This essay presents an analysis of collaborative artistic groups born in the United States around the turn of the 1960s, using the Raindance experience as a case study. This group proved emblematic for the dissemination of ideas of social change, which it successfully pursued through the establishment of a net of shared intelligence. Points of connection to, and derivations from, the theoretical manifestos of these new forms of creative collaboration may be traced in contemporary works which continue to maintain the practice of representing the subjective condition in contrast to the crisis of the social system through linguistic tools operating on the larger social context.
In the last few years, we have been witnessing a critical reinterpretation of those artistic movements maybe too hastily labeled as alternative, thus limiting their area of intervention to the underground artistic scene, especially that of New York, where group studio experiences grew in number and spread. These were “from the roots up” modes of production born from the need for a concrete democratization of production resources in opposition to the commercial reasoning that was taking over the cultural market. Instead, what seems to emerge is a strong link between communities such as these—the first to creatively employ new technological tools, with videotape in the lead—and contemporary practices. And as one observes the works of the Madrilenian collective, Democracia, or the production of the American artist Ashley Hunt, one comes across that same leitmotiv, leading to practices set as far apart aesthetically as they are close on a conceptual plane. Balancing between the clear critical message in relation to social injustice and the linguistic choice of the video as a witness, a witness that made its appearance in a sensitive historical moment and immediately qualified itself as a tool for the representation of social change. What Ashley Hunt’s and Democracia’s works share with the first video artists, especially the first American video artists, is the aptitude in using language as a political element, remote from any didactic operation, placing it side by side with a practice that does not restrict itself to the finished work but actually goes to intervene on its surroundings.
The roots of this commixture lead us to take a step back in time to pinpoint what Paul Ryan defined “the genealogy of video,” the history of VT as a medium for social change: a declaration which is certainly Utopian, but which profoundly influenced a whole generation of artists trying an alternative to the commercial market in which only part of the community was actually represented.1 The year 1968 was just passing and on the turn of the decade, with the economic boom in full swing, the analysis of social change survives as the main source of interest for those artistic practices which, having dealt with the struggles for civil rights and against the United State’s involvement in Vietnam, at that point supported the cause of a new participative democracy, underlining the need for the ontological rethinking of the artist’s role toward the structure of the State. In the time of the greatest buildup of tension and just before the social system collapsed on itself with the change to a harsher penal policy for the lower classes on the social ladder, Raindance, DCTV (Downtown Community Television Center) and Colab came into being. They were autonomous artistic collectives aspiring to define a possible cultural democratization, independent of the system, through new media—especially videotape. In the 1967, during the shared atmosphere of bitter disappointment for the choices which defined American politics in 1960s, the PortaPak camcorder forced its way onto the market. It was hailed as a lucky technological coincidence that would be capable of forging a new artistic conscience born from those counter-culture movements that had learned their lesson in the previous years: documenting and giving information was no longer enough, what needed to be achieved was the creation of the conditions for extended and transverse media access. Although the sincerely optimistic vision which saluted VT as the new device able to free communication from the hierarchical constrictions of the “old” information system might today appear anachronistically naïve, one must think back to the sensitive feeling of cultural identity belonging to this generation of artists disillusioned with internal policies and alienated by the military supremacy, of which they continued to strongly oppose.
On these premises, in the summer of 1969 Frank Gillette, an artist and radical media activist influenced by the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Gregory Bateson, founded the Raindance Corporation. Part of the name was borrowed from the Rand Corporation (Research ANd Development), the consultancy think tank for the US government and industry founded by the Department of Defense in 1948, with the aim of contributing to the improvement of welfare and national security. Thus, the name plays ironically on the social role occupied by the governmental organization and, at the same time, clears the position that the collective intended to hold in relation to contemporary cultural production. On the lively scene of the Lower East Side, where in the short span of a few years the experiences with group studios and collaborative artistic groups multiplied, the Raindance story was certainly emblematic for the spread of the new ideas of social change which it managed to further through the creation of a connecting net of shared intelligences. The core’s founding collective, made up of Gillette with Ira Schneider, already an experimental filmmaker; Paul Ryan, one of McLuhan’s students, and Michael Shamberg, set to work on a series of works that clearly identify the critical target to hit2, regarding the PortaPak as the tool most suited to the project of new social change, capable of documenting the reality of people on the street without the filter of fictional representation. However, Raindance’s most important contribution is today recognized as the creation of a productive and informative selfmanaged system: Paul Ryan, as a consultant for the New York State Council on the Arts, succeeded through the NYSCA Film Department in supplying substantial technical equipment for the individual productions by the group members but also, most importantly, for independent videographers. From this experience, the group constituted itself as a not-for-profit organization, and in the spring of 1970 brought the Center for Decentralized Television to life, as a funding and fair distribution of resources programme for the young New York video community.
The dialogic needs to open up beyond the island. The desire to define the theories on the medium at the heart of the collective’s activities and make them accessible, led Frank Gillette, Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny to found the journal Radical Software in the summer of 1970. As the years passed, it became a vitally important technical and theoretical reference point for video-makers, as well as an important mirror for the comprehension of the cultural context that accompanied the evolution and exchange processes among the protagonists of the golden age of American VT. In the June editorial published in the journal’s first issue—along with essays by Gene Youngblood, Buckminster Fuller, Nam June Paik and Aldo Tambellini—the editors Korot and Gershuny lashed out against the corporate control of television, pointing out how the reasons for the lack of correct social representation and the restrictions on democratic access to contents lay in the relationship between power and control of information by a small elite group. Faithful to the motto VT is not TV, they declared: “unless we design and implement alternate information structures which transcend and reconfigure the existing ones, our alternate systems and lifestyles will be no more than products of the existing process.”3 The theoretical basis for these ideas rests upon a concept which is as simple as it is subversive: there is no need to build a new machine (social or cultural), but the instructions now used for the way it is operated need to be changed; there is no need to build a piece of radical hardware, but rather a piece of radical software; not only “the representation of rights and information documentation”, but also the building of a new autonomous paradigm that would reorganize sociocultural rules. A derivation from Marcuse’s ideas4 of individual liberation through art shines through in their writing, but the raindancers considered social pressure weighing down on the individual as a limitation that, from being impossible to overcome, needed to be transformed into a conscious awareness for the reorganization of collective principles.
Creative practice was thus joined by an “on the field” practice, which answers the need for the decentralization of cultural resources. It must be underlined that the inadequacy of the social state found valid representations in many artists in the 1960s; in particular, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary production is worthy of mention. From his first film, Titicut Follies (1967), to the more recent Domestic Violence 2 (2002) and passing through Welfare (1975), Hospital (1969), High School (1968),5 he has been exploring American institutions and social systems with a gaze which is openly non-ideological, focusing attention on the subjects and on their interaction with State organizations for communities. Colab and DCTV were also mentioned; they represented organizations, which differed greatly in mission and structure: Colab is closer to Raindance’s policy, although it constituted an independent entity. Within it, artists found forms of production that the group financed through fundraising activities. The manifesto reads:
We are functioning as a group of artists with complementary resources and skills providing a solid ground for collaborative work directed to the needs of the community-at-large. Specifically we are involved in programs facilitating development, production, and distribution of collaborative works. These works are realized in various media including film and video for distribution and cable-cast, and live cable TV broadcasts, as well as other more conventional art media such as graphics and printed materials.6
The famous exhibitions, The Times Square Show (1980) and The Manifesto Show (1979), the publication of the X Motion Picture Magazine and the production of the Potato Wolf artists’ TV series were all independently financed, meeting with immediate success and attracting the attention of the artistic establishment, to the point that around the end of the 1990s Colab was acquired by Popdetail Incorporated. With a different approach, the Downtown Community Television Centre, which focused on the production of quality documentaries, supported an intense educational training for VT neophytes geared especially towards the weaker social groups. It was this service, in particular, which allowed the centre to become a reference point for the community which is still active today.
It is fundamental to remember how a large part of the artistic communities of the 1970s were able to grow through grants and funding coming from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts and the previously cited NYSCA, where the growing aesthetic consensus amongst the professionals for these “grassroots” art forms clashed with the need to create works of greater complexity requiring a larger financial investment. Therefore, very often activities which were purely artistic, founded on the search for new forms of representation with mixed media, were placed side by side with works created “on commission”, which however remained faithful to the artists’ poetic inclinations. It was the case of Aldo Tambellini, a pioneer in experimentation and founder of the Group Centre and Black Gate Theatre, who in 1969 transformed Raindance’s ideas into reality by bringing the Porta-Pak into schools. This was the first institutional project which saw VT as an educational tool for children. It was funded by the State’s Division of Humanities of Albany programme and replicated the following year at Harlem’s Public School 161, in a context where the daily difficulty that children confronted in their interaction with the complex system surrounding them was tackled from an original point of view, free of the intercession of an authorial political statement. Starting with the telling of small personal stories, the children filmed their family environments, the neighbourhood streets, the people, shops, restaurants and all those places that representing their lives outside school, in a sincere and courageous documentation of extremely high quality, which would sometimes bring to light an unexpected and amused gaze on institutions.
If, as we have seen, Korot and Gershuny understood the unavoidable need for an access apparatus to be an objective fact, as well as the redistribution of cultural rights to be rethought in its regulation—leaving its shape intact but diversifying its rules—then a limit in Raindance’s politics may be seen in its utopian vision of the potential organic transformations of the power of information. In terms of a structural analysis, the discovery of strong resemblances between the Social Apparatus and Autonomous Apparatus cannot be avoided. These resemblances may represent the cause and the partial limitation, which led collective experiences to survive for a decade and then to either end their critical path or to flow into structures contiguous with the commercialization of art. This is not to be seen as a defeat of the theories of cultural democratization upon which the activities of independent groups are founded, but rather as a difficulty in breaking out of the rigidity typical of every control apparatus, as Foucault stated in the conversation The Confession of the Flash. In this interview, he underlined how strong the link between the apparatus and the power game is and, at the same time, how both are tied to the limitations of knowledge: to a certain extent, they derive from the apparatus while conditioning it in the same measure. Thus it is that the apparatus is made up of a sum of strategies and balances of power that condition knowledge while at the same time being conditioned.7
Under the lens of Foucault’s analysis the apparatus’ strategic function emerges. It can be seen as a manipulation—though aiming at social advantage—of the balance of forces that condition the creation of contents. Therefore both systems, in very different ways, attempt to produce an objectification for the user through democratic access based upon preventive requirements. And it is precisely such preventive requirements, which go to create a distance between those who can benefit and those who are excluded. In the case of the state apparatus this refers to individual placing on the social ladder; in the case of independent collective groups this refers to an ideological adhesion and a wellformed intellectual and artistic awareness.
Conscious that the first independent groups’ fundamental and radical experience had showed a path to be followed, but also a necessary pragmatic reformulation, the artists belonging to the new generation of critics—such as Michael Shamberg’s TVTV, Videofreex and AntFarm—collect the utopias and missed aims to convert them into other representational forms. However, the malfunctioning and precarious access to the structures at the foundation of the social system remain at the centre of the debate, while the salient points are now the mediatisation of civil issues, the overload of unilateral and incomplete information and the resulting representational dematerialization benefiting an evermore widespread communication of that which is ephemeral. The playing field remains the same, but if the artistic system joins the value of the work hand in hand with the importance of efficient communication for its promotion and recognition, then the artists answer with new strategies that include wide attention to the world of information and make the tools of new advertising techniques their own, upturning their contents. The principle does not disappear; it is attuned and enriched, strong of its new awareness that sees the educational element as being strongly linked to the completion of the work itself. It is not by chance that the organizations surviving still today had pinpointed in the pedagogical practice a form of compromise between artistic practice and social redemption since, as Paik wrote, “what is most educational is most aesthetic and what is most aesthetic is most educational.”8
- 1. The genealogy of video is a history of the struggle between the drive to use video as a tool of social change and the drive to use video as a medium of art. Specifically, this version deals with video in New York City from 1968 to 1971. I settle on the term “drive” because during that period there were no clearly defined factions of art versus social change. There were videomakers who thought of themselves as artists andsaw their work as promulgating social change, and there were videomakers working for social change who considered their work artistic. Activity in the video field tended toward one or the other of these diverging poles. Choices could be made according to an agenda of social change, and choices could be made that individuated oneself as an artist. As a participant/observer, I entered the fray with a bias toward using video as a tool of social change”. Paul Ryan, Genealogy of Video, 2001, p. 1, in www.vasulka. org. See also: Paul Ryan, Video Mind, Earth Mind (New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 1993).
- 2. The best-known works by Raindance include: Interview with Buckminster Fuller (1970), The Rays (1970), As Long As You’re Up (1971), Raindance: Media Primers (1970–71). In their years of activity, the artists have produced their works signing them individually. For this reason, we refer the reader to the artists’ individual biographies.
- 3. Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny, Table of Contents, Radical Software (New York, 1970), p. 1; in Chris Hill, Attention! Production! Audience!—Performing Video in Its First Decade, now accessible at www.bavc.org.
- 4. See the essay by Dan Ross, footnote 2.
- 5. For a comprehensive list of the many films by Frederick Wiseman concerning the subject we refer the reader to the artists’ complete filmography.
- 6. Colab Manifesto, collaborativeprojectsarchive.com.
- 7. Michel Foucault, The Confession of the Flash, in: Michel Foucault and Colin Gordon, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–77 (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980).
- 8. Nam June Paik paraphrases Hegel in “Expanded Education for the Paperless Society” in the first issue of Radical Software (New York, 1970), p. 8.