Early video art was a Wild West of a creative front. Filmmaking required technical skills; a certain level of connoisseurship and an amateur-enthusiast know-how. As such, artist’s film remained tied, however complexly, to old notions of the art-object. Not so with video art: equipment was expensive but tape was cheap; the machines were consumer-grade and easy to fool around with; framing aside, the image had a tendency to make itself and sound was automatic. Many videographers took the streets: this was the late 60s and early 70s, when the counterculture provided a readymade cast of characters; fashion, lifestyle and personal politics were combining into a new brand of non-stop performance art in the everyday lives of the youth; and the spectacle of the youth was making an opinionated cultural critic out of pretty much everyone. A new breed of video documentarian wanted to be out there bearing witness.
Notable in this mix were the Videofreex, a congregation of video enthusiasts formed by David Cort, Curtis Ratcliff, and Perry Teasdale. (Light Industry screens a program of Freex tapes tonight.)
The ball got rolling after Cort and Teasdale met at Woodstock; both men were wandering around with video cameras in hand, trying to get in on the action. For a time, the Freex work was underwritten by CBS. Eager to stay hip, CBS provided some equipment and money to the Freex, and lord knows what they were expecting in return. What they got went un-aired, which is a shame; it would have made for revolutionary television. As told by Deirdre Boyle, at the initial test-screening, a bewildered CBS executive “said it might be several days before he knew what he thought of the show because it would take him that long to figure it out.” Undaunted (in fact, it could be argued the Freex engineered failure on this front), the group went on to start a media center and pirate TV station in Lanesville, NY.
Tonight’s Light Industry program, curated by Dara Greenwald, will be followed by a discussion with some of the Videofreex themselves. One of the most fascinating tapes screening, and one intended for CBS, is an interview with Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, taped shortly before he was shot. Hampton’s charisma is on full display; he has nasty words for “acrobatic counter-revolutionaries” with their “hee-hawing and funny-tickling” (the yippies?) and as for The Weathermen, “They’re planting some opportunistic and some anarchistic, they’re planting some individualistic and some chauvinistic, and Custer-ristic seeds.” On the subject of his relationship with the police, “If it’s criminal to say that the only pre-requisite people should have to get medical care is that they be sick, then we will continue to be criminal.”
In a tape titled Chicago Travelogue: The Weatherman, it’s unclear exactly who we’re seeing, but it seems to be some of the Weathermen gathering with some of their ideological foes. The argument gets heated; the Weatherman are admonished for staging elaborate gags only to waste money on bailing a bunch of white kids out of jail, when they could be using the money to actually help the needy. The Weathermen in attendance, who look scarcely out of their teens, get a little flustered.
The tape Lanesville Overview documents the Freex setting up their pirate TV station and media center. A long and rambling document, it nonetheless has some revelatory moments. Seeing the various members’ faces light up as their programming goes live gives you a sense of the immense utopian possibilities surrounding this then-new technology.