[Interview with Tedwilliam Theodore about Guerrilla Television]

Interview with guerrilla television pioneer Tedwilliam Theodore 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.

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0:58Copy video clip URL Interview begins. “When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, I worked as a photographer at the Lab School. And they got their first video equipment then. And I learned how to use it. And so I got involved and interested in video then–that was 1967, 1968. And then I sort of learned about what was going on and who was doing what and read some articles about the Challenge for Change program of the National Film Board of Canada that George Stoney was operating. It was sort of a community based program to teach people in underserved communities in Canada how to use video equipment so that they could document problems and concerns they had and take them to various officials. And so I was sort of intrigued by that, and so I started Communications for Change in about 1970 in Chicago. In the beginning I modeled it after the Challenge for Change program in Canada, but I fell in with some grassroots political organizers and sort of changed the focus to using videotape as a tool for political action, for confrontational Saul Alinsky-type radical community action. And so that’s how Communications for Change started. And because I had some friends who were also exploring using videotape in family and group therapy sessions, we sort of branched out to teaching and working with social service agencies using video, teaching them how to use videotape as a tool in therapy. So we did that too. And one of the papers that I’m going to send you is called “Social and Political Intervention: Video Field Experience.” And it documents a number of projects that we did as direct action community organizing. So that sort of talks about the social action portion of Communications for Change.

Another project that we did at Communications for Change was work with one of the community colleges in Chicago, it was at that time called Loop College. It’s now the Harold Washington College in downtown Chicago. And I taught a class there for about three years in the continuing education department called Documenting Social History. I taught people from various communities, mostly adults, some kids, how to use the early video equipment. And I sent them out to do oral histories on videotape in their own communities. And then we set up showings of those videotapes in churches, and in libraries, and in schools–in the communities–and engaged in discussion with people from the community about how things have changed, or how things were the same, and so forth. And so I’m going to send you a catalogue of the Documenting Social History: Chicago’s Elderly Speak. And I’m also going to send you an article from the Reader called A History of Feeling on Videotape, which describes this program that we did.

And then in 1977, Tom Weinberg and I and Scott Jacobs started the Chicago Editing Center. And we did that primarily because people were sort of begging to use video equipment, especially editing equipment, that was located in two or three places around the city. Communications for Change had an editing rig, the School of the Art Institute, and Circle Campus–the University of Illinois at Chicago. And I don’t remember what department there, but Dan Sandin was there, and a bunch of people. And there seemed to be a common need for editing facilities, so we got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and from Irving Harris in Chicago, and started a new organization called the Chicago Editing Center. And then that sort of expanded beyond just providing editing equipment: we published a newsletter, we had showings once a month of work by video artists and documentarians, and that sort of went on from 1977 until I left it in 1983. And then it continued past then for a few years as well. Around 1980 or so, we changed the name of it to The Center for New Television, simply because the name The Chicago Editing Center no longer really fit what we were doing since we were doing so many different things. And I have in my hand here a publication from the Center for New Television, gee this was in ’92. It’s the 15th anniversary celebration. Scott, and Tom and I got awards.

Oh, but I have here the original proposal to establish the Chicago Editing Center from 1977. And I’m reminded by looking at this that the Editing Center started as a project of Communications for Change. We got our first grant through Communications for Change and then spun it off to a separate organization, a separate not-for-profit the following year, in ’78. We called it ‘the demilitarized zone’ in non-broadcast television. Anybody could come and use the facilities. You paid a small fee, a small membership fee, and then a small hourly editing fee. And anybody who had shot any videotape, first in reel-to-reel format and then later on in 3/4″ and then finally in Beta and so forth, could come and use the facility, so it was really open to everybody. And for a while it was the one place that artists who were doing pure visualization kinds of things, and social action types like I was doing at Communications for Change, and more news journalist documentarians, all sort of came together and met each other and worked together.

[Tell more about Communications for Change.] This article on social and political intervention sort of talks about those kinds of projects. We worked with the Lakeview Latin American Coalition, with the Organization of the Northeast, but mostly we worked with tenants’ unions and disenfranchised minority groups. We worked with Back of the Yards Council. Oh, there’s also this piece, there was a very nice article by Marilyn Preston in the Tribune from 1975 that talks about the kind of work that I did; it also mentions Videopolis. So I’ll send this press, this newspaper article about a bunch of us who did stuff with early television.

[Did you also work with public television, Channel 11?] Well, actually, for a few years I was employed by Channel 11. But that was later in my career. I was the director of development and the vice president for marketing and program development at WTTW from 1988 to 1992, something like that. But that was very much outside the alternate video community, that was real mainstream. The main work that alternate community did with public television was Tom Weinberg’s Image Union. That was sort of the link between the alternative community and broadcast. And I guess I don’t know if Tom thinks this or said this, but I think that Image Union in some way came out of a meeting that we at the Editing Center had with Bill McCarter from TTW–he was the general manager. When we sort of insisted that we be heard and then Tom sort of made the deal with them to do Image Union.

[What attracted you to video?] I had been a still photographer since high school, and in college. In high school I did the newspaper kind of stuff in photography, and in college I was on the yearbook and took a couple of classes in photography. And then actually from 1968 to 1970 I went to the Institute of Design and got a masters degree in photography, mostly black and white still photography. But what I liked about the very new (then) video format was that it seemed to convey a certain sense of power to the people who were using it. You know, now everyone’s got a video camera probably as part of their cell phone or something. But in 1968, ’69, it was just a revolutionary idea. I don’t know if Tom’s probably shown you and told you about the Top Value Television stuff, the TVTV stuff, and the Democratic Conventions. That was sort of the major public large scale use of the power of the alternative television medium for journalism and social change. I was working very much at the grassroots level, but using that same kind of new technology that had been reserved for three broadcast stations–you know, cable certainly wasn’t in Chicago and in very many places at all. The small communities that couldn’t get broadcast signals. So you know, it was completely revolutionary that people outside broadcast stations could create things that could be shown on television sets. There was a sense than and probably still is now, that the stuff you see on television is real, it’s reality, if you saw it on television it was important, it was real. If you were on television, you were important and you were real. And so TVTV had one end of the spectrum, and a tenants’ union in Uptown in Chicago on the other end of the spectrum were creating a certain sense of importance in reality by using the medium of television.

[Did this work by independents change the nature of broadcast television?] Oh sure. And I think Tom was really sort of at the center of that in the Chicago area, anyway. The kind of handheld camera work that you saw in a lot of the early Image Union stuff, and the kind of just rolling tape for a long time and then editing segments was something very new to broadcast, and the union guys at the station started to copy the style of the alternative video folks. And I think that all of us together developed a new and looser style of videography that the broadcasters then sort of copied. Do you know the very famous subway tapes from New York City? Tom’s probably got a copy of it somewhere, unless they simply don’t exist anymore. This must be from the late ’60s. It’s a short tape and it is just one person with a Sony Portapak on a subway train in New York City, very late at night. The train is empty, he’s by himself, and he just sort of walks up and down the subway car, sort of exclaiming in glee about how this train is his, and he has control over it and this is his domain. The important thing about that tape, which sounds a little stupid to modern eyes and ears, is that it was clearly shot without light, without electrical generators or being plugged in to the wall, it was shot by one person moving and holding the camera in his hand, and it was shot by someone other than a television camera man. So for all of us who saw it, it just brought home to us the flexibility of power, the possibilities of using alternative television. You know, it was just something that had been impossible a few short months before.

[Do you feel that there was anything special about Chicago?] Yeah, I think every city sort of developed its own style and its own political way of working. In New York there was cable television a lot earlier in than in Chicago and so my sense is that in New York you know, The Kitchen, and the downtown community, they all grew up around kind of an institutional model that mimicked broadcast television. In Chicago, the artists, the documentarians, the journalists, I think focused much more on a non-broadcast style that was designed for gallery shows and small group meetings. I think that’s probably true.

[And how do you feel about current video?] I have not been involved in alternative television for decades, so I really don’t know. My guess is that it’s a very different proposition now. Anybody with a few dollars to spend can go to Best Buy and get video equipment and editing equipment that far outstrips what we had back in the day. And I think that drama and dance performances now routinely incorporate video as elements in their work. In the ’70s and ’80s, that was revolutionary. And so non-broadcast television has become simply another tool that is available to almost everybody. It’s like an instamatic camera, like a cell phone with a picture. And so because it’s so broadly available I think it has probably lost its unique and special character but has just sort of blended into the everyday workaday environment. I’m hoping that whatever social action organizations still exist in Chicago are using videotape in a very routine manner, the way we did it in a very non-routine and exciting way 30, 40 years ago. And my guess is that they are. That if they want to document a problem they’re having in a roach-infested tenement, it’s a no-brainer to take a video camera in there and shoot interviews and shoot the problem. It’s the sort of thing that was just revolutionary when we did it 40 years ago. Artists use it, the folks I’m guessing still at the Art Institute, probably one of the leaders in video as a fine art medium, but it’s much more accepted now. So it’s lost it’s glamour.

[In a 1992 interview, you said that technology was really opening up opportunities for producers.] I said that, huh? I wonder if I believed it. When I started working at WTTW, what I saw was that producers and assistant producers were being allowed more and more hands on control of some basic offline editing equipment. There were AVID units that non-union producers could use. And just a couple years before I got there, that was just totally out of the question. If you weren’t a member of the union, you didn’t touch a piece of video equipment. And now I think fairly routinely, people are sent out on assignment with handheld video cameras and they come back and then the union guys take it and edit it and so forth, but I think that broadcast has changed to accommodate the reality that this equipment is out and it’s cheap and easy to use. But also television has changed so much since 10 or 12 or 14 years ago. I mean, I’ve got 72 channels on my cable system at home, and nothing to watch on any of them, but I have 72 channels and people with dishes have hundreds of channels. And you know, there’s the home and garden television and a golf channel, and anything you want. Is any of it alternative anymore? I mean, I don’t know what ‘alternative’ means anymore. If three guys with a little rig can produce a show on how to improve your golf swing and it gets on the golf channel, and two other guys can do a reality type show and it gets on public access somewhere, or on some low cost cable channel someplace, it’s no longer alternative, it’s sort of blended together.

[Anything else to add?] No, it sounds as if you’ve talked to a whole bunch of people, which is good because you really get–especially if you’re looking at the time between 1968 and 1985 or so–you get real different perspectives on what went on. And what was important and who was important. I’m assuming you’ve met and talked with Denise Zaccardi. Denise and the work that she did, and in fact still does, which amazes me, with high school kids, was real important early on and it was real important early on because of the mindset that it allowed us all to have about how kids can be involved in journalism. It’s still real important now because it helps these kids. It’s no longer as revolutionary as it was, but it still helps a lot of kids. And she’s real important to talk to.

My perspective on Videopolis was that it sort of got in the way of what a lot of other people were trying to do. But there were people, and I think Judy was one of them, who were very much involved in what Videopolis was doing. And so Videopolis was an important segment of the community.

The stuff that was going on at the Art Institute, that was going on at Circle Campus, was real important. The Editing Center, Communications for Change, Center for New Television were real important. And the stuff that Tom did with his national connections through TVTV and all those guys, was real important to what it brought to the Chicago scene. And you’ll just get different opinions about what alternative television was and who was important in it, and how it changed the world or whatever, depending on who you talk to.

[Did the groups collaborate?] Well, Anda [Korsts], she just seemed to me, she was always a very difficult person. And so I can’t say a lot of good things about what Videopolis did. It was very much a feminist type organization, when feminism was a very radical aggressive angry movement. Anda was herself very aggressive, very angry, she actually really believed that the greatest injustice to a minority group in the world was done to Latvians. Actually, you know, and this is one of the problems that she wanted to address, it’s either Latvians or Lithuanians and I can’t remember which one she was. But you know, to young women at the time, it was a tremendous draw. But I think everyone else had a great respect for one another and the work that they were doing. I certainly had tremendous respect for the kind of electronic work that was being done at Circle and the kind of pure art that was being done at the Art Institute and I think those guys had respect for the social action and the community involvement work that I was doing. And of course, TVTV and Image Union also was understood and respected by all of us. Did we come together? Well, actually, we came together at the Editing Center, or at the Center for New Television. We had shows by the people from the Art Institute and from Circle. We collaborated, we hired one another. Jim Morrissette came from the Circle group. And he was real instrumental and was pivotal in a great many productions that went on by just about everybody back then.

[What was the Chicago Videomakers Coalition?] The Chicago Videomakers Coalition. Let’s see. The Videomakers Coalition… what I know of the Videomakers Coalition is that it was all of us coming together looking for common ground and trying to find ways that we could work together. From my perspective, I see the Video Coalition as evolving into the group of people who worked hard to make the Chicago Editing Center a reality. I would be interested to know if other people had a different take on what the Video Coalition was, and what its importance was. You know, I really could be wrong about this, but I think the Videomakers Coalition was a short-lived sort of ad hoc group of all of us coming together to see if we could form something more formal. And that turned out to be the Editing Center. But I really could be wrong about that–Judy was certainly involved in that, she’d be an interesting person to ask about that.”

 

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