“Videofreex: The Art of Guerrilla Television,” at SUNY New Paltz’s Dorsky Museum, explored the activities of a ’70s-era New York-based video collective whose members straddled a range of methodologies but were united by a singular enthusiasm. As wide-eyed innovators of a new medium, they saw video technology as a means of transforming passive viewers into active mediators. Since 2000, Video Data Bank, an organization committed to preserving video and media art, has restored hundreds of the thousands of rarely or never before seen Freex works—a cache that made possible not only the Dorsky exhibition but also a 2015 documentary film, Here Come the Videofreex!
The Videofreex collective was founded in 1969, on the heels of the Woodstock music festival, where artist David Cort met would-be journalist Parry Teasdale. Novice CBS producer Don West tapped Cort, Teasdale and Mary “Curtis” Ratcliff (Cort’s partner) to produce a primetime vérité program on ’60s counterculture. In December 1969, the collective—which by then had grown to include members of the CBS production crew—presented the resultant work, titled Subject to Change, to network executives. With effects that would much later become hallmarks of music television, the 90-minute program consisted of gauzy footage of electronic music festivals, alternative schools, political rallies, and rock-and-roll radio stations, as well as close-up off-the-cuff interviews. More of a Happening than a screening, the program’s presentation took place in the group’s Prince Street loft, accompanied by live music. The executives walked out; Don West was fired. Subject to Change never aired, and the Freex, including those then employed by CBS, cut all ties with corporate television.
Independent curator Andrew Ingall’s thematically arranged exhibition—which, in addition to Freex videos, included ephemera, photographs, drawings, prints and publications—opened with excerpts of Subject to Change. Nearby monitors showed footage, left out of the original program, of interviews with activists Abbie Hoffman and Fred Hampton.
The exhibition section “Art Scene and Art Seen” situated the 10-member collective within a larger artistic community concerned with capabilities, such as instantaneous playback, that distinguished video from celluloid film. Artists in this community included Nam June Paik and Joan Jonas and collectives like Raindance and Global Village. While in residence at WNET’s TV Lab, Cort produced an interactive closed-circuit video installation, with composite and mirror effects through which he and fellow Freex Skip Blumberg, Bart Friedman and Ann Woodward created video and photographic works reminiscent of images generated in the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. The Dorsky exhibition featured archival documentation of this project—including its showing in a 1974 exhibition at The Kitchen, “Explorations in the Videospace by David Cort and His Friends”—as well as some of the works Cort and Woodward made using the installation’s technology. In one of Woodward’s photographs, a pair of oversize red lips hovers atop a hairy torso. It is a strong graphic image as well as a potent artifact of the artists’ collaborative process.
At the center of the exhibition, a large map on the wall traced the routes the Freex traveled on their “Media Buses” throughout New York State in their quest to disseminate video equipment and technical know-how to more people. From 1971 until the Freex disbanded in 1978, however, the heart of their activities was Maple Tree Farm in Lanesville, N.Y., where video artists from around the world visited them. The exhibition gave merely a taste of the 258 shows the Freex produced for their pirate television station (the first in the U.S.), Lanesville TV. Some programs on the station focused on local news, while others were send-ups of network television or more unorthodox artistic programming. But whether drawn to citizen journalism, satire or formal experimentation, the Videofreex seem to have agreed on one point: the most interesting aspect of video is its capacity to allow everyone to take part.