The first post by our new Writer in Residence Ed Webb-Ingall
Community video is a term that was first used in the early 1970s, when individuals and groups who identified as activists or artists (or both or neither) began to experiment with newly available portable video technology. They did this in order to develop personal and political forms and approaches to recording moving images. Their intention was to represent themselves and challenge misrepresentation. The video projects that they made were often intended only to be seen by specific audiences selected by the makers and then recorded over in order to make new videos. Community video describes at once the act and the object, an approach to moving image making and activism that placed as much, if not more, emphasis on the process of making than on the video that was made.
In order for them to exist both words that make up the term ‘Community Video’ tend to be thought about as dependent on, or in relation to an other. A community can be defined geographically such as a neighbourhood or housing complex, as well in terms of a common interest such as a specific identity or politics. Video, when it was first established was defined in the context of mass media television or as a new form of film and is now a term most often used to describe an obsolete medium; that of tape-based recording technology. To define community video as one specific practice would be to deny its evasive and slippery nature. Yet it is this ambiguity that has meant that it tends to be combined with activities such as screen-printing, street theatre, community photography and mural painting as a form of community art or community development or else subsumed as a footnote to video or participatory art, often considered as having not enough aesthetic value to be taken seriously and thus dismissed for its ephemerality. To begin on such defensive and perhaps oppositional terms is to set community video up in a position of tension and uncertainty, which I would argue defined and shaped it as a practice of communities who have historically been marginalised. As such community video is best described at the intersection of a number of contexts and disciplines; namely the groups who developed the approach, the technology they used and the situations that they were working within and reacting to.
Unlike portable film cameras, which required footage to be processed and developed at a laboratory before playback was possible, video allowed for instant playback and relative ease of use. Community activists were also drawn to this medium due to the possibility for participants to ‘see themselves on tv’ when playback occurred on monitors. Broadcast from the lower grade tape stock used by this new technology and produced by non-unionised practitioners was not permissible on national television. However newly accessible local cable television networks made available in the mid-seventies by the Heath government allowed for playback made by portable video cameras and opened up further outlets and possibilities for community video practitioners1.
The development of video tape technology was the result of work carried out following World War II, primarily in the USA by the Ampex Corporation and in Japan by Sony. Both Sony and Ampex were working on the adaptation of audio tape recording technology in order to replace the use of film for recording moving images for broadcast with repeated and delayed playback. The broadcast models were made up of a ‘Quadruplex’ or transverse system, which used four heads to vertically scan two-inch tape at a ninety-degree angle to simultaneously record and reproduce images. However, in 1961 Sony began to develop two-head scanning known as Helical technology, which recorded onto half-inch tape on the diagonal. This allowed the tape to hold the same amount of information as the Quadruplex system but on half the width, necessitating only two heads saved space and enabled the development of more compact and subsequent portable models. In 1964 Sony unveiled the CV series; a helical-scan, monochrome, open-reel video tape recorder (VTR) with attachable camera and monitor, which they dubbed as the first home consumer video tape recorder. This was followed in 1969 by the standardised EAIJ-1 system across manufacturers and countries and allowed for more simplified playback and distribution, which was no longer dependent on one single model for all. In accordance with this standardisation Sony launched the AV-3400 Portapak that same year, also known as the Video Rover, this was the first use of the name Portapak and became the go-to video camera for most community video practitioners.
This technological context with an emphasis on access and democratization both influenced, and was influenced by, writing on systems and information theories (Shannon and Weaver) and cybernetics (Paul Ryan). Made popular by such influential publications as Radical Software in the USA and the Journal of the Centre for Advanced TV Studies in the UK. In the late 1960s and early 1970s community video practitioners were effected by Marxist and Socialist politics as well as new, non-hierarchical, anti-establishment approaches to education. By the mid seventies the influence of what came to be known as identity politics, with its considerations of class, race, gender and sexuality, began to change both the form and content of the work being made.
It was in this social and political context that artists, under the influence of conceptual and performance art, were seeking to develop non-object based and participatory practices outside of the closed off spaces of the gallery and art institutions. Instead they were expanding into disused temporary spaces made available due to the clearing of areas of London for eventual redevelopment, which had been taking place since the end of the Second World War. It was in one such space that, in 1967, Americans Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore set up the first Arts Lab on Drury Lane in Covent Garden. Here Moore designed both the cinema and theatre and went on to create the first video cinema by converting pre-war British TV sets into video projectors2. A timeline charting the development of community arts written by the Arts Council describes the impact of Arts Labs on the production of new forms of art practice outside of traditional art spaces:
This was no longer one small room, but a collection of rooms, which divided itself into cinema, performance area, coffee bar, bookshop, studios, gallery etc. It attracted a new youthful audience and presented work that otherwise would not have been seen in London… A whole era of youth oriented activities mushroomed on a scale that London had not seen before. Smaller arts labs opened in Birmingham, Brighton, Beckenham, Halifax, Liverpool and Cambridge… The organisations were loosely organised and concentrated all their activities towards encouragement of new work3
In order to understand and fund these new developments the Arts Council of Great Britain formed new groups, firstly the New Activities Committee (1969), which became the Experimental Projects Committee (1970) and led to the subsequent establishment of the Community Arts Committee (1975). At the same time the Film Committee at the Arts Council became the Film and Video Committee and by the mid-seventies the British Film Institute’s production board started to fund video projects. However, the contemporaneous establishment of video art and community art meant that responsibility for community video was often passed around and fell between the strict remits defined by these institutions. As a response to this subsidiary unions and organizations were established by community video practitioners, such as the Association of Community Artists (1974) and the Association of Video Workers (1974), in order to campaign for recognition of this form.
Since the late 1960s community groups were using video in Canada as part of Challenge for Change (1966), a programme that described itself as ‘designed to improve communications, create greater understanding, promote new ideas and provoke social change.’4 In the early 1970s a number of practitioners from the UK, including John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and Tony Dowmunt5, travelled to Canada to learn more about the potential for community groups to utilise this new portable video technology. However, the National Film Board in Canada initiated a state funded, top-down approach to community video, whereas groups in the UK formed from the bottom-up at a local level. Counter cultural groups in the UK were experiencing dissatisfaction with party politics and there was an urgency and excitement about the political potential, for what felt like utopian levels of accessibility and representation, that new video technology promised.
Community organisers had already made use of lithograph and screen printing and community darkrooms, adopting dominant forms of media in order to produce their own newspapers, journals and posters that communicated self-regulated ideas and campaigns. It was in this context that these groups could see how the use of video might follow on from this and be useful in a similar way. Much of the content of the videos being produced in the UK at this time was informed by activism at either a global or a local level. Global issues related to civil rights action including the black power movement, the women’s movement and gay liberation and those events taking place in North America in opposition to the war in Vietnam and issues effecting parts of the developing world including Africa, South America and China. At a local level following protests against nuclear disarmament there followed a growth in community activism for social change particularly in relation to housing, education and safe play for children.
A common thread in the community video projects being produced in the UK was to put the tools into the hands of those for whom the tools were usually inaccessible or otherwise oppressing. The development of community video embodies the desire for those groups, who were most often left without a means of representation or else misrepresented by dominant forms of representation, to develop shared approaches and forms of representation suitable and sympathetic to their specific situations. The intention of a community video project was often purposefully unclear and might include any or all of the following; for participants to learn new skills and feel valued, to aid the formation of group who could then go on to develop a shared set of ideas or to effect change in an external organisation. Feelings of empowerment came not simply out of the screening of videos in order to change policy but in personal moments of self-reflection, when seeing oneself reflected back at them on a screen they are usually absent from, in making something with others, or else in simply being asked their opinion on camera or entrusted to hold a video camera and ask someone else a question from this position of perceived power. I would argue that it is the invisibility placed on these groups that meant that the work they were attempting to carry out was continually undervalued at the time and has since been largely written out of history, this then begs larger questions about how this work is written about, seen and remembered now.
In this brief and cursory introduction to the ambiguous position of community video I have attempted to define or describe the context out of which this largely undocumented and under represented practice came out of and have begun to point towards reasons for this precarious positioning. In the next blog post I will go on to explore the forms and use of community video that were being developed by specific community groups in order to challenge misrepresentation and create new approaches and shared languages for self-representation.
LUX Writer in Residence Ed Webb-Ingall is a filmmaker with an interest in exploring practices and forms of collaboration. He works with groups, using modes of collective filmmaking as a means to investigate themes of identity, history, politics and representation.
1 The first of the four networks granted permission in 1972 was Greenwich Cablevision in South-East London, following this were local television networks in Bristol, Sheffield, Swindon, Wellingborough and Milton Keynes. All but Swindon were commercially owned and driven.
2 Although it is commonly reported that John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins had the fist Portapak in the UK, research shows that following an ongoing artistic relationship between John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Jack Henry Moore, developed through their work at the Arts Lab, Lennon gifted his Portapak to Moore, who then told Hoppy about it in February 1969, Hoppy subsequently borrowed this camera, as well as one direct from Sony, in order to carry out his first experiments into the use of video in a community context to record small, local arts festivals.
3 The Development of Community Arts with the Arts Council, 1974, Victoria & Albert archives, London
4 Waugh, Thomas, Ezra Winton, and Michael Brendan. Baker. Challenge for Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2010. Print
5 Hopkins was the co-founder of the Institute for Research in Art and Technology (IRAT) and later community video groups TVX and Fantasy Factory. Tony Dowmunt went onto work with community video groups Interaction, WACAT and Albany Video.