The following reflections are inspired by newly recovered source footage from the TVTV documentaries The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years. This footage was transferred from the original ½-inch open reel videotapes during a preservation project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Reforming broadcast television would be, as Frank Gillette says, “like building a healthy dinosaur.”
Michael Shamberg, Guerrilla Television1
In 1969, there was a harmonic convergence of a peculiar sort—the landmark video exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery in Manhattan strategically called TV as a Creative Medium. The video artists involved, a not-so-dirty dozen, were Serge Boutourline, Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider, Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman, Earl Reiback, Paul Ryan, John Seery, Eric Siegel, Thomas Tadlock, Aldo Tambellini, and Joe Weintraub. In the following years, some of these artists—Gillette, Schneider, Paik, Moorman, Ryan, Siegel, and Tambellini—rose to the pantheon; others sadly faded. But what heightened the importance of this first ambitious video exhibition wasn’t solely the works on display but the discourse provoked by them and, perhaps more importantly, the recipients of those provocations.
Image from Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman's TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) from the 1969 exhibition TV as a Creative Medium. Image courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix.
To juxtapose “TV” with the word “Creative” was itself an outrageous declaration. Television was the “vast wasteland,”2 not a playpen of possibility. Television was the corporate invasion of America’s living rooms, not a beneficent lodger. Television was the summation of social modeling, not an artful release mechanism. But as startling as TV as a Creative Medium may have been, it didn’t spring whole cloth from a single artistic imagination. It was the aggregate of a mindset, years in the making, which saw the utopian approach of a limitless media ecology that would unite man and machine. The intellectual discourse contained a composite of disparate thinkers—Norbert Weiner, Buckminster Fuller, Gregory Bateson, Marshall McLuhan, and others—who wed cybernetics and communications theory to psychopharmacology, radical social organization, and spirituality for a heady brew that promised techno-transcendence.
Every aspect of this greater media ecology had its proponents, whether they were from university labs, grassroots communes, or techno-activisms. TV as a Creative Medium plied the art interventionist side, artists who were futurists, techno-scavengers, and advocates for the subversion of mainstream media. Paik’s Participation TV, Ryan’s Everyman’s Moebius Strip, and Tambellini’s Black Spiral turned the utilitarian imagery of broadcast TV toward abstract and personal ends. And as Gillette and Schneider’s startling Wipe Cycle would demonstrate, they even gave the viewer entry into videospace itself.3
Image of Frank Gillette's and Ira Schneider's Wipe Cycle (1969) from Ira Schneider's TV as a Creative Medium (1969—84). Image courtesy Ira Schneider.
Into this rich ferment came a young journalist, Michael Shamberg, on assignment for Time magazine. Shamberg met Ryan and Gillette, Schneider, Louis Jaffe, and many others, and before he knew it his path had greatly altered. Under Schneider’s initial suggestion, Raindance Corporation, a countercultural think tank, was conceived. It would be the antidote to RAND Corporation, the right wing’s brain trust. And in spring 1970, Raindance began publishing an influential journal, Radical Software, eleven issues that shook the world, or at least the East Village.
We can't expect our culture to embody ecological sanity unless our media are restructured to reflect that bias.
Michael Shamberg, Radical Software4
With background noise provided by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, McLuhan, Bateson, and Wiener and a strong spike from Gene Youngblood, the Radical Software editors declared, the above-mentioned media theorists “thought reversing the process of television, giving people access to the tools of production and distribution, giving them control of their own images and, by implication, their own lives—giving them permission to originate information on the issues most meaningful to themselves—might help accelerate social and cultural change.”5
Shamberg was listed first as publisher with Beryl Korot and Phyllis Gershuny as editors, then as contributing editor and occasional writer. By early 1971, he was abroad writing a book with the defiant title Guerrilla Television6 that would encapsulate the media ecology cum video activism being formulated within the pages of Radical Software. In November, the book hit the stands with a hefty $3.95 sticker price.
Radical Software, Volume I, Number 1, Spring 1970. Thanks to Davidson Gigliotti, the Radical Software website.
With a snarky cut-and-paste design by San Francisco’s Ant Farm, Guerrilla Television was really two books—the Meta-Manual and the Manual.7 The Meta-Manual explains the characteristics of what Shamberg calls “Media-America,” a complex media-saturated system of information generation, filtration, and consumption. What he foresees is a shift from hardware to software, from product to process. The emphasis on process directly destroys the power of hierarchy. For instance, the mainstream media, what he calls “beast-TV,” loses its centrality as process tools proliferate. The fluid citizen becomes both producer and consumer.
Information, on the other hand, is pure process. Instead of numerical increase, information expands rhythmically or synergistically. Whereas a sum of money is precisely the sum of its parts, an increase of information is more than its components.
Michael Shamberg, Guerrilla Television8
When it comes to mainstream media, its absolute control—over subject matter, visual language, and who, ultimately, is in charge of meting out access—creates an untenable situation, “a kind of psychic genocide.” Within the pages of Guerrilla Television it is not deemed possible to reform “beast-TV.” The beast cannot be tamed. It must be circumvented or destroyed.
Guerrilla Television, as advertised in Radical Software. Image courtesy Raindance Foundation.
And so we come to the Manual, leaving behind the theorization for the practicum. Here, we enter the territory of such countercultural publications as the Whole Earth Catalog, the DIY bible of the day, and perhaps even Ant Farm’s own Inflatocookbook (1971), if anything, 95 cents cheaper than Guerrilla Television, for a handy guide to constructing a new and improved Media-America.
Guerrilla Television is by definition non-violent because violence is a mode of social change which substitutes seizure and destruction of property for genuine understanding of the difference between Media-America and a product-based culture.
Michael Shamberg, Guerrilla Television9
Though the Manual does have tactical musings, for instance the lengthy section called “How to Bankrupt Broadcast Television,” its bulk is a do-it-yourself handbook for assembling alternative video capabilities, something like The Spaghetti City Video Manual, published by Videofreex two years later. However, Shamberg’s view is expansive. He’s interested not just in the nuts-and-bolts of shooting videotape, but also in its originating politics, its open-ended dissemination, and its liberating reception. This, too, is peppered with futurisms. The practical engineering of small-format video editing systems sits beside speculation about an organic network of media art centers supporting “self-processing,” “street television,” and even “video environments.”
Ultimately, Guerrilla Television sets out to inoculate the people against infectious mainstream Media-America by creating a confrontational alternative. “Instead of politicizing people with mass-TV,” Shamberg writes, “Guerrilla Television seeks to media-ize people against it.”10 This antidote would come in the form of a self-made, overarching “cultural data bank,” an accessible storehouse of countercultural experience, aspiration, and strategies. The consequences of inaction are dire, for the greater culture’s fate relies on its adaptation to an ever-morphing, process-oriented sense of information, rather than its current monopolistic stranglehold.11 Resist this evolutionary tendency and “America will be the first culture to perish from misunderstanding the consequences of media-ecology.”12
With the publication of Guerrilla Television, the trajectory from speculative musings to utilitarian application was almost complete—almost. What seemed like the next logical step was a test case with Portapak technology ambushing mainstream TV.13 This was not to be a take-no-prisoners undertaking—guerrilla television was, after all, nonviolent by definition—but a subversive, parallel-universe of alternative media construction. To accomplish this, Shamberg needed a Raindance equivalent, but instead of running counter to RAND Corp., it would have network TV as its foil.
Legend has it that while practicing yoga, Shamberg invented the name of this ragtag guerrilla video combine to be, Top Value Television, or more poignantly TVTV.14 The first two members to sign on were Allen Rucker and Megan Williams. An old schoolmate of Shamberg’s from Washington University in St. Louis, Rucker had relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area where he cofounded the Media Access Center, the videomaking wing of Stewart Brand’s Portola Institute. He was smart, persuasive, and had experience in the guerrilla TV trenches. Williams was Shamberg’s partner and had moved with him from Chicago to New York in 1969. She was among the discursive circle that founded Raindance and quickly found herself working on Radical Software. By spring 1972, TVTV pulled up stakes and relocated to San Francisco, expanding their transient ranks with the alternative architectural collective Ant Farm (Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels, Curtis Schreier) and Chicago-based Tom Weinberg, an old friend of Shamberg’s and a superlative media roiler.
Megan Williams and Michael Shamberg survey a wealth of portable video gear in the lead-up to the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
Having attended the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago as a neophyte reporter, Shamberg intimately knew that these political events had been transposed as media spectacles, reductively defined by the commercial and aesthetic motives of broadcast television. What better political arena to test out the expansive but agitating strategies of guerrilla television? And so this alliance of video freaks set their sights on the presidential conventions to be held in Miami Beach in July (July 10–13) and August (August 21–23), 1972. When the final group assembled at an upscale house in Miami, the ranks had grown to twenty-eight people: Wendy Appel, Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, Frank Cavestani, Steve Christiansen, Michael Couzens, Bob Devine, Bart Friedman, Stanton Kaye, Chuck Kennedy, Anda Korsts, Joan Logue, Chip Lord, Andy Mann, Hudson Marquez, Doug Michels, Martha Miller, T. L. Morey, Jim Newman, Judy Newman, Maureen Orth, Allen Rucker, Ira Schneider, Curtis Schreier, Michael Shamberg, Jodi Sibert, Tom Weinberg, and Megan Williams—a national sampling of Portapak politicos, ready to record.
Approximately half the TVTV crew from the 1972 Convention tapes with the TVTV media van in Miami.
As makeshift and spontaneous as this venture may have seemed, there was a chasing after order. Monies raised from cable systems, a few smaller foundations, and personal contributions put about $16,000 into the kitty.15 Many of the TVTV crew brought along their own camera packages, greatly expanding their accumulated tech resources, and making it possible to have multiple crews covering the convention. An instructional checklist—eventually published in the Winter 1972 issue of Radical Software—offered the participants coverage guidelines with such headings as “Things to Tape,” “Delegates,” “The Media,” “Pseudo-Events,” “Confrontations,” and “Style.” Additional guidelines covered the overarching categories of “Hardware,” “Software,” “Content,” and “Decision Structure.”
With press credentials secured for the entire phalanx of twenty-eight mediamongers, TVTV descended on the convention floor, ferreting out overlooked stories, quizzing the network grunts, decoding the delegate upheaval, and venturing out into Miami proper to Flamingo Park where the hippies, activists, and kooks were corralled. The two documentaries that emerged, The World’s Largest TV Studio and Four More Years, each an hour in length, covered the conventions with clear-eyed curiosity, the curiosity born of enthusiasm that was unabashedly subjective, as opposed to the tired pseudo-objectivity of the mainstream. Underdogs appreciated, political squabbles conveyed bemusedly, righteous anger assessed: the coverage was clearly different and not just because it was unkempt. Skip Blumberg playing blues harp on the convention floor is a signature moment of this collision of suffocating network protocols and the less-than-restrained questioning of TVTV reporters.
Press credential badge for Andy Mann during the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
The two documentaries veer drastically in style, treatment, and image capture as they seem to be projections of the events’ particularities and TVTV’s maturation as a mediamaking unit. A look at the source footage, the lion’s share of which remained on the cutting-room floor, echoes the distinctions between the Democratic and Republican conventions.
The Democratic National Convention was an unruly event as delegations challenged convention rules and new constituencies struggled to be part of the party’s platform. The old guard was there in the form of Senators Hubert Humphrey, Edmund Muskie, and nominee-apparent George McGovern, and even Governor George Wallace. But new factions were vying for influence: California Assemblyman Willie Brown, Congressman Ron Dellums, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson were some of those representing minority interests, while Congresswomen Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, the latter a presidential candidate, and feminist activists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley MacLaine kept women’s rights central to the national party platform.
Betty Friedan speaks at a press conference with Gloria Steinem and other feminist leaders at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
TVTV captured this political tumult in a manner that expressed the contentious atmosphere—their own camerawork, often shaky, ill-exposed, and impatient, amplified the commotion. You can see from the source footage the initial impulse to keep the cameras rolling. This comes in the form of crowds needlessly navigated, interviews exhausted, camera positions thwarted, endless pans of generic delegations. The source footage is also a compendium of convention procedures, especially such things as the receipt of press credentials, the magnitude of the network undertaking, and countless rules meetings with faceless attendees.
By the second outing, the Republican National Convention, a different approach emerges. Gone is the off-the-cuff sincerity of Democratic activists and in its place, the studied and humorless replies of lockstep Republicans. This made for coverage that was not about discovery or the serendipitous but about the critique of a prepackaged spectacle in which every gesture was authorized. Guests such as Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Sammy Davis Jr., Henry Kissinger, and others have their predictable celebrity walk-ons. And the Young Republicans, a brigade of some 3,000 Nixon youth troopers, clearly bewilder the TVTVers as they try to penetrate the hive-mind of these new voters. “It looks to me like it’s a very packaged, plastic kind of thing,” says NBC’s Cassie Mackin, the first woman to report from the convention floor.16
Tricia Nixon flashes her smile for donors and delegates during the 1972 Republican National Convention.
The highly manicured event sent the video freaks searching for something a bit more shambolic—which they found in profusion outside the convention hall. This was the purely unpredictable nature of the antiwar demonstrations and the aggressive police response. Nowhere is the footage more telling than in irate Republican delegates seeking refuge in the convention hall after encountering tear gas on the streets. It is one of the few moments when the anarchy outside the hall breaches the convention’s scripted decorum. Again the source material illustrates this dichotomy with restrained footage of the Republican attendees resisting unwelcome questions from the TVTV interviewers juxtaposed with the unbridled, angry raps delivered notably by Ron Kovic and his fellow Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The final work, Four More Years, then becomes more restrained due to its subject matter and the accumulating sophistication of TVTV itself.
TVTV interviews Ron Kovic of Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Flamingo Park, a center of protests at the 1972 Republican National Convention.
But there are still more treasures to be found in the resurfaced source footage, particularly the internal TVTV raps about the tenor and theory of what they were doing.
In a recent interview, Megan Williams and Allen Rucker agreed that TVTV wasn’t the proving ground for the theories espoused in Guerrilla Television, but more a break with its countercultural implications.17 The underlying concept was not to produce programs intended for narrowly defined communities, but to make nationally attractive programming with a subversive tone and politic. In this sense, the collective crews assembled in Miami were being asked, at least tacitly, to go against the grain of their own noncommercial, localized ideology. The result was a conflict between the hierarchical structures of top-down TV and the anarchic instincts of the video freaks, each with their own motives, aesthetics, and incentives.
Skip Blumberg interviews Walter Cronkite at the 1972 Republican National Convention.
“I think it’s a critical moment,” says Shamberg in the outtakes, feeling the weight of their project. “We used the convention as a come-on because it’s of interest. We used it with the cable stations because they can relate to it. . . . Now there’s a chance to show what you are doing. . . . I know two things: I’m not an artist. I’m not going to create for myself. And television’s not an art medium. It’s a throwaway medium. It’s trash. We had one chance to get attention. . . . I’m afraid we’ll blow it.”18
In one recovered exchange, Shamberg, Williams, and Rucker are hashing out the inadequacies of TVTV’s fragile structure. “Another democratic decision made by autocratic consensus,” blurts out Rucker. To which Williams replies, its “not fascism but leadership and we’ve got to lead.” Offering up some compensatory control, Shamberg concludes: “If people can’t focus themselves, we’re going to have to do it for them.”19
This was the intrinsic irony of TVTV’s project to inject a forceful, alternative style of television into the greater body of mass media—the irony of control versus expression, of hierarchy versus free range. At one point, Shamberg volunteers this comical observation about Andy Mann, one of the more effusive and energetic freaks present: “He has an artist contract. There are no riders on an artist contract.”20 Yet it was reining in not reigning that was heatedly sought.
One of the more articulate video freaks was Michael Couzens, a young lawyer focused on community television and federal policy: “Everybody came down here thinking they wouldn’t be geared into an organization. Everybody imagines an organization is something that feeds them. It doesn’t require any fuel. Suddenly they discover that there’s a lot of work involved so you can retrieve things . . . and they sort of bridle at the rules. You’re not responsible, you’re not dictatorial.”21 Is this the price to be paid when you’re herding hepcats?
Also found in the trove of untapped footage are dozens of unexpected cul-de-sacs, celebrity sightings, in-depth interviews too weighty for the final edit, and encounters not ready for prime time—a cavalcade of varying quality with Shirley Chisholm and Allen Ginsberg, Betty Friedan and Willie Brown, Bella Abzug and John Lewis, Tricia Nixon and Ed Sanders, Coretta Scott King and George Wallace, Gloria Steinem and Jerry Rubin, Nancy Reagan and Pete McCloskey, and on and on.
John Lewis interviewed by Maureen Orth at the 1972 Republican National Convention.
Using low-cost, potentially subversive technology, aka portable video equipment, TVTV wanted to replace the “rococo” conventions of network TV with a more personal, idiosyncratic sense of the world—“The line between private lives and public events is erased.”22 To accomplish this sort of confrontational television, you need video guerrillas on the ground with their heads in the clouds.
Shots fired. Or is that shots reframed?
Michael Shamberg and Raindance Corporation, Guerrilla Television (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971), Part I, 32.
Chair of the FCC Newton N. Minow’s 1961 declaration about the state of commercial television.
The term “videospace” was formalized by Brice Howard, director of the National Center for Experiments in Television, in his two-part book Videospace.
“Meta-Manual,” Radical Software I, no. 3 (Spring 1971): n.p.
“The Alternate Television Movement,” Radical Software I, no. 1 (Spring 1970): n.p.
Though Shamberg coined the term “Guerrilla Television,” it was Paul Ryan, cofounder of Raindance, who wrote an article for Radical Software titled “Cybernetic Guerrilla Warfare” that inspired Shamberg’s reinvention. This in turn can be traced to an even earlier source, Marshall McLuhan’s “guerrilla information war.”
“Meta-Manual” and “Manual” were terms already in use in Radical Software, Spring 1971.
Guerrilla Television, Part I, 36.
Guerrilla Television, Part II, 8.
Guerrilla Television, Part II, 33.
Shamberg would have been greatly dismayed by the rise of Google, Facebook, and Twitter as they reconfigured the monopolistic structures of information.
Guerrilla Television, Part II, 95.
The Sony Portapak was a ½-inch open-reel, B&W videotape system composed of a videotape recorder and a camera, connected by an umbilical cable. The videotape recorder was usually carried on a backpack frame and weighed about eighteen pounds. The list price in 1972 was $1,650, about $10,000 in current dollars. Color video would soon be introduced.
Deirdre Boyle, Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 36.
The arrangement with the cable systems was that the corresponding documentary would be available no later than two weeks after the convention.
Interview conducted by Maureen Orth, one of TVTV’s more formidable interviewers in Four More Years.
Zoom interview conducted by the author with Megan Williams and Allen Rucker, August 10, 2020.
Quote taken from reel #16295.
Quotes taken from reel #16262.
Quote taken from reel #16261.
Quote taken from reel #16295.
“TV is rococo. They’ve taken an old form and gotten so elaborate with it, so detailed, that it’s absurd,” said by Michael Shamberg on reel #16295.
Steve Seid is the former video curator at BAMPFA and has written extensively on video art, guerrilla video, and activist art practice. He coordinated the donation of TVTV's video and paper archives to BAMPFA and in 2020 published a definitive history of Ant Farm's iconic conceptual art piece Media Burn. With Constance Lewallen, he also co-wrote a retrospective exhibition catalogue (Ant Farm: 1968-1978, 2004) of Ant Farm's work.