Feminism and Early Video: Bumps on a Level Playing Field

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Still from Women’s Lib Demonstration, 1970. Courtesy of Video Data Bank.

Recently, I met scholar Deirdre Boyle, to discuss how the Dorsky exhibition can generate more discussion on the Videofreex and early video history. This would continue the momentum that Deirdre initiated with her essential book Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (1997), and more recently as a participant in the SVA symposium We’re All Videofreex: Changing Media and Social Change from Portapak to Smartphone (2013).

Deirdre suggested that the Dorsky and partner organizations offer opportunities to hear first-person accounts from the Freex, perhaps breaking up the Freex into groups and focusing on specific topics for several panel discussions. One topic that comes to mind is feminism and early video history. During the late sixties and early seventies, the playing field was mostly level regardless of gender. Everyone was new to Portapak technology. Deirdre impressed upon me that the Videofreex were the most egalitarian among the collectives. This aligns with an observation by Skip Blumberg (a member of both the Videofreex and TVTV) that although TVTV is often referred to as a collective—a term most people associate with group decision-making and action—it was more of a “hierarchical partnership”.

As part of my research, I was re-reading a transcription of a Videofreex interview (c. 1973) conducted by artist Jud Yalkut for his unpublished manuscript Electronic Zen: The Alternate Video Generation. Skip, Bart Friedman, and Parry Teasdale, who participated in the interview with Yalkut, describe women’s liberation groups as one of several social movements that the Videofreex documented in their early years. The Freex did indeed capture excellent footage of women’s lib rallies in New York, including International Women’s Day and the march on 5th Avenue associated the Women’s Strike for Equality, both in 1970. For whatever reason, no women Freeks were part of this interview.

In that interview, Parry acknowledges that collective members Nancy Cain and Carol Vontobel kept their traditional day jobs working for CBS and “put a lot of bread into the Videofreex” in order to support the collective. Referring to the intermingled nature of living and working, Parry goes on to say, “Like Carol and Nancy, who are both working to a point because in some senses they were asked to be part of and to help support the group, and yet they have this very strong distinction between their 9 to 5 type job and this other thing. It was a tremendous strain on them, and finally Videofreex was able to support us all.”

I’d have to ask Parry now to reflect on this statement from forty years ago, but I think there is some awareness here that despite the level playing field, not all collectives are created equal. It took some time for the women Freex to pursue creative projects independently in Lanesville. For example, fellow Freek Ann Woodward eventually became a professional editor at WNET and Broadway Video after she left Maple Tree Farm.

IMG_2880Skip mentions that Nancy was finishing work on Harriet, a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction starring a Lanesville housewife who frees herself from familial duties and drives off in a car into the distance, and that Carol was editing a tape on her own. I suspect he is referring to Portapak Conversation (1973), a humorous dialogue between a camera and a VTR (video tape recorder) who debate which piece of equipment is most valuable to video production. Both Harriet and A Portapak Conversation were screened at the New York Women’s Video Festival (1972-1980), conceived by artist Steina Vasulka and produced by Susan Milano to address the dearth of work by women in video art.

Other significant Freex tapes exploring gender include Sybil (1970) and Curtis’ Abortion, a personal work by Freex member Mary Curtis Ratcliff to describe her experience at a clinic prior to Roe vs. Wade.

As part of the 2013 Videofreex symposium at the School of Visual Arts, a conversation among the women Freex was posted on the SVA blog. Nancy posits: “If there had not been portable video I don’t think that it would have been possible for women to be equals in the new media. If it had been film, well, film was owned and run by men. It was an established fact that men were the producers and directors and editors and managers in every way and the women were ‘script girls’ and ‘assistants’ and ‘secretaries’. But it wasn’t film. It was video. And no one knew how to do it. We were all beginners.”

Regarding the sisterhood of Freex, Carol goes on to say, “We were not too influenced by any male perspective and really did our own thing. The Videofreex guys were pretty typical of guys of that period and I objected to some of the tapes that were being made that I thought were exploitative. But I didn’t feel that we were hampered in any way from what we wanted to do. 1969 was such a rich interesting time for feminists. It was part of the many revolutions going on and I think the men of Videofreex respected that.”

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The Videofreex, circa 1970, in their Soho loft. Standing (from left): Skip Blumberg, Chuck Kennedy, Davidson Gigliotti, Parry Teasdale, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, and David Cort. Seated (from left): Bart Friedman, Carol Vontobel, Nancy Cain, and Ann Woodward. (Photo: Bill Cox)

I’ll finish this post with a a curiosity I discovered while digging through some of Parry and Carol’s files. I think it captures the anxiety around gender issues that persists today. In this comic strip entitled Maple Tree Funnies—a nod to the Freex home and studio Maple Tree Farm in Lanesville, NY—a male character tells Velvet Vidicon (referring to the photoconducting camera tube) that she should give up on video because it’s “man’s work.” She transforms into superheroine Video Velvet in order to fight injustice. Despite Video Velvet’s act of self-determination, the only words her faithful dog can offer are: “nice tits”.

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9 comments

  1. Thanks for the continuing thoughtful insights!

    One addendum: everybody supported the group financially with loot and gear in the beginning in various ways, of which there were no records nor did we care at the time. For instance, to join the group and share the facilities, I gave everything I had saved from teaching in NYC public school (where I had met Carol then Nancy and ultimately the Freex), giving up my planned Euro tour.

    Also, the structure of the group during StC was a self-contained preamble to the full collective consensus decision-making structure that formed by the end of StC and lasted for the rest of the Freex existence.

    1. Thanks for clarifying, Skip!

    2. i.e. my perspective is that the field was level in those substantial ways… investment and decision-making. Of course the male Freex are in various stages of enlightenment about gender equality, as well as so many of our other prejudices. My impression is that female Freex, each vocal activists, communicate freely and strongly when confronting our dumb male transgressions. (is “dumb” p.c.? probably not).

      1. Parry Teasdale’s reflection in his memoir “Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station and the Catskills Collective that Turned it On” (p. 201) aligns with what you’re saying, Skip: “Videofreex men, on the other hand, behaved like macho knuckle-draggers, assuming our chicks would naturally take subservient roles, letting us make tapes while they typed and helped out when we needed them. That ended for good when we arrived at Lanesville with no master plan for how we would function. Each of us but Chuck had to define his or her job. Artist didn’t count. And out of that chaos, we became an equal opportunity employer of good ideas, with the women producing just as many as the men.”

  2. Nice post. Does anybody remember who made the cartoon–a man or a woman? It makes a difference, no?

  3. Susan Milano · · Reply

    It would be more accurate to say that Steina conceived of the idea of a show/festival featuring the work of women, and asked me if I would be willing to produce it in the Kitchen which she and Woody Vasulka founded, rather than to say that she founded the Women’s Video Festival and I coordinated it. Perhaps a small distinction to the author of that statement, but more true to the spirit of what happened.

    1. Noted, Susan. Thank you

  4. Nancy Cain · · Reply

    Hi Susan!

  5. Davidson · · Reply

    Frances Wyatt, a poet who stayed with us for a time, did the cartoon in question.

    D

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