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 was one of the pioneer production groups that formed when consumer video was first introduced. Over the nine+ years together (1969 -1978), the Freex produced several thousand videotapes, installations and multimedia events and trained hundreds of videomakers in the brand new video medium. They were part of a fast-growing alternative video network that covered the 1970s counter culture and the Movement (actually many political and social movements. Without regard for the rules of broadcast TV or for independent filmmaking, they strived to find out what was unique for the new, separate medium of video and passionately broke new creative ground.
Decades later, the preserved Videofreex early videotapes capture this unique era of social and cultural change from inside, with a fresh directness and utopian ethic that are appealing to today’s audiences.
The first members of the group met at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 (where their tapes record what happened away from the stage in the muddy temporary counter culture community). 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). Dozens more members later participated in collaborative projects.
It was their good fortune after only a few months together to be “discovered” by a CBS broadcast TV network executive, Don West, who commissioned the group to develop a new kind of TV show that used the brand new portable video format. Funded by CBS, the Freex traveled the country producing the first indy videos, with cameras focused on the alternate culture and radical politics. The resulting pilot, “Subject to Change,” combined edited tape segments with a live studio audience and rock band (lead by underground rock legend Buzzy Linhardt) in the Freex half-built Prince Street NYC studio. The December 1969 show was scorned by high CBS programming executives, who watched the production in the loft next door, as “years ahead of its time,” and Don West left the network.
From underground to upstate
The group remained together based in their studio in the burgeoning Soho neighborhood of NYC, with a multi-camera studio and editing room and weekly underground video screenings (in the fifth floor walk up). There were frequent collaborations within the downtown community of other earliest videomakers (including Nam June Paik and Shirley Clarke), as well as the many other video groups that were sprouting up around the world, including Raindance, Global Village, People’s Video Theater, TVTV, and Ant Farm.
In 1971 they all (plus a dog, 4 cats and a parrot) relocated to Maple Tree Farm, a 27-room former rooming house in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY, where they operated one of the earliest production and educational media centers.
In 1972, taking advantage of the special quality of the medium to broadcast live, they launched a pirate television station, Lanesville TV, “probably America’s smallest TV station.” An exuberant two-way interactive experiment, LTV presented videotaped segments, live phone-ins from viewers, and cameras that stretched from the living room studio to the highway, transmitted to their rural viewers. Their hundreds of pirate Lanesville TV shows were the basis for low-power TV stations that, as a result of their report, later was legitimized by the FCC.
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 travelled around the world performing workshops, screenings, multi-media events and community cablecasts.T hey were electronic Johnny Appleseeds, who spread the new medium as a creative medium, and modern-day Davids who aimed to democratize the dominant mass medium that at that time had only three national channels controlled by three Goliath corporations.
Breaking creative ground
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, and alternative culture, to behind-the-scenes at mainstream national events, traditional crafts, and travel through foreign countries.
Today Videofreex would be called a “start up” and the Freex “early users.” Maple Tree Farm, was an “incubator.” They didn’t invent the medium, but they were there first to explore it. They were among the first to carry around video cameras all the time, recording their lives as they happened, which is commonplace now (we’re all Videofreex). They preceded YouTube, music videos, reality TV, docu-dramas, Saturday Night Live, fake news, and outrageous home videos. Their activist and artistic work has been carried forward by the live streamers of current protest movements, citizen journalists, indy filmmakers, and digital artists around the world.
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 moved out of the Media Center in Lanesville in 1978.
The Videofreex Archive
Early in the twenty-first century, the 10 Videofreex partners reformed in order to archive 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 from storage the tapes that had been on their shelves in the Prince Street studio and Maple Tree Farm, restoring them, and making them available for viewing in museums, schools, libraries, home video and on-line. With solid support by VDB, the Videofreex Archive will continue into the future to be an insiders’ historic 1970s alternate culture time capsule.
The year 2015 became the year of the Videofreex with the release of the feature documentary, Here Come the Videofreex by Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin, the Videofreex Pirate TV Show produced by the Freex themselves, and the 22-week, three-gallery retrospective, “Videofreex: The Art of Guerrilla Television,” at the Dorsky Museum of Art.
Stay in touch with Freex news, screenings and public appearances on www.Videofreex.com.
WE’RE ALL VIDEOFREEX: CHANGING MEDIA & SOCIAL CHANGE FROM PORTAPAK TO SMARTPHONE, by Davidson Gigliotti