, I think, came from the fact that I came from newspapers and knew a lot of reporters, Tom knew a bunch of reporters, I think Tom and I were much more public figures. Everyone else was doing their small thing, but we were more in the journalism community, so we knew the guys if we wanted to get our story out, we could get our story out. And part of what the Center for New Television did was bring together producers and we tried to bring in Channel 11 executives. So we did get a dialogue going between independent producers and Channel 11, which was the natural outlet. I think there were probably 2 or 3 different meetings, and it’s true, most of the meetings were people kind of shouting at the Channel 11 executives, saying, “Why can’t we be on your air? You’re a public television station, we’re making legitimate programs, why can’t we show them on your station? You’ve got plenty of time.” There were union rules at that time and there were a lot of objections that came from Channel 11, there were small breakthroughs. One was this Nightwatch show, which wasn’t very good. In the end I think that they hired Tom really to kind of like get him out of their hair. And he made a few documentaries at Channel 11 using their crews, he made the Vito Marzullo show, he made the Danny Rostenkowksi show, Image Union started up. The premise of Image Union was Tom would create a format as the station producer and independent tapes would be dropped in over the transom. And they would be shown, like you know, like Bob Sirott now shows little pieces. Obviously it worked, Image Union’s been around for 20 years, it is still Channel 11’s show. Channel 11 still, 20 years later, is a very difficult place for independent producers to do things. Even though most of the producers are older, wiser, and making pretty darn good things right now. So Chicago has a lot of documentary activity, but it’s running on A&E, it’s running on the History Channel, it’s running in other parts of the world and the country, but it’s not coming through Channel 11. And that’s because everybody needs to make a living and that’s who pays for it.

[Did you work at all with public access?] There was no cable when we started. Early ’80s it started, I think. By the time cable access was up it was 1985, ’86 in Chicago and I was pretty–at that point I had a child and I had a business and I was not really looking to appear on cable access.

[JH explained that Anda worked for City News Desk.] She worked there a little bit, yeah. [Can you explain what that is?] What City News is? City News is this legendary Chicago thing, I think it finally closed, but for 60, 70 years, young reporters who wanted to be on the newspapers were sent to City News. And they were assigned to the criminal courts and the police stations and everything else and they would write stories and all the newspapers would underwrite their salaries in order to get those stories fed to them. So the Tribune and the Sun-Times and Chicago Today and the Chicago Daily News and all 5 or 6 newspapers at the time would pay a certain amount of money every year for these young reporters on City News to go out and just feed the daily crime blotter stuff and fire stuff and all that news. Then when the stories would come in to the paper, a real reporter would them read them and then go over and make sure that they were all right. But City News was run by a wonderful guy named Arnold Dornfeld who’s famous for saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” It was a very tough education for Chicago reporters. Mike Royko came up through it, Ellen Warren came up through it, John Callaway came up through City News, most of your kind of big reporters in town started at City News. And Anda was there, but I think Anda was only there for like 3 or 4 months. I don’t think of Anda as a tough news reporter. [Really? She wrote this whole thing about how her background in journalism led to her interest in video.] Well, I think Anda thought of herself as a journalist. Anda was full of shit. Start to finish. [It’s hard to know much about her since she’s dead and everything’s filtered through other people’s memories.] It makes it hard for her to say, “No I’m not!”

[What was the trajectory of Videopolis?] I think Videopolis arose in 1974 and disappeared in 1977. You know, the thing you have to remember about independent video is what this technology was at the time and how the technology changed. These were reel-to-reel tape recorders, they looked like old [woolensack] audio tapes, so that you’d have to thread the wheel to get the tape on there. When you were done, you had two decks set up next to each other and each had reels on them, and you literally would put the record reel here and the play reel here and you would backwind it five times and you’d make a mark where you wanted to make an edit and you’d stand over the buttons and when the five turns had passed you’d hit the buttons simultaneously and maybe the edit would work. Sometimes it wouldn’t–you’d make the cut in between fields, so you’d get a whip edit. And you’d have to remake it. So the process of doing any of this, making anything out of all this tape that was shot, it was very difficult on these reel-to-reel half-inch machines. When cassettes came out and 3/4″ video came around, they invented an edit controller that automatically backwound and automatically made the edit. And when we started IPA we bought this miraculous thing called a switcher that kind of allowed you to pull a lever and get a dissolve. It became a lot more sophisticated in 3/4 and Beta times, which was really in the early ’80s, that’s when the technology went nuts. Betacam was a marvelous thing, post production became kind of computerized, and you have that era going until probably 1988 or 1989 where you have this next generation, which is Avids, the introduction of an Avid editor, putting video on a computer hard drive.

We had the first Avid at IPA, it had 600 megabytes of storage. It had one audio track, it had one level of compression (that was not very good), and you could work with 40 minutes of tape. [Did Kartemquin have this too?] No, that particular computer that Kartemquin had was five years later. Avid changed everything. Computers changed everything, Photoshop changed everything. And it was a very rapid change and along with that change was Hi-8–a very important phenomenon in the early 1990s when Tom [Weinberg] did The 90’s as a show. Hi-8 made that possible. It was a good cheap way of shooting color and editing had kind of gotten to the point where you could do it really cheaply. And everything that came off of Hi-8 was broadcast-able: we did a lot of The 90’s show at IPA. The three election specials, I still think were three of the best shows about politics that were ever done in 1992. They looked good, they sounded good, and it was shortly after that, around ’93 or ’94, that DV starts coming in and all that technology.

[interruption] Have you seen Superbowl? So there’s this whole other kind of new wave that’s DVCAM and Final Cut Pro and edit on your laptops and I think it’s really cool. And I think the new generation is going to be web TV, it’s going to go out over the web, and that’s where your next wave is going to happen for all of this independent video and it will not have any financing behind it, the same way it never did, and it’ll be weird and eventually something will be very successful. And then everyone will say, “See, just like we planned it.”

[We’ve been talking to a lot of people, and everyone seems to personally take credit for the starting of the Chicago Videomakers Coalition.] Well, I think everybody came together, I can name them all. I think Judy [Hoffman] and Denise [Zaccardi] had the greatest need and the greatest desire to see that there was a community. I don’t think Tedwilliam [Theodore] can legitimately claim to have started anything. [Tom] Weinberg was kinda doing his own thing and I was pushing him to kinda get involved. I was living with a woman named Valjean McLenighan who was close friends with Denise and Judy and I think Valjean wanted to get something going. You could talk to Valjean, she made half the tapes with me. She went on the road with me in doing this. I think she got really tired of it and went home.

[Who else should we talk to?] Lilly’s ok, Lilly [Ollinger] was kinda doing it. Worked there. Charlie Langrell was the first tech at the Editing Center and Charlie is now the general manger of Filmworkers, a big post production house in town. Filmworkers Club. [Jim Passin?] Yeah, I never liked Passin. [Annette Barbier?] Annette’s, I think she’s head of the media department at Northwestern. And Annette is married to Drew Browning and Drew was one of the image processor people. I think it’s important to get a sense of what that video art group was in Chicago, because it was a very influential group. Phil Morton was at the Art Institute, and stole all the equipment and put it in his loft on 18th Street and everybody was mad at him but it was great. It was a great place to make weird stuff.

[Interruption.] So Phil was very important, Dan Sandin, who is still around at the University of Illinois, is a very important figure, Tom DeFanti started SIGGRAF. SIGGRAF is the Special Interest Group of the American Computing Machine Corporation. It is the annual major show for computer graphics now. Tom DeFanti was working in the math department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dan was working in the kinda art and visual department. And they became friends and they kinda got together around this notion that there were computer algorithms that could be developed that would put graphics on computer screens. And they actually worked with the Atari Z80, I think, it was the Bally Arcade. Bally was a company in Chicago that made slot machines and they developed the first video game called the Bally Arcade, and it was based on a Z80 chip that was very small and was developed around the Chicago area. There was a guy named [McNulty] in Oak Park and another guy named Marc Canter who was in that group and the four or five of them got everybody transitioned over from in the late ’70s from doing these IP boxes, image processing boxes that were really oscillators, to starting to build graphics on these Bally Arcades. And Marc Canter went on to start a company called Macromedia, so Macromedia Director was a Marc Canter invention. When you got out to California, Tom DeFanti organized SIGGRAF and is probably one of the really founding fathers of computer graphics in the country. Dan Sandin has been around a long time doing his own stuff. He should get a lot more credit than he does for that. But these were all computer programs that pre-date Photoshop by ten years. These are things that pre-date McDraw. They were making art on these things about the time that Pac Man was advanced computer graphics. And I was making political commercials at the time and I think in 1982 I actually used a Bally Arcade that was down on 18th street in order to do graphs of rising crime rates in Chicago. Because it was cheap computer graphics and we got it to video and it worked. Tom’s a pretty key figure.

I think that another really interesting character in this was my first partner at IPA, Tom Shea–I don’t know if anybody’s ever mentioned Tom Shea. Tom Shea was a scientist at the Argonne Labs who did nuclear accelerator experiments, but in his spare time he had a closet full of video equipment that he liked to take bird watching. And after two or three years everybody in town got to know that Tom Shea knew how to run this stuff and knew how to fix it and knew how to make it all work to the best specs. So eventually, when I went to start IPA, I convinced Tom to quit his job and he became my partner at IPA and really our first engineer. And I think that for the 8 years or 9 years that he was at IPA, Tom was the guy who really led the technology advance that enabled everyone to make documentaries, to do Hobo, to do Hoop Dreams. And then he left because he wanted to go sailing, so he went to Santa Cruz for awhile and started doing CD-ROMs and then he started doing DVDs, and then he went to Stony Brook in New York (Jim Morrissette’s still in touch with him), and he built another nuclear accelerator over there. That’s what he did over the last 10 years, was build a nuclear accelerator. So he’s a key guy. And all the other stuff’s on True Life. I did it two ways: the pieces can be accessed in one thing and then I did a little kind of video story that you can read through and access the pieces when you want.”

 

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