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a closer look / hidden histories

a closer look

A CLOSER LOOK 2005 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of NAMAC as a national organization serving independent media. We invited seven authors to look back at some of the “hidden histories” of the field: from underrecognized artists, collaborations and collectives, to organizations and intentional media communities. These creative clusters, found throughout the country, have embodied the dynamic spirit and vision of this media movement that continues to gain energy from – and exists in key dialogue with – issues of identity and race, marks of regionality, processes of tool and technology exploration, and the artifacts of mediated communication scattered throughout the environments we inhabit. The anthology opens up a field of inquiry for a new generation that may know very little about the artists, the organizations, or the times in which the media arts, as a self-described field, began developing and growing in cultural influence. Delving into perspectives about these subjects that only the long view backward can offer, the authors map a wide range of activities from a twenty-first century point of view, and look at how these transmissions from the past remain more than relevant today as our media environments change at warp speed. What are the lineages and patterns of practice that, when reexamined, have fresh significance for the concerns facing artists and organizations? These histories are strong reminders that uncertainty, playfulness and openness to unpredictability are part of the effort of making media. The driving forces surrounding the subjects that these authors explore may have changed over the years, but the questions they amplify re-emerge in new ways as creative generations overlap and eventually succeed one another.


NAMAC 2005

published by


The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) is the national service organization for the media arts field. Our mission is to: •s  trengthen the influence of media arts organizations, making them an integral part of their communities; • f acilitate the support of independent media artists from all cultural communities and geographic regions; • integrate media into all levels of education and advocate for media literacy as an educational goal; • promote socially responsible uses of and individual access to current and future media technologies; • e ncourage media arts that are rooted in local communities, as well as those that are global in outlook.

NAMAC fulfills the fundamental purpose of building and strengthening the field’s infrastructure by providing services in the areas of organ­izational and leadership develop­­­ment, convening the field, research and policy, and encouraging public awareness of independent media. Our programs include leadership institute training for media organization leaders; capacitybuilding grant assistance for organizational development; a biennial national conference and quarterly regional convenings which bring together independent media producing participants to share information, identify issues, and initiate projects aimed at advancing the field; current research and information sharing through our website, publications, quarterly reports and weekly electronic bulletins; and collaborative efforts with peer organizations to advocate for the interests of the media arts field in cultural and telecommunications policymaking. The Youth Media Initiative gathers and disseminates research about youth media programs and practices nationwide. Collectively, NAMAC’s members provide a wide range of services in support of independent media, including education, production, exhibition, distribution, collection-building, preservation, criticism, and general advocacy. Our members include media arts centers, production facilities, university-based programs, community technology centers, museums, film festivals, media distributors, film archives, after-school programs, community access TV stations, and individuals working in the field. Combined, these organizations serve approximately 400,000 artists and other media professionals nationwide. The field’s independent producers, who work outside the commercial telecommunications industry, offer Americans a vital alternative to the mainstream media. NAMAC’s member organizations help them overcome tremendous barriers in order to bring personal visions and community-based perspectives to the media-watching public.


145 Ninth Street, Suite 250 San Francisco, California 94103 T. 415 431 1391 F. 415 431 1392 E. W.

Supported by

Series Editor

Hidden Histories Co-Editor




This publication may not be reproduced without prior permission from NATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR MEDIA ARTS AND CULTURE 145 Ninth Street, Suite 250 San Francisco, CA 94103 T. 415 431 1391 F. 415 431 1392 © 2005 NATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR MEDIA ARTS AND CULTURE ISBN 0-9763403-0-5 A CLOSER LOOK annual media arts anthology series is supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

To order NAMAC publications visit email call 415.431.1391

Designed by NOON:





Introduction Helen De Michiel, Series Editor



Introduction Kathy High, Co-Editor



Reconnecting the Histories of Live Multimedia Performance Patricia R. Zimmermann


Film History and “Film History”:

Exhibition and American Academe—One Academic’s Story Scott MacDonald


SWAMP Roots:

The Origins of Southwest Alternate Media Project and the Development of a Texas Film Community Mary M. Lampe


Secrets in the Archives:

Hidden Stories, Necessary Releases Melinda Stone, in conversation with Andrew Lampert and Rick Prelinger


Visions and Hindsights:

Seattle’s and/or Alternative Art Space 1974-1984 Robin Oppenheimer


Radical Learning, Radical Perception:

The History of the Experimental Television Center Kathy High, Ralph Hocking, and Sherry Miller Hocking


Electrocultures Erika Dalya Muhammad





Helen De Michiel

1. WHEN I sit in meetings concerned with national media policy, global media reorganization, media reform, or intellectual property and copyright issues, or in briefings on technologies that promise to drive new terms of innovation, an expert will usually refer in passing to “content” and “content providers”—as if the creators of film, video, television, games, the Internet, or whatever motion media platform is being discussed can be neatly contained in a box and brought out only when needed to fill up the pipelines. People who create or support the work at the point closest to the ground and who give public meaning to its shapes are usually absent from these particular discussions, little known, less understood, and generally avoided in the context of these larger systemic issues. The language of the imagination and the articulation of how different groups of media creators (including artists, curators, programmers, funders, technologists, and writers) actively participate in shaping the media landscape are challenging to insert into dialogues where the task is to engineer a contingent yet useful sense of order around these large and unruly issues.


It is often at this point in a particular meeting that I start daydreaming about how I got there—why I was invited and what I have to offer—because I am a practitioner shaped by the media arts landscape both intimately on an experiential level and panoramically, on a social scale. I look through a lens that scans a field layered with new and old structures constantly being built from scratch and obsessively rebuilt by artists and tinkerers enthralled by the visual arts, sculpture, art criticism, political activism, cultural theory, music, performance, or theater and who carry their passions to the moving-image medium. I think about what I want to bring to these discussions—questions and examples about how creators, and the strategies they discover to reach audiences and sustain their work in public, are central to the biggest and seemingly most intractable questions of media change and upheaval we are now facing. The questions stem from a simple belief that change and innovation come from the margins, and in ways that are utterly unpredictable yet profoundly transformative, especially when they are reconsidered, remixed, and reflowed throughout new contexts of understanding. I recall what I know of the scattered histories of this outer “arts” region of the media world and its ephemeral, fleeting nature—almost invisible in our zeal to see what may come up in the next fifteen minutes of technological seduction. I always want to learn more and to know it from those who lived it, thought about it, and worked it, because from my point of view, the panorama of American media arts practice over the last thirty years is not yet understood fully or deeply. The effort to frame and connect this work—which can often feel both remote yet still contemporary— into the larger picture of social- and cultural-change movements of the late twentieth century is only beginning to find new interest. I don’t think we have yet begun to figure out the significance of the media arts in the greater movements for self-determination and access to tools and distribution systems. Many of these histories are still hidden or temporarily forgotten, with documents and media materials stashed in boxes, closets, and a warren of facilities or archives to which they have migrated. The actual media works may be trapped in co-dependency with aging viewing technologies that are getting harder and more costly to maintain. Depending on your generation—even if you have cared to pay attention, excavate the archives, or talk with the artists whose work may be difficult to find for viewing—you may know mostly only little bits and pieces of these histories. How does this past still speak to us today?


When I asked Kathy High, artist, writer, teacher, and publisher of the video art journal Felix, to join me in co-organizing the 2005 edition of A Closer Look, we had been talking about clearing a space in which to reconsider artistic exploration as it unfolded among clusters of media makers who were (and still are) developing organizations and public spaces to facilitate the emergence of an alternative language of motion media, a language that would prove to have a quickly evolving array of dialects and idioms, forms and approaches. It would be a process of reconsideration that seemed right for this moment as media breaks out from its traditional presentation formats and moves into iPods, mobile phones, and other emerging technologies and screening venues. For this issue, which marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of NAMAC as a national organization serving the media arts field, we put out a call to our members and supporters to write about collectives, communities, and collaborations that embody the spirit of a movement that has gained energy from—and always existed in a key dialogue with—issues of race and identity, marks of regionality, processes of tool exploration and the forms these tools trigger, and the artifacts of mediated communication scattered throughout the environments we inhabit. Historically, the spirit of the media arts has been to push back, to question, to ask the tough questions, to chip away at the rules that say something can’t be done, and to make work or


construct processes while the critical investigation is going on. Although it comes at a great price, that is why independents choose to be independents, working alone or in small collaboratives, in nonprofits, or in academic environments where they can be free to succeed or fail on their own terms. The media arts flourish and gain traction where there has been hospitality from an enthusiastic base of funders and audiences. These two important vectors of the scene are by no means stable and have been coming and going since the field acquired a name for itself in the 1970s. With generous (by today’s standards) local, state, and national funding, along with foundations willing to commit resources to advance media organizations that were incubating new works and new programs, a burgeoning energy magnetized in the 1970s and 80s around nonprofit media arts centers, community exhibition programs, and distribution entities. Boundaries between groups, institutions, and venues were permeable as they were in the process of being defined, and experiments in organizational structures as well as media-making practices exploded. With more funding available, artists were able to tour, present their work on a rapidly developing circuit, and create new pieces in multiple locations, both nationally and internationally. It was not always necessary for adventurous artists to confine themselves to one genre. In the 1980s, Bill Viola’s single-channel video works were distributed through Electronic Arts Intermix to non-theatrical buyers, his work was broadcast on the PBS series Alive From Off Center, and he was creating site-specific video installations in museums. Today, platforms, niches, and defining disciplines are solidifying, and compartments are neatly erected. Since the traditional sources of arts funding, beginning In the 1990s, have turned elsewhere, the nonprofit media arts sector is in the midst of a period of broad redefinition and restructuring. And as technologies, viewing platforms, and virtual networks evolve at ridiculous speeds, and generational, political, and cultural identities churn in categoric flux, media makers, too, are being forced to choose to work in specific genres: Are you a documentarian or an indie narrative filmmaker? Are you positioning yourself in the rarified world of the museum’s white cube to be an installation video artist? Does you work exist only online, or in digital conference presentations? Are you okay with a small but devoted influential audience, or are you still hoping for a large public to see your work exhibited on a big screen, or broadcast and in eternal DVD release? And how will you be able to support your media-related activities and make work over the long term? The articles we have chosen to include here cannot, by any means, represent a comprehensive view of the range of histories of the media arts field. They are simply what we have today—an eclectic grouping of voices, passions, and concerns. The authors open up a field of inquiry for a new generation that may know very little about the organizations, times, and artists profiled, and they delve into perspectives about these subjects that only the long view backward can offer. By mapping these activities from a twenty-first-century perspective, they point toward the work that still needs to be done on other histories and chronicles that are missing from our collective body of knowledge. We realized that the histories of the media arts are not easily explained in linear fashion. They are slippery, ephemeral, messy, multicultural, hybrid, and three-dimensional—layers upon layers that may touch one another at moments but that also remain discretely separate or related to other creative or technological disciplines. What makes this collection unusual is that the essays are written by individuals who, as artists, organizational directors, scholars, and programmers, are directly participating in the field as it is developing today, and who have a stake in seeing it expand its centrality in the culture at large. It is thinking from the inside out, rather than the other way around.



Reconsider, remix, reflow from the past into the future. The thread that runs through the subjects of all these essays is that of creating dynamic communities and making welcoming places where the artist can be emboldened to try out new ideas or new processes and to break out of the rigid patterns of conventional media storytelling structures. From explorations in self-expression to political message-making in these stories, we see the beginnings of participatory media interactivity. Whenever tools have become available, artists have flocked to try them out, creating a back-and-forth or give-and-take in which the artist refines the tool and, in turn, the medium opens up an increasing range of expressive or storytelling possibilities.

Reconsider, remix, reflow from the past into the future. The thread that runs through the subjects of all these essays is that of creating dynamic communities and making welcoming places where the artist can be emboldened to try out new ideas or new processes and to break out of the rigid patterns of conventional media storytelling structures.

The past is full of materials and questions still unresolved, especially as relates to older practices that shade the work of today. From an alternative perspective, these histories set the stage for thinking about how media can open up a liberating dialogue: for the individual artist herself, with the tools and artifacts of creation, and for the community of creators and the public seeing and responding to the work. Ultimately, these histories open onto the question of how the whole process transforms society and culture in a larger way.

When Patricia Zimmermann looks at the wide historical range of multimedia performance, she takes us from the beginnings of cinema to the farthest new frontiers of locative media experiments, tracing how programmers and artists are continually mining the archives to break down the barriers erected by participants, by tools, and by the screens that either isolate us or bring us together in shared communal experience. Scott MacDonald considers his cinematic coming-of-age in a memoir that confronts the challenges of the present. What is the role of the film historian in developing new publics for the classic works of “critical cinema,” and how can that work be kept alive for new generations? The role of regional media organizations as mediators and incubators between artists and the public is explored by Mary Lampe in her chronicle of the unusual history of the Southwest Alternate Media Project in Houston, its visionary founders, and the exchanges that occurred as cinephilia took root and opened out into the Texas landscape. Robin Oppenheimer brings back to life Seattle’s multidisciplinary art space and/or (1974–84), a fluid and influential environment that reveled in experimentation and ephemerality and that still offers a vital legacy for current alternative multimedia arts practices. Ralph Hocking, Sherry Hocking, and Kathy High reconsider the history of the Experimental Television Center in Owego, New York. ETC nurtured the beginnings of video art and should be considered one of the original ‘open source’ environments in which artists, technologists, engineers, and researchers were able to come together to explore, share, and learn about tools and processes in a friendly, laboratory-like space dedicated to freedom of artistic expression and unswervingly committed to “processing and processes.” In a roundtable e-mail discussion, Melinda Stone, Andrew Lampert, and Rick Prelinger investigate the role of the secret archive in encouraging the ongoing public relevance of works and in sparking the rediscovery of hidden materials by new viewers. What power does “lost film” have? “Access is our highest calling as archivists,” says Rick Prelinger. But what are the tensions and balancing acts that arise between hiding films for preservation and collection purposes, on the one hand, and opening them up to access for the public to rediscover and enjoy or for media makers to use for remix? Erika Dalya Muhammad opens up vast new terrains of inquiry when she traces “electrocultures,” the underecognized lineages of artists of color who continue to reshape digital culture and ideas of race, gender, and multiculturism as they converge in hip-hop practice and cut-and-mix culture.



It is an expansive landscape that moves freely and expressively from new digital exhibition and performance spaces to virtual online worlds that touch and play with the tropes of current popular culture, reasserting, again, for a new generation the idea of visual media as a process rather than an object or product. These histories are strong reminders that uncertainty and unpredictability are part of the effort of making media that communicates to others while often mysteriously harnessing moments of collective expression and consciousness. The force fields surrounding the subjects these authors tackle may have changed over the years, but the questions they amplify re-emerge in new ways as the generations overlap and eventually overcome one another. In organizing this issue of A Closer Look, we hope to trigger a multi-generational transmission of ideas, to examine the exchange of lineages and patterns of practice that, when re-interpreted, have newfound significance for the concerns we face now, both as makers and as organizations. And we want these transmissions to continue, deepening back and forth as we try to help the multiple histories of this field to be told, debated, and reconsidered.









was a (possibly fictional) pirate community formed in the late 1600s by a Captain Mission, in Madagascar. There the pirates constructed “a purely socialist society in which private property is abolished and all wealth held in a common treasury.” There was even a new language, “a mélange of French, English, Dutch, Portuguese.” This renegade culture, developed as a haven for “outlaws,” included a mix of races, both exiles and natives, creating a cross-cultural community that was non-hierarchical, egalitarian, and idealist—as Peter Lamborn Wilson described it, “a pirate utopia.”1 In introducing the texts of Hidden Histories, I would like to embrace this utopian idea of pirate renegades creating intentional communities and controlling the conditions by which they live and extend it to those revolutionary moments in our own media arts histories as models of what Hakim Bey has called “temporary autonomous zones”— places and moments in which radical actions and creation occur outside of the constrictions of societal norms and cultural controls.2 These are zones in which pirate media renegades can create, invent, and incubate in the space of a generative moment.



I don’t think things happen by accident. I settled in New York State and have lived here for thirty-four years, since I was seventeen years old. I thought I was following the money—New York has been one of the only states that has actively funded the arts since the beginning of the sixties. In 1961, the New York State Legislature created the New York State Council on the Arts. In 1969, the NYSCA Film Program became the Film and Television Program and began accepting applications for electronic media projects. But there was something else that attracted me to the state: upstate New York has a rich history of intentional communities, utopian pursuits of collective effort that have risen and fallen over time and given birth to many remarkable instances of creativity. In the nineteenth century utopian moments occurred in Oneida with the Perfectionist community, in New Lebanon and Albany with the Shakers, near Buffalo with the Lilydale Assembly Spiritualist community. There was also the first major women’s rights conference, held at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott presented the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions (modeled after the American Declaration of Independence), proclaiming the need for the equality of women with men and calling for the first time for women’s right to vote. Fast forward about one hundred years, where in upstate New York the first museum program of video art was established at the Everson Museum, in Syracuse (begun by David Ross in 1971 and continued by Richard Simmons), one of the first video synthesizer design sites was launched at the Experimental Television Center (run by Ralph Hocking with Dave Jones), the first university program devoted to combined practice and theory of media arts was initiated at the Center for Media Study and Media Study/Buffalo, and radical video collectives began to operate in the state, like the Videofreex. These energetic, temporary autonomous zones also have been marked by a rich history and by the rise and fall of bursts of creative energy emerging from utopian ideals. The reader will forgive my musings and meanderings here, for I am sure similar historical tracings can be found in many other places throughout the country. But these New York communities serve as a useful example of the kinds of historical connections that exist among the various experimental utopian moments the United States has seen: during middle of the nineteenth century, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, and during the 1960s and 1970s. I am interested here in the generative moments that lie behind these communities, the similarities between “mediums,” and their ultimate goals. I mention energy as one of the hallmarks of these moments since we are dealing with electronic media and sound waves, and with transmissions between periods in history and among generations. Oneida ‘s Perfectionist community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848. Noyes believed that “man [was] able to live without sin in his life if he [was] in the perfect environment,” and he tried to establish that perfect environment in one of the most successful utopian communes in history. For approximately thirty years, the Perfectionists lived in a gigantic group union—what Noyes called a “complex marriage”—in which all men were to be married to all women. This form of free love (which included more than two hundred people at the end) was intended to promote love and loyalty to the group and the sharing of property, exchanging the small home, nuclear family, and individual possessions in favor of the larger unit of group-family life.3 In 1879 the community abandoned its original ideals and Noyes fled to Canada. It was in 1848 as well that the Spritualism movement was founded in Rochester, where the Fox sisters were in communication with spirits. The Lilydale Assembly, a separatist Spiritualist community, was founded in 1879 near Elmira, just south of Buffalo. This intentional community, formed as a radical branch of the Quakers, is known for communicating with the dead, acting as mediums, and channeling such things as medical diagnoses, political speeches, and diatribes against slavery while in a hypnotic trance. Spiritualists were often criticized for practicing “free love” and supporting both progressive women’s rights and abolitionist teachings. In the close connection between mysticism and social idealism, they explored radical religious and social reform. The



first woman who ran for U.S. President was in fact a Spritualist; Victoria Woodhull declared her candidacy in 1871, forming a new political party, the “People’s Convention,” and was nominated in Troy, New York, by suffragists, socialists, and Spritualists. (Many women at that time spoke publicly for the first time by channeling male historic figures.) 4 Historian Robert Hine defined a utopian colony as consisting of: “… a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody which vision in experimental form. The purpose is usually to create a model that other colonies and eventually mankind in general will follow.” 5 From Perfectionist communities to video collectives, these groups emerge, as Hakim Bey wrote, as separated revolutionary clusters, which are temporary. That is to say, they come and go. There is a flaring of energy, a power surge, and then they fizzle out. During these revolutionary moments, when uprisings occur and new alliances are formed, new extended families are created. And when people come together because of similar psychic needs and interests there is also the creation of a place where productive learning occurs, invention is encouraged, and new languages arise. Many such examples of media arts groups existed in this upstate area—perhaps feeding off the energies and histories of these radical intentional communities. Media Study/Buffalo was founded in 1972 by Gerald O’Grady, coexisting with its educational counterpart, the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Here, media artists practiced their art and theory together, sharing resources, crossing disciplines, trading media skills. O’Grady embraced the need for what he called “mediacy,” or a form of media literacy. “It’s a political issue: one cannot participate in society unless one can use the channels or codes of communication that are current in the time that one lives.”6 O’Grady brought together some of the leading media practitioners of his time, including filmmakers Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, and James Blue, and video artists Woody and Steina Vasulka. There were also various New York City video collectives that fled upstate in New York to create a more utopian situation. Paul Ryan of the Raindance Corporation moved to New Paltz in 1971, and in 1973 conceived of a utopian community of ecological videomakers called Earthscore: The idea was to configure an intentional community of thirty-six videomakers. Each videomaker was to be part of three different triads. The first triad was to care for its members, the second to take care of the business of supporting a community, and the third to produce video interpretations of ecological systems. My intuition was that if self-correcting teams of three people could be stabilized, a leaderless, thriving community could be stabilized. …I wanted to start a non-celibate, aesthetic order capable of interpreting ecological systems with video that would be as sturdy and long lasting as 7 the ascetic order of the monastic tradition I had experienced. The Videofreex likewise moved from New York City to Lanesville, New York, in the Catskills, to form a video community in 1971.8 This group was involved with shooting videotapes of countercultural events, teaching technology, and creating video tools. They published The Spaghetti City Video Manual, which served as a training guide and illustrated the workings of the guts of VCR equipment. They operated an editing room for the use of artists and video producers and founded a tiny pirate broadcast TV station, Lanesville TV. This group of radical activists, who documented events such as the antiwar movement, Woodstock, the Chicago 7, and the Black Panthers, worked together until the late 1970s, when they dispersed. These “intentional media communities” formed in the 1960s and 1970s along with other media arts organizations across New York State. They involved media arts practices that were unstratified and non-hierarchical, and followed nineteenth-century utopian tenets regarding the egalitarian



distribution of goods and conducting work one enjoys while contributing to the good of the community, emphasizing individualism and creativity and often practicing open sexual expression. All were examples of those synergistic moments that allow for the creation of small groups of people who want to work together to make new communities, new alliances. It is an impulse that has continued to transmute into new projects such as DIY, residency programs, communal laboratories, collectives, participatory Web networks, and other utopian media ventures.

It is important for us to explore and share these histories, in tandem with the people who lived them, so that we might understand a bit more about the contexts that give rise to these kinds of creative events. This project with NAMAC is only the beginning. There are histories and stories that need to be collected now that will help to define and diversify the history of media art.

It is important for us to explore and share these histories, in tandem with the people who lived them, so that we might understand a bit more about the contexts that give rise to these kinds of creative events. This project with NAMAC is only the beginning. There are histories and stories that need to be collected now that will help to define and diversify the history of media art. There are many more recent histories that also need to be mined.

At a recent conference held at Banff, called Refresh!, it became obvious that the history of new media art has not been a common one: there is no one through-line, no single track. Because of the multiplicity of contributors and technologies (factors that continue to grow) and the broad definition of terms like “new media,” no summary has been made at this point. At the end of the 1980s, with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bilinear Western history as we know it came crashing down as well. We need to create a new understanding of our histories with many entry points, and with an eye to the renegades and “pirate utopias” that operated within them. I thank Helen De Michiel for shepherding through this volume of Hidden Histories and for her vision in leading NAMAC, which I hope will continue to expand this kind of historical work in the future.

NOTES: 1. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 1995). 2. Hakim Bey, T.A.Z: The. Temporary Autonomous Zone, Onotological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, 2nd ed. (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Autonomedia, 2003). 3. See 4. See Ann Braude, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989). 5. Robert V. Hine (1953), quoted in George L. Hicks, “Utopian Problems and Explanations,” 6. O’Grady quoted in Karen Mooney, “Gerald O’Grady: The Perspective from Buffalo,” Videoscope 1, no. 2 (1977). 7. Paul Ryan, Video Journey Through Utopia, 8. The Videofreex consisted of Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, David Cort, Bart Friedman, Davidson Gigliotti, Chuck Kennedy, Mary Curtis Ratcliff, Parry Teasdale, Carol Vontobel, and Ann Woodward. See Davidson Gigliotti, “Video History Project,”





LIVE! Reconnecting the Histories of Live Multimedia Performance PATRICIA R. ZIMMERMANN

Tony Conrad in performance with his violin. Courtesy: Tony Conrad.

THE materiality of the archive—texts, artifacts, and documents— drives film and media history, as evidentiary traces of the past become quilted together to form patterns, connections, explanations. For professional academic historians, archival records are never complete nor totalized. Archival absences—not enough early cinema saved, amateur films waiting to be recovered—often loom larger than the subject of study itself. Lost films, deteriorating images, abandoned records, and silences mark our media arts histories. The political urgency of the archive can be mapped in these gaps and fissures: the structuring out of the marginal and the inchoate, the chaotic and the untameable, practices that refuse the rules and therefore reveal the most about the disruptions of historical processes.1 Over the last twenty years, the history of film and media (often referred to as the “new film history”) has moved from the analysis of existing evidence to the recovery of lost archival objects and categories that expand the archive and rethink what it privileges and marginalizes. The past is never inert nor nostalgic but always interacts with the present and the future, looking backward and forward simultaneously in endless recombinations and mutations. The questions we ask of history should not be reduced to what happened when; rather, the past demands questions of how and why: questions of significance, not linear progression and causality. Contemporary historiographic theory rejects the idea of the causal chain and instead has adopted the notion of the collage, where different temporalities and categories of evidence are remixed into new combinations to provoke new explanatory models and new connections.2



The image centers all of this historical work, defining the contours and scope of media histories. Live multimedia performance, in this context, presents a complex historiographic problem because it is not located solely in the realm of the image. First, it is largely absent from most film and media histories, most likely because it is ephemeral, fleeting, rarely documented—an archival impossibility. Second, its multiple artistic and political practices are dispersed across and then folded into histories defined by somewhat more unified fields, such as fine art, theater, performance art, avant-garde cinema, video art, contemporary experimental music, hip hop, digital media. Third, it presents a spatialized and environmental rather than a time-based practice, a different set of historiographic locations and concerns defined more by participant ethnographies and oral histories rather than archival documents, artifacts, and texts. These historiographic conundrums and unified categories have perhaps in some ways contributed to the absence of live multimedia performance from our histories of media. Or maybe our histories of media have focused too much on fixed textual practices and documents, thereby overlooking a range of performative political interventions that figure mediation as fluid, moving, malleable interactions with audiences and performers.3 A preliminary excavation into live multimedia performance has the possibility to shift the ground of media histories from the image to constructed, interactive environments and infiltration of different spaces that emphasize not individual artistry but collaboration.4

As an immersive experience based on conceptual ideas and pleasure, the multiplication of formats, images, music, and interfaces to create new social spaces moves our thinking about media away from the image alone.

In a period in which people feel isolated from one another and in which media have become both miniaturized and domesticated in the home, the hidden history of live multimedia performance provides a way to rethink media tactics. As an immersive experience based on conceptual ideas and pleasure, the multiplication of formats, images, music, and interfaces to create new social spaces moves our thinking about media away from the image alone. As the dominant commercialized practices of the digital disembody, isolate, disconnect, and desensitize, the layered histories of live multimedia performance suggest that gatherings of people are still important, that total immersive experiences predate the Internet, and that embodied, sensual interaction is part of politics. It is a history that repositions media history from documents and images to spaces and environments.


“When you do live media events, it’s all about convergence,” explains Anne Bray, executive director of L.A. Freewaves. “However, this is not convergence defined by technologies but by live bodies in real space. You need three elements for success: food and drink, a live element with media, and programming where people know there will be lots of people to talk to.” It’s a brave new world where distinctions between production, distribution, exhibition, technologies, performers, and audience are obliterated. So are permanency and old ways of thinking about cinema or media as a fixed, inert object on a flat screen. In the history of live multimedia performance, important figures like Laurie Anderson and Steina Vasulka loom as major deities. However, they represent only the tip of the iceberg of a sprawling, historically significant area of media practice that rethinks how to configure relationships between images, music, technologies, spaces, and people. Bray, herself an artist who has organized and curated programs for L.A. Freewaves since 1989, is a maverick in an expanding group of curators, media artists, film historians, musicians, festival directors, and archivists who are moving beyond the fixed image on the flat screen with an immobilized audience into live multimedia performances.



These multimedia performances with music are mobile, fluid, multiple, interactive, and embodied. And audiences are packing theaters, bars, buses, galleries, concert halls, streets, public spaces, and the Internet in numbers that often exceed those that obtain for traditional sit-in-theaterwatch-the-screen exhibition. Live multimedia performance has a long, multilayered history that has nonetheless evaded most histories of media art. “There’s been a big change in curatorial circles in the 1990s,” observes long-time live performance media artist, composer, and violinist Tony Conrad, a veteran of both Fluxus and Happenings in the 1960s and 1970s. “Social action and the margins of art practice are infiltrating the galleries, with utopian concepts of networking.” Live multimedia performance, in fact, has a long legacy of radical political engagement in recharging social spaces. In the 1920s in Europe, Dada and Surrealist artists deployed live performance with film and music to disrupt bourgeois romantic conventions. Dadists in the teens explored nonmatrixed performing with lectures, readings, sound poems, and dances, often bringing everyday life onto the stage. Surrealists like Buñuel and Dali screened Un Chien Andalou (1929) using a phonograph to play tango recordings—with the needle dropped randomly onto the record. In the last ten years, according to VJ-DJ-digital artist Art Jones, a former member of Not Channel Zero, a collective of African American and Latino political media activists, live remixes constitute “perhaps one of the only areas not coopted by the commercial media.” For Jones, live remix performances tap into a general cultural malaise of isolation, which fuels a craving for fun and direct, pleasurable social interaction. “Live remixes are deployed in the service of topical ideas like the war in Iraq and the presidential election, delivering politics to larger social activities and gatherings,” Jones says. He further notes that live performance inverts how the field conceptualizes political media: rather than making a topical film and then working to attract an audience to receive the message, artists and collectives instead are taking work to the audiences and responding to them—live.


A Japanese woman benshi enacts vocal contortions in a kimono. A pianist plays loud atonal music mixed with glissandos, then veers into romantic, melodramatic strains. At another microphone on stage, a male narrator with a radio-groomed voice explains the projection and live performances of silent film before the coming of sound. Another woman, in a black dress and white face, ventriloquizes all the characters in the film in rapid-fire succession, changing pitch and tone—in Spanish. On a screen suspended on stage behind these performers, El Automotival Gris, a 1915 Mexican serial reedited into a disjointed feature in the 1930s, is projected. According to film programmer Jesse Lerner, it represents one of the few surviving films from the Mexican silent cinema. Based on a real case during the Mexican revolution, the film portrays how criminals exploited a general state of anarchy and acquired army uniforms. They then posed as officers, tied up civilians, and stole jewels. Disruptive subtitles and intertitles presenting the words “meow meow,” “woof woof,” and “bow wow” in a variety of fonts are superimposed over a fight scene. Later, musical notes roll across the bottom of the screen under the action, with live singing from the women at the microphones. During a chicken-fight scene, the three performers vocalize abstract sounds, and the pianist plucks the inside strings of the piano. During the execution scene, a piece of actuality rather than narrative, the performers remain silent. It’s the closing night of the 2005 Flaherty Film Seminar. And after a week of watching more traditional documentary fare from around the world on the flat screen, the performance of the Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes troupe unsettles the Flaherty stalwarts. Some love the audacity of the performance for its multicultural remix in three languages. Others find the performance



unresolved and at loose ends. At the makeshift bar in the Claremont College dorm, most people down Merlot in red plastic beer cups, arguing about the politics of reactivating archival film. Internationally, thanks to the labor-intensive work of film historians who are debunking myths about silent film through primary research, silent film has entered into what can only be called a resurgence. Film archives doing restorations are getting the work out to the public at festivals and museums. “The job of a film archive is to take old film and make it new,” argues Jan-Christopher Horak, curator at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum in Los Angeles. Festivals ranging from the famed Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy to the Telluride Film Festival to the Virginia Film Festival feature silent film restorations with live music. “This phenomenon of the popularity of silent archival film with live music is related to the fact that the archives have been doing restorations. We now have good quality material. In the 1970s, you would see a bad-looking 35mm or 16mm print. Now with preservation work, the image quality is also very high,” explains Horak. “What people like about it is the performance aspect—it brings a different quality to a screening. With a full orchestra or a small ensemble or a pianist improvising, every performance is different,” Horak continues. “The live performance gives viewing the archival film an immediacy you don’t get otherwise. So many media experiences are mediated; live performance with archival material makes it much more direct and personal.” Horak contends that the one-time-only spectacle of silent film with live music provides a direct and unique experience with enormous payoffs for archives, which he sees as the driving forces behind these performances. Through these exhibitions, archives can demonstrate outreach and impact for restoration projects, which helps to secure future funding for lesser-known works. Ensembles specializing in live silent film music, like the Alloy Orchestra, with its new scores for classics such as Man with a Movie Camera, Metropolis, and Keaton films, and Club Foot Orchestra, with its work on Nosferatu, demonstrate how contemporary music can galvanize an audience to interact with archival films from another era, rearticulating the past of the artifact with the contemporary present of the music. Alloy Orchestra’s pounding, loud, and multilayered percussion, for example, augments the relationship between machines and constructivist art in Man with a Movie Camera. However, in the often contentious and volatile circles of academic film history and film archives, contemporary scores frequently generate controversy between those who argue for an authentic past and those who see the present and the past in a dialectic. Some scholars and archivists contend live performance should replicate the original performance, using only music from the periods of the films. Horak, however, himself a well-known film historian and founding editor of The Moving Image, the journal of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, engages a more generous and heterogeneous position. “To say you have to do it as 1924 is somewhat problematic. We don’t live in 1924. You cannot reproduce the act of reception of 1924. The technology is different: we are no longer using a carbon-arc, hand-cranked projection, no longer using nitrate, so there is much less silver. The whole physicality of cinema is no longer 1924, so why not change the music too? Film is a living thing, and film reception is living too,” he argues. Rick Altman, one of the visionary and groundbreaking scholars of film sound studies, concurs. He points out that with the new accompaniments of live music, archival film “feels alive.” His monumentally detailed and important Silent Film Sound exposes the heterogeneity of early cinema sound practices, which were dependent on the historical time period, technology, region, and venue. After spending nearly a decade researching silent film in obscure trade journals, catalogs, and local newspapers, Altman harbors a pet peeve about live musical performances with archival film performances that promote their authenticity: they are often not historically accurate. Pianists frequently use music from the late teens and 1920s to accompany films from an earlier period. Spurred by his work in primary sources that are often ignored by film scholars, Altman formed his own early cinema performance troupe, The Living Nickelodeon, in 1998, with film studies colleagues



from the University of Iowa. The Living Nickelodeon brings pre-feature-film experiences to audiences through live performances. Early exhibition extensively used the illustrated song slide, projected lantern slides that used images for each line in a song.5 The film was often not the main attraction and was frequently shown silent. Ballyhoo, the sounds used to lure audiences into theaters, was frequently presented outside the theater or in the back of the house. Altman explains that the pianist was often hired to accompany the soprano for the song slides— not for the film. With shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Bologna Film Festival, and the Louvre in Paris, where audiences robustly sing along, The Living Nickelodeon has one purpose according to Altman: “We want to show things going on that historians have ignored—the participatory nature of early cinema. Our audiences say they never truly understood the period before our performances.” The MadCat Women’s Festival has adopted a strategy somewhat opposite to Altman’s, opting to reinvigorate neglected works of silent cinema with new music. For the past two years, curator Ariella Ben-Dov has programmed the work of early women silent film directors like Cleo Madison, Lois Weber, and Alice Guy-Blaché—often ignored in film history tomes—with contemporary alternative instrumental music, using bands like The Secrets of Family Happiness. Ben-Dov points out that she never uses just a piano or a string quartet but instead hires bands from San Francisco who will create scores that propel the viewer to “look at the films in new ways.” For Ben-Dov, the experiential immediacy of the live music paired with early women’s cinema merges two different audiences— one from film, one from music.

A scene from the MadCat Women’s Festival. Courtesy: Ariella Ben-Dov.

Yet film historians and film archives frame only one side of the story of live performance and archival film. Electronic composers like Paul Lehrman often drive historical reclamation projects in surprising ways, uncovering lost histories by excavating first through music rather than through the images alone. Bruce Posner, who curated the Unseen Cinema project on early experimental film, approached Lerhman about working on the music for Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique (1924), one of the canonical films of avant-garde film history. George Antheil, an American-expat Futurist composer living in Paris in the 1920s and influenced by Schoenberg, had created a score that was never performed with the original film. According to Lehrman, the Antheil score is a “relentless piece of visual and aural assault,” entailing up to sixteen player pianos, percussion, and piano, with more than 632 time changes. “It’s a monstrous noise engine, and very difficult for a conductor to keep under control,” he notes. “It’s really a large machine piece, using player pianos, xylophones, bass drums for making machine, rather than melodic sounds.” Lehrman’s new score, compiled on a MIDI file running the player pianos from standard sequencers, has been performed live with Ballet mécanique nearly a dozen times internationally. Even though many wrap their hands over their ears during the performance,



“the audience always goes nuts,” observes Lehrman. The performance engulfs the spectator in loud, physicalized percussive sounds that penetrate the body and provoke new readings of the original film as aggressive, pounding montage.


“In the 1960s, artists and performers went for what is simple,” muses media artist Tony Conrad. Two kinds of live media performance co-existed during this period: one broadly defined by the aesthetics of a movement like Fluxus, dedicated to a post–John Cage demolition of the role of the individual artist and heavily embedded in the principles of what would later become conceptual art, and the other clustered around the aesthetics of multimedia Happenings, embracing what Conrad calls a “wholistic scene,” where style, gay sexuality, exotics, socialist politics, and improvisation created a bawdy heterogeneity. Conrad traveled between both poles, participating in Fluxus live performance events with minimalist musicians like La Monte Young and collaborating with visually excessive filmmakers like Jack Smith. Even Andy Warhol, although not himself associated with 6 Fluxus or Happenings, merged both styles of performance in films like Empire and Chelsea Girls. According to Conrad, both Fluxus and Happenings, although they sometimes deployed media with live musical performances, operated outside the media community and were more closely allied to the formal art scene. One was Apollonian, the other Dionysian. Conrad cites underground events that emerged from these movements, such as Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” with the Velvet Underground, and the live multimedia performance light shows in San Francisco, which used liquid projections made by pouring oil on projector screens, strobe lights, slides, and a variety of projection techniques at performances and events. In his 1972 live performance piece Ten Years Alive on the Infinite Plain, Conrad presented four projections showing six frames of an image—three frames oriented vertically and the next in negative, creating flicker. He played live microtonal music during the performance on his amplified violin, building complexity out of simplicity with sustained, minimal music. Younger curators have been particularly attracted to reviving this piece, drawn to its minimalist aesthetic and improvisational performance style. It will screen in Dortmund, Germany, and Dundee, Scotland, this year. Practices of expanded cinema—a term immortalized by Gene Youngblood in his 1970 book of the same name— have also been revived in the last decade. Expanded cinema performances, unlike those of Fluxus, which typically juxtaposed minimalism with the quotidian, probed the interstitial areas between new technologies, mixing different forms of sound and image together and exploring meta-imagery. As outlined by Youngblood, such intermedia (another term used to describe expanded cinema) engaged a different set of temporal and spatial coordinates than those employed by traditional film on a wall. Emerging out of shadow shows, expositions, and experimental theater practices, it foregrounded sensory stimulation, multiple projections, and communal experiences. Rather than focusing exclusively on the image, it explored and experimented with creating new environments for images. Intermedia also identified interdisciplinary artistic practices that combined art forms and genres, such as film and theater.7 Experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs’s various Nervous System projects, produced from the mid-1970s on, for example, revive materials and technologies from the early cinema era and manipulate the image through projection, slowing it down, speeding it up, stalling it, repeating images. The connection between contemporary live VJ remixing (discussed later in this essay) and expanded cinema is more than conjecture: it’s a historical trajectory that scholars are only beginning to understand as a complex, fluid environment of media practice. “Younger curators and programmers have a renewed interest in expanded cinema,” says Conrad. “A whole new generation is interested in what it means to loosen up the relationships between



sound and image, to play improvisationally with the image in new ways.” The flat-on-the-wall, screening-room form of exhibition, where the image is fixed and immutable, has given way to multiple screens, live manipulation of images and sound, and endless spatial variations in clubs, galleries, plasma screens, lobbies. And the notion of a spectator immobilized in a seat facing the screen has transposed into an embodied spectator who is moving, interacting, and even talking. Conrad contends that the hidden histories of live multimedia performance in the 1960s provide models, inspiration, and motivation for a new generation of multimedia performance artists to “blow out the stoppages and differentiations between different media and fields.” For Conrad, “boundaries are some of the most obvious things to whack away at.” In the context of this reemergence of live multimedia performance, whacking away at boundaries has materialized in concrete ways, where new concerns emerge beyond the formal elements of the image: the reinvention of the space of exhibition, the relationship of the spectators to the screens, the embodiment of performer and spectator, and the ephemeral nature of the practice. Live multimedia performance was not, however, the exclusive domain of men with machines in the 1960s and early 1970s. Filmmaker Shirley Clarke formed the “Tee Pee Video Space Troupe,” which included Dee Dee Halleck, David Cort, Perry Teasdale, Skip Blumberg, Wendy Clarke, and even Agnes Varda in the early 1970s at the Chelsea Hotel, in New York. “It was like a think tank to play with live video as a form of performance,” recalls Halleck, who asserts that her experience with collaborative live video performances had a direct influence on the formation of Paper Tiger Television in the early 1980s. Clarke, known in film history circles for her historically important films The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963), and Portrait of Jason (1967), is often positioned as a filmmaker who was critical of the supposed transparency of cinéma vérité. Her experiments with live performance are less recognized, although they have been influential in video and independent media history. Clarke saw in video technology possibilities not offered by film: instant feedback, interactivity, performativity, collective action, and group bonding. “She was trying to push the tech to the edge,” remembers Halleck. “It never worked, it was always populist, and the ideas were exciting. Shirley called it her playpen—video was to be played with like a game.” For Clarke, video technology functioned as a nodal point around which to create new kinds of artistic communal practices that were embodied and live. Clarke experimented with rethinking the means of production through technology, deploying video as a sketchbook, a social activator, and a conjuring device for group interaction. Halleck notes that Clarke, trained as a dancer, envisioned her group of video performers as merging individual artistic expression (the traditional domain of the fine arts) with social interaction (the domain of performance and social-activist work). This experiment in mixing two different artistic modalities through the interface of live video sometimes worked, sometimes failed, but was always about group dynamics and interaction. For example, one day the troupe shot various images of dawn in New York City: stoplights, birds, gates, stores opening. When they returned from their individual shoots, the participants stacked video monitors on the roof of the Chelsea Hotel. They played back their various tapes on these monitors, with the sunrise over New York City as the backdrop. Clarke created a bonding ritual by connecting the work of individual artists through the multiple monitors. She also supplied mimosas for the group members to drink as they watched their pieces resonate and reverberate with one another.


The experimental fusion of new technologies, collaborative work, performance, and real-time mediated imaging form the core of the history of live performance multimedia. The Experimental Television Center in Owego, New York, founded in 1971 by Ralph Hocking as an outgrowth of his



Binghamton University–based media access center, has functioned as one of the epicenters for the germination of live video performance. “Performance-based works were some of the earliest media art created at the Center with the image-processing tools we made available through the Residency Program,” explains Sherry Miller Hocking, assistant director of ETC. Woodstock Community Video, in upstate New York, presented the first Woodstock Video Expovision over a five-day period in August 1975. Screening tapes by fifty video makers from across New York state, it featured a video synthesizer demonstration, an electronic-media performance with dance, a video environment by Media Bus, and a panel discussion with Gerd Stern of Intermedia Systems, Barbara London of the Museum of Modern Art, and John Godfrey of WNET’s Experimental TV Lab. Couple 513 was a live video and dance performance at the Everson Museum of Art presented May 21–23, 1976. Lois Welk and Arnie Zane of the American Dance Asylum danced, while Meryl Blackman, Peer Bode, and the Experimental Television Center performed the live video. Movements for Video Dance and Music, with Peer Bode, Meryl Blackman, Bill Jones, and Arnie Neames, performed at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, in Ithaca, also occurred in 1976 with support from the Experimental Television Center. “The tools available at the Center as well as the medium amplified the real-time nature of the medium. This first generation of video artists understood that the technology engendered intimacy and immediacy—in the creative actions of the maker and the presentations to the viewer,” Hocking noted. The technology also promoted interactivity: both performers and artists could affect the image-sound in real time. Hocking believes that the first generation of media artists was drawn to live-performance multimedia because of interdisciplinary combustion. Most of these early media artists arrived at video via arts such dance, music, and theater as well as the sciences. As a result, they imported tropes from other disciplines and forms into video. ETC, inaugurating a thirty-year tradition of artist audacity and innovation through pushing the limits of technology, invited these artists to use processing tools to explore the performative aspects of video. In the 1970s these artists experimented with analog synthesizers. By the 1980s image-processing tools migrated to digital technologies. Music collaborations were also extensive. In the last five years, the ETC Residency Program has supported the work of new media artists such as LoVid, Amoeba Technology, and Benton-C Bainbridge and the Synaesthesiologists, who investigate digital electronic-imaging tools in live performances.


Public and private foundations have increasingly required their media arts grantees to assess and document outcomes, outreach, and access. As a result of these pressures for accountability to a public that extends beyond the media arts cognoscenti, some curators and archivists have responded not with complaints but with imagination and guts. They’ve put media on the bus and taken it to the streets. Steve Davidson, of the Florida Moving Image Archive, established the Magical Movie Bus Tour. With a local historian at the microphone and a large pile of archival films ranging from news footage to home movies, Davidson has offered bus tours through Miami history for senior citizens, schools, tourists, Miami Film Festival patrons, and universities. The archival images on the bus show Miami sites, whether the Art Deco District of South Beach, the gay nightclub district, the Fontainebleau Hotel, or the Convention Center, as they looked in other decades. The juxtaposition of the amateur films and newsreels creates a visual history of development in South Florida, one of the fastest growing areas of the country. DVDs are inserted on the fly in response to questions from the people on the bus, with only the route through various historical districts mapped out.



On the other side of the country, L.A. Freewaves has instituted Video Bus Tours during its last three festivals. A curator proposes a route and appropriate videos. Often, a performance artist takes the mike. Of the fifteen bus tours conducted to date, some are serious, others funny. One investigated public housing in Los Angeles while another probed voyeurism by touring gay cruising streets, porno districts, and movie stars’ homes. One particularly powerful bus tour focused on the Native American history of Los Angeles, before the incursion of whites. It featured artists’ videos, Native American storytellers, and a historian. Another popular tour focused on a fun topic: food. It took participants on a journey from sites where food is grown to where it is eaten, and even to manure piles—all accompanied by video art and performance. “Bus tours with video art and performance are a great way to exhibit media,” notes Anne Bray. “With all that multimedia, you can cover more than one medium. It is about bringing the rest of the world to the work.” Bray views the sense of presence and volatility of live media as an important new development in the era of multiple screen surrounds. Her video art bus tours, which cost ten dollars per person, usually fill. She has also produced Karaoke Video Open Calls, an idea first proposed by artist Soo Jin Kim. Artists submit karaoke videos from the whole spectrum of music. L.A. Freewaves uses existing karaoke clubs during their down time, usually between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Local artists want to produce these pieces because they know they will generate lively audience interaction.

LEFT: Still from Bill Morrison’s short “Light Is Calling”, from his collaboration with composer Michael Gordon. Courtesy: Bill Morrison. RIGHT: a scene from the MadCat Women’s Festival. Courtesy: Ariella Ben-Dov.


Reversing media flows and expectations by changing the sites of exhibition marks live multimedia performance conceptually. Not only is the media art programmed; the space itself is reconfigured with media. The backyard of the El Rio Bar in San Francisco’s Mission District has been a popular draw for experimental films by women set to live music in the MadCat Film Festival, whose mission is to bring avant-garde film to a range of audiences. Ariella Ben-Dov sees live music performances with archival and experimental film as a powerful and effective way to “make work somewhat more accessible to contemporary audiences who may not have an understanding of it.” One of MadCat’s innovations, “SSHH: Silent Films to Live Music,” curates silent avant-garde films around themes, then contacts filmmakers to secure permission for a one-time only ephemeral event. Most filmmakers eagerly agree to have their work included, while some are apprehensive. Local musicians create music in dialogue with the images. These shows never have a problem filling the two-hundred-seat venue. “Live music is a definite draw,” says Ben-Dov, who is interested in exhibiting experimental film in alternative spaces.



In 1994, the female owner of a hip-hop label asked media artist Art Jones to do a live remix at New York City’s Knitting Factory. Jones had been hanging out at the NuyoRican Poets Café, observing the power of improvisational performance for political discourse. Armed with two VCRs, two monitors, and a Radio Shack AB switcher, Jones performed his first remix with videotapes while a spoken-word performer used a mike. The performance combined media, hip-hop music, and spoken word. It was the same year that artist DJ Spooky (Paul D. Miller) did a live remix at Woodstock 94. From there, Jones started mixing in bars and clubs with video decks and then, later, mini-DV decks. He moved into computers for live remixing in 2001. Inspired by site-specific Happenings from the 1960s and 1970s, Jones saw that remixing held the possibility for media arts to break out to a different audience through combining music, visual artists, and video projectors. Jones points out that Robert Whitman’s early expanded cinema projects with multiple projectors and sound, Ken Jacobs’s projections, Warhol’s Velvet Underground, and psychedelia all served as predecessors to today’s laptop remixers in clubs. At Woodstock 94, kids with laptops, whom Jones affectionately dubs “the lost tribe of MacIntosh,” talked to each other with their computers, generating a communal spirit that he sees as the radical potential of live multimedia performance.

Inspired by site-specific Happenings from the 1960s and 1970s, Jones saw that remixing held the possibility for media arts to break out to a different audience through combining music, visual artists, and video projectors.

For Jones, live remixes, now employing sophisticated software running on paper-thin laptops, constitute a resolutely anticorporate, ephemeral media environment designed to “intervene into the colonization of consciousness.” Compared to traditional film schools and art schools, which often emphasize a somewhat romanticized view of individual artistry, the live remixing scene requires collaborative engagement as well as a “different way of engaging the spectator.” “It’s way to intervene into the quiet contemplation of the object,” Jones says. The central theoretical problem posed by live remixes revolves around the question of whether the spectator can be engaged in a more compelling, immersive, and embodied way. Jones has done remixes on the war in Iraq, cyberwarfare, and empire, either alone or with collaborative teams. However, some VJs simply generate video wallpaper for clubs, creating screen after screen of abstract, beautiful images with no connection to political or social relations, a practice that Jones sees as ignoring dialogue with the audience-participants. With computers, images and sounds can be subdivided, live cameras can be added, more improvisation can erupt, and VJ-DJs can be more responsive, creating a more encompassing environment.


Three layers of scaffolding surround the audience. A film is projected on three different scrims. Musicians are positioned on different levels of the scaffolding. Image, live music, and constructed space engulf the spectator. It’s Bill Morrison’s Decasia, a fifty-five-minute archival film epic exploring spirituality, loss, ineffability, and renewal, with a live score by experimental-music composer Michael Gordon, a member of Bang on a Can, live at Carnegie Hall. The film and the complex, multilayered score are a tour-de-force exploration of decomposition and decay. Just out of art school in the late 1980s, Morrison joined the Bridge Theater, an experimental collective, as the group’s only filmmaker. In the 1990s he began a series of collaborations with musicians from Bang on the Can, the influential contemporary music group. An experimental filmmaker trained as a painter who exorcises the latent forms and meanings submerged in archival



fragments, Morrison uses his artistic process to subvert narrativity in film in order to release an emotional drive comparable to that of music. He works closely with the film archive community as he scours for images. But it’s the changes in exhibition of the works that excite Morrison, for each new situation opens up different experiences, interpretations, and possibilities. With the increasing difficulty of projecting film properly, especially in ill-equipped concert halls, Morrison has moved into producing films for enhanced CDs for musicians like David Lang (How to Pray), Julia Wolf, and Michael Gordon (Light is Calling); as musicians confront the problem of how to market their work in the era of downloading, experimental films may provide a value-added component to the declining value of the CD. Morrison has also worked on projections for experimental operas such as John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer (2003) for the Brooklyn Academy of Art and dual-screen installations like Outer Borough, commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art, which uses archival footage of the Brooklyn Bridge.


One of the new frontiers for live multimedia performance resides beyond the bricks-and-mortar spaces and the environments reconstructed for and by live media performances to encompass interfaces and networks. While “interface” sounds like lingo out of The Matrix Reloaded, it quite simply refers to the junctures at which hardware and software meet users; it’s everything from using a mouse to voice activating your cell phone for dialing your mom. For those of us trained to think of the media arts as image based, terms like “networked-based art,” “transmission arts,” and “locative media” might sound like the result of technogeeks let loose at Radio Shack doing word shuffles with a thesaurus to trance music. These areas of live performance, however, are deeply political and interventionist forms of public education about technologies. The new practices home in on performance as a way to make technologies that are deliberately rendered invisible by corporate power structures and embedded in our daily life more visible—a tactic that resonates with oppositional media practices from the 1960s and 1970s. Only this time, the move from invisibility to visibility is no longer about images and representations but about technological systems almost secretly invading our daily lives— embedded technologies like the EZ Pass scanner, invisible surveillance in stores, and machine-body interfaces like ATMs and nanotechnologies—all in real time, and live. This work poses complicated problems for film and media arts historiography because it is even more ephemeral than DJ-VJ remixes and live music with archival films: it is not about an artifact but about actions and events that expose technologies. Performance artist, activist, and digital-culture agitator Ricardo Dominguez summons the idea of the “performative matrix” in his work with the technoculture activist group Critical Art Ensemble. For him, the “performative matrix creates a site of confusion for powers that be, a gesture that is a minor simulation outside of dominant core influences.” The “performative matrix” is in many ways quite simple, an updating and revitalizing of the intermedia concept. The matrix combines Internet actions and embodied performances intended to change how people think about terms like “infowar” and the Zapatistas. If intermedia zeroed in on the sensual and the nonlinear, the performative matrix focuses on the semantic, trying to change definitions and concepts. Many of these projects converge science, politics, and art—according to Dominguez, to create a provisional zone or space for the marginal by disturbing dominant powers like the U.S. government. In his work with Critical Art Ensemble throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dominguez developed ideas about how to “allow political agency through hallucinatory space,” inspired by his activist political work in the anti-nuclear movement in Nevada, Bread and Puppet Theater, Teatro



Campesino, Act-Up, and the history of agit-prop. Critical Art Ensemble developed these ideas in two groundbreaking books, Electronic Disturbance (2000) and Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas (1998). Despite a long term, continuing interest in cyberculture, Dominguez insists that the performative matrix does not need to rely on machines but on “machines for engineering concepts.” The performative matrix, then, is conceptual theater that uses whatever means are necessary—the Internet, live performance, science—to shift ideas about how power operates and infiltrates our culture. Co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, Dominguez has led many virtual sit-ins on Web sites as a gesture to bring attention to the anti-globalization movement. A 1998 project to support the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, deployed the refresh-reload button on computers to flood Web sites of the Pentagon, the Federal Communications Commission, and the School of the Americas. The action prompted the Pentagon and the House Armed Services Committee to change the doctrines of infowar to include electronic civil disobedience. Later, in 2002, this same virtual sit-in process was deployed during the World Economic Forum in New York City, using the Reamweaver software developed by media pranksters The Yes Men. The free103point9 collective also explores the frontier beyond the image, working with sound and radio frequencies to create different listening environments that encourage spectators to interact with machines in communal ways. Their goal: to develop the artistic and political possibilities of live transmission art with underused technologies like ham radio, walkie talkies, FM/AM radio, cell phones, and light. Transmission art is defined as any work that uses the airwaves creatively. Free103point9 emerged out of two audio movements: the microradio (formerly pirate radio) movement for FM low-power radio under 100 watts, which gave rise to radio barnraisings in communities, and radio audio artists interested in restoring experimentation to sound, with pioneers like the audio-collage collective Negativland providing historical precedent. Tom Roe, one of the members of the collective, explains that transmission art involves live performance, physical embodiment, and a variety of sound technologies. In a project called Radio 4x4, four musicians each play into their own FM transmitter. “Twenty to sixty radios are spread out through a space and used as a public address system,” Roe explains. Each radio has a different speaker and different sound qualities, encouraging audience movement around the room. Free103point9 also does shows through on-line radio Webcasting three to four times a week—live. WiFi, mobile-phone cameras, and RFID are ubiquitious, invisible, and often—at least for the average cable-TV surfing, iPod-listening person—incomprehensible. WiFi refers to wireless fidelity, the technology that enables you to connect to a local area network at an access point to check your email while on the road. RFID is an acronym for radio frequency identification, tags that track everything from library books to Wal-Mart goods shipments to your car passing through toll booths. The Preemptive Media collective (PM) reengineers thinking about mobile digital technologies embedded in our everyday environment. PM’s art practice works not only to help spectators see these invisible technologies that track our lives and our data, but to demystify them. Locative media, another newly emerging zone in performative multimedia, constitutes a new global, independent media movement interested in the convergence between digital domains and geographic spaces. It anchors the digital, often viewed as ambling around in a placeless realm, in geographic space. Artists marshal portable, networked computing devices like GPS, mobile phones, and RFID as well as wearable technologies to map space and intervene into data streams. Locative media practices focus on horizontal, user-led, and collaborative projects to interrupt and interrogate a powerful system of observation and control. In live performances and real-time actions, the Preemptive Media art, technology, and activist collective disturbs, dislodges, and redesigns new media technologies like the bar codes on drivers’ licences or radio-frequency information devices used for EZ Pass, respositioning these highly



specialized technologies within the democratic discourse of amateurism to make them accessible. The emerging locative media movement has gathered steam and attention since 9/11 and the 2001 Patriot Act, which authorizes unprecedented data mining, invasions of privacy, wiretapping, and Internet surveillance. PM’s ZAPPED! (2005) foregrounds radio frequency identification tags, first used by the British military during World War II and later, in the 1960s, to track wild animals. Over the last twenty years it has been used for electronic tolls; tracking pets, prisoners, and kids; and monitoring activity at dance clubs, the Department of Defense, and Wal-Mart. The Spring Independent School district in the Houston area uses RFID tags on elementary students to track their schoolbus rides. The ZAPPED! project features workshops for kids and adults on altering the remote wireless detection chips. Phrases like “Help me! I’m a consumer!” “This is GOD. You have sinned. Be prepared for eternal damnation!” and “Don’t hire me— I’m a felon” are inserted on the chips to pop up on scanners in stores instead of prices. The RFID School Kit consists of a lunchbox and a keychain detector to locate RFID hotspots. Roaches with clandestine RFID tags taped to their backs are hidden in the lunchbox and then released in Wal-Mart storage areas by activists sporting the company’s blue vests, bought on eBay. Our era of empire, infinite war, and massive media consolidation poses enormous obstacles to imagination, freedom, and collectivity. The public spaces for an interventionist, argumentative public media shrink daily. These variegated, diffuse, and hard-to-uncover histories of live performance multimedia—with and without music—may offer a way to reclaim and reinvent exhilarating, if transient, public domains beyond the strangleholds of the corporate media. These multimedia environments are malleable, musical, contingent, and collaborative. They are situated in real spaces. They resolutely intervene into power relations and consciousness. And they are fun. These hidden histories of live multimedia performance can perhaps mobilize the most elusive, but necessary, ingredient of any radical media practice: a hopeful, raucous convergence of likeminded people that dismantles convention, disassembles power, and disturbs the universe.

PATRICIA R. ZIMMERMANN is professor of cinema and photography at Ithaca College. She is the author of Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film and States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, and co-editor with Karen Ishizuka of the Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (forthcoming).

NOTES: 1. For examples of theoretical historiography that question the notion of a meaning that can be fully recovered and argue instead for an idea that the past is created as a text constructed through structures of evidence, see Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History (London: Routledge, 1997); Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); and Howard Marchitello, ed., What Happens to History: The Renewal of Ethics in Contemporary Thought (New York: Routledge, 2001). 2. For analysis of this rejection of causality and linearity in favor of a more polyphonic and heteroglossic historical strategy of explanation, especially in subaltern historiography, see Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Vinayak Chaturvedi, ed., Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial (London: Verso, 2000); and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). 3. For a brilliant discussion of performance as an art form based on disappearance, with a permeable and fluid set of meanings between the body real and the psychic real, see Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York: Routledge, 1993). 4. For an analysis and explanation of what he terms a collaborative, multivocal ethnography, see David MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). 5. Rick Altman, Silent Film Sound (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), pp. 181–201. 6. Scott MacDonald has argued that the filmmakers involved with Fluxus and Happenings in the 1960s saw “film art as a performative gesture” rather than as a material object for posterity, and that the expanded cinema was interested in the possibilities for meta-imagery through mixing technologies (interview with the author, 4 September 2005). For more extensive discussions with various artists involved in different forms of exhibition and projection, please see his Critical Cinema book series, especially A Critical Cinema 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), Critical Cinema 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), and Critical Cinema 4 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 7. For a full historical discussion of these practices, see Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton: 1970), pp. 70–151 and 300–91.



FILM HISTORY AND “FILM HISTORY”: Exhibition and American Academe—One Academic’s Story


“Na feugait wis aliquis auten Aorem nosto odolng eraenoe diamet acvoem nullan er iuero dolor siecmn.”

IT is perhaps inevitable that we construct mythic versions of our lives and of each evolving component of our lives that we consider important. That is, we choose, out of the myriad sensations and thoughts we experience, a few that at any given moment seem to have been the most important— “important” meaning pivotal in helping us to become the people we believe we are. The moments in my life that I tend to mythologize most frequently are a function of my self-definition as a film history professor and scholar specializing in “avant-garde” or “experimental” cinema. (I like to call it “critical cinema,” to emphasize its value as critique of conventional media, as well as its potentially critical importance for teachers of film history.) I often return to four particular film experiences in explaining to my students how I came to commit so much of my time, energy, and passion to critical cinema in particular. I hope the reader can bear with my unmitigated selfindulgence as I describe these experiences; I do so not because I think my experiences, or my “mythic story,” are of unusual interest but because of several common denominators in these experiences that will allow me to develop an argument that I think is useful to make concerning the exhibition of film and its role in creating film history. I grew up as a filmgoer and attended movies with my parents and friends from early on. I have no clear memory of which films I saw first, or which ones I was enthusiastic about as a child (I remember the theaters better than the films, and especially the Radio City Music Hall), though I’m sure some of these must have been the Disney animated features of the 1940s. But I do know that the most important film experience of my youth, and the first of the four pivotal experiences in my cinema myth, was seeing King Kong at the State Theater in Easton, Pennsylvania, in the early 1950s. I remember this experience for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it may have been the first time I took a bus downtown to see a film by myself.



At the time I knew nothing about King Kong, except that someone—it must have been my parents—had suggested that this was a film I ought to see and one that I was now “old enough” to see on my own. So far as I know, television hadn’t aired King Kong as yet, and since the film had been out of distribution for nearly two decades there was very little information available, at least to a young boy. So I arrived at the theater a virtual tabula rasa. Did I see a poster of the giant ape as I was walking into the theater? It is quite possible, because I very purposefully chose my seat on a strategic basis. The State Theater was designed with two aisles separating the large center section of the house from the two smaller side sections. I remember making a conscious choice not to sit in the middle, where I normally would have sat, but in an aisle seat on the right-hand side section, about forty percent of the way down the length of the theater: I wanted to be able to make a quick, unembarrassed escape if the film turned out to be too much for me to handle. I did not find the beginning of King Kong very alluring; nothing seemed to be happening, and at times I was worried that perhaps this was just another of those melodramas that adults seemed to enjoy. Indeed, my primary interest for nearly the first half-hour of the film was Faye Wray, who was as erotic a presence on screen as I had ever experienced. (This was in the heyday of the Hollywood Code, but King Kong had been made during that magical moment in the 1930s, soon after the coming of sound, when moral restrictions on American commercial films had been temporarily loosened.) In any case, Carl Denham and his collaborators arrived at Skull Island just as I was running out of patience, and their sneaking up on the natives performing a Kong ritual quickly re-energized me. The following fifteen minutes of King Kong, culminating in Wray’s character, Ann, being tied to the sacrificial altar, were the most exciting moments of my young film-going life; and during the brief silence after the chief has directed the natives to signal Kong by ringing the immense gong on top of the wall, I was simultaneously terrified and thrilled. For the first time in my life I was, literally, on the edge of my seat, ready to run up the aisle and out of the theater, and fighting a powerful urge to yell to the audience, “Get out while there’s still time!” And then, to my utter astonishment, there, tearing through the trees, was Kong himself, as big on the State Theater screen as he is in the world of the film, discovering Ann, releasing her from the altar, and running into the woods with her (just what I wanted to do!) to do battle with assorted dinosaurs. I was in heaven. Once Kong had fallen to his death and I staggered out of the theater, I felt like a new person, something closer to an adult: I had faced my fears and had stood firm, and the pay-off was clear; I had had the best time of my life in a movie theater and as good a two hours of pleasure as I was ever to have. I had realized, obviously without being able to articulate it, that art, cinematic art in this case, could be one of life’s primary pleasures. It was not something one did instead of living; it was living itself. But the experience offered more than pleasure: it offered empowerment. That cinema was a public place where I could confront my fears and become stronger was my first lesson. The second lesson didn’t come for another decade or so, and it took several years to learn. The process began at a small theater in Greencastle, Indiana, where I was attending DePauw University, in 1963. I was a senior English major—at the time enamored of the British Romantic poets—for whom movies were a preferred weekend escape from my studies. I had heard from someone (it must have been a professor; at the time none of the students I knew took cinema seriously as an intellectual pursuit) about a new Italian film that was supposed to be “important.” Its numerical title certainly suggested it would be unusual. I walked alone to the theater to see 8½ and sat near the back in the reasonably crowded house, curious to see what the fuss was about. The fuss, it turned out, was pretty much about nothing—or so it seemed to me at the time. Indeed, not long into the film I began to feel amazed that so many people in the audience could be so evidently (and utterly) phony! Here was a remarkably chaotic, virtually indecipherable black-and-white film that offered no apparent pleasure, and yet a good number of people in the audience seemed



compelled to pretend they were enjoying the experience, at least judging from their laughter. After a while I began to make comments out loud, statements on the order of “Yeah, this makes a lot of sense!” I don’t remember anyone telling me to shut up, so it may be that I just wanted to say these things out loud, or that I said them so softly that only I could hear them clearly. I have a vague memory from later that evening of regaling my fraternity brothers with stories about the phonies pretending to understand this totally confused film by a stupid Italian director. Several years later, I went to see 8½ again. I was now a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Florida, supporting my schooling by teaching undergraduate courses in the Humanities Department, and I believe 8½ had been made an assignment for the students. There seemed to be considerable respect for the film among my colleagues, and I figured I should give it a second chance. Of course, the moment the film began I understood what I hadn’t grasped at that earlier screening: that the film begins in a dream, before “reality” is revealed, and, further, that 8½ gives no special signal when it moves from “reality” to daydream or night dream and back. I had grown up with Hollywood’s clear signals for identifying what was real and what was imagined, and had not understood what now seemed so embarrassingly obvious. But the lesson—that, like a work of literature, a film could take some time to understand and might require a developing sophistication—was an important one. I was soon, like so many of my generation, passionate about “foreign film” and its challenges to Hollywood convention. My third “pivotal moment” occurred at the end of my graduate studies, once I had decided to try to find a job teaching both American literature and film history, during that moment at the end of the 1960s when student demand for film courses was so strong that classes began to be offered by people with virtually no expertise in the field. To more fully prepare myself, I decided to attend a two-week summer film institute at Kent School, in Kent, Connecticut. (I am embarrassed to admit that I do not remember who organized this event.) The guests during the seminar included screenwriter Robert Anderson, actress Teresa Wright, critic Molly Haskell, and, most important, at least for me, Andrew Sarris from the Village Voice. On one evening early in the institute, Sarris presented a print of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), a film none of us had seen. At this time Keaton was, for all practical purposes, a memory. We knew what he looked like and that his moniker was “the Great Stone Face,” but the Keaton films had been out of distribution for decades, and most American viewers had seen only those clips that were included in silent-film compilations made for television—clips that removed action from its original timing and context. Sarris, who was instrumental in bringing Keaton back to American audiences, introduced him as a consummate American auteur, and then ran the film. We were astonished. As everyone knows now, The General is visually spectacular, full of subtle awareness, thoroughly poignant—and it was as funny a film as I had ever seen. I laughed with an abandon I hadn’t experienced since childhood. During the late 1960s I had come to believe that nearly all great films were “foreign films”; Sarris helped me realize that Americans had made great films—often, of course, in the face of considerable resistance from the money people in Hollywood. This experience led me to a years-long exploration of Hollywood auteurs, an exploration guided by Sarris’s American Cinema and other books; and to the Village Voice, where I began reading Sarris’s column religiously, as well as a column by another critic whom I hadn’t previously encountered: Jonas Mekas. My fourth and final “pivotal moment” came in two installments, the first at a Saturday film symposium in the spring of 1972, hosted by Harpur College (later called the State University of New York at Binghamton, and now Binghamton University), the second at a three-week institute during the summer of 1973, hosted at Hampshire College by Peter Feinstein and the University Film Study Association. The announcement of the symposium at Binghamton had not made clear what kinds of films were to be the focus of the event, but, as a young film professor with virtually no training, I was hungry for any education in film I could find. What I remember best about this event is an afternoon screening that included four films: Soft Rain (1968) by Ken Jacobs, and the local



premieres of Serene Velocity (1971) by Ernie Gehr, Barn Rushes (1971) by Larry Gottheim, and The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) by Stan Brakhage. (Jacobs and Gottheim, the hosts of the event, were faculty members at Harpur and took questions afterward.) I do not remember ever being more furious at a film event, even my initial encounter with 8½. The Jacobs film (a looped image of a New York City street in the rain, in slowed motion, seen from a window looking across a vacant space between two buildings) puzzled me; the Gehr film was tremendously frustrating and exhausting (for Serene Velocity Gehr filmed a hallway at Harpur College, readjusting his zoom lens at four-frame intervals so that for half an hour we seem to move simultaneously toward the door at the far end of the hall and away from it in a manner that becomes increasingly dramatic); the Gottheim film (a series of eight, approximately three-minute, roll-long, hand-held tracking shots past an upstate New York barn in different lights) was also painfully slow, though I had to admit it was appealing to me, even within this moment of general puzzlement and fury; and then came Brakhage’s shocking exploration of the process of autopsy, filmed in the Pittsburgh morgue: thirty-two minutes of silent horror. When the lights came on and Jacobs and Gottheim began the discussion, I expected the audience to stand and roar its disapproval, but I was shocked to discover that people seemed to be discussing what we had seen as if the screening had actually been worthwhile. I remember nothing that was said, only the kind of intellectual terror you feel when something you thought you understood is transformed into a mystery and your familiar “intelligence” into a brand-new stupidity.

I realized that it was possible for me to respond deeply and positively to films, to love films, that the majority of my colleagues in the audience might absolutely loathe. I had been, one might say, freed to engage directly with the works rather than with public or critical opinion.

On the drive back to Utica that evening, I showered my colleagues with morsels of acerbic wit and righteous indignation in response to what seemed to me an outrage. But within weeks of the screening—weeks during which I could not help but think continuously about the films—I came to the conclusion that I admired each of them, and that, much to my own amazement, I wanted to show the films to my film history students, as well as to local audiences. My sense of what it meant to teach film, and how one might demonstrate the full range of aesthetic and political possibilities inherent in cinema, was already changing. The second half of this fourth pivotal moment occurred a few months later, at the film institute at Hampshire College, which I had registered for because it seemed likely to offer a confirmation and an extension of the Binghamton experience. I have fond memories of one week-long course on ethnographic cinema taught by John Marshall, which began with Peter Kubelka’s flicker film, Arnulf Rainer (1960), and of another that focused on West Coast experimental film and Jordan Belson in particular, taught by Sheldon Renan. But the crucial experiences were two evening film presentations by filmmakers, introduced by Peter Feinstein: the first, a (possibly premiere) screening of the first three parts of Hollis Frampton’s Hapax Legomena: (nostalgia) (1971), Poetic Justice (1972), and Critical Mass (1972); the second, a screening of Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1973), by Jonas Mekas. In both cases the responses to the screenings were as powerful for me as the films. I remember that Feinstein introduced Frampton, who in turn introduced the films—though I don’t remember anything the filmmaker said. What I do remember is that the audience seemed to enjoy (nostalgia) as well as the beginning of Poetic Justice. Those unfamiliar with this latter film may want to know that it presents the actual pages of a screenplay made up of four sixty-page tableaux, one page at a time, at a rate of approximately six seconds per page. Once the beginning of the second tableau had made clear that Frampton’s minimalist film was going to continue for some time, most of the audience rebelled. The screening room was a conventional academic lec-



ture hall with no rugs, and thus nothing to muffle sound, and those leaving seemed to take pleasure in stomping as loudly as they could on their way up the stairs and in slamming the doors as they left. A considerable din lasted for about ten minutes—after which only a quarter or so of the original audience remained in the room. Of course, once Poetic Justice was over, the accessible and amusing Critical Mass rewarded those who had stayed. However, I was so thrilled by all of what I had seen that I do not even remember if Frampton talked with the audience after the films, though he must have; I do know that the films kept me up half the night, writing notes and trying to come to terms with Frampton’s remarkably active engagement of the spectator’s intellect. Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania focuses on Mekas’s first trip back to his native Lithuania, and to his mother, after having left home thirty years earlier to escape the Nazis. (He had been unable to return after the war, the country having been closed to the West.) The long central section of Reminiscences is filmed in a highly gestural, hand-held, single-framing style, so that Mekas’s imagery offers only glimpses of the family, farm, and village he left behind, glimpses that reflect/ express his own nervousness and excitement and the evanescence of the moment. Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania is a lovely and moving film—and as a result, I was shocked to hear the anger of many in the audience when the lights came on: “You ruined the film, you asshole!” “You had a great subject but made it impossible for us to see!” “Have you no sense of cinema at all?!” Mekas handled the attacks gracefully; he seemed used to it. The experience, however, confirmed my reaction to the Frampton films, and I realized that it was possible for me to respond deeply and positively to films, to love films, that the majority of my colleagues in the audience might absolutely loathe. I had been, one might say, freed to engage directly with the works rather than with public or critical opinion.

Elizabeth Mekas, Jonas Meka’s mother, in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972). Courtesy: Jonas Mekas.

My guess is that it’s already obvious how this series of pivotal moments might have contributed to what became my ongoing engagement with alternative cinema. What I am most interested in here, however, are the commonalities within this set of experiences. Fundamentally, each revealed to me that cinema could be far more powerful and interesting, far more educational and personally transformative, than I had previously recognized. Second, all of the experiences were arranged and organized by people who imagined new possibilities for public film exhibition, whether these involved reviving earlier classics, importing films from other parts of the world, or presenting new forms of cinema that functioned as critiques of the more “normal” film experiences I had grown up with. And finally, as educational as they were, each of these pivotal moments was a truly public experience. I was experiencing the films with other spectators, and, almost automatically, I was measuring my experience against the disparate experiences of the strangers around me.



In time, the events I’ve described, and especially those that came near the end of the process, helped me realize that, as an academic, as a professor at a liberal arts college, and especially as a film history professor, it was part of my job to make pedagogically exciting, potentially transformative film events (and later video events) available to my students, to the campus at large, and to the local public. Indeed, I came to feel that this was one of the most exciting parts of my job; and of course, as the years went by, presenting events had a wide range of effects on my activities as a young teacher and scholar. Programming came to feel like the essence of teaching—at least as important, insofar as communicating something of the nature of film history, as my lecturing in class or as the writing I was beginning to do. After all, in the pivotal moments I’ve described, what was crucial wasn’t simply learning about film history, but rather being part of film history as it was unfolding and expanding around me. For, in fact, film history is precisely the history of what is shown and seen, just as the history of literature is the history of what is published and read. Obviously, though we use the term “film history” to refer to the content of books that chronicle the history of cinema (let us use it in this sense between quotation marks), film history itself (the history of film, without the quotation marks) is not a written chronicle. Rather it is the set of theatrical (and non-theatrical) experiences that the written chronicle—“film history”—pretends to survey; it is the history of films that have been made and experienced by audiences. If a film is made and not seen, it cannot be part of film history, any more than Emily Dickinson’s poems would have been a part of literary history had they not been saved and seen into publication after her death by her sister. Further, if a film has been made and seen but is no longer available to audiences, it is a fading part of film history, even if it continues to be part of “film history.” What has become a tendency to confuse film history and “film history,” at least in a practical sense, is the result, I’ve come to believe, of a particular moment in the history of cinema’s entrance into American academe. The generation of teachers who entered colleges and universities during the late 1960s and early 1970s was faced with an unusual challenge: we needed to prove that the new discipline was worthy of academic attention. After all, a good many of our colleagues in other fields were suspicious that film studies was a fad and not to be taken seriously. Of course, writing and publishing have long been the primary intellectual currency in academic institutions, and so it was probably inevitable that those of us who were committed to the field were focused on producing a body of written theory and criticism that could stand beside the literatures produced by other, more established fields. The problem was that, in a good many cases, the production of this written literature came to be the only acceptable, tenure-worthy demonstration of our expertise as film historians, and it was increasingly common for academics to make themselves more fully responsible to “film history” than to a living, breathing film history. Individuals willing to face the difficulties and challenges of exhibiting cinema on an ongoing basis became something of a rarity in academic circles, and serious efforts at film exhibition in academe were often neither encouraged nor rewarded, at least as compared with the recognition afforded the no more challenging process of writing “film history.” It is true that when students study film history in classrooms they are audiences seeing films, at least for the duration of the courses in which they are enrolled. But these are private viewings, which are increasingly qualified both by technical compromises (as evidenced, for instance, by the increasing use of pirated videos of films rather than films themselves) and by the inevitable impoverishment of film history that results from the lack of any serious, public film exhibition program outside of the classroom that might confirm and expand on what occurs in the classroom, and through which students might measure their understanding of challenging work within the context of a larger public. Academics in film studies in a good many, if not most, institutions of higher learning seem to have decided that the job of creating a living film history within the academic community-at-large and within the communities that surround academic institutions is not theirs.



Paradoxically, this unfortunate situation seems also a tremendous opportunity, especially for those who are aware of the full range of moving-image media art. There are, after all, so many audiences to be built! And I do mean audiences, rather than “audiences.” One of the unfortunate tendencies of recent decades with respect to the exhibition of alternative media, especially in academic institutions, has been a refusal on the part of some programmers to be concerned about the size of audiences. Even in those academic institutions at which alternative media events are programmed, there often seems minimal attention to developing audiences for this programming. This situation may in part be a hangover from the early 1970s, when there seemed to be a plethora of federal and state support for media projects and presentations, no matter how far out they were and no matter how few people showed up to experience them: the failure to develop audiences simply had no financial repercussions. It may also be a function of a rather entrenched idea concerning the intrinsic value of art. Once cinema was understood to be an art form, some programmers seem to have decided that since the contemporary popularity of a work of art or an artist has nothing to do with the work’s ultimate artistic integrity and accomplishment, and since those who are sophisticated enough will inevitably find their way to the best work, all that is necessary is to make the work available: the audience should take care of itself. These are attitudes that probably have any number of sources, but one was most likely Jonas Mekas and the New American Cinema group. During the early 1960s the group’s primary focus was the integrity of the individual film artist, and it set out to offer a new artist-centered way of viewing alternative cinema, and particularly “avant-garde” cinema: the one-person show. During that period, as postwar Americans found themselves increasingly interested in a variety of forms of film art, one could naively imagine that the best alternative films, and the individual film artists who created them, would draw increasingly large audiences and that, before long, this growing audience would support the building of new distribution networks and new theaters. (Of course, this moment did produce the filmmakers’ cooperative movement.) In this intellectual climate, to work at attracting an audience could seem pointless or, worse, a betrayal of seriousness and commitment, a capitulation to pop culture and commercialism. In any case, whatever the causes, by the early 1970s the idea of actually building new audiences for the full range of cinema moved pretty much to the background. It is easy to forget that the audience for the New American Cinema, for the influx of “foreign film,” and for the new forms of documentary that transformed American film culture during the 1960s did not appear by magic. It was, at least in part, the result of the labors of those who created a postwar film society movement in North America, men and women who battled with censors and customs regulations to make a broader selection of the history of cinema available to the film-interested general public. Frank Stauffacher at Art in Cinema in San Francisco, Amos and Marcia Vogel at Cinema 16 in New York, and many others developed considerable audiences and inspired a nationwide network of film societies. Stauffacher and Vogel understood that there were some people already interested in the full range of cinematic achievement, but that there were also many more who would be involved if interesting films were made available to them in effective ways. They made a commitment to serve innovative, accomplished filmmakers and a growing audience. And they did this during an era (the late 1940s and the 1950s) that we think of as one of the most conservative moments in our history. Judging from their programs, the film societies attracted and maintained audiences by presenting a wildly diverse but thoughtful selection of quality films. A considerable range of challenging work got seen this way, and even those who ultimately rebelled against the film-society approach to programming and created the New American Cinema group were educated by it. Mekas has often called Cinema 16 his “university.” Our current moment, insofar as I can make sense of it, has a good bit in common with the era in which the film societies flourished, at least insofar as alternative media is concerned. In many ways, this period seems, politically and culturally, very conservative. We don’t have the McCarthy hearings, but we have the Patriot Act. And compared with the situation in some other parts of the



world, there is little public grant support for alternative media (there was none in the 1940s and 1950s). As was also true in the mid-1940s, in many places— and in most academic places — a substantial audience for regular public presentations of alternative media has not formed. The good news is that at many colleges and universities considerable financial and technical resources remain available to faculty willing to do the work of presenting events. Obviously, cinema in its various forms —here, I’m remembering Gene Youngblood’s definition: “Cinema is the art of organizing a stream of audiovisual events in time. It’s an event-stream, like music. There are… at least four media through which we can practice cinema—film, video, computer, holography — just as there are many instruments through which we practice music” 1 — is of considerable widespread interest throughout the culture and throughout academe. And I believe that most academic institutions can come to understand the educational value, for both campus and community, of the thoughtful, creative, regular, public presentation of challenging films, videos, and digital media. The question, then, is how those of us who have some sense of the wide world of cinema can help to make a full-bodied, intellectually accomplished media history a living presence not just at a few institutions here and there, but throughout American academe. Certainly, we can follow the example of those who have fought to keep cinema alive and engaging within colleges and universities (in my region, the indefatigable Patricia Zimmermann continues to invigorate Ithaca College by bringing various sectors of the college together for cutting-edge media events) and/or at media arts institutions located close to colleges and universities (Joanna Raczynska at Hallwalls, in Buffalo, is an excellent example). But despite all the remarkable efforts that have been made, so many institutions of higher learning are still failing cinema to such an extent that even a tried-andtrue technology like 16mm film seems an endangered cinematic species, and it is not unusual for someone to write to Frameworks (the listserv for avant-garde film that was founded and is managed by Pip Chodorov) to say that, really, nothing much can be done about the low level of awareness of alternative media in most academic institutions, since academics don’t really care. The issue of alternative exhibition began to crystallize for me in a new, more personal sense when I retired from full-time teaching in 1999. While I found I missed the teaching, I was also very excited about having time to do research and to be able to finish a number of projects that, had I had to deal with the rigors of a full-time academic load, might never have been accomplished. I was able to complete the fourth and fifth volumes of my Critical Cinema series of interviews with independent film- and video-makers (published by University of California Press); and I was able to finish 2 books on Cinema 16 and Art in Cinema. But as each of these projects moved toward completion (and especially as I was patting myself on the back for seeing them through), I was increasingly dogged by a nagging suspicion that, whatever I thought I was accomplishing by doing these books, I was also failing the field I love. Giving up full-time teaching had meant ceasing to program for the campus and community and, therefore, forgoing the challenge of building new audiences for alternative media art. I had to face the fact that I was giving up film history to do “film history.”

The Cinema 16 audience at an event in the 1600-seat Central Needle Trades Auditorium (later known as the Fashion Industries Auditorium), which was often filled to capacity for Cinema 16 events. Photo: Amos Vogel.



In the end, this situation came to seem, for lack of a better word, immoral: to a considerable extent, I was now exploiting the labor and creativity of media makers, and those who have sacrificed to provide them with public exposure, for my own pleasure and sense of accomplishment, for my own career, without giving back in any direct, practical sense. And so, when an opportunity arose to return to teaching and programming, I realized I needed to take advantage of it. The opportunity was offered by Hamilton College, the fine, small liberal arts college in Clinton, New York. We agreed that I would teach film history and that, as part of my job (rewarded by a course-load reduction), I would generate regular moving-image media events with an eye to crossing academic disciplinary boundaries and creating an intellectual nexus for the campus and the surrounding community. The college has more than adequate resources for such events, though there has never been an ongoing, serious attempt on this campus to do what Hamilton was now proposing. Whether I can develop an audience for the events I plan, an audience that reaches beyond the film studies classroom and beyond the college, remains to be seen. What does seem clear, even at this opening moment of the process, however, is that if the Hamilton College administration can commit to an increased presence of serious moving-image media on campus, the administrations of other colleges and universities can do the same. And even if I discover that I do not have the skills to generate the kind of audience that the wide world of cinema deserves, I am sure that the resources will remain available for others who might be more successful in using them. The first event in the series I have organized (scholar Marta Braun presenting a lecture titled “Étienne-Jules Marey: Science and Cinema Explored”) is only days away as I write, and—as all programmers reading this will know—I am awash in the details of getting the events space in efficient working order, in arranging to host Professor Braun, and in working to attract an audience to this and other scheduled events. And, again as all programmers will know, I am already thinking of the kinds of events I’ll host next year: for example, the recent popular successes of remarkable nature films—Winged Migration (2001), Deep Blue (2005), March of the Penguins (2005), Grizzly Man (2005)—suggest that there might be ways of bringing Hamilton’s science faculty and humanities faculty together, in the way Amos Vogel’s programming of science films alongside avant-garde works helped to bring Cinema 16’s diverse audience together. So far, the programming process has been both pleasurable and exhausting—even a bit frightening for someone who has been outside the fray for some years now. But it does feel wonderful to be serving the field in a more direct way, to be using what my activities as a “film historian” have taught me, in the interest of keeping a living cinema history alive.

The fifth volume of SCOTT MACDONALD’s series A Critical Cinema was published by the University of California Press in 2005; Art in Cinema: Documents toward a History of the Film Society is due out from Temple University Press in 2006. He teaches at Hamilton College.

NOTES: 1. Gene Youngblood, “Metaphysical Structuralism: The Videotapes of Bill Viola,” Millennium Film Journal, no. 20–21 (Fall/Winter 1988–89): 83. 2. Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society was published by Temple University Press in 2002; a companion piece, Art in Cinema: Documents…, is due out this year.



SWAMP ROOTS: The Origins of Southwest Alternate Media Project and the Development of a Texas Film Community MARY M. LAMPE

Roberto Rossellini and, 1970. Courtesy: The SWAMP Archives.

SWAMP is a senior citizen of media arts. It’s easy to be young and foolish—what’s hard is to keep the flexibility. The education mission keeps us on track. Education stokes the fire of art, nourishing the seeds at every level, from student to entrepreneur to educator. That’s what [filmmakers] James Blue and Bruce Baillie shared—they both jumped in on whatever level with the “Got a film?” attitude. Education is not about imparting the secrets of the machine; education is surely about awakening people to the possibility of adventure.

—Ed Hugetz, Founding Director of Southwest Alternate Media Project


IN 1977, Southwest Alternate Media Project came into being as an independent nonprofit media arts center in Houston, Texas. As is appropriate for a Texas entity, its roots were formed by a group of distinctive, almost mythic characters whose cumulative vision continues to shape the organization. The story of SWAMP is profoundly intertwined with the emerging sensibilities of the 1960s and 1970s, an era in which the democratization of the tools of filmmaking and community engagement were being established throughout the country. True to its acronym, SWAMP grew from a deep passion, nurtured by a rich, complex, and occasionally murky mixture of people and place. It evolved from an environment of experiment and openness shared by an unusual group of people comprised of extraordinary philanthropists, visionary filmmakers, inspired educators, and independent spirits, all touched by a bit of anarchy and an abiding commitment to educating filmmakers and audiences alike to the possibilities of developing community and gaining understanding through film and making films. The combination of their vision and efforts all translated into one idea, that of building a larger community outside one’s self, an idea that formed the basis for the existence of the Southwest Alternate Media Project. This is its hidden history.




The de Menil family, enormously wealthy philanthropists and patrons of the avant-garde in the international art world who settled in Houston in the 1940s, were passionate film lovers. John de Menil, who had been involved with the French Resistance during World War II, belonged to the ciné clubs of Paris, where film was a very serious preoccupation. These cinéastes (film enthusiasts) came together in ciné clubs to watch films and, afterward, argue about them until they were exhausted. Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut both began their careers as cinéastes. In their films like Breathless and The 400 Blows they took up cameras and, freeing themselves of conventional film formulas, became icons of the New Wave of French filmmaking. Other such enthusiasts turned to criticism, as did André Bazin, who became an influential film critic and founded Cahiers du Cinéma as a vehicle for the dissemination of the group’s ideas. In the comparative cultural backwater of Houston, there were few, if any, venues for foreign-film screenings, let alone for much intellectual discourse about them. Fueled by their wealth and driven by their passions, which encompassed diverse interests ranging from the simplicity of folk art to the sophistication of Surrealism, the de Menils set about correcting this disparity. The foundations of the education and outreach programs that ultimately evolved into SWAMP had their first incarnation at the Media Center at the University of St. Thomas, in Houston. The Media Center, funded by the de Menils, was founded and directed by Gerald O’Grady from 1967–69. O’Grady, initially a medieval specialist in the English Department at Rice University, was inspired by the idea of media as a code of communication and self-expression. He inaugurated a cinematheque at St. Thomas, showing American classics and European films in screenings that were open to the public, and organized the first Houston Film Conference, held for five hundred teachers in October 1968 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During this “long hot summer” of civil-rights dissention in the United States and against the backdrop of the dregs of Jim Crow laws (that thinly veiled form of discrimination against minorities, particularly African Americans) in Houston and the South, O’Grady persuaded the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers to provide cameras and film stock, which he distributed to youth throughout the city. Their photographs were exhibited and shown in slide presentations during the conference, all before a broader acceptance of the concept of diversity we know today. During that year, O’Grady also visited high schools and junior high schools, screening Alain Renais’s 1955 documentary Night and Fog, about the German concentration camps—long before the Holocaust had received its memorials or commemorations. His focus on international, humanitarian, and community concerns was what enabled him to attract James Blue (1940–1980) to Houston, a filmmaker who would become an integral figure in the history of SWAMP. “James,” O’Grady recalls, “had made a film about the colonial revolution in Algeria [Les Oliviers de la Justice (The Olive Trees of Justice), 1962] and had made films for the U. S. Agency for International Development in Central and South America, as well as Asia and Africa. We had a shared view.” 2 O’ Grady would go on to found the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo and to become an extraordinarily important figure in the media arts internationally. By the time O’Grady brought Blue to the University of St. Thomas in 1968, he had already taught at the University of California at Los Angeles and been one of the founding faculty at the American Film Institute’s new conservatory for training filmmakers. Born in Oklahoma, he spoke fluent French and had studied filmmaking in Paris. Internationally recognized as a filmmaker, he had received an Academy Award ® nomination for his documentary film Some Notes on Our Food Problem (1968) and an award from the Cannes Film Festival for The Olive Trees of Justice. Blue had grown disenchanted with the narcissism inherent in the filmmaking trends he saw in New York and Los Angeles. In a 1963 interview with Mary Batten, he posited, “if people would step back 3 and love their subjects more than themselves, we would have a great new cinema in America.”



Charismatic and movie-star handsome, Blue was a filmmaker of extraordinary sensitivity and power as well as a gifted teacher. The films he made often combined the social truth and realism of documentary with beautifully poetic narrative elements. During the decade he was in Houston (1968–78), Blue transformed film and video education, forging a new concept for the relation between university media departments and their communities.

James Blue editing at Rice Media Center. Courtesy: The SWAMP Archives.

Following a brief period of activity at St. Thomas, the de Menils decided to shift the focus of their efforts to developing a film program at Rice University instead. There they engaged the architect Eugene Aubrey (who had worked with Philip Johnson) to design an open space that would become the Rice Media Center. American and European film luminaries, invited by the de Menils, converged in Houston to live and work and participate in the development of the Media Center. These included Blue as well as fellow filmmakers Roberto Rossellini and Bruce Baillie, and Colin Young, who went on to found the National Film School in London. As the Media Center developed, many visiting filmmakers were invited—Jean-Luc Godard, Terence Malick, Milos Foreman, Stan Vanderbeek, and others. “John de Menil was clearly not interested in creating another film school to support the Hollywood industry. He wanted instead a school that encouraged students to make films with intellectual content, films that challenged people to think about their lives. The Rice Media Center was to be a ‘Trojan Horse’ located in the center of ‘Boom City’ USA. This horse was to contain media soldiers trained to see through the hype of the pro-marketplace, anti-intellectual ideology, and to critically evaluate the relationships between the citizen, the government, and the private sector.” 4 Before Rice Media Center was realized as a concrete building, a kind of media anarchy had reigned. Ed Hugetz, who would later become the founding director of SWAMP, was intimately involved in the evolution of Houston’s film scene, long before SWAMP became SWAMP. Many of the recollections included in this history come from presentations and conversations with Hugetz, who now serves as Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Vice President for Planning and University Outreach for the University of Houston. With a background in documentary filmmaking, Hugetz had returned to Houston in the late 1960s after earning a B.A. degree from Notre Dame University, soon followed by an M.A.H. in media studies from the State University of New York at Buffalo. In 1969, John and Dominique de Menil hired him to develop and administer film screenings for the public and university students for what was called at the time the Southwest Media Project. Screenings took place in a variety of unconventional venues while the Media Center was being



designed and built —first, in an old medical building rented by the de Menils; then, in the basement of a dorm on the Rice campus; and finally, in a biology-building classroom. Filmmakers came in and out of town; Rice students (and non-students) were attending screenings—all mostly underground and unknown to University officials. Film as subversion was beginning to take hold. By some kind of spontaneous magic, young, hip audiences (as large as five hundred viewers) packed unadvertised screenings of avant-garde films (many by Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage, and other experimental independents) at the Allray Theatre, a funky old Houston movie house. Once Rice Media Center opened, Blue developed a two-year filmmaking course, during which hundreds of films of all genres were screened and discussed. Newly available technology— Super-8 film and portable ¾-inch video—enabled him to fulfill his belief that democratization of the media, in terms of both promoting public awareness and providing access to tools, was critically important for our society. His insight into the potential to engage the community through television broadcast was perhaps his most innovative contribution, providing the impetus for what would later become one of SWAMP’s most recognized projects, The Territory, a short-film showcase that celebrates its thirtieth season of broadcasting on Texas PBS stations in 2005. For O’Grady, “[Blue’s] curriculum for filmmaking was one of the best in the United States. … Courses in filmmaking were also offered to community members in the evenings and in special summer institutes.” 5 These “students” made films about problems in their own lives. Blue and Hugetz took Media Vans with production equipment into African American and Latino communities in Houston and into small Texas towns to co-produce films about various topics like community theater, housing projects, or prison conditions. Other filmmakers, including Brian Huberman, who came to Rice Media Center from London’s National School of Film to work with Blue and teach in 1975, joined them in producing communitybased films which were shown in their own communities and discussed just as rigorously as in any Paris ciné club.

As formal histories have never really been published about either organization, Baillie’s role as a guru to the Media Center and, subsequently, to SWAMP has, unfortunately, been overlooked.

Another central figure whose sensibility was integral to the development of the Media Center, and ultimately SWAMP, was Bruce Baillie, the iconic experimental filmmaker and co-founder of Canyon Cinema, the first distributor for avant-garde film in the United States. As formal histories have never really been published about either organization, Baillie’s role as a guru to the Media Center and, subsequently, to SWAMP has, unfortunately, been overlooked. But Ed Hugetz was deeply influenced by his work and presence in Houston. As he recalled, “Bruce Baillie was the most in-sync person in terms of the history of our culture. When the Library of Congress first selected the ten greatest films, [Baillie’s work] Castro Street [1966] was on the list. For Baillie, the [filmmaker’s] path was a personal journey. You had to get back down to your animal state—strip away your social veneer to get to the inner path. The twenty-five, mostly Rice, students [learned that] with Bruce, before you took up a camera [you learned] what it takes to be a human being. … It seems now that it is Baillie’s message: his energy, his sense of experimentation, his pursuit of openness and vulnerability all reflected the idea of building a larger community outside one’s self.” 6 Many students and community participants found satisfaction and fulfillment through the Rice film program offerings. After all, the Media Center was the only place in town where members of the public could get their hands on production equipment. But all this heady idealism had a dark side, too. There were those who were drawn into the romance of “becoming a filmmaker,” some giving up good jobs or becoming deeply discouraged without understanding the very hard reality of maintaining a film career. But the halcyon days of openness were coming to an end at the Media Center as university officials began to object to quite so much “community access” at their school. The dean of the Art Department at the time, recalled Brian Huberman, reflected the



University’s attitude by making Blue feel increasingly unwelcome.7 The most important Media Center champions were gone: John de Menil had died in 1973, and Mrs. de Menil was envisioning a new museum for their extraordinary art collections. James Blue had tried to expand the Media Center audiences, but audiences were dwindling and sometimes Ed, in his role as projectionist, showed the films to himself. Baillie had been a visiting professor and, in 1978, Blue moved on to SUNY Buffalo to work with Gerald O’Grady in the establishment of the media arts program there. About a year later, Blue, while working at the National Film School in London, was diagnosed with a then-untreatable, lethal form of cancer. He died in 1980 at the age of forty-nine. O’Grady has served as the keeper of the filmmaker’s archives. A 1970s era photograph of Bruce Baillie and James Blue together is revealing. Blue—tall, lean, with curly, long hair and hip in his ethnic pullover and desert boots—wryly contemplates his colleague. Baillie is shorter, wearing a smile and short hair, a little balding, and dressed in a button-down Oxford shirt and pullover sweater and jeans. They are looking at each other with evident respect and even affection. Their combined legacy as filmmakers, a powerful synthesis of community and humanity, ultimately served as an important catalyst for the birth of SWAMP as an independent media arts organization. A 1970s era photograph of Bruce Baillie and James Blue together. Courtesy: The SWAMP Archives.


During the late 1960s and the 1970s, the general attitude toward the arts, culture, and social issues was mostly conservative in the comparatively unsophisticated state of Texas. However, there were many, mostly young, people who were inspired by counterculture notions of the era. While the Department of Radio–TV–Film opened its doors at the University of Texas at Austin in 1965, there were no independent organizations that supported the grassroots, community-oriented approach to filmmaking championed by James Blue. Once the door to community filmmakers closed at Rice Media Center in the mid-1970s, the time seemed right for a non-university, projectbased nonprofit. Deeply inspired by filmmakers Baillie and Blue, now familiar with administration and television production, and committed to community filmmaking, Ed Hugetz was the natural leader for the development of an outside-the-box organization, which became known as SWAMP. He recalled the relevance of the name “SWAMP” to a new group of board members in 2001: The name embodies the spirit of the organization over time, even though it has caused trouble in terms of fundraising, as it rings so sixties, which in fact it is. … The name, in fact, did come out of the late 1960s and 1970s from four people who had definite ideas about it. John and Dominique de Menil, who were the impetus for SWAMP’s beginning, were not just superficially or philanthropically involved but were the authors of an extraordinary vision of recreating the ciné clubs they had known in Paris in Houston, Texas. The name they chose was Southwest Media Project and “project” was the key word. Their central idea was that the “project” would be a catalyst for the production of cinema; to inspire people in Texas and the region to make films for the love of it (as “amateurs”).8



The de Menils had hired Ed to organize similar ciné clubs in order to encourage a response from people—“to jump out of their seats and say, ‘I can do that!’” The Southwest Media Project was meant to turn film from a passive experience into an active one, causing people to react. The de Menils, who often told Ed not to “plan to make a living out of it,” hated endowments. “They didn’t want a bureaucracy or a clique of tastemakers but an open structure to be created that would spark the imaginations of film lovers.” 9 For Hugetz, the “alternate” part of SWAMP’s name was “the most magical.” As the story goes, James Blue and Brian Huberman were sent to register the name Southwest Media Project as a nonprofit entity with the State. When they came back, they informed Ed that another, for-profit group already had that name. Blue then announced, “But we fixed it! We put Southwest Alternate Media Project,” and that, as Brian declared, “spells SWAMP! It’s a perfect name!” And, somehow, it was perfect. Of course, Houston is a swamp, going back to the time of the Chiricahua Indians. SWAMP, as its name implies, is rooted in its own nature, in its location, and in the uncharted quality of its pursuits. And as Hugetz later observed, “Just as humans had to learn how to earn their livelihood here in the swamp [of Houston], every year we start at zero [budget] and we need to reinvent ourselves every time. We must be alert to what is going on—get lost, look in new places, keep moving, remain committed to the mission. As in experimental film, the locus moves, but the good [films] have a spark of honesty, of authenticity, because they are made by 10 people who had to do it; who were in love [with the process of filmmaking].” In May 1977, the SWAMP offices opened in a converted garage apartment located on a site that later became the Menil Collection. Almost magically, and somewhat incredibly to Hugetz and Huberman, countless people from diverse backgrounds appeared with a burning desire to make film the vehicle for telling their stories. A variety of services were offered, many evolving from the Rice Media Center programs. Although the Menil Foundation provided initial funding, it was a finite resource for SWAMP, and the continuing race for funding began in earnest. Fortunately, there were a number of newly formed governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, and other entities that were able to step in with support for the new nonprofit. As SWAMP’s first leader, Hugetz, articulate and passionate in his advocacy, also played a prominent role in the development of national organizations such as ITVS and NAMAC, which were created to give voice to independent makers. Mimi Pickering of Appalshop wrote in a support letter, ”I first met folks from SWAMP in 1980 at the founding conference of NAMAC. At a session with Jean Firstenburg, the newly appointed director of the American Film Institute, a fellow rose from the back of the room and made an impassioned speech about how the AFI must recognize the importance of bringing diverse voices into the filmmaking community and support filmmakers 11 in every region of the United States. The man talking was Ed Hugetz from SWAMP.” Over the years, SWAMP has assisted hundreds of aspiring filmmakers captured by the possibilities of the medium. The subsequent executive directors of SWAMP—Tom Sims, Deborah Leveranz, Celia Braswell Lightfoot, and myself—encouraged by Hugetz (who followed his role as founding director with continuing service as board president or board member) to pursue their own interests relative to the organization, have followed this incredibly challenging—yet, somehow, still workable—practice of regeneration for nearly thirty years.


Ed Hugetz once described the de Menils’ love of folk culture and how it related to their global concerns and ideas about art. In Texas, there is a strong folklore tradition that developed during the period from the1930s to 1950s, nurtured by three friends who shared a love of Texas culture, history, and storytelling: writer J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedicheck, and historian Walter Prescott Webb. This trio spearheaded the creation of a Texas literature built out of the stories of



farmers, ranchers, and cowboys. The writers talked about “our literature” with appropriately Texas subjects and developed the notion that we needed our own stories. Alan Lomax, who had traveled around the country in the 1920s and 1930s to collect regional folk music and record it for posterity, was also an inspiration for the de Menils. The products of folk culture —never considered high art but as outsider art—were outside of the power structure. This notion appealed to the de Menils’ incredible sense of open structure and anti-intellectualism, while endorsing the value of content in art. Filmmakers like Eagle Pennell, Ken Harrison, Richard Linklater, and Laurie McDonald represent only four better known Texans from among the hundreds of southwestern artists who worked through SWAMP over time, creating highly personal films with a variety of Texas characters— among them, the cowboy drunk, the cranky old rancher, the poor black sharecropper, dog ghosts, slackers, and a multiplicity of narrative, documentary, and experimental visions. While still at Rice, James Blue had provided the impetus and community-made films for one of SWAMP’s most important core programs. The Territory—a series showcasing work by independent filmmakers—was established for public television broadcast in 1975. The origin of the series’ title is intriguing. Blue told Gerald O’Grady that he called it The Territory based on song lyrics from the musical Oklahoma (“Territory folk should stick together; Territory folk should all be pals”).12 Before cable access television, The Territory was visionary (not just in Texas but nationally) in its response to local issues, and fortunate in its good timing. By coincidence, the local PBS station (now known as HoustonPBS, Channel 8) was applying for renewal of its broadcast license, which required a community assessment. The Houston community, with plenty of input from activists and filmmakers, complained that the station wasn’t showing enough local programming. Blue’s own three-part, one-hour documentary project, Who Killed the Fourth Ward? (1976–77), produced with Brian Huberman, focused on Houston real estate development and the displacement of older, primarily African American neighborhoods. It was one of the first programs broadcast on The Territory. Once SWAMP became independent of Rice Media Center, The Territory began to evolve. The first phase of the series, which became identified as “Empowerment,” featured the works of individuals who took up cameras to document social problems and visualize their creative fantasies. The second period, “Many Voices,” reflected the increasing output by minorities, women, activists, and others whose ideas and viewpoints were largely ignored or under-represented in the contemporary commercial media outlets. The third phase of the series, “Many Visions,” which has included the work of an international community of artists who have been perpetually redefining the medium through new strategies and new technologies, is the one that still prevails in 2005. For this broad showcase for work by Texas filmmakers and by world-recognized artists, a model format was designed to enhance the visual perception of the audience and to broaden it. Two strategies lent structure to the format: curating innovative works that challenged the role of the viewers; and providing commentary, with artists’ interviews, to create a bridge between conventional television and media art. Woody Vasulka, the internationally recognized media artist, once commented, “The Territory’s format allows a private/personal work to be transformed into a cultural activity.” 13 For a time, versions of The Territory series were produced separately in Austin under the auspices of Judith Sims, film curator at the Laguna Gloria Museum and, later, in Corpus Christi, with the Art Museum of South Texas. In 1984, the Houston and Austin broadcasts were combined and produced at PBS Channel 8 in Houston. The Territory, now no longer the only short-film series broadcast in America, remains unique in its longevity on public television (thirty seasons to date, in 2005) and as a co-production between a media arts center (SWAMP), two museums (Austin Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and a public television station (HoustonPBS).

Directions and Programs across the Years

Over the decades, SWAMP’s direction evolved, along with its changing directors and the development of a filmmaking community in Houston, to encompass the state of Texas and the entire



Southwest region. The emphasis, regardless of specifics, however, has always remained on providing opportunities for filmmakers of all ages and ethnicities, ranging from exhibition and conferences to education, professional development, and varying levels and methods of financial support. The Texpo Film and Video Festival, which evolved from the early Rice Media Center screenings, was created by Hugetz and Blue to focus on developing an outlet for education and for showing work produced by community filmmakers. This component of their vision led to the ultimate community-as-audience in the public television broadcast of The Territory. The festival featured works submitted by Texas filmmakers that were screened in Austin. The name Texpo was based on Expo ’67 in Montreal, the first international World’s Fair to introduce new media to the world. In 1985–86, the Independent Images Conference supplanted Texpo, in cooperation with the Austin Chronicle and its editor and founder, Louis Black, and with the Laguna Gloria Museum (now Austin Museum of Art) and its film curator, Judith Sims. It was envisioned as an annual conference designed “to continue the development of cooperative activities between business, art, and educational communities involved in film and video production, distribution, and education.”14 A variety of workshops and seminars were presented—screenwriting, film scoring, acting, directing, producing, and financing feature films. A special highlight was the presence of guest filmmakers who were Black’s friends, Jonathan Demme and John Sayles. Black himself went on to establish the now internationally recognized South by Southwest (SXSW) Film, Music, and Interactive festivals in Austin. As early as 1978, SWAMP had begun to act as a sponsoring organization for grants to individual filmmakers through its program of Sponsored Projects. In 1980, it was selected by the NEA to administer the agency’s Regional Fellowship Program for media artists from Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, benefited by the Independent Production Fund (IPF). And because of this outreach to individual artists, the Texas Commission on the Arts selected SWAMP as its Statewide Partner in 1980, an honor that helped to increase SWAMP’s organizational capacity. Through the IPF, SWAMP was able to give some $50,000 per year to individuals for fourteen years before the program ended in 1994, when the NEA was forced to curtail it due to funding cuts and political disapproval of several controversial works by visual artists that had been funded.

It took some twenty years before a nonprofit and corporate partnership initiative for film production was realized in Texas with Burnt Orange Productions, organized under the auspices of the University of Texas, Austin, RTVF department in 2005.

Although Richard Linklater is now probably one of the best-known filmmakers to have received IPF funds, for what would become his film Slacker (1991), it was Eagle Pennell (1952–2002), a UT–Austin film-school dropout, who in some ways personified the regionalism and spirit of self-taught independence that had captured the imagination of the de Menils from the beginning. The first of his Texas trilogy of films was A Hell of a Note (1975), a thirty-minute short. In 1978, Robert Redford saw The Whole Shootin’ Match, Pennell’s first feature film, and reportedly envisioned the Sundance Institute as a result. Redford thought it would be “a real service to the [motion picture] industry … to provide a guy like [Pennell] with a place to train, a place to go 15 where he could develop his skills. It would shortcut a lot of the problems he was going to face.” An IPF grant of $1500 got Pennell started on his third, and arguably best film, Last Night at the Alamo. Written and produced by Texas Chainsaw Massacre writer Kim Henkel, the film went on the festival circuit to garner many favorable reviews, including one by Vincent Canby. Following an interlude in pursuit of potential Hollywood-style success and a poorly received effort, Ice House, Pennell returned to Houston. Through SWAMP, he received a grant for $30,000 from the NEA for Heart Full of Soul, an effort that, by most accounts, was a bomb. Eagle Pennell garnered extremes of praise and damnation. He was lauded by Louis Black as “one of the most important



pioneers of independent and regional filmmaking.”16 But Tom Sims, SWAMP managing director at the time, later recalled that during an argument, Eagle threatened to shoot him, and he declared that “his last two movies show exactly what he was capable of, or not capable of. In his own mind, though, he was this filmmaking legend.”17 Pennell’s films captured the essence of a certain type of hard drinking Texas outcast, a character that embodies the ultimate tragedy of Eagle himself, who gradually became a homeless alcoholic before he died in his sleep at a friend’s house in 2002. From 1983 to 1990, SWAMP further expanded its efforts to provide audiences with direct exposure to independent film and filmmakers with a touring film program called the Independent Images Tour. It was presented in more than fifty Texas cities with guest artists, critics, and scholars in venues ranging from museums to libraries. Marian Luntz, now film and video curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, came to SWAMP from the American Film Institute in 1983 and designed these tours, which offered both feature films and documentaries by regional and national filmmakers. SWAMP was selected and recognized nationally with media arts organizations including Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco, IMAGE in Atlanta, and NOVAC, New Orleans, who also presented the series. In the face of Texas conservatism, SWAMP had remained, for the most part, under the radar. As Ed Hugetz and Brian Huberman recalled, “There was a moment [in the 1980s] that we tried to climb into the ring [of commercial production].” The Lone Star Institute was supposed to be the Sundance of Texas. The energy for it belonged to special projects director (and later executive director) Tom Sims, more than anybody else. Sims had gone to Sundance and believed that the model for the Sundance Institute was one that he could bring to Texas. Conceived as a separate entity from SWAMP, the Lone Star Institute, as conceived in its master plan, would have marked a turning point for the organization; and its mission would have changed from education to production. Its purpose was to give local filmmakers the opportunity to get involved in commercial filmmaking. Hugetz observed that “Annenberg [the Annenberg Foundation] compared what SWAMP was doing as ping-pong to pro-football.” In effect, they said, “show us your capacity to raise a half million dollars and develop a business model. Film luminaries like Horton Foote and the Mastersons wanted to contribute. But, it’s an exhausting job to raise that kind of money.” In the end, after efforts to collaborate with other arts groups to create momentum, a study to determine support, and many meetings in smoked-glass-windowed skyscrapers, it soon became clear that the support wasn’t there for the effort. It took some twenty years before a nonprofit and corporate partnership initiative for film production was realized in Texas with Burnt Orange Productions, organized under the auspices of the University of Texas, Austin, RTVF department in 2005. In 1991, SWAMP began to collaborate with Strategies for Media Literacy, in San Francisco, to develop training workshops and seminars incorporating analysis, aesthetic and production elements of media arts education, and media literacy. The next year, the Independent Images Conference focused on these future trends in education, which led to the design and implementation of the first national Media Education Institute at Harvard University and a statewide initiative with the New Mexico State Department of Education. “Critical Thinking about the Media Arts” presented a series of workshops to help artists, educators, and administrators to learn and teach about the media. Media literacy, defined as “the ability to decode, analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms,”18 fit perfectly into the heritage of James Blue and his pursuit of media arts education and democracy through the media. In 1995, Julian Low, then national director of NAMAC, wrote in support of SWAMP: “Since 1977, SWAMP has been one of the few organizations in the southwest that provide a range of important services and support to film and video artists. Without this level of support, independent filmmakers would have difficulty exhibiting and distributing their works, let along producing them. On a national level, SWAMP had taken a major leadership role in advancing the goals of media arts



education and literacy. SWAMP’s 1992 conference in Austin, Texas, was a seminal event in the formation of the National Alliance for Media Education, a consortium of media arts organizations, public access stations, and public school administrators and teachers.”19 A comprehensive Media Literacy Institute was developed to train educators to combine analysis and application of the media in the classroom. Deborah Leveranz, SWAMP director from 1985 to 1994, developed the Media Literacy Institute and lobbied the Texas Legislature to include media arts and media literacy as requirements for the school curriculum then called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Texas remains one of the few states that has such an educational mandate.

The Present and the Future

Funding cuts in the 1990s and the birth of a crop of newer, more tightly focused media arts organizations in Texas have had their impact on SWAMP in recent years. The fruition of such nonprofit entities as the Dallas Video Festival, the Austin Film Society, and almost innumerable statewide film festivals, along with the Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez–driven ascendancy of what might be called an independent’s version of a “third coast” in Austin, have all diluted SWAMP’s influence, but not its spirit. In the twenty-first century, SWAMP continues to pursue the initiatives of exhibition, outreach, media literacy, fiscal sponsorship and resource assistance, and professional development for a diversity of film and video makers of all ages and abilities with the same tenacity and community focus that were established from the beginning. After a ten-year hiatus, SWAMP revived its statewide media arts conference in October 2001, in Houston, as the Texas Media Arts Conference, and has followed it up since then with less costly mini-conferences in Amarillo, San Antonio, and El Paso. These conferences offer opportunities for filmmakers to make connections with funders, professionals, and artists from all media disciplines, as well as to contribute and exhibit their own work. In 2001, SWAMP was chosen as one of a handful of nonprofits in Texas to administrate the national ABC-TV Talent Development Program. Through this program, proposals are accepted for short film or script projects. A panel selects two proposals to go on to ABC national, and winners receive a $20,000 grant to complete the short or write the script, as well as a year-long mentorship from ABC executives. SWAMP won an unprecedented number of four awards during the five years that this program has been offered. Throughout the weekend of October 1–3, 2002, SWAMP celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary as an independent nonprofit in tribute to James Blue and the inspiration derived from his contributions to filmmaking and media education. The celebration took place, most appropriately, at Rice Media Center. Events included a symposium of Blue’s former colleagues Gerald O’Grady, filmmakers Brian Huberman, Ed Hugetz, and Stevan Larner, and Blue biographer Lynne Jackson; the event was chaired by Hamid Naficy, then chair of Rice’s Art Department. Blue’s documentary films and community videos were screened throughout the weekend. A special award, a tribute to James Blue and his contributions to education and documentary film, was given to the famed activist filmmaker George Stoney. A community panel discussion and screening of segments of the still-relevant video Who Killed the Fourth Ward? to an enthusiastic audience of more than two hundred recalled the impact and power of SWAMP’s contributions to media communities on local, state, and national levels. What is SWAMP’s role in the twenty-first century? Ed Hugetz, whose perspective prevails over a thirty-year involvement with the organization, recalls that “the [SWAMP] board always struggled with [the mission]. In the mid-80s the NEA trained us all about what a mission statement was. … It’s not so much about SWAMP, it’s about the region, the community, the individuals [that are involved with us]. The future will come from the community, the region; and that’s the way it’s



structured—its openness, not [an organization] burdened or defined by an edifice. Media arts centers all over the country bet their future on building edifices and the latest equipment [some to their detriment]. The essence of SWAMP is faith in people and the search for the authentic voices and the belief that [those voices] are out there.” 20 Regardless of the inevitable changes and challenges to come, this same faith, realized through education and community-building for media artists and the public, serves as the basis for what SWAMP has always been and will continue to be, now and into the future.

MARY LAMPE is the executive director of Southwest Alternative Media Project and also serves as co-executive producer for The Territory, a short-film showcase broadcast on Texas PBS stations. She has produced numerous short documentaries about art and artists for museums and has programmed film series of all genres, in addition to occasionally teaching film history.

NOTES: 1. Audiotape interview by the author with Ed Hugetz and Brian Huberman, 27 July 2005. 2. Gerald O’Grady, letter to the author, 7 October 2005. 3. Mary Batten, “James Blue (The Olive Trees of Justice),” Film Comment 1, no. 5 (Summer 1963); reprinted in James Blue Scripts and Interviews, Celebrating Southwest Alternate Media Project 25 Years, Southwest Alternate Media Project and Rice University, November 2002. 4. Roberto Rossellini: Rossellini in Texas, Ministero de Tursimo e Dello Spettacolo, ,Edizioni Ente Automomo Gestione Cinema, October-November 1987, p. 109. 5. Gerald O’Grady, “James Blue in Houston,” in James Blue Scripts and Interviews (see note 3), p. 8. 6. Audiotape interview with Ed Hugetz and Brian Huberman (see note 1). 7. Ibid. 8. Ed Hugetz, Presentation to SWAMP Board, videotape by Brian Huberman, February 2002. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid. 11. The Official SWAMP Handbook, n.d. (c. 1995), unpaginated. 12. Gerald O’Grady, “James Blue in Houston” (see note 5), p. 10. 13. The Official SWAMP Handbook (see note 11). 14. Gerald O’Grady, “James Blue in Houston” (see note 5), p. 9. 15. Redford quoted in Steve McVicker, “Fade to Black,” Houston Press, 14–20 October 1999, p. 20. 16. [Eagle Pennell Tribute], Austin Chronicle 21, no. 47, p. 2 17. Sims quoted in “Fade to Black” (see note 15), p. 19. 18. The Official SWAMP Handbook (see note 11). 19. Julian Low, letter, in The Official SWAMP Handbook (see note 11). 20. Audiotape interview with Ed Hugetz and Brian Huberman (see note 1).



Secrets in the Archives: Hidden Stories, Necessary Releases

Melinda Stone in conversation with

Andrew Lampert and Rick Prelinger

THIS essay details the proceedings of a roundtable discussion dedicated to uncovering, mining, and discussing the secret practices of archivists and the hidden histories they preserve. For the last ten years I have stood in awe of the responsibility shouldered by film archivists—those quiet, unsung, and often taken-for-granted heroes of film history who select, collect, and preserve our moving-image heritage. Without them, we would not have the opportunity to see many of our favorite films from the past century. While in the nascent stages of researching amateur film clubs and the signature films they screen, I was introduced to the fraternity of archival professionals, the Association of Moving Image Archivists. I attended the organization’s annual conference for several years before, during, and immediately after the turn of the last millennium, eventually coming to adore the members’ dedication while abhorring their secretive ways. I knew archivists held the treasures I was seeking—amateur films—and were not going to let go of them that easily. It was Stephen O’Riordan, the film librarian at the University of California, San Diego, where I did my graduate studies, who had turned me on to amateur film. After four years of pestering him, O’Riordan finally broke down and showed me his secret cache, stored in the dank recesses of the university’s undergraduate library. He had boxes of home movies and amateur film club works he had solicited through newspaper ads as well as stores of educational films he had rescued from public libraries. No one at the university knew of his hidden collection. There were no funds to support it, but he knew it was important—an unassuming, minor gateway to our past. He sat on those films until I came along. I am forever thankful that he trusted me with his long-concealed treasure.



The films I discovered in O’Riordan’s hidden collection led me to the San Diego Amateur Film Club, the topic of my dissertation; and to Sid Laverents, now something of an icon of the American cinema who, in 2000, was the first amateur film club member to have a film, his Multiple Sidosis, placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. For more than seventy years, amateur film club members have been making all kinds of films, from documentaries to animated works to formal experiments. These works, like many other small-gauge films, are deposited in various archives all over the world, just waiting to be discovered. Often, because they do not fit into a known, established category, they are boxed away to be dealt with later. If Stephen O’Riordan had such remarkable films hiding in a university library basement, what could be found at other archives around the country? As it happens, quite a lot. Archivists are dedicated to their work; they do not take it lightly. They are driven by a passion to collect and preserve. This passion runs so deep that occasionally they do things that they must keep secret from the filmmakers who made the films, from the institutions that house the films, and from the public, which would like to access them but often doesn’t even know they are there. When asked to put together a roundtable discussion about the secrets of the archives for NAMAC, I immediately thought of Andrew Lampert, the archivist at Anthology Film Archives in New York, and Rick Prelinger, founder and director of Prelinger Archives in San Francisco—two of the most outspoken archivists who have championed the obscure and the need for access to it. If any archivists were going to speak up about the unrevealed practices undertaken in the archives it would be them. Thankfully, they were available and willing to address the challenge. I may be wrong to call the ensuing discussion a roundtable—it was really just an e-mail correspondence experiment. I wondered whether three individuals experienced with archives and the hidden secrets therein could use this format to express themselves, spark conversation with one another, and make the topic compelling for the readers of NAMAC’s annual anthology through a three-way e-mail discussion. I hope the following transcript of that discussion suggests the experiment was a success.

MELINDA STONE (MS): It seems that every archivist, whether at the Library of Congress, the

Smithsonian Institution, Anthology Film Archives, the Prelinger Archives, or watching over a university film depository or maintaining a rural collection, has a private collection of films that they keep to themselves. Many hoard a secret collection because they feel the films are too precious to screen, or they worry that once the public knows they have it they will be forced to give it back to the proper owner. Tell me your favorite story of an archivist and her collection that illuminates this kind of secrecy and its effects on the films they are hoarding. RICK PRELINGER (RP): For years, archivists kept secrets out of necessity, and even though

the pressures on them may have lessened in recent years, they still do. Pioneer film archivists acquired films in order to save them when they were considered expendable. Paying no mind to legalities, they collected films, and often secreted them, zipping up their lips. As time progressed, the world’s major archives found themselves in possession of many films whose existence they could neither admit nor verify. Had they made their inventories public and opened their vaults at every inquiry, copyright owners would have rushed in to claim films as their property and hostile governments might have seized films they considered threatening or wished to destroy. Many archivists in many countries whose names will never be known have risked themselves to secrete and save controversial material. There will never be easy answers to the question of whether to conceal or disclose information on archival holdings. We live in a place and time where there is still a high degree of civil liberty, and it is difficult to put ourselves in the place of archivists who must decide whether to risk arrest, torture, or death if they choose to uphold the ethics of their profession. What is certain is that



history progresses unevenly and that quiet may serve progress just as well as noise. It may be best for some documents to rest and others to be disclosed. If a film surfaces after being hidden for a time, its rediscovery reawakens the public to something they need to know and remember. Hiding something for a time may in many ways constitute a strategic art. But there are archivists and there are collectors. There are official distinctions between the two, but the distinction I think really matters is whether one collects for public or private purposes. Secrecy in the service of a private purpose can be problematic. There are collectors (and perhaps a few archivists), some quite well known, who sit on films seemingly for the pure pleasure of keeping them from the world. In so doing they feel a sense of power. Those who seek to manipulate the markets for collectibles or feed their self-esteem through the possession of secrets should stop short of manipulating access to history and culture. Our archives [Prelinger Archives] didn’t contain moving images whose release would have had an explosive or inflammatory effect on society. We didn’t have stolen film or films that rightfully belonged to the major studios. What we had were thousands of films that, if screened and discussed in a thoughtful way, would cause audiences to challenge received ideas, conventional wisdom, and corporate/official persuasions. Questioning what was in these films naturally led to questioning widespread assumptions about American history and society. In this way, films that seemed quite ordinary acquired subversive potential. Inaccessible for years, these films were unavailable to almost everyone, and their obscurity constituted a kind of secrecy; and there was no reason that this condition of secrecy could be allowed to exist. ANDY LAMPERT (AL): Off the top of my head, there are a number of perceived reasons why some

films or materials are kept secret: • Copyright and fear of producers/makers • Illegal possession • Competition with other archives • Sense of duty • Not knowing where it is • Not wanting to look for it

• Not interested in helping • Not enough money to deal with it • Fear of researchers • Overly fetishizing the object • Not able to consider new or different forms of access.

Jonas Mekas, Anthology [Film Archives]’s founder, tells the story of a certain filmmaker who worked extensively making diaristic films in the 1960s and 70s. Among other subjects, this gentleman documented sexual trysts with various women and used the footage in his films. Now, I have seen a few works by this filmmaker, all of which were exceedingly beautiful, penetration and all. It seems that the filmmaker eventually settled down and married. Around that time, he removed a number of his earlier films from circulation. Anthology, for whatever reason, possessed a copy of one of the now-banned films. Well, one day the filmmaker showed up at our door and told Jonas that he needed to see something in the print collection. This is not an entirely unreasonable request, especially for an archive that so closely works with a large number of the artists in its collection. Jonas pulled the print and left the filmmaker alone in the inspection room to do what he needed. A few minutes later, he opened the door to discover the scissor-wielding filmmaker surrounded by scraps of film on the floor. All of the sex scenes had been cut out. He literally re-edited the entire movie in a matter of minutes. On the first day of my job, Jonas and I were touring through our cold vault when I noticed a film by this maker on a shelf. I think I said, “Wow, a film by ____.” Jonas spun around and declared, “Don’t ever tell anyone that we have that! Especially him! He will come here and destroy it. Never tell an artist that you have their film.” “Why?” I asked. “They will want to destroy or try to make it better!” This is how I came to understand one immediate reason for keeping secrets. Still, that type of thinking is antithetical to my training.




Your last comment seems to be related to the sea change you mentioned the other day, from archiving following a collecting model to being more access oriented. Can you explain the philosophical differences between these two paradigms and how the shift impacts the film community?


I am one of the first generation of archivists specifically trained to handle moving-image materials. Jonas comes from a different era. His model as an archivist was Henri Langlois [director of the Cinémathèque Française from 1936 until his death in 1977]; in fact, they were friends. If you know about Langlois, you must understand that he was, at his heart, a collector. And so is Jonas. I’m fairly convinced that one reason that archivists hoard films is because they are, at heart, collectors. Objectivity doesn’t fly in this field. As conflicting an impulse as it is to be both an archivist and a collector, there would be no archives or museums without the stockpiling mentality. In the cases of Jonas and Langlois, they employed their fine tastes and cautious judgments to build collections that, as is the goal of any real collector, hold a great number of gems, rarities, and golden finds. Virtually all archivists and film programmers know that, on occasion, dealing with collectors is next to impossible. Rusty Casselton was a guest speaker while I attended the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. He is said to have one of the finest personal nitrate collections around. I asked how many reels were in the vault at his house and received a reply that my question was “like asking a woman how old she is; you don’t do it.” I don’t see much of a difference between Rusty’s response and the general archival attitude. Archiving is a field fraught with politics. I think every institution has its own particular motivations for hiding things or burying them in paperwork. There are practical reasons why an archive considers something restricted, but these reasons can be hard to understand from the outside. Some of these are justifiable and others unreasonable or downright preposterous.


I wonder if there is something specific about this particular cultural moment that brings more interest in access. Or is it just the result of time? The archives are bulging with the past, so much of it that it needs to get out. What are some of the ways you feel archivists, filmmakers, film historians, curators, and lovers of cinema can work together to ensure that today’s obscure, independent, or little-known films do not become the lost films and secret histories of tomorrow?


That is a mighty question, and I don’t know the answer. As much as I try to be an optimist, I’m usually a cynic. Rick has been at this a lot longer than I have, and his vision is endless. I think of him like a person on top of a mountain who peers down and can see how everything works. He is a genuine pioneer in this field, a collector who always understood the historical importance of his unique collection and the latent and apparent benefits of making it available. I honestly cannot see how everyone listed above can or will work together. That does not mean we should not all try, but there seem to be too many conflicting concerns and pressing drives in this mixed group for a cohesive plan to take hold. Even though I have not read his response, Rick’s answer to this question might be the closest thing we have to The Answer. I can only offer some apocrypha. As far as it goes with academics, in my general experience, most of the films they are interested in accessing aren’t the hidden collections. They are watching/writing about Brakhage, Warhol, Mekas, Anger, Snow, and all the respected elders who already have reams of thesis papers devoted to them in our library files. It seems to me that they are the ones keeping the canon safe and sacred, and I do find it frustrating. It seems that offering access to a wide array of works doesn’t guarantee that anyone will want them. Scholarly access, to me, should not be the end-all, be-all goal of preservation. In this case, access seems to be almost too academic of a word. I think we should speak as a field about creating more awareness. Access isn’t necessary if you are unaware of something even existing, and it should be our goal to make people aware. Access will naturally follow. You’d think from the little writing being done on experimental film today that this tired genre died in approximately 1979.



I think that the best way in this digital age for us to protect films and their subjective histories is for archives to consider new forms and methods of access. First of all, as archivists and conservators we must admit that it is not financially feasible to save all of the materials in our vaults. Making film-to-film preservation negatives is too costly a thing for most organizations to include in their budget lines. And even the bigger institutions have to apply to the same rounds of grants to get their projects funded. Video and Internet technologies offer unique possibilities for us to get the content of the film out there. I think this is a form of preservation in itself. Saying that an object is not preserved is becoming less and less acceptable an answer with each passing month. It seems like the possibilities of technology are improving every day, and we need to keep up with it. A film doesn’t do anyone (or history) any good if protecting it means leaving the reel on a shelf unwatched. We obviously must do our best to continue photochemically preserving films; nevertheless, making digital copies (which, in the case of films, is admittedly like making Xeroxes) of those reels that we won’t be getting around to anytime soon is better than nothing at all. More public and private funding should exist to support the transfer of films to digital and video mediums. If a university or academic really wanted to work with an archive they would help find ways to pay for the transfer of our secret and precious collections. I’ve heard too many billion-dollar institutions plead poverty. Academics seem to be the pool that demands access most, at least at Anthology. Interestingly, second on the list of those seeking moving images are producers. It never ceases to amaze me the way they prowl for cheap stock footage to avoid Getty, Corbis, and the other conglomerates. We are talking about hidden collections in archives, but we can’t forget that many archives restrict access to just about everything, not only specific collections. One major way that archives can increase access and maintain relevance is through public programming. A lot of archives are part of larger institutions, or else they are tiny (not to mention underfunded) ones, and they do not have their own theaters. I’m not suggesting that a small archive or institution without a budget should go out and build a theater, but they might try setting up a projector and doing a series, presenting irregular programs at a local venue, or even touring around with films. This is an ideal way to actively create access. We are lucky at Anthology to have two theaters. One screen is used for our repertory collection, known as the “Essential Cinema” cycle, and various experimental programs, while our larger theater hosts more mainstream art-house classics, theatrical runs, retrospectives, and film festivals. We present 950 separate programs a year, of which I estimate thirty percent, if not more, come from the collection. You still have to cultivate, guide, and promote interest. If you have the energy and creativity to present out of your collection, a steady audience will appear. Word will spread. If your expectations aren’t through the roof and if you enjoy the work (because shows certainly don’t make themselves) it will be worth the effort. It could bring together a new community or at least help make some new friends. Not so surprisingly, it is the collectors who are less afraid to show what they’ve got and take the opportunity to create new levels of awareness while doing it. A few models worth Googling come to mind. Skip Elsheimer and his astounding A/V Geeks produce educational film shows and DVDs. Skip literally refurbished a crack house to lodge his more-than-15,000-title collection. His ability to weed out the most mind-blowing and maddening reels is uncanny. No audience can resist what he does. The best thing about it all is that he also issues them on DVD and puts some on the Internet. More than that, Skip puts on shows in his hometown, Raleigh, North Carolina, and all around the country. He even once did a show of educational films on a moving school bus that ended with milk and cookies. Need I say more? The Orgone Cinema (Greg Pierce, Michael Johnsen, and Alisa Dix) began as a Pittsburgh-based screening series that brought avant-garde image makers to town along with programming from their own collection of extremely orphaned films. With a taste for the industrial, domestic, and conceptual,



they made an indelible mark on micro-cinema culture. And they paid honorariums to artists with local grant money. Today, the Orgone Archive is the rubric for shows that Greg Pierce regularly presents from their collection of more than 12,000 reels. His programs are, at their very best, punishment and pleasure intertwined, some of the most obscure yet enduring images that you’ll ever see. RP:

First off, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with lost films and secret histories. Both major motion-picture studios and small cinematheques thrive on presenting programs in these veins. The market seems to prove that if you present older or archival material, people are more likely to come and see it if it has been rescued from obscurity, found in a hole somewhere, or reveals hidden secrets. I recall, in the 1970s, how Abel Gance’s Napoleon was released year after year, each time with previously unseen footage, a new music track, or simulated three-screen Polyvision. Loss and secrecy fit right into the culture of hype that has surrounded show business since its beginnings. Another reason why loss, secrecy, and hype seem endemic to cinema is because films need to stand on high stools if they’re to be noticed in the crowded media landscape. This is why programmers think up umbrellas for groupings of titles, some of them pretty tired by now. How many “Pre-Code Hollywood” series have we had in San Francisco in the last ten years, and how many festivals have constructed little pods of films around ideas of found footage and appropriation? In more serious terms, I think that culture is about discovery, and if you agree with this you will also feel that rediscovery is also integral to culture. If there is to be material for continuing discoveries, films must be saved, which means physically preserved. And although we all publicly support physical preservation, our repositories don’t always make it possible. Lots of archives are underfunded and still house material under suboptimal conditions. I’m going to enter an area that some archivists, not to mention the lovers of avant-garde and experimental films, may find unpopular. Here’s my postulate: the less popular a genre or group of films is, the more it needs fans. By fans I mean just what I say. Fans may be superficial appreciators of films. They may be hung up on attributes of films that self-styled elites disdain. They may sometimes exert unwelcome pressure on archives and cultural institutions. But they do a great deal of good. They work to ensure that material is exposed to public view and sometimes even shared. They agitate for the release of unreleased material. In the absence of distribution agreements, they circulate bootlegs and disseminate surrogate versions of films no one would otherwise be able to see. They share information and sustain constituencies for the obscure and ignored. Fandom, even if sometimes superficial, has helped ephemeral films move from the cultural margins toward the center. Fans of the American cinema created the French New Wave. Experimental and avant-garde work desperately needs to create and maintain a fan culture, or it will pass from view along with the generation that was present in its golden era. I concur with Andy’s remarks about access. Access is probably our highest calling as archivists right now. Interestingly enough, though, I’m not sure we really know what access is and what it might become. Our imaginations are limited by our experience and tempered by the opposition we encounter. For certain, we should encourage archives, collectors, and rights holders to be more open with their holdings, as this is what renders them valuable; but I somehow think this is only the beginning, and we can’t predict how moving images are going to be seen, quoted, and mixed into future culture. I’ve often thought it a pity that we have an Image Permanence Institute that is devoted to research in the hard science of film preservation, but no laboratory devoted to research and experimentation in the field of access. I suppose that laboratory is the real world, but it is quite often an unfriendly world. So, to sum up, I think we are unlikely to save films from obscurity and indifference. We should instead try to save them from loss.




Why should filmmakers or film historians even care about what is hidden in the archives?


There are many secret or unadmitted histories residing in archives that implicate events, trends, or people in the real world. To a great extent, this is what my CD-ROM series, Our Secret Century, tried to do: to re-inject archival films into the contemporary cultural context so as to reveal histories (or views of history) that are hidden, censored, or merely unpopular today. All archival materials have the capacity to do this, but since films are vivid, populist, and easily apprehended by audiences, and hold viewers’ attention for longer, they do it more powerfully. So if we are trying to understand the present and predict the future by means of the past, we can look to the contents of archives for cues and clues. If you believe that society, like most people, expends a great deal of energy repressing (as opposed to expressing) things, one interesting course of action would be to look at what seems least interesting, least important, what is least seen. That’s kind of what happened with the movement to look at ephemeral films, which began in the mid-1970s, peaked in the 1980s and early 1990s, and has now become for the most part culturally repetitive. And that’s one reason why people find home movies so riveting, even if they might not say or know it.


Rick, the other day you and I were talking about the vast of amount of orphaned film that was left when Diners [Leo Diner Films] and Palmers [W. A. Palmer Films] closed. You mentioned that much of the film seemed to be unique artifacts of persons who had a private passion for filmmaking; that these filmmakers were not students, members of an amateur film club, or known artists, just people who enjoyed making films. What happened to these films? Where are they now? If there are no copyright issues surrounding these films, can they be digitized and made available on your Web site? If they are made available, what are the moral and ethical issues surrounding that decision, and how do you navigate those philosophical waters?


I think that, yes, there were some privately produced films, but most of the cans unclaimed in those labs represented sponsored films, business films, educational films, student films, commercials, and TV productions. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that there were several hundred films in the category you mention, though. We gave the W. A. Palmer Films collection to the Library of Congress along with the rest of our collection as it existed in the summer of 2002. In early 2003 we acquired the Leo Diner Films unclaimed material and donated it to the Library soon afterward. Since most of the film in these two collections was film by Bay Area and northern California makers and concerned issues, companies, or organizations in this region, it would have been nice for them to end up in a public, regional archive capable of providing safe and sustainable storage and broad public access forever. Such an institution doesn’t yet exist, and it was painful but necessary to ship them to the East Coast. The Library will take very good care of these materials while we look to the development of inexpensive digitization technology, cheap bandwidth, and more realistic conceptions of copyright to make access possible once again to Californians. As for the copyright situation surrounding these materials, this is a complex question. Some of the material, a relatively small amount of the whole, does indeed appear to be in the public domain without any question. Much of it appears to be under copyright, again without question. And then there is a vast amount of film—much of it qualifying as “orphaned”—whose status is unclear. We have made video versions of a few public-domain films available on the Internet Archive Web site, but we could not do this for most titles. Unclaimed laboratory materials pose special challenges to archives. Quite often an archive acquires material from a lab with conditions attached to protect the lab from legal liability. There are also ethical considerations for archives; to what extent does an archive want to allow reproduction or use of material whose makers or owners don’t know it exists or don‘t know its whereabouts? Whose rights do you offend by use, anyway? Is it the maker of the material, the producer who may have been the lab client, or the client for whom the film was made? Knotty questions.



When the rights situation around a film is complex, there are complicated questions to ask. My position is that one needs to think broadly about what interests are at stake. For instance, if it’s decided not to make an important film available online because of its mysterious copyright situation, are we putting the imagined interests of an unknown or unlocatable copyright owner, who may not even remember or be interested in the film any longer, over the interests of the public? I’d take care to consider the costs and benefits of various kinds of use and make these part of the decision-making process. A side issue, but an important one, is that it costs a lot of money to make copies of films when you have only the production or printing elements. This is going to inhibit film-to-tape transfer and digitizing. Most of the films you find in labs are undocumented, unlisted in old catalogs, and often quite mysterious. Are we to make reproduction decisions by rolling the dice? What this all adds up to puts us outside the realm of philosophy and into law and finance. And I think the issues that surround and infect lab collections are likely to be with us for a long while. MS:

Andy, why should we save the films of artists who do not want their films to be saved? If you do save these films, are you not treading in some pretty tricky ethical waters? How do you justify the rescue if it is against the wishes of the filmmaker?


By and large, I don’t think we are saving the films of artists who do not want their films saved. We are letting more films go to waste than we are actually preserving, if only because copyrights and limited funding generally prevent us from taking the proper measures. Preservation is not the same thing as illegally streaming something on the Internet or making a DVD that you sell in your museum gift shop. Most preservation work (by which I mean photochemical production of new negatives and prints) is grant oriented, and the funding agencies want to know that the artist or the estate is aware of and supporting the project. I’m sure that a fair amount of piracy has and probably continues to happen at archives around the world, but I’ve never personally found this to be a problem. Actually, the biggest issue I’ve encountered is not the reluctance of the actual artists but rather their estates, families, and, sadly, other institutions. Sometimes people think they smell money, and it creates a roadblock; or else institutional egos get in the way. I’ve seen it both ways, and it boggles the mind. Who is making money off of preserving experimental and marginalized films?

…when we “restore” something, how are we altering it? Every preservation is a slight variation, and it is always tempting to misinterpret and try to “fix” problems that have always been present in the work. I think the bigger issue here is how we foreground that what the viewer is watching is actually a preservation, a new copy, and not the original. How does this effect or alter the way we look at, think of, speak about, and contextualize the film or video?

At Anthology, we always, when possible, work hand-in-hand with the artist to ensure that we are not only preserving their work but their vision as well. Recently, we received funding to make a new negative and prints for a well-known female filmmaker who first came to recognition in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen a few of her works, and even then in so-so prints. My colleague, Robert Haller, recently worked with her to produce a negative for a film that is generally regarded as a masterpiece. She never made a negative because, in those days, one could create a reversal master and high-quality prints without having to take this costly step. Of course, the details and colors one gets by doing so have a different quality than a print that one would get from a negative (which is at least one more generation away from the original image). Also, and most important, today’s stocks are much more limited than those from the mid-1970s, which means that it isn’t always possible to make a 100% comparable version. This project went on for nearly two years and I’m not even sure how many prints. In the end, the artist felt that the results (and keep in mind that the negative and prints were made by one of the finest preservation



labs in the country, if not the world) did not do justice to her film. No matter how much they tried, the new prints did not match the original prints. Personally, I think a lot of this is in the eye of the beholder, and that the 2005 version was not so bad. Still, she asked that we discontinue the project and accept that the film be allowed to face a friendly death. It was an upsetting situation because this goes against our every instinct, not to mention all the money that we had spent on the project thus far. But we have to respect her wishes and must consider the project unfinished, unsaved, and permanently incomplete. Very rare is the artist who does not think that preservation affords them the opportunity to change something or make an even better version, like the one they always wanted to make in the first place. One of the most challenging parts of working with the maker is keeping the project on track, on budget, and, ultimately, honest. I think that another question to ask here is, what versions of films are we saving? By this I mean, when we “restore” something, how are we altering it? Every preservation is a slight variation, and it is always tempting to misinterpret and try to “fix” problems that have always been present in the work. I think the bigger issue here is how we foreground that what the viewer is watching is actually a preservation, a new copy, and not the original. How does this effect or alter the way we look at, think of, speak about, and contextualize the film or video? MS:

Archiving practices, like all interesting topics, always generate more questions than answers. We may not be able to come up with concrete solutions about preservation immediately, but it is crucial that a dialogue continue. If you are interested in digging deeper into the subject, go to AMIA’s national convention or check out its journal, The Moving Image. Another wonderful conference to experience is the Orphan Film Symposium—one of the rare conferences at which you will find fans, filmmakers, curators, critics, archivists, collectors, and lab experts showing obscure films and enjoying every minute of it.

MELINDA STONE, Ph.D., is a professor of film in the department of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco.




and/or Alternative Art Space 1974–1984


And/or opens April 21, 1974 with the Space Needle collection. Photo: Alan Lande.

The Pacific Northwest and specifically Seattle has been a fairly isolated area in the art world until recently, when arts activity in Seattle began to gain national attention and to attract artists and other arts people to this part of the country. Seattle, a city not yet overwhelmed by many of the urban ills which plague many of the other cities, has taken the pluralist atmosphere of the arts of the seventies and the decentralization trend as a positive force in shaping the arts in the city. Beginning to fade is the long, overwhelming stronghold of artists like Mark Tobey and Morris Graves of the Northwest school, and growing is a community of younger artists whose work is as diverse in style and of as high a quality as might be found anywhere. There is very little of the old traditions which hinder the progress of younger artists in some other cities around the country. Within this atmosphere of growth, artists working in video are also striving to find a place among the other arts in the city….Overwhelmingly, the artists who work in video here also work in other media: sculpture, prints, photography, performance, etc., using video as another tool in their vocabulary to express their ideas. —Norie Sato, “Artists’ Video in Seattle,” 1977 1

SEATTLE in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a small but growing metropolis that experienced all the global waves of cultural, political, and economic change of the time, including race riots and antiwar protests. It produced a World’s Fair in 1962 that envisioned a utopian technological future and built a large cultural center with the Space Needle as its iconic landmark. A burgeoning arts community included poets, filmmakers, light-show producers, and young, experimental artists of all types. Seattle Pop painter Don Paulson, after living in New York City and hanging out at Andy Warhol’s Factory, returned to Seattle to establish the Lux Sit and Dance light show in 1968. Filmmakers Robert Brown and Frank Olvey were inventing vibrant color-separation techniques at Seattle’s Alpha Cine film processing lab, creating multimedia projections for the Seattle Opera, and collaborating with multimedia artist and filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek. And curator LaMar Harrington, at the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus, was staging Happenings, showing experimental films, and exhibiting technology-based multimedia artworks by regional and international artists such as Vanderbeek, Doris Chase, Claus Oldenburg, Hans Haacke, Philip Glass, and Michael Snow.



One of the first community radio stations in the country, KRAB, was born in Seattle in 1962, and a multiracial community television channel formed in the early 1970s in the Central District. The Bellevue Film Festival, founded in 1967 by two housewives in a nearby suburb as part of their summer Arts and Crafts Fair, quickly became one of the best film festivals in the country because its $1000 first prize attracted high-caliber artists such as Robert Breer, Bruce Conner, and Jordan Belson. In 1968, a Boeing computer-graphics pioneer named William Fetter helped establish active Seattle and Portland chapters of the New York City–based Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), founded a year earlier by Robert Rauschenberg and Bell Labs engineer Billy Kluver, together with artist Robert Whitman and engineer Fred Waldhauer. E.A.T. was an international organization that helped artists gain access to engineering expertise and to expensive technologies such as infrared video; it was developed out of Kluver’s association with Rauschenberg and other avant-garde Greenwich Village artists such as Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Yvonne Rainer, and John Cage, who were creating new intermedia forms of art, music, and performance. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of intense questioning of accepted beliefs as the Vietnam War accelerated, the counterculture rose to mass media prominence, and the rights of minorities and women were advocated. Artists were demanding a total reassessment of the terms of art—its making, exhibition, politics, and economics. As Mary Delahoyd explained in a 1981 essay about the revolutionary alternative art spaces phenomenon that emerged out of that time: “Art became relative as its forms exposed the processes of gestation, emerged in unpredictable configurations, and even changed during the course of their existence. Art became contingent as it played out its capricious life in environment, performance, documentation, and outrageous hybrids of previously distinct media. Art became subjective as it probed hidden corners of the artist’s experience, both actual and fantastic. The alternative spaces had to happen to give voice to these new art concepts. As artists forged both the ideas and the places to exhibit them it became evident that an entire generation shared in this grand experiment.” 2 This emerging alternative art-space community represented a broad spectrum of activities that challenged the art world’s stodgy structures, traditional forms, and conservative politics. The proliferation through the mid-1980s of these mostly New York City–based, raw and inexpensive warehouse, storefront, and loft spaces was partly a result of the cultural and political activism of the late 1960s and early 70s. Their goals ranged from serving as farm clubs for the established galleries and museums to advocating for social change through unorthodox art-making practices. Groups as diverse as Art Workers’ Coalition in New York City, Hallwalls in Buffalo, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), and Washington D.C.’s Washington Project for the Arts (WPA) were alternatives to the dominant “elitist” institutions serving mostly wealthy white patrons and male artist superstars, and they embodied a significant cultural, political, and artistic movement in the United States. The current media arts community has significant historical roots in this alternative movement, where young artists of all genres came together collectively in mostly urban areas to create informal, self-organizing systems and structures to support their work. New government arts funding, not seen since the post-Depression WPA program, came from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which helped encourage the establishment of these eclectic, democratic organizations, alongside the regional media art centers and community television collaboratives that were also emerging at the time. Many of these alternative art groups included filmmakers and artists working with new technologies of the day, such as portable audiotape recorders, electronic synthesizers, carousel slide projectors, ½-inch reel-to-reel video, and Super-8mm and 16mm film. These media technologies, however, were not foregrounded or included by the new multidisciplinary organizations in their names or identities; they were just part of a broad array of new tools and aesthetics being explored and supported by artists who ran and made art in these new open spaces.



Seattle artist Anne Focke was the driving force behind the founding and directing of the Pacific Northwest alternative art space called and/or. From the late 1960s to the early 1970s she had worked at the Seattle Art Museum and the newly formed Seattle Arts Commission, where she learned about the emerging world of government arts support. During her time at the Seattle Art Museum she also produced a series for KCTS, the local PBS station then located on the UW campus, called “Meet the Artist.” That show introduced her to the creative uses of television, while the station’s 1969 broadcast of an early video-art show from Boston’s WGBH public television station called “The Medium Is the Medium” introduced her to video art. At the same time, the Henry Art Gallery invited the Everson Museum’s longhaired video-art curator, David Ross, to Seattle with his touring show of artists’ tapes called “Circuit,” introducing the city’s arts community to the spectrum of first-generation video artists and the radical politics of using video as an art-making tool.

Anne Focke at and/or, 1975. Photo: Alan Lande.

In 1974, Anne Focke and her friends started and/or in a former car-parts storefront in the cavernous Odd Fellows Building on Capitol Hill, one of Seattle’s early bohemian neighborhoods. As Focke explained in a local newspaper article, “One of the things that struck me . . . was that a lot of different artists were doing a lot of different things, but they didn’t know what each other were doing. So I decided to do something that would bring people together. That’s why I chose ‘and/ or’ as a name—it was a conjunction.” 3 Focke was part of a community of young artists, many of them art students at the University of Washington, who were interested in exploring new ways of making and presenting art. Ken Leback, Rolon Bert Garner, Jerry Jensen, and a few others were Focke’s core group, which initially came together soon after she helped establish the Artist Television Workshop in 1972 at KCTS, based on the model of the National Center for Experiments in Television in San Francisco. KCTS producer Ron Ciro and engineer Cliff Hillhouse worked with local artists to produce original programs that aired weekly on the channel, and helped introduce video art in all its blurry black-and-white strangeness to Seattle. Focke also bought a Sony Portapak ½-inch reel-to-reel video camera and deck that enabled her circle of artists to make tapes that weren’t bound to a television studio. This first generation of Seattle video artists included Karen Helmerson, Alan Lande, Paul Lenti, Buster Simpson, Norie Sato (who would later become the first treasurer of NAMAC), Ken Leback, B. Parker Lindner, Mike Cady, and others.



And/or was founded two years later, in 1974, to present and encourage new and experimental arts, and it quickly became the center of the rapidly growing contemporary arts scene in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Ken Leback, a member of the founding group who produced early videotapes shown at and/or, explained that “for a short time, and/or broke the personal involvement we had with our own work down, and we started to work on joint activities.”4 There was an exuberant, pioneering spirit of collaborative exploration about and/or and its followers that attracted and inspired all types of eclectic creatives and that helped establish Seattle’s now long-standing international reputation for nurturing and presenting daring ideas and artworks. And/or’s emphasis on video art emerged partly out of Focke’s early interest in TV and video, and partly from UW Art Professor Bill Ritchie, who began playing with the university’s closed-circuit (CCTV) black-and-white and color television cameras and switchers as part of his research into the relationship between video and printmaking. He introduced video into his print classes, where he talked about the historical and conceptual connections between making prints and making video images. The concepts of multiplicity and the mechanization of image-making and improvisation were introduced, and the implications for mass media were explored—a relevant topic since the print was developed originally to reproduce words and images, making it the first truly mass-communications device invented. His students, including Norie Sato, Dennis Evans, Sherry Markovitz, Kathleen Rabel, and others, all began incorporating video into their work under his tutelage.

Video artist Norie Sato in the Philo T. Farnsworth Memorial Editing Facility, 1978. Photo: Alan Lande.

Based on this experience, Norie Sato helped organize and/or’s first group video-art show in 1975, “Five Artists and Their Video Work,” which brought William Wegman, Joan Jonas, Terry Fox, Shigeko Kubota, and Peter Campus to Seattle for a series of individual screenings, installations, discussions, and performances. Later, as and/or’s director of video, she helped secure funding to purchase a ¾-inch video editing system that was installed in the appropriately named Philo T. Farnsworth Memorial editing room on the fourth floor of the Odd Fellows Hall. (Farnsworth was the precocious farm boy who conceived the basic principles of electronic television when he was only an adolescent.) She explains that John Reilly, co-founder of New York City’s Global Village, an early video documentary collective and production facility, came to Seattle and left a portable editing system at KCTS for a month for artists to use. Having access to that equipment convinced the and/or staff to acquire its own equipment with grants from the local King County Arts Commission and the NEA.



At the time the only regular showcase for video by artists in the region, and/or also presented new music, visual arts, performance, the written and spoken arts, and maintained a print and video library and an electronic music studio. In May and June 1976, an and/or publication titled Hindsight documented a range of the organization’s exhibitions to date: Judy Chicago presenting early erotic china-painted porcelains, an exhibition presented under the rubric “The Space Needle Show,” and an and/or staff show that consisted of scores, books, installations, words, paintings, prints, and other forms. The plurality of programming was intended to allow for a crossing over of media and audiences, enabling video to be seen within the larger context of the newer art forms and ideas coming from the growing network of alternative spaces across the country. It reflected the boundary-blurring time of the early 1960s, when dancers were working with painters, poets made films with musicians, and sculptors created Happenings in barns and storefronts. I find there are distinct advantages to being in a city that is small enough for connections and cooperation to develop between and/or (and by implication, between artists using video) and television stations, the art museum, dance and theater companies, and the university. I think this also keeps us a little closer to the general community, and within a fairly broad context that includes the gospel mission and Kentucky Fried Chicken, our close neighbors, as well as larger segments of the community such as ethnic communities and the city government. Partly because of the size of the city, there is no feasible way to focus an organization solely on video, even if that were desired. At and/or the interweaving of video in an overall program with performance, books, practical workshops, sculpture, and installation pieces increases my understanding of it as simply one more tool, and enables me to move from idea to idea through different media. 5 —Anne Focke, “Video in Seattle,” 1976 From 1974 to 1981, and/or presented the works and in-person appearances of an astoundingly long list of now internationally known artists, including Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Peter Campus, Judy Chicago, Stuart Dempster, Terry Fox, Gary Hill, Robert Irwin, Ken Jacobs, Joan Jonas, Edward Kienholz, Shigeko Kubota, Suzanne Lacy, Lucy Lippard, Alvin Lucier, Mary Lucier, Meredith Monk, Phill Niblock, Nam June Paik, Charlemagne Palestine, Steve Paxton, Terry Riley, Allen Rucker, Lillian Schwartz, Willoughby Sharp, Buster Simpson, T. R. Uthco, James Turrell, Stan Vanderbeek, Bill Viola, William Wegman, and George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus. And/or also developed a strong friendship with the nearby Canadian media arts communities in Vancouver and Victoria, presenting early slow-scan video events with Hank Bull at Vancouver’s Western Front and Liza Bear at Avalanche magazine in New York, and at Open Space in Victoria. As an active participant in the emerging international network of art spaces created by circulating guest artists and artworks, and/or helped open the Seattle arts community to the wider world of contemporary art. Writing about and/or in 1984, Focke listed the following basic types of activities that had defined the organization. And/or, as she described it: • presented contemporary artists’ work through exhibitions, concerts, film showings, performances, radio and cable TV; • opened dialog with the national and international arts community by bringing artists to Seattle from other regions; • provided artists and others with important facilities and resources such as music and video studios, a library and resource center, and grants for artists; • sponsored public forums to share ideas and issues inherent in the work through publications, discussions, lectures, and an informal school; and • addressed the need for an economic base for contemporary art and artists by starting a profit-making 6 subsidiary and sponsoring an artists’ products sale.



The ambitious scope of and/or’s activities was focused on supporting the individual artist with a flexible, democratically run structure that provided exhibition space for new art forms and practices like performance and video installation; an international exhibition network of visiting artists and communication framework for new ideas; economic support in the form of grants, earned income, and in-kind resources; and access to new technologies of the day. These are essentially the same types of activities found in most media arts organizations to this day—a core structure and range of services that has remained remarkably stable for more than thirty years. What has changed is that many media arts centers have narrowed their support to mostly technology-centric media art-making practices. A quick scan of the NAMAC membership would reveal that many media arts centers, especially those outside the largest cities, don’t always reflect the broader scope of multimedia and interdisciplinary artworks flourishing today that were originally supported by the earlier generation of alternative art and media spaces like and/or. What was somewhat unique to and/or was its intention to become the incubator of many related projects and newer groups, some that enjoyed short life spans and some that have had relatively long lives; some that spun off and established completely separate identities and some that were discontinued. In addition to the exhibition and performance programs outlined earlier, which, as Focke described them, “operated primarily at one location from 1974 to 1981 and . . . established and/or’s central identity for the first eight years of its life,”7 a selective list of the diverse activities and emergent new groups that came under and/or’s sponsorship during its eleven-year lifespan include: • ARTECH, a commercial fine-arts handling service established by and/or in 1978 as a wholly owned subsidiary and sold in 1981 to its employees, primarily artists. It continues as a strong business today. • X-CHANGE, an artists’ group concerned with the interaction of art and politics, which existed between 1981 and 1983. • SPAR, a contemporary arts magazine published by and/or from 1981 to 1982. • The Art Politic, a national conference on art and politics held in June 1981. • A program providing small grants for artists and services such as fiscal sponsorship, publicity assistance, and event insurance for short-term projects initiated by artists, which existed through 1984. • Management of a hall for rehearsal, classes, and performance from 1981 through 1984. • FOCAL POINT MEDIA CENTER, an artist-focused media arts center that began in 1981 based on and/or’s experience with video/film programs and facilities. • NINE ONE ONE, an artist-run resource center for contemporary culture based on a library begun by and/or in 1975. It later merged to become 911 Media Arts Center. • SOUNDWORK, the name taken in 1979 for an electronic music studio and new music concert series 8 that operated with and/or beginning in 1974 and survived until the 1990s.

In 1981, only eight years after its founding, and/or shut down its exhibition program when, according to Focke, “the opportunities for exhibition of new work had expanded considerably in the 9 Seattle area.” The closure caused the organization to lose a lot of its local support and visibility. As UW professor of art history Patricia Failing described it, “The reaction to and/or’s shutdown of its visual and media arts exhibition program ranged from disappointment to frustration, especially because several of the new galleries that were expected to show adventurous work had short life spans. . . . [T]he demise of the exhibitions exacerbated a distinct problem in Seattle, namely the 10 limited number of opportunities for experiencing work by contemporary non-Seattle artists.” As Norie Sato tells it, the closure was due mainly to a growing lack of interest on the part of many of Seattle’s artists in presenting their work there—the younger ones felt that and/or wasn’t hip enough, and the older ones wanted larger venues that now included the museums and other presenting organizations. The significant exhibition programming gap left by and/or was partially



resolved with the successful birth and growth of two new Seattle visual and performing arts organizations in the late 1970s: the Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA), which began as an and/ or sponsored project, and On The Boards, now a world-renowned dance and performance venue. Anne Focke’s personal interests also shifted to supporting other kinds of artists—especially video artists and composers—with different, less visible kinds of support such as grants, fiscal sponsorships, rehearsal space, and equipment access that didn’t involve funding and presenting touring artists and mounting large-scale exhibitions and installations. She tried to raise money to buy the Odd Fellows Hall and to start a for-profit café in the building that would help diversify the operating income, but her efforts were not successful. By late 1984, and/or’s Board of Directors resolved to discontinue the organization’s name in order to let the idea that had been embodied in it have a beginning and an end, and they redirected the existing resources of the organization to the four programs that, at that point, had become divisions of and/or : Focal Point Media Center, Nine One One, Soundwork, and the artists’ grants program (which became a now-thriving statewide organization called Artist Trust). Each division established independent legal status, and and/or as a single entity intentionally closed its doors after eleven productive years.

Image Bank Exhibition at and/or, 1978. Photo: Alan Lande.

And/or offers a representative case study of the first-generation of alternative art spaces that embodied the critical core values, support systems, and issues still found in the current generation of most media arts centers. With few prior models or traditions to emulate, Anne Focke and her group of artist friends instinctively created an organization that emphasized egalitarian, democratic values (especially in the governance and daily operations of the organization and the support of affordable access to media tools), a nurturing staff and structure that encouraged nontraditional artists and projects, and connection to an international network of similar organizations that circulated experimental artists and new ideas. And/or’s support of the germination of new projects and organizations was both its strength, as it helped grow Seattle’s rapidly expanding contemporary arts community, and one of its fatal flaws, for it soon lost its original cachet as a cutting-edge organization as newer artists and groups sprang up. And/or grew out of the collective energies of many artists at a particular point in time, with a mission to support ideas and artists who wanted to break through traditional forms and genres to discover new ways of making art; it found itself unable to sustain its original uniqueness as the art world grew and audiences fragmented to support other artists, forms, and venues. And/or reflects an expansive moment in the twentieth century when arts organizations welcomed and supported artists of all forms and genres in one place, where sculptors could meet poets, and painters could build sets and work with musicians or filmmakers on their productions. The NEA (and subsequent state and local arts agencies) had just begun funding individual artists and



creating categories for all the major art forms (dance, theater, visual arts, media arts, etc.), a condition that later forced many artists and arts organizations to specialize and isolate themselves into single-genre communities. This resulted in artificial boundaries and unintended competition for limited funds within local arts communities that has often marginalized the media arts community from the rest of the art world and inhibited the free flow of diverse ideas and aesthetics between media makers and the rest of the art world. The media arts, unlike other funding categories, are defined more by their technologies or tools than by their content (which may, for example, incorporate literature, dance, theater, or music), and yet they legitimately encompass all the art forms, making them hard to categorize by more traditional artists, government funders, and donors. And/or also grappled openly with the ongoing tensions that arose between the nurturing and needs of individual artists and the requirements for sustaining a nonprofit organization—objectives that were often in conflict. These tensions are still mostly unresolved in contemporary media arts centers. How can working artists also be employees at organizations where their need to make and show their own work may clash with their staff obligations or blur the line between objective curatorial rigor and the temptation to serve as a club for a few artists? How can individual artists be adequately served by these organizations when other priorities such as paying utility bills and supporting the organization’s growth eat into existing finite resources? How does an arts organization manage growth, avoid corporatization and commercialization, and stay true to its root values and constituencies? These conflicting needs and concerns that are not easily reconcilable also contributed to and/or’s eventual demise.

And/or gallery, 1974. Photo: Alan Lande.

Other forces of change that precipitated and/or’s closure are the core economic and political issues endemic to today’s media arts centers: insufficient local support; insufficient resources to develop new audiences and revenue streams; shifting funding priorities from the government and foundations; and the rapidly changing nature of technologies and art forms that constantly demands new types of resources, support structures, audiences, and exhibition spaces. What is unique about and/or is that the staff and board recognized that it is natural for an organization to have a short (or long) life span, including a birth and a death, based on its ability to fulfill its core mission. They collectively agreed that it is sometimes appropriate to close the doors and allow the emerging iterations of artists’ support structures, which have been nurtured by the parent organization, to inherit the existing finite resources, energies, audiences, and spaces. This is a lesson that the media arts community, and the arts community as a whole, has not yet widely acknowledged or often practiced. The art world has changed and expanded in the twenty-one years since 1984 (that appropriately ominous Orwellian date), when and/or closed its doors and sent its offspring into the world. In Seattle there is now a thriving, albeit still under-resourced, independent media arts scene with two established media arts centers (911 Media Arts Center and the Northwest Film Forum) and



numerous support groups, production entities, festivals, and screening venues. The dot-com bust recently diminished the local arts community’s economic base, but there is a thriving post-grunge music and indie media industry emerging that portends new public-private hybrid approaches to supporting artists and other creative workers in the twenty-first century. The late-1990s technology-fueled boom that lured a large number of young artists of all varieties to Seattle has also contributed to the growing creative class that supports and develops eclectic neighborhoods full of small entrepreneurial, arts-friendly businesses—coffee shops, microcinemas, music venues, theaters, galleries, retail boutiques, restaurants—and that offers hope in the midst of shifting economic and political forces. In 1981, artist Jacki Apple curated a retrospective exhibition about alternative art spaces in New York City and wrote these prophetic words about our next set of challenges for media arts centers and the larger arts community. They are amazingly apt as we look back at and/or’s still-vital legacy and forward to an uncertain future: The primary and dominant image-makers of our society are not artists (or the people who are presently called artists). This puts the very role, definition, and function of the artist in society at stake. Perhaps we should be asking who are these other image-makers who determine, control, program, and condition our desires and expectations, define our reality, identity, visions of our place in the environment, and ultimately our future. Is it possible that artists as image makers will find themselves isolated and impotent, chattering only to each other in a vacuum, soon to become extinct like dinosaurs of a past civilization? Perhaps the issue now and in this next decade is not one of alternative spaces, but of alternative voices and visions that are meaningful and effective in the larger context of the world. The need is no longer to find and create an alternative within the art world, or within the world of commercial entertainment and communications media, but to draw upon the resources that each offers in order to create an alternative context that encompasses and extends beyond both. This may well involve radical changes in our ideas about art, and it may require all of our collaborative energies, but it may also be our only chance for a truly relevant future.11

ROBIN OPPENHEIMER is a media arts administrator, writer, curator, educator, and historian who is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

NOTES: 1. Norie Sato, “Artists’ Video in Seattle,” Videoscope 1, no. 4 (1977): 21. 2. Mary Delahoyd, “Seven Alternative Spaces: A Chronicle 1969–75,” in Alternatives in Retrospective: An Historical Overview 1969–75 (New York: The New Museum, 1981). 3. Paul de Barros, “And/or says goodbye to 11 years of avant-garde art,” Seattle Weekly, 24–30 October 1984, p. 43. 4.Ken Leback speaking in Annie Grosshan’s “An Abundance of Heat: Rolon Bert Garner & Northwest Art,” video documentary, 1995. 5. Anne Focke, “Video in Seattle,” in Video Art: An Anthology, ed. Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich,1976), p. 203. 6. Anne Focke, “and/or: A Brief History, February 1974–October 1984,” unpublished manuscript (Focke’s personal archives). 7. Ibid. According to Focke, “The program emphasized work that had no other forum in the Seattle area; it included work both by artists from Seattle and from other parts of the country and world; it often presented the first Seattle show for artists who have gone on to develop significant regional and national reputations; and, it presented work that was difficult for other institutions to support at that time—installations, video sculpture, performance, and work that crossed discipline lines. By the time the program was ended in 1981, the opportunities for exhibition of new work had expanded considerably in the Seattle area.” 8. See Robin Reidy (Oppenheimer), “The and/or Legacy,” in 911 Media Art Center’s newsletter On Screen 1, no. 1 (January–February 1991). 9. Focke, “and/or: A Brief History” (see note 6). 10. Patricia Failing, “and/or: User Friendly?,” Vantage Point (September–October 1984): 15. 11. Jacki Apple, introduction to Alternatives in Retrospect: An Historical Overview 1969–75 (see note 2), p. 7.




Movements for Video Dance and Music at the Herbert F Johnson Museum, Ithaca, NY, April 1976. A video dance performance with Peer Bode and Meryl Blackman of ETC and Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane of the American Dance Asylum. Photo: Peer Bode

Senses and the physical world have always been my main directors. The theoretical has not been of much interest to me.

—Ralph Hocking

DURING the early 1970s, artists were moving outside existing organizational structures in attempts to create more utopian systems—in critique of television and even the art world and the economic engines they serviced. Video had been introduced within the countercultural milieu of the 1960s—a political and social climate marked by concerns for democratic process, a critique of the capitalist economic system, radical questioning of existing power structures, and collective or collaborative organizing principles. Artists struggled to access the new media tools of production as well as the system of distribution. As personal video tools were introduced, independent video was seen by some as an alternative to the one-way production and delivery system of broadcast television. Video art evolved alongside the centralized, one-way communications system of TV, then the dominant entertainment and information system. The instruments of TV were redirected from an institution of social and economic control into a system for creative activity and a means of self-determination within a two-way, interactive communications system. It was during this period that the Experimental Television Center (ETC) became a hub for video engineering and artistic activity, first in Binghamton, New York, and later, in 1980, relocating to Owego, New York. In this small, quiet upstate town, a vital center of activity was established that would significantly affect video art history in New York State and beyond.



With the encouragement of founder and director Ralph Hocking, artists at ETC created machines and tools to manipulate sound and image. These experiments were often pursued with an amateur’s love of invention. To this day, ETC remains a site for numerous collaborative artist-engineer developments. What might now be called a “hacker” model of reworking video and video systems was, in the early 1970s, the result of an intense interest in exploring uses of the tools of television to create a new genre of visual art and performance—an art created in dialogue with the machine. While ETC shared much with others active in the initial explorations of independent media in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is unique for having remained constant in its goals: instrument building and the design and creation of unique image-processing tools and systems, coupled with a commitment to experimentation in electronic moving-image, sound, and performance media art. Today, Hocking works with assistant director Sherry Miller Hocking to provide various services to the media arts community, including an artist-in-residency program, a sponsorship program for artists’ projects, a range of grants programs, a vital video-history Web database (which collects ongoing contributions), and a variety of workshops. In Ralph’s words, he created the Center as “a learning place and not a production house.” It was not an organization in which engineers provided technical services to artists (as seen in broadcast television studios) but rather a place where artists and technicians worked in collaboration. Ralph built the Center as a model, encouraging artists to emulate it for themselves. He and Sherry anticipated a future in which artists might own their own portable video gear and could build their own studios, systems, and processing tools—and they provided that future until it became commonly attainable. ETC’s history is one that predicted our own present. This model of tinkering, experimenting, and building is one that is worth examining and encouraging.


In the late 1960s Ralph Hocking began working with television. At the time he was teaching at the State University of New York at Binghamton (now Binghamton University). Hocking taught the only photography class on the Binghamton campus at the time and was not associated with any particular department. He was committed to developing new models for teaching technology and the arts. Hocking describes the onset of his attraction to video in this context, and his earliest efforts on the campus and in the surrounding community: My charge was to make something happen that related to visual understanding and education. I remember several experiences with “educational television” in the early sixties. One was to observe a group of college students in Pennsylvania as they viewed several monitors in a classroom that had no proctor. They reacted in the most amazing ways to the information being given to them. Much of the reaction was childish, but some seemed to come from the frustration of not being able to believe what they were watching; and certainly they had no control over their situation. I guess in some ways that incident, and just generally thinking about technology and education, was how I became interested in working with video. It seemed to me that there must be better ways to use television as a tool for expression, but I really didn’t have any answers as to what those ways might be. I knew then and know now that technology is not going to go away and that unless there is some way to temper technology with human sensibilities, technology will not serve the culture in general, just those who are in control of it. … In 1969 I was able to convince the administration at Binghamton University to purchase several portable television systems. With some difficulty we then convinced the administration in Albany that it was okay to buy these things, even if they were made in Japan. I was told that this was the first purchase of anything other than American-made television equipment by the SUNY system. In 1969, my first approach to video was to lend the Portapaks to the students and faculty to see what they would do. The only stipulation was that they would have to give the 1 equipment back to me. A year later I proposed to do the same thing in the community. ”



Getting video tools into hands of the users was an initial goal of many videomakers and nonprofit video groups at this time. They were interested in creating a new paradigm, an “anti-TV paradigm of ‘producer’”—especially in New York State, where video collectives, artist-run organizations, and art production activity proliferated. 2 This was in large part thanks to the development of funding structures that supported this growth. In 1961, the New York State Legislature created the New York State Council on the Arts, which received initial funding of $450,000. In 1969, NYSCA’s Film and Television Program began accepting applications for electronic media projects. In 1965, the Rockefeller Foundation began to fund artists for experimentation with video and helped establish artists’ laboratories at public broadcasting studios such as WGBH in Boston, KQED in San Francisco, and WNET in New York City. And in 1967, the National Endowment for the Arts (which had been created by Congress in 1965) established its Public Media Program.


Kathy High preparing documentation tapes on the Center’s analog processing devices, 2004. Photo: Sherry Miller Hocking.

Since I had no organization, the first money [from NYSCA] went to the local [television] station, WSKG, and they wrote me a check for $50,000.00. I opened a studio above a drugstore in Binghamton, bought some equipment, hired three people. I had no problem finding people who were interested on many levels. This was all about using the machines, experimentation, and unquestioned trust but not about collectivizing, directed outcomes, or other business, educational, or tribal goals. My approach was passionate but not judgmental. My history as a student in our educational schemes is one of miserable failure. I didn’t want the traditional approach to dominate my efforts. It didn’t and doesn’t. As an educational experiment, the Experimental Television Center was and is a resounding success. It is ignored by traditional academia. While we were handing out Portapaks we were also supporting Nam June [Paik]’s efforts to build video synthesizers. —Ralph Hocking Ralph Hocking began the Student Experiments in Television (SET) project on the campus of SUNY Binghamton in 1968–69. Along with students, community members were introduced to portable video production tools and techniques. There, in 1969, Angel Nunez taped Bedford Stuyvesant Kids, a video vérité document of neighborhood youth arrested by police after stealing from a factory. This tape was shown widely throughout the state and proved instrumental in obtaining funding for a number of drug-related initiatives and inner-city improvement projects. Parts of the tape were eventually broadcast by WNET-TV. Equipment from the program was used by many community-based organizations. The Experimental Television Center began as an outgrowth of the Student Experiments in Television program. Hocking recounts the origins of the ETC program: “Nam June [Paik] told me to talk to Russ Conner, who was the person in charge of NYSCA’s new video attempt. I was encouraged to apply for a grant but couldn’t apply through the university because one state agency cannot give money to another state agency. My premise was more of the same: Give people machines and see what happens. Arts, education, and other interested people were the definition. It translates to everyone.” Hocking wanted to set up a program to invite artists into a studio to create work. He also wanted to encourage not just artists but all interested parties to participate. He was setting up a studio to support non-exclusive, non-hierarchical practices. Using collectivist principles of resource sharing, ETC instituted programs providing tools for artistic production and sharing the studio and video instruments with the media arts community, along with educational programs for those unaware of the possibilities of the new technology—thus providing free access for all. With support from the New York State Council on the Arts, Hocking incorporated SET in 1970–71 as the Community Center for TV Production (later the Experimental Television Center), a nonprofit media center, in order to facilitate the uses of the new technology by three major constituencies: artists, community organizations, and interested citizens. The primary programs were designed to



help artists explore this new art form; ETC offered a residency program for artists, sponsorship to various foundations in support of artists’ projects, an exhibition program,3 and research facilities for the design of media arts tools. The early efforts, as Hocking describes them, harnessed the intended effects: My intention was to support as much unconventional machinery as possible while urging the usage of whatever we had for the development of video art. This led to many people in the arts community becoming aware that we were open to loans and usage in studio in addition to use of our space for presentations of arts-based ventures. Joan Jonas drove from NYC in a snowstorm to borrow a video projector that I had liberated from the campus. Bill Jones and Arnie Zane performed a time-delay dance. Woody and Steina [Vasulka] broadcast within the space. Nam June watched student videotapes and told them not to worry because he could see them while he was asleep [Paik had a propensity to sleep through many meetings]. The first gay video festival ever (queers all over the place). And on and on.

From left: Shuya Abe, Bob Diamond, Nam June Paik, and Ralph Hocking install the Video Cello, constructed at ETC, at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, 1972. Photo: Evangelos Dousmanis.

Democratization was an important part of the philosophy. In the 1960s and 1970s, various organizing strategies emerged, in part as a means to address the expense of the new video tools. Collaboration flourished in music and performing arts and was adopted as a method by media artists as they struggled to create new working models for the then-new medium of video. Collaboration was partly an economic strategy: some video instruments were beyond the reach of individual ownership. A 1969 video recording system that recorded monophonic sound with black-and-white images and lacked the ability to play back the tape would cost about $6,000 today. Group ownership was also a way to address the rapid advances in technology. “Production units”—co-ops, collectives, and media arts groups—also reflected the social and political zeitgeist of the times. ETC initially loaned equipment to “democratize” the tools of the medium. But another focus of the Center was the development of the tools themselves. ETC was and is a unique program because of an emphasis on developing “thinking systems”—artist-designed instruments.


Bob Diamond was the first fix-it guy I hired and David Jones was the second (and last). Both of them wanted to invent and were bored with the day-to-day upkeep of machines. They were influenced by Nam June and Shuya Abe during the time of synthesizer development and they both went on to develop their own machines. We were in constant revision with existing equipment, trying to make them do things they were not supposed to do. This was the interesting part of the studio structure that eventually won out over the lending to the community and having a space to show and tell. This was a deliberate push by me since it was obvious that we could not do all for everyone. It also became a situation where other organizations purchased available portable stuff and didn’t need to borrow from us. Invention ruled and the artist-in-residence program was defined. —Ralph Hocking Supporting artists interested in investigating video as a contemporary art-making medium has always been the most important aspect of the Center’s activities, reflecting Hocking’s own background in the visual arts and his commitment to the individual artist. It was for this reason that ETC became more focused on artist residencies and in research for the design of new tools with which they could experiment. Thus the community-lending program was dropped in 1979, and exhibition programming a few years later. Initiated to provide a more flexible set of imaging tools to artists, the Research Program facilitated the design and construction of new video tools. It worked concurrently with the artist residency program to fulfill Hocking’s vision for a new kind of video art practice: As we developed, mostly through David’s efforts, machines for the express purpose of trying to make visual art, I tried to encourage individuals to set up their own studios. The norms had been, and for the most part still are, for artists to book time at studios that



satisfy their current needs. My interest was for people to wake up in the morning and practice their art making as painters, sculptors, and others in the visual arts—musicians, dancers, and performing artists—also do. It seemed not enough to occasionally visit the stuff of the art making. It would be like a painter having access to paint a few times a year. ... I feel the basis for my approach is the history of visual art and not theater, which seems to dominate in the arts and television in general. The collaboration between artist and technologist had precedents and origins in the art of the early twentieth century. Those working in the area of “experimental” video, “image processing,” or “video art” in the 1960s and 70s had to engage in tool design and development because the commercially available tools were both limited and limiting. Using commercial tools, the art of image and sound was bounded by corporate economic interests. Rejecting the restrictive definitions of what was “permissible” with image and sound, ETC began making tools to discover what might be possible. In the early 1970s, the existing commercially available video tools for individual use were on the one hand astounding in their power and immediacy but modeled after broadcast capabilities and designed to meet specific television and educational requirements. In the hands of artists, these tools soon seemed unimaginative, expensive, and restrictive. In rejecting the definition of function as determined by commercial toolmakers, ETC engaged in a subversive and radical act. By creating tools, artists could make their own marks and mix their own colors, could parse the language of the electronic image and, indeed, define it. Some of the first tools ETC put into the hands of artists were deconstructed and repurposed, or altered from their original design. ETC technicians began with modifications to existing tools— bringing out the controls on a portable camera to let artists manipulate gain and pedestal, reverse the field vertically or horizontally, or allow constant vertical or horizontal drift by altering the sync. In 1971, funding was received from the New York State Council on the Arts for construction of the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer. Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik designed and built one system in 1972 at the Center for eventual placement at the Television Laboratory at WNET-TV. While still at the Center, this system was used by the Television Laboratory to produce a portion of Paik’s The Selling of New York. A second Paik/Abe was completed for use in the Artist-in-Residence program at the Center, allowing artists and others an opportunity to explore the synthesizer’s imaging possibilities and thus opening up the use of this instrument more broadly 4 During the decade of the 1970s, ETC supported additional tool developments. David Jones designed colorizers, keyers, sequencers, and interface and control systems for use in the studio. In the mid-1970s, recognizing the importance of digital technologies, Paul Davis, Walter Wright, Dr. Don McArthur and David Jones of the Center began to research the interface of an LSI-11 computer with a video processing system, a collaborative project with the Vasulkas that was supported by the NEA. ETC’s goal was to permit artists without extensive experience in what was at the time extremely complex software programming to use the digital imaging system; to achieve this, ETC developed strategies that included the use of familiar interfaces such as keyboards, joysticks, and knobs, with the programming operative behind these interfaces. Control systems were tactile and responsive, relationships with images and sounds were immediate rather than mediated by language structures and strictures. ETC approached electronic technology as a medium for art-making and looked to the inherent properties of the medium: cinematic form, color, light, sound, motion. Image processing became the name of the “genre,” although the techniques were also applied in narrative, documentary, and social issue works as well as in more formalist or experimental works. ETC shared a dedication to these systems with individual artists like the Vasulkas, Gary Hill, and Dan Sandin; designers and technologists Bill Etra, Steve Rutt, Bill Hearn, and David Jones; and public broadcasting efforts including the National Center for Experiments in Television at KQED and the Television Laboratory at WNET. In fulfilling its mandate to share resources and make video tools and systems accessible to all, ETC viewed its research as open-source. They shared information—from the operators’ manuals they



developed to texts written about the concepts of image processing to information about how to construct processing devices. Sherry Miller Hocking reiterates the program’s ultimate goals: “We were committed to disseminating the tools—to help put them in the hands of individual artists; essentially we were trying to put ourselves out of business. Once all artists could have in their individual studios these creative tools, there would be no more need for ‘media centers’ like ETC, and the art form would flourish. We envisioned desk-top video synthesizers which artists could assemble themselves.” ETC was designed to become superfluous as an organization when all artists had equal and reasonable access to the tools of electronic cinema production, exhibition, and distribution. To achieve this goal, ETC hosted informal groups of artists interested in building their own systems. The Tuesday Afternoon Club included Barbara Buckner, Sara Hornbacher, Matt Schlanger, Peer Bode, David Jones, and others. The Center participated in the Tele-Techno conferences in 1973–74, organized by the Videofreex and supported by NYSCA; the goal of this regularly scheduled phone conference linking New York State media groups—including ETC, Portable Channel, Media Study/ Buffalo, and others—was to share technical information. ETC-authored equipment manuals were widely disseminated to Media Study/Buffalo and other university-based and independent media groups. With support from the NEA in 1978, Sherry Hocking, Rich Brewster, and Walter Wright wrote a manual concerning the construction of a raster scan manipulation system that was also widely and 5 freely distributed, and now posted on the Center’s Video History Project Web pages. In the 1980s, as costs fell and capabilities increased dramatically, and as more community groups acquired their own video systems, access programs became unnecessary or shifted focus to other emerging, expensive tools such as computers. As a result of these technological changes, by the late 1970s and early 1980s the Center chose to refine its focus on artists’ video, maintaining the artists residency and sponsorship programs, offering a grants program for artists and arts’ organizations in the state, and encouraging the exhibition of works. The research program began to shift from the building of hardware to the development of software, the repurposing of commercial systems to make them more artist friendly, and the integration of old and new tools and systems. One software initiative provided control over image elements in still images of video that could then be printed. A natural extension of moving-image processing, this became an electronic darkroom for artists and a conceptual ancestor to Photoshop and other graphics programs. The Center continued to refine the relationship between artist and computer with the General Purpose Interface Board, which interfaced analog imaging equipment with an eight-bit computer, allowing manually changed knob settings to be “remembered” and repeated digitally. ETC also employed existing digital systems from the CAT Buffer to the Amiga computer, which offered a glimpse into the future of digital moving-image works. The Center is known to this day for its artist-in-residence program, providing artists with a unique set of tools and an open-ended environment for exploration and creative growth. The image-processing system is today a hybrid tool set, permitting the artist to create interactive relationships 6 between older, historically important analog instruments and new digital technologies.


Situated in a small town in upstate New York in a raw loft space overlooking the Susquehanna River, the studio of the Experimental Television Center is unpretentious, and the combination of tools housed there remains open to a diverse public of users. The tools are integrated into a system, built over the years, that speaks to the very philosophy of ETC: the emphasis is on interrelationships, not on discrete components. To this day there are such devices as an analog Sandin Image Processor (using voltage controls for regulators) interconnected with Apple G5 computer systems housing Max/ MSP and Jitter programs—a synthesis of older and newer technologies, the digital and the analog. For Ralph Hocking, ETC has always been “a learning place.” In 1983, he made a presentation at the Society for Photographic Education National Conference, whose theme that year was “Photogra-



phy within the New Technology/Defining a New Philosophy of Education.” There, he explained the philosophy and working methods of the Experimental Television Center, then in its thirteenth year: I think of ETC as a learning place and not a production house. With very few exceptions, the artists in residence at the Center accept and I think agree with that definition. The people who work at the Center have to learn the systems because we will not act as a production crew. We help if help is needed only in the understanding of concepts and not in the production itself. My goal is to develop individual artistic expression using electronic technology as the tools. All of my efforts and those of the people connected to the center are aimed toward getting individual studios constructed in order for individuals to create. In essence, we are trying to put ourselves out of business, at least the access business. This position is, of course, contrary to the traditions of television but absolutely necessary if video is to mature as an art form. I find team videomaking about as interesting as team painting or team drawing. The visual expressions that seem the strongest to me have come from one mind and in general have been realized by that individual. My concerns in art and in education are with the individual differences in thinking and not in trying to fit ideas or people into their designated place. In order for individuals to develop their own studio, the cost of construction must be reasonable. We have our own research and development program aimed at making available tools at low cost. … We are quickly coming to a time when the tools are easily available, and the major problem will be what to do with them. ETC continues to be primarily a center for testing and exploring processes, not necessarily a production center. Artists and groups of students go there to experiment and learn the systems, to work in dialogue with the machine. As Ralph Hocking explains it: “I have said that I want to give the control of the imagery to the machine within limits. Using voltage control is a method of finding what you don’t know.” With a commitment to processing and processes, and while it strives to become unnecessary by encouraging artists to develop and model their own working studios, ETC is not obsolete yet. Ralph Hocking and others worked in tandem with the machine, explored processes of the new instruments, and “used voltage control as a method of finding what you don’t know about.” As a social space, a working space, ETC is rare among organizations these days because of this emphasis on experimentation and process. As a laboratory, ETC is being emulated in universities and in artist studios across the country. In this day of corporate monopoly and institutionalization, ETC remains singularly independent, with a keen interest in amateur invention, and it continues to provide artists with unique tool sets and an environment for exploration and creative growth. ETC is a key organization in the history of new media, and in the history of media arts in New York State. ETC’s adaptive strategies, forward thinking, and dissemination of tools allowed artists to develop their work, create a new vocabulary, and build the field of media arts. Sherry Miller Hocking and Ken Dominick videotape with a CV Portapak at the 8th Annual Avant Garde Festival at the 69th Infantry Regiment Armory, New York, 1971. Photo: Evangelos Dousmanis.

APPENDIX: SHERRY MILLER HOCKING “Some Thoughts on the Evolution of the Center”


Risk-taking is essential for innovation, but often it is initially antithetical to and rejected by institutions and traditions of mass culture and commerce. As the dominant culture redefines the risky work, its once-alternative form and content is appropriated into mass culture, branded and marketed for commercial gain. Dominant institutions invite alternative content and form when profit can be made. Artists are risk takers. They envision what hasn’t been. In this process, they may “misuse” or “misapply” the instruments—whether aesthetic tools or organizations—deploying them in ways unforeseen and unpredictable. As an organization, ETC incorporates this thinking, and provides programs and resources to support, encourage, and celebrate artists and their honesty and courage in the creative processes. The environment for residencies emphasizes a richness of resources, opportunities for



continued learning, and freedom for experimentation and research without undue regard for the end “product.” Artists need to be able to “fail”—to change their minds, to reject entire projects, to begin anew. We have a responsibility to advocate on their behalf. The creation of a new work doesn’t always proceed as planned or end in the place expected. That’s okay. ETC was created by an artist for other artists, and is guided by that spirit. If the art work is experimental, the process, the discourse, and the practice should also be experimental. While many early organizations operated as collectives in order to produce collaboratively and share the cost and use of then-expensive tools, the Center was organized as an egalitarian assembly of individuals—artists, educators, and technologists—working together to help define electronic media art and the programs which sustain it. Small is sometimes good. We operate from an economy of scale and sustainability, mindful of our capacity and interests and mission. ETC believes in a culture that embraces a responsibility to support artists and their work, and to make the arts accessible for the benefit of all citizens.

Annie Langan, Monica Duncan, and Matt Underwood, co-instructors at the 9th annual International Summer Residency at ETC, 2004. Photo: Aaron Miller.

ETC was founded to contribute to the re/definitions of this new medium and its arts practices. We see historical precedents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—Futurism, Constructivism, Pointillism, Kineticism, Expressionism, ready-mades, Fluxus, Conceptual art, light works, Minimalism. The form is hybrid, embracing many contradictory ideas. Artists who worked in the early years of ETC, as in the field as a whole, came from different art forms and brought with them a variety of conceptual frameworks. ETC supported many projects that were intermedia in nature, incorporating live performance, sculptural and installation forms, elements of film, music, dance, or theater. We remain interested in electronic media as a visual/sonic arts practice. The phenomenology of video is time-based and cinematic. We see video as immaterial and infinitely reproducible; it can operate as a formalist document of electronic and electromagnetic processes; it is oriented to process not object; it may function as a concept and not a commodity. It is a medium that creates itself. While illusionistic, it helps us frame the “other”—reality outside ourselves. It is immediate and interactive. The apparatus may be sculptural or seemingly invisible. Technological inquiry is fundamental to the development of media art as the engine for the creation of the instruments of aesthetic experimentation. An artist’s use of contemporary tools reflects personal, cultural, and social beliefs and assumptions about science. Video has antecedents in other technologically based arts throughout history. The goal of research at the Center was the development of systems accessible to artists—directly through the Residency Program, or indirectly by creating and sharing information resources that encourage artists to acquire personal instruments. The process of research involves a culture of conversations among artists and technologists as equal participants. A prolonged, ceaseless dialog between artist and instruments is essential to creating works. Artists must live with the tools of their art-making. We have tried to help people do this. The instruments and systems at ETC share certain traits. They are flexible and open-ended; they support a branching architecture, and allow artists to create unique combinations of image and sound; they are immediately responsive, and usable by amateurs without a specialized knowledge base; they help expand the vision and function of television tools; they require thought and engagement, and challenge presumptions; they are performative and generative; they encourage individual ownership. Within the last two hundred years, the evolution of the technology has transformed the ways we perceive and engage the world. The history of image and sound technologies is the history of a struggle with space and time, the two primary properties of video and new media.



Invention in the sciences involves impulses similar to art-making—risk-taking, surprise, innovation, rejection of the norm, constant questioning of assumptions. The “failure” of a particular work may lead to unintended or unanticipated but powerful results. The search is ceaseless. We have an ethical responsibility to share information we develop about new tools. Collaboration and sharing of information were a part of the early philosophy of the media arts field. We gave away videotapes, disseminated schematics, and shared knowledge so that all could benefit. Many people were involved for love; we were amateurs. The gift economy and our personal commitments and ethical stance in the world assured us that we could survive. And finally… An institution has a life span. When it achieves its mission, it’s okay to stop.

KATHY HIGH is a media artist, curator, and teacher living and working in upstate New York and Brooklyn. Her videos and installations look at issues of gender and technology and other subjects. She is associate professor and chair of the Department of Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in Troy, New York. RALPH HOCKING is professor emeritus of Cinema at Binghamton University and recently released Works: 1969–1986, a DVD of his early video, in partnership with the Institute for Electronic Arts. SHERRY MILLER Hocking is assistant director of the Experimental Television Center and continues to work on Web publication projects about early media art history.

NOTES: 1. All quotations from Ralph Hocking are from conversations with Kathy High, unless otherwise noted. 2. In the media universe of the late 1960s and early 1970s, artists chose to work either alone or in groups, or to use the facilities of the newly founded media centers. Collaborations and other forms of working relationships were initiated among artists, between artists and technologists, and among media and other art disciplines. Artists created collaborative working relationships to achieve projects that pushed the boundaries of conceptual and activist art works at collectives such as Ant Farm, TVTV, Raindance, the Videofreex, and Lanesville TV. 3. ETC had a regular exhibition series every spring for many years—the first video screening series in the Southern Tier—and brought many artists to Binghamton to show work and meet audiences. ETC saw the exhibition of work as integral to the making process. These exhibition series were formalized in 1976 as Video by Videomakers. The Center also hosted many traveling series such as the Ithaca Video Project Festival and the Creative Artists Public Service Program Fellows for the regional community. The annual exhibition series brought video artists like Beryl Korot, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Harald Bode, Ernest Gusella, Gary Hill, Shigeko Kubota, and Dickie Landry. 4. The Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer (PAVS) was developed in several places, including in collaboration with students at the California Institute of the Arts and at the New Television Workshop at WGBH-TV in Boston. While an artist-in-residence at WGBH, the necessity of such a device became acutely clear to Paik, who was frustrated by the production means of the large television studio: “Big TV studios always scare me. Many layers of ‘Machine Time,’ parallely running, engulfs my identity. It always brings me the anxiety of Norbert Wiener, seeing the delicate yet formidable dichotomy of Human Time and Machine Time. ... In the heated atmosphere of the TV control room, I yearn for the solitude of a Franz Schubert, humming a new song in the unheated attics in Vienna.” 5. Begun in 1994, ETC’s “Video History Project” is a research initiative that reflects the complex evolution of the media arts field and its many stories, and encourages a collective voice in the crafting of the histories. Mainly through the efforts of Sherry Miller Hocking and Mona Jimenez, ETC also organized “Video History Making Connections,” a conference in 1998 at Syracuse University concerning the links between early media history and contemporary practice, and “Looking Back/Looking Forward,” a working symposium on media preservation held in New York City in 2002. These projects, and the Video History Project, utilize the implementation of collaborative strategies for the advancement of electronic moving-image preservation resources and tools. For more information see 6. Artists who have worked through the Center since 1972 include such first-generation figures as electronic pioneers Nam June Paik and Shigeko Kubota; poet Jackson MacLow; video artist Gary Hill; filmmakers Ernie Gehr, Jud Yalkut, and Hollis Frampton; and Hollywood director Nicholas Ray. Artists Peer Bode, Shalom Gorewitz, Barbara Buckner, Larry Gottheim, and David Blair also received sponsorship support in earlier decades, while resident artists later included Dan Reeves, Maureen Nappi, George Stoney, Barbara Sykes, Arthur Tsuchiya, Peter Rose, Kathy High, Shu Lea Cheang, Taka Iimura, John Knecht, Vanalyne Green, Peter D’Agostino, Alan Berliner, Irit Batsry, Thomas Allan Harris, Abigail Child, Jillian McDonald, Barbara Hammer, Ken Jacobs, Jeffrey Lerer, Kristin Lucas, Slawomir Grunberg, and many others. Artists continue to create works at ETC in the new millennium, among them Torsten Burns, Darrin Martin, Kristin Lucas, Lynne Sachs, Aaron Miller, Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty, Alex Hahn, Amoeba Technology, LoVid and Termite TV. 7. From a presentation by Sherry Miller Hocking given in 2000 at the Munson Williams Proctor Institute, Utica, New York. Dedicated to Ralph Hocking, whose vision made ETC. And to the thousands of artists whom ETC has had the privilege of working with. For a more detailed chronological history, please visit ETC History at



Electrocultures Erika Dalya Muhammad

Still from Jembe (1989) by Philip Mallory Jones. Courtesy: Philip Mallory Jones.

FOR the past decade my work as a curator and academic has explored remix culture in communities of color. Surveying the realms of film, video,, CD-ROMs, Web sites, and aural mixes, I refer to these “cut-andmix” trends collectively as “electrocultures.” To reveal my findings, I recently authored a dissertation on the subject of electronic multicultural art created from the 1960s through the present.1 This project originally focused specifically on artists who employ digital and electronic tools to create black aesthetics that exemplify theories of race and nation. However, because of the current widespread interest in cultural hybridity among contemporary artists, my focus has expanded considerably. Hence, the work discussed in this article considers how technology reconfigures broader constructions of race and ethnicity. I employ “electrocultures” as a fluid, transforming term, and in my multidisciplinary and multimedia critiques I juxtapose older work against more recently completed art to reveal unexpected relationships between various media. The “electric” in electrocultures is precyber, and its origins lie in cinema; it also refers to the tension involved in viewing cut-and-mix work and the idea that fragmentation has become a quintessential condition of spectatorship. I apply the term “electrocultures” in an effort to promote an aesthetic of resistance and renewal that exploits pop cultural, avant-garde, and experimental strategies. I also use it to refer to all photographic, electronic, and digital image-making equipment that creates and/or delivers various types of technology on the electromagnetic spectrum, such as media players, home entertainment systems, PDAs, cameras, phones, PCs, games, and the Internet.



The expression “electrocultures” also describes the cultural vantage point of artists—post-CivilRights, television- and MTV-bred visual consumers—whose media aesthetic is informed by the cut-and-mix sensibility of pop cultural practices and modes of consumerism. I coined the term to create a theoretical antidote to the coldly industrial, robotic sterility that, at one point, demarcated the vanguard techno aesthetic. My objective, to echo the purpose of this publication, has been to reveal hidden histories and to reposition and legitimize the many people and processes of the hitech vanguard that have been ignored, unrecognized, and written out of multimedia and new media 2 narratives. To this end, I also curated the exhibition Race in Digital Space 1.0, which debuted at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and traveled to the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Arts. The idea was to promote a group of heretofore largely unrecognized artists as the new trendsetters of convergence media. Richard Powell elegantly notes the goal of this new vanguard: Eighty years after D.W. Griffith and his followers cinematically branded “with lightning” their version of history, Keith Piper and other new media artists challenged those accounts with their own, digitally enriched works. By invoking the storytelling and prophesying of the West African griot, and embellishing them with knowledge of cultural representations informed by the media and cyberspace, they not only elevated the perception of black diasporal arts but, more importantly, they changed their function as mere televised diversions—they became spiritual and affecting histories, as seen through a glass, diasporally.3 I began formally researching the “electroculture” megatrend and curated Race in Digital Space to explore how technoculture informs the social construction of race and ethnicity. Hence, the overarching goal of my research projects has been to historicize and critique the evolving cutand-mix movements that have emerged from U.S.- and U.K.-based multiculturalism. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, “Third-Worldist” and “Third” cinema studies were invested in critiquing issues of racism and imperialism and in creating strategies of resistance to these dominant forces—a movement that converged with the 1960s and 70s trend in which video as a “new” media began to influence theorists and artists;4 what emerged was a general democratization and increasing accessibility of the teachings of media production and perception. During this time, the personal computer entered the workplace as well as the home, and videocassette players and portable color video cameras were made available to the consumer market. Simultaneously, enormous advances were made in video technology, and what had been an awkward medium quickly became pliant and precise. Eventually, video editing became frame-accurate and image manipulation became effortless due to digital editing technologies. These advances allowed video artists to make inexpensive and technically sophisticated tapes. The time was ripe for technical and theoretical experimentation. Media theory began to evolve and historians and artists began remapping media histories through the lens of multiculturalism. These critical assessments influenced the emergence of (black)5 “oppositional aesthetics” that employ socio-realist and ethnographic traditions to challenge hegemony. These media arts movements, which persevered throughout the 1980s and 1990s, utilized traditions of diasporic cultures to combat legacies of white neocolonialism and postcolonialism. Recognizing that the debilitating effects of colonialism are not behind us, it can be said that the terms “postcolonialism” and “post-black” distort and attempt to dismiss current discriminatory practices as well as political, ideological, economic, and social disparities. New media advances afford an expansion of creative expression, and yet they also trigger new forms of cultural imperialism. Neocolonialist practices, which affect every aspect of black consciousness, create environmental threats that affect our psyches, institutions, and residences. Just as Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth analyzed the colonial experience from the point of view of colonized people, progressive political mediamaking and writing remain central to diasporic emancipatory efforts. Simultaneously, however, these diasporic practices have been exploited and absorbed by the mainstream. Subversive diasporic media in the 1990s became ghettoized within debates around race and identity politics, while the pop aesthetic of many of these progressive works were concurrently absorbed into 6 mainstream American commercial culture.



The challenge of my specific research was to contextualize race as a dynamic power system that is further manipulated and complicated by hi-tech devices and evolving historical paradigms. The word “race,” at once positional and relational, reflects a variety of cultural realities. In this country, when we employ the term “race,” we tend to think first of the tired dichotomy of blackness and whiteness — that is our default narrative. We may even embrace or reject digital media in the same argument. Yet we linguistically trip over hyphenated terms of identities such as African- and Asian- and situational prefixes such as post-, neo-, and re- in our search for fixed meanings. At the same time, I have come to realize that digital tools can be read, as any texts might be, as representing the particular ideas of their creators, and as articulations of power and authority as well as enablers of creative possibility. As notions about the nature of sound and visual art become embedded into the structure of software-based music and film, interactions with these electronic and digital components reveal characteristics of the communities of thought and culture that produced them. The big news is not how artists use digital tools to create a single aesthetic or cultural stance but how they encourage a plurality of techniques, and how artists use these tools to articulate a variety of stances toward their work and technological media.

Two Approaches to Race in Electrocultures

Artists of African descent have used new-media tools to address their cultural heritage from a variety of perspectives. Philip Mallory Jones was one of the first black new-media artists to articulate afrofuturist themes aggressively.7 For Jones, afrofuturism is a useful space in which to work because it frees him from the “ghettoizing” assumption that “documentary” is a more relevant space for him to operate in: afrofuturism readily encompasses the complex, culturally diverse networks of traditions that influence his body of work. Jones states, We are generally expected to speak about people of color in terms of sociopolitical issues or problems. This limits the scope of our discourse. Representation of African and Diaspora peoples and culture is not necessarily the raison d’être of a work by an artist of color. Portrait artists working in paint and photography, for example, will sometimes use these subjects as a vehicle for exploring the characteristics of the medium. Hopefully, an artist’s work expresses truth, which need not be the same as objective reality. People of color and our culture are well served by the mature and well-crafted work of media artists producing in the full spectrum of genres.8 In experimental video works (some dating to the early 1970s), Jones illuminates a complex global diaspora that originates in Africa but transcends race and ethnicity and that is defined in terms of modes of expression, paradigms of perception, and systems of symbolic communication. In the late 1960s Jones was drawn to video because of an attraction to machines and gadgets, as well as by the appeal of working in what he describes as a “videomatic” medium that he could help define. He was profoundly affected by Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), which is reflected in his use of surreal and abstract imagery and a dense yet comprehensible complexity that is his video trademark. In the videos Jembe (1989) and Paradigm Shift (1992), Jones transposes African visual motifs and images onto electronic media. In Jembe, vibrant and sensual images, rendered into abstracted electronic color and form, are fused with the dynamic music of Coulibaly Aboubacar. This vivid and impressionistic piece explores the development of codes that are based on what Jones terms “emotional progressions and an African sensorium,” without dependence on a specific language. In lay terms, he is interested in how cultural information can be conveyed subliminally. Jones’s use of morphing, layering, rotoscoping, and computer animation could also be described as anthropopathic; his high-tech surface manipulation of images creates symbolic codes that encourage



cultural interchange. Using video and digital interactive media, he experiments with the development and composition of a technological language derived from ancient and surviving African symbolic conventions and codes. Paradigm Shift is a poetic video meditation on the cultures of the African Diaspora. The video piece is a richly visualized collage of sounds and images derived from African cosmology that traces the long historical struggle to define a transcultural African race. The piece itself operates as a transcultural investigation and thus questions the validity of national identity as it explores the origins of cultural ideology and communicates messages about the fundamental social, political, economic, and ecological shifts that marked the close of the twentieth century. In Paradigm Shift, special effects allow Jones to neutralize “documentary truth” by emphasizing the inconstancy of the “real.” Because Jones uses representational imagery in an approach that is not narrative, his work often gets lumped into a “documentary bag” by critics. But conventional documentary is not what Jones practices, for he feels that no media can offer an objective reality. What he feels he can process is a greater understanding of how digital media works and, thereby, come to an understanding of his self. Jones refers to his works as essays, poems, or portraits because he wants the audience to come to its own truth. He might be described as the original afrofuturist alchemist. Through ritual and a discerning strategic essentialism, he distills and refines his collages until he achieves computer-modified narratives that communicate complex global cultural connections and ideas nonverbally. This sensibility effectively operated when Paradigm Shift was broadcast on venues such as MTV and on Canal+ in France for international and multilingual audiences.

LEFT: Still from Jembe (1989). MIDDLE and RIGHT: Stills from Paradigm Shift (1992). All by Philip Mallory Jones. Courtesy: Philip Mallory Jones.

Jones’s compositions are thick with ritual. “Integral to my work is the notion that communication happens vertically and horizontally,” he says. “Horizontal communication represents linear, spoken language that we normally use; vertical communication is related to instinct and intuition—a way 9 to knowledge and understanding that I feel is more powerful than intellect.” The work of Philip Mallory Jones bears comparison to the eclectic retrofuturism of multimedia artist Rico Gatson because both artists aim to create a culture of remembrance with their work. Gatson, however, is more politically aggressive in his exploration of currents, concepts, and theories that deal with identity and racism in popular culture. Gatson employs the tropes of repetition, accumulation, and humor to shape his interpretations of prejudice. He accomplishes this through the compression of the horrific and the comic into multi-layered symbols, and through the identification of the power of these symbols at work within the political sphere. Gatson’s body of work exemplifies the oppositional cultural discourse of black retrofuturist practice. In his silent video Flaming Hood (2000), he offers a recovery remix in an effort to reposition stereotypical imagery. As the performer in the piece, Gatson physically “acts out” and satirizes Klansman behavior by digitally “wearing” the hood. In an effort to disengage the function of this indexical sign, he “burns” the hood with computer-generated flames. The effects of solarization and manipulation of speed abstract the image, thus permitting Gatson to visually create a metaphor that conveys the disparity between Klan membership and its violent aim. In this way, he distorts racist semiology and asserts that Klan imagery is perishable. His conceptual use of



allegory is political: the figure of the Klansman is abstracted to critique racist doctrines, intellectual systems, and narratives. He is not necessarily interested in characterizing Klansman imagery but instead focuses on the internal form and structure or, more precisely, on the meaning found in symbolism through the process of allegory. In Flaming Hood, the Klansman is presented as a ghostly entity with human characteristics. Gatson’s performance mocks the arbitrary power of the Klan costume. For, as Walter Benjamin has argued, allegory is perhaps more important than symbolism precisely because it situates art against a mythical, historicized background. Gatson visually detonates the determinism and prejudice of racial allegory to instigate a type of psychological inhibition against discriminatory imagery. Like conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, Gatson masquerades, exaggerates, and ridicules racial assumptions and categories that dehumanize spectators. In his video Invisible (2000), Gatson parodies the imitation of blackness. This silent work portrays the artist against a pink background making faces and holding up symbol-laden objects. The languages of servitude and “mischief” or “trickery” are presented through Gatson’s animated gestures of passivity—he jumps forward alertly and then, through a stop-motion effect, slumps back. His costume and props reference insalubrious sambo effigies. Gatson wears a clown nose and holds a candle, referencing blacks’ alleged foolery and slyness as night creatures. The goal, through Gatson’s applied humor and the video’s silence, is to render these normalized black figural symbols culturally imperceptible and electronically unveiled.

LEFT: Still from Flaming Hood (2000). RIGHT: Still from Invisible (2000), both by Rico Gatson. Courtesy: Rico Gatson.

In discussions of sign systems, gestures are considered to be the first form of language, and, as such, they teach us about the nature of language. In their most primitive state, gestures may be either indicative (pointing) or imitative (imitating the motion of the object they seek to represent). Gatson’s “sign language” in Invisible indicates the transition from the imitative to the representative as his pantomime becomes arbitrarily connected to the thing to which it refers. His use of solarization effects a residue of the symbols on the screen; the visual assertion is that these symbols are already “under erasure.” The irony of Invisible further eradicates these markings. The video digitally “rubs out” any universal and ascertainable meaning, truth, or essence of originality that these symbols ever purported to have. The “power” of these signs will remain under erasure because they were ambivalent to begin with. Both Flaming Hood and Invisible self-consciously foreground the deployment of racist cryptography, which is neutralized through the figurative irony of Gatson’s performances. He forces the spectator’s semantic vision to expand and encourages the deconstruction of visual codes. Gatson’s carnivalization promotes erasure as opposed to enrichment.



In the 1960s, the Situationists emphasized the importance of everyday life as a sphere for critique and intervention. They used the term “spectacle” to describe a society in which existence is continually mediated by images designed to encourage consumption. Initially, the Situationists promoted aesthetic productions that would use such strategies as reappropriation to break down the distinction between art and life. But later they declared art production “anti-situationist” because it tended to take place in a separate sphere from revolution and activity. Distinctively, cut-and-mix artists like Jones and Gatson maintain the lofty goal of merging popular culture with revolutionary activity. The aim of the majority of these artists is to provide global audiences with politically progressive and accessible work.

Electrocultures and Popular Cultures

Popular advocates of revolutionary media and forefathers of the culture of hip-hop said that the revolution would not be televised, but hip-hop and electroculture movements have infiltrated every corner of American thought through their use in broadcast spots and print advertisements. Other cut-and-mix works uncovered in my research borrow from pop music, hip-hop, and deejay culture. In his video Nurture (2000), Art Jones aggressively employs earthquake rumbles with DigiEffects software to probe the anthropomorphic trends in hard-core rap music. The composer George Lewis asserts that, however hybrid their resources, the sonic vernaculars of today still draw their primary sustenance from “Africoid” modes of expression that privilege rhythm as a primary channel of communication. On the same note, the QuickTime film Glitch Music (2000), by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky—That Subliminal Kid), and the Pixelvision digitalvideo short TILT (2001), by Beth Coleman and Howard Goldkrand (aka DJ Singe and MC Verb), are attentive to audio resonances in visual imagery.

Critics continue to ponder whether the ubiquitous commercialization of the hip-hop practice, which has suffered homophobic and misogynistic stresses, has diluted countercultural movements or given them vitality.

Critics continue to ponder whether the ubiquitous commercialization of the hip-hop practice, which has suffered homophobic and misogynistic stresses, has diluted countercultural movements or given them vitality. Hip-hop has permeated nearly every crevice of the national consciousness. It is a genre that continuously reinvents itself and that sells—from the grittiest urban center to the white-bread Midwest— which is why media conglomerates continue to promote it. Hip-hop is a commodity culture movement that “exchanges”; it makes money whether audiences scale up or down in terms of education or income. These high/low consumers of the hip-hop lifestyle represent a permanent change in the media landscape because they influence new economic models, appropriation trends, and new kinds of buyers. Consequently, hip-hop not only reaches the far corners of this nation but is a commodity that is booming internationally.10

ADVentures in Cut-And-Mix Culture

Since Race in Digital Space, my goal has been to create digital exhibition environments that are intellectually rigorous and, in addition to making visitors’ digital experiences corporeal, to demystify the digital through immersive art that is experiential and straightforward. As a curator working within new media, I strive to uncover politically potent work that inspires the aesthetic equivalent of multimedia synesthesia— work that is emotional and imaginative and that, through its “tech,” makes the viewer acutely aware of the sensory experiences. To accomplish this without conceptually alienating the audience is always the challenge.



One interactive strategy I frequently utilize is the employment of cut-and-mix culture in hi-tech spaces. Cut-and-mix is a genre known for its free form, ruptures, odd juxtapositions, and fragmentation. I propose cut-and-mix as a legitimate methodology that locates revisionist interventions, recovery processes, and futurist and retrofuturist agendas that have been built in relation to postmodern and poststructuralist theoretical perspectives. Cut-and-mix methodology facilitates a way to conceptualize visual media as process rather than object. For the past ten years, cut-andmix practices and intellectual strategies have been applied by media artists to critique black. For example, in the mid-1990s multimedia artist Keith Piper proposed the idea of “true interactivity.”11 Piper described this interactivity as “an experience that via computers, videography, and black cultural interventions such as ‘call and response,’ aural ‘cutting’ and ‘mixing,’ and ‘polyphony,’ allowed for an ‘unpredictable and intuitive interaction between presenter and spectator.’”12 When I began critiquing emerging digital technologies in the mid-1990s, I was perplexed that cyberspace — the representation of electronic infinitude that renders human identity fluid, digitized, spatial, and integrated—was referred to as a politically neutral, raceless, genderless, classless territory that supposedly provided us all with equal access and unlimited possibilities for participating, interacting, and belonging to a wired universe. What I was being sold was a “feel good” utopian view of new technologies that offered an attractive exit from the acute social and racial crises that continue to afflict the majority of black communities across the globe.13 I remember reading Brian Eno’s infamous assertion that: “The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can’t use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds sort of 14 inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important.” Apart from the essentialist, lump-sum categorization that would locate an entire continent and its collective culture in an abstract machine, Eno’s remark relates to the important connections between the linear and nonlinear correlation of the computer as a medium of the mind and body. What his analysis lacks is an electroculture intervention of historical and cultural samplings—and this is precisely what I sought to achieve with Electrocultures. If we critique the use of digital forms and the communities who are excluded from them without the firm theoretical agenda of deciphering how technology transforms African Diasporic communities, we will be left with Eno’s unwittingly retrogressive exclusions and a massive tendency to exoticize cultures of the African Diaspora. Eno’s misguided essentialism dilutes what otherwise might be a powerful classification of African Diasporic manifestations of technology.

Tracking The Electrocutlures Movement

My research began in 1995 with a consideration of black video art.15 At the time there was (as remains the case today) little critical examination of how culture and politics affect black video production and its potential to create new images of centrality. John Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Guggenheim Museum, asserted more than a decade ago that cinema and television are the two cultural products most identified with American society. One of the goals of this essay is to examine the process by which the accessibility of new technologies—particularly video—allow communities of color a means to assert their multiple subjectivities. For example, public access allows communities of color opportunities to articulate, through television, their cultural identities. These identities remain in a state of constant transformation as they critique and locate concomitant histories of cultural hegemony and counter-hegemonic struggle. For the past thirty years, black video makers have challenged spectators to diverge from dominant Hollywood and commercial ideology. Their work (like the art of Philip Mallory Jones discussed earlier) encourages spectators to question how they are visually coerced by mainstream media



and, in turn, to resist consumption of social-political-cultural systems that manipulate their images. A great deal of this black video production reveals and critiques the dominant cinema’s mediation of hegemonic values. It renders visible the illusionary transparency of hegemony, disclosing how it supports the values and class interests of the dominant group. Furthermore, it reveals these values and their inscription in consumer products as unnatural, and therefore questionable and undesirable.

These videos implicate the desire to consume without question as problematic—as cultural and psychic gluttony.

These videos implicate the desire to consume without question as problematic—as cultural and psychic gluttony. Black video attempts to heal this psychic damage, and to reconcile black spectators’ sense of self. Working as postcolonial theory, this body of video work, as Judith Wilson asserts in demonstrating the unstable, ambivalent, perpetually equivocal nature of dominance.”16 Video is an effective tool for teaching and informing both practitioners and viewers. The underlying principle is the notion that video will not alienate its viewers and that electronic images will become “sites” of transformative activities. Media critic Patricia Zimmerman has suggested that there will be a process in which information will change into knowledge, and this knowledge will transform spectators into activist 17 actors in the communities of which they are a part.

Black High-Tech

With the publication of my essay “Black High-Tech Documents,”18 I was able to uncover artists who employ digital and electronic tools to create “black aesthetics” that influence theories of race and nation; the focus was on the craft of the artistic production, and the phrase “Black High-Tech Documents” was coined to describe these end products. What is particularly “Black” (or “Latino” or “Asian”) about the art examined in my work does not necessarily relate to constructed tropes of race but rather refers to certain cultural systems and aesthetic traditions.19 In my writing and curatorial efforts, I attend to this while steering clear of the narrow language of “political correctness” and “identity politics”— terms that are often used by the right to dismiss multiculturalism. The idea of a black aesthetic, and the assertion that diasporic artists have been at the forefront of the avant-garde for more than five hundred years, began to be promoted aggressively in a variety of media in the early 1970s. Employing tropes from the vampire genre, Bill Gunn’s 1970 film, Ganja and Hess, explored the realms of black consciousness, obsession, yearning, and the conflicts between Christian myth and African spirituality. In literature, Ishmael Reed’s 1972 Mumbo Jumbo also outlined the complex diasporic attributes that manifest black consciousness. Through his employment of a collage effect, Reed persuades readers to take part in the construction of the plot as he clarifies the differences between white culture and black culture in the United States—an elucidation that is mythically rooted in a split between the races at the time of the Osiris myth in Egypt. An early exercise in cut-and-mix, the novel uses postmodernist techniques such as anomaly, pastiche, and document quotation to explicate the sensuality of the jitterbug, Black Muslim values, voodoo, the Harlem Renaissance, and first-world theft of diasporic cultural artifacts. Decades earlier, the race theory of W. E. B. Du Bois and the literature of Ralph Ellison called for a desegregation of America’s cultural heritage and recognition of the impact of African Americans upon the national identity. In fact, in 1920 Du Bois penned a short “afrofuturist” story, “The Comet,” that recounts an apocalyptic visit from a celestial body—an occurrence that introduces the corrosion of the “color line” between races on Earth. Using a pastiche style that mixes parables and “legal fiction,” novelist Derrick Bell employs phantasmagoria to critique the state of race relations and Black American survival tactics. In Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Bell uses allegory, intergalactic travel, dire



apocalypse, and historical example to argue that racism has always been an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of American society. In his novel Afrolantica Legacies, a new Atlantis rises from the ocean, on which only black people can survive. Upon their emigration to this “promised land,” the passengers see the island sink before they can reach the shore. On their return trip to America, the passengers draw up a list of principles, the “Afrolantica Legacies,” which define how they want to reposition themselves in American society. Toni Morrison’s criticism has repeatedly uncovered the black presence in canonical American literature. The unique diasporic characteristics within electrocultures and high-tech documents are illuminated by Morrison’s explanation of black experiential motives: “I don’t have the resources of a musician but I thought that if it was truly black literature it would not be black because I was, it would not even be black because of its subject matter. It would be something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the way it was put together—the sentences, the structure, texture, and tone—so that anyone who read it would realize. I see the analogy in the music because you can range all over the world and it’s still black.”20 In the same vein, my academic research and Race in Digital Space ultimately establish a genealogy that uncovers and reintroduces work by multicultural diaspora artists who are constituents of the high-tech vanguard.

The Prototypical Electroculture Artist

One of the most provocative emerging cut-and-mix artists working today is Tana Hargest. Her work posits the question: How do artists navigate daily racism as they work within the structures of the global economy and the commercial corporate and art worlds? For Hargest, the occurrence of racism is defined as the experience of prejudice or animosity based on a projected inferiority that fetishizes difference. Hargest is interested in the exploration of these ideas of racism beyond an interactive viewer experience into the realm of daily life. As an artist, she relies on the subversive irony of her illusory corporation Bitter Nigger, Inc. (BNI) to bridge the dichotomy between what is black and white. She operates basically as a performance artist, whose strategy is to employ the corporate tactic of marketing people’s anxieties. The word “nigger” is perhaps one of the most offensive and inflammatory racial slurs the English language uses to refer to blackness. Hargest unloads the derogatory nature of the term by ironically “exploiting” it within her company. Bitter Nigger, Inc. is a “fantasy” business that develops consumable products that explore the relentless stress associated with daily experiences of racism. Hargest packages her concepts within her corporation as subsidiaries. For example, her Bitter Nigger Pharmaceutical, a drug company committed to alleviating the bothersome effects of racism, has created Pivitrol, an adhesive dermal patch. This medicinal replacememt therapy helps white people get over the assumed privilege of “whiteness.” Pivitrol is marketed specifically for consumers who do not perceive themselves as being stigmatized by racism. For people struggling with prejudice and discrimination, Hargest has also created a medicinal lotion—Melinderm—that, when rubbed into the skin, provides a Teflon barrier that protects people of color against the daily assault of racism. The advertisement for her product Tominex—“The Go Along To Get Along” tablet medication—promises to be a fast-acting bitterness blocker and anger suppressant. And on days when the going really gets rough, one can employ the company’s Holo-Pal, an imaging device with which people of color can cloak themselves in the privilege associated with whiteness. The combination of products is intended to help create a utopic America with regard to black-white racial interfacing; if whites can admit to and start to relinquish feelings of innate superiority and blacks can let go of hair-trigger sensitivity about race, then a dialogue might be forged. Hargest exhibits her “products” at gift fairs and promotes her multinational corporation at trade shows. She believes that the more she can insert Bitter Nigger into the already existing mass media, the more the line between fantasy and reality can be blurred. As the artist explains it, “It’s more about hyper-reality than about some type of virtual reality.”21



Bitter Nigger, Inc. currently exists as a CD-ROM and trade-show booth for exhibition, but the corporation is expanding. Hargest is currently completing a Web site and promotional video that is aimed at potential investors for New Negrotopia, a tourist resort modeled on theme environments like Disney World that allows to the visitor be a tourist through his or her own racial construction. Imagine Atlantic Adventure, a “thrilling 3-D interactive experience/ride of the Middle passage,” and Zippadeedooda!, where visitors can “experience life down home on the plantation.” Tourists looking for rest and relaxation may schedule an extended stay at Heritage Plantation Inn, where they can “relax in the grandeur and comfort of the Big House or settle into the private, folksy comfort of the Slave Quarters.”

Imagine Atlantic Adventure, a “thrilling 3-D interactive experience/ride of the Middle passage,” and Zippadeedooda!, where visitors can “experience life down home on the plantation.” Tourists looking for rest and relaxation may schedule an extended stay at Heritage Plantation Inn, where they can “relax in the grandeur and comfort of the Big House or settle into the private, folksy comfort of the Slave Quarters.”

One of Hargest’s main goals is to develop the Bitter Nigger concept into a television variety show. I locate Hargest as the vanguard artist of electrocultures because her work is rapidly moving outside the perimeters of the art world and academia by creating more popular and accessible conduits for its consumption. For example, Bitter Nigger, Inc. is expanding into radio with a podcast, “Happy Radio,” scheduled to launch in November 2005.22

Bitter Nigger’s focus on the media — its misuses and abuses of people of color and the race-demeaning “new minstrelsy” apparent in current prime-time African American–focused television shows—reveals the appalling conditions of everyday racism by asking white culture to get in touch with blackness. Hargest hyper-essentializes in order to make her point; in her parody, she assumes that all black people have experienced the same discriminatory practices and that white people have had an easier time operating in America on a day-to-day basis (an assumption that disregards ethnic, sexual, and class hostilities that limit and oppress a large faction of whites). Hargest’s parodic “company” is presented on a playful, cartoonesque platform that allows one to swallow more easily the bitter pill containing her message. The artist is committed to strategic cultural interventions that locate the crude base-market influences of ethnicity, race, and class as cultural commodities exchanged for money and power in the consumer and contemporary art worlds. Hargest has spent most of her career illustrating how popular culture and art cross-pollinate. She locates the systematic coupling of whiteness and blackness as essentially market-driven. Hargest believes that the narrative of racism is based in biological assumptions, and she has designed Bitter Nigger, Inc. to be a deconstructive moment in which she can critique “the fallacy of the idea of race,” which she understands to be a power structure based on cumulative notions of difference. Hargest humorously illustrates how the construction of racism operates in contemporary culture by manipulating the different mediating forces of the pharmaceutical, entertainment, and consumer-art cultures.

Considering Electrocultures

The past decade has seen increasing examination of the role and responsibility of the curator in contemporary and media art.23 This has resulted, in part, from the growth of curatorial studies as an academic discipline and in part as a by-product of the academic critique carried out by a number of artists in their work and in their museological interventions. This article seeks to promote an expansion of the criteria of academic work and suggests ways the academy can be



more effective in its “public” practice. Curating and writing are compatible modes of academic practice and should be used in tandem to incorporate media work by artists of color into the teaching of history and the development of art in our culture.24 This article also seeks to expand and diversify high-art discourse. The process whereby the accessibility of new technologies allows communities of color to assert their multiple subjectivities should be a part of that discourse. It is my argument that the application of digital tools has created an entirely new mediascape that, with cinematic experimentation at its core, has created diverse systems of new “sampladelic art” (both high- and low-tech). Embracing the recombinant energy of collage-inspired aesthetics, we can explore how the various uses of animation, design, music, and photography in moving and interactive media provide urban cinematic visions a “sampladelic sensibility.” The artists discussed here also use technology as a tool, as a medium (form), as content, and as language to create challenging experiences in “live” art. Access to digital media has fostered a climate of “Virtual Diversity” in which, increasingly, multicultural youth and women are offering meaningful content to electrocultures globally.

Curating and writing are compatible modes of academic practice and should be used in tandem to incorporate media work by artists of color into the teaching of history and the development of art in our culture.

Thus far, we can concede that, with the advent of computerbased art and interactive informational systems, many issues arise concerning the use of alternative media engines through which narrative knowledge may be created. In this spirit, my work continues to pose the following questions: Can electronic media reflect or interpret distinctly black aesthetics and/or semiotic systems? How does this new technology uniquely present the human, social, and cultural realities of our society? How do they help us examine and conceptualize the type of futures we wish to build? And, lastly, How do they help us collect, record, archive, and preserve our cultural heritage? My goal has always been to look beyond a formalized Western mode of cinematographic criteria that is “linked to the very mechanism of the camera through the dominant postmedieval perspective,”25 and toward a mode of critique that adequately relates to the particular cultural resonances and specific production elements of the work discussed. How does one critically analyze the tropes of scanning, importing, and digital imaging techniques (such as working with layers, copying, pasting, and using paint tools) in the discussion of progressive media work? The first step is to work under the premise that these tools provide only a “helping” hand in creating the media. Artists still have to source for material, consider the graphic (architectural/spatial) arrangements of this material, and consider a myriad of other aesthetic and contextual dynamics. In an effort to accommodate an ever-increasing body of digital-based work, artistic venues have reshaped their infrastructures and upgraded their facilities to present new media. In tandem with the aforementioned efforts, it is important for black media makers to sustain a global network that supports, makes, presents, and disseminates cut-and-mix work.

ERIKA DALYA MUHAMMAD is a curator, writer, and First Deputy Commissioner/Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Mount Vernon, New York. She is currently developing the Mount Vernon Hip-Hop Art Center—the first multimedia space dedicated to the global urban youth culture that originated in the Bronx, New York, in the 1970s.



NOTES: 1. Electrocultures: Vanguard Documentary, Cut-and-Mix, and Futurist Diasporic Media (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 2004) examines a collection of multicultural, documentary, experimental, and avant-garde media that represents the radical emergence of a new cut-and-mix aesthetic. This emergent genre promotes a form of remixology that embraces—through its language, structure, and content—revisionist interventions, recovery processes, and futurist agendas in cutting-edge media practices. Primarily, the project investigates how multimedia artists employ analog and digital tools to comment on technoculture. 2. Referring to the process of digital transcription (the transliteration of digital information), “digital space” is also employed flexibly and is utilized to define both old-school and new-school media practices that respond to continual technological innovation. 3. Richard J. Powell, Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997), p. 224. 4. As noted by Pamela Jennings in “New Media Arts | New Funding Models,” a report prepared for Creativity & Culture, The Rockefeller Foundation, December 2000. 5. In the volume Let’s Get It On: The Politics of Black Performance, the editor, Katherine Ugwu, acknowledges disparity among the authors of the essays in the book concerning the spelling and use of the term “black”—as many terms of expression to refer to diaspora artists could have been used throughout the book. In tandem with her solution, I will use the term “black” (with a lower case b) as well as the term multicultural and diasporic to refer to peoples of African, Asian, Southeast Asian, Latino (Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban), or Native American descent in the United States. In the print media and academic texts, the use of a lower case b, as opposed to a capitalized B, is often left to the discretion of the editor. When the term “black” is used to define urban-based concepts such as the Black Arts Movement or the Black Power Movement, the “b” is usually capitalized. 6. It is important to note that the artists discussed in this article are not necessarily caught up in the polemics of this type of aesthetic appropriation because their work is constantly creating new philosophical and artistic principles. The expedience of their response to pervasive technological innovation constantly restructures their aesthetic sensibilities. Furthermore, as digital media enables more intensive player interaction and author narration, appropriation gives way to spontaneous creation developed through interactivity. Hence, popular culture becomes less of a social dilemma and becomes an unequivocally delirious spectrum of activity that sparks new genres and storytelling philosophies. 7. Afrofuturism is a term used among artists, critics, and curators to refer to sci-fi imagery, futurist narratives, and hi-tech innovation in black electrocutlure. 8. Philip Mallory Jones in conversation with the author. 9. Ibid. 10. In my current position as First Deputy Commissioner of Arts and Culture for the city of Mount Vernon, New York, one of my responsibilities is the development of the Mount Vernon Hip-Hop Arts Center (MVHHAC). My mission with the center is to collect, preserve, study, interpret and exhibit expressions of hip-hop culture that collectively represent the global urban youth culture that originated in the Bronx, New York, during the 1970s. As the first arts center of this kind, the MVHHAC will celebrate the phenomenon of hip-hop through a multimedia facility and Internet presence that provides international audiences with an intimate look at the creative and commercial components of this spectacular culture and its social relevance. My aim with the center is to create a model that can be replicated internationally. 11. Keith Piper’s provocative 1993 installation, INTERVENTIONS: a nigger in cyberspace, addressed the social aspects of the body as experienced by race and gender characteristics. Piper understands cyberspace as a reflection of the social relations he knows from daily reality. 12. Piper’s articulation of true interactivity in relation to his interactive laserdisc installation Reckless Eyeballing (1995), as paraphrased by art historian Richard J. Powell in Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (see note 3), p. 223. 13. The 2005 humanitarian disaster following Hurricane Katrina that we saw in the media points to the perpetual crisis that surrounds racism and poverty. This is why it is imperative that we employ the media’s potential to make effective transformations in the communities where we live and work. Perhaps the desperate tragedy we’ve witnessed provides us with an opportunity to get the message through to those citizens who have no awareness of what it’s like to be poor and invisible in American culture—especially if you are black. 14. “Interview with Brian Eno,” Wired (May 1995). 15. In 1989, Philip Mallory Jones curated a show for he Museum of Modern Art’s film department titled “A Black Aesthetic in Video Art,” which explored this new development. The show featured Flag, by Linda Gibson, which explores patriotism from the perspective of an American black woman; Emergence, by Pratibha Parmar, which looks at the art of four black and Third World women; Christmas with La Volcanita, by Carlos de Jesus, which features images of a fishing village in southern Mexico; and Blue for You, by British artist Peter Harvey, which weaves images and music to create a portrait of black culture. 16. Judith Wilson, “New (Art) Histories: Global Shifts, Uneasy Exchanges,” in New Histories (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1996), p. 15. 17. Patricia Zimmerman, States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). 18. In Phyllis R. Klotman and Janet K. Cutler, eds., Struggles for Representation: African American Documentary Film and Video (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). 19. TechniColor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life, ed. Alondra Nelson, Thuy Linh N. Tu, and Alicia Headlam Hines (New York: New York University Press, 2001) explores the relationship between race and technology, from Indian H-1B workers and Detroit techno music to karaoke and the Chicano Interneta. The volume reflects the history of technology used by people of color and incorporates a broad definition of technology and technological practices that include not only computer hardware and software but also cars, cellular phones, and other everyday technologies. 20. Morrison quoted in Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 78.



21. Tana Hargest, in conversation with the author. 22. The next subsidiaries of BNI that Hargest is exploring include Survival Systems and CEO Explorer. Survival Systems is an anti-anxiety technology for urban environments. As with previous BNI projects, this work will include video, interactive media, product, graphics, sound, and performance. In the gallery Hargest will construct a control room staffed with a team of psychics, remote viewers, and “seers.” This team will sense out areas of increased agitation and anxiety throughout the city. After a hot spot is identified, a Mobile Coping Unit (MCU), an adapted Airstream trailer staffed with Survival Technicians, will be dispatched to the location to administer assistance to the public. Prescribed remedies to alleviate tension might include tending the garden of the biosphere, located on top of the Mobile Coping Unit, holding a baby for ten minutes, or singing karaoke. The second subsidiary, CEO Explorer, will document and promote the adventures and exploits of the CEO of BNI. Following in the footsteps of other billionaire adventurers such as Virgin airlines founder Sir Richard Branson, BNI CEO Hargest will conduct several adventures each fiscal year. Scheduled for 2006 are an arctic exploration to the North Pole and a stint by Hargest as a rodeo queen. 23. My work as a curator shapes the vantage point from which I assess, chronicle, and critique the work discussed here. I also consider myself an artist and collagist. 24. Over the past five years there have been major film, video, and new media shows in prominent contemporary art museums across the globe—a clear sign that the media arts are on their way to becoming fully integrated into high-art discourse. However, the paucity of artists of color in these shows reveals an institutionalized segregation that will hopefully erode in the near future. 25. Douglas Wilkerson, “Film and the Visual Arts in China: An Introduction,” in Linda C. Ehrlich and David Desser, eds., Cinematic Landscapes: Observations on the Visual Arts and Cinema of China and Japan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), p. 40.



Previous issues of A Closer Look are still available: Media Arts 2000 Case studies from Open Studio/LA, Vietnamese Youth Development Center, International Film Seminars, DCTV, Media Working Group, Educational Video Center, IC8 Media Arts 2001 Case studies from Ninth Street Media Consortium, RPI, Street Level Youth Media, MIX, Lowell Telecommunications, Global Action Project, NOVAC Media Arts 2002 Case studies from IFP-North, Bay Area Video Coalition, Davis Community TV, The Kitchen, Scribe Video Center, Children’s Media Project Media Arts 2003 Case studies from the NAMAC Youth Media Initiative — Spy Hop Productions, Cambridge Community Art Center, Reach LA, Manhattan Neighborhood Network, OtherFriday, Tech Team, Media Bridges, and survey results from US-based youth media organizations Media Arts 2004 Deep Focus: A Report on the Future of Independent Media By Andrew Blau

To order NAMAC publications visit email call 415.431.1391

a closer look / hidden histories

a closer look

A CLOSER LOOK 2005 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of NAMAC as a national organization serving independent media. We invited seven authors to look back at some of the “hidden histories” of the field: from underrecognized artists, collaborations and collectives, to organizations and intentional media communities. These creative clusters, found throughout the country, have embodied the dynamic spirit and vision of this media movement that continues to gain energy from – and exists in key dialogue with – issues of identity and race, marks of regionality, processes of tool and technology exploration, and the artifacts of mediated communication scattered throughout the environments we inhabit. The anthology opens up a field of inquiry for a new generation that may know very little about the artists, the organizations, or the times in which the media arts, as a self-described field, began developing and growing in cultural influence. Delving into perspectives about these subjects that only the long view backward can offer, the authors map a wide range of activities from a twenty-first century point of view, and look at how these transmissions from the past remain more than relevant today as our media environments change at warp speed. What are the lineages and patterns of practice that, when reexamined, have fresh significance for the concerns facing artists and organizations? These histories are strong reminders that uncertainty, playfulness and openness to unpredictability are part of the effort of making media. The driving forces surrounding the subjects that these authors explore may have changed over the years, but the questions they amplify re-emerge in new ways as creative generations overlap and eventually succeed one another.


NAMAC 2005

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A Closer Look: Hidden Histories  
A Closer Look: Hidden Histories  

Seven authors look back at some of the “hidden histories” of the media arts movement over the last thirty years: reevaluating the role ofart...