How this manuscript
came to SMECC
An Introduction by Ed Sharpe
This journey I have begun started with a contribution of
back issues of Radical Software to the museum's reference library.
When I accepted them, the title lead me to believe they would fit in the
History of Computing section that deals with hackers, crackers, etc.
On examination, I realized that they had to do with the proliferation in
the early 1970's of 1/2-inch video equipment in the consumer market, not
just to shoot family video, but to go out and document the world, even
displaying it sometimes as art.
I read through the issues of Radical Software
and, remembering my High School experiences with a Concord Video recorder
in the late 1960's, had an epiphany which lead me to develop a History of
Video Equipment display for the museum. Through many avenues, I
pursued some of the older equipment. Parallel to building the
display, I started using the video camera in my HP RX 3715 PDA to do a
little 'guerrilla television'! It was my companion at city council
meetings and city task force meetings as I participated in an effort to
save an historic church building. My videocam and I also traveled
along the streets of downtown Glendale, Arizona documenting many of the
construction projects taking place to enhance the area.
One day, some AV/AVC-3400 cables (for the old Sony
Portapak) showed up on Ebay. I purchased them and telephoned
immediately to see if the seller had any other material related to the
Portapak. I chatted with Kaye and Roberta Miller. Indeed, not
only did they have more connectors and an AVC-3400 camera, but related the
story of the manuscript contracted with Radical Software authored
by them and others from the Chicago area and elsewhere.
What an interesting world! Not only was I able to
add to the museum's collection, I had a chance to learn about this video
"movement" from people who had participated in it, I made two
new friends, and can now also bring to publication a piece of history from
my new interest area.
I will let Kaye tell you more of the details in his
introduction letter below.
Ed Sharpe, Archivist for SMECC
Ed Sharpe with a Panasonic WV-V3 ca. 1983
from the museum's collection. photo - 2005
Kaye Miller's letter,
June 24, 2005, introducing the
text of what was to have been Radical Software #6
Kaye Miller and Roberta Kass
It was great talking with you last Saturday and, as promised, I'll give
you some of the background of the text we prepared for Radical
Software, in 1973.
I began teaching political science at the
University of Illinois at Chicago Circle in 1967. That year, a
colleague and I got backing from the University do a documentary film
study of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, scheduled for
1968. It took two years to complete, and the University wound up
with an investment of close to $50,000. Clearly, if we were to
continue using visual media for research, some cheaper way would have
to be found. 1969-70 was the transition period between the older
CV video system, and the new AV standard in half-inch videotape
recording, exemplified by the Sony Portapak, and we were
encouraged to explore this new avenue. Around that time,
Roberta and I began working together.
By the end of the summer of 1972, Roberta and I had accumulated a fair
amount of experience with half-inch videotape technology, and I had
taught some courses in the uses of visual media. In 1971, we did
the largest-scale video project undertaken up to that time. It
involved taping the 1971 meeting of the American Political Science
Association. It was not a recording of the proceedings so much as an
attempt to get at the social organization of the convention and at the
way in which some salient issues were handled. In part, too, we
wanted to test one of the central hypotheses of the portapak culture--
namely that people and groups seeing themselves might actually have
their consciousness altered by the experience. To this end, we
amassed about 15 portable units, some stationary ones, a mammoth video
projector, about 150 hours of tape, crews of students who had been
training three months for this particular project, and a few
professional film people. We also developed some very clear
protocols of procedure, in order to avoid a circus; the
convention was not a media event, and we did not want to create the
pretense of one. In addition to method, of course, we produced
edited tapes, one of which was used for several years in a Women's
Other projects in 1972 included (1) a series of tapes on poverty
under subcontract to the School of Social Welfare at the University of
Chicago; (2) the use of half-inch video to assist a colleague of mine,
who was also a Chicago alderman (councillor), to tape town hall
meetings in an attempt to open up the political process in
Chicago; (3), the recording of brain surgery on a monkey,
as part of a process of ensuring that ethical standards were adhered to
in the treatment of laboratory animals. (4) In the summer of
1972, we worked with a fledgling community video action group in North
Vancouver, British Columbia, that was trying to apply locally some of
the ideas that had been worked out by the Challenge for Change
programme of the National Film Board of Canada. In these
settings, we were sometimes concerned only with the process, but in
others the finished tape artifact was central. For example, the
poverty tapes eventually made their way to the U.S. Department of
Health, Education and Welfare.
Radical Software was very useful, up to a point. It featured lots
of neat technical stuff-- very important to everyone because the
technology needed so much tweaking and there were so many different
ways to solve problems. Many of us didn't know a vidicon tube
from a vacuum tube, had no idea of what deep-cycling involved in a
battery, and-- the biggest bugaboo-- had the greatest difficulty
editing tape. (Roberta and I once spent an entire day editing
from one AV-3650 to another, losing our edits because of break-up,
finally winding up exactly where we had started-- that is, at the
Theoretically, too, Radical Software offered a new paradigm: here
was an inexpensive, accessible technology that promised to de-mystify
itself, to democratize and decentralise the production of content, and
to offer the transformative experience of self-awareness to people and
groups in about as unmediated a manner as possible.
In this function, it was a technology that could make itself nearly
invisible. Subjects tended to forget our presence after awhile,
with our relatively small equipment and without the need for excessive
light levels. And, if they were anxious or really curious, they
were invited to pick up the camera themselves and join the process. If
someone accidentally dropped an AVC-3400, the loss was tiny compared to
breaking an Arriflex, so everyone could relax.
important to remember, as well, that instant playback for visual media
was then an astonishing concept. People initially found it
difficult to believe that moving pictures could be seen a few seconds
after they were shot.
Finally, readily-available portapaks could record and document and--
drawing on lessons some of us had learned first-hand in the political
events of 1968-- they could "witness." Portapaks worked almost
like a reporter's notebook, but with the verity of lip-synchronized
picture/sound recording. [Since 1970, of course, inexpensive,
portable, low-light level equipment has transformed our awareness of so
many things, from warfare to welfare to policing, and on and on.
We take the easy rendering of reality for granted now; but at
that time, the idea was challenging and unbelievably exciting.]
We went into these applications enthusiastically. However, with
our own academic backgrounds and responsibilities, we believed that
Radical Software was offering hypotheses, rather than
certainties. A lot of it sounded good, but had to be
tested. We ourselves did a lot, and found that some of the
assertions held and some didn't. We met many others, as well--
including people working with video as art-- who were enthusiastic,
involved, and experienced, but also expressed a healthy skepticism.
Tossing this problem around, Roberta
and I thought that it would be great if Radical Software, in a period
when half-inch video was maturing, could start to engage in some
examination of its own premises. To this end, in September of
1972, I called Michael Shamberg, whom I had met and spoken with at some
length, and proposed that we edit one issue of Radical Software, taking
a critical approach. Mike was quite positive about the idea and
agreed to it immediately. My department would provide editorial
expenses, Roberta and I would recruit people to write articles, which
would include critical reviews of tapes, and we would provide copy to
RS in New York.
worked at it during academic 1972-73, managing to find people who had
done very interesting work with half-inch, but had not become part of
the Radical Software "establishment." We had everything in hand
by May, and then spent part of the summer editing and getting the copy
By that time, however, Shamberg had left New York and gone to
California to work in film. He assured us that Ira Schneider, who
was taking over the editorship, understood our agreement and concurred
in it. When we sent the text to Ira, there was a long silence in
our contact. Finally, I called him in New York and he said:
"You didn't really expect us to publish this, did you?" I was
taken aback, and reminded him of the verbal agreement with
Shamberg. His response was simply: "Mike isn't here
anymore, and we're not interested in criticizing ourselves." Then
he hung up. Ira's response was a surprise. One of the
hallmarks of "guerrilla television" had been openness, and the
eagerness to look at things as they are rather than through the filters
of high technology, capital, and rigid social structure.
were couple of more calls, which ended with shouting at both
ends. Very unpleasant all in all, but they did eventually send
back the copy.
And so, there you have the story of
this apocryphal text. In the end, the most rewarding aspect of
working on it was the contact with the people who contributed articles,
and the opportunity all of us had to examine critically the impact this
new technology was having. Of course more, and often larger,
projects ensued-- things of the magnitude of Top Value TV's coverage of
the 1972 Republican Convention-- and the technology raced ahead of all
our expectations so that today what seemed so advanced in 1970 is
positively cranky and archaic, and we encounter incredibly
sophisticated video installations and applications nearly everywhere we
Re-reading the text of this issue after 32 years has
been a remarkable experience. The old expression, "The more
things change, the more they stay the same" seems so appropriate
here. Now, in 2005, we have the Internet, with the utter ubiquity of
images and instantaneity of distribution-- things, in 1973, we could only
imagine might happen "one day."
Ira Schneider may have been justified in censuring us for daring to
criticize a movement brimming with self-confidence; it was a
bring-down. The fact is, though, that half-inch video never really
had the muscle and the distribution capabilities to do what it claimed it
could. Computers and the Internet have leap-frogged over all of that and,
once again, we are caught up in the rush of what seems to be an inexorable
future. Now, as then, movements in their expansionary phase have
little tolerance for critical analysis, which is regarded somehow as
negative thinking. There are not inherent problems, rather there are
"challenges" and "issues," implying that everything
can be solved with a positive attitude and ingenuity. Perhaps this
time it is true; after all, the Internet has enabled an undreamed-of
diffusion of these new modes of production.
Will there be a critical phase, or are we at the "end of
history?" Stay tuned, as they used to say in Radio; or,
"Pictures at eleven" (oops! pictures right now). Can the
software get any more radical?
Best regards, Kaye
Kaye Miller -
Roberta Miller 2005
Title: Inside-Outside: The View From
By Roberta Kass
Copyright 1973 by Roberta Kass
Raindance Shakes The Gods Loose
Videotape began speaking it has frequently implied that words are not
particularly necessary either to understand or to work with the
medium. Personal experience matters most, and it is always
characterized as joyful, positive and consciousness-raising. There is a
sense that everything is new, and experiences are a series of fresh
beginnings. This notion has been explicated in counter-cultures for
years, demonstrating that people who do not believe in words and have
little or nothing to say, always find a way--often wordy--to say it.
Maybe Raindance realized this when they decided to farm out issues of
The characteristic qualities of most video tape talk are hyperbole,
ambiguity, logical contradiction, a disregard for historical information
and a soaring from the trivial to the cosmic. Nobody vocal in the
movement seems willing to analyze (an alienating task); they seem only
capable of expressing a sense of the world and their electronic hopes for
it (a self-fulfilling pleasure).
Some, however, are embarrassed by this tenor of talk and frustrated by
the redundancies. (Cf., for example, Dan Driscoll of the National Film
Board in Challenge for Change, ACCESS # 10, p. 22. He says there is a
"tendency for becoming dependent on the
aphorism, the groovy phrase, even the cliché, in a kind of ritualized
confrontation with our shared anxieties.") The penchant and tolerance
for redundancy is not unusual given that we are force-fed. TV commercials
which we refuse to believe, or hum until their themes are repeated and
varied into infinity. Video people are, in this respect, well-socialized
children of the culture. Tapes, process and product, tape projects, and
increased Sony sales are proclaimed harbingers of the new culture. The
only reported negative of the vtr experience is
getting money from the agents of the system.
From Development to Hype, Without A Stop Bath
In the edition of RS, VoL 2, no. 1, the editors asserted RS had printed
"long theoretical discussions" about the technology and
consciousness of the new media. I don't mind ignorance as to what
constitutes theoretical talk as much as I do that others might believe it
and refrain from public discussion of the yet unresolved meanings,
protocols and best uses of videotape. I am afraid that without further
serious talk there will be no counter-force to the technology or the
initial hoop-la of early half-inch days.
There are many reasons why nobody much bothers with serious thought.
For one, theory is an unpopular word, conjuring up images of emaciated
spirits and dessicated souls hiding from life
behind academic balustrades. A few spokesmen
leave the tower to fight the wordy battle against yahoos while the rest
sit shaking their heads over rebel youth and plan the best way to get to
Washington to apply salve to gaping social wounds. But what a frivolous
reason to stop thinking or to abandon the language of thought, as if the
mere attempt will contaminate one's being.
I don't think we are yet ready for theory anyway; that is the result of
long experience and thought, both of which first lead to many dead-ends.
What predominates now is what in an earlier age would be called "shop
girl" philosophy, a construction of World-views from the narrowest
range of experience. Though video people glorify personal experience, in
spite of themselves, most are worldly and book-educated. They feign
ignorance of social details
|because the new media is a way, basically,
to empty consciousness, to force the old culture out, and to get ready for
the new. When they honestly try for analysis, they tend to confuse the use
of words with the content of words. In vtr words are used to rouse rather
than convince, to assert rather than prove. The codes and esoterica become
more important than the specific content.
Thus, as an audience eager to receive ideas, we in the videotape milieu
are in a perplexing position. There is silence about
serious things. Or the words are too crude to contain our experiences with
tape. Videotape words tend to say too much while the explanations say too
little. Some words like culture, evolution, technology have a long and
complex history. But without a backward glance, they are now said to
mean different things. And to add to the confusion,
concepts such as global consciousness and cybernetic revolution are
short-handed into all-encompassing cultural containers. Or else they are
called "myths of the future," that is, things that
don't exist and can't be articulated in a very concrete way, but serve to
inform people that the future is going to be not only better. but theirs.
Brice Howard (in his books, VIDEOSPACE and VIDEOSPACE AND IMAGE EXPERIENCE) is onto serious things,
but he is more suggestive than precise about the phenomenology of doing
tape and mixes. He knows something is there, as
anybody does who creates tape, but he can't quite say what it is. But at
the same time the words we hear are too busy
inviting and expressing a consciousness that is hyperactive and seems to deaden
our minds and blunt our senses. That is vtr hype, and examples can be
found anywhere somebody is talking or writing about the future of
Right now, though, any criticism or even analytic
discussion of ideas, tapes or the future provokes anger and cuts off the
critic from the movement. Kaye and I, for instance, were told (off) that
reviewing tapes is highly authoritarian. There is hostile reaction to even
the notion (VIDEO CITY RS, p. 15) of holding videotape festivals
where public judging and judgment occurs. By talking outside the limited
language which dominates vtr the critic steps outside the communal
boundaries. Since most video people are pretty
mellow and nobody is too firm about his preferences or
prejudices, there is a place for everybody once he
shuts his mouth and just goes about his own business of
Logically, hype can't hold its own against the concrete
contradictory knowledge that making tape imparts to us. And it certainly
can't offer balance to videotape technology, which is entering our
cultural framework unchallenged. To keep silent about serious things will
allow the conventional and corrupt forces of public opinion, the state,
and business to swoop up the meanings and
definitions. Without a foil to conventional social
forces, there is only a lot of enthusiasm and some poorly stated and
re-stated hopes. Even half-inch people are finding it harder and harder to
swallow hype for anything except recruiting purposes or conning rich
outsiders. Though for now, the only real struggle is to see how fast the
technology can be spread and how many opportunities can be parlayed into
funding and equipment.
Though a lot of people don't like the hype and suspect
that after a while the organizing and consciousness-raising potentials of
half-inch will be smothered, leaving to the freaks the disputed glories of
knowing better, having pure dreams, and displaying demonstration projects,
they don't think that serious talk will do anything
either. They suspect or hope that hype or whatever sketchy words are shot
from the lip will hold their own until the technology transcends itself
and ushers in a post-political era where men live, at long last,
integrated within themselves and with their social world. This is the
sanctifying umbrella and if you believe it, then nothing special needs to
be done, for it is as
When Bishop Berkeley said there was
And proved it, 'twas no matter what
THE DETACHED Retina
The detachment from a critical attitude protects the believer from
certain kinds of despondencies which might drive him away from the belief
that tape will do anything socially transforming. A story of an encounter:
Recently, Kaye and I happened upon a cardboard cubicle placed between the mod shop and cosmetics in an E.J. Korvettes.
Inside, two suburban ladies sat watching tv. I said, "Oh, look, a
Sony cassette." The fatter one smiled up at us,
and smug, but with a look just passable as friendly. Then she turned
back to the tv. Then Kaye said, Jeez, look! They're watching a Betty
Crocker commercial in color on a cassette." The fat lady again looked
up, this time piously, and said snobbily in hushed tone, "It's videotape" For her, as
with others, there was nothing else to say.
So the high hopes of movement people are not based on recognizing what
Sony is doing, or how people are putting meanings to vtr. Their optimism
reflects personal involvement, which is kept at a high pitch of (hustling)
engagement. And so long as the opportunities keep coming, the income is
livable, some moderate successes are scored, and some creative work is
done, all looks very beautiful and hip. Things don't feel bad, and as long
as one refrains from long careful analytic looks, there is little impetus
to serious thought.
I am not suggesting self-abandonment to a unified mass movement, but I
am saying that the belief in an inevitable electric utopia means that
conversations with oneself and with others in the public space of print
or making tape tend to stay at a very low level. How to argue with
somebody who insists, for example, that a vtr unit and electricity in
general alter the basic structure of mind, and then says nothing more? And
shrugs off the consciousness that Sony is marketing on a vast scale.
is hard to talk seriously about such things because the vtr etiquette
prescribes that we either take or leave the offered ideas or take or
leave the person offering them, because everybody is entitled to "do
his own thing." Any suggestion of interference with the euphoric
feeling that everything is possible is taboo, for that is what the
Establishment does. This reluctance to judge or opinionate, devoid of
coercive power, is in some ways the grand apexal synthesis of
traditional American optimism freed of its sobering elements. There is
a great clamor about the future but no notions about what may lie
between here and there. There is phatic expression, but no mutual
search for definitions, meanings, and bodies of argument. There are
only assertions, and one chooses from among them. It is like
democracy--you vote, you write letters, you run for office if you do
not like the way things are (or with vtr, you do your own issue of RS),
but what really holds it together is only a technology, a procedure,
and not mutuality of meaning beyond one's small cohort. Differences and
exceptions are ignored, and this stance of refraining from even wishing
to work things in your own way symbolizes the lowest level of building
a new culture.
The videotape movement is unlikely to produce theory or even a body of
careful thought until it begins to doubt, for it is around doubt and its
implications that men build a grammar and vocabulary with which to
concretize their lives. Without doubt, talk will tend toward reportage.
We've seen this often in past issues of RS: reprinted articles, a video
directory, activity summaries, technical information. This isn't to say
this isn't necessary; it is only to say that it is preliminary. It is the
informational underpinning of entering the videotape sphere, but it
doesn't contain the vital meanings of work in vtr.
The movement is also unlikely to produce serious thought except
sporadically, because in America as a general cultural and historical
phenomenon, work is fecund and ideas scanty. Only the barest minimum of
reasons has been needed to spur the greatest of efforts. Ideas are usually
private and harmless. When critical thought has offered its logic and
efforts, it cannot dampen enthusiasm which stays at a high pitch in the
old culture with the whispered names of effort, work and progress.
Videotape shouts to us of new experiences, new consciousness, real
community through process. Etc. "More" is the answer to all
questions of "why?"
As a consequence, thoughtfulness can't find a space for itself. The
U.S. (and why not the world?) is so big and so fucked up that it can
absorb the biggest of technological dreams of applied problem solving by
half-inch method. An example: An Army hospital in Nuremberg asked for a
second respirator. Instead they were sent two color video cassette
outfits. With more gadgets ever available, the basic questions of meaning
might never have to be seriously answered..
In a parable about how to avoid meaning with technology, Kaye tells
this story: "Once upon a time, a UN Task Force came to
India to convince the people to practice birth control. They went to many
|with a big machine called a Telebeam.
This machine projected a videotape onto a big screen so that all the
people could easily see. While the natives squatted on the ground, very
crowded together, they saw two stories about the future. The first showed
a future of famine, illness, and political instability because not enough
men volunteered for sterilization. the second story told of how future
generations lived peacefully and happily in good health and prosperity because
many men volunteered for sterilization. The tape ended with a plea that
men come forward and make the future bright by having a quick and painless
operation. The audience sat stunned, but the old ways were strong
and no men came forward. The UN task Force left, very sad, until they were
many miles away. Then celebration. What they had not told the villagers
Was that the Telebeam machine had sterilized everybody in the
How to account then, in a reflective way, for the sloppiness in the
videotape movement? I think there is much right about the
videotape movement and, as Shamberg asserts,
many of its stances are survival mechanisms.
The Friendly Barbarians
Probab1y the smartest thing video and other counter-culture people have
done is to discard history in its predominant historlcal use. That sense
is a body of social, politica1 and cultural governing rules which
historians and the politically conservative (that is, practically
everybody in the U.S. if you were to press them) say
a society can't live without. To them, history in this sense means
disorder, chaos, and discontinuity. In fact, we have lived long without
much spontaneous attachment to civic values and social trust. The
videotape people feel openly that they know something our predecessors
did not: that we can live freely at last, enjoying all our senses--except
the sense of the past--as unremembering, honest, and friendly
barbarians all, in a technologica1 Eden." (Philip Rieff, THE
TRIUMPH OF THE THERAPEUTIC, p. 4.) Rieff
characterizes this sensibility correctly but he doesn't approve of it.
Santayana, one of the first to be turned-off of American values, said
all traditions were at one time practical solutions to
human needs, but when the exigencies pass, the traditional can only be
revived to regain its personally compelling authority when it is made over
to deal with a new reality, "to face the world squarely, in the
interests of the whole soul." (SANTAYANA ON AMERICA, p. 35.)
History today fails to do this; instead it acts as a legitimizer of modern
ways of dehumanizing people without any redeeming features of a rich
ritual life, social trust, or psychological security. Scoundrels use
history to maintain a harsh economic and political
system and their position in it.
I think a sure indication that history has been crippled beyond use, at
least for a while, is that we as a nation are feeling a pus-like
contamination and the ill feelings that arise when "history comes too
close." (Levi-Strauss, TRISTES TROPIQUES,
p. 32.) We have stopped
living our own history as a nation and as individuals and are living the
histories of other nations. We act on behalf of goals we don't feel the
concrete referents for; we make policy for the world; we have only the
feelings of exploitation of Nature. It always makes me sad when video
people so flippantly welcome the rapid transformation of other cultures
into electronic space, not realizing that all missionaries create havoc
with culturally integrated people, even if it is for their own good. But
that is an aside.
Abstractions promise happiness but concrete daily living belies that:
phoney-war isn't peace; tension, anxiety, and pollution aren't good for
you; and advertising images are poor emotional realities. Of course role
distance is a necessary survival mechanism. In THE GODFATHER,
Michael at the christening, vowing to uphold the laws of God, is intercut
with the extermination of his many enemies. Most feelings of role distance
don't get acted out in such a grand gory style, but the same feelings run
through our talk and behavior.
To try to capture the right to interpret history seems futile. That
means revolution or the slower task of burrowing from within. Revolution
seems out of the question. And becoming a source of authority within the
system seems morally risky and only marginally fruitful. Video people
either know or sense that history is connected with the incapacity of most
successful people to feel the freshness of life.
|Time in the world of bureaucrats is heavy
and stale. The intellectuals we have encountered are unattractive. The
quiet scholarly ones seem somehow not present in the space of a moment;
they seem "away" as if life were a side-involvement. The actively
successful have aligned themselves with a corrupt political and social
system, trying to find the buzz word that will get them big grants and
promotions. Both types occasionally give life a try, emulating the
supposed vitality of the people they think are not too smart. Their
efforts are a little like listening to a good Christian swearing: the
words are right but the melody is all wrong. So there is a deepening
conviction that we must shed history and its modern out-workings and act
once again first with the authentic assumption that life first is, and
then it becomes transformed into abstractions which are useful and linked
The other difficulty which makes it hard to emulate or take seriously
thinkers who rely on history/analysis is that thought doesn't last.
Nothing happens more frequently than the unexpected. Wise men in a modern
world stay in the present as much as possible, avoiding the future until
it is present. Video people excel at this, but it is not a semantic trick.
They continue to know and talk about the future, but they refuse to
succumb to the two claims that accompany history: 1) history dictates the
future and the future is therefore known and 2) once the future is known
men are obligated to bind themselves to it emotionally and intellectually.
If video people were to accept current versions of history, the future
they envision would never arrive. And to bind oneself to a future, even a
welcome one, violates the joy and satisfactions of living, now, in the
present of one's life.
cultural savants who monopolize history cannot be persuaded away from
their power or ideologies. They cannot be driven out of power by
political revolution. We can, however, runs the current belief, wait a
while for the inherent revolutionary powers of the new media to
undermine the system by altering the consciousness of those who are now
its victims. Nobody will make change, but change will occur. This
argument surfaces most often in the contention that all those children
who have been watching network TV six hours a day have had their basic
mind structure altered so it responds to electron bombardment rather
than print. The old society, therefore, cannot hope to socialize them
into full cultural membership because it relies on print, besides being
generally oppressive. The children will waver awhile until the
pervasive/persuasive technology of half-inch, and other new media,
forces them into the leap across the consciousness chasm. It is Marx's
old notion that the system carries the seeds of its own destruction.
Video people look around and see that the sprouts are up, and they will
mature because the system welcomes all technology blindly (machines it
can absorb, ideas and movements it fears) aware only of the new media's
money-making powers and not its mind-expanding powers.
So the videotape movement like so many other counter-culture groups
abandons history in the interests of community. It seems
like a smart trade. Now the new media serve to disengage oneself from and
invalidate the past. People use "history" minimally, to
establish that they are not men from nowhere, that they aren't a quick
hype. Shamberg, for instance, in GUERRILLA TELEVISION, offers us a
"history." He moves from agricultural societies in general to
the modern age of autos and videotape in three sentences. He tells it
simply, suggesting that the last 100 years aren't as complicated as our
teachers told us (one breath is enough). Complexity gets you stuck in the
muck and why make a big deal about past events when all the cultural
merchants desire is oblation, rather than real understanding from their
followers. History seems only to interfere with the pursuit of one's best
If it is true that events and not ideas change the world, and that
there is no real connection between them, then there
is no particular need for anybody to do serious ideational work. The
future will happen without us either planning for it or thinking about it.
What matters, and follows from this view, is experience. All that is
needed to carry one over emotional and situational interstices are a few
notions to connect all the various projects people do. If and when people
begin to falter, then somebody will throw out a few
new sustaining ideas. The tensions of living this way don't result in
thought so much as in discharge--activities which
|help make the transition between times, to
cool yourself out prior to getting involved again. In this sense, a vision
is functionally as good as a theory. Analytically it might be in error; in
fact, it works.
Despite the frustrating absence of serious talk, there is a bit to be
said for vtr's reluctance to talk seriously. People simply are not ready
to do more than announce themselves as kindred spirits to one another.
Part of the reason for half-inch hype is that technology has traveled
faster than symbolic or metaphoric meanings.
These meanings develop more slowly and aren't yet available to
complement the movement. Once the equipment and the first easy lessons of
video are learned the search should begin for shared symbolic meanings.
But everybody is still too busy to do much more than spew out accounts of
their projects, wish everybody well and move back into his group space.
The hype itself is a rouser, but concomitantly it also encourages a
devaluation of language, which further hinders a direct surge towards
serious thought. No longer does talk have a problematic character. No
longer does it matter if you aren't perfectly understood or if you make
much sense. But so what? In a pre-Madison Avenue day when language meant
something more than a gimmick, a mask, a way to trick people into
self-alienation, vtr's abuse of talk would be unpardonable. Now it is not
so bad; it is more important to know who your brothers are.
The new experiences we have had are much too precious to subject to the
twisted meanings of the old culture which wildly attempts to absorb
anything which even vaguely threatens change. A new language with a new
vocabulary and shared meanings is only now being devised, but until it is
more pervasive and precise, the old words are used, with hesitation and
some embarrassment. Because much of this new videotape reality is, in the
words of Alpha 60, "too complex for oral transmission," the
notion of experience will prevail. What language there is is used not so
much to communicate to outsiders or to those who want proofs (that would
necessitate a logical argumentative style) but to announce one's presence,
one's activities and one's membership in the new culture. So until meaning
and word come together, metaphor and exaggeration suffice to break through
the official versions of reality. And on that score, video
people are champs.
Many videotape people see themselves as a culture-creating community
rather than a doctrine-creating community. They have no interest in the
rationality of the out-going order, but only in being the living
expressive embodiments of the new electric sensibility. Very central to
the videotape mentality is the analogy between electric energy and
experience. Energy has no past; it is pure flow, process and motion. To be
fully alive is to live in this energy flow, to live socially, emotionally
and culturally in the present. Hence opportunities are more important than
ideas, action more important than thought. If thought occurs it will
develop organically when the time for it is right.
The thread that keeps the movement tied together in its public, shared
existence (and not in its private individual and group
experiences) is images, which carry meanings to us beyond our ability to
spell them all out. Images present meaning in a visual language, and
resolve experientially all logical contradiction. We can syncretize
a meaning from the RS front and back cover where a Sony monitor
floats in the sky, more easily than we can tell ourselves with words what
it all means. The SEG brings us meanings. The
names of groups like Videofreex, Global Village, Ant Farm, Video Free
America, etc. tell us how they imagine themselves in relation to the
surrounding culture. Raindance even has its Sundance. And the monkey
climbing up a TV antenna, juxtaposed with the perfectly socially placed
1950's teenagers in GUERRILLA TELEVISION is more evocative than all
word comparisons between then and now.
Thus, logos, marginal drawings, and video art are the poetry of the
future which give half-inch a basis for understanding itself. These images
are vitally important because in looking at most tape, meanings are not
obvious. The tapes aren't particularly polished, aren't illustrative of
the radical claims imputed to them by the author(s) whose ideas and
feelings tend to be much better than the work. "Wisdom is nerves; art
is meat." (Gasworks, in the film, STEREOPTICON)
In these last paragraphs I am not abandoning my desire for serious
talk. I think the future envisioned by video people is a poorly proven
case. VTR has made some
|extravagant claims about the beneficial
effects of the new media, and that is not at all self-evident. There is
continual celebration, enthusiasm, passion, and high energy hype. Words
can help to fill in the chasm between reality and the wish, though this
effusion will probably be around as long as there is
a continuous infusion of new talent into the tape consciousness. The
neophytes will take the same emotional bath we all did, and the feelings
will wash over everybody else again, and we will remember together the
great joys of this worldly activity of making tapes. But to confuse this
ritualistic emotional outpouring with serious and world-culture building
activity is akin to having the shakes and calling it rhythm.
I think we should not speak against serious thought because it is not a
heart and soul. We should not get angry because
words aren't feelings and images aren't substance. I think that images
cannot alone carry us into a complete involvement and understanding of all
that is around us and inside us. We should talk and make tapes, being
careful to resist confusing language of description and analysis for acts
and experiences. We shouldn't stretch to severe strain what academics and
pedants have abused and misused shamelessly and without much awareness.
We are, most of us, beyond the soul-destroying temptations of the old
culture, even though we manage to live off the droppings of that world.
But I fear that without thought we will lose ourselves in a fog of
self-consciousness, certain that we are creating ourselves, forgetting
about the other and multiple realities that surround us.
Copyright 1973 by
Gwin - below
Title: Reflections On Two Media
- By William Gwin
William Gwin is a painter. He was the first artist-in-residence at
the National Center for Experiments in Television at KQED in San
Francisco, and is presently working at the Television Laboratory of WNET,
Channel 13, in New York. During the summer of 1973, he was again
artist-in-residence at the NCET, and has had his video work broadcast by
KQED and exhibited in museum and theatrical environments in Paris, Mexico
City, and Tokyo.
Video is a very new medium, painting a very ancient one. This fact
inevitably creates great difference in the two, but not nearly so great as
the confusion of this moment makes it seem. What I hope to do here is to
verbalize the sensibilities underpinning my work and to point out a few of
the similarities between the two media, or at least between the two ways I
have come to use the two media. In this effort I find myself returning to
four concerns: naturalism, surface, a respect for the properties of the
medium, and motion. These things do not represent the goals of my work,
which are creation and expressiveness, but they do represent the ways I
have devised to reach these goals.
Naturalism is the context within which I work; it describes the basic
attitude from which all my work comes. Naturalism describes a synthesis of
memories from the visual world and feelings produced by confrontation
between nature within the artist and nature outside the artist, and does
not depend on any particular observation. Naturalism represents a very
different concept from realism, has very little to do with photographic or
even nearly photographic representation, and may manifest itself in very
abstract forms; but there is always a strong reference to a world outside
the work, to a world shared, in a general way at least, by all people.
Surface means the visual feel of the work. This notion includes the
development of formal relations between various pictorial elements. These
relations provide the structuring that allows a work to have the internal
integrity that is
|necessary if it is to have the freedom to be
expressive. Colors, shapes, lines, and textures create and combine within
some sort of spatial framework to generate the image which carries
whatever message the artist might wish to convey.
Motion is either real or implied and is not
usually the clearly directed movement of a discrete pictorial element
happening in a precise interval of time, but a more general fluttering of
the entire field activated at times by currents. The motion of leaves in
wind is a close analogy.
Respect for the properties of the material means searching out those
qualities within the chosen material which best lend themselves to
expressiveness and shaping them by combining them with an intelligence
rather than using the material only as a vehicle for ideas.
Naturalism, surface, motion and a respect for the properties of the
material are the four cornerstones on which my art is built. They support
the video and the painting, but not always in the same way nor with equal
force. By looking at these four ideas and the differences or similarities
in the ways they function within the two forms it should be possible to
arrive at a clearer understanding of my work and of the potential for
creative expression within these two media.
Since the context provided by my notion of naturalism is a very general
one and has to do with basic attitudes, including the ways I respond to
the visual world and the place I want my work to take in that world, it
has basically the same function in my painting and my video. While the
framework alludes to the natural world, the working out of each image is a
more formal and involuted matter which deals
with the nature of the medium, with color and with textural, linear, and
spatial relations rather than with any relationships
between the work and the world outside the work.
Surface is the visual feel of the work. Since I've defined this word to
include most of what one is looking at when he looks at my work, it might
be valuable to see what sort of surface is created, why, and how it is
done. Color, texture and discrete pictorial elements, the basic components
of surface, are developed by building up interrupted layers. This is
achieved in my paintings by applying the paint so a great number of
transparent, translucent or opaque layers are produced. In IRVING
my most recent video work, it is done with layers of videotaped imagery.
These layers relate to one another in a very dense and complicated
fashion, and are defined basically by color, although shape plays some
role as well. These overlapping layers create a sort of shallow, ambiguous
space; there is no use of perspective or other illusionistic devices in
the painting and only little in the video, so that very dense images can
be created without losing the breathing space which is necessary for the
interaction of the various elements within a work. Video has an advantage
here because unlike painting, you can move the elements around, get rid of
some, substitute others, and keep the surface from becoming clogged. On
the other hand, painting has a decided advantage in the fact that the
actual surface can be altered; at present, video must be displayed on a
glass television screen. The size and shape of a canvas is flexible, but
video must always be a 3x4 rectangle, and is most often quite small. Image
resolution is also a serious problem in video but no problem in painting.
Many of these factors will one day, no doubt, be eliminated or at least
relieved by technological advances; but for a time they erect serious,
though not insurmountable, blocks in the path of the creation of video
The method of working in successive layers has an analogy to the dynam
|ics of the creative process itself. I begin
with a notion, and usually have a fairly precise idea of how it might be realized;
but I carefully stay prepared to receive feedback from the work as it
progresses, or from any other source, so that the final work is a
composite of my beginning ideas and many other ideas which might have
developed as the work was in progress. It is a non-linear kind of act,
capable of shifts, reversals, and changes when unforeseen possibilities
present themselves, appropriate, I think, to the property of non-linearity
which can be an aspect of both painting's and video's expressiveness.
These potentials are things I'm always interacting with as I work. In the
end the work shows the layers of thought and activity which combined to
It is this ability to receive feedback and shift to make use of it that
allows the notion of respecting the particular qualities of a medium to
play such an important role. Whenever something happens as a result of a
combination of whatever materials are being used, it is important to be
able to see the possibilities inherent in it and then to build on these
possibilities rather than having an idea which is so inflexible that every
chance happening deviating from that idea becomes a mistake, something to
be done away with. That isn't to say that there is anything sacred about a
medium or that every chance relation which develops while a work is in
progress is necessarily good; and certainly it doesn't mean that materials
and chances are enough to make a work of art. Whenever something happens
that runs contrary to the idea behind the work--and it frequently does
happen--then that thing must be eliminated or modified. The ideas must
always remain the most important things; but good ideas are fairly
flexible and can usually accept a lot of change without being violated.
The point is that each medium should be approached
as a unique possibility rather than as only a way to carry the aesthetic.
I think things have particular qualities in them, whether they are
pieces of wood or pieces of cloth or paint or electronic systems. And some
of these things are very, very beautiful. The more completely these things
are used the more they can contribute to and increase the overall impact
of the work. A videotape of a tree can be made and played back onto a
monitor bringing a moving picture of a tree into your living room. This
uses video as a storage and transmission device, and ignores many
possibilities for creative expression. On the other hand, that picture can
be made in such a way as to be useful as a compositional element in a
video work made by synthesizing form, color, texture, other pictorial
elements in motion to produce something that utilizes many more beautiful
possibilities inherent within the medium of video.
In television and in most experimental video, time is structured in a
linear, basically filmic fashion. Compositions, even the most abstract,
have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a duration and move
linearly through that span. This notion of time creates movement, a very
different matter from motion. Motion is created when
time is thought of as something other than the interval-measures used to
structure the daily flow of peoples' lives, when time is thought of as
unrestrained change, rhythm, the turning and exposing of another part of
the prism to the sun. Motion expresses the kind of time one experiences
Ideally, my video pieces would be presented in a loop, running
continuously. There would be no beginning, no middle, and no end, and no
particular duration, save the length of time a viewer wanted to spend with
it in much the same way a person spends time with a painting. I don't want
to structure the
|viewer's experience, to tell someone: if you
want to see what I have done you have to come in and sit here for fifteen
minutes or an hour, and if you look at it again, you'll be looking at a
repeat. The notion of a repeat has no meaning in relation to painting and
need not be a part of a video experience. The work is there and what you
see will change to the degree that you're perceptive. I would prefer
presenting a work in such a way that it didn't require one to take a
particular length of time out of his life and give it to the work, which
is what film does or music in concert does. I would let you move in and
out of it in the same way you can move in and out of the things that you
see when you're walking in the woods, or sitting by a window, or doing
most of the things you do when you're alive. That lets the tape, the work
of art, have the same position that any other object has. It is there--you
can look at it, and stop looking at it, and come back to it, and you
haven't missed an important point in its development because it is not
developing in that way because time is not a deliberately compositional
element. It exists in time as you exist in time. It is of the flow, of
that same continuum in which we all exist. It is closer to the kind of
time one experiences with Nature, and much less of the intellectual idea
we impose on experience to order it, structure it, attempt to control it.
Video's non-linearity does have its other side, which is the danger of
sloppiness in the making process. But if the maker
has mastery over his craft he can give the viewer a great deal of freedom.
Obviously the artist does shape the experience--red is a very different
feeling from blue--but Nature does that too. Walk into a desert and Nature
shapes you in one way. Walk by the ocean and Nature shapes you in another.
The way this concept of time expressed as motion structures video
brings this medium much closer to painting than to film. In video, motion
is real, in painting it is implied; but both can fit into the flow of a
person's life in very similar ways. It is like the difference between
looking at a rock and looking at water. If you look at a rock the changes
you perceive will be internally generated changes initiated by the
presence of the rock. It is moving too slowly for
the eye to see. Water, on the other hand moves at an easily perceivable
rate so the changes we see when looking at it are both internal and
These notions are evolving because video art itself is evolving. It has
almost no aesthetic history of its own, only the aesthetics of other
media. In a sense it is too new for an aesthetic to be formed about it,
but any art form that is a living, vibrant art form is always too new for
an aesthetic about it to be formed. If it stops being too new, then it is
an historical phenomenon and is probably no longer being done. That is
true of painting as well as video. - Copyright 1973 by William Gwin
After reading William Gwin's article, we addressed
several questions to Mr. Gwin. Following are the questions and his
responses, abbreviated in some instances.
RS: In paragraph 1, you speak of sensibilities rather than theories.
Have you deliberately chosen to speak of a sensibility rather than a
theory? Is your artistic sensibility derived from a body of artistic works
or more from personal experiences?
GWIN: Art is never created out of theories. Theories are often created
as a way to verbalize and/or justify art; but the creative impulse springs
from a need to manifest a response to the human condition and hopefully to
achieve a greater understanding of one's own situation through that
manifestation. Sometimes one's work affects some other person and allows a
greater understanding. When that happens it's a very happy situation, and
if the artist is allowed to be aware of the connection that is made, he
may be enriched in turn. My artistic sensibilities
derive from everything to which I have ever responded. That, of
course, includes certain works of art. Most things I encounter affect me
in some personal way; and everything that affects me affects my life and
art. This might be taken to be the beginnings of a theory about
life and art, and I certainly don't discount it; but I do recognize it as
an attempt to verbalize and make understandable to the intellect something
that is made of as many non-verbal, non-intellectual parts as verbal
RS: Not many people talk much about Nature; those that do tend not
to sharply differentiate between Nature and themselves, as did many
European theorists. People in video tend to talk about the environment as
the primary element of experience and consciousness. What do you mean by
Nature as an idea?
GWIN: Nature is oneself and the place in which one finds oneself.
RS: In the last line of paragraph 4, you refer to a work as carrying
the message of the artist. What do you understand by "message "?
GWIN: The message has to do with offering someone
the chance to use the waste-product of a personality's notions toward
wisdom through interaction with Nature.
RS: In paragraph 5, you say, "... lend themselves to
expressiveness and shaping them by combining them with an intelligence,
rather than using the material only as a vehicle for "ideas."
What kinds of materials have you used, and with what ideas?
GWIN: The best way to understand the nature of something is to use that
thing. To use something well, it is necessary to place yourself in an
interactive relationship with it. If this doesn't happen the meeting of
the artist and the thing chosen for material will produce an object
incapable of carrying energy from one personality to another. My main
materials are acrylic paint and cotton duck, video systems, pencils, ink,
and paper. Occasionally I use other things like film and words. Each of
these things allows me to do particular things. I've managed to understand
a few of the many attributes of these things. I'm always trying to
understand more because I've found that by understanding more about my
material I manage to understand more about myself. I mean that all my
activities are a searching, but never the expression of something I've
found. This searching takes place within a combination of my personality,
my thoughts, my physical being, and the portion of the world in which I
RS: In paragraph 8, you speak of the "visual feel of the
work". What are the difficulties you have getting the effects you
want with video on a flat, smallish screen? Besides the layer effects you
talk about, what other ways have you developed to compensate for these
difficulties? For instance, how have you dealt with a classical problem of
visual arts, such as perspective?
GWIN: This is the hardest thing to verbalize in any meaningful way.
There is little that is less verbal than the means used towards
something that is purely visual.
basic question is how to create a situation on a basically
two-dimensional surface that allows for the greatest possible
involvement of the artist and others who might look at the work. Since
two-dimensionality is the thing that most sets painting and video apart
from the world and most strongly conditions the creation of a reaction
to the work, questions of illusion--its use or elimination--must be
central to my search. The layering I spoke of is one way to deal with
this question. It allows the development of very dense images which
remain, nevertheless, open, thereby allowing entrance into the work.
Perspective is another tool designed to deal with the same problems. It
isn't something that has been very helpful to me. Whether it ever will
be or not, I don't know. The strict limitations of tv screens is
certainly a serious problem in video. It is a problem that must await
technological development for a solution. The limitations are somewhat
offset by the pressure of real motion and its accompanying
possibilities for change.
RS: In your opinion and experiences what are the differences between
looking at one of your video paintings and a painting on canvas? Is there
a difference due to the way time is shaped and experienced in each? How do
you expect or want people to interact with each?
GWIN: The main difference between video and painting is that a painting
is clearly an object, while video has time and motion as a basic
attribute. It is in this that video is closer to the traditional notions
of music and theater than to traditional painting. It is in its
two-dimensionality that it is closer to painting than to music and
theater. One thing I'm trying to do with video is to use time in a way
that is uniquely appropriate to two-dimensionality. I try not to have
particular notions about the way someone else might respond to my work.
In paragraph 11, you say that the "more completely" things are used,
"the more they can contribute to and increase the overall impact of the
work. " Do you mean that you wring from materials all their qualities?
Do you, for example, spend much time feeling into things, studying them
from all angles, including their histories and uses, or do you work
with them until you know them intimately? Do you feel that video can mediate between
tree and a person by itself, or does an artist have to mediate between the
tree and man by first creating the essence of the tree, as he sees and feels it, on the videotape
or canvas? Is looking seeing and feeling?
GWIN: All the things you said. I don't think materials or tools, and
that certainly includes video, can do anything by themselves. The only
thing that carries my value is the personality that is preserved on canvas
or videotape or anything else.
RS: Do you have a usual way of reaching the most comfortable
internal time experience which allows you to create? For example, do you
bracket or suspend the world before you create?
GWIN: I don't think the kind of separation of my life into clearly
defined functions exists in the way you seem to treat it. I try not to
bracket or suspend the world. My work is a major portion of my existence
and the flow between it and other portions of my life is very smooth and
unbroken. I feel that I never stop working; that my art is something that
underlines the whole of my life in much the same way my heartbeat does.
RS: What is the flow of time you experience with Nature?
GWIN: For the sake of efficiency man decided that it would be good if
everyone decided to do similar things at similar times. This has become
more basic to our lives than it should ever have become and has therefore
become arbitrary. There is another ordering of motion that is more natural
to life. It has nothing to do with appointments and everything to do with
the pulsing of the organism.
RS: You talk of your works as objects existing in time, as other
things exist in time. Yet people on occasion feel themselves to exist or
be outside of time. A usual test of great art was that it would exist
through time, and when people looked at it, they would not know at that
moment the real time of the world, wherever that particular social reality
was. Have you abandoned this position for
your art? Does it have the quality--do you even want it to have this
quality--of existing out of time? Do you want people to feel this when
they view your work? Do you think that reality is coterminous with
|you think that reality is on a continuum
with experience? Which would you prefer your audience to fee l when they
look at your works?
GWIN: I have never been able to understand the notion of forever. I
can't imagine the boundaries of reality or experience. I cannot
comprehend a reality outside from my experience.
Gwin - above
Title: My Life In Video by Barry N. Schwartz
Barry Schwartz, author, poet and educator, is Director of the
Cultural Alternative's Network, a collective working in education, video
and the visual arts. His new books are THE NEW HUMANISM: ART IN A TIME OF
CHANGE (Praeger, March 1974); THE VOYEUR OF OUR TIME (Barlewmir House).
The Cultural Alternative's Network makes social change software and is
concerned particularly with the interaction of art and community.
I Like The Way I Am
Killing time with television, I spent innumerable hours propped up
precariously on elbows, dead center in front of the
screen. Though I put in my time at the Peanut Gallery, I am certain the
electronic stultification of '50's TV did little to mold or erode the form
and substance of my mind. No, for the greater part
of my life I was a generalized learner; a person
affected by so many things, I was influenced by nothing in particular.
my late teens I became what is known in video/cybernetic circles as a
print person. As an outcome of my encounter with Camus and Sartre, I
trusted good books. Their intelligence and passion are radical
software. I immersed myself (an anachronistic term for saying I was
synchronous with), I learned about freedom, responsibility, the
shortness of life, and the fullness of life. I emerged from my reading
with a reasoning ability which faithfully transforms any situation into
its quintessential peak experience. ("You can do betta' wit' your meta!
") If I was a linear man, I earned that ignoble status because I was
too busy to contemplate my navel. At 20, I graduated college with a
degree in chemical engineering. I tell you this to explain why I don't
get off on fondling technology. Unlike some of the cybernetic
wunderkind, I find it impossible to fall into the mystique of
electricity, hardware and interfaces. Etched in my brain is the memory
of me, standing absurdly in the middle of a 10-foot diameter vat,
trying by prayer, good humor and a few basic principles, to keep
millions of particles suspended in a colloidal existence, while water
came in and left and a large rake turned slowly, coming closer and
closer. Two summers I slaved for an electronics distributor, and in the
process learned the sad relationship between electricity, media and
My graduation in engineering coincided with my
graduation from it. I began working in the Humanities. My Ph.D. thesis was
on McLuhan. At the time it seemed a reasonable thing, so I compiled a fine
bibliography of his works, and never asking why he still went to church, I
went into research.
McLuhan's ideas contained a very important half-truth. He showed us the
price we pay for the benefits of print technology. For instance, at this
precise moment, you are isolated. Despite your lover lying
-13 corrected number-
you, manipulating your genitals in an effort to improve your diadic
relationship, you are working in delayed time. You do this
every time you read. ("Honey, do you think you manipulate my genitals
to improve our diadic relationship?") Reading requires the reader to
leave real experience in order to undergo an experience which changes him;
this change is perceived when he enters real time again. ("Honey, get
me a towel") Such stuff used to be called investment, much valued by
the older generation, but now high on the list of cybernetic no-no's.
McLuhan also helped me to see that if I wanted a clean dossier I had to
regard print as a dead end. But as a writer I want your undivided
attention. (You there! Get your hand off those genitals and read your own
magazine.) Print supports private property, secrecy, individualism and
social fragmentation. Thus print, at least by the measure of instant
gratification, takes a person away from life in a very limiting
communication experience. Though the reader may ultimately be led to a
more fundamental engagement with reality due to what he read, it is
half-true to say that print is a poor container for experience.
Print demands linearity, while radical social change-save-us-all new
media encourage simultaneity. (" honey, manipulate my genitals while
we read this book.") Print experiences, when compared to electric ones, seem utterly lethargic, with the slowest of time
trajectories. (Damn it, honey, you got the pages all wet.") Further,
print begins in isolation, reaching an audience of
more than one only by a wasteful expenditure of energy. The new media are
electronic; they need no distribution, only connection.
It is certainly true that intellectuals, spoon-fed print as a substitute
for life, conform to the characterization of linear man. A print-person is
thinking, not feeling; logical, but not open to common sense; patient or
argumentative, but never simultaneous; always working out the analysis,
but seemingly incapable of coming to conclusions ("Honey, pass the
towel ") and acting on them ("Get it yourself!"). Our
universities are mortuaries for print-types; but I wonder if they are
print-types or if the particular bondage chosen by these programmed
masochists doesn't just happen to be print.
Unfortunately, McLuhan was packaged as a whole truth product. And
idiots used him as fuel for the eternal debate between the whole truth and
no truth at all, rather than acknowledge the important insights developed
in his work. If McLuhan were left standing he would win; then comparisons
between him and Darwin and Freud and Marx would be permissible. If he
lost, which is what happened, he'd be sent to pasture to play with the
graduate students, fertilizing their seeds of imagination. (America is
bullish on McLuhan.)
Buckminster Fuller, that other grandparent of the new consciousness,
always interested me. I was born only in time to catch the
last decade of his work, but ever since I talked with him in 1966 ("I
met Fuller sooner than thou!") I've admired his genius with love and
detachment. For he has shown me that the closer we are to a subject, the
less we know about it; that the more detached our perspective, the greater
the inclination of the mind to achieve metaphysical insights. He is, of
course, architect, designer and scientist. But for thousands of passionate
admirers who talk planet earth with him, he serves as a master storyteller
of the new consciousness, a wizard who ferments analogy and logic,
combining metaphors of man, nature and universe into a more coherent, and
more humane vision of Mother Ship and her astronauts.
Fuller is orbiting somewhere in intellectual space, radiating celestial
comprehension from the special vantage point of genius, surveying the
human condition with undisturbed ego. With wit, brilliance and flexible
intuition, he wishes earnestly, if somewhat naively, that we should all
realize we are not each other's enemy, that there is enough to go around,
that man's technology has opened the door to happiness and abundance, that
our present ways of thinking work against our own wellbeing, and that once
we have perceived this we should think differently.
Fuller, in his way, is a cosmological moralist. If men believed what
Fuller believes and acted on those beliefs, Fuller's analysis would be
flawless. A world of Buckminster Fuller's would be a world of sharing, of
planning, of the greatest human needs receiving the greatest human
attention. But it is not Fuller's world. A moralist is one who argues for
the ascendency of a value system in the face of its
-14 corrected number-
|denial. Fuller is a faulty designer, for his
design is inappropriate to the human species. His vision of the future is
only one of the many we might develop if we believed that we could create
our futures. Most of mankind does not. The man who does not believe he can
create his future is less inclined to do so. Though Fuller acknowledges
their presence, he does not adequately deal with those who know we could
lave abundance but who still do not choose to share the wealth. This man
of good--for Fuller is a good man--has not yet come to terms with the
question of evil. By assuming that destructive acts come from mentalities
believing war, exploitation, and divisions between rich and poor are
needed for survival, he also assumes that, when shown abundance is
possible, men will cast off their competitive, destructive, greedy urges
and give peace a chance. He assumes basic good will but that isn't easy.
And I Heard...
I have shared these perceptions with you to show
something of the head I bring into video interaction. Prior to shooting
any tape I was essentially a composite of two different perceptual modes:
a very cognitive person largely concerned with ideas and analysis; and a
feeling person, possessing a heated response to life and an unquenchable
thirst to experience all of the best of it, within a world that felt sick,
morally empty, and unnecessarily cruel.
Like most working in video, I was deeply affected by the 1960's. For
ten formidable years social protest was a powerful adolescent, capable of
strong acts, little reason and infrequent analysis. Breathing the social
air of this decade gave a feeling of strength, of rebellion, of energy. It
was a time of rebirth, of renewal, a time when we believed that if only we
could speak loud enough, we would be heard. For many, the '60's were an
investment in communication, but our benevolent Daddy had wax in his ears.
When we yelled loudly and frequently Daddy heard and answered, as is
Daddy's way, with bullets, cops, laws and manipulation. In the end we
found the rip of shotguns and morgues for students who had been to
class the day before. Heavy it is, talking to Daddy. Great Energy in the '60's! But the end was tragic.
Among the political activists I knew, most decided finally to become
the adults their parents always wanted them to be;
in the end the old values endured. They chose to do less with more, found
small boxes to work in, or small niches to get stoned alone in. Many now
occupy a world more with things than with each other, a world of anxiety
and a fixed state of being permitting nothing so unpredictable as personal
growth. For those who preferred a more active existence, there was always
the cultural thing. A smaller number, hardened in their hate of everyday
America, pulled back into themselves and formed communes and collectives.
Though they vary in content and form, in success and failure, they have in
common a desire to maximize control over life. Yet the most important,
most vital of these oases of sanity are not safe. In America there are no
peripheries, only regions scheduled for development. Those who went away
gained strength, insight, and generally a much-improved perspective on the
current struggle between life and death in America. Now, it seems that it
is more difficult to stay away than to get away.
We are now told that media will save us. Here is the way to be
relevant, to carry the cross of social change, to use the tools of the
system against it, to be able to spread the word
like it has never been spread before, to turn people on to themselves. All
these antibodies fighting the sickness! Media. What magic the word has,
particularly to the first generation growing up loving up a television
screen. How easy, how right for the times that we should believe
technology is going to do for us what we have thus far been unable to do
Those who are serious about using video as an alternative to
conventional broadcast modes usually have one of several distinct
orientations. One type of video user wants to expose reality. They want
exposure to lead to awarenesses that lead to
action and then change. An example of this is People's Video Theater. Here
they use video as "people television," as a kind of software.
They focus almost entirely on new content; the qualities and properties of
video itself are seen merely as available techniques to this end. They
tend to produce specific examples of social feedback to social situations.
|A second kind of video maker finds reality a
bore and wishes to create other realities--media realities. As opposed to
the first type, this group are medium users. Their highest priority is the
actual process of working with the medium and they claim no utilitarian or
socially useful goals for their tapes. An example of this approach is the
work of Stein and Woody Vasulka. Here video is seen as a powerful new
medium for aesthetic creation. [Ed. note: See also "Reflections on
Two Media" by William Gwin, this issue.]
These two perceptions of video are quite unalike. One sees the
communications potential of video; the other sees the creative potential
of the medium. Occasionally, the video users believe the medium users are
frivolous and irresponsible, caught in that bag called art, a haven and a
refuge from engagement with a sick society. But the "artists"
often see the "communicators" as amateurs, using video in a
primitive way for purposes long relegated to other media. Though each
needs the other, they are separated by different values and different
Still another use of video is for narcissism. These self-promotional
tapes are made by video all-stars, already identifiable, aspiring to the
same status in video as others enjoy in theater, painting and baseball.
They float from one kind of tape to another. Their commitment is not to
the development of a video aesthetic or a philosophical or political
position, but to success itself. They will struggle to shoot and exploit
what others commend. As tape continues to be "the thing," the video
scene is riddled by entertainers, overnight wonders, and personalities who
exploit the medium to provide "events"--the latest news of
what's happening, where nothing is happening.
A fourth kind of video user sees the medium as a platform for
demonstrating intellectual insights. At best, some create a kind of video
research that's very good indeed. At worst, video, an interactive medium
drawing its intensity from the life it is exposed to, becomes the show and
tell of philosophic conceptualization. In New York, the history of video
and the influence of McLuhan have been intertwined since he conducted a
seminar at Fordham. John Culkin, Director of the Center for Understanding
Media was there; Paul Ryan, a pioneer in video research, was there; Theodora Sklover, a
well-known advocate for public access cable TV, was there. And the wedding
processional of an outlandish theoretical conception of media and the
pragmatic use of video began. Although the seminar and all that flowed out
of it is of historical interest, its early insights have been eclipsed by
the development of video itself. Yet the fourth kind of tape I mentioned
still derives its rationale from the mismarriage of theory and practice.
Some believe that cybernetic consciousness can be transformed into an
equivalent mode of tape. Cybernetics is a comprehensive overview, a system
of thought resulting from investigation of informational processes, which
not only tells about parts of the whole but describes the whole itself.
Some believe it is the only existing metaphysical model now able to
withstand scrutiny. But whatever name it goes by (whether cybernetics or
systems analysis) it is today's version of the historical attempt to
integrate human knowledge with a holistic view of the universe.
Cybernetics can be thought of as the re-humanizing of scientific
information, a generalization of all data into a metaphysical model.
Cybernetics has been called holistic and it is. It is an existential
science, for it enables us to describe the entire workings
of a system without resort to first causes, to the workings of the divine,
or to a cosmological order. It is a comprehensive model that does not
necessarily refute the principles of relativity. It is a view of meaning
that does not require the universe to be meaningful.
Much video terminology has come from cybernetics. Most who claim that
video has a theoretical language mean that the terminology of cybernetics
takes in the phenomenon of video. But even though cybernetics is a
satisfying approach to certain kinds of analysis, and though it has been
very helpful in identifying the properties of such phenomena as feedback,
videotape is not an intellectual experience and is little aided and often
harmed by an overlay of such massive conceptualization.
Holding a portapack, switching on the deck, is tantamount to uncovering
a domain of moral choice. As soon as I select
|something out of the entire range of human
experience I am tentatively identifying what I consider to be of value. I
may change my mind by erasing tape; refine my decision by editing; keep my
choice private by not showing tape; but all through the process I am
creating something that very much depends on how I have created myself.
I got into video through politics. When the big bread for video started
coming down in New York City, those who believed in doing more with less
revised their notions and re-dedicated themselves to the premise that you
can best do more with more. While one media group did a rain dance, trying
to motivate the heavens to literally burst forth with a shower of plenty,
or at least $260,000 worth of plenty, another media group played a dirge
throughout the global village. If the media groups were a video community,
sharing some common goals and like values, they certainly suffered for
I am a student of resources. Though money per se is no panacea, and
since the whole system is a rip-off, I do believe that more
money available to more people provides the best chance for something new
under the bald eagle. It isn't a fanatical point with me but more of a
working philosophy. So I got involved. Now, there was a time in the
political hassling when it would have been possible for these media heads
to live what they talked. If video creates global
consciousness, where process is more important than product, then you
would expect the goal of group decision-making and self-determination
would be obvious. After all, if videotape democratizes information,
weren't people who make this claim enthusiastic about democratizing their
information and sharing in decision-making? Ah, wilderness. It was pitiful
In the end the money was divided evenly, which is about the best you
can expect when no one believes anyone else is equal. I left the political
madhouse to join a video group that wanted me. Why not?
I worked with three under-developed people. One was raised on sugar
cubes and believed the world was divided into two
camps, those who wish to live and those who are dead and/or dying. I agree
with him. This young man's problem was that he was able to live in one
camp only if he died a while in the other. His survival mechanisms were
shaky. Another young man was religious; all our problems, he said, stem
from our Neanderthal-like state. We had not yet evolved into the next,
higher form which he called Protean Man. Since there aren't great numbers
of Proteans yet, we've not much to do but explore the Protean
consciousness and wait for the cybernetic rainbow with its pot of Acapulco.
The last thing he ever said to me, that I heard, was: "You're so
beautiful I could punch you." He meant it. So in case you meet any
Proteans out there... The third of our crew was one of those scarce
forties who stood on the balcony of the old world, threatening to jump. He
was enough alive intellectually to relate to the psychedelic generation
and sufficiently experienced to approach social change by studying it. His
rap was brilliant, his mind imaginative, and his heart connected by an
umbilical cord to his checkbook. Unfortunately, he never took the leap
into newer forms of being. There was a fourth, but he rarely got off the
Long Island Expressway.
We weren't what you call a formidable bunch. One got high. One told
stories of a friendly Alphaville. One played godfather. And the fifth,
once again caught in the historical role of Jew, laid press and patience
to the processes leading from self-mutilation to self-congratulation at
work well done. If our VTR equipment could only tell what it knew...
We received patronage for a non-fiction video
piece. And, aspiring to the highest fiction, a media event, we began the
long process leading months later to the best tape
we could make collectively. [Ed. note: DON'T WALK, discussed in this issue
by Terry Moyemont. The levels of our interaction
were multiple and sometimes unspeakable. If one was afraid of linearity,
the other was equally concerned about outcomes on
the person viewing. Impact vs. intention; process vs. product; direct
statement vs. visual metaphor; reality vs. imagination; the sick society
vs. heightened consciousness: these were the battles we fought
incessantly. Each in our different ways was struggling to make video do
something which we otherwise did not know how
|to do. Though the particular group process
we engaged in was unnecessarily painful, it was certainly fertile ground
for growth, insight and development.
My experience with video was then, and is now, a very positive way of
relating to reality. As well as the actual processes
of making tape, and the interaction of a group in the shooting of tape,
there are many personal, social and artistic uses for
tapes, which, though not mighty responses to fascism, are useful and
significant aspects of the medium. Video is an artistic, perceptual
goldmine. I love to shoot. I find exciting camera angles, pick up nuances
in the little human dramas unfolding before my electric eye. I find
quixotic ways of rendering reality in greater focus, and move in where the
interaction is at its peak. Like most forms of self-expression, shooting
video is a stress situation where you have to decide at every moment which
aspect of the action initially in view should be framed. Videotape is a
dynamic medium; life and art coincide for long journeys into time. Thus
the aesthetic of video is indifferent to
considerations of composition and balance, and is very sensitive to
interaction, motion, visual metaphor and symbolic meaning.
Some people use a camera like a gun or a ruler, They are visually
didactic, demanding that the viewer see. Others believe that making video
is merely a matter of acquiring portapack and venturing into the world of
abundant software, shooting, to collect at once the significant and the
Editing, unlike shooting, always seemed a chore. It's a frustrating,
demanding kind of work, usually involving more than one person,
and with a time frame I find stultifying. Though on occasion it has its
keen moments, especially when one cut will make a tape live or die.
Mixing was the high point of my video work. Perhaps the reason I
respond to it is related to the way it maximizes possibility. At anyone
moment the widest range of choices are available. Sitting before a Special
Effects Generator with multiple video inputs is like playing captain of a
ship in rough seas. At any second the whole thing can capsize. Good mixing
is like holding the rudder at even keel. It is a dance of decision.
I am sure most have had similar experiences with video. Making tape is
an enjoyable, pleasurable experience. Yet, few are willing to communicate
about tape in terms of how they feel when working with it. Instead,
enthusiasts claim for tape not what it can do, but what it is we need to
AGC Does Convert To Manual
Video does have a great capability for providing feedback and that is
fine. We need desperately to see ourselves in order to change. Video
is a great opportunity for self-perception, group perception, and
potentially, community perception. Video reality is like life reality, and
can be used to "clean up" the data of life
so that its essential qualities become visible. The widespread use of
video in therapeutic settings, the Canadian Challenge for Change program,
which uses video as an important tool for community awareness and
development, the home use of video to provide
reality-testing-feedback, are important and lasting experiences. Video
does make it possible for subjective perceptions to become the subject of
also believe that, as an experience, video is fertile ground for the
reconstitution of group experiences. I am truly convinced that if every
school-bound child were first given a portapack and a monitor instead
of a book list, young people would more effectively acculturate into
our time and place. Most communal activity in the sick
society--watching an Apollo launch, riding the subways, traveling on
freeways, sitting in a baseball stadium--are group experiences
emphasizing loneliness and the sanctity of each and every cubicle. Team
teaching is still not an acceptable educational methodology. Team
efforts in science, like those in advertising, are highly controlled
situations, maintained by a visible hierarchy of power relationships.
Spontaneity and openness are discouraged by the real pressures to win
approval from one's superiors. Aside from sitting around stoned
there is no pervasive social mechanism for group reconstruction. The
closest thing we have to communal
|action in America consists of a few rural
communities and life in the local firehouse.
Video is open to the diverse contributions of individuals. At its
maximum potential it is a mass medium involving everyone who will become
involved. It does bring together or permit coming
together, where most of society is committed to keeping apart. The
inherent properties of the video medium are important. Nine million
children watch Sesame Street daily. They are quite willing to spend many
hours of their lives looking at a TV screen; they are a society well
attuned and conditioned to the television medium.
Thus they can be encouraged to discriminate between broadcast and
Further, though the entire failure syndrome in schools is maintained by
varying degrees of success with print and mathematics, video lends itself
to achievement every time. But the uniqueness of the human eye, mind and
imagination is always apparent as each person making video creates a
really unique reality on tape. Caught in the vise of conformity, children
can learn from video the relativity of perception and the infinite
possibilities of human expression. Still another facet of widespread video
use is the gain of confidence which accompanies the mastering of
technology. Since we associate access to and use of technology with power,
individuals whose previous use of it consisted of a car, a Polaroid camera
and the telephone, can undergo a transformation, making it possible for
them to reach many more people than they know. I have seen people in the
streets and in institutional settings, with camera in hand, displaying
confidence and a sense of efficacy they previously
did not have. They now hold in their hand a recognized symbol of power in
a media-oriented society.
Finally, widespread use and familiarity with video may do much to carry
forward the process of democratization. The widespread use of video
suggests "every man his own perceiver"--a real blow against the
mechanisms of brainwash and programming. Every human environment, every
setting, every meeting, every life activity is available as mass
information. What if we could see how the rich live, our leaders live, our
heroes live, our losers live, our revolution lives?
I can imagine media radicals short-circuiting the establishment's
electronic information banks. We may yet see 21st century Robin Hoods
stealing from the information rich to distribute to the information poor.
No life activity would be safe from a video rip-off. And since most of
what our leaders horde and society sells is information, not products,
video pirating and video evidence may well become powerful tools in the
hands of the people. That is, if we survive 1984.
Unfortunately, the discussion of video is fraught with imaginative
projections of things which are not real. Some believe that the media
themselves will transcend all obstacles. These post-political thinkers see
the technology outliving the social restrictions now placed on it. They
see media as the circulatory system for a new consciousness--an
ecological consciousness --which is destined to become synonymous with
human thought. It is alienation from power structures, and a personal
sense of impotency that leads people to believe that
history comes into being without human choice. The world we live in now
represents the values, ideas and beliefs of those who have the power to
give a form to the human situation, which will change only when those who
have the power are changed and those who are changed have the power. But
as soon as we move from the process of making tape to the claims made in
the name of showing it, the question of the importance of tape becomes
While video people debate the "truth" about video, while some
get their charges from playing with the central nervous system of
humanity, while some are interfacing until they're blue in the face, it
should be remembered that almost no non-establishment video exists without
some kind of government or state subsidy. Needless to say, what is given
can be taken away. History may later show us that those who now claim
great hopes for a free and open video were temporary researchers, working
for peasant wages and destined to be dismissed as soon as they exhausted themselves
on the development of the medium. One can turn to the VIDEO
HANDBOOK, AUDIO- VISUAL COMMUNICATION MAGAZINE, or a dozen
other sources for confirmation of the fact that the
communications industry is getting ready to all but seize cable relay
television, to extend and magnify control and profit, and if necessary, to
|snuff out the video movement unless it
snuffs itself out first.
Although video, like all media, does have certain intrinsic qualities,
it is, all the same, despite the raps, the theory and the meta-'s, only a
tool. Now it is covered over with what R.D. Laing calls the
"mystification of experience." A powerful tool used by people
with powerful commitments, with sane and humane values, is the only
winning combination. Yet, it is not surprising that individuals
questioning their own self-worth, perhaps justifiably so, would speak so
loudly of the properties of the medium and so softly about the qualities
of those who use it.
Values that emanate from words and not acts are doomed to stagnation.
As ethical propositions, academic verbiage, media raps,
moral persuasions, and philosophic learnings, verbalized values do little
more than provide fuel to burnt-out fires. And as values without
application are futile, new information without new values is
equally useless. The truth alone will never set us free. The new media
will only be of enduring utility if their potential
contribution to the humanizing and liberating
movements of our time is accomplished every step of the way. Thus video
will come to be used for new purposes, generally, only when the medium and the new values are indistinguishable. Video is
important; we cannot do without it. But video is not
going to do some thing for us, without us.
can be done? First, every sane and life-affirming individual must learn
the politics of media. Today ignorance is no bliss and is certainly a
more advanced stage of alienation. Unfortunately, much information is
either too technical--an outcome of that Tower of Babel called
specialization--or too obscure--the language of bureaucracy--or it is
enthusiastically mystified by those outside the power structure, whose
aspiration for community is less vigorous than their wish for status.
All those who divorce research, involvement and information from social
struggle have already assumed their own impotence. A dehumanized
society is not neutral to the forces that would change it. Never treat
a brother like a passing stranger. If we had an agreement among
half-inchers to pool 10% of earned, ripped-off and granted monies to
form a national organization whose purpose was to direct the activities
of lawyers working in the interest of free cable and the half-inch
movement, we would find ourselves in better shape five years from now
than we will be if things keep going on as they are now.
very moment important political decisions are being made which later
will be offered as the "normal" way society regulates cable and video.
It is today's ignorance that will limit tomorrows options for human
connection. Howard Hughes is a heavy; who IS going to take him on? And
does Clifford Irving love you? Everyday we hear how cable will create
great access to information; it will assist self-identity, democratic
processes, educational environments and community organization. The
degree to which we are sensitive and responsive to the emerging
regulations and uses of cable will do more to determine the
significance of this communication system than the technological
development of cable itself.
If cable and video are allowed to continue as laissez-faire activities
conducted for profit motives or government-sponsored research, cable
television will turn out to be a McLuhanized
Montgomery Ward Catalogue. The only hope for cable is that government make
a clear-cut distinction between the hardware, the content and the carrier.
If cable relay becomes a common carrier, then like the telephone, we will
be able to use hardware, pass the signal and inspire and produce the
It is in the area of real struggles, like the cable question, that the
post-political types are deadly, believing as they do that the technology
itself will transcend all attempts to contain it. If
media watchers believe that, despite regulation,
obstacles and present industrial interests, the media will prevail, then
who will create the media action programs, based on human
values, that will seek to reorder existing priorities? The new media can
communicate new values that are incarnate within the media itself or they
can foster a new dynamic consumerism, an electronic
package for the old values.
For some years now I have collected tropical fish. Only recently did I
maintain a marine aquarium. The challenge of duplicating the
requirements of ocean life is infinitely greater than that of fresh
water. Though many aquarists believe that precise controls on
temperature, ph, trace metals, copper and nitrates are required for the
fish, the well-being of the invisible bacteria is supremely important
to the chemistry of the fish tank. If the bacteria die, the waste,
measured in nitrate counts, will build up to lethal levels. Last
October the bacteria in my tank died. As I gazed into the fish tank I
saw healthy marine specimens; I was unaware that all the fish inside
were, for all practical purposes, already dead. Sometimes I think that
the situation for video and cable is the same.
It is clear that the existing communications media are, as they are
used, sorely inadequate for the communication of their own crisis. As I
look into the video world I see we give much attention to what We are
doing, and very little attention to what They are doing. Like my fish, we
may be enjoying it right up to the very end. - Copyright 1973 by Barry
Multi-subjectivity: Our View Of Them Vs. Their View
- By Steve Morrison
In 1972, Steve Morrison, a student at the British National Film
School, persuaded the school, over strong opposition, to support him and
some others in a project in Belfast, Northern Ireland. They lived with and
taped for a month a Catholic family, the McGourans, and a Protestant
family, the Fletchers,
The two crews shot about 30 hours of tape with each family, using
Akai quarter-inch equipment. They encouraged the families to take an
active role in the taping, including the initiation of shooting and the
deletions of sequences already shot--a kind of control familiar to
Canadian and American tapemakers, but new and a bit disconcerting to
National Film School documentary and ethnographic filmmakers.
Later, when the material was brought back to England,
Glass joined the project, and she and Steve worked for six months editing
two tapes, with each family tape one hour long. Editing was done to
half-inch, with the intention of going eventually to one-inch or to film.
The editing principle that Steve and deedee
claim for the tapes they call "soap opera, " and mean by
that the organization of the material along
the lines of "stories" that develop in the lives of the
families, rather than according to the usual conventions of the political
documentary or the ethnography. We found that
the tapes worked for us, not because of the soap opera editing or because
the families were especially interesting or insightful about their
situations. The tapes worked because we knew that history was occurring;
it is immanent in everydayness in Belfast. We know of the special context
of "ordinary" life there and as viewers expect History to kick open
the door at any moment. We include these rather lengthy interviews because we think they
reveal some of the ethical and operational problems tapemakers face as
they invade--for some social, political, moral, or aesthetic reasons-
the lives of others.
We conducted the interviews with Steve and deedee during their
recent visit to America, where they showed the tapes to video groups, a
few anthropology seminars, and to whoever
heard about them and arranged for a showing.
- The Editors
|RADICAL SOFTWARE: Why isn't soap opera
STEVE: As I understand it, ciné-vérité is built on certain formal
principles, namely, you don't interfere with people and you try to develop
an observational style. As much as possible, you try not to use extra
lights. You never ask somebody to do anything twice. What is desired is
the nearest possible thing to objectivity, the role of the detached
observer. The choice of subject matter is something different. First of
all, I don't theoretically accept the notion of objectivity anyway, and
therefore I think setting up these rules is an illusion. On the other
hand, I'm not in any way interested in saying, "Okay, there's no such
thing as objectivity; there's only subjectivity; therefore, I'm going to
be as subjective as possible and paint nice video images of what is going
on in my head." I don't like that because it turns out to be one-head
filmmaking. What I'm interested in is some area which doesn't claim to be
objective, because that doesn't exist, but on the other hand isn't reduced
just to the head of the tapemaker and is sort of mono-subjective.
RS: Would you say the middle area is the two tapes you made?
S: Well, I think they're on the line. I don't think we got there. But
what we attempted to do was to create multi-subjectivity. In traditional
filmmaking that means Realism.
RS: Why didn't you interview people in your tapes? Why weren't you
present as (honestly engaged) provocateurs?
S: You remember the scene at the beginning of the Protestant tape,
where they're talking about whether we can tape in the front room?
Whenever I look at that scene I regret that the cameraman didn't include
me in the frame because it is a dialogue. Also later, when Harry talks
about Bernadette Devlin being a wolf in sheep's clothing and, on the face
of it revolutionary, but really a Catholic, I am
talking to him; it is a conversation and I should have been in the frame.
I have no argument with you about this. I think that if I continue with
the tapes or any other tape, at least some of the crew will be included in
RS: Another thing that is missing in the tapes is coherence. They
are confusing. There seems to be no structure of telling, no direction to
S: Well, I'm coming to this. When we watch a soap opera in Britain, we
are not told who the characters are. We're not told what age they are or
where they work, what their sex relationships have been. We're presented
with characters. We stay with them as a sort of personal thread and we are
supposed to learn what they are like through an unraveling of their social
RS: Right, you learn their history over time.
S: Exactly. That is a normal fictional dramatic structure. It is not
the normal documentary dramatic structure. People who watch documentaries
assume that within the first five minutes they will be told who the
participants are, where they work, why they are on film. That information
is not supplied to them when they watch a drama. Even the worst B movie,
RS: A drama does more than that because it uses a conventional
language -which your tapes don't. Your people aren't even known types outside
S: Right. The tapes partly come out of my gross dissatisfaction with
media treatment of Northern Ireland, and I don't mean just the conspiracy
theory that the media are British and that there are political
restrictions on what you can report. This is nothing to my
|mind compared with the inherent limitations
of network tv in dealing with Northern Ireland. For example, your average
news editor, through no fault of his own, shuffles very similar
ingredients every night: a demonstration, a funeral, a woman whose kid's
legs have been blown off, an interview with a
politician, an interview with an army officer. And the decisions he makes
are vaguely connected with a news peg. People in Britain really don't know
anything about Northern Ireland. The political center is not the same
there as in Britain. This is why I got into it. I'm not an artistic
creative filmmaker. I come from the BBC end or the scale, the journalism
end. Given my irritation with what seemed to me not only political
considerations but the inherent limitations of the media--it's impossible
to explain the history of Northern Ireland before every news report and no
amount of specials in a year would make any difference--I went over to
Belfast just to see what I, as an ordinary British citizen following a
policy of deliberate naivete, would discover.
RS: So that brings us to a question we've had since talking with
deedee: A frequent problem with tape (with film too, but it's usually not
as apparent) is that it represents a partial reality. Tapemakers often
find it necessary to be there when the tape is shown to explain what it
doesn't. It is interesting that you and deedee have taken the tapes on
tour. Many legitimate questions flowed from the tapes that the tapes
didn't answer. What do you feel about that? Is that an inherent limitation
of the tapes?
S: I have two feelings about that. At first I thought that was a
terrible thing. I thought the material should be self-revealing and that
it would be absolutely ludicrous for me to go around every place with the
tapes. Although there is an ironic contradiction there because
universities have to pay me about $150 in expenses each time I accompany
the tapes. If, on the other hand, they were renting them, they would pay
$12. So, there's an interesting irony: if you have a partial tape which
needs personal explanation, you get about ten times the amount of money
you would have if the tapes were self-revealing. At first, particularly at
American showings, I was very self-deprecating, and very mumbling. I
didn't say much except, "This is the tape; I don't want to interpret
it." But then, you know, as with deedee, people began to ask me
questions, and I began to talk. On occasion people actually found me more
interesting than the tapes. And this was fantastically worrying in the
beginning. But gradually I got over this problem. The success of the tapes
is to some extent dependent on their revealing the texture of Catholic and
Protestant family life styles. Even now when I see the tapes for the
2000th time, it is a shock to me to see the different ways, given that
they live only 250 yards apart, they deal with the houses they live in,
the street they live on, the separation between public and private,
politics, and so on. The questions that people ask me after watching are
things they really don't need to know, like specific references. And if
they didn't think they were watching a documentary, they wouldn't even
ask. For example, in the Catholic tape, we cut from a kids' party to
dancing and singing at a social club. Because the shots are very close-up,
people often say, "Where are we now? What's happening?" But they
don't need to know that.
RS: Why didn't you make longer tapes? Even accepting that I should
figure things out myself, one hour for each family isn't enough. Why don't
you make a series?
S: We intend to. I'll come back to that, but first Belfast. When I got
there two things happened: one, I learned a lot of abstract information
which I thought nobody knew. And here was me, little Stevie Morrison, able to get this information and tell the world all the
things which had been suppressed by nasty media people. And I found out
things about the Protestant community that nobody knows. I discovered that
a vast majority of working class Protestants thought that the Church was
trying to undermine the state, that all TV stations are run by Catholics
who are agents of the Church. Some even think the Church has
struck an unholy alliance with Communists in order to undermine the state.
Of all this, there was no mention on the media in Britain. Well, obviously
media people in Britain are liberal and cosmopolitan. They discount this
as a simple, bigoted conspiracy theory of politics which does not resemble
reality. And they will not be party to putting these views on their TV
programs. Therefore, a whole chunk of Protestant ideology is just
dismissed as if it doesn't exist. The point is that if you take it back
into the structure of Ireland, it has some point, and whether or not you
think it resembles reality,
|it certainly gives you an understanding of
what the Protestant perspective is. And that is not on the media. Having
said that, which if you like, is the high point of my journalistic
arrogance, here I am. I have discovered things that nobody else talks
about. I will bring back the message to the people of Britain.
RS: Hear, hear!
S: I then began to retreat from that point of view. I said to myself,
"Well, these are basically abstract things. Somebody, somehow,
somewhere will get them into print." I ask, "Who am I, with my
little resources and my videotape machinery--quarter-inch tape--you know,
the puny nature of it sort of hits you! What can I do which can't be done
if I were still working for the BBC or the SUNDAY TIMES?" In other
words, I began to move from an arrogant position into one of, "Could
I not be of more service to the people of Northern Ireland because I'm not
encumbered with network paraphernalia and deadlines and all the rest of
it?" And anyway, you only need to go there to get a dose of humility
because the place is absolutely saturated with Italian cameramen and the
like; every taxi driver you meet works for CBS. And, you know, do the
Irish really want another media portrayal of their lives? I thought not. I
began to talk to more and more people and asked them, "If you
actually had the resources to posit any image of yourselves that you
wanted on the air, what image would that be? For five years, at six
o'clock every night, you get the image of what you are supposed to be."
RS: To what degree do you think your shift of focus was due to your
perception that the market for abstract political views was saturated. And
given your "puny resources" it would be better to look
S: I think that had something to do with it, but not everything. I'm
still tussling with the problem of working out a synthesis of
investigative work and abstractions, so I still feel some regret that I
chucked the original approach completely, though I feel right in myself
that I concentrated on the approach I did. Having got to that point, I
just talked to people, having decided that was the best way to get beyond
the public level presented by the networks. Even interviews force people
to take upon themselves a public position, to become a type. This is the
media reality of Northern Ireland. I wanted to get past these limitations.
RS: That's what you learned before shooting. But what about the
specifics of getting into the family scenes. How did you find the
families? How did you work with them.
S: Okay. I decided to use dramatic conventions, namely to get beyond
the public level through character development. You know, you can start
off any fiction film with a crowd scene. And as long as the camera keeps
coming back to the same head bobbing in the crowd, that is enough thread
for the audience. Okay, your question! What families? My reasoning was
very simple; I asked myself, "What sort of material would make a
working class family in Liverpool say 'there but for the Irish Sea would
have been me'? This is not easy because a typical Liverpool family
thinks British troops should get out and let the Irish fight it out
amongst themselves. They think that all Irish are hooligans or at best
moderate people intimidated by the rule of gangsters and terrorists. As
subjects, then, it would be pointless to take a family that had been
Republican for 50 years because they aren't the majority of Catholic
families in Northern Ireland. Before 1968 Republicans were cranks who sat
in corners of pubs and drank to the old times. The majority of Catholics
may have a desire for a united Ireland some time in the future, but most
of them don't want a united Ireland now , to the chagrin of the
Republican movement. So I wanted a family which, prior to 1968, had not
been terribly active in politics and which had, since 1968, because of all
the trouble, become more involved in community life. But there were a
hundred thousand families that fell into that category. So I narrowed it
down through what I call the "pursuit of contradictions." I looked
for families where the husband and wife held contradictory views about
what was going on or where the views were ambivalent.
RS: Where did you look? Did you just walk around the streets?
|S: No, no. One meets people who look after
you, and you explain to them what you're doing in Belfast. And they say,
"Oh, I've got just the very family you ought to meet." There's
no shortage of families and the IRA is delighted to offer you one:
"Ah, listen, there's the McGoogans down the road. They were in no way
involved in politics up till 1968, but in '70 old Mr. McGoogan was
gardening in the backyard. He stuck his head around the back of the house.
Pphh-tkk. He got his head shot off. Since then Mrs. McGoogan and the
McGoogan sons have been terribly active in the community, and you really
ought to live with them." Now, it's true, there are an awful lot of
people who have had their heads shot off, but I cruelly call such a family
a "soft-sell family." They have a story, and it's a true story
and a tragedy. But after five minutes of telling that tragedy, where do
you go from there? I have nothing against the many McGoogans in Northern
Ireland. And, you know, God speed them. But they were not the family I
wanted. So I began to develop other criteria. They had to be working
class. They had to live in what is conventionally called a "beleagured
area." They had to be caught in the dilemma of working out,
day-by-day, certain moral and political decisions without the accelerating
advantage of having been interned or having been shot, which sort of (pphh-tkk)
makes your mind up. I was interested in these problems of dealing with
daily life, and if I could actually project the daily struggles to that
Liverpool family I would be getting somewhere. Same on the Protestant side
except more difficult, because they have always been in the majority and
regard the state as theirs.
RS: That makes a lot of things about the tapes very clear and much
more interesting in retrospect. Why, for instance, if you were so
sensitive to these kinds of issues, couldn't you have given me that kind
of information somewhere in the tape?
S: Yes. This is a problem. We don't need to spend long over this for we
haven't yet resolved it. Don't forget, the tapes you saw are only a
rough-cut and not for widespread distribution. I brought them to America
because they were available. [Eds. note: everybody in half-inch says this
and it's believable.] They were the tapes the families saw of themselves
though we now have more material of them reacting which explains some of
your confusions. In other words, I would go along with the videotape
movement to some extent that making tapes like these is not a one-product
event. There's a lot more to come. And there's a lot of time one would
have to spend in Belfast to get through to that area that you're talking
RS: deedee says she's through. She doesn't want to go on and do a
series. She thinks the tapes can stand as they are; she wants to move on
to other things. You don't?
S: I don't...
RS: We don't think the tapes can stand in themselves.
S: Okay. So now we come to the central question of the methodology:
what is it? There's very little video work going on in Britain, so I
didn't have any of that ideology to deal with. I mean, I wasn't worried
"Is this process or is this product?" But there were people
around--ciné-vérité documentary and ethnographic filmmakers--who were
interested in what I was doing. And, given that I was going to spend a lot
of the National Film School money, I had to convince professionals about
my methodology of co-production. The first objection they had was that I
was going to show the families the videotapes of themselves as we were
shooting. The professionals objected: "They'll start acting. You
won't get the authentic material." I tried to explain I'm really
interested in their performance, in what they want to project. So that's
not a problem. We got over that straightaway. Secondly, they objected:
"You're going to give them the veto over the material? Uhhh-oooh!"
I said, "Exactly. This is what I want to do!" They said,
"What!! This is.. you're a filmmaker (sputter, sputter)." To
people who have been reading RADICAL SOFTWARE, their arguments are
probably so conservative that they've dismissed them already. But in
Britain, I had to deal with this
"professionalism." I managed, anyway, to get their go-ahead.
RS: Would you say more about what you mean by
"co-production" and your experience of it?
|S: Well, I spoke to the families, I got
their agreement, and we started to talk to them about co-production. We
started off on a very, very light level. Like, I would say to the Catholic
family, who were arguing the very first night I met them: "Look, you
know, if we have a camera around here for a month, a lot of things that
you argue about are going to go into that tape." And Rita got up and
she went to the front door where a pane was missing and said,
"There's a public argument," and she then went to the tv set and
there was a chip out of it, and said, "There's a public
argument." And she went to the fireplace and there was a brick out of
it, and she said, "There's...all our arguments are public anyway. The
camera's going to make no difference." Which is an interesting point.
Of course, co-production also includes the notion of the joint initiation
of shooting. But we found very quickly that this was fairly naive--that
both families were not interested, in the beginning, in telling me
what to shoot, telling me what my schedule was, how to shoot, where to
shoot, or even in using the camera. I would have been delighted if they
had, but they were simply not interested. They were more interested in
their right to veto. Therefore our shooting style was going to be
observational, very little different from ciné vérité. If we went
anywhere, and other people in the community came up and asked what was
being done, the families would point to the Akai machine and say,
"There it is, it's not hidden; and if you don't want us to go on,
we'll stop." I remember in one social club we went into Harry, who's
sort of a local politician and well-respected in the community, would take
us around and say, "Take some shots of those people and those people.
You won't use it, but it's good for public relations." He was very
conscious of the fact that he could show people on playbacks what was
RS: But deedee said they refused throughout the entire process.
S: No, I would say there was progress. On the tapes you see there is
some evidence of their initiation. But let me
explain that, given their initial reluctance, I worked out three shooting
styles: observation, participation, and review and argument. This latter
meant that periodically we would view the observational stuff which, after
all, was our image of them, and they would say whether that image
accurately represented them. So, in other words, review would be the
conflict of our view of them and their view of them. What I did not do is
work out clearly enough what my role in this was, on tape, given that
much of the review would be argument between me and them. How was that
going to be revealed publicly on tape? That was something that only came
much later and is unsatisfactorily worked out in that first month's
shooting. Now, interestingly, and perhaps predictably, whilst the bulk of
the shooting was observational, they did want to direct shooting whenever
a political issue came up, as when the British army wrecked a house during
a search. When the soldiers actually came into the street and searched the
houses, we were not there, because we only had two machines for the two
families, taping simultaneously. The machines broke down every day, and on
that day, we didn't have a machine with the Catholic family. Rita got into
a taxi and came over to where we were like a shot.
"Get in this car and come right over. You spend far too much time
over on the other side. They're living a normal life. It's all happening
over by us." So we got over there straightaway and recorded what
happened, what you see on the tapes. Rita's attitude to the camera crew in
that scene is quite different from her attitude in most of the other
material in that she actually directed the shooting. "Look there!
Look there!" explaining what happened all the while to the camera.
This was a different shooting style--a type not allowed
RS: Yes. But it's not soap opera either.
S: No. It's not soap opera. These were the shooting styles we adopted.
The soap opera thing is the belief that you don't need to explain to
people what is going on if you present them with something they don't
think is a documentary--which they think is a non-fictional or
non-scripted soap opera. In other words, I was very anxious that the
contradictions within people and in their relationships and their
arguments about "Who's a militant? Who' s a moderate? Who's manly
enough in this situation and who isn't?"--that these conflicts would
get the audience so interested in the people that they would learn about
the politics of Northern Ireland as reflected in domestic life.
|RS: We see your point. That's part of
the notion of videotape process, where the audience really has to do most
of the mental work. In the process of figuring things out, they become
very involved and engaged with the people. . . . .
S: Right. I mean, I've seen Irish tapes done by Americans. And without
putting these people down, they tend to build around tracking shots
through barbed wire, soldiers and kids throwing stones, raids on
houses--all the things which may not have been seen in America, but which
have bombarded the screens of British tv viewers for five years. We did
not go out and shoot explosions because they were explosions. We did not
look for raids and cases of army brutality. We did try to follow our
subjects through their parochial drama.
RS: With all that, why didn't you interview--no, I won't use the
word "interview"--why didn't you talk to these people more. When
you knew that things like this were pressing on their minds and feelings,
and weren't coming through in their actions because actions are limited,
why didn't you talk with them? Couldn't you instigate what was there; you
wouldn't be fabricating or forcing feelings that never surfaced before.
S: Well, because I started off with the belief that all that I knew
about them may only be a tiny element of their lives. And if I started off
relying on observational shooting, that material might actually teach me
things that I didn't already know. It was a sort of Flaherty thought
rather than a Grierson thought. If I went in straightaway and talked to
them on-camera, that would dictate the level of all subsequent shooting.
RS: Why didn't you do it later on?
Later on, yes. In fact, we've started to do it a bit more as they've
watched the original material. We've all started to sit round in
groups, look at the material and talk about it. But that comes after. I
didn't want to lose the texture or the richness of their everyday lives
by going in straightaway and dictating the levels of conversation. They
would feel they had to take up a consistent and coherent view about
themselves. And I did not want an artificial coherence; I didn't want
the old ciné-vérité principle of taking thousands of feet of film with
all its inconsistencies and in the cutting room making it perfectly
coherent. I wanted to go for incoherence and the contradictions and to
make them as clear as possible. Given all that, I kept holding myself
back. Probably overmuch in that all these things I'm talking about did
not come over in the original shooting and we will have to talk more
and review the material more to get a lot of these things out.
RS: So, in your editing you avoided a coherent structure. What did
you try to do?
S: We tried to reveal as many levels as possible.
RS: So, it's like a sampling of the incoherence you saw.
S: Yes. For instance, we would cut from one scene to another because of
links in our minds which were not verbal links. We had asked the families
fairly early on whether they wanted the material to be intercut on one
tape or kept separate. Three said they didn't mind intercutting, but Mrs.
Fletcher said, "No! I want it separate. We will lose control over our
story if it's inter cut. " Which is a very sophisticated point of
view. If they do not have control over their material and I transcend it
through juxtaposition, I am imposing things on it. That would have made
things a lot clearer on a verbal level to an audience, but violated their
images of themselves. If a Protestant says something about the Catholic
Church and I immediately cut to a Catholic saying something about the
Church that makes it coherent on one level. But it doesn't allow the
texture of the life style of one family to develop organically on more
levels than just the verbal. So I would cut from scene to scene trying to
build up various clues to people's character. What is really interesting
about people is how they, their history, their relationships with other
people, their personalities, mesh with their views. Now, you're saying to
yourself, "Hell that's video process; that's not soap opera."
|RS: No. I'm thinking that I like
everything that you say you want to include in this method of working.
You've been dissatisfied with both vérité and soap opera, but you're
working out something which pleases you better. But your method lacks
S: ...missing history?
RS: Yes. Their personal histories.
S: The point I'm making is that history should come out in their
behavior or if that fails then it should come out during self-review. The
point is, I shouldn't go in there and say, "Okay, what's your
history?" I should just go in and observe them.
RS: That's a crude way of going for history. I like
what you're doing with letting them review themselves. Could we talk about
the editing process itself. For instance, why did you bring in an outsider
like deedee, who hadn't been there for the shooting, to edit the tapes?
And more generally, why did you impose a kind of semi-studio production
scheme onto the tapes, using a separate editor for something as intimate
5: I can answer this one simply. It's merely a problem of resources. If
you want to tape two families simultaneously, you can't do it yourself. If
you want to be sure that you have some back-up, then you need more than
one person. And exactly the same thing with the editing. I got back from
Belfast with 50 hours of tape. I also had a lot of other things to do. I'm
a human being, too. So I said to the National Film School: "I'm not a
solitary person. I'm not a disciplined person. I don't sit down and work
things out on bits of paper. I'm not going to be able to edit this
material at all unless I have an interested, bright, intelligent person
who will argue with me the whole time." And a friend of mine knew
that deedee was in England, that she wasn't working at anything in
particular, that she might be interested in this material. Fine! So we set
up a relationship where I said to her: "I don't want an editor who
makes tea. Or splices tape to the director's decisions. I want somebody
who will come in every day and tolerate me for six months because they
really like the material, and we'll argue about what we should do with
it." And so, we spent the whole time together in that room, editing.
I didn't say, "I'm the director and you're the editor." But
obviously deedee, who hadn't been in it before, had to think of herself as
something. So, the term "editor" comes out. But I don't think
it's a question of me saying, "Okay. Here's 50 hours of material. I'm
off now; I've got an engagement in Saigon. You get on with it."
RS: Are you going to find another antagonist when you return to work
on the project?
Hopefully. I can't work on my own. This is one of the reasons why the
thing developed with the families. There are certain relationships, in
making films or tapes, which are normally frozen, especially the one
between the filmmaker and the subjects. Once you start unfreezing these
relationships, a whole area of politics begins to emerge, which may be
more fruitful than the actual footage you get. Same with somebody
you're editing with. If you say, "there are no rules here, but let's
argue about this tape," then the politics becomes richer. And that's
how I like to work. I reacted against what I assumed to be the RADICAL
SOFTWARE idea that network tv is authoritarian and fascistic and that
the way to get over this is to give television to the people so that
they can posit their Own image of themselves. Well, that to me seemed
equally authoritarian in one way, because all you're doing is taking tv
from one set of people with one set of fixed ideas to another set of
people. Alright, better that you give it to the People because they've
never had it before and their perspective will be interesting, and God!
why shouldn't they do it? Why shouldn't everybody do it? But when you
give people a camera they tend not to shoot ordinary things they
consider unimportant, like dishwashing or tending to the baby. Instead
they interview one another. People tend to repeat the public
representations. That's not their fault. It's not my fault. No doubt
things will change. But at this stage of the game, that's what tends to
happen. Therefore, I thought it was good that an outsider should be
there, and that some sort of relationship, in which the shooting style
included the possibility of argument about our image of them versus
their image of themselves would actually be locked into the process. I
call this multi-subjectivity. deedee and I worked on exactly the same
principle. There was no deliberate, ideological
|decision that people who shot shouldn't
edit. But you know, who wanted to sit in a room for six months? deedee
did, thank God.
RS: You mentioned earlier that you met Marcel Ophuls who also did a
film on Northern Ireland, A SENSE OF SHAME. Could you tell us about the
S: I was at the Flaherty Seminar. Ophuls arrived there as the major
celebrity because of THE SORROW AND THE PITY. We asked him questions that
he had been asked all over the world by audiences for a year, and he was
very urbane, and very witty, and we all loved him. As the week progressed,
I thought he began to lose his feeling of satisfaction with his place in
the world. I don't know what had been going on in his head beforehand, but
as we watched documentary after documentary, we were soon talking largely
about the limitations of documentary, of ciné-vérité, of naturalism, of
revealing only public areas of life--areas which fiction manages to get
beyond--somehow he began to lose his certainty. He seemed very worried
about showing us his film on Northern Ireland because he was unhappy with
it. Then I met him, and I was just, you know, a jumped-up little guy who'd
been brought over from London, and who had uncut videotape to show at a
famous documentary seminar, where people watch 16 millimeter color movies,
in dark auditoriums. And here was I, showing this uncut videotape, you
see, which nobody could understand, because it was like in a foreign
language. I wouldn't put him down by saying he thought I was a great
threat to him, but it seemed to him that what I was talking about had
something to do with what he was doing. And after
this initial distrust--you know, "who is this cocky guy?"--we
began to develop a little relationship, and it seemed to me that he was
quite eager to know what I was thinking. So by the time his Northern
Ireland film came on, he sat down in front of the audience, and before
anybody could ask a question, he said, "I'm very unhappy with this
film." Which was a funny thing for him to say. We'd just watched two
hours-twenty minutes of it. It was filled with fast cutting and all the
abstraction and context which I excluded. As I watched the film, I began
thinking to myself, "Maybe his method is more effective. Maybe this
cumulative interviewing, whilst I don't like it or the editing, and I
don't like the insistence on public events the whole time, does
tell the audience more. And if you interview endless people, like a
two-hour news bulletin, maybe you're doing something." After the
first hour, though, I knew I was right, because it didn't go any
further than that. And then he said, "I'm very unhappy with this
film," and he sort of turned in my direction and waited my comment.
And my answer to him is fairly simple: "What you have done here is to
give us a richer, more condensed version of what is the already-known
media reality of Northern Ireland. And that media reality is not only
limited, but basically it's insulting. What we have to work out is what
methods of fiction are available to documentary work which will get us
further." And I tried to explain what my methodology is and what I'm
trying to do, and we argued about that at some length. I don't say that
the family is the only vehicle to do this. Maybe a profile of one person
would take us further. But one has to try to find vehicles to get in under
the public level. And that is why I said to him, " I 'm dissatisfied
with your film." And he agreed. So we came to a
kind of modus vivendi at that point. And I thought that was quite
useful. I mean, given the resources that he has, and his experience, I'd
be interested to see now what he does. Maybe he'll come up with something
that'll take me further in this type of inquiry.
So this is my concern. This is what I'm trying to get on about. But how
many years do I spend in this situation? We've already spent a year. The whole thing is
fantastically rich and we're just beginning to tap it. The reactions that
the two families had when they saw their own material, when they saw each
other's material, when they talked to each other for the first time were
fascinating stuff! Much more tape needs to be edited there. We must go
back to Belfast and show the tapes publicly, in small groups, large
groups, over the air, in church halls. People could actually work out what
image of themselves they want to present against the image of themselves
that they see presented by the media. This is a five year exercise. I
mean, what do I do in this situation? How far do I take it? And so, this
is how people drift in and drift out, and shoot this, and then shoot
something else, and edit this and edit that.
RS: Most people aren't willing to stay with a situation
until it's exhausted.
|S: Well, it's never exhausted. That is the
RS: But it can be. You have to stay with it and discover for
yourself the end of the process. Without somebody staying, it might never
S: Shall we get a cab? I have to fly to New York.
RS: What do you mean by "soap opera editing"?
DEEDEE: What it means is editing as close as we can to the ups and
downs of people's lives, which is not to say that one begins in the
morning and ends in the evening. We could also call the style
"self-revealing," which is probably closer to the actual
techniques that we used. In common documentary style, in contrast, one
sets up the subjects, the people, and the environment right off. We didn't
RS: But in most documentaries there is usually a larger frame. I
don't know if you've seen AN AMERICAN FAMILY, but unless you are
especially interested in these people, or imposing some abstractions on
the material, why bother revealing everyday lives?
DD: We derived our theory of soap opera editing--or at least I derived
it--not before the tapes were edited, but from watching them. Both Steve
and I didn't like conventional documentary editing anyhow, and so we were
looking for something else. Particularly we thought
that documentaries like Fred Wiseman's were very alienating, tending to
make you look at people as objects and to laugh at them, or to laugh with
them, but never really to understand what makes them tick.
RS: Let's take what you said apart a bit. I don't know the people in
your tapes and, in looking, I don't feel connected to them when the tape
begins or ends. Films and tapes that "work" for me cause
resonations with my knowledge and imagination of the world. Why can't I
perceive the tapes as you want me to? Or is your perception based on
working with the full 50 hours of tape and so you see much more than is
present in the edited versions?
DD: I wonder. If it were a soap opera, in a weekly time slot, and you
know generally what to expect, how would you relate to it?
RS: Where the raw material is lives recorded only within select time
boundaries--in your case one month--history is missing, and with it the
esoteric meanings, the mental richness of events that people have
integrated into their lives and no longer detail for others. So, unless
you probe for this, the situations you view aren't as rich for you as they
are for the participants. You didn't interview and probe, and thus I don't
experience the tapes as rich in a way authentic to the lives of the
people. I do find them rich but in ways that keep them as objects. I
abstract them and understand them out of my own interest and experiences,
but since I am not Irish or present in their lives, I am certain I don't
understand their true situation or personalities. In viewing your tapes, I
kept waiting for the material to move me towards the correct abstractions,
but it remained for me quite diffuse. I was never certain of the meaning
of what I saw; It was all a limited sample of the surface of their lives,
and unless they happen to volunteer some of their insides, it is just
everyday life, which tends to be very boring.
DD: Well, there certainly can be a case made for Belfast family life
RS: But all family life is boring to outsiders because it is
repetitive and has to do with the tiny tasks of getting through a day.
|DD: But let me bring it specifically down to
the tapes we did. My primary consideration was to make tapes that the
families wanted made, but also tapes that Steve and I would be happy with.
We weren't thinking very much about the audience. We weren't trying for
objectivity, but for multi-subjectivity.
RE: And this is what you call soap opera editing? When I first heard
you say that, I thought you meant real life infused with drama where, for
instance, small looks contain the entire
meaning of a failing marriage.
DD: That enters into the actual style of editing. We weren't going for
any absolute political kinds of statements about Northern Ireland unless
it was revealed by the families. I've seen too many documentaries on
Northern Ireland, and have been turned off by them, because they tried to
impose the filmmaker's politics on the situation. We attempted to take a
very media-hot situation and put it into what we thought was a more
complicated, but a more satisfying, perspective. And that's why we
concentrated on the things that were important to the families rather than
important to us. I think that the situation in Belfast produces certain
kinds of political awarenesses and immediacies that don't exist in certain
working class areas of the U.S. or England. No matter what they are doing,
everybody in Northern Ireland is thinking about the troubles all the time,
and so it permeates their lives. And the original intention of the tapes
was to reveal how family life, how everyday life, is affected. Definitely
there is a cross-effect of politics on everyday lives. So, to that extent,
there is politics involved in it. But it is purely politics from the
viewpoint of the people in the families. Hopefully people will
watch the tapes and catch this fairly subtle point: that politics and
family life are the same thing. It is hard to make people in America. see
parallels, but in Belfast, things have been hyperbolated to such an extent
that the parallel is very obvious. Whether or not they go out to the
bakery in the morning to get bread is determined by the political
RS: But nobody articulates that in the tapes. That realization you
leave entirely to the audience.
DD: Sure. Sure. That is possibly one of the points we weren't able to
make. I have a great dislike for interviewing people
in this kind of situation. I feel the things they reveal themselves are
much richer than what Steve or I could force out of them. For example, in
their arguments, Rita and Jimmy reveal more about their relationship,
personalities, political ideas, their whole lives than anything any clever
questions could evoke. If I didn't give the audience
Rita's exact ideas about the IRA, which are very complicated,
and people may wonder about them; well, I'm really sorry, but I think I
have given them something else. The expectations of audiences are
something I have been interested in. But quite honestly, in the final
analysis, I have had to disregard them because people's expectations are
so different. For example, people have seen our tapes and said that they
have gotten a great insight into these lives. Others have seen the tapes
and said they are British propaganda. So, comment has run the whole
spectrum. It is so difficult trying to figure out how much you are giving
people and what in fact you are giving people. But you are limited to the
material you have, and in many cases we missed things, as in every
documentary. And it wasn't ever possible to reshoot in Belfast for
economic as well as personal reasons. Fifty hours sounds like a lot of
material, and it certainly is, but much of it is repetitious and a lot of
it is much more poorly shot than what you saw. In fact, most of it is
abominably shot, which I really can't defend. Some material is priceless,
but due to technical problems it couldn't be fixed. Some we left because
we thought the content was so good. I'm not making excuses; I'm just
pointing out the limitations. There are so many devices that filmmakers
use to explicate and allow an audience to get into people: voice-over,
sub-titles, title cards, narration. I've never seen any I've been
completely happy with. I'm not a purist saying everything must be in sync.
We did use voice-over, but grudgingly, and then only the people themselves
talking about the actual events.
RS: Why did you use voice-over so grudgingly? It does tend to be an
|DD: In voice-over, you are stylistically
moving your audience onto a different plane. It didn't happen in the
Fletcher tape with the suddenness that I thought it would, but I've seen
it before and experienced it as too abrupt. I can't argue with the
ethnographic purity of this technique. It just jars with the rest of the
material, and has nothing to do with believability.
RS: Did you ever use projective interpretations, where you show the
subjects the material and shoot them while they're commenting on
themselves? That technique sometimes gets you the abstractions you want
and that you feel are authentic. During an interaction, a person is
unlikely to turn to the camera and abstract the action for you, but he can
certainly do it later.
DD: We did that the weekend we brought the families over from Belfast.
RS: Did you get anything that was usable?
DD: Yeah, and we will eventually edit it in; we just didn't have time
to get it into the rough cut. We have used that technique, but quite
honestly, it was pretty boring. I mean, the families didn't do anything
outside of a couple of bits.
RS: Wouldn't they generalize?
DD: They were watching as though it were home movies, and it was
"Oh, yeah, I remember then; it was really a great day," or
"you were pretty drunk that night." I think when you are dealing
with ordinary people, like the Fletchers and the McGourans, you tend not
to get masterful intellectual insights. They are not particularly
interested in the sophistications of video editing or self-analysis.
Certainly, in a situation like psychotherapy you're going to get analysis
right off, but that's not what we were going for. If they did that
spontaneously, in their own way, that was fine, great! Definitely I would
have been very happy. I certainly wouldn't force them to do it. People
feel they don't have to make things explicit, and we didn't impinge on
that, which is one of the major stumbling blocks of the tapes, and there
is no question about that.
RS: Did you have any political interest in working on the tapes?
DD: Yes, my interest was political, but I didn't say, "I'm going
to try not to impose my politics" and I didn't say, "I'm going
to impose my politics." I just edited, and read five to ten books a
week on Irish history and Northern Ireland. I wasn't trying to politicize
others but to politically educate myself.
RS: Could you have educated yourself without making this tape?
DD: No, I don't think so.
RS: You weren't even there, though; you just edited somebody else's
DD: I did go to Belfast and meet the families. But watching many hours
of tape over and over and over again to get every nuance and every bit of
the interaction and every bit of the situation, and then talking to the
crew and Steve for hours and hours, I got a pretty good idea of what life
is like there.
RS: But without those books would what you heard make any political
DD: Oh, sure. The two are intertwined. If I had just read books on
Northern Ireland I would have been in the left field of political
RS: Yes, but how about all those people who watch the tapes without
having read as much? Would they come away with anything besides a sense
that politics is very important to these two families? Do you think you
will link the families with the larger social scene in some later version
of the tapes?
|DD: In some cases; but there's always the
problem of people not knowing anything about Northern Ireland. If we had
the money or if people had the endurance to watch 4-1/2 hours of tape, we
could have made the subtleties clearer. It depends on what you bring or
what answers you're after. If you had watched the tapes at the showing
like the woman from Ireland there, you would have no political questions;
she knew what these people were talking about. If you come from that angle
the tapes are easy as hell. They certainly aren't self-contained and I'm
sorry you couldn't make more political sense from them.
RS: Then with with these tapes, the center finds itself. You enter
the sphere of the tapes merely by understanding what is there.
DD: Yeah. For instance, it took me three weeks of working every single
day until I understood the accents well enough, until I felt competent
enough to even pick out shots. So I'm amazed that people laugh at the
jokes. And I mean in American audiences. But I said quite early on in the
game to Steve that we can't sit and worry whether people were going to
figure it out or not all the time. We used to drag people in from the Film
School and throw a bunch of scenes at them and say, "What
happened?" And if 60% fairly much understood what Rita was talking
about, it was good enough for me. And that's the basis we worked on. I
don't bother seeking a universal audience.
RS: But there is a risk in the kind of structure you used. Obviously
you are willing to risk that the material might fail or might not work
perfectly in ways you want.
DD: I'm not against structuring, but each group of materials that you
work with dictates its own structure. Next time I may make a real
classical documentary if I find that the material dictates it. I don't
disregard any techniques.
RS: Many people in video are committed to avoiding certain
techniques under all circumstances and the commitment stems from a notion,
as far as I can make out, that you find your community by finding your
audience. This supposedly holds because each tape is a personal expression
and good people appreciate life when it is untransformed on behalf of
other values represented by editing, narration, or intellectual
abstraction. If it is life, it is interesting in the way that John Cage
said, "I looked for something irrelevant and couldn't find it."
Have you heard this argument?
DD: Yeah, but I don't agree with it. First of all I think it's a very
dangerous idea to say that people that like me will like my tapes or vice
versa. I mean, a lot of real assholes make great movies, and a lot of
really nice people make abominable movies, books, paintings, whatever.
RS: But have you done anything to interfere with the lives as played
DD: Oh, sure, I've edited the tapes. But there are different levels of
imposing yourself on tape. There's crude editing. An example is the way
most Viet Nam footage is edited: you know, bayoneting a baby and cut to a
shot of Nixon eating dinner. Of course, I try to get away from that
because I find it boring, annoying and superficial. But we did try to give
our tapes an architecture. If you remember, at the end of the Catholic
tape we have the soldiers question the credentials of the camerawoman, and
the last thing the soldier says is, "If we can be of any further
assistance to you... " We then cut almost immediately to a scene
where soldiers had wrecked somebody's house. The director of the Film
School violently objected to that juxtaposition. He said we were imposing
our politics and blah, blah, blah...But getting back to what you said
about all life being valid: I think it is a very nice sentiment, but only
a sentiment. And I think unfortunately it is interpreted in a very liberal
way--that everybody is really great and terrific and you should watch
RS: You are hoping to get the tapes shown on BBC?
DD: Yeah, but that's because we feel life in Northern Ireland has been
poorly reported, not because we think that the tapes will suddenly capture
the hearts of the English. We don't have any delusions about that.
|RS: Do you use your work as a way to find
your own community?
DD: You see, I don't buy the idea of "my own community". I
find certain people as I go along in life who I can identify with and who
I can work with, but I don't identify them as a community, because to me
community is intimacy. My community consists of people I would want
to work and live with. And I don't see myself succeeding in doing that now.
RS: Changing topics a bit, let me ask if after seeing your finished
tapes many times something happened to you that happens to me. The only
time for me that the material is vividly real is during the editing
process. The only time that I fully understand every moment and feel
myself to be fully into the center of the events is during the
construction of the final tape. During showings I am bored, mainly because
I have exhausted the material for myself. I was wondering if you feel any
DD: While editing, Steve and I would say we would never get tired of
our material. But in fact the first time we showed it in America I just
about fell asleep, walked out; it was really driving me crazy. I couldn't
wait until it was all over. After showing it now five or six times, I find
my interest depends upon the audience I'm watching it with, the
atmosphere, my mood, and how tired I am. There are certain scenes in the
tapes that I don't like, that I've never liked. If I have to watch that
discussion with the nun in that school one more time, I'm going to go
right through the wall. So I'm still going through a change with it, but I
definitely know how you feel. As far as getting something new out of it,
that rarely happens anymore.
RS: Do you think the type of tape you make is part of a new
vocabulary, different from ciné-vérité? Do you think the main burden for
understanding is now on the audience because the editing structure will no
longer guide them to any single reality?
DD: We were trying to tell a story in the tapes.
RS: Yes, but a story that always has another chapter.
As is, they aren't bounded except by the tape running out.
DD: True, but this gets into a recent event. After Steve showed the
tapes at Boston College, he came back and said, "I've just completely
re-thought the whole thing and I've decided we have to continue with these
families." He said that we had established rapport with them and
since they've gotten used to the camera and other plastic aspects of
shooting, we've got to continue. My reply is that I'm not interested in
continuing. We have gotten as much out of it as we can. In fact, they have
gotten as much out of it as they can. I even wonder whether they would
want to do it. But it really hit him that he had to continue and maybe do
a real soap opera.
RS: Now, let's talk a bit about the methodology you used. You are
seemingly trying to get away from brutal ways of dealing with people,
almost in a technique of friendship.
DD: It wasn't intentionally to make friends with them. The original
intention was co-production which, in its ideal sense, means that the crew
and families initiate shooting. In fact, this didn't happen.
RS: What have you learned about the ethic of co-production? What
particular disabilities are involved in working this way?
DD: Well, I'm not sure about the ethic involved.
RS: There are certain things you wouldn't do, and there are certain
things that you felt obligated to do, and there are certain values you are
committed to. For instance, even knowing the families might never see the
tapes again, you still wouldn't sneak into a final edit material they
didn't want in.
DD: Oh well, that. For me that isn't a particular ethic of taping. I
mean, I just would not do it. I do think that in the case of this kind of
shooting you have to be more
|conscious of the personalities of the crew
members. In the case of conventional documentary shooting all you really
have to worry about is whether a person can operate a camera properly or
take sound well, but you don't have to worry about their politics because
if they're professional, they'll shoot what they're told. I think a lot of
pre-production work has to be done which, in our case for various reasons,
RS: What wasn't done?
DD: Just the crew discussing with the families in great long boring
detail what co-production means. Except for Barry, I don't think the
families were very aware of what co-production meant. Jimmy always used to
say, "Steve, what are you really after?" And Steve would say,
"I'm after revealing your lives," which didn't mean shit to
RS: What do you mean by co-production? What would you say if you
were giving the rap to people about to be taped?
DD: I would say that it means involving the crew and the families in a
joint effort to make a tape. The crew is there to do the shooting most of
the time, but the families should initiate most of the shooting. The
proportion should be determined not by political sophistication but by the
personalities of the people involved.
RS: We tried in all our community projects to co-produce in roughly
the ways you have talked about, but we were told over and over to
"shoot everything, just be here when something is going on. "
And something was always going on. When it came time to edit and we asked
for help and/or direction we were told we had been there long enough to
know the scene and that they didn't have the time. After we finished
editing they asked that certain things be excised and we did. That's what
co-production amounted to. But there is another possibility, and that is
engaging with people while the camera is on. To talk to people, you don't
have to have a filmic goal in mind. Talking with people isn't a formal
interview unless one or both people feel that the rules governing
interviewing are operative. Why not act as you would act if you didn't
have a camera and were a guest trying to come closer to the families?
DD: Steve just wanted them to portray their own lives. He was not part
of their community, not part of their everyday lives, even though in the
situation his confronting Harry would have been perfectly logical.
Intervention would have been a stylistic jar to the rest of the tape. It's
funny though. Steve appears a whole lot in the Protestant tape and it
doesn't bother me. It used to bother me whenever he was there because I
kept thinking, "I know that he really isn't supposed to be
there," but after a while I thought to myself, "he's not wearing
a sign saying 'I'm a filmmaker'." He was only sitting next to a
couple of people on the couch chatting. So, big deal.
RS: Your reservations are out of the film ethic--this matter of being
present only as a shadow rather than as a full interactor. The current
videotape ethic is to not hide.
DD: Being visible isn't part of the tapes we made.
RS: We know that, but do you see it as part of a viable working
DD: Well, not for me personally, but I wouldn't say no for other
people. Part of my interest also is in fiction film; I'm not a video
freak. I'm not interested in video for its own sake. I'm interested in it
mostly as a political tool. I'm not particularly interested in problems of
RS: Don't you want to break through to the surfaces below the
surface of life?
DD: Judging from our experience, it will happen by itself. Remember
where Rita and Jimmy have a drunken argument with the radio in the
background? Rita was performing, there's no question about that. But when
Jimmy says to her, "If I had a higher education, I might never have
met you," the camera could have been on the moon. The comment goes
right into her and she's no longer performing. She's really shocked that
he said that. And I think
|that, depending upon the situation, you
don't need other inducements. Why I say it won't work for me is that I'm
much more interested in the fact that somebody is performing in front of
the camera, because their performance tells me what face they want the
world to see. Then I can think, "Well, why does Rita want the world
to see this? Why does Mrs. Fletcher want the world to see that?" To
me that is much more revealing of their personalities and their situation
than saying to Harry, "You're very bigoted; what's this bullshit
about the Catholic conspiracy?"
RS: We use interviewing a great deal in our life history work, but
it's not the short answer, turn-taking format. We use questions to prod
memory. If you merely turn on the camera and wait for the kinds of
information you sense is there, it often doesn't occur. And we think it
doesn't occur because some feelings and thoughts don't have a legitimate
space in everyday talk, which tends to
be limited to banter, chit-chat, business or sports. We feel the true
inner lives of people have only a very limited public space. So through
interviewing, we create an audience--ourselves--and concerns for these
feelings. And we have found that people remember, and keep for themselves
as very important things they would never talk about not because they are
inhibited, but because they don't know how to bring these matters into
conversation. By not doing this type of probing at all you restrict
yourself to a limited range of expression. Don't you feel you missed some
very important components of the inner lives of the families?
RS: Why not?
DD: Because I'm interested in showing what they want to be shown. I'm
not interested in showing the movie inside my head.
RS: No, but what about the movie inside their heads?
DD: Well, if they want that shown, that's fine. I mean, if they wanted
to sit and talk about something other than what they talked about which
was very important to them, it certainly would have been included in the
RS: But since they didn't take an active part in co-producing, and
if you accept that some things under normal conversational and daily
interactive situation won't emerge, then why not stimulate them? Weren't
you really curious about their personal histories?
DD: Yeah, yeah.vérité
RS: But you didn't actively pursue it?
DD: I can't really describe it other than if they didn't want it, if it
didn't come out in an organic spontaneous way, then
it didn't come out. That is the way I am and the way I related to these
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