A Short History of Early Video Activism in Chicago
Advisor: Judy Hoffman
Thirty-five years after the introduction of
consumer video cameras to American markets, the medium of video is often
because of the common perception that advances in video technology involve
bringing the video aesthetic closer and closer to that of film, it can
appear that the two media are ideologically equivalent and differ only in
cost and convenience. However,
much of the work that has been done on video is quite different from that
done on film. In order to get a true sense of the medium, it is important
to look back at how video was viewed when it was first introduced.
Video was immediately embraced as a vital tool for activists and
brought with it the hope that it could function as a truly democratized
media. While important video
work was springing up all over the country throughout the 1970s,
Chicago’s videomakers were producing work with its own unique character.
As newsletters and videotapes begin to crumble and deteriorate, the
time is ripe to catalog one city’s experiments with a new medium.
This paper will first examine the unique technical possibilities of
video and the aesthetic of early alternative videomaking, and then will
move more specifically to how these philosophies shaped the history of
video activism in Chicago.
Video: Historical Background and Theory
Today, the role of video within the visual
media is relatively established. However,
when it first arrived, there was much sorting out to do. Consumer video cameras first became available to the public
around 1968, with the release of the ½” reel-to-reel Sony Portapak.
Notwithstanding its relative affordability (approximately $1500),
the immense importance of the Portapak was due to specific technical
qualities that differentiated it from both film and video-based
While video was most obviously a less
expensive medium to work with than film (due to the cheapness of tape
stock and the absence of developing costs), videomakers were more
attracted to video for other qualities particular to the new technology. Of major importance was the fact that video could be played
back immediately. A
cameraperson or crew could record a tape and then play it back either in
the viewfinder on the site, or for a larger audience through a television
set. This meant that the people being taped could immediately see
how they were being represented on the tape.
Editing could be accomplished quickly if necessary through an
in-camera edit, which involves recording, rewinding through unwanted
footage, and starting taping again at a point that cuts well with the
previous footage. The
technique is difficult and requires careful planning, but it does allow
the creator(s) to produce a finished tape instantly upon completion of
Video had many qualities, besides immediacy,
that gave it advantages over film. Video
reels were usually thirty minutes long, which allowed for longer takes.
This meant that it was much more likely that the full length of an
event could be recorded without needing to switch reels.
Also important was the fact that the eyepiece did not have to be
held to the camera operator’s eye.
This meant that he or she could maintain eye contact with the
subject during an interview, only needing to glance in the viewfinder
occasionally to check the framing of the shots.
This substantially changed the character of interviews.
The low cost of tapes and the ability to re-record onto them meant
that a videomaker did not have to make decisions beforehand about whether
an event would be worth documenting.
For these reasons, video was extremely useful in shooting live,
unpredictable events and documentaries.
Jim Morrissette explained, “I was shooting documentary films for
several years before that , and it was always a struggle, because
you had to wait until an event was well under way, decide it was
important, and then start shooting film.
With video, you could start shooting and then maybe, if the event
happened, great, if not you could rewind and record over it.”
These technical qualities made working with video a practical
choice for documentarians or other videomakers who wanted the freedom to
One major technical problem faced early
videomakers, however, which impacted the style and feel of early tapes.
While an in-camera edit was possible without any extra equipment,
videomakers who wanted or needed to create a traditionally edited piece
were faced with a distinct challenge. Although the cameras were relatively cheap and easy to
acquire, editing facilities were expensive.
Editing had to be done in a linear fashion by recording each
section in order on a new tape. This
primitive form of editing was difficult with the reel-to-reel system, as
one had to manually wind both reels to the correct spot for each edit.
If an editor missed the precise edit mark, he or she might begin
the edit in between two fields of video data, causing an obvious and
Editing was a process that required much time, skill, and
equipment. In the early
1970s, it was financially impossible for most videomakers to purchase to
editing equipment, and few places outside of universities (specifically,
the Art Institute of Chicago and UIC) even had this equipment.
The result was that many tapes were unedited and made up of a
series of long takes. This
shortfall became integral to the feel of the tapes as well as the
strategies of the producers. Deirdre
Boyle claims that these editing difficulties actually helped video become
part of the process art movements of the time:
Turning the limits of their technology into a virtue, underground
videomakers invented a distinctive style unique to the medium…Video’s
unique ability to capitalize on the moment with instant playback and
real-time monitoring of events also suited the era’s emphasis on
‘process, not product’. Process
art, earth art, conceptual art, and performance art all shared a
deemphasis on the final work and an emphasis on how it came to be.
The absence of electronic editing equipment—which discouraged
shaping a tape into a finished ‘product’—further encouraged the
development of a ‘process’ video aesthetic”.
As Boyle explains,
the formal attributes of the technology combined with the attitudes of the
tapemakers to create a unique video style.
The lack of established precedents in video
production and the technical qualities mentioned above interested many
radical groups. The
introduction of equipment that was considered easy to use and relatively
affordable brought about the feeling that it was a medium that would be
more open to women and other disenfranchised groups. Anda Korsts explains:
We know that women have been consistently excluded from any but
subsidiary work in television, both on a production and technical level.
The ‘porta-pak’ makes it possible for women to learn the
technical skills of television so that they can begin to make programs
which directly represent their point of view toward their own problems and
programs might be addressed only to women, or they might be aimed at
everyone. The point is that
we no longer need to rely on the occasional ‘specials’ on rape or
divorce or other currently hot media subjects to examine issues of concern
to us. And we no longer need
to sit passively while television presents the same male-interpreted face
of women to the millions sitting before the television set each night.
Jim Morrissette felt
similarly about the sexism of television production:
I took, in college, television studio courses and found them to be very
militaristic…Women weren’t allowed to hang lights because they might
fall. I couldn’t deal with
it [the sexism]. So, I was
much more enthusiastic about portable, personal technology, as I call it,
where a person could go out by themselves [sic] or with one other person
and produce something worthwhile that could be shown in public and have a
point of view.
Because video did not
yet have an existing power structure like that of a television or film
studio associated with it, disenfranchised groups, like women, felt there
were many more opportunities for them to get involved in video. In
addition, video collectives often had a practice of teaching video
production and distributing equipment, which further opened up video to
newcomers. It was common to
refer to video as a democratizing force in the visual media because of its
affordability, perceived simplicity of operation, and this lack of formal
channels of production. These
associations made the choice to work with video instead of film a
distinctly political decision.
Before the introduction of the Sony Portapak,
video had been used exclusively for television. Because of this, many
early videographers grappled with the relationship between video and
television. While portable
video technology did not have the same resolution as broadcast television
cameras, it did have some qualities that enabled it to produce better
content. The key difference between television cameras and the
Portapak was size. The
Portapak was shaped like a rectangular box with a lens attached and a
cable connecting it to the reel-to-reel deck.
The body of the camera was approximately nine inches long, five
inches tall, and two inches wide. In
contrast, television cameras were sometimes as large as a person, which
made them practically immobile. These
cameras were used only in studios, while any exterior footage of events
was done on 16mm film, meaning that stations would have to spend a lot of
money to allow a camera person to shoot for an extended period of time and
wait for something interesting to happen.
In contrast, the portability of the Portapak combined with its
relative affordability opened up entirely new areas to shooting.
This possibility eventually proved attractive to the television
news stations, which gradually adopted the use of this type of equipment.
If television crews had not done this, much of the now standard
location shooting and “man on the street interviews” would not have
become standard components of television news shows.
it would be a stretch to say that the current practices of television
stations were directly influenced by the independents, they did play a
major role in proving to the studios that portable equipment was viable
for their purposes. The
television stations were slow to appreciate the new technology, and it was
not until independent videomakers proved it could be used effectively that
it became a practice. Anda
Korsts, who worked as a print journalist before creating a video
collective, explained, “The people who wound up doing this kind of video
journalism came to it naturally. When
the equipment became available, it was of no interest to the
professionals, who called it ‘Mickey Mouse’ and predicted that no one
would be able to use it for anything but home movies.”
However, it was not merely the equipment itself that caused the
change in broadcast television. Independents
were integral in demonstrating the ways this equipment could be used.
Tedwilliam Theodore remarks:
I think the influence independent videomakers have had on broadcast
television should not be overlooked.
Their style of camera movement and the use of portable equipment
for newsgathering was first done by independents…TVTV, [who shot the
Republican and Democratic National Conventions] in 1972, showed the news
media what you can accomplish with portable equipment that’s unobtrusive
in a room. The impact on the
field was great because of our experimenting, because we tried new things
with the equipment. We helped
direct the development of equipment.
However, even when the broadcast stations
began to use this equipment, there were still major differences in how
they used it. Video groups
distinctly situated themselves outside of the realm of broadcast
television practices. Deirdre
Boyle explains a major difference in technique between these two groups:
“Distinguishing themselves from network reporters who stood loftily
above the crowd, video guerrillas proudly announced they were shooting
from within the crowd, subjective and involved.”
As she points out, alternative videomakers developed methods of
working that were not directly dictated by the equipment.
Once absorbed by television, the style and purpose of guerrilla
television was transformed into something often at odds with its origins.
For example, independent videomakers’ preference for ordinary
people rather than establishment spokespersons began to show up in
“mockumentary” entertainment shows like Real People and That’s
These video makers
were using the possibilities of the equipment to enable them to make a
certain kind of tape, not the other way around.
Alternative video should be seen both as a result of opportunities
afforded by the equipment and as a result of a conscious development of a
In the late 1960s, television was still a
relatively new element of American society.
Many of the videomakers of the 1970’s were part of the first
“television generation” – the first group of people who had grown up
with television. Academics
argued about the changes that television’s widespread presence would
bring to American culture; however, there was no way to conclusively study
anything yet. Television had
been ubiquitous for only a few years – not until 1962 did ninety percent
of American homes have a television.
Once video technology became available to the public, some radical
groups such as Raindance began to question why only television studios
were broadcasting programs, since any person or crew with a camera could
record a program and wire a camera to a transmitter.
They determined that the reason that independents could not
broadcast their work was not because it had never been technologically
possible, but because home television sets had been designed to receive
and not transmit information. These
groups claimed that television was structured as an opposition between the
people with transmitters, who disseminated information, and the people
with receivers, who could only watch.
However, the reason for this structure seemed to be only a result
of power and money, not any technological limitations.
This movement to radically change the
structure of television (as opposed to merely the content) was called
Guerrilla Television. Part of
the urgency of this movement came from the feeling that the people who
controlled the information in society were the ones truly in control of
People such as Michael Shamberg, author of Guerrilla
Television, felt that the way information was disseminated in a
society was one of its main characterizing forces.
He ironically asserted, “A system is defined by the character of
its information flow. Totalitarian
societies, for example, are maintained from a centralized source which
tolerates little feedback. Democracies,
on the other hand, respect two-way information channels which have many
This movement was distinctly different because of the focus on
changing the way television functioned, rather than its content.
Most radicals misunderstand the bias of information systems.
They think all you have to do is substitute your message for the
ones going across. But the
actual result would be that instead of being frustrated by a one-way
system which hypes a plastic product-America, as people now are, they’d
be equally frustrated by a radical political message which also gives them
no chance to feed back. True
cybernetic guerrilla warfare means re-structuring communications channels,
not capturing existing ones.
While the main goal
of Guerrilla Television was to create a system where people could respond
to the visual information on their television, creating programs with
meaningful content was still an important (and more realistic) goal.
One of the most influential groups to early
videomakers was Top Value Television (TVTV).
This group (which included some members of the Chicago video scene
– Tom Weinberg and Anda Korsts) videotaped the 1972 Republican National
The tape was called “Four More Years” and it was broadcast on
television stations across the county.
Many Chicago videomakers claim this tape as a major influence,
because it was the first time they had seen anything like it on
television. The tape had many
of the stylistic elements discussed above, such as including the
interviewer and microphone in the frame, and having the interviewer speak
casually to the camera. One
quality that differentiated the tape from television coverage was the
access to new arenas given by the use of portable equipment.
Deirdre Boyle claims that “they [TVTV] tackled the establishment
and caught it off guard with the portable, nonthreatening equipment that
gave them access to people and places where network cameramen, burdened
with heavy equipment and the seriousness of commercial TV, never thought
As she points out, the most interesting quality of this tape is the
way in which it related to traditional media coverage of such events.
The tape feels nothing like television news, in part because of the
style, but also because of the content.
There is only brief footage of the formal Convention program.
The tape places more emphasis on the media coverage of the events
than on the events themselves. In
a reversal of tradition, TVTV interviewed the broadcast news reporters
about their own opinions about the Convention, and their opinions on the
network coverage of the event. We
learn from Walter Cronkite that he finds it absurd that someone would get
news information from only one source, especially one television station. While one could say that we do not learn much “news”
about what happened at the Convention, we do learn a lot about the formal
mechanisms of television news coverage.
By de-emphasizing traditional news content and simply
analyzing the way this information is gathered, we can begin to understand
the potential biases of television news.
An internal letter for the TVTV crew says this of the group’s
In toto [sic], what we are about is producing quality tape that will
stand on its own to communicate that there is another and viable way to
present the feel of an event and a social space that has been neglected
and missing from media coverage to date.
Our documents should and must document OUR activities in the
process of going about taping them. The
tape should be running when we sit with an interviewee-type.
How they relate to us and to the media is a crucial part of the
total image we have to project. Our
ability to move in and out of process within the tapes will determine the
success of communicating our point of view.
Video groups were inspired in varying degrees
by many of these media theories: some had more radical agendas
corresponding to the guerrilla television movement’s desire to overthrow
the current structure of television completely; some groups merely used
the process of videomaking as a tool without interest in the final
product; some strove to gain representation for social groups that were
traditionally ignored by television.
True of almost all groups, videomakers in Chicago came out of a
long tradition of activism and community organizing, from the Haymarket
Riots to the work of activist Saul Alinsky.
An important precursor to the Chicago video
collectives was the use of video at the University of Illinois at Chicago
(UIC). UIC had purchased the
first video equipment in the Midwest for use in the Department of
The equipment was housed in the Media Production Center, which was
headed by Jerry Temaner, co-founder of the documentary film collective
Kartemquin Films. UIC was
relatively willing to aid community video projects, partly because of
Temaner’s influence and partly because of the school’s “urban
mandate” from the city. This “urban mandate” required the
university, which had displaced many residential neighborhoods with its
extensive expansion, to fund community groups throughout the city.
It was through these initiatives that
Videopolis was founded in 1972. Although
formally claiming to be a communal group, Videopolis mainly produced
projects envisioned by its founder, Anda Korsts.
Korsts began her career working as a reporter variously at WBBM (an
AM news radio station) and at the City News Bureau.
Her dissatisfaction with the traditional news reporting she was
doing and her quest for truly representative journalism led her to video,
as described in her Video Notes (aka
Freestyle Video Journalism):
After working as a reporter for a few years, it began to
strike me that what was interesting about the assignments—about the
people or the events or the situations—could not be put into words
without becoming something other than what a reporter was supposed to be.
As the same time, it seemed to me that I understood the stories I
covered not so much on the basis of the facts I gathered, but on
observation of many subtle interactions outside the scope of formal
news…[I felt that] there should be room in the definition of what was
news to include those kinds of details on a regular basis and there should
be techniques developed to bring a more expanded version of news to
people. That feeling
eventually brought me into video.
To begin her
experiments with video, Korsts contacted UIC, where she was able to gain
access to some of the University’s equipment and staff and
Korsts enlisted people such as Judy Hoffman, Lilly Ollinger, and
Jack McFadden to be involved in the group.
They were initially located in a storefront on Halsted Street at
Wrightwood Avenue and then moved to the Northside Auditorium Building (now
Metro), which housed a theater group and various artists, on Clark Avenue
near Grace Street. While a
collaborative effort, Korsts’ ideas formed the philosophical basis for
the group’s activities. Hoffman
claims that Korsts taught her to question “who made television, in what
settings, and for what reasons”. According
to her, the answers to these questions were that corporations made
television, they made it in studios, and they made it to advertise or to
perpetuate the status quo.
The main focus of Videopolis was improving
the community through access to equipment.
The group tried to acquire as much equipment as possible, make it
available to the public, and teach people how to use it.
Hoffman emphasizes that whenever the group screened a tape they
would also bring their equipment and demonstrate its use, in an attempt to
demystify the creation of videotapes.
In addition, the group made their own tapes and documented the
activities of community groups, labor unions, theater groups, and artists.26
In late 1972, the group’s focus for the coming year was declared
to be “experimentation with five uses of tape: education, community
organization, arts documentation, historical documentation, and
An important area of Videopolis’ activities
was supporting women in video and film.
The group would collect pieces by women from all over the country
and submit them to festivals for a program titled “Women Doing Video”.
This program eventually gained some corporate sponsorship and was
then called the “Women’s Video Festival”.
This event was held October 26 and November 3, 1973 at
respectively, UIC and the YWCA at 37 South Wabash.
The program began with a half-hour demonstration of ½” video
equipment, which not only included technical information on how to shoot
and play back, but also “the basics of porta-pak style”.
At this demonstration people could sign up to check out the video
equipment for a few hours to try shooting on their own.
There was also a general discussion of the alternative television
movement and print materials on video.
Following this discussion, an open screening time was held where
tapemakers from Chicago screened and discussed their works.
Three separate screening rooms were necessary to accommodate the
volume of tapes submitted by women from all over the country.
Much of the work dealt with issues related to women’s rights,
such as a tape about women who had gotten illegal abortions, a tape of a
national lesbian conference, a tape on the making of a centerfold, a tape
about the Miss California pageant, a tape chronicling a childbirth, etc.
Ron Powers of the Chicago Sun-Times reviewed the festival, and found that
the women were presenting a viable and more personal alternative to
Another project of Videopolis, funded by the
Illinois Arts Council, was to document a school of artists called the
“Chicago Imagists”. While this type of project would historically have
involved inviting the artists to a television studio to shoot and
interview them, portable video technology allowed the videomakers to shoot
in the artists’ studios instead. Instead
of simply having the artists sit in a chair and be interviewed, the
artists could take the crew on a tour of their studios, talk about their
art as it was being taped, and even create art for the camera.
While this type of technique has become standard in even the driest
PBS-style documentaries, it was a major breakthrough at the time.
The formal structure of documentary style programs--that of an
interviewer on one side of the lens and the interviewee seemingly speaking
to no one on the other--was altered.
While opportunities for wide exhibition of
these tapes was rare, television stations would sometimes show videos by
alternative groups. In 1974,
Anda Korsts and Tom Weinberg got a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Arts
Council to create an hour-long videotaped version of Studs Terkel’s
tape was produced by Korsts and Weinberg, along with videomakers from
around the country including Judy Hoffman and Jack McFadden of Videopolis,
Skip Blumberg of the Videofreex, Jim Mayer of Optic Nerve, Paul
Challacombe, Joel Gold, Tom Shea, and Jim Wiseman.
Terkel’s book is a collection of interviews with people about
their jobs, so the group decided to conduct a similar enterprise, except
on video. The group met with
and taped six people at their jobs, in addition to Terkel, who became an
additional character. Shooting
subjects at their places of employment provided a distinct technological
challenge. One of the
subjects, for example, worked as a waitress in a dimly lit restaurant.
Rather than changing the lighting in the restaurant or foregoing
subjects who worked in dark places, Videopolis utilized a recent
development in video technology. They
managed to acquire the new Tivicon pick-up tube, which enabled shooting
under extremely minimal lighting. The
tube was inserted into the camera in place of the regular pick-up tube,
called a Vidicon. The new
tube was so sensitive that the light from something as small as a
cigarette produced a large circular glow that was enough to shoot by.
This enabled the videomakers to go into workplaces of their
subjects that would previously have been too dark for shooting video.
program was titled “It’s a Living” and it was first broadcast on
WTTW (Channel 11, Chicago’s PBS station) on May 9, 1975.
The tape featured the stories of six different people at their
jobs: four from Terkel’s book (a parking lot attendant, a barber, a
piano tuner, and a waitress) and two new people (a model and a
The tape opens with footage of Terkel talking to the cameraperson.
He performs a sort of introduction by saying:
Remember, you said, “What happens to people who are in the book?”
Remember that their relationship to their friends has altered…and
they become sort of celebrities in a way - from the book or that “being
televised”. Well, it
occurred to me: that’s bad. But
is it?…Suppose 200 million people were photographed…I mean, suppose
they were voluntarily in something, then all 200 million would say,
“That’s me. I’m
recognized”, you see? So
then there is no celebrity, you see?
We’re all celebrities. I’d
like that. That’d be kinda good.
This introduction by
Terkel gives insight into what the group felt they were doing with this
show – recognizing regular people and giving them a chance to be
represented in the mass media. Onscreen
text follows the remarks by Terkel that speaks even more directly about
the goals of the program and guerrilla television in general: “As
experimental video journalists, we hope to demonstrate that small-format
television equipment allows people to speak for themselves, simply and
directly and that real people in real situations make good television”.
These introductory statements reveal that Videopolis was attempting
to take Terkel’s oral histories a step further, by also trying to prove
the viability of this type of project for a television program and
insisting that the existing exclusionary system was no longer valid for
This hour-long tape was well enough received
that the group was asked to make a series based on its premise.
Korsts, Weinberg, Scott Jacobs, and about a dozen local and
imported videomakers produced six more half-hour episodes, which aired in
1975 and 1976.
These subsequent episodes were not solely based on characters from
Terkel’s book, but followed a similar format of showing a variety of
people living their daily life. One episode is called “Paper Roses”, which was made in
1976 about a home for senior citizens run by the Chicago Housing
Authority. The tape has a
slow pace, with long takes and minimal editing.
Instead of adding commentary or direction, the videomakers let
the senior citizens voice their own concerns and say whatever they want
about their lives. Each
subject effectively directs his or her own appearance on the camera,
saying whatever he or she finds most important in representing him or
herself. There is no attempt by the videomakers to produce a tape with
a thesis – they do not make any judgments about the housing project or
about any of the members living there.
Instead, the tape gives a voice to people who normally are not
heard on television.
Another group that was exploring the activist
uses of video was Kartemquin, a documentary filmmaking collective, founded
in 1966 by Stanley Karter, Gordon Quinn, and Jerry Temaner.
Around 1975, Judy Hoffman joined Kartemquin, where she introduced
the collective to the uses of video.
Her video work at Kartemquin differed from the more Direct
Cinema-styled documentaries that had been produced there in the past.
These tapes were mostly used as tools for activism without regard
for the final product. One
tape, “Keep County Open”, documents a strike by doctors at Cook County
Hospital. These doctors were
protesting not for higher wages, but for better patient care in their
hospital, which served mainly underprivileged communities.
The leaders of the striking doctors were jailed, so Judy Hoffman
and Sharon Karp of Kartemquin went to the jail and interviewed them.
This tape was used not only to inform the public about the issue,
but also to unite the strikers and, years later, to inform a new group of
doctors at the hospital who were considering a similar strike.
Another project of Kartemquin was an
in-camera edit tape for a labor union, made again by Hoffman and Karp.
The Unemployment Compensation workers at one local office were on
strike, so they contacted Kartemquin to help them document their strike in
hopes of communicating with the other offices around the city.
The group wanted the tape done quickly, which meant that video was
necessary and editing would have to be done in the camera.
Hoffman and Karp met with the leaders of the union the night before
they planned to shoot, in order to research important topics to cover in
the tape and to find articulate workers who could be interviewed.
The tape was shot the next morning and screened at lunch.
The tape mainly consists of interviews with
the strikers demonstrating outside the building.
To accomplish their in-camera edit, Hoffman and Karp would
interview a person, rewind the tape to the spot where he or she seemed to
make a point that could be elaborated on by somebody else, then move on to
the next person and record from there.
It was not a professional edit, but the videomakers’ interviewing
skills allowed them to direct their interviewees, making the edits flow as
smoothly as possible. The
tape was short – around fifteen minutes – so that it could be shown at
lunch breaks at other offices, after which one of the strikers could hold
a discussion. The tapemakers
and strikers took the tape around to different regional offices for nine
weeks, trying to gain support from the workers at other locations.
The tape was used mainly as an organizing tool, which led up to a
demonstration at Grant Park, where the tape was screened again.
The group was eventually successful.
Hoffman emphasizes that while the tape was not the reason the
strikers got their demands, it did function as an important tool for
informing and uniting the strikers.
The idea that video could be used as a social tool instead of
merely documenting was important to many of the activists in Chicago.
The Community Television Network (CTVN) was
founded by Denise Zaccardi in 1974 as a project of the Alternative Schools
The group provided (and still provides) video training in
production and post-production to low-income African American and Latino
students, both in alternative schools and through an after-school program.
Zaccardi initially started teaching video to kids during lunchtime
at Bethel Academy on the West Side of Chicago, where she was a teacher,
after having been given video training and equipment through Videopolis
member Lily Ollinger. The first tape made by Zaccardi’s students was called
“Everything Must Change”. The
tape focused on the problems faced by the young videomakers’
neighborhood and their suggestions for improvement, a structure typical to
all of CTVN’s tapes.
CTVN gradually grew throughout the 1970s, gathering equipment one
microphone or one cable at a time, until by 1979 they were able to provide
ten of the alternative high schools in Chicago with the equipment to hold
video production classes.
Eventually three centers around Chicago were established to house
the equipment used by the schools.
In 1976, Zaccardi and Sister Ann Christine
Heinz of Saint Mary’s Academy (another alternative school) organized a
student video festival. The
program was sponsored by Alternatives, Inc., an after-school anti-drug
program for kids where Lily Ollinger taught video.
It was called “Electronic Kid” and it was held on February 28,
1976 at the YWCA at 37 S. Wabash. The
festival attracted entries from all over Chicago.
Dozens of members of the video and television community attended
and provided critiques of the entries.
Judy Hoffman, who was then working at Kartemquin, gave a hands-on
workshop on the Portapak for any novices to videomaking. The
program was very successful, and CTVN’s tape “Everything Must
Change”, won the first prize.
In addition to video training, CTVN also
employed students in order to aid their low-income families. In the late 1970s, CTVN was able to employ around 70 students
at a time through a government program called the Concentrated Employment
Training Act (CETA) that provided funds to non-profit organizations in
order to pay students to work for them.
The students aided community groups in video production and did general
office work to keep the program running.
CTVN suffered a major blow in the early 1980s, however, due to
massive budget cuts in arts spending by the Reagan administration, and the
student employment project was essentially disbanded.
However, the group has continued to function to this day.
Like the video work done by Kartemquin, the
primary benefit of this work resided in the process of creating it.
The youth involved with CTVN used video as a way to expose the
problems in their communities and think through solutions.
Marcella Taylor of The Reader
While many Chicago adolescents crowd into public movie houses to find
escape by watching films emphasizing the excitement in horror, violence,
glamorous living styles, and casual sexual encounters, young people in
three Chicago communities are being encouraged not to escape from the
pressures around them. Rather,
through their own use of the video camera, they examine and articulate the
forces and events that shape their neighborhoods, their own lives, and the
direction of the future.
her program in much the same way. To
her, the main benefit to the kids is not necessarily a result of the
actual completion of a tape, it simply comes from the experience of taping
events. She saw the video
camera as a tool to allow her kids access to important community and
political events, and the main benefit to the kids was witnessing these
events and learning how to cause change in their own communities.
I quickly understood that a camera would give you entré to anything.
So as I developed my program I got hundreds and hundreds and
thousands of kids involved. What
I try to do is get them in to places that will change their lives.
Like when the first black person ran for mayor [Harold Washington].
I was sending crews out, like, night and day…It didn’t even
matter if they didn’t get any footage.
The point was that they were present at a historical moment and
that they were documenting it and making history.
presence at community events, the kids were able to encounter
African-American and Latino role models, learn how to organize, and feel
like part of a positive force in the neighborhood.
While Zaccardi emphasizes that the main
benefit to the students was the process of making the tape, the final
product was still important. Students
would not only to address issues of importance to themselves and their
communities, but also to spend time considering how to create change.
While the kids were allowed to make tapes on any subject they
wanted, Zaccardi required them to emphasize the positive and not create
disaster reports like one would see on the television news. For this reason, the kids’ tapes look and feel very
different from traditional media. Zaccardi
emphasizes the difference between CTVN and other groups that teach video
Really, in TV, what people had been doing with kids was imitating
broadcast TV shows, like the news. So
you would have an anchor, a little boy with a tie, and a girl with a
helmet hairdo and they would just completely imitate what the news
stations were doing. And that
was seen as TV and I was trying…I wasn’t exactly imitating TVTV, but
the idea that you take these nice little cameras, and you make these black
and white videos - half inch reel-to-reel - and you teach kids to tell
their own stories. And the
idea is that a lot of times, first of all, you don’t see a lot of
stories about poor people or poor kids…So that was the point…I knew
from the beginning it was kinda like anthropological filmmaking.
It was introducing a new way to learn things.
While many programs
involving video and children end up with products where children imitate
television, the CTVN tapes bear a stronger resemblance to alternative
videotapes. The tapes feature
the same emphasis on leaving the interviewer in the tape, portraying
ordinary people, and a lack of concern with hiding the elements of
The second tape made through this program was
“Mary Ann”, which was produced by Debra Jackson, Karen Smiley, and
Sandra Smiley, aged 12, 10, and 8, respectively.
The ten-minute tape was edited at Videopolis, and despite the
extreme difficulty in editing at that time, the girls edited it themselves
(with aid from Zaccardi). In this tape, the girls interview and pay tribute to
17-year-old Mary Ann Jackson, the sister of Debra and the aunt of the
other two girls. The tape
incorporates interviews with Mary Ann in which the girls ask simple
questions like “What type of person will you marry?” and “If you
could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”
The interviews are intercut with footage of Mary Ann dancing in the
family’s living room. At
certain points the there is a voice over with the producer talking about
why she likes her sister.
tape is different from other programs one might see for many reasons.
First, the camera is always shooting from a low angle, which would
naturally result from the point of view of a young cameraperson.
This point of view gives the tape a distinct feel.
The viewer literally and figuratively senses Mary Ann’s elevated
status in the eyes of the videomakers.
The interview questions are obviously those a child would ask,
calling into question the lack of representation of children’s voices
and concerns in conventional television programming.
The tape not only allowed the girls to represent their point of
view, it also gave the girls an excuse to talk to Mary Ann.
While most siblings, especially with such a great age difference,
do not communicate very well with each other, one can see that the camera
gave a distinct entrance into the world of the older sister.
The camera turns the structure of power so that the girls are able
to get the information they wanted. As
Zaccardi claims, it is clear that the experience of making the tape was
probably equally as valuable to the girls as the final tape.
Another group that practiced social activism
through videomaking was Communications for Change, founded by Tedwilliam
Theodore in 1970. The group
was modeled after the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for
Change, started by George Stoney. The
Canadian group functioned as a community-based program that taught video
to members of underserved minority communities so that they could document
their problems and concerns and take them to public officials.
Communications for Change expanded on this idea by using video in a
more confrontational manner and by finding new ways to incorporate video
into community activism, beyond mere documentation.
The group worked mainly in the Uptown neighborhood on the far north
side of Chicago, an extremely poverty-stricken area facing many struggles
with negligent landlords. A
typical tape, such as one by Mirko Popadic labeled only “5117 N.
Kenmore”, takes place inside a woman’s apartment.
She shows the places where the wall was broken and exposed, how she
cannot keep any food in her cabinets because they have no doors, and how
the rats eat everything. She
mentions that on a recent morning she awoke to find a rat crawling on her
infant child’s face. She
mentions that her landlord had been promising to repair these conditions
for two years.
While the primary purpose of this tape was documentation, its
function extends beyond that type of use as well.
This type of tape was used to pin down statements by authority
figures so that they could no longer get away with promising one thing in
private and denying it in public. This
reveals one of Theodore’s principles, that “video tape forces the
opposition to act in a public manner”.
When faced with actual evidence of promises and statements, people
in power have no choice but to keep their promises.
Theodore coined the phrase “video
intervention” to describe the group’s methods.
Whenever video recording or playback is
introduced to a situation, the interpersonal and group dynamics of the
situation are altered. This
video intervention, quite apart from the uses of the information recorded
and exchanged, can have a major effect on that situation. A community group that knows how to apply the techniques of
video tape [to] social and political intervention has a powerful tool at
feels that the introduction of the medium itself incites change,
regardless of what is shot or what is played back.
In this document on video intervention, Theodore gives dozens of
real life examples that highlight the ways video effected change for
community activist groups. The
document is essentially a manual for “video facilitators” who provide
a camera to a community group and either teach the members how to use it
effectively or do the shooting themselves.
Broadly, Theodore described the work this way:
There were a couple of focuses initially on how to use videotape for
social change and social action. I
worked with tenants rights organizations, block clubs, women’s groups,
and welfare rights organizations. We
used videotape as a tool to confront the enemy.
For us, the enemy was either the alderman, a slum landlord, or the
Department of Urban Development. Our
strategy was to make them respond on videotape about our demands and
charges. We also documented
conditions in buildings and took the footage into court.
But, what we were really trying to do was help people find their
voices, to communicate their situation and needs to other people.
Theodore’s document on video intervention
provides dozens of different examples of ways in which video has been used
for community activism and also generalizes the experience learned from
each example. One of
Theodore’s less obvious principles of video intervention is that
“video recording legitimizes an action”.
This refers to an example where a group had no excuse to meet in a
public place. Members seemed
on the verge of leaving, but once the video cameras were introduced, it
became a “press conference”. The
group was then able to discuss its objectives with a higher sense of
purpose. Another principle of video intervention states that “video
recording and playback objectify a situation”.
Theodore mentions the case of a meeting between community leaders
and an elected official. The
meeting was taped and the community leaders left with a good feeling about
the meeting. Upon viewing the
tape, however, they were able to see that they were talked down by the
official’s fatherly tone, and that while he made them feel like they won
something in the meeting, actually they were in the same position they
started in. In this case, video was able to allow people to view
emotional events objectively and learn from them.
Communications for Change used video as more
than just a communication tool; it was a medium whose presence changed the
entire dynamic of a situation when introduced.
Theodore emphasizes the difference between his group’s methods
and other alternative video movements:
A group like TVTV might approach this problem by making a videotape
documentary showing all the tenants’ unions’ problems and trying to
get it on network TV, but that’s not how we work.
We believe that the tape itself [is] not the answer, that change
will come from the group action—the process—once the group understands
power and how to use it.
recounted how sometimes the group would approach negligent landlords with
a camera – landlords who had refused to take basic care of their
buildings for years and terrorized their tenants – and not even shoot or
even necessarily have any tape, and the landlords would immediately
consent to do the things that the tenants had been unable to force them to
do for years.
Marilynn Preston explains this phenomenon in her article in the
Chicago Tribune – “Later on, Theodore explained, those same organized
tenants found they actually could get in to see a top HUD [Department of
Housing and Urban Development] official by waving their videotaping
equipment his way; once in, they found his cooperation and responsiveness
increased the closer the cameraman came.
It didn’t matter that it wasn’t really a TV news team and that
the group had no broadcast outlet for the tape, Theodore says; it was the
process that the official found intimidating.”59
The other major project of Communications for
Change was a project called “Documenting Social History: Chicago’s
Elderly Speak”, a joint project with Loop College. Theodore had been
looking for new ways to spread the democratic use of video, while Carole
Collins, who coordinated the adult education program at Loop College,
wanted to facilitate communication between the older and younger
generations. The two were awarded a small grant from the Illinois College
Board and began a course at Loop College in the spring of 1974.
The course lasted sixteen weeks and taught students the basics of
working with portable video equipment and interview techniques “in the
style of Chicago’s own Studs Terkel”.
The students were encouraged to videotape a person from a community
that was important or interesting to them.
There were numerous ways in which the students understood
“community”; the archive catalog for the project lists such
communities as Uptown, Austin, Black, Ethnic White, Mexican, Puerto Rican,
Cuban, Work Experience, Labor Organizing, and Social Institutions.
The tapes were shown around the city, and as this type of simple
documentation of people’s lives was a very new thing, the tapes provoked
heated discussions about the issues portrayed, conveyed new information to
viewers, and helped people with similar perspectives begin to organize.
While the individual groups in Chicago had
different projects, they felt united enough to establish a formal group to
determine what the needs of the video community were and find a solution.
Judy Hoffman, Lily Ollinger, and Denise Zaccardi organized the
first meeting of what was to become the Chicago Area Videomakers Coalition
at Kartemquin in 1977. This
group consisted of most of the active videomakers in Chicago, who met for
monthly meetings incorporating screenings and production workshops.
The group succeeded in getting a tape on Channel 44, which first
aired June 18, 1977, and was called “Slices of Chicago”.
The tape was edited at UIC, through the intervention of Jim
The production of this tape emphasized that the most pressing need
of the video community was editing facilities.
As mentioned before, editing was a major challenge to early
videomakers. Throughout most
of the 1970’s, the only places in Chicago that had editing facilities
were The Art Institute of Chicago, UIC, Communications for Change,
Videopolis, and a few small video equipment vendors.
The first two were only open to those within their own University
communities, the second two were not capable of providing facilities to
the entire Chicago community, and the cost of editing time at a commercial
outlet was prohibitively expensive for independents.
To solve this problem, Tedwilliam Theodore,
Tom Weinberg, and Scott Jacobs submitted a proposal to establish the
Chicago Editing Center. The
proposal requested $53,100 for equipment and $43,800 for the first
year’s operating cost.
The Center was initially an offshoot of Communications for Change,
and got grants through this group from the National Endowment for the Arts
and Irving Harris. Interestingly
enough, one of the support “letters” attached to the proposal was a
review of the first broadcast of “Slices of Chicago”, which shows that
the efforts of the Videomakers Coalition did have a positive effect on
public appreciation of independent video.
The Center was opened in 1977 at 11 East
Hubbard Street, the same building as Communications for Change and an
office of Community TV Network. It
became an autonomous entity, separate from Communications for Change, in
1978. Videomakers were able
to use the facilities for only a small membership cost ($150) and an
hourly usage fee ($6),
which helped to cover the operating costs of subsequent years.
The Center published a monthly newsletter called Scan, held
screenings, offered workshops, and included a technical staff (lead by Tom
Finerty) to aid in post-production. Jim
Morrissette described the Center as equivalent to a graduate video
Additionally, individuals could set up their own workspaces in the
Center. The primary impetus
for development of the Center was closing the technological gap between
the facilities available to independents and those of broadcast television
companies. For example, in a
support letter for the Editing Center proposal, Denise Zaccardi emphasizes
that television stations are reluctant to broadcast her students’ tapes
due to technical problems, and that the Editing Center would help open up
the opportunity for wider broadcast.
Because it essentially housed the only public
video editing facilities in Chicago, the Center was the hub around which
most of the videomakers in Chicago worked, from artists to documentarians
to video activists.
Many videomakers feel that it was due to the Editing Center that
Chicago had such a cohesive community, since everyone was constantly
meeting, screening their work, helping with other people’s projects, and
participating in workshops. This
close sense of community was ingrained in the Center’s structure from
the very beginning. The
initial proposal lists eight major groups that planned to use the Center,
most of which were not actually groups that worked solely in video: the
Chicago Area Videomakers Coalition (which included almost all of the
independent videomakers), United Charities, The Center for New Schools,
The Illinois Arts Council, The Organization of the North East, Metro High
School, The World Without War Council, and The Loop YWCA.
Some of these groups simply used video for mainstream projects,
such as documenting events and training.
The Center became a meeting-place for all people interested in
video, including local and visiting artists-in-residence, such as Woody
and Steina Vasulka, Dee Dee Halleck, Wendy Clarke, and George Stoney.
In 1980, the Chicago Editing Center was renamed The Center For New
Television because new video formats meant that the needs of the community
had shifted away from solely editing to more general production and
While the importance of this type of
independent video work is undeniable today, it is illuminating to read
contemporaneous reviews of televised programs.
Before the advent of cable public access channels, which in Chicago
was not until the mid-1980s, broadcast airtime was limited for alternative
video. The important thing to
recognize about these works is that, unlike video art pieces, which
usually anticipate a more educated audience, the types of works discussed
in this paper were always designed to be accessible to a wider viewership. Most of the reviews share a discomfort with the technical
imprecision of the tapes, but otherwise found them refreshing.
Some, like Jeanne Weimann, who wrote the article on Communications
for Change’s “Documenting Social History” project, indicated that
the new style of videomaking might require some acclimation by viewers
before it could be appreciated:
The first few minutes of a tape inevitably drag a bit for most viewers,
since people are more accustomed to tv’s fast action and quick cuts than
they are to the relaxed “armchair interview.” But viewers soon find
themselves becoming emotionally involved in the interviewee’s
experiences, and when the half-hour tape reaches its end, they often ask
if there is more.
This reviewer also
mentions a hesitation on the part of the interview subjects, who were hard
to convince that their stories were worth documenting, and often voiced
confusion over why the interviewers would waste tapes on them.
Weimann claims that these subjects were accustomed to television
covering important people and did not understand the new focus on regular
people. Bill Granger, who
reviewed the “Slices of Chicago” program, had a similar reaction: “I
warn you again that the technical quality of all the pieces is not the
best, but stay with it. Watching
Slices of Chicago is like reading Dostoevski--difficult and rewarding.”
Granger also explains his opinion on the difference between this
program and the usual content of television – “Sometimes, the greed of
television overwhelms you and you feel like that Greek looking for an
honest man. Sometimes, you
begin to wonder whether any of it is on the square.
And then, in the Sahara of selling, you come upon an oasis where
there is honest art and true feeling and a sense of greatness left
untouched by all the slick guys”.
Most reviews combined admiration, discomfort with technical
quality, boredom, and discussion about the new possibilities for
television brought about by portable video technology.
representative than newspaper reviewers’ responses to alternative video
is that of the general public. To address this issue, a 1980 program called “The Pop Video
Test” attempted to gauge the public’s response to alternative video
projects and the viability of distributing the tapes on VHS for wider
consumption. “The Pop Video
Test” was a joint effort between Scott Jacobs and Tom Weinberg of the
Chicago Editing Center, and the Video Group of the Bell and Howell
They assembled ten hours of video pieces meant as an alternative to
the types of programs regularly distributed on VHS, which were mainly
Fifty VCR owners in the Chicago area agreed to examine and review
the tapes. Test viewers then
received the programming two hours at a time, in groupings labeled Video
Art, Documentary, Entertainment, and Potpourri. The raters then turned in responses that measured the tapes
on a scale from 1 to 6. For
comparison, the audience rated public television in general at 4.7 and
movies on home videocassette at 4.8.
The sample tapes received 4.8 for documentaries and 3.8 for video
art. (The article does not mention the results of the other two
categories.) The main qualms
the reviewers had were the technical quality and length, the same basic
complaints as the newspaper reviewers.
While the sampling number was very small (less than three-dozen
raters returned responses), it is still interesting to note that viewers
seemed to be receptive to independent video, and even more so if
production values could be raised closer to that of mainstream outlets.
analysis was proven correct by a show called “Image Union”, created by
Tom Weinberg in 1978. “Image
Union” resulted from a controversial meeting between the Chicago Editing
Center and WTTW.
Initially, the videomakers were told that Channel 11 produced
public television, not community television, but after the “Slices of
Chicago” program was shown, the station acquiesced.
While acquiring a regular timeslot on public television was a
challenge, “Image Union” has been the most successful venture by the
video independents of Chicago. Tedwilliam
Theodore described the show as the link between the alternative video
community and the broadcast world.
The program airs weekly on Channel 11 and showcases independent
film and video work. Anyone
can submit to the show, including those from outside the area, although
the producers try to retain a high percentage of tapes from Chicago and
Illinois. Contributors are
paid a small fee for their work.
This program is one of the lasting contributions by independent
videomakers, as it still airs weekly on Channel 11, twenty-six years
Chicago’s early video groups undeniably
used the new medium in revolutionary ways.
These early videomakers found uses for video that transcended mere
documentation or traditional modes of communication.
Video was part of a wide movement in community and political
involvement: Videopolis worked to train women and other disenfranchised
groups to use video and to change the content of television; Kartemquin
used video to help groups organize; the Community TV Network used video to
give underprivileged kids a chance to participate in their communities and
to inspire them to work for change; Communications for Change used video
to mobilize communities; the Chicago Editing Center helped to give
independents a chance to make broadcast quality work by making equipment
and editing facilities available to the general public.
All of these groups made an impact on the Chicago community, but
the ways that videomakers like them all across the country changed the
uses of video and television are perhaps more important.
discussed earlier, many of the techniques used by early videomakers
experimenting with portable equipment were eventually adopted by
television studios. The
television news now makes extensive use of on-site footage and
“man-on-the-street” interviews, neither of which would be possible
without this video technology and the pioneering work of independent
videomakers. On a less positive side, the ubiquitous presence of
humiliation-oriented “reality TV shows” would not be possible without
the initial experiments of these independent videomakers.
videomakers in the 1970s had trouble finding outlets for their work, today
there are many ways for tapes to be shown besides in community venues.
Cable access has been an extremely important outlet for work, in
addition to the various channels like Sundance that screen more
experimental work. Many more
festivals now exist for potential screenings of video-based work.
Videomakers can take advantage of these outlets, or go by a less
formal route and stream video on the Internet.
Because of the advances in digital editing, video has come closer
and closer to the democratized ideal of the 1970s.
Now it is actually possible for an individual to produce a program
rapidly and for little money. However,
this change has also made videomakers less reliant on a community and more
apt to produce videos independently.
It remains a question for the future whether these new outlets,
university training, and individualized production will bring about a new
era of video innovation or whether those same things will eliminate what
was interesting about video from the beginning.
This type of argument can be seen to flow directly from
Marshall McLuhan, who was highly influential to some of the
videomakers at this time. However,
his popularity persisted more in theoretical writings and much less
frequently in the actual politics of people making tape, many of whom
felt deeply that changing the content of television or video would