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Film In Conversation

with Erin Sickler

Videofreex and Friends, undated. Courtesy Videofreex.

From the late 1960s through mid-’70s, the ten-member collective Videofreex produced several thousand videotapes, installations, and multimedia events, and trained hundreds of video-makers in the brand-new medium. As individual artists and journalists, the Videofreex straddled a range of methodologies but were united by a singular enthusiasm: as innovators of a new form of broadcast, they saw video technology as an opportunity to transform passive viewers into active mediators. A number of the Videofreex were among the seventy-three contributors to the influential book Video Art, published by the editors of Radical Software. Substituting the word “internet” for “video,” many of their passages could easily be spoken by new-media artists today to describe their own positions within an expanded media environment. The Videofreex’s democratic impulse channels the Whole Earth Catalog’s motto, “Access to Tools”—the infectious idea that cultural and political change is predicated on access to information and the mechanisms that disseminate it.

The exhibition Videofreex: The Art of Guerilla Television, at SUNY New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum (February 7 – July 12, 2015), explores the activities of the New York-based group, and Here Come the Videofreex, a documentary film directed by Jenny Raskin and Jon Nealon, premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinemaFest this June. This summer, I spoke with two of the Videofreex, Mary Curtis Ratcliff and Parry Teasdale, about their experience and these retrospective tributes.

Erin Sickler [Rail]: How did each of you come to the Videofreex?

Mary Curtis Ratcliff: I was living with David Cort on Rivington Street. I went to Michigan to visit my grandfather and we were watching the news. Here were thousands of people at this festival called Woodstock and I said, “I know David is there.” I got back to Manhattan and sure enough David said, “Yes, I was there, and I met this wonderful guy named Parry Teasdale. We were both making videos,” and then, “Oh, by the way, Parry’s coming to live with us.”

Parry Teasdale: I don’t think we ever talked about whether I was coming to live with you. I had brought a group of friends to shoot video at Woodstock where a friend of mine, Dena Crane, introduced me to David who had set up a makeshift kiosk near the Hog Farm stage. He had what I didn’t—access to electrical power and a battery–operated, portable video recorder. We knew immediately we could work together—but when I got to New York City to edit the tapes with David, it quickly became evident that I could not live in my VW bus on Rivington Street.

Ratcliff:  I don’t know if you knew this, Parry, but I was making a sculpture in the loft when you first came. It was supposed to be kind of a swing, a kinetic piece. Then all of a sudden, all of this video equipment started moving in and my sculpture got moved farther and farther back. So, I finally decided to become a Freek.

Teasdale: David, Mary Curtis, and I were working as a loose ensemble in those first few weeks without giving much thought to the need for a collective identity. I’d called my Woodstock Festival group Video Trips and had nothing but a stenciled T-shirt to show for it. Then one day a young Brazilian-American artist named Donny Rodrigues showed up at the loft with a glass sphere the size of a basketball with a mirrored surface. Thinking it would create cool special effects on video, he had pasted small strips of paper on it, each with printed word combinations that included “video.” He rolled the ball along his cheek and on camera it looked as if the written words were emerging from his mouth like speech bubbles. One of these words was “Videofreex.” We knew it was right for us the moment we saw it.

Rail:  How did you come to work on producing the pilot for the series Subject to Change for CBS?

Teasdale: At Woodstock, David and I met this guy who worked in the mailroom at CBS and he connected us with Don West who was, at the time, assistant to the president of CBS, Frank Stanton. Don had no experience as a producer but he believed he could create a new show that would tell the true story—as he saw it—of the cultural and political changes engulfing the country. He convinced his CBS superiors to give him the money to put together what the network called a “presentation.” Then he had to come up with material, and he hired Videofreex to make tapes for a project he called Subject to Change.

Ratcliff: At that point, television cameras were on these gigantic tripods. They were huge and cumbersome. We had this little portable video camera, it just blew Don away. He could see the potential in it, so he hired us.

Rail: And your charge from Don West was to tape the counterculture?

Ratcliff: Yes, but they sent us to West Point.

Teasdale: One of the first places we went was Mount Holyoke College to shoot a choir. We were scratching our heads. It was so straight. At a certain point, we knew we needed to determine what we taped. So we went to the Days of Rage to protest the trial of the Chicago Eight. When we came back with those tapes, especially the Fred Hampton tape, it was clear there was a dimension to what we were doing that we weren’t going to find in suburban Connecticut where Don lived.

Rail: At what point did you all travel to California?

Teasdale: We knew there was something different happening on the West Coast. Don arranged for us to fly to California and to have an RV out there.

Ratcliff: It was like a rock group. I was the only chick. Nancy went to Chicago, but in California it was Curtis, David, Chuck, Parry, the money guy from CBS, and me.

Teasdale: Davidson built us a cabinet for our equipment, so we had this portable studio. We went up the coast from LA. We tried to do some multi-camera things, but it quickly became clear what we really wanted to do was to be part of the scene; to be absorbed in what was going on.

Ratcliff: With video, we could go right in to the middle of what was happening. We just wandered around with cameras. We went to Pacific High School, an alternative high school in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which was really interesting. Wavy Gravy was there in a body cast recovering from some accident. At the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, we participated in an exhibition that included groups like Ant Farm. We set up the bank of monitors and filled them with live feeds. I spent the whole time about forty feet up in the air on a forklift. I went back and forth, zooming in and out. Then there were two other cameras feeding the monitors, one inside and one outside the exhibition. Video was interesting for me because my father had a darkroom, so looking through a camera lens was second nature to me.

Rail: So what happened when you showed the pilot to CBS executives?

Still from Fred Hampton, 1969. Courtesy Video Data Bank.

Teasdale: On December 17, 1969, a bitterly cold night, three network executives took a limo to the Prince Street loft to view Subject to Change on a closed-circuit television. We had live music for accompaniment. One of the executives, Mike Dann, referred to the show as an experiment and told us afterward: “You won’t be on network television for five years.” Later, he forced Don out of CBS. Subject to Change never aired.

Rail: At that point, after ending your relationship with CBS, did you anticipate where video might go, either as an art form or as journalism?

Ratcliff: I can’t remember thinking much about it. One of the most interesting things about video was that you could tape somebody and show it back right there. That was the magic of it. People got very excited about seeing themselves on television.

Teasdale: There wasn’t a dogma. There were no competing philosophies of how to use video except that you didn’t want it to be like network television. Later on, there were tensions in terms of where we put our limited resources. But, in terms of theory, there really wasn’t any. The tension was more between film and video, at least in the city. With film, you can’t see it immediately. It was the immediacy of video that was novel. All of a sudden, you had the tools to tear down walls that prevented people from seeing folks like themselves represented in the media.

Rail: Curtis, you and other female members of the Videofreex have mentioned that there was less of a gender hierarchy with video because nobody really knew what they were doing, and this also affected the subjects of the videos.

Ratcliff: If anybody had an idea they wanted to go explore, they could grab a camera and go. That led to a lot of very interesting things.

Teasdale: It wouldn’t have occurred to us to say, “You’re not strong enough,” because that clearly was not true. It made us think about making it possible for everybody to contribute.

Ratcliff: With the abortion video, it was because I had been through two illegal abortions and then a legal one; I knew the difference. I wanted women to know that there were places you could go. That was 1970.

Teasdale: It’s still striking to me the one moment when you say you had two illegal abortions and then Nancy says she had two. As a man you think, wait a minute, we didn’t know—or maybe we didn’t want to know.

Rail: What made the Freex decide to leave New York City?     

Teasdale: In 1970, The New York State Council on the Arts budget went from 2 million to 20 million dollars and they earmarked $250,000 specifically for video experimentation.

At first, this money was going to be distributed by one central organization, administered by the Raindance Collective: The Center for Decentralized Television. But we and other video collectives protested, so eventually we were allowed to apply directly. David and Allon Schoener figured that money for projects in the city was going to be fought over tooth and nail, so we formed a partnership with the Rochester Museum and Science Center and received $43,000 for our Media Bus proposal. We ended up with a big, blue, extended, used Chevrolet van. We drove around the state in it, showing people how to use video.

Sometimes we would just pull off the road, find a group of kids, and show them how to use the equipment. In Rochester, we established a community media center called Portable Channel, which went on to produce its own programming. All of a sudden, we became traveling evangelists not only for the technology, but for creative uses of the technology.

At some point, we could no longer afford to support the loft in the city, so Carol, Nancy, Bart, Curtis and I went looking for houses upstate. Finally, we found this former boarding house with seventeen bedrooms called Maple Tree Farm in the Catskill Mountains.

Ratcliff: I decided to go to California after about two months. When I went back to Maple Tree Farm to get my stuff, I got married. Parry officiated and Shirley Clarke shot a Marx Brothers spoof right in the middle of my wedding.

Rail: Did other artists visit you in Lanesville?

Teasdale: Yes, many artists visited us, including Joan Jonas, DeeDee Halleck of Paper Tiger Television, Paul Ryan from the Raindance Collective and Beryl Korot and Ira Schneider, editors of Radical Software. Because we had had this head start with the technology, we were able to make it possible for artists to experiment. Often, those artists would go on to work with more sophisticated equipment elsewhere.

Rail: Was the technology determining the form, or the form determining the technology?

Teasdale: The problem with video was always how do you get it out. When we got to Lanesville, the situation became more acute because even in this small rural hamlet, we didn’t possess an avenue to reach people. While we were still in New York, Abbie Hoffman asked me to write a section of Steal This Book on pirate TV broadcasting. He paid me with this device that Chuck Kennedy had told us would help us broadcast. Chuck was our technician. Unfortunately, the device wasn’t powerful enough to reach more than a short distance. After we went upstate, we found a pirate-radio guy, Joseph Paul Ferraro, who had been busted by the FCC and who helped us with an antenna. I had read about a chip that could amplify our radio frequency signals, so we ordered it, and Chuck built the power amplifier that could get the signals from the piece Abbie gave us out over the antenna. It wasn’t a great signal, but it went down to Doyle’s Bar and the General Store, the economic hubs of Lanesville. Finally, we were able to actually reach people. We also would accept calls and broadcast them and that led to a lot of interactive programming.  It was reality television, but with a whole different flavor because everyone was in on it. It was an opening for us because people had basically considered us the hippies up on the hill, and that really changed. When the FBI came to investigate us, people in Lanesville said of us, “They are polite people broadcasting on a local TV station.” We had become part of the community.


Erin Sickler

ERIN SICKLER is a soon-not-to-be-New-York-based interdependent curator and sometimes other things with an itch to scratch.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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