The Videofreex were pioneering users of the first portable video technology. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, they documented social movements, political protests, cultural events—and set up the first pirate TV station in rural upstate New York. Since 2000, the Videofreex archive—consisting of some 1400 tapes, mostly on the obsolete 1/2" open reel format—has been the subject of a preservation initiative by Video Data Bank. Tom Colley discusses the history of the Videofreex, and the preservation challenges posed by such a large and diverse collection, created by a collective of artists, and how such a collection works within an organization like Video Data Bank.
This interview was conducted in November 2014 by Carolyn Faber.
Who were the Videofreex?
Q: The Videofreex: when did they form?
TOM COLLEY: In 1969, David Cort was at Woodstock with a bunch of video equipment, and Parry Teasdalex` was also attending the festival with video equipment. They were the only two people there with video equipment. There were lots of people shooting film there, but not video. So they met and pooled all their stuff together and they were at Woodstock, going out, shooting - not of the bands, but just people hanging out, people in the toilet lines, people preparing food, people with the nurses and first aid people. They were going out and interviewing people and then going back to the tent that they had set up and playing those videos that night or that afternoon. So you could go to their tent and see what was going on. They were the on the ground news - unofficial in all ways.
After Woodstock they went back to New York City afterwards and Parry moved into David and Mary Curtis Radcliff's loft, and the three of them were the first Videofreex. And then others including Carol Vontobel, Nancy Cain, Davidson Gigliotti,Chuck Kennedy, Skip Blumberg. All those people, they all became the Videofreex. In later '69 they got hooked up with CBS and they were hired to make a pilot. They called it Subject to Change. They were going to go out and document the counterculture of the time, and it was going to be on CBS replacing the Smothers Brothers when they got canceled. So they put together this program, shot all on 1/2" video, going around the country and interviewing people. They interviewed Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers before he was assassinated. They interviewed Abbie Hoffman and the other yippies. When the producer from CBS saw it, he said, "Oh, I can't use this. This is a whole bunch of crazy…" It was too out there for mainstream TV and too amateurish. Using this home equipment stuff to go out there and talk to to people, not with huge camera and lighting crews. They couldn't handle it. So basically it ended up falling apart and the 'Freex pulled their work back because they didn't want CBS to cut it up and use it in a different way than they intended it, which was what CBS was going to do to try to save it.
But as a result of trying to put this thing together, the Videofreex decided to continue being a loose group of video makers. They decided to move to upstate New York and rented an old boarding house and they all moved in there instead of their video studios. David Cort had gone to college with Abbie Hoffman, so they had been friends for years. And Abbie Hoffman somehow came across a television transmitter of some sort and, this was back when they were in New York, he was trying to get them to a start a pirate TV station and take over the airwaves. It didn't work, but when they got to upstate New York, they actually got it working. And they started the first pirate TV station, Lanesville TV, which was a precursor to community-access television. So they would go around the town and videotape the goings-on, and once a week they'd have a video program and people in town would call in.
Q: They weren't the only ones doing this at that time. So where do they fit in with other collectors?
TC: A few other sorts of organizations like that going on in New York at the time. And they were friends with and knew those people, and they were all of the same world. But then they moved to upstate which took them a little bit away from the New York thing. But when TVTV came around, like half the Videofreex were all part of TVTV as well, so TVTV had everybody from everything to it. But they were part of that world that was pulled together. People from all these collectives. Their work was talked about in Radical Software magazine. They published a book called Spaghetti City Video Manual, which was basically a how-to book. How to maintain, how to shoot, how to use Portapaks, 1/2" video decks, how to clean and fix them and maintain them yourself.
The Videofreex Collection at VDB
Q: So, the Videofreex originated in New York, were based in New York. How did the collection end up in Chicago?
TC: Kate Horsfield, who was the founder and director of the VDB, was continuing to do interviews and started talking to Parry Teasdale and Carol Vontobel. She did an interview with them in 2000. And sometime around then it was decided that the VDB would take the collection. It's very atypical from most of the stuff that we have. It is a huge collection of a thousand plus tapes. Most 1/2" open-reel. Some U-Matic. Most of it's raw footage. Some of it's third generation copies. Some of it's originals. Some of it's edited programs. It's all over the place. So it's unlike most of our work which is taking on edited, finished, artist works. It's all different topics, different subjects. There's a bunch of different TV programs from Lanesville TV and other sorts of pieces, just all kinds of stuff.
Parry and Carol had most of the tapes in their house. They had been holding onto most of them, or the majority of them. So a lot of the first batch of tapes we got was from them. Then we got some more batches from Bart Friedman who had kept a bunch, and then a few random ones here and there from other people.
Q: So there wasn't necessarily an organized collection called the Videofreex that one person was in charge of. They all went their own ways eventually. They all had a bunch of tapes, or a few tapes or whatever, and then one day-
TC: And then one day the VDB and a couple of them decided that VDB should do something with these. I think it was a little bit crazy of a leap of faith on our part. In some ways we were like, "Yeah sure. We'll make something work out of this."
Preserving a Collective
Q: How does working with a collection like the Videofreex differ from preserving work by an individual artist? Because you were tasked with matching all of these competing interests at the VDB and in a collection that large it's kind of an ongoing process. So can you talk about how you managed that?
TC: We've been digitizing- when I say preserving work now, what that word means to me, shorthand, is digitizing the best copy that we have of the work with, and then I compress digital files, if we're talking about standard definition, and backing that up in a number of ways. So, starting in 2009 we started this digitization program. And we have to do the whole collection. The whole collection has to get digitized at some point or else it won't be active anymore and won't exist.
Most of the other work that we have, we are able to digitize in-house because we have equipment. With a few exceptions, the masters are on U-Matic or later formats. And we have decks that we can hook up to the computers and digitize from those formats. So, with much of the collection it's just a matter of prioritizing what needs to get done first and waiting in line to get everything done. With the Videofreex it's a little bit different in that most of those tapes we have had to send out and pay somebody to digitize for us. So with that collection it's a lot more about figuring out what funding we do have and how to allocate, trying to work through the lists that I have and the notes that I've gotten from various Freex about those lists.
We have a list of all the tapes. We've sent it out to the Freex. Some of them have written comments about which ones they think are probably good or important and given a little more description than what is just written on the spine label. So it's a research project to try to figure out what to prioritize. Because you know honestly some of them, one of them I know we thought it was something else, but it's called A Misty Day and we thought it was an edit. But it's just footage outside in the country of trees on a misty day, which is not all that interesting to a lot of people. So we have to try to figure it out and hopefully not make too many mistakes digitizing things that just aren't going to be interesting to others. With the collection of 1400 tapes there's some that are just that, and there's some that are Fred Hampton talking.
We have the whole list of 1400 tapes up on the website. The ones that we have preserved already are highlighted in yellow and the ones that aren't are blue or green. And it says if you want to pay to get any of these preserved, you'll get to have a DVD copy for your personal use and/or your educational institutional use. You can sponsor a tape.
Q: That's really interesting in terms of how that affects priority, too, because you have a public interest component, you have the Videofreex components since you're in touch with all of them. And then you have your own interest as the Video Data Bank - what you consider a priority for whatever reason. So, that's just a constant juggle, right?
TC: Yeah, obviously if somebody is willing to pay for a specific tape to get preserved, "Alright, front of the line. You're paying for it. Easy. Awesome. Goes right out. We'll get that preserved for you right away." When it comes to spending budget that we have on preservation for it, yeah that comes down to like me looking at the notes that Skip and the other Videofreex have chosen, like looking at their priorities. We have a numbering system where, "four," this is high priority. "Three," "two," "one," "zero—do not." So four to zero is priority.
Generally the Videofreex' priorities and ours are pretty much in line. They're not really prioritizing their own hanging out and cooking dinner videos. Although some of those are actually kind of interesting. There's one tape where they're hanging out in the kitchen, making late night snacks and smoking a cigarette and hanging out, but they're also talking about video and it's a really interesting moment, because they're saying, "Well, what do you think this is going to be in ten years?" It's called Late Night Kitchen Discussion. And I thought, "Oh, this is going to be a video that's just like talking about who's going to do the dishes next," and it turned out to be really cool.
Q: I love how that speaks to the idea that you want to increase usage as much as possible, and facilitate that as much as possible, because you never know what people are going to be interested in or what is going to be on the tape. You really don't know.
Q: People often ask me—when they hear about all of the different challenges with preservation—they ask, "Well, what do you do? Do you just go for the most physically at-risk tapes? Find the most damaged, the most moldy or whatever?" And well, that's important, but that might not be where the financial interest or support is.
TC: Right. I mean I think that that's important, but also you really—particularly with a large collection —we may never digitize all of the Videofreex tapes. I mean maybe, some of them aren't necessarily worth doing because maybe we already have it in a better format. Or just a video tape of some trees on a misty day which clearly is not all that important, just some trees from 1971 on a misty day. But you have to figure out priorities and what people may want to see.
You have to also guess because you don't know what people are going to want to look at twenty years from now. When I first started nobody at all was interested in work from the 80s. It was too recent, but also too out of date. It was not old enough that it was interestingly old. It was just old and embarrassing. "Oh, we've moved on from this 80s work." But then a few years ago it seems like all of a sudden people are interested in it again. That's the thing, you don't know what's important in archives on some level.
Q: Well, the priorities are always changing as time passes. Something may seem like it's interesting and high-priority now subject-wise, but three, five, ten years, you're going to wonder about that. That list of the 1400 tapes, did you make that? When the collection came did somebody make that? Or did that come with the collection?
TC: We made it. They had a paper list that I think that was from their own catalogue. I think they had all their tapes on a shelf in the house that they lived in and they were numbered and there was a paper catalogue of those. So we had that list and the stickers were still on the tapes. But, there were also another nine hundred tapes or whatever that were not a part of their official collection. We then catalogued everything and made a database of it all, and then also then exported it to an Excel spreadsheet that we've sent out and we've gotten them to put their feedback on that.
Q: That's an incredibly important and historical document.
Q: Anybody who's managing a collection would wish for something like that where people are alive and participating and documenting the history of the thing.
TC: Yeah, it's been great that the various members have given feedback. That's really helped a lot. There's some things that sounded really good—like it might have had somebody famous in the title. But no, they actually just taped them when they were on TV at some point. So it's like from CBS on The Dick Cavett Show.
Tom Colley manages technical services at the Video Data Bank at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is responsible for fulfilling orders and organizing the collection. His activities involve cataloging, preservation, digitization, dubbing, and equipment maintenance. In addition, Tom collaborates in running the Butcher Shop, an artist-run studio space in Chicago. He is also an active member of AMIA, the Association of Moving Image Archivists. He received a bachelor's degree in Art and Anthropology from Oberlin College, and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois.