PRINT May 2002


THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO Ralph Lee Smith published an influential appeal concerning the future of cable access television (CATV) in the pages of The Nation. “The Wired Nation” heralded nothing short of a revolution:

As cable systems are installed in major U.S. cities and metropolitan areas, the stage is being set for a communications revolution—a revolution that some experts call “The Wired Nation.” In addition to the telephone and to the radio and television programs now available, there can come into homes and into business places audio, video and facsimile transmissions that will provide newspapers, mail service, banking and shipping facilities, data from libraries and other storage centers, school curricula and other forms of information too numerous to specify. In short, every home and office will contain a communications center of a breadth and flexibility to influence every aspect of private and community life.

Sound familiar? Substitute the word Internet for cable, and this passage could pass for a blurb from Wired magazine circa 1993 (though the difference between the simple adjective wired, which may modify any place—or no place—and Smith’s phrase wired nation indicates a growing consciousness and celebration of globalization in the intervening years). It is well known that new media are habitually modeled on obsolescent networks of the recent past, but the amnesia surrounding the once great hopes for cable TV as a democratic force at the dawn of the ’70s is breathtaking. In books like Lev Manovich’s influential The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2001), for instance, the rhetoric of the Internet is analyzed through an extended comparison with cinema, while cable television, a far more pertinent and historically correct precursor, is all but ignored. There are good reasons for this: Despite its status as big business, cinema retains vestiges of revolutionary heroism, whereas what counts for revolution in cable TV is the introduction of the History Channel into the menu. What’s more, the thoroughgoing commercialization of cable—its rapid devolution from an open form of communication to a highly standardized array of entertainment products—is perhaps too painful a reminder for Internet boosters that commerce and radical democracy are rarely if ever compatible.

Three decades ago things were different. In order to garner the support of the Federal Communications Commission in the face of network opposition, cable operators professed a commitment to community programming in the years between 1966 and 1972 (the FCC had frozen cable expansion during this period in the one hundred largest television markets). Community access channels seemed an effective means of legitimizing cable and probably helped persuade the FCC to lift its ban. This openness to unconventional television was seized upon by a raucous community of video artists and activists equipped with a new technology—the Porta-Pak—and underwritten by funding from the New York State Council on the Arts as well as private foundations. Radical Software, a publication launched in 1970, served as a forum for this emerging movement. Its great virtue—and charm—was its wildly eclectic mix of discourses, including practical production advice, New Age prognostication, and applied cybernetics. Radical Software was published from 1970 to 1974 by the Raindance Corporation, a video collective conceived by the artist Frank Gillette as a countercultural response to the RAND Corporation, which was conducting studies of the emerging cable industry in the early ’70s. Raindance’s activities proceeded on two tracks—videomaking and publishng-but all of its work came out of a fascination with media ecology. Influenced by the thought of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, the group asserted that social and psychic life are deeply intertwined with information technologies. Consequently, the artificial and oppressive structure of network TV, in which the capacity to produce programming is centralized like a massive accumulation of capital, constituted a major ecological disaster for the United States. Raindance believed that television could be democratized through the deployment of video—on the street, on cable television, and in exhibition venues—and that this informational liberation could lead to political democratization. To this purpose, its affiliates executed a number of informal videotapes allowing ordinary people on the street to address the camera. The group proposed and almost succeeded in funding a Center of Decentralized Television that would have been housed at the Jewish Museum, where the exhibition “Software,” a survey of artists engaged with information technologies, took place in 1970. But the lasting legacy of Raindance was Radical Software.

Radical Software was founded, edited, and in its early issues primarily shaped by Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny (now Phyllis Segura) with the assistance of several others, including Ira Schneider and Michael Schamberg, author of the important Raindance publication Guerrilla Television (1971).

In the first volume, printed as a large-format tabloid, funky illustrations recalling underground comics rub shoulders with technical charts, and dynamic compositions of text boxes are linked by vectors, transforming pages into flowcharts recalling early computer code. The journal’s freewheeling editorial policy is epitomized by the section titled “Feedback” at the end of each issue of the first volume, where blurbs from various video groups or individuals are crudely pasted together on a skewed grid. Equally unconventional were the juxtapositions of feature articles. In the first number, for instance, texts ranged from Thea Sklover’s highly technical account of a cable operators’ conference in Chcago to Marco Vassi’s “Zen Tubes,” which opens with the declaration:

To write about . . . to write . . . about . . . Tape is explaining a trip to someone who’s never dropped acid. You have to say, it’s like this.

This wild veering from the intricacies of CATV to Acid Video captures the flavor of Radical Software. But underwriting such exuberant heterogeneity is a consistent and reasoned advocacy of feedback as a means of redressing media inequities. As a model of activism, feedback is a particularly nuanced approach, connoting both meaningful communication and the willful jamming of communication through feedback noise. On the most basic level, video feedback is established in closed-circuit installations where viewers are recorded live and their images played back in real time on matrices of monitors. Gillette and Schneider explored this form in Wipe Cycle, a work included in the pioneering video exhibition “TV as a Creative Medium,” at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York in 1969. Wipe Cycle consisted of a bank of nine monitors and a closed-circuit video camera that recorded live images of viewers as they approached. These fragments of footage were played on eight- and sixteen-second delays, jumping from monitor to monitor and interspersed with periods of live-broadcastTV and pre-recorded segments. Periodically the screens would be wiped clean. Gillette’s description of the work in the exhibition brochure explicitly links it to an ethics of televisual communication: “The intent of this [image] overloading. . . is to escape the automatic ‘information’ experience of commercial television without totally divesting it of the usual content.” In other words, Wipe Cycle was meant to break apart commercial television’s accumulation of “information” by giving the spectator a role in generating content. If the networks established a catastrophic centralization of video production, closed-circuit video installation compensated for this disparity symbolically by introducing the viewer into the image.

What distinguished the editorial policy of Radical Software from other accounts of video in the ’70s—whose positions have been progressively balkanized by art and media historians alike—was its demonstration that works of video art like Wipe Cycle are structurally identical to video activism as practiced by Raindance and other community video collectives like Videofreex or Global Village. In Radical Software art and activism were shown to be formally equivalent on account of their shared practice of feedback. The symmetrical relationship between closed-circuit installations and cable TV that underlies this homology was addressed in a 1969 interview with Gillette and Schneider reprinted in the first issue of the magazine:

FRANK: . . . Now, television is usually understood in terms of a receiver. Our idea is to render that void. Television is something you feedback with as much as you receive with—which is a symbiosis—which works both ways. That’s the vast potential of cable TV hooking up with portable equipment. . . .

IRA: Perhaps we should quickly run through these different television notions: CATV, CCTV (Closed Circuit TV), and UHF. The notion is that closed-circuit TV is akin to cable TV in that closed circuit, if we’re talking about videotape or storage of information and playback, plays back from the recorder into a wire that runs into the monitor. CATV is an extension of this in that the wire-cable between the playback and the monitor is much longer.

Two points deserve emphasis in this interchange. First, on a technological level cable television and closed-circuit TV are identical—as Schneider puts it, the only difference between them is the length of the cable required. But second, the “software” recommended for CCTV and CATV is as closely related as the hardware. If Wipe Cycle was intended to introduce circuits of video feedback within the controlled environment of the gallery, it also served as a blueprint for guerrilla television—those efforts among video activists to respond to the centralization of commercial television with feedback in the form of politically engaged documentaries to be broadcast on cable. It is consistent with the editorial program of Radical Software, then, that Nam June Paik, who is sometimes criticized for his assiduous efforts to establish video as a purely aesthetic medium, contributed a text to the journal’s first issue that proposed an expansive pedagogical role for video well beyond the art world. In “Expanded Education for the Paperless Society,” Paik recommends a thoroughgoing rethinking of higher education including a systematic effort to record great thinkers on tape before they die. As he charmingly proposes with regard to the virtues of interviewing great philosophers, “The interviewer should be a qualified philosopher himself. . . so that Jaspers or Heidegger can talk as naturally as ‘Chelsea Girls.’”

It’s hard to imagine Heidegger behaving as “naturally” as one of Warhol’s speed-driven trauma queens, but it’s worth trying because such outlandish juxtapositions—which characterized early video art and activism—have largely been written out of history. Video of the ’70s is now primarily discussed as an art genre rooted in individual subjectivity or, in Rosalind Krauss’s famous formulation, as a pure form of narcissism. In “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism,” a watershed 1976 essay published in October, Krauss suggested that Vito Acconci’s Centers, 1971, in which the artist videotapes himself pointing to the center of the screen by tracking himself in the of the playback monitor, manifests “a narcissism so endemic to works of video that I find myself wanting to generalize it as the condition of the entire genre.” Krauss contends that the artist’s reflection of him- or herself in the video “mirror”—a common trope in the early ’70s—is the antithesis of modernist reflexivity, in which the conventions of an art medium are identified and represented as that medium’s content. If reflexivity allows for a critical analysis of the aesthetic and historical relation between an author and his or her medium, mere reflection, according to Krauss, “is a mode of appropriation, of illusionistically erasing the difference between subject and object.” In other words, works like Acconci’s Centers collapse into an undifferentiated ooze of subjectivity. What is striking about this reading-which has conditioned an entire generation’s understanding of video—is its occlusion of the obvious fact that in pointing at his reflected image on the playback monitor, Acconci simultaneously points out at the viewer of the tape. His “narcissism”—if that is what it is—is a thoroughly social act that interpellates the spectator as an object and an other. The artists and theorists associated with Radical Software emphasized this other dimension of the video mirror. The reading of “narcissism” they produced is diametrically opposed to Krauss’s.

Members of the Raindance Corporation dwelled on the therapeutic potential of video rather than its pathological dimension. As they saw it, one aspect of the ecological crisis occasioned by the centralization of network television was a psychic blockage—a kind of media tumor—in which information flowed in one direction only, from TV to viewer, leaving the spectator little if any means of responding in kind. In Shamberg’s Guerrilla Television, the situation was assessed in the following terms:

In Media-America, our information structures are so designed as to minimize feedback. . . . This makes for incredible cultural tension because on the one hand people cannot ignore media evolution, while on the other they require feedback for psychological balance. The result was the 1960s. Every conceivable special interest group, which was informationally disenfranchised, indulged in a sort of “mass media therapy” where they created events to get coverage, and then rushed home to see the verification of their experience on TV.

Here, Shamberg identifies the psyche of the viewer as a site for media activism. The “mass media therapy” he recommends was enthusiastically embraced by several figures associated with Radical Software. Paul Ryan, for instance, advocated a process of “infolding” by which one could see and incorporate one’s behavior objectively by watching it on videotape. In “Cable Television: The Raw and the Overcooked,” an essay published in the first issue of Radical Software, Ryan explained his technique:

Working with encounter group leader Dennis Walsh, I videotaped while a girl stood in the middle of the group with her eyes closed and described how she thought people were reacting to her then and there. The contrast between her negative description and the positive responses to her that the playback revealed were both illuminating and encouraging for her. This was information infold. What she and the group put out was taken by the tape and given back to them.

While a videotaped encounter group is far from a work of art, Ryan’s notion of infolding is useful as an alternative model of the relation between video and narcissism. Here the videotape releases a subject from the closed-circuit of herself rather than causing her to collapse into it. Ryan’s notion of infolding helps to explain Vassi’s analogy between video and LSD: Like Ryan’s therapeutic videotape, an acid trip both dissolves the boundaries of the self and offers it back as an object. Many of the writers who published in Radical Software saw video’s capacity to mirror and therefore objectify experience as a prelude t o political action. Community video was praised as an organizing tool in Dorothy Henaut and Bonnie Kline’s “In the Hands of Citizens: A Video Report,” in the first issue. Recounting the collaboration between the video group Challenge for Change and the Comité des Citoyens de Saint-Jacques in downtown Montreal, the authors declared, “Having seen people like themselves on the familiar TV screen, discussing their problems with utter frankness, removed much of the reticence and timidity people have in a group of strangers. They simply said, ‘I guess this is the place where I can talk freely,’ and talked at length of problems shared and possible collective solutions.”

Radical Software’s utopian placement of video may seem quaint in 2002 , but there are good reasons for revisiting it. First, the journal’s embrace of art and activism under a single umbrella offers a refreshing corrective to the repressive disciplinary boundaries that structure current discussions of visuality in both the academy and the art world. Art historians and critics have sorted those Raindance affiliates who were identified as artists into one category and put activists into another. The freewheeling potential of video is thereby neutralized by confining it within a medium. This process of codification suggests the second rationale for looking again at Radical Software: It affords a cautionary tale regarding the Internet’s claims as a site for radical democracy. Just as cable TV was once hailed as a new democratic forum so the Internet is praised for its networked communities. The commercialization of this space, like cable before it, is already abundantly apparent, but an acknowledgment of the history of various mediums’ assimilation into commerce will help to ground and direct strategies for maintaining spaces for open interchange. Finally, Radical Software is worth reading because the fundamental tactic it elaborates—feedback—still works. Think of the grassroots groups that came together to disrupt the meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 by creatively and exuberantly seizing public space. They constituted a visually savvy direct-action rebellion conceived and coordinated largely through the Internet, and they put into practice the dual dimensions of feedback-as interference or “noise,” and as communication. True to the tradition of Radical Software. these activists jammed the mutually imbricated systems of city streets and global capital. In short, they talked back.

David Joselit is associate professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine.