It's hard to picture in our image-saturated world, but there was a time before streaming Web video, satellite TV and palm-sized minicams. Take the late '60s: Television news meant your three major networks. End of story.
But even then a technological revolution was brewing, one that might look familiar to the wired denizens of today's digitized domains. Sony's Porta-Pak, the first portable video camera, arrived on the market, and drew into its orbit a host of countercultural types and other experimenters eager to remake the medium in a non-corporate image.
Skip Blumberg joined the Videofreex in 1969. Fresh out of college, he was hired by CBS to work with the new Manhattan-based collective, who were creating a countercultural program called Subject to Change.
The show didn't survive its pilot episode -- CBS execs "didn't like anything about it," Blumberg says -- but Blumberg was converted. For the next eight years he worked with Videofreex, shooting street demonstrations, interviewing countercultural leaders, hosting free screenings and generally capturing the zeitgeist of the turbulent late-Vietnam era and beyond.
With recording units for one-inch reel-to-reel tape weighing a mere 70 pounds, Videofreex and other underground crews went places big studio cameras couldn't; and unlike 16 mm newsreel film, video didn't need costly, time-consuming processing. Blumberg recalls street-video types scooping the networks on behind-the-scenes stories, even at national political conventions.
"We were establishing our own way of speaking," says Blumberg, now an Emmy-winning independent producer in New York. "The medium was new and we were just excited to be using it."
For years, a Videofreex archive of hundreds of tapes lay mostly dormant in an attic in upstate New York, where the group relocated when life in its SoHo loft got too crazy (and where the group launched the nation's first pirate TV station). Two years ago, Dara Greenwald and Kate Horsfield of the Chicago-based Video Data Bank drove out and collected the tapes with the intention of preserving them. This week the Press Play Video Series hosts Greenwald, who'll present a 90-minute program of early activist video clips from Videofreex, Peoples Video Theater and more.
Highlights include a 24-minute Videofreex interview with Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, conducted days before he was slain in an FBI-organized police raid in Chicago in 1969. Hampton discusses the Weather Underground and, eerily, the Panthers' future should their leaders be killed. There's also a pre-Roe women's rights march in New York City and a speech at a federal prison by the octogenarian civil rights leader Queen Mother Moore.
Greenwald will discuss topics including the way early video activists, with their ethos of collective authorship and free distribution, set the stage for the current Web-enabled Indymedia movement.
"This isn't a new thing," says Greenwald, 33. "I find that useful to share with younger people." Viewers of her May 21 program should know, however, that not only does video degrade over time, but the technology was still maturing. "It's gonna look old," Greenwald notes. "It's before color worked."