TV History: Video Art and VCRs

"Personal Video", A Rare Progressive Defeat in the Arts. Videotape's Forgotten and Buried Middle Years, 1967—1980.

Two weeks ago, we made a nostalgic return to the launch of America's small market television stations. Last week, we took a look at an early form of television that could have blanketed the country twenty years before it did. This week we do an autopsy on a flashy offshoot of television that became famous, then forgotten.

You've spent most of or all of your life in a world where you could buy or rent a copy of a movie and see it whenever you wanted. “Let's run 'The Godfather' after the kids go to bed tonight” is a privilege that only a couple of well-heeled electronics hobbyists enjoyed before roughly 1980. That's the home video revolution you grew up with. It's centered around pre-recorded tapes, usually Hollywood-made entertainment.

But for progressive arts activists, 1967—80, the rather ordinary way that video turned out was a shock, a stunning cultural defeat for what was supposed to be one of the brightest new fields of the arts. A young generation would take hold of the nation's communications apparatus, and bingo—everyone would have 50 TV channels, 49 of which would carry nudity, one of which would carry dreary talks. (Exposure to actual Communist countries has convinced me it would have been the other way around.) The shift would be inevitable; demographics would do all the work.

This was all real—once upon a time. Andy Warhol and a handful of other Sixties luminaries adopted video art as The Next Big Thing. There were some good experimental tapes made, and they shouldn't be as forgotten as they are, but the big picture was people with too much money, wasting it on a self-indulgent artistic dead end. When it was going on, many of its practitioners believed they were making history and made elaborate efforts to record their own ascent to greatness. I remember those times and those people. They had a slogan: “VT is not TV! But it will be!” Like a lot of alliterative bits of affirmation, it's witless, of course. What it literally means is videotape (VT) is novel and politically radical, and even though you see it on a TV screen, it's not TV (defined as professionally made “corporate media”). “But it will be” was the taunt and the threat, that tomorrow's video art, radical in style and subject, was not just going to exist on the TV dial someday, alongside “Ironside” and “Mission: Impossible”, but was going to supplant them completely. Not in the sweet by-and-by (which few radical artists believed in anyway), but in ten years or less. Now it's all an over-hyped disappointment they're happy to forget. Sometimes, though, history has its revenge. Sometimes memory can give it a helping hand.

First, here's a quick primer in the real history of videotape, back in the days when video recorders were the size of two refrigerators and as expensive as ten Cadillacs. Only TV stations and their networks could afford to buy them. Professionals were (once, alas) always willing to spend what it took to ensure competitive picture quality.

The quest for a simple, foolproof and affordable home TV recorder is as old as TV itself, but even as of the mid-Sixties it was still hard to see how we were going to get there. By then, smaller videotape machines were available for industrial and educational uses, but they weren't for home use. Open reel semi-pro video machines were still as expensive as a car, suitcase-sized, weighed 70 pounds, and required at the very least a skilled hobbyist to thread up and operate.

In 1965, Sony released a complete set of recorders, portable and home-bound, in a half inch open reel format. With some modification this format would remain in production almost eight years. It was almost ready for the home, but it was in black and white at a time when color was the one have-to-have reason to replace a TV. Users still complained about threading reels of tape.

An artist named Nam June Paik bought a camera and recorder after seeing it at the Japan pavilion at the New York World's Fair. This began a trend: video artists experimenting with the new medium, much as 16mm film encouraged the development of experimental movies. When the product wasn't quite ready for the mass market, it was embraced by a cult market.

That's where I came in. New York University's film school was one of the first places to buy Sony's new technology. I worked in the TV department and got my girlfriend (long since my wife) a job in its brand-new Alternate Media Center. She dispensed portapacks, the combination of a Sony camera with a bulky, shoulder-strap carried recorder, and assigned time on editing tape decks. The experience of home movies was one thing; but these were like home movies with sound that didn't have to be developed; you didn't drop your film at a drugstore for a week. You didn't need to darken a room and bring out a projector to see them. You could play them back right there on any TV set. Plus, you could re-use the tape.

The students did a couple of notable things with the bulky, heavy equipment. The so-called landlord documentaries told the truth about a class of bureaucrat-protected slumlords, and less crusading tapes marked the end of the 3rd Avenue elevated train in the Bronx. I worked on one that was in-between, “The Charette”. This was a European term for an intensive over-nighter to complete a project. In this case, a public school board in Greenwich Village was presenting a weekend of panels to help plan a new school for the neighborhood. The discussions would be videotaped and aired, with only a couple of hours' delay, on all the cable systems of the Village. The populace would be informed, see? Then they'd vote. Of course, not everyone had cable in 1971. In fact, maybe 10% of the area did, and of that, maybe 1% cared. Panelists said some amazingly “woke” things even by our present day standards.

It was the high tide of Nixon-era radicalism, really similar to today in many ways. This brings in the other half of the progressive video arts vision that became the Island of Broken Dreams: Public Access channels, pioneered in Manhattan at the birth of cable TV. Naturally, they reasoned, audiences would increasingly reject shallow manufactured TV shows in favor of wrenching social documentaries that tackled the issues that really mattered, and if they didn't currently exist, public cable utilities would be compelled to manufacture them.

It set the socially approved pattern for the package deal that nearly every community would sign with its chosen cable overlord. It would require those precious forums of electronic democracy, public access channels, which like our 1971 Charette tapes project would make TV the high-tech extension of the voting booth of the future. Identity politics ruled, just like today. I saw posters in upper Manhattan, near Harlem, in the black-red-and-green of Black nationalism: “Beware the Cable! Demand People's Television!” Cable was OK and would be accepted...but only if they paid the right activists. Which, of course, they did, generally through “community consulting and opinion surveying” fees. Radical video counted on public access, its only way of reaching the public in those pre-internet days.

A minor personal note: those Charette tapes had to be shuttled to the cable TV company's office. They were on a multi-hour time delay and were only two subway stops away from the school where the meetings were held. But the local school administrator in charge of the project insisted that we take taxis, just in case. I was nineteen, had lived in the city my whole life, and had never hailed a cab. It was a waste of their money. I learned that they didn't care.

In 1971 Sony introduced its next hoped-for solution for mass market home use, ¾ inch videotape in cassettes that didn't need threading and weren't prone to jam. This time the format was color as well as black and white. The quality was really good, so good that for fifteen years, it bridged professional and semi-professional uses. But again, like semi-pro 1-inch tape, it was still too expensive for home use. U-Matic, the commercial name for ¾ inch, was the upcoming home format for the world, until the moment it was introduced and suddenly it wasn't.

Availability of video recorders made possible the existence of new comedy clubs, like Channel One and its raunchier competitor, The Groove Tube. The restaurant/bars were smallish comedy rooms with a live intro and then an hour's decidedly grown-up entertainment via parody and other comedy videotapes seen on a bunch of ceiling monitors, like one of today's narrow-body airliners. Remember, this was a time before recordings or cable. By 1970, movies were now more or less permitted to show as much flesh as they wanted, but television, being broadcast, was subject to government regulation. So, the simple dumb novelty of seeing an occasional bare breast and hearing things you never heard on TV was a built-in easy shock laugh. Comedians who participated learned some things about working with cameras, years before SNL went on.

Nixon was re-elected. As optimism about the imminent radicalization of the United States faded rapidly, so did interest in experiments in video art. Woody and Steina Vasulka, a likable if pretentious old couple, moved the center of the video art movement to the Mercer Arts Center in 1973. As depicted in the first episode of HBO's one-and-done series Vinyl, the ancient building collapsed in the middle of the night, burying the Sixties in a literal way.

Underground video's only real distribution platform, Public Access, became a free speech free fire zone. It did feature some of the hard-left content its creators hoped to encourage. But in New York and other cities, it often drifted off into salacious talk shows and softcore porn. The FCC couldn't regulate it—it wasn't broadcast over the air—and the cable companies claimed that lax community standards in the Seventies made it difficult to legally kick them off the channel. Public Access was finally tamed, and it's still there; if you have cable, chances are you have it, presenting city council meetings in between bizarre self-produced panel shows about astrology and high fiber diets. This is not what the left originally wanted, or seemingly anyone else, for that matter.

There finally came a point when mainstream, popular home video did happen. The first Beta and VHS machines went on sale in 1976–77 and cost more than $1000 (that's a cool $4200 in today's dollars). They built their sales slowly over the next couple of years. VCRs didn't really take off until the price dropped to $500 or less, after the turn of the Eighties. But then, in only a couple of years after that, it seemed like everybody had one, rental stores sprang up, and every movie you ever heard of was out on tape. VHS had a good long run. At the end, home machines were finally selling for less than $75 by the time there was no longer a large, profitable enough market to be worth mass production. Over a half century, that's a pretty dramatic cost slope; $70,000 down to $1000 down to $75.

Video art never fully disappeared. Like a number of other disappointing cultural projects, the survivors retreated to secure slots in academia, generally becoming the media department's more radical wing. Film guys like me showed old movies made by old white guys; the gals in the video department got grants to examine emerging lesbian identity.

Did I say nothing of value was done? No; some of the quirky, individualistic student work was worthwhile. A young woman interviewing her grandmother, or daily life sailing in the merchant marine, or visual abstractions set to music in the style of “Fantasia”; they were not unlike some of the things people post on the web today. Good stuff. But all of them were formats that could have been filmed. There was nothing or little specifically using any unique features of television or tape. Experimental film had some real contributions to make to the history of mainstream filmmaking; experimental videotape had little to teach the future.

Far from being history's darlings, the more radical video artists of the Nixon resistance era mostly disappeared, like the vengeful spirits returning to the Ark of the Covenant at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The lid of the Ark slammed down around 1980, and now their claims of high-tech eternal greatness echo like the empty boasts of Ozymandias.

I have a personal postscript. In the early Nineties, my employers, the American Film Institute, had been holding an annual event called the National Video Festival. This was the video department's big deal. Since it consistently lost money, and the film festival consistently made money, AFI took the video festival away from them and gave it to us to manage. In the tragicomic remnants of the video arts community, such as it was by then, this was treated like the fall and sacking of Constantinople. It's a rare feeling being a barbarian overlord, let me tell you. But really, my interests and theirs should have been the same: make the event financially viable, therefore sustainable, and get an audience—yes, honest-to-God people in those seats.

They were used to charging $400 for a pass to a weekend event. The only people who came were academics in a tiny, charmed circle: snobbish, exclusionary, and damned expensive in their tastes. Artists expected to be flown in and have their hotel bill covered. Total attendance in a good year was 100 people. That's no typo. No one paid for a pass with real money, their own money. Every one of them charged it to their college. They'd watch radical tapes about Chicano activism and not one working class person got within a mile of the place.

I didn't do that much, at least at first, to mess with the content. We sanded off some of the rougher edges. But we went after that sense of privilege. We made the festival free, no admission at all, since that was my frank estimate of what people would pay. Attendance shot up into the thousands, though old timers griped that they were the “wrong” people. We dropped limo service and airfares. Bill Viola, at that time the biggest remaining artist—activist was furious, but he didn't have the clout he thought, or that he once had. I got the ingrates a few more years of a video festival. Then one by one, each of the video artists asked to be in AFI Fest—the film festival—now that we had video projection. The revolution was truly over.

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