Hyde Parker - Dec.- Jan. 1973
Kaye Miller, Instructor in Political Science at Circle, approaches
video more analytically than anyone else I've met. Perhaps that's because
his field concerns itself more with messages than with the media in which
In the mid-60's, Kaye experimented with film as a graduate student at
Berkeley. In 1968, at Circle, he and sociologist Gerry Swatez developed a
project that indulged their interests both in film and in research - a
film study of the '68 Democratic Convention. Proposing to "preserve
the concrete," they received funding and a considerable amount of
technical assistance from Circle. Taking two years to complete, the film
won prizes at the Venice and Chicago Film Festivals and the Edinburgh
With their first film as a sales point, Kaye and Gerry began seeking
funding for new film research. None was available. But, having completed
construction on several buildings in 1970, the University did have funds
for equipping the buildings. While film stock was an "expendable
supply" and processing an expense, tape equipment and reusable tape could be coded
as equipment. That budgeting peculiarity turned them into tapemakers.
Showing their Convention film at meetings of various professional
associations, they had become intrigued by that kind of convention and
puzzled by its appeal. So they taped the 1971 Convention of the American
Political Science Association in Chicago. In the process of shooting 150
hours of tape for a one-hour product, they learned a great deal about
During the 1971-1972 academic year, Kaye began experimenting with the
"consciousness raising" potential of tape with five community
organizations (particularly the Young Patriots Health Clinic in Uptown).
He taught these organizations to look at the reality of their communities
with tape. At the end of the academic year, with this work incomplete, the
state budget was cut and his funding collapsed. In drafting the budget, no
contingency plans had been considered for projects in progress.
Kaye is now devising projects with his most recent tape collaborator,
Roberta Kass, a former political and union organizer. They want to
discover "how one can use a medium that represents surfaces to get at
the insides of things. We want to develop," says Kaye, "modes of
making film and tape that speak adequately for the world they represent.
The problem is to make them speak for both the surface and the
inside." Their most provocative idea, which is now just an idea, is a
project that will "get inside" the world of children. They're
searching for the best ways of using the language of tape. Their concern
for more effective use of the medium has led Kaye and Roberta to edit this
month's issue of Radical Software, a national magazine devoted to
alternative video technology. In it, they've initiated the arduous process
of developing a language of criticism appropriate to tape by reviewing
past issues of the magazine itself and tapes by major tapemakers.
The idea of a critical issue provoked strong negative reactions.
Several influential tapemakers refused to submit their
efforts, saying that tapes aren't meant to be criticized or that criticism
But Kaye and Roberta believe criteria for evaluating tape are
necessary. As a tapemaker, Kaye says "you need to make and you need
to criticize. It's through the critical process that you begin to discover
the possibilities of the medium, its characteristics, and what can and
cannot be done."
Roberta supports this thesis in her introductory article, and sounds a
warning: "To keep silent about serious things will allow the
conventional and corrupt forces of public opinion, the state, and business
to swoop up the meanings and definitions. . . The new experiences we have
had are much too precious to subject to the twisted meanings of the old
culture which wildly attempts to absorb anything which even vaguely
Kaye Miller and Roberta Kass (at right)
It was great talking with you last Saturday and, as promised, I'll give
you some of the background of the text we prepared for Radical Software,
I began teaching political science at the University of Illinois at
Chicago Circle in 1967. That year, a colleague and I got backing
the University do a documentary film study of the Democratic National
Convention in Chicago, scheduled for 1968. It took two years to
complete, and the University wound up with an investment of close to
$50,000. Clearly, if we were to continue using visual media for
research, some cheaper way would have to be found. 1969-70 was the
transition period between the older CV video system, and the new AV
standard in half-inch videotape recording, exemplified by the Sony
Portapak, and we were encouraged to explore this new avenue.
that time, Roberta and I began working together.
By the end of the summer of 1972, Roberta and I had accumulated a fair
amount of experience with half-inch videotape technology, and I had
taught some courses in the uses of visual media. In 1971, we did the
largest-scale video project undertaken up to that time. It involved
taping the 1971 meeting of the American Political Science Association.
It was not a recording of the proceedings so much as an attempt to get
at the social organization of the convention and at the way in which
some salient issues were handled. In part, too, we wanted to test
of the central hypotheses of the portapak culture-- namely that people
and groups seeing themselves might actually have their consciousness
altered by the experience. To this end, we amassed about 15 portable
units, some stationary ones, a mammoth video projector, about 150 hours
of tape, crews of students who had been training three months for this
particular project, and a few professional film people. We also
developed some very clear protocols of procedure, in order to avoid a
circus; the convention was not a media event, and we did not want to
create the pretense of one. In addition to method, of course, we
produced edited tapes, one of which was used for several years in a
Women's Study programme.
Other projects in 1972 included (1) a series of tapes on poverty
subcontract to the School of Social Welfare at the University of
Chicago; (2) the use of half-inch video to assist a colleague of mine,
who was also a Chicago alderman (councillor), to tape town hall meetings
in an attempt to open up the political process in Chicago; (3),
recording of brain surgery on a monkey, as part of a process of ensuring
that ethical standards were adhered to in the treatment of laboratory
animals. (4) In the summer of 1972, we worked with a fledgling
community video action group in North Vancouver, British Columbia, that
was trying to apply locally some of the ideas that had been worked out
by the Challenge for Change programme of the National Film Board of
Canada. In these settings, we were sometimes concerned only with the
process, but in others the finished tape artifact was central. For
example, the poverty tapes eventually made their way to the U.S.
Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
Radical Software was very useful, up to a point. It featured lots of
neat technical stuff-- very important to everyone because the technology
needed so much tweaking and there were so many different ways to solve
problems. Many of us didn't know a vidicon tube from a vacuum tube,
no idea of what deep-cycling involved in a battery, and-- the biggest
bugaboo-- had the greatest difficulty editing tape. (Roberta and I
spent an entire day editing from one AV-3650 to another, losing our
edits because of break-up, finally winding up exactly where we had
started-- that is, at the beginning.)
Theoretically, too, Radical Software offered a new paradigm: here
an inexpensive, accessible technology that promised to de-mystify
itself, to democratize and decentralise the production of content, and
to offer the transformative experience of self-awareness to people and
groups in about as unmediated a manner as possible.
In this function, it was a technology that could make itself nearly
invisible. Subjects tended to forget our presence after awhile, with
our relatively small equipment and without the need for excessive light
levels. And, if they were anxious or really curious, they were
to pick up the camera themselves and join the process. If someone
accidentally dropped an AVC-3400, the loss was tiny compared to breaking
an Arriflex, so everyone could relax.
It is important to remember, as well, that instant playback for visual
media was then an astonishing concept. People initially found it
difficult to believe that moving pictures could be seen a few seconds
after they were shot.
Finally, readily-available portapaks could record and document and--
drawing on lessons some of us had learned first-hand in the political
events of 1968-- they could "witness." Portapaks worked
almost like a
reporter's notebook, but with the verity of lip-synchronized
picture/sound recording. [Since 1970, of course, inexpensive,
low-light level equipment has transformed our awareness of so many
things, from warfare to welfare to policing, and on and on. We take
easy rendering of reality for granted now; but at that time, the
was challenging and unbelievably exciting.]
We went into these applications enthusiastically. However, with our
academic backgrounds and responsibilities, we believed that Radical
Software was offering hypotheses, rather than certainties. A lot of
sounded good, but had to be tested. We ourselves did a lot, and
that some of the assertions held and some didn't. We met many
as well-- including people working with video as art-- who were
enthusiastic, involved, and experienced, but also expressed a healthy
Tossing this problem around, Roberta and I thought that it would be
great if Radical Software, in a period when half-inch video was
maturing, could start to engage in some examination of its own
premises. To this end, in September of 1972, I called Michael
whom I had met and spoken with at some length, and proposed that we edit
one issue of Radical Software, taking a critical approach. Mike was
quite positive about the idea and agreed to it immediately. My
department would provide editorial expenses, Roberta and I would recruit
people to write articles, which would include critical reviews of tapes,
and we would provide copy to RS in New York.
We worked at it during academic 1972-73, managing to find people who had
done very interesting work with half-inch, but had not become part of
the Radical Software "establishment." We had everything in
hand by May,
and then spent part of the summer editing and getting the copy prepared.
By that time, however, Shamberg had left New York and gone to California
to work in film. He assured us that Ira Schneider, who was taking
the editorship, understood our agreement and concurred in it. When
sent the text to Ira, there was a long silence in our contact.
I called him in New York and he said: "You didn't really expect
publish this, did you?" I was taken aback, and reminded him of
verbal agreement with Shamberg. His response was simply:
here anymore, and we're not interested in criticizing ourselves."
he hung up. Ira's response was a surprise. One of the
"guerrilla television" had been openness, and the eagerness to
things as they are rather than through the filters of high technology,
capital, and rigid social structure.
There were couple of more calls, which ended with shouting at both
ends. Very unpleasant all in all, but they did eventually send back
And so, there you have the story of this apocryphal text. In the
the most rewarding aspect of working on it was the contact with the
people who contributed articles, and the opportunity all of us had to
examine critically the impact this new technology was having. Of
more, and often larger, projects ensued-- things of the magnitude of Top
Value TV's coverage of the 1972 Republican Convention-- and the
technology raced ahead of all our expectations so that today what seemed
so advanced in 1970 is positively cranky and archaic, and we encounter
incredibly sophisticated video installations and applications nearly
everywhere we turn.
Re-reading the text of this issue after 32 years has
been a remarkable experience. The old expression, "The more
things change, the more they stay the same" seems so appropriate
here. Now, in 2005, we have the Internet, with the utter ubiquity of
images and instantaneity of distribution-- things, in 1973, we could only
imagine might happen "one day."
Ira Schneider may have been justified in censuring us for daring to
criticize a movement brimming with self-confidence; it was a
fact is, though, that half-inch video never really had the muscle and the
distribution capabilities to do what it claimed it could. Computers and
the Internet have leap-frogged over all of that and, once again, we are
caught up in the rush of what seems to be an inexorable future. Now,
as then, movements in their expansionary phase have little tolerance for
critical analysis, which is regarded somehow as negative thinking.
There are not inherent problems, rather there are "challenges"
and "issues," implying that everything can be solved with a
positive attitude and ingenuity. Perhaps this time it is true;
after all, the Internet has enabled an undreamed-of diffusion of these new
modes of production.
Will there be a critical phase, or are we at the "end of
history?" Stay tuned, as they used to say in Radio; or,
"Pictures at eleven" (oops! pictures right now). Can the
software get any more
Best regards, Kaye
Kaye Miller -
Roberta Miller 2005