Videofreex, start-up since 1969, was among the first video pioneers, spreading the new technology, producing thousands of video tapes about the utopian 1970s, multi-media events, video art installations, and a pirate TV station!
Contact: Skip Blumberg info[at]Videofreex.com
The Freex are the most production oriented of the video groups… in terms of finished, cleanly edited, high quality tape, which is generally quite entertaining, the Videofreex are clearly the best. – Michael Shamberg, Guerrilla Television, 1971, Holt, Rhinehart, & Winston
Videofreex, a start-up since 1969, was one of the pioneer indy production groups of early users that formed when consumer video was first introduced. Over their nine years together, the members produced several thousand videotapes, installations and multimedia events, and trained hundreds of videomakers in the brand new medium. They were part of a fast-growing alternative video network that captured many political and social movements and the counter culture. Decades later, the Freex early videotapes serve as a window into this unique era of social and cultural change.
The first two members of the group met at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. Tapes from that time reveal what happened away from the stage in the muddy temporary counter-culture city of more than 400,000 rock ’n’ roll fans.
Over the first year, there were 10 founding members (David Cort, Parry Teasdale, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, Nancy Cain, Chuck Kennedy, Davidson Gigliotti, Skip Blumberg, Carol Vontobel, Bart Friedman and Ann Woodward) and dozens more who participated in collaborative projects.
It was the good fortune of the Videofreex in their earliest days in 1969 to be “discovered” by a CBS TV network executive. Don West, a special assistant to President Frank Stanton, 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 seminal techniques from reality TV to creative art video (with home-made electronic circuitry inventions) to cover their counter-culture from inside. With additional crew, the Freex traveled the country in an RV rented by CBS, recording the first non-fiction videos, focusing their cameras on the alternate culture and interviewing cultural and political leaders, such as Yippie Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Fred Hampton. The resulting “live” and tape pilot, “The Now Project” a.k.a. “Subject to Change,” had a studio audience and live rock band (lead by studio rock legend Buzzy Linhardt) in the Freex half-built Prince Street NYC studio. The show, seen in the loft next door by 5 CBS high (in the corporate ladder) programming executives, was scorned by them (with an expletive) as too radical and “years ahead of its time.” Don West left the network and returned to his previous job as the broadcast industry magazine’s editor, with some acrimony towards the Freex, and the “Now Project” was over.
But the group was launched, staying together adding production crew from the show. Based in their loft studio in the burgeoning Soho NYC artists’ neighborhood, 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) as well as the many other groups that were sprouting up around the world, including TVTV, the Whole Earth Catalog’s Media Access Center, and Ant Farm. They were part of alternative culture, the rock music scene (including doing the first rock concert projections), avant-garde art, the environmental movement, and peace, civil rights, gender rights, civil justice and other radical political movements of the 1960s and 70s.
In 1971 they all (plus a dog, 3 cats and a parrot) relocated to Maple Tree Farm, a 27-room former rooming house in the upstate NY Catskill Mountains, which became one of the earliest leading edge technology incubators and among the first independent media centers.
As an extension of their consensus organizational methods, it was natural for them to collaborate on videos with their friends and neighbors in their Catskill Mountain hamlet, despite initial hostility towards the outsiders. In early 1972 they launched a pirate television station, Lanesville TV, “probably America’s smallest TV station.” An exuberant experiment in two-way interactive broadcasting, LTV used live phone-ins from viewers and cameras stretched from the parlor room studio to the highway, transmitting whatever the curious 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 remaining are a record of their upstate collective rural life and their experiments with live TV.
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 educational agencies and early cable TV public access channels, they were electronic Johnny Appleseeds, spreading the new medium with traveling workshops, screenings, multi-media events and community cablecasts. It was fun to play with the new electronic tool. But also it was an effort to democratize the dominant American mass medium of both news and entertainment, which at that time had only three national channels, each controlled by a large corporation.
With 10 active video artists/producers supplemented by dozens of friends and colleagues, the Freex were known for their innovative and even entertaining video productions with subjects that ranged from rock music, avant-garde performance art, the erotic, circus arts, street demonstrations, traditional crafts, and alternative culture, to behind-the-scenes at national mainstream events and travel through foreign countries. Without regard for the rules of broadcast TV or for independent 16mm filmmaking, they strived to find out what was unique to the new and separate medium of video, and passionately broke new creative ground.
The 10 individuals lived and worked together for nine years until their love lives, family plans and career goals drifted them apart. The last Videofreex left Lanesville in 1978.
During the near decade together, this pioneer video group amassed more than 2,000 original 1/2-inch and one-inch open-reel raw and edited videotapes that chronicle the beginnings of independent video and the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
This archive also documents their innovative accomplishments of the 1970s that were precursors to our digital age… portable video production, crowd sourcing, start ups, incubators, reality TV, TED talks, video diaries, travel videos, how-to videos, music videos, cat videos, experimental abstract videos, erotic videos, interactive live television, behind-the-lines video coverage, solo camcorder journalists, low power television, rock concert projections, posting videos (literally with the USPS), sketch comedy, broadcast TV parodies, etc.
Early in the twenty-first century, the 10 Videofreex partners reformed in order to archive and distribute their videotapes and to rejuvenate the myth of their 1970s escapades.
Beginning in 2001 and launched in 2007, the Videofreex Archive at Video Data Bank of the Art Institute of Chicago re-assembled the archive, collecting the tapes that had been on their shelves in the Prince Street studio and Maple Tree Farm, from closets, basements and attics where the tapes had been stored for decades, restoring them, digitizing them, and making them available for viewing.
With solid support by VDB, the Videofreex Archive as well as www.Videofreex.com and other web presence will continue into the future to be a historic 1970s time capsule and the lasting legacy of the Videofreex.
Books/Publications by Videofreex
Video Days and What We Saw Through the Viewfinder by Nancy Cain, 2011
Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station by Parry Teasdale, 1999
“Micro-TV Service in the U.S.” (Federal Communications Commission) by Parry Teasdale, 1980
Spaghetti City Video Manual by Videofreex, 1973
“Cooperstown TV is a Museum,” by The Videofreex, 1973
Books/Publications about Videofreex
Journal of Film and Video double issue on early video, Vol. 64, No. 1-2, Spring/Summer 2012
Videofreex: The Art of Guerilla Television (exhibition catalogue) by Daniel Belasco, Tom Colley, Andrew Ingall, Dave Jones, Sara Pasti, David Ross and Videofreex “Freexback” essays, 2015
Subject to Change by Deirdre Boyle, 1997
“Videofreex,” Talk of the Town, New Yorker, 1971
“The Video Underground,” Chloe Aaron, Art in America, May/June 1971
WE’RE ALL VIDEOFREEX: CHANGING MEDIA & SOCIAL CHANGE FROM PORTAPAK TO SMARTPHONE, by Davidson Gigliotti