Chicago's Video Underground
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Unearthing Chicago's Underground Video Scene

A new generation of communicators are staking out the territory of television's future. 

BY DAN LOGAN -  Hyde Parker - Dec.- Jan. 1973 

Chicago's underground television scene has bloomed.

A couple of years ago, there was little indication that it would happen. There was a smattering of activity, some ideas. The seeds were being sown.

Now that it has quietly come to full flower, an explanation may be necessary. Like what is it, anyway?

Underground television (or, as it's also called, alternative video) is anything but broadcast television as we know it. It's television of the people ­lightweight, inexpensive and easy to use.

A technological breakthrough, the portable videotape camera, is the major identifying feature of underground television. The Sony Porta-Pak, the most popular portable camera, looks and functions much like a film camera. It's lightweight (22 pounds), can be mounted on a backpack, and operates on rechargeable batteries. Extremely sensitive to light, it can be used any­where without lights. The camera and a portable playback unit sell for $1500.

Perhaps the camera's most extra­ordinary aspect is the half-inch video­tape it records images on. The tape costs $12 per half-hour and can be reused fifty times. Compare that with the cost of film ($100 per half-hour plus processing) or the standard two-inch tape broadcasters use ($100 per half­hour but reusable), and you under­stand why the portable camera is fre­quently thought of as a revolutionary invention.

The Porta-Pak gives its owner the ability to go outside a studio setting cheaply and easily, shooting an unlimit­ed amount of videotape, taking all the chances he feels necessary. The tapemaker can also work alone, in contrast to broadcast television, where indivi­dual contributions are submerged in a complex collaborative mix. 

Another new technological advance­ment tapemakers employ is the video synthesizer, the operator of which has a high degree of control over the modification of images. Initially, these machines are likely to significantly affect the art world - they provide the artist with an unlimited kinetic visual palette. As they become more sophisticated, the synthesizers should have much wider application.

Since Sony first marketed its Porta­Pak in 1968, there has been talk of its revolutionary impact and "the cassette revolution." But like the exaggerated rhetoric of political revolution in 1968, the talk has de-escalated to a realistic level. The fight over standardization of video cassette equipment, among other harsh realities, has moderated the in­itial burst of excitement.

The revolution will be gradual, but no serious student of the media doubts that one will occur as the possibilities of cable television are realized. Cable's multi-channel and two-way capa­bilities will change the broadcaster­broadcastee relationship drastically. In February of 1972, the FCC insured the public's right to use cable channels by requiring cable operators to guarantee free access to anyone.

I visited with seven Chicagoans who are experimenting with the new tele­vision technologies and thinking about how to best use cable when it comes to Chicago. They all agree that Chicago is three to five years behind New York in the development of alternative video - but Chicago hasn't had cable (New York does) as a stimulus. Whether the City Council selects a cable franchise in the near future or not (the selection, much less the drafting of the or­dinance, is not in sight), these tapemakers are working hard to catch up. I'm betting they will.

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Tom Weinberg

Like Anda Korsts, Tom Weinberg was a member of Top Value Television, the group which produced the 1972 poli­tical convention tapes (the most widely seen half-inch tapes ever made). He's now a member of the "loosely-knit coalition" known as TVTV, composed of several members of the original groups.

    Based in San Francisco, with members across the country, TVTV is one of the few alternative groups geared to production for broadcast on a large scale. A diverse group of half­inch veterans, it has an ambitious plan to utilize its expertise. Its members know what they're doing, and they in­tend to do it with the largest audience possible.

They're video pragmatists who've gone beyond the philosophizing and euphoria and cultiness surrounding early video projects. They like to say they're "post-political," not interested in talking about a revolution in tele­vision, just interested in making it happen. They think the time is right to build up an economically viable base for alternative video. 

Their early successes  - the convention tapes, a program about Rolling Stone Magazine (also shown on Channel 11), and others are evidence that they know how to produce pro­grams and sell them as well as any broadcast operation. Now they've come up with a plan to implement their capabilities in competition with the television Establishment.

The project is called "Prime Time," which name suggests its scope. It's an attempt to develop programming models for alternative video which can compete with broadcast television. "Over the last four years," reads the promotional brochure, "we've been experimenting with videotape. During that time we have developed a harsh critique of conventional TV. As a result, people often ask us: 'How would you do it better?' " TVTV's tentative answer is "pretending that television could be reborn."

"Our plan," the brochure continues, "is to produce a four-to-six hour package of programming which integrates the best techniques of alternative television people and technology into a new grammar of TV formats.

"We .,. anticipate that it can be transmitted simultaneously on select outlets across the U.S. as a kind of 'network for a night.' "

". . . The project will serve both as a context for showcasing the work of alternative video producers, and as a prototype operating structure through which alternate programs could be financed and distributed."

The subject matter of "Prime Time" will be the future of electronic communication. It will attempt to prove that style makes a difference, that halfinch style is the television style of the future. TVTV will not limit itself to halfinch equipment - they're not purists. The important thing is that alternative, forward-looking style be presented effectively.

According to TVTV's plan, "Prime Time" will evolve in three stages. The first is a survey of hardware and software in America and Europe, as well as a survey of how television columnists and broadcasters think television should be changed, to be published in book form next spring. Stage Two will draw on major tapemakers' work for a ninety-minute prototype program. Stage Three, built on the foundations of the previous stages, will be the production and distribution of "Prime Time."

Both aspects of Weinberg's pre- TVTV background, his business school training and his one-year career as a producer at Channel 26, are unique in the Chicago alternative video world, and both are assets for "Prime Time." Disenchanted with the possibilities of broadcast television, even at a small and relatively free-wheeling station like Channel 26, Weinberg gravitated toward alternative tapemakers, then to TVTV. His attitude toward television is the premise on which "Prime Time" is based: "It makes sense to start from what you want to do, rather than starting with what exists."


Tedwilliam Theodore

Tedwilliam Theodore's activities are too numerous to list here, but they're all community-based, goal-oriented, social action projects. He does most of his work under the aegis of his nonprofit corporation Communications for Change, a consulting firm which helps organizations develop "economically and programmatically viable" uses of videotape. Tedwilliam's goal is helping people use tape by and for themselves. He's quick to point out that he doesn't do alternative video to replace broadcast television - or even use it. Call it closed-circuit TV, direct-application TV, or small-application TV, his use of tape is always within a small group.

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By his own definition, Tedwilliam does two kinds of projects. Those which he describes as "social action" include confrontation and resource

development. "Social welfare" projects train social agencies to use tape for their purposes - in staff training, counseling, community outreach, and inter-agency communication.

Tedwilliam's career as a videotape consultant began with a lucky coincidence. In 1966, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he took a part-time job in the Education Department as a photographer. That was the year industrial format tape equipment was first marketed. The University bought some, and he was the likely person to experiment with it. He produced tapes for the Independent Learning Project and the Master of Arts in Teaching Program.

In 1969, the Woodlawn Mental Health Center hired Tedwilliam, still a graduate student, to use tape in preventive mental health and community outreach programs. He taped meetings and played them back at other meetings. During two years there, he felt he was "working blind" in the absence of conclusive data from other experiments. But he was learning from his experience and others', particularly the Canadian "Challenge for Change" Program.

The need for new approaches to community problems increased daily. Tedwilliam began free-lancing his skills to mental health organizations, including the School Intervention and Training Program (at the University of Chicago) and the Children's Center for Learning Capacities.

Community Programs set up Communications for Change in May of 1972, with Tedwilliam as director, to explore the use of new tape techniques in Chicago communities. Its funding soon ran out, at which point it became an independent firm working with many of the same agencies.

Because his main objective is to help people themselves with video, Tedwilliam teaches video often. He's given workshops and demonstrations at Governors State University and the Community Arts Foundation, and is now conducting Videotape Workshops at Loop College.

You have to be versatile to support yourself and your wife doing video- Tedwilliam is amazed that he's done it for the last year. But he shouldn't be. He's on the ground floor of a movement that can only grow larger with time.

Dan Sandin 

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For Dan Sandin, Assistant Professor of Art at Circle, the way to do television is to build a machine called the Image Processor. It's a "patch programmable general purpose analog computer, op­timized for the real time processing of video images."

In less technical terms, the Image Processor is the visual equivalent of the Moog Synthesizer. Dan feeds video images (or anything that can be coded electronically) into it. Through mani­pulation of its controls, the machine alters the image and displays it on a television screen. The result can be videotaped.

The Image Processor is the most sophisticated machine of its type on the planet. While more primitive visual synthesizers, the most famous being the Paik/Abe Synthesizer, are capable of limited alteration of images (the Paik/Abe combines and colorizes), the Image Processor can modify images in virtually any way. It combines images, colorizes them, processes them (changes their form) - it even generates them from scratch. It's also the first and only visual synthesizer to be modular in design, which means it can be easily adapted to any input.

Dan is a nuclear physicist. But, like many of Chicago's video freaks, his avocation became his occupation. After receiving his M.A. in Nuclear Physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1966, Dan designed light shows for fun (and negative profit). Then he took a job as a researcher at Wisconsin, but soon "it became clear to me that what I really wanted to do was something visual, something that involved more of my being than physics." He did some photographic exhibitions, some light sculpture, then began looking for a college teaching position in Art. Circle hired him.

With a $3,000 grant from the University for "innovations in under­graduate curriculum," Dan built the Image Processor during the 1972-1973 academic year. By the end of January, he was able to inaugurate it with "In Consecration of New Space," an im­provisational visual work in collabora­tion with Jim Wiseman and Phil Morton of the Art Institute. Since January, the trio has exhibited the I mage Processor around the country. In their first appearance on broadcast television, they taped a segment for Channel 11's "Made in Chicago."

The I mage Processor represents a major shift in Dan's work from "single purpose art objects" to "general pur­pose systems embodying a large number of possible uses." The two fundamental uses of the Image Pro­cessor are as a learning tool and as a vehicle for communication.

It's the individual operator's learn­ing experience that most interests Dan. He refers to the Image Processor as "a tool for personal growth." Just as play­ing a musical instrument affects the life of a musician, using the Image Processor affects the way the user sees the world. Dan says the process of using any technology profoundly affects the user.

As far as Dan's concerned, the production of art as well as potential broadcast applications of the Image Processor are secondary and merely coincidental to its effect on the in­dividual. That's why the machine is always available to his students. He thinks extensions of the Image Processor concept will be the teaching machines of the future. To replace the "antiquated interrogation pro­cedures" of today's computerized in­struction, man will develop "a very powerful machine that you control to find out things about yourself and your universe."

It will be more efficient than previous kinds of learning. The Image Processor's capability of altering images in real time, without lapse between conception and realization, is an im­portant one. Actually, there is an in­finitesimal gap, a matter of micro­seconds. But compared to the length of time between conception and finished film, or conception and finished paint­ing, or conception and finished novel, the processing of images in real time is a significant breakthrough. "You can go through a set of experiences with the Image Processor in an afternoon," says Dan, "that would take, using any other technology, weeks or months."

The time of mass use of machines like the Image Processor for personal growth is probably not far in the future. Despite his knowledge of nuclear physics, Dan has no formal training in electronics. He was able to design and construct the Image Processor because the technology of integrated circuits has become so simple that virtually any­one can use it creatively. The Image Processor is just one of many such machines under construction. And it is so simple to operate that anyone can learn in a few hours. Soon children may play with image processors and syn­thesizers instead of Erector sets.

Anda Korsts 

wpe16.gif (256588 bytes)Former radio newsperson Anda Korsts organized Videopolis, a "community video access project," early this year. It's a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation designed to make sure that Chicago appreciates the potential and explores the possibilities of half-inch tape before cable arrives.

If Videopolis is any indication, Anda has a great future in underground TV. As Ken Englund of the Illinois Arts Council staff puts it "Nothing gets in her way!" Her ability and aggressiveness has enable her to involve organizations as diverse as the Arts Council, the North Lawndale Economic Development Corporation, and the Latvian magazine Mazputnins in the project.

In Anda's words, Videopolis is Chicago's first "comprehensive video project." It provides information about, and access to, video. Loop College, the

Chicago Board of Education, and Urban Gateways of Chicago have utilized Anda and her two partners in Videopolis, Lilly Ollinger and Jack McFadden, to train people in the use of video equipment and to study the feasibility of using video as an adjunct to their programs.

The group's more specific focus for this year is experimentation with five uses of tape: education, community organization, arts documentation, historical documentation, and archiving.

Because it's the first group in Chicago organized to meet the need for various kinds of experimentation, Videopolis has formed associations with some of the city's most vital institutions: It is investigating tape's community organization potential with the Citizens Action Program and documenting the history of Hull House. With Studs Terkel, Videopolis is studying the possibility of putting books like Division Street: America and Hard Times on videotape.

And Videopolis has accomplished some firsts. In the area of arts documentation, it has been developing a series of programs about the "Chicago School" of artists, the first significant effort to document these artists and their work. Videopolis helps each artist to produce his own tape. The initial one-hour tape was shot in Ed Paschke's home. Videopolis has also preserved some of the Lincoln Avenue theater scene for posterity by taping the Organic Theater's Warp and well as Turds in Hell, Muzeeka, and Saved at the Kingston Mines Theater.

But these are only a few of Videopolis's liaisons in the Chicago community. It's constantly working to accumulate more, in Chicago and around the country. Last year Anda attended most of the major gatherings on cable TV and alternative media. Videopolis maintains extensive print and tape libraries, circulates a newsletter, and sponsors regular tape showings.

The basic funding of Videopolis -- $23,000 for one year  -- comes from the Arts Council, the Wieboldt Foundation, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. Although it would pay for only one hour-long filmed documentary at Channel 11, the $23,000, plus about $2,000 from organizations given access to Videopolis, will pay for equipment, salaries, tape, and other expenses for one year. Videopolis is a special program in Circle's College of Urban Studies (the University's coordinator is veteran Chicago filmmaker Jerry Temaner), which status entitles it to the use of sophisticated editing facilities and an institutional framework for the distribution of videotapes.

tour years ago, Anda Korsts covered the City Hall beat for WBBM Radio. She didn't like it, with one exception. "The Convention in '68 was great. But I had my assignment. I realized when I was done that I knew almost nothing about the Convention."

After leaving WBBM, she worked with Michael Sham berg, author of Guerrilla Television (a guide to alternative video) and a member of Raindance, a pioneering video cooperative in New York City. Anda and Shamberg had once worked together as reporters at Chicago's City News Bureau.

Last year Anda was a part of Top Value Television, a group coordinated by Shamberg which utilized half-inch equipment to cover both political conventions. Now known as TVTV, it marketed three tapes of the conventions to several cable companies and broadcast stations (including Channel 11 in Chicago). Anda appreciated the ability to shoot a virtually unlimited amount of tape and the lack of necessity to drag a union crew along with her as she shot. She feels she knows something about the 1972 conventions. And she learned something about the nature of the new medium in contrast to broadcast television or radio: "Because it's inexpensive and mobile, you don't have to plan, as opposed to the planning that's done in broadcast TV or film. You don't have to decide on an interpretation before you cover an event. It's closer to writing. With writing, you take notes about everything. You go back afterwards and find the quotes or descriptions that are most suggestive. Similarly, with half-inch tape, you can just keep on taping." 

Anda's background is in painting. But she loves the process of using tape, especially if its allowing her to be relatively self-sufficient - she can use both camera and microphone at once. She intends one day to do "very personal video art."


Kaye Miller 

Kaye Miller and Roberta Kass (at right)           wpe7.gif (166771 bytes)

Kaye Miller, Instructor in Political Science at Circle, approaches video more analytically than anyone else I've met. Perhaps that's because his field concerns itself more with messages than with the media in which they're presented.

In the mid-60's, Kaye experimented with film as a graduate student at Berkeley. In 1968, at Circle, he and sociologist Gerry Swatez developed a project that indulged their interests both in film and in research - a film study of the '68 Democratic Convention. Proposing to "preserve the concrete," they received funding and a considerable amount of technical assistance from Circle. Taking two years to complete, the film won prizes at the Venice and Chicago Film Festivals and the Edinburgh Festival.

With their first film as a sales point, Kaye and Gerry began seeking funding for new film research. None was available. But, having completed construction on several buildings in 1970, the University did have funds for equipping the buildings. While film stock was an "expendable supply" and processing an expense, tape equipment and reusable tape could be coded as equipment. That budgeting peculiarity turned them into tapemakers.

Showing their Convention film at meetings of various professional associations, they had become intrigued by that kind of convention and puzzled by its appeal. So they taped the 1971 Convention of the American Political Science Association in Chicago. In the process of shooting 150 hours of tape for a one-hour product, they learned a great deal about tape.

During the 1971-1972 academic year, Kaye began experimenting with the "consciousness raising" potential of tape with five community organizations (particularly the Young Patriots Health Clinic in Uptown). He taught these organizations to look at the reality of their communities with tape. At the end of the academic year, with this work incomplete, the state budget was cut and his funding collapsed. In drafting the budget, no contingency plans had been considered for projects in progress.

Kaye is now devising projects with his most recent tape collaborator, Roberta Kass, a former political and union organizer. They want to discover "how one can use a medium that represents surfaces to get at the insides of things. We want to develop," says Kaye, "modes of making film and tape that speak adequately for the world they represent. The problem is to make them speak for both the surface and the inside." Their most provocative idea, which is now just an idea, is a project that will "get inside" the world of children. They're searching for the best ways of using the language of tape. Their concern for more effective use of the medium has led Kaye and Roberta to edit this month's issue of Radical Software, a national magazine devoted to alternative video technology. In it, they've initiated the arduous process of developing a language of criticism appropriate to tape by reviewing past issues of the magazine itself and tapes by major tapemakers.

The idea of a critical issue provoked strong negative reactions. Several influential tapemakers refused to submit their efforts, saying that tapes aren't meant to be criticized or that criticism is authoritarian.

But Kaye and Roberta believe criteria for evaluating tape are necessary. As a tapemaker, Kaye says "you need to make and you need to criticize. It's through the critical process that you begin to discover the possibilities of the medium, its characteristics, and what can and cannot be done."

Roberta supports this thesis in her introductory article, and sounds a warning: "To keep silent about serious things will allow the conventional and corrupt forces of public opinion, the state, and business to swoop up the meanings and definitions. . . The new experiences we have had are much too precious to subject to the twisted meanings of the old culture which wildly attempts to absorb anything which even vaguely threatens change."


Phil Morton 

Phil Morton, Assistant Professor of Art at the School of the Art Institute, has made a copy of Dan Sandin's Image Processor and prepared plans for duplication of Image Processors. Dan and Phil will make the plans available next year. 

Like Dan, Phil teaches Video with an art orientation. Teaching design five years ago, he stumbled on a video system Tucked in a closet in the Art Institute. He played with it for two months before persuading sixty students to sign a petition saying that they would take a video course. The School approved his teaching two courses. 

A one-faculty member Video Department at the School, Phil is still playing with video equipment. He considers his function to be assuring his students access to the equipment, promoting "play instead of program production." 

He lets his students come to the medium as fresh as he did, without pre~ conceptions of how it should be used, as if it were their first pencil. Video, he tells them, can be "as much a personal and flexible medium as the telephone system." By not imposing restriction on what h is students can do or should do with it, he feels he's "allowing the structure of the medium to surface." 

About the only aspect of Phil Morton's work which fits into the traditional academic mold is his institution of a Video Data Bank (tape library of "folk TV" from the Art institute and other sources at the school. All students can "access" the tapes at any time. 


Dave Affelder - Hum Video 

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One tape Kaye Miller likes is "Sit-In: 

A Docufantasy" by Steve Landsman, a tape about the 1969 sit-in at the University of Chicago. Miller compares it to the films of Peter Watkins ("The War Game," "Privilege," "The Battle of Culloden" and "Punishment Park"), fiction films, based on fact, which transcend fact (like Cocteau's "truth beyond truth"). 

"Sit-In" opens with a reconstruction of the event in still photographs, then shifts abruptly to fantasy by means of mock interviews (a device Watkins often uses). The 123 students actually expelled by the University are presented as 123 students murdered by police. "Sit-In's" documentary appearance leads the viewer to trust the tape's veracity - he is never quite sure whether the slaughter is fact or fiction. The tape has generated controversy, but according to Miller, "the real meaning of the sit-in's outcome was more fully realized in the fiction than in any straight representation . . . " 

"Sit-In" is an improvised tape, made at the University of Chicago's Hum Video, probably the only place in the city where the spontaneous evolution of a tape over a long period is possible. 

Organized by English Professor John Cawelti in October of 1972, Hum Video has no preconceived notions as to how it can best serve the needs of the University community. Like the Urban Journalism Program, it serves as an adjunct to existing curricula. Its equipment is available to anyone for any purpose, it fosters free play. 

Dave Affelder, the twenty-three year-old U. of C. graduate who coordinates Hum Video, is largely responsible for its relaxed atmosphere. Affelder has no preconceived notions about half-inch because, before Hum Video, all he knew about television was what he learned one summer at the U.S. Commerce Department, where he compiled a report on local origination for cable television. 

As a senior Public Affairs major, Affelder heard that Cawelti was preparing the grant proposal for Hum Video and volunteered his knowledge of budgeting for local origination. (Cawelti knew even less.) When the Benton Educational Research Fund for Humanities Education (the 'Hum' in Hum Video) funded the project, Cawelti asked Affelder to coordinate it. Since he "didn't have a real trade anyway," Affelder accepted. 

With only Sony half-inch editing equipment at his disposal, Affelder's biggest headache has been editing quality. A year ago, each edit created picture instability lasting several seconds. But Affelder and some devoted volunteers have modified the equipment and their use of it to produce acceptable edits and substantially reduce the time spent editing. They think a little money will alleviate the remaining difficulties. 

Hum Video's forty or fifty "heavy accessers" have tried just about everything to which their broad man~ date entitles them. Students have recorded University events, video "papers," and lecturers. Affelder made a momento tape of a steamboat trip down the Mississippi. Others have used the equipment in the community or, like Landsman, for literary purposes. 

At worst, Hum Video is a model for community access cable. At best, it is a likely place for breakthroughs in half inch techniques, simply because its accessers aren't drilled in the use of conventional ones. They are going to come up with new solutions to problems, as they did in taping "Sit In:" "We used Bosco," says Affelder, "instead of blood." 

A late bulletin: Hum Video's funds for next year are going to be tied up in the estate of the late William Benton. Affelder plans to "tough out" the funding crisis. 

Tapemakers' reluctance to submit themselves to critical standards is understandable. Many are still struggling with editing quality, a much more elementary consideration. Those who've overcome that obstacle generally feel their work is experimental. 

But the critical process - in its most basic sense - is necessary and inevitable. The Museum of Modern Art is planning an exhibition of video works for next year which will bring established critical standards to bear. The Public Broadcast Service plans to air a program of alternative video works which may even open the eyes of local television critics to underground television. Closer to home, the Illinois Arts Council is thinking about an exhibition of Illinois tapemakers' work. 

Where do Chicago tapemakers go from here? Wherever their instincts and sources of income lead them ~ that's the only definitive answer. The medium is too young, and the factors Impinging on it are too many and varied, to predict its future with any accuracy. 

One can say only that the technology is constantly improving and that it will attract more and more followers. Next year Sony will market color Porta-Paks for a slightly higher price than the black-and-white ones. This will definitely increase the marketability of half-inch programming. And it will enable the average person to compete in making color television programs with broadcasters - for an investment of under $2,000. 

Chicago alternative tapemakers will be ready to do just that. 



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