Subject to Change:
Guerrilla Television Revisited
By Deirdre Boyle

By Deirdre Boyle, 1985
Art Journal: Video - The Reflexive Medium, No. Fall 1985

Source (and entire article):

Experimental Television Center L.T.D. - Video History Project


Video pioneers didn't use covered wagons; they built media vans for their cross-country journeys colonizing the vast wasteland of American television. It was the late sixties, and Sony's introduction of the half-inch video Portapak in the United States was like a media version of the Land Grant Act, inspiring a heterogeneous mass of American hippies, avant-garde artists, student-intellectuals, lost souls, budding feminists, militant blacks, flower children, and jaded journalists to take to the streets, if not the road, Portapak in hand, to stake out the new territory of alternative television.


The introduction of the stand-alone time-base corrector in 1973, a black box that stabilized helical scan tapes and made them broadcastable, changed everything. It was finally possible for small-format video to become a stable television production medium, which paved the way not only for guerrilla television to reach the masses but also for the rise of ENG and, eventually, all-video television production. Given TVTV's unprecedented success with Four More Years, it was only logical that they produce the first half-inch video documentary for airing on national public television.

The tape was Lord of the Universe, and its subject was the fifteen-year-old guru Maharaj Ji. Millenium '73, a gathering of the guru's faded flower children followers, was scheduled for the Houston Astrodome, which the guru promised would levitate at the close (like the Yippies at the Pentagon in '67, the guru knew how to create a media event). Elon Soltes, whose brother-in-law was a would-be believer, followed him with Portapak from Boston to Houston while other TVTV crew members gathered in Houston to tape the mahatmas and the “premies” (followers), getting embroiled in what was to be the most successful TVTV tape but also the most shattering for its makers. Fearful of mind control and violence (a prankish reporter had been brained by a guru bodyguard not long before) and stricken by the sight of so many of their own generation lost and foundering in the arms of this spiritual Svengali, TVTV determined to expose the sham and get out unscathed. The tape was the zenith of TVTV's guerrilla-TV style.

Switching back and forth between the preparation for the actual onstage “performances” of the guru, cameras focused on “blissed-out” devotees pathetically seeking stability and guidance in the guru's fold. Neon light, glitter, and rock music furnished by the guru's brother (a rotund rip-off of Elvis Presley) on a Las Vegas-styled stage was the unlikely backdrop for the guru's satsang or preaching to his followers. Outside, angry arguments between premies and Hare Krishna followers and one bible spouting militant fundamentalist exposed the undercurrent of violence, repression, and control in any extremist religion. TVTV cleverly played off two sixties radicals against each other. Having traded in his role of countercultural political leader for that of spokesman for an improbable religion, Rennie Davis sings the guru's praises as Abbie Hoffman, one of guerrilla TV's Superstars, watches Davis on tape and comments on his former colleague's arrogance and skills as a propagandist. “It's different saying you've found God than saying you know his address and credit card number,” Hoffman quips, emphasizing the grasping side of this so-called religion.

Much in evidence is TVTV's creative use of graphics, live music, and wideangle lens shots. As always there is humor leavening what was for TVTV a tragic situation. At one point, our Boston guide to the “gurunoids” innocently remarks, “I don't know whether it's the air conditioning, but you can really feel something.” The humor is a black humor, rife with an irony that dangerously borders on mockery but is checked by an underlying compassion for the desperation of lost souls. At home in the world of spectacle and carnival, ever agile in debunking power seekers, TVTV admirably succeeded in producing a document of the times that remains a classic.

Film's Hidden Impact

Paul Goldsmith, a well-known 16mm verite cameraman, had joined TVTV along with Wendy Appel and was the principal cameraman on this and subsequent tapes, shooting one-inch color for the first time in the Astrodome. Appel, also trained in film but an accomplished videomaker as well, would become TVTV's most versatile editor. Not surprisingly, some of the most critical people in creating the TVTV style came out of film: Stanton Kaye and Ira Schneider, who worked on the convention tapes, were also filmmakers. TVTV's raw vitality was a video and cultural by-product, but their keen visual sense and editing was borrowed, in large measure, from film.

TVTV won the DuPont-Columbia Journalism Award for Lord of the Universe and, not long after, a lucrative contract with PBS to produce a series of documentaries for the TV Lab. Gerald Ford's America, In Hiding: Abbie Hoffman, The Good Times Are Killing Us, Superbowl, and TVTV Looks at the Oscars were made in the next two years. Some were equal to the TVTV name, like “Chic to Sheik,” the second of the four-part Gerald Ford's America. But others showed a decline as the diverse group of video freaks who had once converged to make TVTV a reality-all donating time, equipment, and talent to make a program that would show the world what guerrilla television could do-began to stray in their own directions, no longer willing to be subsumed in an egalitarian mass, no longer able to support themselves on good cheer and beer. With the broadcast of Lord of the Universe some of the best minds in guerrilla television unwittingly abandoned their utopian dream of creating an alternative to network television. Their hasty marriage with cable was on the rocks when TV-albeit public television-seduced them with the fickle affection of its mass audience.

Source (and entire article):
Experimental Television Center L.T.D. - Video History Project

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