The world is full of small towns, rural hamlets and villages; blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em waystations that barely qualify for a name. The powers-that-be, Government entities: military, air force etc., actually had a name for these places – they were called “Elsewhere.” Back when oversight was lax and regulations slim, they were useful for doing the kinds of things that wouldn’t be tolerated in more populated areas like, for example, testing new fighter planes and training pilots. But occasionally something happens, and “Elsewhere” becomes “Somewhere.” That’s what happened to the hamlet of Lanesville, New York, when, in 1971, the Videofreex moved in.
Videofreex was a production company that formed when video was first introduced in the late 1960s. It was a collective made up of film-makers, story-tellers, artists, musicians, and an engineer – activists all. They founded the world’s first “Media Center” and also created one of the first pirate TV stations. Their aim was to give people access to the new tool of video and to provide television viewers with an alternative to that of the corporate programming provided by the three major networks operating in the United States. Pioneers of VTR (video tape recording), the Videofreex were among those who spearheaded the use of video in performance art and entertainment. They became independent reporters documenting the counterculture of the time, including the first feminist rallies and anti-Vietnam War protests. The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, under the curatorship of media scholar, Andrew Ingall, has gathered together a significant selection of the thousands of hours of video created in the nine years the Videofreex Collective was extant, from 1969 to 1978. Videofreex: The Art of Guerrilla Television is the first exhibition to present the Collective’s history and legacy; it is located in the Morgan Anderson and Howard Greenberg Family Galleries, and runs through June 12.
The Videofreex didn’t come into being through an underground or alternative network but through a surprisingly conventional route, or rather a meeting of minds between counter-culture documentarians and the establishment. In 1969, a young man named Parry Teasdale got his hands on some video equipment and took off to the soon-to-be famous Woodstock Music Festival – his interest was not so much in the music as it was in documenting the festival attendees. There he met another videographer of like-mind, David Cort, and together they set about recording the festival and sharing the results with others on the site. This led to an introduction to Don West who was executive assistant to CBS president, Frank Stanton. West, who had already proposed to CBS a TV pilot to explore youth and counter-culture, viewed the Woodstock festival tapes and liked what he saw. West received a thumbs-up from the network and hired the team, newly monikered “Videofreex” and now including Mary Curtis Ratcliffe, to make the pilot with West as producer. This eventually became the video Subject to Change, extracts of which are included in the Dorsky exhibition. The Videofreex recruited engineer Chuck Kennedy and artist/carpenter Davidson Gigliotti. West brought in Nancy Cain, Carol Vontobel and Skip Blumberg. After Subject to Change, Bart Friedman and Ann Woodward joined the Collective. These ten would be joined at their respective hips for the next nine years.
Generously funded by CBS and equipped with Sony’s recently launched battery-operated “Video Rover” Portapaks, the Videofreex traveled the country recording avant-garde circus and theater performers, alternative arts and education. An important focus was the political arm of the counter-culture – they interviewed major figures such as Yippie co-founder Abbie Hoffman and his comrade Tom Hayden. Both were part of what became known as the Chicago Seven and, at the time, were on trial for inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In Chicago they recorded Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. In the video, Hampton talks about the value of leadership – he speaks of his belief that, in the future, people will be more appreciative of good leaders and that, instead of harassing them, the police will be assigned to protect people like him. Hampton was shot to death by police just a few weeks later – he was only 21 years old.
Instead of the usual hour-long format presentation with voice-over, the Videofreex created a live, multimedia event – a “mash-up” as Skip Blumberg recently described it. They experimented with unconventional ways of using the camera, eschewing the tripod for the handheld camera close on the subjects. They discovered that by letting the camera run over a long time, people forgot about it and became themselves. In recent times, this has become standard practice in the creation of “Reality TV.” Eventually Subject to Change was screened before three network executives at the Collective’s New York City loft in SoHo’s Spring Street. The video was categorically rejected – the men left with the parting shot: “You’re way ahead of your time.” And they were right.
In the long run, this lemon turned out to be lemonade for the Collective. That they now had material to share with other groups and organizations gave them a significant measure of credibility and led to further opportunities. Located in Manhattan, they were at the heart of the artistic and political events happening in the early 1970s including the first women’s liberation and anti-war marches. In 1971 they traveled to Washington and documented the Mayday anti-Vietnam protests called by writer L.A. Kaufmann, “The largest and most audacious civil disobedience action in American History.” Davidson Gigliotti was among the thousands of protesters arrested and, having managed to hold on to his video Portapak, he recorded his experiences in jail.
As it happens, the timing for people experimenting with new technology could not have been better. In 1970 NYSCA (the New York State Council on the Arts) got a massive influx of funds for its literature, film, and TV/media programs. NYSCA was particularly open to supporting the new medium of video, but there was a lot of competition for these funds, particularly in the city. Since, as a state rather than a city agency, NYSCA was obliged to distribute the funds throughout the state, it occurred to the Videofreex that if they were to put together an application for a project in a rural area they might have a stronger case for funding. Moving out of New York was already under discussion as the cost of living in the city was high, and the crowded airwaves made it impossible to get their work seen by a wide audience – in any case, their work would not be aired by the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, who maintained a stranglehold on broadcasting. They could only screen their work in small alternative theaters and in their own SoHo loft.
Their bid for a grant was successful and they were awarded a whopping $73,000, an enormous sum back then, to create a “Media Bus” serving schools, museums, and community organizations around the state. They set their sights on the tiny Green County hamlet of Lanesville, in upstate New York, as someplace they could afford to live, and stretch themselves and the grant for the foreseeable future.
Lanesville consisted of a general store, a bar, gas station, and a post office; the surnames tended to be Benjamin or Neal. It was a rural community 40 minutes from Woodstock and three hours from the city but might as well have been 1,000 hours away. Its television reception was so poor it was “…like watching ghosts in a snowstorm,” as Parry Teasdale put it. The Videofreex rented Maple Tree Farm, a 17 room clapboard-sided house, from a Yiddish-speaking couple, Miriam and Sam Ginsberg, and established the Lanesville Media Center there.
Initially the denizens of Lanesville viewed the “long hairs” with suspicion – they weren’t so isolated that they would have been unaware of the sex-and-drugs culture associated with the word “hippy.” But despite the apparently enormous cultural divide, the group soon became part of this community – patronizing Doyle’s, the local pub, was a good start. But how they truly captured the hearts and minds of the local community was by creating the first illegal television station in the United States: Lanesville TV. With the help of the pirate radio operator Joseph Paul (JP) Ferraro, fresh from being busted for operating an illegal radio station in Yonkers with cohort Allan Weiner, they mounted a hand-made Channel 3 antenna on the roof of the farmhouse. Today, Ferraro is the owner of the radio station WHVW (whvw.com) which operates on 950 AM out of Poughkeepsie and is the home of Roll Magazine’s radio show, Roll on the Radio, hosted by Carey Harrison. An all-important modulator – a device that converts audio and video from the VTRs into signals that can be watched on TV channels – was provided by Abbie Hoffman in exchange for Parry Teasdale’s ghostwritten text on guerrilla broadcasting for Hoffman’s famous manual for cultural revolution, Steal This Book.
On March 18, 1972, Lanesville TV aired its first program. In New York City, the Videofreex had documented their community of neighbors, avant-garde artists, musicians, et al. They did likewise in Lanesville. They interviewed local people, covered local events, and documented meetings of the town board. In effect, they held a mirror up to the community and the community looked into it and gained a new perspective on themselves, and they changed. Among other things, they became activists in the running of their own community. Prior to Lanesville TV, the town board made all decisions relating to whatever issues arose, without any opposition. Now, with board meetings being replayed on Lanesville TV, the community was given a fly-on-the-wall seat at meetings and found that they were not always in agreement with the status quo. This resulted in a surge in attendance at meetings, decisions being challenged, and outcomes affected. The locals also gained confidence in questioning larger entities affecting their lives – one such was the United States Air Force which used the Lanesville area to try out low flying “tree-top” exercises. When, at a town meeting, an Air Force representative let slip that Lanesville had been earmarked as an “Elsewhere” area – an underpopulated place suitable for conducting flying exercises and maneuvers – the townspeople were stunned. The silence was broken by a farmer who made it clear that Lanesville was not a generic “Elsewhere” when he said, “Well, when your planes fly over my property, my chickens don’t lay.” The flights over Lanesville ended soon after. This was an empowering experience for the people of Lanesville.
In addition to Lanesville TV and working on their own productions, including art videos, entertaining experiments with cameras and split screens, and occasional co-productions, the Videofreex continued to fulfill their commitment to NYSCA with the Media Bus (a VW van in fact), traveling all around the state conducting mobile workshops, visiting local museums and schools, and educating people in the medium of video. They taught teachers how to use equipment gathering dust in their own school storerooms; many schools had good equipment, Super-8 cameras etc., but didn’t know how to use them.
The anti-war movement continued to be an important factor in the lives of the group through the mid-1970s. Then in 1973 the draft was discontinued and by 1975 the war too had ended. As the 1970s wore on, video technology improved and became more ubiquitous, and home satellite dishes brought good TV reception to increasing numbers of rural homes. Lanesville TV continued broadcasting into 1977 when, through lack of people to keep it going, it petered out. The lives of the Videofreex were also changing, children were born and the isolation of Lanesville – acute in the wintertime — became less attractive. Also, by then, the bar in town had burned down, and the general store and gas station had closed. In 1978, Bart Friedman, Nancy Cain and Chuck Kennedy, the last ones still remaining at Maple Tree Farm, terminated their tenancy on the house, marking the end of the Collective. In those five years that Lanesville TV existed, the Videofreex made hundreds of hours of programming and, short-lived though it was, the station became a model for public access TV around the nation. That they sustained the Collective over such a long time living in close proximity was down to a combination of things including, obviously, a shared vision and a strong work ethic – no matter how hung-over or stoned. But the defining factor was that they didn’t step on each other’s toes. They each had a role to play in the Collective and the diversity of skill sets allowed each person to have autonomy in their own domain.
Who knows how much the Videofreex would have been stifled and bent into a palatable shape by CBS had their program, Subject to Change, passed muster. Instead, free to follow their own star, the Videofreex cast themselves as an unofficial television network of the counterculture. They started a movement of independent reporting whose heirs have continued to keep it real, particularly in recent years during the Arab Spring and, at home, with Occupy Wall St. (OWS) when, once again, independent reporters became a vital source of news vérité going where, again, the mass media couldn’t be bothered to tread. It took amateur video coverage of police pepper-spraying protesters to get mainstream news networks to take OWS seriously and to consider not just that they were there, but why they were there. The difference between then and now is that, then, making the content wasn’t hard but getting a platform on which to share it was a huge problem. Now, creating content of all kinds is easier than ever and sharing it is no problem at all. Today’s struggle is getting your content to rise to the top, to be seen by an audience wider than your own circle of friends and supporters – to go viral; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more it changes, the more it’s the same.
Videofreex, the Art of Guerilla Television is a must-see exhibition for anyone with an interest in broadcasting, in alternative news sources, and in history. The show takes place in a 3,000 square foot exhibition space and is divided into five segments, some of which have been mentioned in this article. There is also an excellent catalog available at the exhibition, with a foreword by museum director, Sara J. Pasti, an essay by curator Andrew Ingall, and further texts by Daniel Belasco, Tom Colley, David A. Ross, and Tom Roe.
My thanks to Andrew Ingall whose catalog essay provided the groundwork for parts of this article, and also to Parry Teasdale and Skip Blumberg for their extraordinary story-telling at the Dorsky Museum on March 8th, 2015.
Featured Image: Detail of Videofreex ( l. to r. ) David Cort, Bart Friedman and Parry Teasdale (holding Sarah Teasdale), introduce Lanesville, NY resident Scottie Benjamin to SONY Portapak technology at Maple Tree Farm in 1973: Photo by John Dominis
The Exhibition is located in the Morgan Anderson and Howard Greenberg Family Galleries through June 12, 2015.
Gallery hours are Wednesday — Sunday: 11am – 5pm
For further information and special events associated with this exhibition, visit the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art website.
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication. Claire Lambe’s art work can be seen here: clairelambe.net/