Still image: Feedback ExperimentsVideofreex was one of the pioneer production groups that formed when consumer video was first introduced in the late 1960s. Over their nine-plus years together, they produced several thousand videotapes, installations and multimedia events and trained hundreds of videomakers in the brand new video medium.

In 2007, Chicago’s Video Data Bank launched the Videofreex Archive. The archive serves as a comprehensive, searchable source for Videofreex coverage of this unique era of social and cultural change.

The Beginning

The first members of the group met at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 (where the tapes record what happened away from the stage in the muddy temporary counter culture community). Over time there were 10 founding members (David Cort, Parry Teasdale, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, Nancy Cain, Chuck Kennedy, Skip Blumberg, Davidson Gigliotti, Carol Vontobel, Bart Friedman and Ann Woodward (in order of appearance) and perhaps a dozen more people who participated in the collective (not to mention the Hog Farm buses which stayed with them for what seemed like a month).

It was their good fortune in their earliest days in 1969 to be “discovered” by a CBS broadcast TV network executive, Don West, who commissioned them to develop a new kind of TV show that used the brand new portable video format… one that actually told the truth on TV… combining both reality TV (they traveled the country making the first non-fiction videos  focusing their cameras on the alternate culture and interviewing countercultural figures such as Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton) and creative art video techniques (with home-made electronic circuitry inventions). The resulting “live”  and tape pilot, from the Freex half-built Prince Street studio, “The Now Project: Subject to Change”, with a studio audience and live rock band (lead by underground rock legend Buzzy Linhardt), was scorned by CBS and Don West left the network.

From underground to upstate

Freex and kids at the table

Videofreex members sit around the table at Maple Tree Farm.

The group remained together based in their loft studio in the burgeoning Soho neighborhood of NYC, where they built a multi-camera studio and editing room and had weekly underground video screenings. There were frequent collaborations within the downtown community of other earliest videomakers (including Nam June Paik, Shirley Clarke, Raindance, People’s Video Theatre and Global Village) and the alternative culture, avant-garde art and radical political movements of the 70s (including the Black Panther Party and Earth People’s Park) as well as the many other alternative media groups that were sprouting up around the country, including TVTV, the Whole Earth Catalog’s Media Access Center, and Ant Farm (this is what the 1970s were about).

In 1971 they all (plus a dog, 3 cats and a parrot) relocated to Maple Tree Farm, a 17-bedroom former rooming house in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY, which became one of the earliest media centers. With grants to their non-profit corporation, Media Bus, Inc., from the NYS Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as contracts with many educational agencies and the first cable TV public access stations, they were electronic Johnny Appleseeds. With traveling workshops, screenings, multi-media events and community cablecasts, they spread the new medium, first of all because it was fun, but also in efforts to democratize the dominant American mass medium that at that time was controlled by three large corporations.

They also covered their Catskill Mountain hamlet, and in early 1972 they launched the first pirate TV station, Lanesville TV, using a transmitter given to them by Yippee Abbie Hoffman. An exuberant experiment with two-way, interactive broadcasting, LTV used live phone-ins and cameras stretched from the living room studio to the highway, transmitting whatever the active minds of the Freex, coupled with their early video gear, could share with their rural viewers. Their hundreds of pirate Lanesville TV broadcasts were the basis for low-power TV stations later legitimized by the FCC. The LTV videotapes are a record of their upstate collective life and work, their friends and neighbors, the issues they were thinking about, their artistic urges, and the alternative lifestyle they were living.

Breaking creative ground

Still image: Abbie HoffmanWith 10-plus active video artists/producers, the Freex were known for their innovative and sometimes even entertaining video productions with subjects that ranged from rock music, avant-garde performance art, the erotic, circus arts, street demonstrations, and alternative culture, to traditional crafts, behind-the-scenes at national events and travel through foreign countries. Without regard for the status quo of broadcast TV or for independent filmmaking, they strove to find out what was unique to the new medium and passionately broke new creative ground.

Applying the skills and talents of the individual members, they surprisingly lived and worked together for nine years until their love lives, family plans and career goals drifted them apart. The last Videofreex moved out of the Media Center in Lanesville in 1978. Recently, however, the group reformed in order to archive their videotapes and to rejuvenate the myth of their 1970s escapades.

During the near decade that the Freex were together, this pioneer video group amassed  more than 2,000 original 1/2-inch open-reel raw and edited videotapes. In 2001, the Video Data Bank at the Art Institute of Chicago began assembling this unique archive, collecting them from basements and attics where the tapes had been stored for decades, restoring them and now making them available for viewing.

The Videofreex Archive

The Videofreex Archive @VDB.org, launched in 2007, chronicles the beginnings of indy video and the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a unique period in U.S. history, an era of alternatives where anything, including profound social change, seemed possible. The collection also presages MTV, Saturday Night Live, reality TV, YouTube and open source platforms.

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