The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting – Milan Kundera
New York, NY – Friday, April 5th, I was able to catch the last two seminars and the final screening at the “We’re All Videofreex!” symposium held at the SVA Theatre. If you aren’t familiar with Videofreex, there’s a handy webliography at the end of this post for your perusal. In brief, Videofreex was an activist video outfit that operated from the late 1960′s and throughout the 1970′s. After a failed flirtation with CBS executives who considered a Videofreex series on their network, the group pirated an airwave in the Catskills and for years produced raw, provocative material as an unlicensed TV station. Their legacy stands out from a scene that includes the Raindance Corporation and the People’s Video Theater thanks to the collective efforts of the members to preserve and archive the material they produced.
The panel discussions were engaging if predictable. The members reminded us of what a hassle video production was in the early days, how home video democratized journalism, and articulated insights on video activism then vs. video activism today. The final panel was comprised of several academics who had written about Videofreex, and introduced a term I hope to hear more as the history of media activism expands: radical remembering. The term was applied by documentarian Elizabeth Coffman to works of art that challenged our notion of memory in the digital age. But “radical remembering” is broad enough to describe any project that recontextualizes the past into a tool for advocacy. From the brilliant remix “Right Wing Radio Duck” to the very presence of Interference Archive, “radical remembering” has the potential to be not just a description, but a movement; nostalgia in action.
The highlight of the evening was a 60 minute “mash-up” of clips edited by Skip Blumberg. After spending several hours getting to know the members on stage, it was a delight to see them as their younger selves, stomping onto soundstages uninvited, goofing off in their Lanesville studio; long hair exploding in every direction. The “important” parts were all there: the interview with Abbie Hoffman, with Fred Hampton; demonstrations, police brutality, Woodstock; a rather surreal clip testing special effects on the bemused face of Arthur C. Clarke. Videofreex members refer to themselves as artists as much as activists, though their humorous experimentations with dissolves and quick-cuts lacked the pretensions that often characterizes media art.
But the most surprising clips turned out to be those taken in and around the rugged hamlet of Lanesville, NY. A program on local hero “Frankie the Fist Farkle” in a boxing match with a Lanesville fireman captures a winking machismo that could only exist in a community that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And Bart Friedman pushing his “newsbuggy” down a dirt road to their neighbor Helen’s house where she is pent up with a broken leg is firmly in the canon of my new favorite things. Videofreex members fell in love with the local characters, and by all appearances the feeling was mutual. Watching this conjunction of nationwide issues with community color, one can’t help but feel that the latter might be what is missing from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I was surprised to see the audience was mostly 60+ in age and white. I had expected a younger and more diverse crowd, knowing how linked the ‘freex are to the Black Panther narrative, and the recent renewed interest in their work as forefathers of Occupy-style media outlets. But from the shoutouts of the panelists to their friends in the audience, it was clear this was a family affair, an aging community evaluating its legacy in a public forum; we should all hope to be so lucky.
Video Data Bank: VDB took on the task of archiving and making accessible most Videofreex productions. This is still the best place to catch clips.
Mock UFO sighting news report a great example of how dedicated Videofreex were to the community in Lanesville.
Video Days: What We Saw Through the Viewfinder Videofreex member Nancy Cain’s memoir of her time with the group.
Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station & the Catskills Collective That Turned It on
Videofreex member Parry Teasedale’s book on the history of the group.
Well-written article by Eric Freedman on the video activist scene that proliferated in New York after the Sony Portapak hit the market.