Next Saturday, February 7, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art on the SUNY-New Paltz campus will officially kick off its 2015 spring season with an opening reception for not one but four exhibitions that will run simultaneously. One, titled “Geometries of Difference: New Approaches to Ornament and Abstraction,” has already been open to the public since January 21 and will run through April 12. The other three will be up until July, and one of them – “Videofreex: The Art of Guerrilla Television” – has a special connection to the cultural community of New Paltz.
Millennials and gen-xers who grew up on the wonders of digital technology may have difficulty imagining a time when a “portable” videotape recorder weighed 20 or 30 pounds and a camera another five or ten. But when Sony released its black-and-white half-inch reel-to-reel Portapak in 1967, it was the beginning of a communications revolution that hasn’t stopped yet. For the first time, ordinary consumers could make their own television, just as cable companies were beginning to expand their coaxial tentacles into America’s households. Filmmakers, still photographers, visual artists and curious people in general began to tinker with the new gadgetry. They screened their videotaped results on the public access TV stations that had begun to spring up in cabled communities, including New Paltz’s Channel 12.
Folks who have been around this town and its environs as long ago as the heady 1970s may remember the Videofreex as those longhaired communards who ran “America’s smallest TV station” in some tiny town in the Catskills and occasionally collaborated with New Paltz’s own burgeoning community of videomakers. Students in early video classes offered through SUNY-New Paltz’s Experimental (later renamed Innovative) Studies program learned the ropes using the Videofreex’ Spaghetti City Video Manual as their technical textbook (the “spaghetti” refers to the jumbles of electrical cords and coaxial cable accompanying any cobbled-together bank of video equipment back in the day).
The group, who first convened in SoHo circa 1969, relocated operations to Maple Tree Farm in Lanesville in 1971 in search of cheaper rents after an attempt by CBS-TV to hire some hippie documentarians to produce a magazine-format show about the youth counterculture to fill in the former Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour time slot failed spectacularly. The Videofreex made a pilot, all right, titled Subject to Change; but stuffed-shirt CBS executives had no idea how to market it and fired the producer who had dreamed up the project.
The show at the Dorsky, according to museum director Daniel Belasco, will include an hommage to the legendary “Night Raid on Black Rock,” when Videofreex member Skip Blumberg smuggled several of the collective’s more historically significant tapes – including footage of Black Panthers activist Fred Hampton shot just weeks before he was killed by Chicago police – out of CBS headquarters in a guitar case.
With some grant funding from the New York State Council on the Arts’ fledgling media program and a modulator bartered to them by Abbie Hoffman in exchange for Parry Teasdale’s ghostwriting the do-it-yourself video chapter in Hoffman’s Steal This Book, the Videofreex made their Lanesville headquarters a Mecca for established avant-garde artists and wannabe alternative media producers alike. They made news stories about local non-events by toting video equipment around in a converted baby carriage dubbed the Newsbuggy and cast local kids in programs like The Buckaroo Bart Show; and each Saturday night they broadcast them to the inhabitants of their little cleft in the Catskills.