by Randall Packer
This essay examines a history of alternative media, experimental video, and communalist aspirations of the counter-culture from the 1960s and 1970s, who modeled and instigated a radical shift in media culture as a precursor to current day Internet broadcasting and social media. The concept of social broadcasting draws from this seminal history in which the first generation of media and video artists in the 1960s organized around socially-participatory and politically activist collectives, narratives and agendas. These media practitioners embraced the emerging electronic forms and tools as a call-to-action against the establishment, forming independent, decentralized, and mobilized collectives to make their own media. During the 1960s, and continuing throughout the 1970s, alternative media communities and artist-driven networks in the US were instrumental in driving the evolving social and cultural transformation of the time. These include: USCO, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, San Francisco Tape Music Center, Raindance Foundation, Kitchen Art Center, Videofreex, and many others not discussed in this essay, who encouraged others to create their own media and propel their own upheaval of the status quo. In the seminal video art journal Radical Software, Gene Youngblood proclaimed: “The videosphere will alter the minds of men and the architecture of our dwellings,” forecasting the transformative and politically revolutionary potential of emerging information networks. By looking back and analyzing the historic legacies of collective media art and activism, we see a still unfolding future for today’s networked and social media, not just as a corporate controlled delivery mechanism for reinforcing consumerism and mainstream popular culture, but as a collaborative platform for experimental invention and social broadcasting: an unfinished communications revolution.
The following essay was derived from talks at the International New Media Festival, Chongqing, China, November 6, 2017; RE:TRACE – 7th International Conference for Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, Krems, Austria, November 24, 2017; and at ZKM (Center for Art and Media), Karlsruhe, Germany, November 26, 2017. Special thanks to Lynn Adler, Dara Birnbaum, Skip Blumberg, Marc Canter, Kit Galloway, Beryl Korot, Chip Lord, Don Foresta, Davidson Gigliotti, Douglas Hall, Jim Mayer, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, John Rodgers, David Ross, John Sanborn, Ramon Sender, Skip Sweeney, and Gene Youngblood, who participated in interviews that were central to the research for this paper.
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – Buckminster Fuller
This historical portrait of social broadcasting looks at transformational roots catalyzed by 1960s and 1970s counter-culture, communalism, psychedelic experimentation, Happenings, early video experimentation, electronic theater, and networked art: how artists, activists, and independents embraced new technologies to collectively re-imagine themselves and society. While an international phenomenon, this research is focused on historical roots that took place in the United States.
The 1960s and 1970s was a period of prolific construction of new models, new realities, new electronic media, media collectives, and media activism, the widespread abandonment of the archaic, anachronistic forms of mainstream media and broadcasting. These changes made way for newly energized, and independent narratives of artistic and media expression. During this time, the renowned architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller developed concepts of systems and model building that set the stage for the conceptualization, formation and enactment of collective social experiments or what media historian and activist Gene Youngblood refers to as ”autonomous reality communities,” those individuals who come together to alter the existing order of things, not necessarily by tearing down old structures and conventions, but through the creation of new alternative models of community and creative expression.
It is my intent to show how these socio-cultural and artistic experiments in the formative years of electronic media and video might inspire and catalyze transformative thinking in today’s social media environment: a communications revolution that is still unfolding.
A Brief History of Broadcasting
“It’s not the history of technology. It’s the history of human desire, this desire for connection.” (1) – Gene Youngblood
We begin with the concept of the broadcast in the broadest sense of the word. Here, traditional broadcasting refers to the hierarchical, one-way transmission of media: broadcasting as a monologue, the viewer as a passive recipient. Social broadcasting centers around the shift to many-to-many, participatory forms of expression, transmission, and interaction: broadcasting as dialogue.
Electronic broadcasting began with the first telegraph transmission sent by Samuel Morse in 1844, a point-to-point electronic message that travelled across the original telegraph line installed between the Supreme Court in Washington, DC and the first American railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland. Morse’s first transmission was a profoundly prophetic message that read as the following: “What Hath God Wrought,” heralding, ominously, the dawn of the age of tele-communications. The invention of the telegraph was inspired by the need to send a message faster than a moving train, following an incident in which a thief boarded a train in Washington, DC and there was absolutely no way to relay ahead to Baltimore a warning to catch the robber.
Radio broadcasting also had roots in the 19th century through the work of the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marco and his first transmission in 1895. The medium was popularized in the early 1920s when the first licensed radio stations took to the airwaves. Radio thus became a mainstream broadcast medium, which took form as a one-way transmission between the broadcast station and the listener, who gathered around the radio set as an electronic hearth. A new kind of electronic space was born, centered around the immediacy of the one-to-many broadcast.
Television, invented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth in 1927, first emerged as a new medium in the late 1940s when only a few thousand television sets existed. But television grew rapidly by the 1950s, as it became the exclusive domain of corporate networks, requiring expensive, highly complex broadcast equipment, studios, and specialized engineers.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a generation of American Post World II baby-boomers grew up on massive doses of the broadcast signal. Saturated by television programming consumed throughout the formative years of their childhood, they would become the protagonists of the 1960s generation that challenged the social and political status quo, including the hierarchical, one-to-many nature of the broadcast medium they grew up on. The stage was set for the upheaval of the role of media and broadcasting in a rapidly evolving society and culture.
USCO and Stewart Brand
“USCO was a social system unto itself, uniting the cults of mysticism and technology as a basis for introspection and communication.” – Fred Turner (3)
USCO (Us & Company), one of the first alternative media collectives in the US in the early 1960s, founded by Gerd Stern, Michael Callahan, and Steve Durkee, erected the Psychedelic Tabernacle in a church in Garnerville, New York. The Tabernacle became an obligatory stop for every seeker and guru passing through the area. Influenced by the early Happenings of John Cage, as well as the performance art of the early 1960s, including such notables as Allan Kaprow, USCO was instrumental in transforming the Happening as an audience-participatory performance event into extravagant theatrical ecologies of film, community, multimedia, slide projection, strobes, lights, and sound collage: events that evolved a few years later in the 1960s as “be-ins.” USCO was rooted in the emerging hippie/counter-culture movement, shattering the boundaries between performer and audience and life itself. USCO transformed the Happening into a social system and psychedelic celebration of technology and mystical community.
“Imagine a world in which time seems to vanish and space becomes completely malleable.” – Stewart Brand (2)
Stewart Brand was a central figure in the evolving social and cultural changes of the 1960s, who would later bridge the counter-culture with cybernetics and the birth of the personal computer. He lived on and off in the USCO Tabernacle, where he first encountered the Happenings and the transformative nature of new media as immersive, social experience and expanded consciousness. Buckminster Fuller’s theories of social systems and wholistic thinking were an influence on Stewart Brand and inspired his interest in collective forms and their relationship to new technologies.
“The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.” – Marshall McLuhan (4)
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan understood the socially transformative nature of new technologies as changing not only the content of media, but even more importantly, the medium through which we engage the world around us: hence his famous statement, “the media is the message.” McLuhan’s ideas were seminal to 1960s artists and technologists such as Stewart Brand, who were essentially conducting “laboratory tests” or what McLuhan referred to as “collective surgery” as to the effects of electronic media on the emerging counter-culture. McLuhan helped shape and define the impact of media on the communalist trends of the 1960s with his other famous prophecy: “the global village,” suggesting the intensely social, collective, and intimate potential of the mediated experience.
“In McLuhan’s view, the individual human body and the species as a whole were linked by a single nervous system, an array of electronic signals circulating from television set to television set, radio to radio, computer to computer, across the globe.” – Fred Turner (5)
McLuhan’s 1964 book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man was seminal in prophesying the way in which humankind’s global reach would be extended through new media and communications technologies. He viewed the extension of man through electronic media as the expansion of human consciousness and social connectedness. This idea had a profound effect on the evolving counter-culture and its relationship to new media throughout the 1960s.
Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters
“Leaving the culture without leaving the country.” – Gene Youngblood (6)
Ken Kesey, as portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was perhaps the most significant figure who ignited the 1960s American counter-culture and its embrace of psychedelic experimentation. Kesey was the author of the 1962 One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, considered one of the most important American novels of the 20th century.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the chief protagonist Randle McMurphy challenged the control of a mental ward over its patients as a meta-narrative for Kesey’s resistance to social and political tactics of authority. McMurphy notoriously sacrificed his mental condition and ultimately his life to liberate a band of patients who were self-incarcerated in the ward
McMurphy’s now classic rebellion against the evil Nurse Ratched, the symbol of authority in Cuckoo’s Nest, was in many ways, Kesey’s call-to-action for a social and political revolution to liberate the consciousness of the American baby boom generation: many of whom grew up in the spiritual dormancy of middle class suburban quiet and mind-numbing seduction of the television broadcast during the 1950s.
Kesey formed a collective of proto-hippies in the San Francisco Bay Area that became famously known as the Merry Pranksters, who executed their legendary 1964 cross-country magic-bus trip across America, a traveling media circus, eloquently captured by Tom Wolfe:
“The bus barrels into the superhighway toll stations and the microphones on top of the bus pick up all the clacking and ringing and the mumbling by the toll-station attendant and the brakes squeaking and the gears shifting, all the sounds of the true America that are screened out everywhere else… it all came amplified back inside the bus, while Hagen’s camera picked up the faces, the faces in Phoenix, the cops, the service-station owners, the stragglers and the strugglers of America, all laboring in their movie, and it was all captured and kept, piling up, inside the bus.” – Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (7)
The Bus Trip was a real-time movie, a cultural transformation, a mobile Happening, a new radical lifestyle, and a traveling “circus” of film and sound experimentation. The bus, appropriately named Furthur, was both the vehicle to make this new lifestyle visible and a model for furthering that lifestyle into unchartered expanded consciousness through media, social activism and psychedelic experimentation.
“You’re either on the bus or off the bus.” – Ken Kesey (7)
The Pranksters painted a Harvester school bus in day-glo colors, loaded it with cameras, sound equipment, and drugs, and drove east across America, where along the way they proselytized the new counter-culture and lifestyle experimentation. The journey became a high-rolling social and media laboratory that broke down the eroding boundaries between self, community, and technology. As they drove across the country, they kept the cameras rolling, recording the events of the road as a movie continuously unfolding, capturing life in the moment, the mobility of media and collectivism as a way of life.
The San Francisco Tape Music Center
A vehicle of mercy sent into the wasteland of academic modern music.” – Ramon Sender (11)
In 1963, the San Francisco Tape Music Center was formed as an experimental, anti-academic electronic music studio by composers Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender in San Francisco. The San Francisco Tape Music Center became known as the one of the first alternative, experimental production spaces and media collectives embracing electronic music and interdisciplinary performance art far outside of the mainstream of contemporary music.
The San Francisco Tape Music Center became a nexus for leading experimental composers, visual artists, dancers and filmmakers in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the spirit of the emerging collectivist and DIY culture of the 1960s, they pooled and shared resources, and they built their own tools, including one of the first modular synthesizers designed by engineer Don Buchla. The San Francisco Tape Music Center defined what became known as the “West Coast” school of electronic music.
Pioneering multimedia performance works and experimental music was created by artists and composers including Ramon Sender, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Tony Martin, Steve Reich, Terry Reilly, among others. Composer Ramon Sender’s 1964 electronic theater piece Desert Ambulance was a pivotal work that transformed the stage into an immersive media space of performance, live projections and synthesized music. The work was a collaboration between Sender, composer/performer Pauline Oliveros and visual artist Tony Martin. In Desert Ambulance, Oliveros performed amplified accordion while embedded in a virtual space composed of film, slide, and liquid projections: seamlessly immersing her physical presence within the electronic environment.
What was perhaps most significant about Desert Ambulance and other works created at the San Francisco Tape Music Center was the influence of the early 1960s multimedia Happenings and performance events on the creation of new interdisciplinary, audio-visual experiences using new media technologies. In Desert Ambulance, the immersive effects of the darkened theater, psychedelic inspired projections, and spatial music powerfully drew the viewer into the enveloping media space of the stage, where they were invited to virtually enter into and inhabit the environment, an experience of shared dissolution that evoked a heightened state of expanded awareness. Desert Ambulance was seminal to later experiments that fused psychedelic light shows and rock music.
The Trips Festival
“Theatre is obligatory because it resembles life more closely than the other arts do, requiring for its appreciation the use of both eyes and ears, space and time.” – John Cage (12)
By 1965, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had returned from their Bus Trip across America and began staging the Acid Tests in the San Francisco Bay Area. These early “rave-style” events combined LSD, rock music, strobe lights, projections, and other audio-visual elements, a utopic frenzy of social communalism that would soon catalyze a dramatic cultural shift that defined the psychedelic era of the hippie movement.
It was at this juncture that three of the key players in this research: Stewart Brand, Ken Kesey, and Ramon Sender, together organized the three-day TRIPS Festival in January 1966, the culmination of the Acid Tests. The TRIPS Festival, involving the collaboration between the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the Merry Pranksters, took place at the cavernous Longshoreman’s Hall, just a few short blocks from the unsuspecting tourists of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, who were most likely oblivious to the forces that were radically altering America’s youth in ways they would never be the same again.
Stewart Brand, Ramon Sender, and Ken Kesey created the single event that, more than any other, would cause the San Francisco psychedelic scene to go public. They acted as “social-meta designers” a term used by Gene Youngblood that refers to the design of a social construction, in which the audience participated in a utopic experiment of anarchic collectivity and the embodiment of experiential magic brought about by audio-visual media, technology, drugs, sensory immersion, and communal ecstasy.
“It was an overlapping meeting ground, a liminal zone, a coming together, a unification of bodies and spirits that mutated out in all kinds of new directions.” – Michael J. Kramer (14)
Inside the Longshoreman’s Hall, there was an electric current rippling through the audience, signaling the beginning of a new era: one of moving beyond everyday reality into some new, unexplored psychic frontier. To the extent that they felt a sense of communion with one another, the sensation was brought about by the fusion of participatory social engagement and drug-infused body movement pulsating to electronic music and elaborate audio-visual projections. The TRIPS Festival was thus the seeding ground for setting forth the conditions of a social system with media at the center allowing participants to feel as though the boundaries between self and others, minds and bodies had dissolved into a sensorial ether.
In the following year, the TRIPS Festival led directly to what is known as the 1967 “Summer of Love,” in which thousands of young people converged in San Francisco from around the world to question authority, to escape constraints and conventions, and to celebrate a new and open world. While the Summer of Love would soon be eclipsed by the tumultuous closing decade in the US, in which the hippie movement faced the harsh realities of the 1968 assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, drug abuse, racial turmoil, gender inequality, and the War in Vietnam, nevertheless, the cultural revolution that sprung from the TRIPS Festival and the emergence of new media and psychedelics had enormous impact on changing social norms and lifestyle that would provide the underlying catalyst for challenging and shifting the hierarchical order and power alignment between the individual and mainstream media.
Whole Earth Catalog
“The concept of building a peer-to-peer information system and the idea that individuals needed to gain control.” – Fred Turner (5)
Stewart Brand had been waiting throughout the 1960s for a photograph of the Earth taken from space as a visualization of Buckminster Fuller’s concept of Spaceship Earth, a model for responsible management of the world’s ecosystem. The fulfillment of his dream coincided with the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, edited and produced by Brand, conceived as an information system in print, a seminal peer-to-peer publication of radical DIY culture, emerging cybernetic technology, environmental consciousness, the “back to the land” ethos of the counter-culture, and other current trends in alternative thought.
The Whole Earth Catalog was a networked forum with a wholistic view of the world and its resources, a model for new lifestyle, social engagement, collectivism, and collaboration. The Catalog became in 1968 the single most visible manifestation of new trends of industry and science integrated with Eastern religion, alternative culture, mysticism and communal social theory.
“Information wants to be free.” – Stewart Brand (17)
The Catalog was an information source, largely curated by Brand for hackers and computer renegades, who fashioned the available tools of the time to build many of the first microcomputers and computer networks, leading to the original Apple computer just a few years later. The Whole Earth Catalog was, in essence, a social laboratory for invention and creativity, which transformed readers into collaborative players and prime movers of new technology and social change.
The reader-participant could order and build the tools and electronics listed in the Catalog in order to create a realm of intimate, personal power in his or her own life. If the Whole Earth Catalog served as a guide to a new way of being an individual in society, it also modeled and offered access to tools that instigated new possibilities for participation, such as amateur radio equipment, a form of broadcasting accessible to individuals that penetrated the airwaves worldwide, circumventing the mainstream media of radio and television.
“They were not simply tools, they were a mechanism that transformed their users into actors.” – Fred Turner (5)
While the 1960s forces of counter-culture, DIY practices, alternative media, communalism, and ecological awareness set the stage for dramatic social and cultural upheaval, these trends converged with the medium of video with the introduction of the Japanese Sony Portapak, the first portable video system that was brought to the market in 1965 to become a new, empowering tool for individualized media expression. No longer was video out of reach, solely consigned to the network broadcast studio.
Through the latter 1960s, video emerged as a dominant tool in the hands of artists, alternative documentarians, media collectives, and activists – the post-World War II baby boomers who came of age during the golden era of television – who now had unprecedented access to the media tools that could challenge the centralized, hierarchical order of the television broadcast.
“How long before every artist is his own television station?” – Nam June Paik (18)
Nam June Paik, generally known as the “father of video” art, was chief among those calling for artists to embrace the new medium of video. Paik was a key catalyst in the early years of video as an artistic form, whose work opened up new pathways of single-channel video, installation and live performance. He is famously rumored to have purchased the first Sony Portapak delivered to the US. The following is a folkloric account of Paik’s first encounter with the Sony Portapak:
The story goes that Nam June Paik, a Korean-born artist, purchased the first Sony Portapak delivered to the U.S. in New York on October 4, 1965. On that same day, carrying the camera with him in a taxi, a traffic jam created by Pope Paul VI’s motorcade held him up. Paik videotaped the procession, and that afternoon he screened the twenty minutes of footage to friends at Café a Go-Go in Greenwich Village. Some doubt this story and it’s indisputable that Paik shared the early moments of video art with lesser-known practitioners including Juan Downey, Frank Gillette, Les Levine, and Ira Schneider, as well as with Andy Warhol, who was said to screen video mere weeks before Paik’s tape was shot and shown. Whoever was first, 1965 was the year video art was born. – Hanne Mugaas (19)
TV as a Creative Medium
“Television is kinetic art – it needs only to be ordered by an artist.” – Howard Wise (20)
Organized by the Howard Wise Gallery in New York City, “TV as a Creative Medium” was the exhibition around which the video art community first coalesced in 1969. The artists represented in the show viewed video, not solely as a new art form, but as an information tool and as a means of gaining understanding and control of television as a creative communications medium. While artists had begun to embrace video since 1965, there had been no center, no real cohesion, no sense of a larger movement until the show at the Howard Wise Gallery on 57th St in New York City in 1969.
The centerpiece of “TV as a Creative Medium” was the video installation Wipe Cycle by Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider, two of the founders of the Raindance Foundation video collective. Wipe Cycle was one of the first video installations to capture the viewer as an active participant on the screen: the correlation between the viewer’s image and the cyclical sweep of the imagery from monitor to monitor emphasized the individual’s participation and relationship to visual information. It was a new and transformative experience for viewers to see themselves in a medium that had heretofore been exclusively the domain of broadcast television.
Nam June Paik’s TV Bra for Living Sculpture looked at the relationship between electronic media and the body, the phenomena of our technological lives merging with our physical ones, the electronic and the biological. Paik was one of the first artists to critically consider the impact of technology on what he referred to as our “cybernated lives.” In TV Bra for Living Sculpture, performed by avant-garde cellist Charlotte Moorman, the performer wore two small TV monitors on her breasts while playing the cello. This controversial and explicit performance followed on the heels of Paik’s Opera Sextronique from two years earlier, when Moorman had been arrested for nudity.
Moorman’s performance of TV Bra for Living Sculpture involved the manipulation of imagery mounted on our breasts as a living, sculptural manifestation of McLuhan’s social theory of media, media as the technological extension of the human nervous system. The performance also invoked what Paik referred to as the “cybernated shock and catharsis” of a mass consumer society obsessed with television culture.
Both of these works by Paik, Gillette and Schneider, along with the overall exhibition “TV as a Creative Medium,” signaled a profound challenge to mainstream television, to the eroding primacy of one-way mass communication, and a critique of the powerful and seductive effects of media on the viewer as a passive recipient of the broadcast.
“We wanted to write the medium, not just read it.” – Beryl Korot (22)
Video artists Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny were the founding editors of the 1970 publication, Radical Software, a collaboration with the Raindance Foundation. Radical Software was a limited-edition alternative magazine, like the Whole Earth Catalog, which functioned as a print-based communications hub, in this case, for the international movement of experimental video practitioners.
“Social systems and individual lifestyles could only be developed by establishing alternative, decentralized information structures.” – Radical Software, ZKM (24)
Radical Software looked back on the socially-transformative, radical surge of the 1960s counter-culture movement as it met head-on with the birth of a new technological tool: portable video. Radical Software in many ways also looked forward to the future of the Internet society by providing free and open access to information as an alternative to mainstream publishing, and the means to distribute it.
11 issues were edited and distributed between 1970 and 1974, chronicling the rise of the early video movement, when a grass roots effort around the world was in the early stages of understanding and embracing the potential of how video would become the dominant new media. Radical Software was the hub of a growing network of media collectives inspired and activated by the far-flung possibilities of what video could be in the hands of artists, communities, independent journalists, activists, and everyday people.
“Television was no longer viewed as the activity of the culture, it was the culture.” – David Ross (25)
Radical Software emphasized video as a tool for empowerment, the realization of a new media ecology that connected people through guerrilla technology and independent video. They imagined a world outside of the existing institutional framework in active opposition to the worldview constructed and maintained by commercial broadcast television and other mainstream media. As Korot describes, “there was a certain kind of social responsibility that we felt towards one another.” Radical Software was a publication for instigating collaboration, new enterprise, educational and health initiatives, and artistic projects.
The Radical Software community believed that video was not just a distribution mechanism for delivering content, it was the creation of a network, a movement, a call-to-action, a rallying cry for community activism, media education, radical theory, and artistic experimentation. Many of the visionary bright lights of the time wrote for Radical Software, which served as an underground academic journal for new theories and ideas that were simply too radical for mainstream publications. A taste of essays includes: Buckminster Fuller’s Software, talking about television as the new software, and Nam June Paik’s Expanded Education for the Paperless Society, advocating a media revolution in higher education.
“The videosphere will alter the minds of men and the architecture of their dwellings.” – Gene Youngblood (29)
In Gene Youngblood’s Videosphere, the media historian and activist declared that “television is the software of the Earth,” in which he prophetically defined the concept of the videosphere as the birth of a new information space, the expansion of consciousness, a coming of age at the intersection of new media and alternative culture. Videosphere was punctuated by Youngblood’s manifesto, The Media Must Be Liberated, arguing against the tyranny of broadcast television, private ownership, and commercial sponsorship.
Woody and Steina Vasulka, The Kitchen Arts Center
“McLuhan and Fuller… seemed a strange and united front against the establishment.” – Woody and Steina Vasulka (30)
Woody and Steina Vasulka moved to the United States from Prague in the mid-1960s to discover the creative energy of New York City. With their background in music, filmmaking, and engineering, they gathered artists and technologists at their loft for screenings and conversations centered around the artistic potential of the new medium of video. Steina brought to her work a performative sensibility drawn from her musical background as a violinist, and Woody’s filmmaking and engineering interests was focused on video signal processing.
As the gatherings expanded, they decided to go public, and in 1971 created a community art space they called The Kitchen: the seminal downtown alternative art space that continues to this day. The Kitchen was a laboratory for emerging interdisciplinary video art forms, with artists working together with engineers and designers to develop new tools for the creation of single-channel video art, installation and live performance.
The Kitchen was a socially-conceived early “maker” space for the research, creation, and presentation of media art, advancing the spirit of collaboration and shared resources that was the hallmark of the 1960s. Like the San Francisco Tape Music Center, The Kitchen was a radical move against the academic and art world establishment as a new model for artistic production: the alternative art space as a collaborative, artist-driven media lab. The Kitchen catalyzed a proliferation of artist run spaces that emerged throughout the 1970s in defiance of the hierarchical nature of museum spaces and commercial galleries, most of which ignored the collaborative efforts of video and experimental media artists.
“Those in front of the camera and those behind it share an equality of purpose and involvement.” – Davidson Gigliotti, Videofreex (31)
The Videofreex, prominent among the early generation of video and media activists, was a media collective founded in 1969, which organized around socially and politically motivated agendas. They took advantage of affordable video equipment to treat video not just as a medium of expression, but as a social tool integral to their communalist, back to the land experiment.
What makes the Videofreex of particular significance to the history of social broadcasting as outlined in this essay, was how they brought together the tools, methodologies, collectivist spirit, and the utopian aspirations of the 1960s, along with emerging video practices, to reinvent the medium of live broadcasting.
“Video was for adventure and freedom and possibilities and truth.” – Nancy Cain, Videofreex (32)
In 1971 the Videofreex moved out of their loft in New York City to rural upstate New York in a quiet little village called Lanesville to begin their social experiment, a communal startup alternative television production center. According to co-founder and video documentarian Skip Blumberg, they were “the TV network for the counter-culture, the be-ins and protests.” The Videofreex chronicled the news and events that mainstream television wasn’t covering from the perspective of the alternative culture.
“I want you to get into your VW bus, and each night around Manhattan: Broadcast!” – Abbie Hoffman (34)
The infamous radical activist Abbie Hoffman was convinced that the revolution would be televised, not by mainstream television, but by activists, and encouraged the Videofreex to pirate the airwaves. Hoffman introduced the Videofreex’ to the idea of pirate television when he suggested they broadcast their tapes illegally. He wanted the video collective to become bandits of the airwaves and literally hack their way into the television spectrum.
In 1972, from their studio in Lanesville, the Videofreex rigged a transmitter on the roof of their house and fired off the first transmission from their newly created television channel, Lanesville TV. The radius of the Videofreex broadcast was just a few miles, as they hijacked the local Channel 3 reception to reach a few dozen television sets. But the significance of their broadcast station couldn’t be more profound. Here we have a group of media-savvy hippies conducting one of the first experiments in pirate television in the US. The simple declarative from Abbie Hoffman, “Broadcast!,” together with the tenacious perseverance of the Videofreex, would forever alter the nature and scope of the live television broadcast.
In their studio control center, they essentially pioneered a form of two-way television, using the telephone as a hybrid communications medium to activate and engage the local viewing audience of Lanesville as participants in the broadcast. The live signal emanated from one of the early consumer video systems routed through a custom console patched together with an assortment of surplus electronic parts.
“The phone became an emblem of openness and responsiveness to concerns of the viewers.” – Parry Teasdale, Videofreex (35)
For several years throughout the 1970s, the Lanesville TV experiment continued with the creation of home-spun programming, childrens’ shows, and interviews with local townspeople, with viewers calling in and reporting on the crackly reception, critiquing the improvised programming, and telling their own stories of the rural everyday. This unprecedented access to broadcast television, along with the simple communications exchange between viewer and broadcaster via the telephone, essentially transformed the one-way nature of television into an interactive, participatory, open medium of two-way social broadcasting.
“We must create on the same scale as we can destroy.” (1979) – Sherrie Rabinowitz (6)
Media artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, both of whom were active in early video art circles, began in the mid-1970s to explore the convergence of video with emerging satellite communications and two-way broadcasting on an entirely new scale. Their seminal installation, Hole-in-Space of 1980, which grew out of their collaboration with NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), linked via satellite two storefronts in Lincoln Center, New York City and Century City, Los Angeles, nearly 3,000 miles apart, creating a full-scale, real-time, audio-visual broadcast event that transcended distance and geography.
Like Ramon Sender, Ken Kesey, and Stewart Brand in the organization of the 1966 TRIPS Festival, Galloway and Rabinowitz also functioned as social meta-designers, who orchestrated Hole-in-Space as a live happening, a socially-conceived environment of communication and participation. Taking a significant step beyond their predecessors, Hole-in Space fused participation and electronic media as a new kind of distributed social space, which operated on an expanded geographic scale via satellite broadcasting.
“Autonomous reality-communities in virtual space. They would be atopias — social formations without boundaries or borders, defined not by geography but by consciousness, ideology and desire.” – Gene Youngblood (6)
For three days, two hours each day, without any public announcement, Hole-in-Space immersed unwitting viewers in spontaneity, social participation, multimedia spectacle, communalism, experimentation, and expanded consciousness via the two-way satellite broadcast. Perhaps like no other artist that preceded them, they expanded the promise of alternative television broadcasting as a non-hierarchical, participatory telematic event. Hole-in-Space was a serendipitous chance reunion, heightened by life-sized projections of participants united over satellite, which collapsed two cities thousands of miles apart, thus transcending the physical laws of geography and distance.
With no central authority controlling the broadcast, no one dictating the communication of the participant, the viewer does and says whatever they want, creating what Gene Youngblood referred to as an “autonomous reality community,” a temporary zone of anarchic freedom through the power of freely conducted human exchange, the collective construction of reality. Galloway and Rabinowitz referred to the quality of exchange as “emotional bandwidth,” demonstrating human interaction unconstrained, unprogrammed, and opened up via the network. Here we see, like the Videofreex, one of the earliest and most powerful enactments of two-way social broadcasting, designed to liberate the viewer from hierarchical and centralized authority.
“Telephones cannot communicate; only the humans who use the instruments.” – Buckminster Fuller (15)
Today we are all Videofreex in our everyday embrace of video and communications technology. The techniques and technologies of social broadcasting today are ubiquitous and mobile. However, we are still discovering and unlocking the social and collective potentialities of the live broadcast. By looking back and analyzing the historic legacies of first generation media artists and activists from the 1960s and 1970s, we can take direction from those who sought to reinvent social systems and forms of artistic expression that were free of constraints and hierarchical order, who believed in the most far-flung utopic dreams of the emancipation of new media from established authority, and who foresaw an electronically connected world that collapsed distance and culture.
The early protagonists of alternative media created their own platforms in defiance of corporate controlled broadcast networks and their programming which exploited consumerism and popular culture. As the offspring of television culture, these protagonists from the Baby Boom generation invented new narratives and artistic realizations rather than bending to the narrow programming of mainstream television they grew up on. They also took a critical stance against the effects of television as a seductive and overpowering tool for entertaining the masses, or what Neil Postman refers to as “we are amusing ourselves to death.”
Long before the Internet and the Web, the early media activists from the 1960s and 1970s fought for access, they broke down the established order of communications systems, and they viewed media as an independent social tool and information network. Yet now, in the current age of big data and corporate-controlled platforms that surveil our lives and reap monetary reward from our every gesture, when commercial and suspect political interests have co-opted and gained control over the Internet and social media, we see an unfulfilled, broken promise for a communications revolution called for over 50 years ago. We are thus presented with the urgent question of our time: what are WE going to do to further the revolution?
It is my hope that the utopic aspirations and undaunted determination of the early alternative media culture can shed light on present day conditions and remind us, like Randle McMurphy who struggled against Authority in a mental asylum, of the need to keep the fight alive.
Underground Studio Bunker
(1) Gene Youngblood, Toward Autonomous Reality Communities, Introductory Essay, Siggraph Art Show (1982)
(2) Stewart Brand, Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer, Basic Books (1999)
(3) Fred Turner, Stewart Brand Meets the Cybernetic Counter-Culture, The Edge Culture (2006)
(4) Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, MIT Press (1964)
(5) Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, The University of Chicago Books (2006)
(6) Gene Youngblood, Secession from the Broadcast: The Internet and the Crisis of Social Control, P2P adaptation from lecture at Universidad de Tres Febrero, Buenos Aires, Argentina (2012)
(7) Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1968)
(8) Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Mass Market Paperback (1963)
(9) Milos Foreman (director), One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (film) (1975)
(10) Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood (directors), Magic Trip (film) (2011)
(11) David Berstein, The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counter-Culture and the Avant-Garde, UC Press (2008)
(12) John Cage, A Year From Monday, Wesleyan University Press (1967)
(13) Hakim Bey, Temporary Autonomous Zone, Autonomedia (1991)
(14) Michael J. Kramer, Inside Outside: On the Significance of the Trips Festival, talk delivered at The 1960s Revisited Symposium @ the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (2016)
(15) Thomas T. K. Zung (Editor), Buckminster Fuller: Anthology for a New Millennium, Revolution in Wombland from Earth Inc., St. Martin’s Griffin (2001)
(16) Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog, (1968-72)
(17) Stewart Brand, talk at Hackers Conference, Sausalito, CA (1984)
(18) David Ross, quote by Nam June Paik, Radical Software Redux (2003)
(19) Hanne Mugaas, The Year Video Art Was Born, Guggenheim Museum (2010)
(20) Marita Sturken, TV As a Creative Medium: Howard Wise and Video Art, Afterimage, May 1984
(21) Nam June Paik, Cybnerated Art (1966), Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, Randall Packer and Ken Jordan (editors), WW Norton (2002)
(22) Beryl Korot, Interview with Randall Packer (2017)
(23) Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (editors), Radical Software (1970-74)
(24) Radical Software: The Raindance Foundation, Media Ecology and Video Art, ZKM (Center for Art and Media), Karlsruhe, Germany (2017)
(25) David Ross, Foreward, Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, Doug Hall Sally Jo Fifer (editors), Aperture/Bay Area Video Coalition (2005)
(26) Buckminster Fuller, Software, Radical Software (vol. 1), Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (editors) (1970)
(27) Nam June Paik, Expanded Education for the Paperless Society, Radical Software (vol. 1), Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (editors) (1970)
(28) Gene Youngblood, Videosphere, Radical Software (vol. 1), Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (editors) (1970)
(29) Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, Dutton Paperback (1970)
(30) Steina and Woody Vasulka, Origins of the Kitchen, Vasulka Archive (1977)
(31) Davidson Gigliotti, We’re all Videofreex: Changing Media & Social Change from Partapak to Smartphone, Videofreex.com (2013)
(32) Nancy Cain, Video Days: And What we Saw Through our Viewfinder, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012)
(33) Melanie LaRosa, Early Video Pioneer: An Interview With Skip Blumberg, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 64, No. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 2012), pp. 30-41
(34) Jenny Raskin and Jon Nealon (directors), Here Come the Videofreex (film) (2015)
(35) Parry Teasdale, Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station & the Catskills Collective That Turned It on, Black Dome (1999)
(36) Nam June Paik, Cathode Karma, Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood, Dutton Books (1970)
(37) Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Virtual Space: The Electronic Environments of Mobile Image, International Synergy Journal #1, Gene Youngblood, Electronic Cafe (1986)