Videofreex: The Art of Guerilla Television in the Catskills

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All photographs courtesy of Videofreex

 

On Saturday, February 7 from 5 to 7 p.m., 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,” will run through April 12. The other three will be up until July: “Grace Hartigan: Myths and Malls,” “The Maverick Festival at 100” and “Videofreex: The Art of Guerrilla Television.” Excitement is running especially high for the opening of the Videofreex show, where many grizzled veterans of the heady, low-tech Portapak days of the 1970s are expected to converge.

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 and screen their videotaped results on the public access TV stations that had begun to spring up in cabled communities.

The Videofreex were a group of longhaired communards who ran “America’s smallest TV station” in the tiny town of Lanesville, just north of the Ulster/Greene County line in the Catskills. Students in early video classes at SUNY-New Paltz and other innovative campuses learned the ropes using the Videofreex’ Spaghetti City Video Manual as their technical textbook (the “spaghetti” refers to the jumbles of electrical cords and cable accompanying any cobbled-together bank of video equipment back in the day).

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The group, who first convened in SoHo circa 1969, relocated their operation 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 timeslot 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 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 Steal This Book, the Videofreex quickly made their Lanesville headquarters a Mecca for established avant-garde artists and wannabe alternative media producers alike. Longtime Woodstocker DeeDee Halleck, founder of Paper Tiger TV and the Deep Dish Satellite Network, was among many non-members of the collective who went on to illustrious careers in alternative media after cutting their teeth in the cutting room at Maple Tree Farm. “The Freex were an enormous influence on me,” writes Halleck. “Their playful approach to technology was the genesis of Paper Tiger TV: a collective production idea that persists to this day…everyone playing interchangeable roles and everyone having input into the mix. That was a whole new way of doing TV, and the Videofreex were the first.”

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