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Amodern 2: Network Archaeology

HALF-INCH REVOLUTION

The Guerilla Video Tape Network

Kris Paulsen

In the mid-1960s the stage seemed set for a revolution in television. Sony had just released the first low-cost, consumer model video cameras, the CV-2000 (1965) and the portable, battery operated Portapak CV-2400 (1967). The tools for making video content were suddenly in the hands of average people. Up until this point, video production had been the sole province of television corporations. By the end of the decade, there also appeared to be an outlet for the new tapes. In 1969, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that the newly expanding cable television systems provide free facilities and airtime for community members.1 The pairing of consumer equipment and the possibility of cable television distribution catalyzed the independent video movement and brought “guerrilla television” into American homes. Guerrilla television collectives, such as Raindance, TVTV, and Videofreex, produced videotapes that documented the tumultuous political and social atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Several of the thousands of tapes the groups recorded made it on to the air and injected alternative culture and leftwing politics into mainstream TV.2 “As guerrilla television,” Deirdre Boyle writes, “underground video emerged above ground, determined to challenge the hegemony of broadcast TV.”3 In this essay I will argue that television broadcasts and cablecasts were merely the “aboveground” operations of an underground network: the artists devised a shadow distribution network built on half-inch videotape and the US Postal Service that aimed to circumvent the broadcast and cable television systems. Despite its name and the prominence of televised work in the critical histories of the movement, guerrilla “television” typically circulated on cassette tapes not “on the air.” Rather than only aiming to appear on TV, the guerrilla television collectives also sought “alternative channels” for distributing their work that would offer users not only access to a different kind of content than standard TV, but also put them in direct contact with the media and other users through a decentralized exchange network. The tape reimagined how “television” might be produced, distributed, and consumed all without engaging with conventional TV.

Discussion of the half-inch tape exchange network, however, is largely absent from the histories of guerrilla television.4 Most accounts of guerrilla television focus on the moments when guerrilla videos appeared on broadcast or cable television. Guerrilla videomakers did, indeed, collaborate with conventional, corporate television broadcasters to produce unconventional content, but histories such as these confine the guerrilla television movement to a small set of tapes and practices and imply that making work for television was an easy and frequent occurrence that affected a radical change in the structure of television. This essay excavates the buried half-inch tape network in order to shift the discussion of guerrilla video away from a focus on the politics of aesthetics and content, to consider the politics of production and distribution. In doing so, I call attention to the hostile relationship between television and half-inch tape, and show how the radical “guerrilla” aspects of guerrilla television are found in its use of decentralized and distributed exchange networks, not in the occasional disruptive appearance of countercultural content and experimental aesthetics in the flow of conventional television. It is my hope that an “archaeological” investigation of this network will shed light on the problems and potentials of contemporary online networks of video exchange, and point to how physical media may still hold revolutionary potential in the digital era.

On the Air

While a grassroots video exchange network silently spread underground, guerrilla video appeared aboveground on several exceptional occasions in the early 1970s. The best-known works of guerrilla video are undoubtedly Top Value Television’s (TVTV) coverage of the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years, respectively. In 1972, Michael Shamberg, author of the video manifesto, Guerrilla Television, and founding member of the collective Raindance, brought together a group of videomakers, including members of Raindance, Videofreex and Ant Farm, to form the alternative media juggernaut TVTV. TVTV’s DNC and RNC coverage was bankrolled by advance contracts with 4 cable stations that were eager to get their hands on TVTV’s hip take on the otherwise stale content.5 The tapes were later sold to multiple cable and public television stations, which aired the documentaries throughout the late summer and fall of 1972.6 The programs are exemplary documents of the politics and culture of the early 1970s, as well as the aesthetics of guerrilla video. When The World’s Largest TV Studio aired on New York’s TelePrompTer and Sterling Cable, Richard Reeves of New York Magazine dubbed it “a flawed little masterpiece” and “the best electronic coverage of the Democratic National Convention [he had] seen.”7 Four More Years screened just a few weeks later. It, too, received extensive critical attention after it aired (as well as after its initial, earlier screenings at video theaters), and is firmly ensconced in the annals of video art as the archetypical tape of the guerrilla television movement.8

Critics were quick to notice how the lo-fi portable video equipment had a radical effect on the aesthetics and the politics of TVTV’s news coverage. Videotape emerged in its professional, broadcast-quality forms (2”, 1”, and ¾ inch) beginning in the mid-1950s. Inexpensive, low-fidelity half-inch videotape was first marketed in the mid-1960s to spool through the new consumer model video cameras, such as the Sony Portapaks that TVTV used. Half-inch tape and the cameras that recorded it were significantly different from broadcast cameras and tape. Broadcast cameras were heavy, hulking machines tethered to power cords and wheeled around on dollies; consumer cameras were lightweight and battery operated, which allowed users to roam freely in crowds. Guerrilla television could be recorded anywhere and at any time; cable and network television was confined to studios (or was shot on film at the scene, and later developed and transmitted on television). Television had the exceptional and singular power of going live to a network of millions of homes; video, in contrast, was trapped on tape or confined to its closed-circuit playback monitor. Half-inch tape was also low quality compared to broadcast tape formats. It had only 220 lines of resolution compared to broadcast and cable’s 320.9

The result of these technical differences was programming that looked distinctly different from typical television images. The shift in formal qualities and aesthetics also indicated a shift in politics. Guerrilla tapes were made by artists working as independent producers who felt free to critique the operations of corporate television, even when aired on those very channels. The grainy, hand-held footage instantly indicated a break with the glossy, overproduced, network coverage of the same events. TVTV’s hippy news team mingled with the throngs of reporters and delegates on the floor and shot their tape from within the crowds, rather than looking down upon them. The guerrilla videomakers spent little time recoding the staged events. They were more often in the back rooms, press boxes, in the street protests, and at the after parties. TVTV’s work was fully sanctioned and financially supported by mainstream television outlets, but both the form and the content of TVTV’s tapes signaled that they weren’t indigenous to the medium that transmitted them.

In Feedback: Television Against Democracy (2007), David Joselit argues that TVTV counters and critiques mainstream news by enacting a reversal of typical practices. Rather than taping the “event” or interviewing politicians, as the other newscasters do, TVTV turned their cameras on the other cameramen and journalists. They provided a behind-the-scenes view of the convention that revealed it as such – a series of highly scripted, tightly packaged “conventions” that left little room for reporting. According to Joselit, TVTV’s coverage acted as a “feedback” loop for the television news.10 “Feedback,” here, has two meanings. It can refer to the cybernetic process by which a system (social, biological, ecological, cybernetic, etc.) is modified by the response it produces. Or in reference to electronic equipment, the term can describe the condition that results when the signal output by a system returns back to the input. With a microphone, feedback is typically a high-pitched squeal, and a video camera pointed at its own monitor creates a hall of mirrors or even spiraling electronic patterns. By providing mainstream television with meaningful information (or feedback) about itself for analysis and self-adjustment, guerrilla television could, per Joselit, affect change in the standard structures and practices of mainstream television. The new formats, viewpoints, and aesthetics would change the equilibrium of the system, which would then be forced to adjust its behavior. TVTV’s tapes also acted as a kind of feedback “noise” in the system by emerging as a disturbing and disorienting signal amid the standard coverage. TVTV’s convention coverage, according to Joselit, momentarily made the uni-directional, centralized system of television into a responsive cybernetic system. It signaled to viewers at home that there were other ways of making and presenting news than those produced by the networks.

For Joselit, television distribution was the end goal of guerrilla video. If independently produced content (even if financially supported by cable stations) could find its way on to the air, the system would change and television would become a site of production rather than consumption. Guerrilla television would provide meaningful cybernetic information as well as disorienting noise into what had formerly been a closed system. It is generous to think that content endorsed and produced for television could render such a powerful critique. To see the power of guerrilla television as simply providing new and different material for conventional television (and to assume that by playing it television didn’t immediately recuperate the critique) reduces its political effects to the countercultural content the tapes contained and the amateurish, low-fi aesthetics they popularized. The intervention was structural as well as aesthetic, but it was easily appropriated by the very system it challenged. The programs went out on mainstream TV, and they were hits.11 Four More Years and The World’s Largest TV Studio may have provided momentary institutional critique and introduced vérité journalism to the masses, but they didn’t remedy any of the systemic issues that videomakers encountered with network, cable, and public television.

Joselit’s narrative of how guerrilla videomakers made use of cable television creates a heroic mythology of the movement. In it the videomakers momentarily triumph over conventional TV by selling countercultural content to the very entities it aimed to critique. This is a history of exceptions that obscures the specific importance of half-inch tape and guerrilla television’s antagonism toward mainstream television. Joselit’s narrative overlooks two important facts that emphasize the distinction between half-inch tape and television, and why television was not a viable distribution network for guerrilla video. First, half-inch video, the revolutionary medium that enabled non-corporate entities to make video and caused its radical aesthetics, was not technically compatible with broadcast or cable TV.12 That is, independent videomakers could not just shoot tape and then air it, whether on cable or the networks. Second, showing their work on conventional television (via cable or broadcast) was not guerrilla videomakers’ ultimate goal, and TV was not the only – or ideal – distribution site for guerrilla tapes.13

Tape did not easily become television. The Federal Communication Commission’s vertical blanking requirements, which insured picture quality, prohibited playing half-inch video on television.14 Half-inch tape was considered technically incompatible with broadcast standards. According to Nam June Paik, the vertical blanking rule was “an arbitrary regulation that constituted a de-facto infringement of the First Amendment rights of independent video producers.”15 The vertical blanking requirement made it difficult for individuals using consumer video equipment to put their work on television. This “arbitrary regulation” insured that corporations had complete control over what played on television. To be broadcast or cablecast, video needed to be up to the industry standards, which was impossible with consumer equipment. For guerrilla tapes like The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years to air, the half-inch recordings required expensive, corporate-funded transfers to 1” or 2” broadcast standard tape, or needed to be shot off broadcast-quality playback monitors. In Joselit’s account, cable television seems like an easy and ideal venue for guerrilla video, but the move from half-inch video to cable or broadcast was not easy, it was not common, and it was far from ideal.

Even if guerrilla videomakers could secure broadcast airtime and afford the transferring their video to 1” or 2” tape, network and public television presented obvious drawbacks. Both public and network television were underwritten by sponsors, through advertising or charity foundations, which would not, according to Shamberg, “support information outside their bias.”16 Both systems also forced producers to conform to standardized time slots and formats and to lure in large audiences and secure advertising or sponsorship. Cable television seemed like the appropriate place to screen independent video work, but like broadcast and public television, it had barriers to entry, as well as political and aesthetic drawbacks. Cable providers still controlled what went out on their stations, and videomakers had to use their studios and equipment to ensure transmission standards. By 1975 the point was moot: the FCC withdrew its mandate that stations provide community access and airtime.17

The editors of the guerrilla video journal Radical Software, run by Raindance, were initially enthused about the possibilities of cable as an outlet for their work, but quickly became disenchanted. In a 1972 issue of the journal, they outlined the sobering and frustrating realities of cable access television. In addition to its adherence to the FCC’s vertical blanking requirements, cable television provided inadequate facilities, incompatible or outdated equipment, no live transmission for feedback, no remuneration for content, disinterested technicians and staff, and had “downright shitty transmission.”18 According to Radical Software’s editors, the problems stemmed from the fact that “public access is a service that the cable station has to provide, not one they want to.”19 In Guerrilla Television, Shamberg called for a “radical re-design of [America’s] information structures to incorporate two-way, decentralized inputs” in order to create a system that could truly provide feedback and allow consumers to become producers.20 Consumer video cameras and the half-inch video they contained were the tools of the guerrilla video revolution, but this revolution would not, necessarily, be televised. The real radicality of guerrilla video was in its potential for distribution outside of the broadcast, public, and cable television systems. Tape, because it was easily copied, mailed, and shared enabled an alternative network for distribution that didn’t need corporate endorsement and support. To point to the power of videotape (VT) and its formal and ideological opposition to TV, I will briefly turn my attention to a close analysis of Raindance’s 1970 tape, The Rays, which circulated in the half-inch tape network. This tape is a document that literalizes the tensions between tape and television, and demonstrates the urgent need for alternative exchange networks outside of television transmission. As Joselit points out, it was important for guerrilla videomakers to “feedback” into television to influence its content and aesthetics, but it was just as important that they create a parallel space which was immune to TV’s domineering cultural force.

The Rays

One fine day in 1970, Raindance members Michael Shamberg, Frank Gillette, and Paul Ryan headed out to a Point Reyes beach to make a videotape. They passed a Portapak video camera around, taping each other and talking about what they saw, heard, and felt. A record of the event exists as a tape titled The Rays (1970). For the group, videotaping oneself, rewinding, and reviewing was a minor way of dealing with the total lack of control one had in relationship to mainstream television. “From taping my own self,” Shamberg writes, “I have assimilated the confidence that my value as information is as significant as anything I see on broadcast TV.”21 Writing about the tape in Guerrilla Television, Shamberg described videotaping oneself and friends as a form of “telepathy” or “collective consciousness.”22 Videotape captures a real-time experience of an event and enables participants to immediately re-experience the event through playback and analyze their own behaviors. They could share the tape with others who would then have access to the event in a mediated form. Reviewing and sharing the tape were both kinds of “feedback.” Seeing oneself on the screen, especially instantaneously on the camera’s monitor, completed a cybernetic circuit of information, and sharing the tape was an attempt to place content on television screens that was in response to and in confrontation with corporate content.

The Rays is a significant tape in the guerrilla video cannon because it is an early example of “collective processing,” in which video was used as a mechanism for feedback and self-analysis that Joselit describes. But cybernetic information is not the only kind feedback on the tape. There is also disturbing, image shattering noise, not merely the metaphoric noise Joselit describes in regards to TVTV’s work.23 In The Rays, the group talks about average things – the scenery, the weather, and the girls on the beach. But the conversation centers on something quite unusual: whoever is looking through the camera’s viewfinder can see something more than the landscape in front of him. Radiating, diagonal bands of black roll across the screen from the lower left to the upper right corner.

From the first moments of the recording, Paul Ryan’s talking head is rhythmically disrupted by “the rays.” The graphic waves pull apart the image and uncouple Ryan’s words from the moving form of his mouth. Curiously, the lines are visible through the viewfinder, as if they are a feature of the surrounding physical environment. From the other side of the lens, Frank Gillette says, “These are strange rays, Ryan. Explain these rays.” The rays are, indeed, strange, but they are also quite familiar. They do more than graphically bisect the view and disturb the sound; they pull images – TV images – in their wake. Bullwinkle, the cartoon moose, appears marching left to right over the Northern California landscape.

In the video still, his figure is easy to pick out, but the artists can’t quite see what lies between the lines. Bullwinkle’s friend, Rocky, too, dominates the screen for a brief moment as do the faces of various starlets and spokesmodels.

Station call numbers and weather graphics momentarily rest on the cheeks of the Raindance members, as does the ominous phrase, “the end.” Another parallel, equally co-present world becomes visible through the camera’s lens. The mysterious images are transparent, trembling, and move too quickly. But they have a profound power: they temporarily overcome the camera’s compulsion to record what is in front of its lens, pulling off a technological and existential coup.

The “rays” are not an effect of the recording or the result of a damaged tape. A high-powered television transmitter on the hill above the artists created this paranormal, electromagnetic disturbance. The camera picked up the frequency from the tower and superimposed the two worlds on top of each other. The videomakers laughed at the malfunctioning camera and its psychedelic effects, but the result, and what it signaled, was menacing: it is not easy to escape the influence of mainstream television, even while using video equipment. Pointing the camera at its own monitor would cause electronic feedback by creating a loop between the input and output. This is not what happens in The Rays. The camera and monitor comprise a complete system, one that is – or should – be separate from television broadcasts. But TV, it seems, is not just on the set and screen; it is everywhere: on the air, on one’s body, and, alarmingly, on the tape.

According to the early critic of video David Antin, television is video’s “frightful parent,” and emancipation, Raindance demonstrated, is not an easy operation.24 The familial relationship between VT and TV is particularly deep-rooted and complex. Antin points out that video shares the same technology and essential conditions of production with commercial television, which has provided “almost all of the background viewing experience of the video audience, and even of the video artists. So no matter how different from television the works of individual video artists may be, the television viewing experience dominates the phenomenology of viewing and haunts video exhibitions.”25 Writing in 1975, Antin’s assessment was, undoubtedly, on point. The hours that the average viewer of video had spent in front of the television certainly informed the way that experimental video appeared and how the viewer understood it. This parental influence cannot, however, account for the dominating presence of TV in The Rays. Mainstream television does not merely serve as the frame of reference or “background” for Raindance’s tape; it pushes itself into the foreground, colonizing what was apparently an independent action in a separate medium. The overwhelming force of TV in The Rays is worth dwelling upon. The Rays captures a mysterious and unusual technical glitch, but it also serves as a warning. The videomakers would have to get as far away from television as possible to escape its influence. If television was in the air, they would have to go underground into the grassroots network.26

The Half-Inch Tape Network

“The only true people’s network,” Shamberg writes in Guerrilla Television, “is the mails [sic]. Any medium which can be containerized (i.e., recorded and stored), like videotape and audiotape, and, of course, print on paper, can be mailed and received individually.”27 Shamberg’s manifesto argues for the power of half-inch tape when placed in conjunction with the lo-tech US Postal Service. With these two materials, he and his colleagues created a mail order video network that operated like an underground press. Producers ran off multiple copies of their work, and then sent them to subscribers, who were, in turn, free to share their copies. Consumer video equipment and cassette tapes allowed guerrilla video to exist outside broadcast conventions and the corporate systems of control.

Each issue of Radical Software contained two sections that gave readers access to the tape network: the “Feedback” section listed the contact information and interests of the various videomakers, so that readers might get in touch, and the multi-page “Cultural Data Bank” listed what tapes each group had for sale.

The works advertised in the “Cultural Data Bank” range from “street tapes” of 60s radicals, abstract electronic feedback patterns, campus protests, instructional tapes on how to build geodesic domes, lessons on video camera use and repair, documentation of early exhibitions of video art, as well as taped network broadcasts of the Apollo missions and Nixon’s State of the Union address. Appropriately, Raindance’s confrontation with broadcast TV, The Rays, appears on the list. Alongside the tapes made (or appropriated) by independent guerilla groups are ones produced at PBS artist-in-residence programs, such as Stan VanDerBeek’s complex 2 channel broadcast work, Violence Sonata (1970), made at WGBH-Boston, and the catalogue for the National Center for Experiments in Television (KQED-San Francisco).28 The “Cultural Data Bank” offered a well rounded, if esoteric and left leaning, cross-section of art, news and culture. Through the “Cultural Data Bank” and the “Feedback” sections of Radical Software individuals could access and retrieve information circulating in the tape network. They could program their own television sets so that they were in total control of what appeared on the screen and were safe from the encroachment of advertisements. As Richard Serra put it in his 1973 made-for-television video, Television Delivers People, “The product of television, commercial television, is the audience. Television delivers people to an audience… It is the consumer who is consumed. You are the product of t.v.” The half-inch tape network made sure that its users were producers and informed consumers of television not unwitting products of the system. Serra’s concise analysis of commercial television underscores the political power of restructuring television, rather than simply changing the content. If viewers were being delivered by television corporations to advertisers as products while believing themselves to be active consumers, the tape network short-circuited this system. Radical Software published the information one needed to step away from conventional television and into the tape network. It was just an initial point of contact that gave readers the means to establish direct contact with all of the other nodes in the network.

The groups listed in Radical Software offered their tapes for sale, but the tapes were also available for exchange, a mechanism designed to spread and populate the network. A full-page advertisement on the inside back cover of the Summer 1971 issue of Radical Software announced a “Plug-In Video Tape Network.”29

Readers could send away for hours of video content to “build [their] own TV Network.” They had a choice: they could buy the tapes offered for sale, or they could contribute their own video and get the advertised tapes for free: for every 60 minutes of their own work (or work they possessed that wasn’t already in circulation), they received 60 minutes from the list in return. The grassroots tape network not only offered a different kind of content than its airborne counterparts, it diagramed an entirely different relationship one could have to media, and to the other consumers in the network. Broadcast and cable television were centralized, uni-directional systems that positioned viewers as receivers of information. The half-inch tape network, on the other hand, was a participatory, distributed network in which every node of reception was a potential point of production and distribution.

The revolutionary power of half-inch tape and its easy distribution did not go unnoticed by the broadcasting corporations, who had their own ideas about how consumers should be using videotape. To ensure that tape would not pose a challenge to conventional television, corporations developing video playback devices made design choices intended to prevent consumers from making and playing independently produced tapes. For example, not all videotape playback systems had record modes or played the half-inch tape that home video cameras recorded. CBS’s Electronic Video Recording system (EVR) inspired particular ire in the guerrilla videomakers. Despite its name, the EVR system was not video and it could not record. The EVR’s special cassettes actually spooled a type of photographic film rather than electronic videotape. A small video camera [a flying spot scanner] inside the unit picked up the film image and transferred it to the monitor.30 The system could only play cassettes produced by the manufacturer, thus insuring that consumers could not become content producers or share work across platforms.

The EVR system is an extreme example of how the corporate networks and those in control of video and television hardware attempted to make it difficult to distribute independent content. Fortunately, systems like the EVR were not successful in replacing VCR systems.31 Even so, the television networks and their hardware divisions hoped that the ability to produce one’s own content wouldn’t turn viewers away from their programming. In the back pages of Guerrilla Television, Shamberg reprinted an advertisement for a VCR system to illustrate this corporate fantasy.

The image shows a young, fashionable woman in a miniskirt popping a cassette into her TV/VCR. A video camera lies on its side on top of the set, as if it has been casually put down. The title of the tape in her hand is clearly visible; it reads, “Football Highlights,” and bears the image of two charging sportsmen on its cover. The author of Guerrilla Television captioned the image, “A videocassette and system. And the lame way manufacturers see people using them.”32 Despite access to the modes of production (the camera and VCR), the ad imagines that consumers will just watch repackaged broadcast content. The authors of Guerrilla Television and Radical Software hoped that those who chose to play tapes from the “Cultural Data Bank” in their VCRs would not make the same mistake as the woman in the ad. The record button was as equally important as the play button.

Using the existing hardware that consumers had in their homes (televisions, VCRs, postboxes), guerrilla video would be a “short-cut” to alternative, decentralized television.33 According to Shamberg, the tape network could be the ideal distribution site that cable television couldn’t be:

There are some people who think that videocassettes will never make it, that cable television alone or in conjunction with cassettes is the only viable mode of specialized video information…. Maybe [videocassettes] will be just an interim stage before full-blown cable television, but that stage could last twenty years and I can’t wait. Moreover, they will enable me to do low volume distribution totally under my control.34

The tape network enabled anyone with a PO Box and a VCR to become a “network” programmer. Videomakers could cut the television broadcasters completely out of the equation while still getting to appear on TV screens in private homes, if not “on the air.” The standard history of guerrilla video is a story of radical videomakers’ collaborations with cable and broadcast television. Shamberg and his colleagues, however, quickly (and rightly) lost faith in the idea that cable stations would provide a venue for guerrilla work. Shamberg put greater emphasis in his writings on the power half-inch tape as a transformative medium.35 Tape networks were, in his words, “cheaper and more far-ranging than local cable systems,” and avoided all of the technological, legal and financial problems that came along with cable TV.36 Most importantly, the artists were completely in control of this network. The rare occasions that guerrilla video did play on television served as “advertisements for the revolution.” As another video group, the May Day Collective, put it: “If the networks wish to relate to us, let it be to broadcast the existence of this alternate video system to the people. To encourage the networks to do so is our sole motive in dealing with them. Video belongs to the people – not to the networks.”37

VT ≠ TV

In the first issue of Radical Software Raindance’s Paul Ryan succinctly described the difference between videotape and television. He wrote, “VT is not TV. Videotape is TV flipped into itself. Television has to do with transmitting information over a distance. Videotape has to do with infolding information – feedback.”38 Despite Joselit’s suggestions, TV was structured to prevent video “feedback” in all forms. It was a unidirectional system; a viewer could never turn the cameras back on the TV and affect the picture that it broadcast. Nor could a viewer easily feed her own information into the system, modify the content of television, and get a response from her viewers. The exceptional occasions in which guerrilla video played on the air momentarily altered the appearance of mainstream television, but it did not transform or shift the behavior of the system. The half-inch tape network, on the other hand, was explicitly engineered as a responsive system that relied on the “infolding of information”: viewers not only chose their content, they produced content. VT had aesthetic qualities that separated it from television, but it was its distribution potential that set it apart from the mainstream media. The electronic disturbance in The Rays illustrated how TV permeated the air, but the tape’s presence in the Cultural Data Bank indicated how guerrilla video might sprout up in individual homes across the globe. Unlike the aberrant moments when guerrilla work, too, was “on the air,” the tape network signaled the possibility of a new order and diagramed how VT could be an alternative to mainstream TV.

“All power does not proceed from the end of a gun,” Paul Ryan wrote in his 1973 book, Birth and Death and Cybernation.39 There were other ways of getting power, just one of which was videotape. Ryan saw “portable video, maverick data banks, acid meta-programming, Cable TV,” and other applications of video as real means of waging a “cybernetic guerrilla war” against an oppressive culture and undermining its unidirectional media systems.40 Videotape, he explains, extends individuals as “cybernators.” “By contrast,” he continues, “the behavior induced by the output of a television set is merely the terminal behavior of consumers.”41 The difference was between being a producer and distributer of video content versus being a consuming endpoint of a corporate network. If VT was not TV it was because video enabled endpoints in the centralized television network to become nodes in a distributed network. Users could “infold information” both by playing with electronic feedback and by adding new information into the underground data bank. “Having total control over the processing of video,” Ryan writes, “puts you in direct conflict with that system of perpetual imperialism called broadcast television that puts a terminal in your home and thereby controls your access to information…. Running to the networks with portable video material seems rear view mirror at best, reactionary at worst.”42 Videotape had the potential to be a revolutionary device because it lent itself to decentralized structures of production and distribution, and could remain completely outside of the influence of TV while still appearing as “television” on TV sets. VT could undermine and replace TV if it relied on physical exchanges of containerized media, rather than broadcasts and cablecasts that depended on government or corporate hardware and infrastructure. The half-inch tape network may have been utopian, but showing work on television was simply naïve.

Tape Network Archaeology

Media archeology, according to Erikki Huhtamo and Jussi Parika, is the rummaging through the “textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections of artifacts [to emphasize] both the discursive and material manifestations of culture.”43 This practice of digging through the histories of discarded devices and practices brings to the surface “the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious practices and inventions” of the history of media.44 In doing so, it excavates counter-histories of familiar objects, ones that shed light on our contemporary relationship with these media or their derivatives. In particular, media archeological investigations “challenge the strategic amnesia of digital culture.”45 “Network archaeology,” as defined by the editors of this issue of Amodern, is an extension of the media archeological impulse that looks at the ways in which media have “been situated in the matrices of networks of circulation and distribution, facilitating historically specific modes of connection.” The power of videotape was in its ability to create an alternative, distributed network for the circulation of video that would stand in opposition – structurally as well as in its content – to centralized broadcast and cable television. The half-inch tape network has strong similarities to the shape and ambitions of the Internet, which was being developed at the same time, and one might easily see the similarities between the “alternative channels” created by the half-inch tape network and websites like YouTube.

According to Alexander Galloway, in the 1960s decentralized networks were understood to have the power to “dehierarchize, disrupt, and dissolve rigid structures of all varieties.”46 Thinkers such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari assumed “that networks exist in an antagonistic relationship to authority, that networks [were] the sole form of organization that [could] possibly threaten entrenched, fortified power centers.”47 Michael Shamberg, Paul Ryan, and the other videomakers associated with the various guerrilla television collectives of the 1960s and 1970s clearly shared this notion. Videotape and clandestine modes of tape exchange challenged conventional television by undermining its totalitarian structures. Like guerrilla warriors seeking to destabilize a centralized government, the guerrilla video collectives modeled their distribution practices on decentralized and distributed networks of action. Rather than having a central hub for information and action, they imagined a means of circulating “television” content while circumventing the systems of broadcasting and cablecasting. It was this structural attack that embodied the radicality of the guerrilla television movement.

Centralized networks consist of a single hub, or star, that branches out to a constellation of end stations and information moves only in one direction.48 To reach the dispersed nodes in a centralized network, such as television, one would have to gain access to the central point. Even if one did manage to broadcast content from one of the centralized stations, as TVTV did, there was no means of getting feedback from the receivers. Distributed networks, on the other hand, are figured as a “grid or a mesh.”49 “The distributed network,” Galloway explains, “is a specific architecture characterized by equity between nodes, bidirectional links, a high degree of redundancy, and a general lack of internal hierarchy.”50

Paul Baran, who designed one version of the packet switching technology that undergirds our contemporary networks of online connectivity, theorized the distributed network in his 1964 text On Distributed Communications. ARPAnet, the United States Department of Defense’s precursor to the Internet, was the first network to implement Baran’s vision.51 Baran was working for the RAND Corporation when he devised a way to break apart messages in to fragments, or “packets,” and enable them to recombine into a complete unit when they reach their destination. By traveling in this manner one could insure that messages reached their destination even if parts of the network were disabled or destroyed. As Galloway explains, “No single node acts as master of the network. Each node making local decisions about network topology and message sending, thus spreading organization and control is integrated broadly across the entire mesh.”52 The tape distribution network devised by the guerrilla video groups and advertised by Raindance in Radical Software clearly aspired to the structure of Baran’s distributed network. In fact, Raindance imagined itself to be a guerrilla version of the RAND Corporation. They were an “alternative media think tank” that devised and implemented “communications tools in the project of social change.”53 Even their name, Raindance Corporation, was “an ironic reference to the RAND Corporation, then and now an establishment think tank advising government and industry.”54

The half-inch tape network was comprised of multiple entry and exit points, all of which worked independently without centralized control or a hierarchal organization to form distributed guerrilla attack on television. The very need for Baran’s distributed network system points to the weakness of centralized networks. By taking down a key target, an entire communication system could be disabled or destroyed. Baran’s work clearly illustrates that centralized systems, like television, were structurally very vulnerable and small groups could chip away at their power. As the name of the movement and Ryan’s rhetoric of warfare makes clear, guerrilla television intended to be an organized yet distributed affront to mainstream television. Raindance may have “ironically” imagined itself to be a version of the RAND Corporation for the counter culture, but their tactics for distributing media closely resembled Baran’s research and the network strategy he developed for RAND. There is an irony in Baran’s actions as well: in recognizing the susceptibility of centralized networks to attack, he adopted the distributed guerilla model to make communications secure. While the United States was unsuccessfully trying to fight communist guerrilla forces in Vietnam, Baran and RAND suggested guerrilla tactics as a means of protecting the United States from a Cold War information attack. The actions that seemed to enable a revolutionary takedown of centralized systems were adopted to protect those very systems. In the late 1960s, the distributed exchange structures existed simultaneously as liberating and revolutionary tools, and as hidden armatures buttressing centralized power, a fraught identity maintained in contemporary uses of the Internet for sharing videos.

Video websites, such as YouTube, appear to be the contemporary manifestations of tape exchange networks. Individual users can act as both consumers and producers of content by watching and uploading video to the network. The guerrilla video exchanges never reached the wide audiences they desired.55 YouTube, on the other hand, has more than one billion unique users each month and reaches more adults 18-34 than any cable network.56 It has become easy to “build one’s own TV Network” by curating a channel through the site, just as “The Plug-In Video Tape Network” imagined guerrilla videomakers would do. The “Cultural Data Bank” has expanded from hundreds of tapes to millions. In 2008, one of the most prominent guerrilla television collectives, Videofreex, started their own YouTube channel, making many of their historic works available to anyone with a computer. Forty years after the video revolution, physical tapes have disappeared and video has taken the dematerialized form of data that travels easily through Baran’s distributed channels. One no longer needs containerized cassette tapes or the postal system to reach an audience. YouTube may initially appear to fulfill the guerrilla desires for a distributed television network and to “Broadcast Yourself.” It is easy to feel like a producer of independent “television” content each time one uploads a video, and to imagine oneself dealing a fatal blow to the hegemonic power of television each time one chooses the computer terminal over the TV screen. But YouTube is not much different than the cable and broadcast systems of the mid-century. Guerrilla videomakers in the 1960s and 1970s turned away from cable television after realizing that the free airtime they were promised came with strings attached and was, at its base, just a way of providing free content to corporate entities with no prospect of remuneration or feedback.57 They may have been producing independent content, but as Paul Ryan warned, playing guerrilla works on television was backward or even reactionary.58 When a user uploads a video to YouTube, she is not dealing a blow against corporate power by circumventing centralized television through a distributed network. A private corporation uses the free content uploaded by users to lure in viewers and to sell them to advertisers, who no longer need to rely on demographic studies to pinpoint their ads. The user’s actions across the Internet are tracked so that they might become an ever more perfect product for the advertisers. The consumer is still consumed. She is the product of the Internet, not its producer. Users can “Broadcast Themselves,” but they are not in control of their content. At any moment, YouTube can take down a video for potential copyright infringement, or for a vague “terms of service violation,” which The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes as “any reason it likes.”59 The viewer may feel independent, free, and even subversive, but she is caught in the web’s snare, held captive for advertisers while once again supplying the free content that lures in more viewers.

When guerrilla videomakers adopted the radical tactics of distributed guerrilla warfare as a means of destabilizing the hegemony of television it may have been the last moment at which a distributed network could still be a truly radical gesture. As Baran’s work indicates, the distributed network was about to become the new shape of organization and control.60 “Distributed networks,” Galloway writes, “have become hegemonic only recently, and because of this it is relatively easy to lapse back into thinking of a time when networks were disruptive of power centers, when the guerrilla threatened the army, when the nomadic horde threatened the citadel. But this is no longer the case. The distributed network is the new citadel, the new army, the new power.” (Galloway, “Network,” 290.)) If one of media archaeology’s aims is to “challenge the strategic amnesia of digital culture,” or, to put it another way, to correct the “lapsed” thinking that Galloway points out, then the advertisements flashing across the guerrilla videos on Videofreex YouTube channel should be an indication of just how much television and networks have changed since the advent of half-inch videotape.

A user’s ability to post content to a site and to circulate it to millions of other producers/consumers appears to have the same revolutionary structure as the tape network, and is even more powerful because of its extensive scale and reach. It may seem that utopian potentials of alternative television have not only been actualized, but have overpowered television, making television sets and network programmers obsolete. The utopian dream may still be to create a video distribution system outside of corporate control, but one cannot assume that the revolutionary structures of the 1960s will have the same potential in the new millennium. If distributed structures are to still work, it is not just the users who must be distributed within the network, but the files as well: peer-to-peer file sharing sites like BitTorrent or The Pirate Bay encourage users to amass, maintain, and share libraries of videos, helping to insure that content doesn’t easily disappear. When users make a request from the index of titles (a system akin to Radical Software’s “Cultural Data Bank”), the file does not come from an individual user, but is seeded by a number of other users who have copies of the same file. The members of the network work collectively as a “swarm” to distribute media. Peer-to-peer file sharing sites might hold some of the utopian potential and political promises of the “Cultural Data Bank,” but they are still susceptible to interruption and legal interruption. They are easily targeted by corporations for copyright infringement, since the majority of what they circulate is not original material, but pirated media. A network-archaeological look at the half-inch tape network, however, might point to something different. In media archaeology the impulse is to always to find similarities between our current technologies and those of the past, to understand the past in the light of the present. Following this line, we can see the half-inch tape exchange network as a proto-internet, or the “Cultural Data Bank” as an ancestor of the data torrent index. But perhaps the story is not always one of evolution and increasing freedoms. Technologies of the past might hold more promise than those of the present or the future. Exposing the archaeology of this network could, instead, turn our attention back to a floundering and underused system that still has utopian potential, one that is more difficult to scan and search than digital files. As Shamberg said, “the only true people’s network is in the mails.” Looking back at the half-inch tape network might remind us of the power and potential of physical media in an era of digital connectivity and surveillance.


  1. All cable systems with more than 3500 subscribers were required to “operate to a significant extent as a local outlet by origination cablecasting (i.e. presenting their own programming rather than just broadcast signals) and must have available facilities for local production and presentation of programs other than simply for automated service.” Henry Geller, The Mandatory Origination Requirement for Cable Systems (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1974), v. 

  2. In this essay I use the phrases “mainstream television,” “conventional television,” and the acronym “TV” to designate broadcast (network), cable, and public television. “Television” takes on the more general meaning of video images on television screens. Following Paul Ryan, “VT,” here stands for videotape and signals its diametrical opposition to TV. 

  3. Deirdre Boyle, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 35. 

  4. Deirdre Boyle exhaustively chronicles the collaborations between guerrilla videomakers and cable and broadcast stations in her history of the movement, Subject to Change, and David Joselit takes on the utopian potential some guerrilla videomakers saw in cable television in the early 1970s in his inspiring political analysis of the time, Feedback: Television Against Democracy. The tape network, however, does not appear in Joselit’s account, which centers on the potentials of cable distribution, and Boyle does not examine it in her account, in favor of a detailed history of the broadcast and cablecast works. For Boyle, this is because “guerrilla television’s more radical aspirations [were] repeatedly shipwrecked by the siren call of broadcasting” and “repeatedly became entwined with the system” it struggled against.” Boyle, Subject to Change, xiv. 

  5. TVTV, “Top Value Television Coverage of the 1972 Political Conventions,” Radical Software 2.1 (1972): 12. 

  6. TVTV’s coverage of the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions both aired on cable television, individually and together as a condensed 90 minute segment. See Deirdre Boyle, Subject to Change, 37, 62. For critical reactions see: Renata Alder, “The Air: Who’s Here? What Time Is It?” The New Yorker, 16 September 1972, pgs. 115, 116; Richard Reeves, “A Conventional View.” New York Magazine, 28 August 1972, 44. 

  7. Richard Reeves, “A Conventional View.” New York Magazine, August 28, 1972, 44. 

  8. Anthony Monahan’s review of the documentary for the Chicago Sun Times (Thursday, August 24, 1972) notes that while the program would air that night on WSNS-TV (Ch. 44), it was screened two weeks earlier in a video theater to an enthusiastic crowd. Video theaters, like the tape exchange networked functioned as an alternative venue to broadcast and cable television. Anthony Monihan, “A Guerrilla Convention View.” The Chicago Sun Times, 24 August 1972, 82. 

  9. Boyle, Subject to Change, 8. 

  10. David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 99. 

  11. There were many less successful examples of guerrilla television on TV. Both TVTV and the Videofreex produced failed pilots for TV shows for network stations, “The TVTV Show” and “Subject to Change.” 

  12. Half-inch tapes could not be directly broadcast until 1973 when the stand-alone time-base corrector stabilized the video signal to network standards. See Boyle, Subject to Change, 73. 

  13. Surprisingly, several of the guerrilla video groups did attempt brief (yet contentious and unsuccessful) collaborations with mainstream TV, such as TVTV’s The TVTV Show and the Videofreex’s CBS debacle, Subject to Change. For accounts of these two network collaborations, see Deirdre Boyle, “Subject to Change,” “Hooray for Hollywood?,” and “The Big Chill” in Subject to Change, and Parry Teasdale, “Subject to Change” in Videofreex: America’s First Pirate TV Station and the Catskills Collective that Turned It On (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 1999). 

  14. Stations that directly transmitted half-inch inch video ran the risk of steep fines for violating the FCC regulations (though networks occasionally disregarded the rule or risked fines to show exciting tape.) For a detailed discussion of the Vertical Blanking Requirement, the time base corrector, and what one needed to do to “legally” broadcast half-inch video, see: Videofreex, “Broadcasting and Cablecasting Half-Inch Tapes” in The Spaghetti City Video Manual: A Guide to Use, Repair, and Maintenance (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973). 

  15. Paik, 3. 

  16. Michael Shamberg and Raindance Corporation, Guerrilla Television (New York: Holt, Rineheart and Winston, 1971), 1.32. 

  17. Boyle, Subject to Change, 139. 

  18. Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny, “Cable TV Introduction.” Radical Software 1.5 (Spring 1972): 80. 

  19. Korot, “Cable TV Introduction,” 80. 

  20. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 1.12. 

  21. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.48 

  22. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.49. 

  23. Joselit does explore the formal and political potential of electronic feedback noise in other parts of his book, particularly in regards to Nam June Paik’s early synthesizer videos. 

  24. David Antin, “Television: Video’s Frightful Parent.” Artforum 14 (December 1975): 36-45. 

  25. Antin, “Television,” 36. 

  26. Even cable television was initially transmitted “in the air.” Cable television was originally CATV, or Community Antenna Television. Areas that didn’t receive clear broadcast signals could be connected to the network via large antennas that retrieved the signal, and then transmitted it to individual homes via cables. 

  27. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.67. 

  28. Beginning in 1967, three public broadcasting stations – WGBH-Boston, KQED San Francisco, and WNET-New York – ran artist-in-residence programs that gave artists access to broadcast quality video equipment and air time. For more information on these programs see, Kris Paulsen, “In the Beginning, There Was the Electron,” X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Volume 15, Number 2 (Winter 2012): 56-73. 

  29. “Plug-In Video Tape Network.” Radical Software 1.4 (Summer 1971 [California Edition]): 17. 

  30. For a discussion of the mechanics of the CBS EVR system see: Guerrilla Television, 2.70, and Frank Gillette, “EVR is EVIL,” Radical Software 1.1 (Spring 1970): 4. 

  31. The EVR’s high production costs made it commercially unviable, especially in comparison to low cost VCR systems, which had recording capabilities. 

  32. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.68. 

  33. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.69. 

  34. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.69. 

  35. Despite these political proclamations from 1971, Shamberg went on to produce several more programs for cable and broadcast television, and eventually became a Hollywood film producer. 

  36. Shamberg, Guerilla Television, 2.69. 

  37. May Day Video Collective, “May Day Collective.” Radical Software 1.4 (Summer 1971), 31. 

  38. Paul Ryan, “Feedback,” Radical Software 1.1 (Spring 1970), 20. 

  39. Paul Ryan, Birth and Death and Cybernation (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1973), 55. 

  40. Ryan, Birth and Death and Cybernation, 59. 

  41. Ryan, Birth and Death and Cybernation, 21. 

  42. Ryan, Birth and Death and Cybernation, 58. 

  43. Erikki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, Implications (Berkeley & Los Angeles: The University of California Press, 2011), 3. 

  44. Jussi Parikka, What is Media Archaeology? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 2. 

  45. Parikka, What is Media Archaeology?, 6. 

  46. Alexander R. Galloway, “Network,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 287-288. 

  47. Galloway, “Network,” 288. 

  48. Paul Baran, On Distributed Communications (Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation, 1964), 1. 

  49. Baran, On Distributed Communications, 1. 

  50. Galloway, “Network,” 288. 

  51. Galloway, “Network,” 288. 

  52. Galloway, “Network,” 288. 

  53. Davidson Gigliotti, “A Brief History of Raindance,” Radical Software Archive, accessed June 1, 2013. http://www.radicalsoftware.org/e/history.html. 

  54. Gigliotti, “A Brief History of Raindance.” 

  55. In conversations with the author, both Skip Blumberg (of Videofreex and TVTV) and Skip Sweeney (Video Free America) expressed disappointment in the reach of the tape exchanges. December, 2011. 

  56. “YouTube Statistics, 2012,” accessed June 1, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/yt/press/statistics.html. 

  57. Korot and Gershuny, “Cable TV Introduction,” 80. 

  58. Ryan, Birth and Death and Cybernation, 58. 

  59. Electronic Frontier Foundation, “A Guide to YouTube Removals,” accessed July 23, 2013. https://www.eff.org/issues/intellectual-property/guide-to-youtube-removals. 

  60. Galloway, “Network,” 290. 


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Image: "Introduction: Paragraph 17”
From: "Drawings from A Thousand Plateaus"
Original Artist: Marc Ngui
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Copyright: Marc Ngui