[Interview with Tom Weinberg about Guerrilla Television, tape 1]

Interview with guerrilla television pioneer Tom Weinberg 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."

“When you think about it, what was the closest thing to video in my life when I was a little kid, was I had a reel-to-reel tape recorder–audio. And I recorded things, edited them, put them together, kept recording things, put together the bits and pieces of things. I would say from the time I was 13 or 12. ‘Cause what was interesting to me was telling a story, really. Putting something together. Not even telling the story in the like “story,” story sense, it’s almost like, find a way to put on a show. That’s what it is, it’s a show. Well that’s what happened when we found the Portapak.

Let’s see. First I knew about it for real was in, I guess, 1969. I had gone to the Alternate Media Convention at Goddard College in Vermont. It was right after Woodstock. And it was sort of the same feel–it was crazy stoned out weirdos, but who had sort of labels attached to them, mostly. In other words, it was performance artists, organizers. And I walked in to this tent and there was a tape on of Buckminister Fuller, who I thought was the greatest at that time, still do. But it was really interesting, playing on a little TV. And you might think, oh well. There were no tapes of Buckminister Fuller or anybody outside of some frame of reference. And so there were two guys there who were doing it and one guy’s a guy I knew forever from Chicago, turned out to be my partner, Michael Shamberg, TVTV. The other guy was Frank Gillette, who I think actually made that tape, who’s a real theoretical brilliant guy. So I saw what you could do, it just completely blew me away, it was just unbelievable. 

So what happened I guess, I started shooting some when I first got it, we organized TVTV in 1972, maybe for 9 months or something. Before that, I had been doing stuff in the street in Chicago. And I’m not sure exactly what the timing was for Communications for Change. Well, I was hanging around with them, and with Videopolis and Anda. And Judy. And others–Cindy. And then, well, I don’t know. I’m lost now. It was a long time ago, it was all black and white. The only place to edit things was really at Videopolis, because we all put our stuff over there because we were all working on one production. And it wasn’t very plentiful, partly it was expensive, but partly it was just all of the frame of reference. Well, it’s one thing to shoot and play it back, it’s another thing to make a show. It’s a different, it’s a different hat in a way. You need ’em both to be able to do it, right? Ok. So.

[Where did people edit in the early days?] There was a little bit at UIC. About the same time. And one of the guys who started Kartemquin was over there, Temaner. But it wasn’t very common, when it got a little bit more common that’s when we started the Editing Center, because a lot of people had cameras and almost nobody could edit anywhere. So we figured we’d pool that and make the facility and create a culture, you know, a place that would be the center of this little weird group of people who we seemed to have become. The first one was at 11 E. Hubbard Street on the 5th floor. Fourth or fifth floor. I was in that building for a number of years after that. And we built a couple editing rooms, we had exhibit space–it had no furniture, no nothing, it was a space.

We started with an editing thing and then we started trying to get something to happen. It’s one thing to make the tapes–where do they go, who can see them? So then we became sort of advocates at that point, political. And we set this thing up, where we invited the bosses of Channel 11. This is a long story. Channel 11 had a show that was called Nightwatch, that was sort of independent films and tapes. It was with Gene Siskel. And instead of just playing them and talking about them, it was like criticizing them as you go along. Well, this is pretty tender stuff, you don’t want anybody going on TV and saying, “Well you know, he shouldn’t have zoomed and maybe he shouldn’t have cut so much and I started to get bored halfway through the third quarter of the second half.” So we didn’t like that as makers, as producers, and so we had a meeting. They came, which was clearly a mistake, and we blasted ’em. They were in our place, and it was the head of it, and the head of programming, they all came. And why’d they come? I don’t know, I think we kind of sandbagged them a little bit. They did come. And what did we want, we wanted a place to put the stuff. Not just our stuff, but everybody’s stuff. And they said, “Well, we got a place, it’s called Nightwatch.” And so wait a minute, Nightwatch didn’t do the job. So shortly after that, within four months, I was producing Image Union every week at Channel 11. That’s where it came from, is this kind of hammering of the bosses at Channel 11 because they weren’t doing it right. I say I was producing, but it’s 25 years later, they’re still doing it. Not nearly as well as they should. The three of us could do it way better than how they’re doing it right now, I guarantee. But anyway, that’s what they did.

[Could anyone edit at the Editing Center?] Yeah, but you had to pay a little. ‘Cause we were sharing costs, I mean, that was the deal. But it wasn’t very much and the Editing Center got its money some through the fees that we all paid, but it was mostly at that point through grants. And it was happening simultaneously all over the country, these media arts centers were springing up. Although they didn’t call them that quite yet, I don’t think, but they were the same thing, which was pooling community resources in arts, and sometimes politics, and getting foundation support or some government support from the National Endowment for the Arts. That was really the beginning of it, and then MacArthur came in and started funding all those places. Anyway, what were we saying about it? I think I answered too much question. Too much answer for not enough question.

Well, the Editing Center was–we made that up. I mean, in other words, nobody’d ever done anything like that. Maybe they did, but we didn’t know about it. It wasn’t exactly a model, I think there was a print model that somebody had talked about early on, but I don’t even remember where it was. And the concept was that everybody can be a member of this club, this place. And nobody will tell you what you can and can’t do, what your work should be or shouldn’t be, it’s a free open producer / artist space. You have certain rules you have to follow, like you show up when you’re supposed to, pay your money, and don’t wreck anything and whatever else. And it worked, it really worked, it worked because there was a real need and the technology was going in the exact same direction. We were riding that wave in a sense. And that went on for a number of years, the place got a little bigger, the name got changed to the Center for New Television. And everybody expands and tries to figure out what they do, and people started getting very involved in computer graphics and stuff, which didn’t exist when the first thing started, and I think it ran somewhat thin. And also what happened is the people who were telling the stories, making the shows, wound up finding ways to get it done themselves, get it done some other way. And of course the equipment is always changing too, so it’s a tough thing to do to be in charge of keeping that together for all the needs of different people–look around this room, we got 13 different formats. Anyway.

Videopplis. Videopolis did it’s own, it was really editing their own stuff, primarily. Anda Korsts was a Chicago woman, a reporter, originally from Boston, Latvian woman. And brilliant in so many ways. She started this place called Videopolis. I don’t know the year–maybe ’71 or something like that. And so she had her own kind of stringent take on the arts and on politics and about what should be done. In fact, she really needed a lot of other people to do it. Big surprise, we all do, that’s what this whole thing is about. I mean, for real, you can’t do it by yourself. Well, anyway, what happened to her? She died, but she wasn’t that interested in everybody else, I think she was the only one in Chicago who didn’t come together to be part of the Editing Center, which was sort of defined a community.

It was hard to get everybody together. They had similar common needs, that was almost like an organizing thing, but it was a very different deal. Chicago was the only place that happened, that I know of. In New York, the model was completely different, people would buy stuff and charge other people. In LA it would be like the companies who could benefit from it would give some of the equipment or open up some of the equipment to that end of the spectrum. And then there’s a whole other part of it, it’s all art. And there was a certain amount of that around, but it wasn’t huge. But it had equipment. It was a social thing, I mean, it was political thing. Those of us who helped put together the Editing Center, we were really proud because it was a real thing and it was really good for everybody. It worked, and nobody’s looking for a power trip. Well, everybody who came in there did something different, that was the thing of it, so there was all sorts of stuff.

[Back to Videopolis.] It was Anda’s place, you can call it whatever you want. If she wanted the person around, or if she thought there was real genuine merit in what was going on, she would get behind it in some way, but anybody else was out, finished, who’s next? And she was–I won’t say gruff, but she was very matter of fact, seemingly had herself all together, it was also a feminist thing at that time, it was new. But the secret is, she didn’t have it any more together than anybody else, she was making it up as she went a long.

[TVTV seemed like one of the more conceptually organized groups around.] The rhetoric certainly was. You know, you get into gossip, you get in to the layers of the belief structure that you shared, versus the reality of how it worked, which was frequently different. But ideologically, it was smart–he uncovered and understood a whole lot of connections that people didn’t necessarily at that time. “Guerrilla Television” was partly real and partly myth, and TVTV was partly real and partly myth, too, obviously. If you take somebody who was my age who, instead of doing what I did, went to work for NBC news–of whom I had friends. There was nothing going on in their lives other than having fun hard work, doing what they were doing in a world that was changing very quickly. I don’t even mean just the external world, the video world. You take me, or us, or somebody, we were making stuff up every day because nobody’d ever done what we were doing, and that was amazing and wonderful and it was also weird. ‘Cause there’d come a point where you’d say “what?”–you don’t know what you’re doing for a while, then you come back and you do. But this guy’s making real money and we’re like scratching around trying to get what we can from our parents, you know, we’re 30 years old. I don’t know. I forgot the question. I’m hung up on pre-answer.

TVTV, I’ll start at the beginning. TVTV’s a huge thing in my life, it was the first time I’d ever been involved in anything close to that and I helped create it–I wouldn’t say I created it, but I certainly helped. We decided in 1971–we actually being Michael Shamberg and I, and he had spoken to some other people in New York, where he was living then–we decided to get it together to put all the people who had this sort of esoteric portapak equipment, not all, but our people, whatever that means: artists, this, that, whoever. Friends, artists, it was all the same in a way. To go to Miami Beach for the political conventions, that was in August of ’72. And so that was the first thing we did together as TVTV and it was just a name and it was a lot of hocus pocus at that point. But we did have like maybe 30 people and we we all lived in a house for about two weeks and then not for a week or two and then back in the place for two weeks in that summer. It was cool in the house, it was both a remarkable personal trip and it was amazing because we were creating something. We didn’t know hat it was, but we were shooting all the time, talking to people in a way nobody ever talked, played that back and put it on a monitor, and you go, “Wow, I never saw politics like that on TV. And if you see it on this monitor, well, why can’t you see it in 200 million homes, or 100 or whatever?”

So what happened to TVTV is that the brilliance and the ambition and a little bit of just straight American wanting to get rich, led the people in TVTV to L.A. After we’d been in San Francisco–I skipped that part, but it was a couple / three years in San Francisco in a place that looked a lot like this [Media Burn Archive]. It was a storefront–you walk in, and then you were in. It’s remarkable actually how much it reminds me of it, I must have created it, right, but I didn’t do it on purpose at the time, it was somewhat subconscious. [Joe Cruise’s] tennis shop, it was on Sacramento and the Fillmore. Help!

So let’s go back, should I give you a cogent read on TVTV? TVTV started ’72 at the conventions in Miami Beach. Republican Convention, Democratic Convention. We said, “this is really quite something.” We found a way and hustled a little bit and got it shown on Channel 44 here, I did at the time, the first one. It was like, “wow, it was on TV,” that was the first time I had seen our stuff on TV–I’d seen it on monitors, forever (“ever,” you know, 2 years). Ok, so then we got the Group W broadcast, which was huge, it became the Fox stations, eventually. I knew a guy who was the one of the bosses there, he was the boss there. We went to Washington and showed him the tapes and he said, “Wow. Let’s put this on our stations.” Boom!–that quickly on his stations, a couple hundred bucks, but it was the first time. And so what we did–we had two one hour tapes, World’s Largest Television Studio and Four More Years. So what we did for them was make a 90 minute tape. And the process of doing that editing–we’d never edited that way before. We’d edited on our little machines where you had to move ’em back and forth, but we never edited in a TV station. And what that was, we found a way to plug in to the back of a big VCR in a TV station, and somehow because it was managing the signal, which later we found out was called timebase correction, it would take the signal out of this crappy little half inch and put it up and you didn’t have to go through any process. So that’s one of the things we learned right there in ’73.

So what happened? TVTV did a couple other things, we did 3 or 4 shows on Gerald Ford’s America, from the day Nixon took off and Ford came in–four half-hours, they were all pretty good. There was one about the Guru Maharaj Ji in 1974. Guru Maharaj Ji was a 12 year old who was the “lord of the universe” to a number of people. And so we followed those people around for a period of time and then their huge convention at the Houston Astrodome. It was a goofy amazing remarkable adventure because it was new, who knew? That tape actually won a big prize, maybe the biggest prize I’ve ever had anything to do with (even though it was about 6 or 8 of us), which was the Columbia University duPont award. For documentaries, it’s like the biggest award, or was then. Which is pretty amazing ’cause it’s half in black and white and half in color, and 38 different people shot it, and it was all mixed up, and the place was like run by Homeland Security, before there was Homeland Security. It was crazy. Anyway. What did I get to?

Gerald Ford’s America, Adland, did I do Adland? Adland was happening at the same time. TVTV, which was mostly Allen, and Chip Lord then and I did most of Adland ’cause the other people were doing something with the Cajuns which was Good Times Are Killing Me. Mardi Gras. Anyway, we kept making those tapes and the next thing turned out to be, after we were making all those other tapes, like 10 or 8 or some number of shows, and they were almost all on TV, we got into a deal with the TV Lab, the Television Lab at WNET in New York, which was in conjunction at that time, it think with WGBH in Boston. They set up something for experimental video. Unheard of, you know, in a TV station–two TV stations–but they also knew that’s where the ideas were coming from. So they set it up and said we’re going to service the artists, the producers. And you can name all the famous art video guys, from Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, to this one to that one, they were all around there. It was like a sandbox for us idiots. And out of that came, I don’t know, a couple more shows. And TVTV then winds up–we’re in San Francisco–the pull from Shamberg and Rucker and Shamberg’s wife at the time, Megan Williams, and Hudson Marquez, and Paul Goldsmith, was to go to L.A. And make it big. Shamberg’s a big Hollywood producer. I mean, TVTV kind of went down the toilet because the whole principle that we started it on went away, which you can’t blame exactly, but I didn’t go. That’s not what I was trying to do. And I guess I also felt that if in fact I were trying to do it, to make it big in Hollywood and real big time media, I’d go about that a completely different way. I wouldn’t go with them. I’d go with them to do what we do. But anyway, that’s a whole other question. TVTV probably went down the tube in, I don’t know, ’76 or 7.

There’s a thing I’m going to in four weeks in New York on April 17th or something, which is a TVTV retrospective at the Museum of Broadcasting. And I think four or five of my guys are going to be there–“my guys,” of the TVTV people, including two or three women, so they aren’t all guys. They just called this week. It’s funny because TVTV in many ways was hugely important to me, I mean, I’m not ready to say it was hugely important to the whole world, I think it might have changed some things for sure, but it was a time when changes had to come anyway. But for me, I learned a lot about television and the camera and how to edit, and what made sense to people and what not to do and what to do. There was a time when we were making tapes with TVTV and the cool thing was to make fun of people. Just a little, a bite on the end of something. And it was never my thing. So when I started doing stuff on my own, that cheap shot kind of thing, I never did it again. I’ve made a lot of tapes about people, but that’s just not me. More about TVTV, did you get it? I mean, I don’t know what you’re going to do with it.

[C for C]. I was on the board actually. I’ll go back a minute, years ago, before that, maybe in the ’60s, there was something called Challenge for Change. Which was out of the National Film Board of Canada. And they were evolving the principles and the ideas of how do you use media, which at that time really was more film than anything, to make the case for whatever it is, for good. For common good, for community, for people who were on the down side or getting screwed, for systems that are no good, for anybody, which includes all sorts of things–housing and employment and on and on and on. So that was the model of Communications for Change, was the Canadian thing. And so the guy who started it was a video guy in Hyde Park, and a still photo guy, his name was Tedwilliam Theodore. And then he came to the north side and he got involved with a guy who was a social worker and another guy who was a lawyer or something to be on his board and to do stuff with him, and with me. Whatever I was, I mean I guess I was a video guy in a way, but I liked the ideas. I’d never seen anything like that, you know, that was new. So what did they do? They’d go to somebody–nobody’d ever done this before, now they do it all the time. Go to housing court with a videotape and say, “it’s not like you’re saying, it’s like this.” And they won several cases like that. All of a sudden the little guy–hey, you know, we got a shot. It was empowering, if I can use that overused thing. It gave people a chance to think they weren’t going to lose no matter what. Little rays of hope here and there. And it also changed the dynamic of the game between the landlords and the tenants, who were complaining because they had to deal with that shit if it was going to happen. But it wasn’t really just housing, it was community organizing, it went a lot more, as the years went on, into community organizing. The Organization of the Northeast, which is in Uptown. They took video to stores or took it to owners of places, saying, “you’re doing this to us or that to us,” they would organize and strike, they would have a movement, they would tape. They would take it to the people, they were using video both for organizing themselves and for organizing what’s out there. Very good stuff, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know if it still exists, but I’m not sure where it went, even. Communications for Change, I mean Tedwilliam, you know, people, a lot of people my–every age, but I know the ones my age–get to a point when they’re 25, 30, 35, whatever, 31, 2, 3, whatever, saying, “well, I can’t do this anymore, I gotta get a job that I get paid where I get the benefits.” Now, most common sense are saying it before they’re even out of college–they’re smart–but in those days… That’s what happened to him, I mean, he wound up being a good fundraiser so he became a consultant to people raising funds for their not for profits and blah blah blah. Then I’m not sure what happened to him, I was friends with him, but I’ve lost him. Oh he’s in California? Oh, interesting.

[Did organizations come to Communications for Change to propose projects, or did C for C seek them out?] It’s a good question, each time it was different, I think. The concept was, once you started doing it, people would see what was happening, and they’d want it for themselves, for their own projects, for their own needs. But that was part of why there was an organizer on their board, a guy who was a community organizer, a guy who knew people, got people, hooked up with them, said, “well what we can we do?” kind of if you will, produced, pre-produced the videos. But I don’t know exactly where, it’s a good question. It’s all the same at a certain point, ideally. ‘Cause otherwise you’re an outside agitator, if you’re not part of the community in some way, your credibility’s at stake then, too. So if you live there, I have to have you involved in directing, producing, making, planning the work, the tape, the project, otherwise it’s like the news. You know that doesn’t help anybody.

Anda hated Tedwilliam. I was on the board of Communications for Change, there was not many people involved. I worked with Anda when there was something to do, and then when we did “It’s a Living,” we really produced it together. That was the biggest thing, in terms of TV at least, that came out of that. Studs wrote the book, “Working,” it was the first one of those. We read it, Anda and I both, and said this should be a videotape, it’s perfect, these guys, the characters, the movement, the flow, we can edit it in a similar kind of style and it will be very revealing. Ok, I’m not sure, I don’t think I went to Studs, she must have known him, she was, you know, he was probably very glad to see her. I remember he liked her–he thought she was very special. But anyway, he went for it, and then I got involved with him too, but I didn’t get involved with Studs until after Anda had found him, I think that’s right. The first one we did an hour, we got funding for it, too, from the Illinois Arts Council. First it was an hour and it was probably 10 different people and one of them was Studs. That was the one I did, we turned it on Studs and so some of that stuff is the stuff that I used in the 2000 Studs tape. The first time we did something together with Judy, actually, was the Studs stuff. Anyway, I don’t know. How did we find them? It was just Studs. We did a one hour thing and then we did six half hours. And the hour was on PBS nationally, I don’t think the six were, but who knows? It was on Channel 11 and it was on a couple other places, but I don’t think it was on national. That’s the politics too, you know the Channel 11 politics, because I started working at Channel 11 right after the Editing Center meeting about Image Union. I’d actually done a couple productions for them before, a couple portrait documentaries, but now I really was producing that show. And there’s so much up and down of the capability of Channel 11 in making this stuff happen in this town, you know mostly people would say it’s been a waste, and I would too, I mean they have just this wonderful possibility for putting stuff out there that isn’t seen elsewhere. And mostly they don’t do it. It’s not very hard, I mean, they could be one part Doc Films and they could be one part Music Box and they could be one part Renaissance. Well, not Renaissance, but you know what I’m saying, there’s a way they could do it without losing everything they have, there’s just nobody thinking about it. And sometimes they’ve been thinking more, obviously they were thinking a little more when they started Image Union, or when we started Image Union. But that was sort of blackmail.

[Could anyone send in tapes to IU?] Yeah, yeah, but it was hard to do that at the very beginning, it had to be people I solicited from for awhile. And there was always a little bit of a balance between completely off the wall, who knows where this came from, versus Chicago or even other producers out of town whose work I think is the best. So I would go after them more so, but it was a balance. It was a tricky piece too, because at the time, probably still, there was a union problem. The union contract said that nothing could be produced by or done exclusively for broadcast on Channel 11 that isn’t done by the union video guys. So Image Union, especially at the beginning, was always teetering on that sensitivity, right, because that’s the one way we could get screwed, big time. Because it’s not worth having a fight with the union, everybody knew it. Anyway, it worked.

[Have you ever been a shooter, or have you always been a producer?] I was much more about organizing and keeping people together. Even though in the early days I got off on the camera, and I have a million of my own personal tapes–which aren’t here, they’re at home. They’re lousy because I was such a lousy–I mean, I don’t have the concentration exactly, never have. And I can when I have to be disciplined, I can really shoot something, but for me, it’s just an outlet. I got it, you know, I understand what it does really well, I mean, I connected to it instantly, and I could shoot it and do it, but mostly it was the idea of making something happen. Organizing something to happen, whether it was TVTV or the Editing Center or Image Union. You know, I ran it, I was a producer, but it was like completely organizing other people. A little bit of taste and technical ability, but it wouldn’t have happened without that, that’s my skill in some ways more than anything, and in a way it’s still going right here [at Media Burn Archive]. I’m not making any dubs, I can barely plug the thing in, we know that. I guess I could, it’s better to just keep it for me, that’s what I do.

There’s a book that came out, the Tipping Point, about a year, two years ago, did you ever see that? Well, one of the things that’s the point is sort of reorganizing how people organize their own connectedness with other people and other events or causes. It’s an interesting twist, a guy who writes for the New Yorker. And in there, one of the four different kinds of people is somebody who’s called a connector, and a connector is not necessarily a person who apparently does anything in terms of output. And it doesn’t mean they don’t, but that isn’t what their deal is. Their deal is to put people together and make things happen and to me, that’s what a producer is. Now, it’s not to say that I’m completely limiting my professional experience or ability to have a sensitivity about how to shoot or how to edit or whatever. They’re both what I do, but I think more so is being a connector, an organizer, even in the early days, I mean.

The other thing is it all comes from some set of beliefs. I mean, that’s the thing. I’m not talking about spiritually, necessarily, but our beliefs in how things should be and what your political point of view is. That people should be treated with a certain kind of decency and respect, that what we do, we do because it’s hopefully making the world better in some way, that nobody’s inherently better than anybody else, that the boxes and the camera are able to serve as an equalizer, as a way for people to have things get better for them rather than worse. I’m sure there are lots of others, but that that’s why NBC and I don’t have exactly the same deal.

I worked for CBS for a little while. And on the NBA the last month or two months of the NBA season. I learned a lot about drill and stuff, but what they do is no different than what Streets and San. guys do: they got a job they show up, they do it, they do it pretty well, some do it pretty great, some are wonderful human beings. But it has nothing to do with–I guess if you’re cleaning up garbage, it’s probably better. But you know what I’m saying, huh? Right. I don’t know. What I’m trying to do is say that there is and was a set of mores, a set of life assumptions that the people who were in alternative video by and large shared. There’s ranges of people but basically, that’s who we were, and what we were doing was using what we had–tools and outlets and what not–to be able to put our stuff out there. Our people who we respect and believe in’s stuff, not necessarily just people we totally agree with, but at least people who have something to say that’s constructive. At least that’s where I’m coming from, that’s where I’ve come from from the beginning. I’m a business dude, I have an MBA degree. And I was a business guy for the shortest period of time possible. But I do think about organizing things in a way that will work, which is sort of what I learned in graduate school. And applied to all this stuff, too. Plus there’s a little financial management, too. Not coming in. So what do you think?”

 

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