“We’re All Videofreex: Changing Social Media from Portapak to Smartphone,” a free symposium on the DNA of social media and citizen journalism, comes to the SVA Theatre on Friday, April 5 from 4 – 9pm. The program features panels, screenings, and Q&As with original members of the Videofreex, a pioneering group of artists who rode the first wave of independent video production in the 1970s. Organizer David A. Ross, chair, MFA Art Practice Department, and Ron Simon, curator of television and radio at the Paley Center for Media, moderate discussions with members of the collective, media historians and current video artists.
Underground collectives like the Videofreex used the Portapak (the earliest small format video camera) to capture the zeitgeist of the ‘70s, creating original content for broadcast over the public airwaves. Abbie Hoffman, the FBI, CBS, the FCC, the Black Panthers, and Woodstock all had supporting roles in the Videofreex story. Yet this chapter of media history has been largely overlooked. SVA Close Up caught up with Skip Blumberg, one of the original Videofreex, to learn more.
What was your initial vision for the Videofreex in its earliest days?
Tele – vision. We weren’t trying to make cheap films with the newly introduced medium of small format home video. We worked together and as individual producers to make TV shows and to explore how video was unique. We were the alternate TV network for the 1970s alternate culture and radical political movements. This comes across in Pirate TV Show, which we’ll be screening at the SVA symposium.
What was the general consensus about the Portapak when it first hit the market?
In the 1970s, with early cable TV and no Internet, broadcast television was by far the nation’s dominant source of news and entertainment. With only three national TV networks, it was a narrow and rigid source. To us, the Portapak was a powerful tool of mass media that could potentially reach millions of viewers all at the same time, as well as allow narrow casting to smaller communities. But to the TV establishment, small format video was too unstable.
Was it widely embraced as an artistic medium or were video artists considered outsiders among the art community at that time?
Indie filmmakers disdained the new medium for the instability and fuzzy picture. Although the art establishment didn’t accept it, the avant-garde quickly embraced video. We were fully accepted in the avant-garde community by Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, Russell Connor, Howard Wise, and many, many other artists, curators, etc. The Freex were especially appreciated because we added a leading edge technology and electronic spectacle to art events, and our group presence at those events was appreciated as well. But the Videofreex were and are on the fringe of the fringe of the art world.
Are there any current artists/groups that you admire and feel are in line with the Videofreex mission?
We totally identified with the Occupy Wall Street live-streamers and are sorry that that contemporary protest movement with a great impact was short-lived. But we are currently engaged within a very active world-wide movement of digital media artists who have a similar media ethic to the Freex: from Union Docs in Brooklyn and DCTV in Manhattan to the WRO Art Center in Wroclaw, Poland and citizen journalists in Malaysia.
How did people react to being videoed in public at protests? It seems like it may have been dangerous.
Our videos are experiential with long clips of the tape rolling and recording as confrontations explode around us. So viewers can viscerally feel the actuality of the social change movement for themselves.
What are the Videofreex up to these days?
David Cort produced public programming at a New Hampshire planetarium (and performed as Albert Einstein), then designed communication systems for the U.S. Air Force. He is now retired in Cincinnati.
Parry Teasdale (living in Chatham, New York) writes (including Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station…) and is editor and publisher of the upstate New York newspaper, The Columbia Paper, ironically with the CBS News link at the top of the paper’s web page.
Carol Vontobel (also of Chatham, New York) is a licensed master social worker at a dialysis center upstate.
Mary Curtis Ratcliff (Berkeley, California) makes mixed media works on paper using photography, painting, drawing, transfer, and collage with regular exhibitions at three galleries in the Bay Area.
Nancy Cain (Desert Hot Springs, California) writes (including Video Days: and What We Saw Through the Viewfinder) and photographs, posting one new photo on flickr almost daily.
Chuck Kennedy was chief tech at the SUNY New Paltz radio and TV stations, before passing away in 2004. His daughter Rhea Kennedy (Washington, DC) is now his representative as a Videofreex partner and web administrator of Videofreex.com.
Davidson Gigliotti (New York City; Essex, Connecticut; and Venice, Italy) is President and a founder of the Emily Harvey Foundation, which provides residencies for artists and writers in Venice, Italy. He is also the editor of the websites RadicalSoftware.org and the Early Video Project, and writes about video.
Bart Friedman (Saugerties, New York) produces behavioral health and addiction recovery videos, distributed by his company Reelizations Media, and also produces regional arts programs. He is a board member of his public access channel.
Ann Woodward (New York City) gave up editing Barbara Walters specials, has mostly given up nursing, and now does mixed media/collage paintings that have frequent exhibitions in New York City and beyond.
I (Skip Blumberg, New York City) produce cultural docs, experimental and other videos (although sometimes they’re called movies), which are seen in art museums, on TV and DVDs, and on the Internet.