[Interview with Tom Weinberg about Guerrilla Television, tape 2]

Part 2 of an 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." The interview goes until 17:55, and is followed by a musical performance by the band Jewsus.

“Yeah, but ok, so was Chicago different from other places? I would say that I always felt Chicago was different from other places because anywhere I went it wasn’t Chicago, because I was from Chicago. I understood it, I got it. I mean, I lived in New York for a few years, it was completely different. I lived in San Francisco for a few years–completely, totally different. Social scene of people getting together to do their work–completely different. It was more direct in Chicago, more connected in Chicago, less pettiness and jealousy and weirdness, you know, of pushing away.

Yeah, I think that’s always been true as far as I know, I don’t know exactly right now because it’s your generation. I don’t know. That’s you guys. I mean, you can say that right now, there’s amazing video going on–well, I haven’t seen it. Doesn’t mean there isn’t. I saw today, you know, I looked at your tape. I think that’s terrific stuff, that isn’t going around anywhere. I mean it. So it exists, I just don’t know where. And part of that is that we had ways of defining that years ago, whether it was on Image Union, or we had a thing called the Halsted Street TV show, which was in a storefront. And people would come in and bring their tapes and bullshit around. There were ways to identify, we’d have shows three times a week of one sort or another at the Editing Center, people bringing in their tapes and talking to other people. I don’t know where that is now. Maybe it exists, but I don’t see it. If we do have it, we should get more people to see it, because obviously there are bright people doing good work that’s sensitive and thoughtful and committed in certain ways to things that we theoretically are committed to. Mostly, I don’t see them. Do you know what i’m saying? I don’t know. I think there ought be in Chicago. I see some of the high school stuff, because I’ve been a judge in those things for years, and most of it is so completely derivative of TV news, of TV behavior, or TV something or other, that it’s no good. It’s no good. There’s nothing going on, basically. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be technically ok to make it look good, but that’s not what we talk about, that’s not what we care about. Show me something with an idea or that will ring true. Anyway.

[How do you feel about programs that teach kids video?] I don’t think it’s been successful. I can’t tell you if it’s been successful financially, which is really the first 18 things that they care about, whether people are watching, and whether they can charge the higher money for the show. I’ve never seen anything in that genre of any kind of current reality shows in the last two or three years that I think are good. Good in the sense of using what you asked, using television, video and TV, in a way that is–what’s the word, I don’t know. That’s beneficial, you know, that’s interesting, that’s artistic. And spontaneous. Nothing, I mean, I don’t know, some of it I watch a little bit here and there and it’s so stupid or it’s so overwrought, it’s so overproduced, it’s so bogus–this is supposed to be true? Come on. What do you think? do you agree?

[Scott asks whether the internet is just a big void where content floats around without an audience?] Well, ok, but that’s going to change, I think. If it isn’t the internet the way we know it, it’s the video net, the way we don’t know it. And some sort of machine that gets you to be able to watch all sorts of things without watching them, like you can on the cable or on the Tivo. It’s early, I mean things are always developing. The fact is, that if they aren’t going to put it on those 100 channels, which they aren’t likely to because it’s all Fox and Viacom and Animal Planet and country music TV, they aren’t likely to put anything that’s–how do we say, innovative, artistic, personal, and not hard news.

I’ll tell you a story. Ok, we agree on that, I’m just saying it’s coming. You got time for a 45 second story? Well, I was groping around for what to call it, what is this stuff that we all do and care about and think is right and is righteous and works. There was one time about 10, 12 years ago, we went to LA. We were in cahoots with the people from Tokyo Broadcasting system, who were our pals. So “we” at that moment was Joel Cohen–who produced The 90’s with me–and I, and these three Japanese guys. And one other guy, a salesman guy. And we went to Fox because we had a deal that was supposedly set, to do a new weekly show that’s really a lot like the show we did called Slices. Instead of being Chicago Slices it would be around the world. And we could’ve done it pretty easy, and it might have worked. It was a little bit ahead of its time, because it was a little more reality than they understood where to put. But we got all done with it and we got a “no,” when we thought the “yes” was fixed by the business guys. So we got a “no,” and the reason was–and this guy was the president of Fox TV at the time, or head of programming or something, big boss–he said, because we don’t need any “soft reality” television. This is 1997 or 6 or something. We don’t need any soft reality television. And I go, bing! That’s what we do! We were proud of it, they want reality, we do soft reality. So we had t-shirts made and we sent them to all these bosses at Fox saying “Soft Reality Television.” But it didn’t get us the job. Anyway, I think that’s what it is. It’s not, I mean, the word reality’s gotten so bought out, but at the time “soft reality TV” made sense because it wasn’t Cops and it wasn’t chasing this guy and that guy, it was just like, life. Who needs that?

Oh, I have one. Well you have two things. One is the first attraction of all of this was video. It was TV. I’m the first TV generation. We got a TV when I was 3. And that was the first TV on the block. It was a Magnavox. About that big. So I’m a junkie, and I was for all those years. So the very fact of being able to take that signal that for the first–for me it was like 1970, so I was 26–to be able to take that signal that I’d been a passive consumer of for 26 years, and say, my god, I can turn it around, and then I can watch it, and I can edit it, that was so amazing! It sounds silly now, because it’s a different world. But the actual video-ness of it–huge, it’s huge, because TV was so huge, and also so alienating, love/hate, all that. I suspect that that’s almost a chemical mind thing that isn’t common to everybody. Other people relate to TV in other ways. I mean, I live with them and have for many years, but nobody’s got it in them the same way I do. There are a few people who really do. For better and worse. The TV critic at the Chicago Sun-Times, TV/radio columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, a good friend of mine, Robert Feder, he’s got it. It’s just in there, the TV is burned into his brain as much or more than it is to mine. Actually the TV critic is even worse, ’cause it’s like he accepts the garbage that he has to write about. But anyway, that answers that question.

Let’s go on to the last question. Which was, what happened to all these people, where did they disappear to? It’s not that they burned out, it’s not, I mean, we all do sometimes along the way, but that isn’t the thing. It’s not that they’re found a new interest and said, oh well, that was baloney. I’m done with that. It’s really more, I think generally that the world changes, the system changes, the way funding comes changes, the way you can get something done changes, where you’re tired of doing something the same way you’re doing it and you want to do something different. All those kinds of things change. And the biggest one, no matter what, is the temptation to use it to make wonderful commercial financial gain. This whole thing, TV and video, is the world’s biggest cash register. So it’s not surprising like that my one partner, Michael Shamberg, who’s obviously very bright and talented and a huge hard worker, that he turned out to produce a lot of Hollywood movies–that’s where the action was, to him. It’s not surprising that people go their own ways, but it isn’t because this stuff isn’t valid–this stuff is valid, this is real stuff, and anybody who really put themselves into it, for a number of years, knows it, will always know it. It doesn’t mean they want to do that, necessarily, maybe they want to go to Nova Scotia and pray to the guru every day, I mean, that’s legitimate. So that was good, we’re ok.”



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