BY Will Bradley in Profiles | 02 SEP 06
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Issue 101

Turn On, Tune In

The invention of the Sony Portapak in 1967 – the first mass-produced portable video camera – encouraged artists to experiment with a dizzying new range of approaches and technologies, prompting the launch of the video journal Radical Software

BY Will Bradley in Profiles | 02 SEP 06

One afternoon in early 1970 in New York, photographer Dudley Dickinson and her partner, Dean Evenson, a sound recording engineer, maxed out a credit card they wouldn’t use again for more than a decade to purchase a Sony Portapak, the first semi-affordable, mass-production portable video camera and recorder. In contrast to the more celebrated Sony products of the 1970s, such as the Walkman or the Trinitron TV, the Portapak was a tool for production rather than consumption. Despite its shortcomings compared with tried and tested 8 and 16mm film technology, which was more compact, far lighter and offered better quality, colour and the option of battery-free wind-up operation, the Portapak had the feel of the future, and, importantly, the feel of television, which was still a relatively young medium but which had already swept across the US and begun to redefine the culture in the way that Hollywood had done 30 years earlier.

Evenson and Dickinson made contact with pioneering video-makers Woody and Steina Vasulka and were introduced to a network of New York video collectives – including Raindance,1 VideoFreex2 and People’s Video Theater,3 – who were dedicated to exploring the possibilities of this new medium. They also came under the Fluxus influence of Nam June Paik, whose work was almost alone in connecting video experimentation, real-time performance and the formal art world. Later that year the first Alternate Media Conference at Goddard College in Vermont brought the nascent US underground video scene together and expanded its idea of what was possible. Techno-Utopians, hippy travellers and media pragmatists found themselves at an event where classroom sessions mixed with freestyle dancing, skinny-dipping and all-night campfire discussions. A proposal for a video festival stemming from the conference, by a group called the NY Alternative Media Project, talked of a revolutionary, decentralized, ‘wired world’, in which ‘the passive viewer becomes the active participant’. It seemed that another world was possible, and that video technology might be one of the instruments through which it could be worked for and documented as it was created.

A period of extraordinary activity and experimentation immediately followed. The uprisings of 1968 had failed to ignite the promised revolution in the West, but the social and political situations that created them and the body of ideas that informed them remained – in particular a distrust of formal ideologies, a disillusionment with the existing political mechanisms and social structures, and a feeling that an inevitable change was still to come that had to be prepared for. The emerging video scene managed productively to encompass a dizzying range of approaches, technologies and ideals, from the home-made psychedelic video synthesizers of Steve Beck, Bill Etra and Dan Sandin (who distributed his circuit diagrams for free under an informal licence known as the Distribution Religion) to Beryl Korot’s project in Saugerties in New York State, in which video cameras were given to children to make their own TV programmes, which were later broadcast on the local cable network.

Access to existing networks was a rare prerogative, however: home video recorders were still many years in the future, and the relatively few art galleries that would show video were concentrating on formal experiments or performance documentation. At the same time the video collectives constantly and ambitiously positioned themselves in opposition to mainstream TV. Raindance member Ira Schneider’s 1970 Media Primer tape, for example, presents a cut-up of countercultural video mixed with corporate broadcasts, opposing images of ecstatic dancers and the free-living underground with networked game shows and the mainstream apology for political debate before heading into an archetypal American home to interview a young couple on their viewing preferences. In screenings at the Raindance loft watching TV or DIY video was a communal, critical activity rather than a private act of consumption. Distribution became a key question, not just of the end-product but of the means of production and the idea of participation. Evenson and Dickinson set off for the West Coast planning to use video-making to ‘introduce Americans to each other’, motivated by what they saw as the confrontation without communication during anti-Vietnam War protests in Manhattan.4 Their Fobile Muck Truck was envisaged as a countercultural answer to network TV that bypassed the mass-media spectacle, making and showing video on the road and sharing access to the technology. Over the next couple of years the Californian artists’ group Ant Farm also took to the road, holding outdoor video screenings on monitors cabled up to their futuristic-looking tour bus and sketching out an idea for something they called the Truck Stop Network, a plan for a nationwide series of underground video screening/distribution/production centres to be linked by just this kind of itinerant practice. In 1971 members of the VideoFreex collective left the city for Lanesville in the Catskill mountains and set up America’s first pirate TV station, travelling the state holding workshops and seminars in video production, while in California collective workspaces such as the community-based Optic Nerve in Berkeley and the more art-oriented Video Free America in San Francisco were being founded.

Dean and Dudley – now the Evensons, having married in Reno – returned to New York in late 1970. Following a round-trip that had produced, among many other tapes, the proto-eco-movie San Francisco Oil Slick, they joined up once again with the Raindance group soon after three of its members, Korot, Phyllis Gershuny and Ira Schneider, had founded the video journal Radical Software.5 The editorial in the first issue stated that ‘Power is no longer measured in land, labour, or capital, but by access to information and the means to disseminate it [...] Our species will survive neither by totally rejecting nor unconditionally embracing technology – but by humanizing it; by allowing people access to the informational tools they need to shape and reassert control over their own lives.’6 If the Portapak had provided the technological impetus for the new movement, the 11 issues of Radical Software came to define it, documenting the theory and contributing to the practice both through information-sharing (issues of the journal replaced the copyright © with an (x), which meant ‘please Xerox and distribute’) and through the formalization of an international tape exchange network. The journal documents an extraordinary body of ideas coupled with the struggle to put those ideas into practice by methods ranging from pirate TV transmission and plans for Utopian settlements to political lobbying, funding battles and video workshops with children at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A representative sample of the hundreds of videotapes offered for sale or exchange in 1972 would include: Mayday, a narrative of the demonstrations in Washington in May 1971; the Alternative Education Conference, June 1971; Inside the Maryland State Penitentiary; a documentary on the Guadalupita commune; an interview with Bobby Seale; La Educación es Gratis (Education is Free), a workers’ video from Venezuela; Psychedelevision; Tuli Kupferberg’s Revolting Theatre; Building a Dome, a complete instructional tape; and Liberation 1970.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the video collective movement as, ultimately, a technological orphan, but the obstacles it faced were due more to the way in which the prevailing political and economic forces dictated that the technology should be used. Many of the participants – to some extent as a result of experience with successful informal cable access networks such as the Evensons’ Downsville TV in New York State – were instrumental in lobbying for what became public-access television in the US, and the movement as a whole founded a discourse within which many of the most salient and powerful concepts of the current wave of online activist independent media production, and even mainstream community or educational projects, are now being articulated. In parallel to the earliest development of the internet, the video collective movement envisaged a non-hierarchical, two-way, participatory, educational, democratic communications system that could interrupt the corporate-state domination of the media; which wanted, in fact, to replace the whole idea of the media with the idea of an open, direct, electronic mass-medium that served no higher interest but that was itself an image of a new society.

Will Bradley is a writer and curator currently based in San Francisco. His exhibition ‘Radical Software: Art, Technology, and the Bay Area Underground’ will open at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts on 28 November, 2006.

1 Raindance members included Frank Gillette, Beryl Korot, Ira Schneider, Phyllis Gershuny, Louis Jaffe, Michael Shamberg and Marco Vassi.
2 Videofreex members included Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, David Cort, Bart Friedman, Davidson Gigliotti, Chuck Kennedy, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, Parry Teasdale, Carol Vontobel, Tunie Wall and Ann Woodward.
3 PVT members included Elliott Glass, Howard Gutstadt and Ken Marsh.
4 Dudley Evenson, Our Decade as Video Nomads, Unpublished.
5 All issues of Radical Software are now on-line at, an archive created by Davidson Gigliotti.
6 Radical Software, issue 1, ed. Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (Raindance Corporation, New York), 1970.