Articles

Alternative Media: Software and Video in 1970s Counterculture

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view, “Send Blank Tape” at Pioneer Works (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the midst of laments that the shared culture of television is dwindling – that charming picture of a nuclear family gathered around the TV set outshone by the glow of individual screens — “Send Blank Tape,” an installation at Pioneer Works, is providing an alternative communal viewing experience. With carpets on the floor and a sofa, eight CRT monitors propped atop milk crates play works produced in connection with Radical Software, the earliest publication to cover all aspects of the then-unexplored medium of video. Between 1970 and 1974 the Raindance Corporation published eleven issues of the journal, which are now compiled in an online archive.

It was a DIY venture aiming to disseminate discoveries of any and all possibilities video had to offer, not just for art, but also for activism, documentary, science, psychology, and play. Its distribution forged the consciousness and communication of disparate collectives across the country. The title of this exhibition refers to a system set up at Antioch College in Ohio by which people could send in their own videos to be included in an ever-expanding archive, along with a blank tape to be filled with other programs from the collection, creating a kind of grass-roots library that embodied the ideology of a movement.

man-watching
Installation view, “Send Blank Tape” at Pioneer Works

Fueled by the teachings of Marshall McLuhan, Radical Software railed against the deeper message of that 1950s family portrait: that the television at its center was broadcasting the same corporate media message into every American living room, a fixed perspective consumed by the masses as truth. One video at Pioneer Works, “Some Short Scenes in the Life of Radical Software,” shows the printing and distribution of the journal. Beryl Korot, one of the journal’s founders, explains to the camera that they believe television can be much “more than a radio with a screen,” or the “feedback of feedback of information.” The journal’s agenda was to promote independent, pirate television, and gave down-to-earth information about equipment and how-to’s in all levels of production. In the videos we see mechanics laid bare – microphones poke into many shots and you hear directions and the voices of people behind the camera. Emphasis is always on the medium and its practicality.

The magnetic tape of video degrades far faster than film, and these screens show a low-contrast image, a mesh of grey vibrating with artifacts and banding. The content is similarly imprecise, crossing from documentary to trippy video feedback experiment to free love sex tape to a camera being passed around at a loft party. One highlight is John Reilly’s “The Ballad of AJ Weberman,” a profile of the self-proclaimed Dylanologist rummaging through Bob Dylan’s trash cans outside his Bleecker Street apartment like a stoned archaeologist making important historical discoveries: “Dylan uses Clorox!”

installation-view1
Installation view, “Send Blank Tape” at Pioneer Works

The works on view here offer a time capsule of early seventies counterculture, but the silent majority peeks through. In the middle of “Whole Earth Demise Party,” a video from 1972 documenting a public forum held at the Exploratorium in San Francisco on how to spend the profits of a counterculture magazine, the camera turns to the monolith of national broadcast itself: a news program showing Richard Nixon as he walks his daughter Trisha down the aisle and Dan Rather duly commentating. A reel of shorts by the collective Videofreex features an interview with Yippie Abbie Hoffman in Chicago for a Weathermen protest. Hoffman’s manic comments on the “establishment” and curly mass of hair find stark juxtaposition with the nervous laughter of two short-haired, buttoned-up boys and their hairsprayed mother insisting that it’s “the government’s job to make the decisions” about whether to end the war.

As if in direct response to that sentiment, a particularly tragic video shows a worried 21-year-old Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of The Black Panther Party, discussing the leaders who have been “wiped out,” just three months before he was assassinated in his sleep by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program.

visitor-screens
Installation view, “Send Blank Tape” at Pioneer Works

Most of these early experiments were made in New York City, though the Videofreex collective moved their equipment to the Catskills to become “the most neighborly television around.” The installation features work by other collectives such as Ant Farm, Raindance, Community Video, and Media Access Center, along with a series of works by female students at Antioch College.

In fact, most striking about the installation and the early video movement it covers is the prominence of women. Two women founded Radical Software and published its first issue, and in these videos women are clearly involved both in front of and behind the camera. Even Shirley Clarke, the goddess of independent film and video, makes a cameo in “Laser Games,” confounding pedestrians on 23rd Street with a laser pointer aimed from her Chelsea Hotel penthouse.

Becky Nordstrom's "You're So Vain"
Becky Nordstrom, “You’re So Vain” (197X) Antioch Communications Study Center, ‘Ladies Home Journal’

In my day job I’m a video editor, and when I mention this to someone (usually a man) in the same field the response is always some variation of, “Gear. Gear? Gear!” This pissing match goes on until my eyes have satisfactorily glazed over. It’s the kind of technical machismo that seems ironic in an age when equipment, education, and information are more accessible to a wider range of people than ever before. And yet this competitive attitude has dire effects on who makes it in the industry.

That’s why the sharing philosophy and instincts of openness Radical Software promoted feel so refreshing. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, I felt nostalgic not for the American living rooms of the past, but for a time when the medium and its message were more generous.

Send Blank Tape” is on view at Pioneer Works (159 Pioneer Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn) through November 16.

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