In 1970 a group of young radicals moved out of their SoHo loft and to Maple Tree Farm, a rambling 27-room boarding house in Lanesville, a tiny town in Upstate New York. They called themselves the Videofreex, and they operated as a collective, collaborative media-production unit.

A year before this exodus from New York City, in 1969, two future Freex, David Cort and Parry Teasdale, met at the Woodstock Music Festival. They immediately recognized each other as fellow travelers by virtue of the fact that they both had early video cameras.

IMAGE 1.

Screenshot of The Now Project CBS TV by Videofreex being screened in December 1969 at the Prince Street studio (1969/2019); courtesy Videofreex.

IMAGE 1.

Screenshot of The Now Project CBS TV by Videofreex being screened in December 1969 at the Prince Street studio (1969/2019); courtesy Videofreex.

While living in the loft, owned by Videofreex Mary Curtis Ratcliffe, the group had been hosting all night parties and video screenings where they would play back video to each other or an array of amazed audience members. They also managed to be hired by CBS to make a “youth culture” video documentary series titled Subject to Change (1969). The Freex spent several months in production, collecting prescient, electrifying footage of protests, arrests, Abbie Hoffman saying “fuck,” Black Panthers discussing police violence, and psychedelic performance art. CBS had wanted something more au courant to take the place of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which had recently been cancelled amid much controversy over antiwar content. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the even more controversial (and certainly far more weird) Subject to Change show was cancelled before it was even aired. However, the Freex were allowed to keep equipment and their initial payments from the show, which outfitted them nicely for their subsequent exit from New York City.

IMAGE 2.

Echo Cottage, built in 1819 and later expanded to Maple Tree Farm and currently the Breathe Inn; photographer unknown (n.d.); photograph courtesy Betty Neal, great-great-great-great granddaughter of original owners, and David Schneider, current owner of the Breathe Inn.

IMAGE 2.

Echo Cottage, built in 1819 and later expanded to Maple Tree Farm and currently the Breathe Inn; photographer unknown (n.d.); photograph courtesy Betty Neal, great-great-great-great granddaughter of original owners, and David Schneider, current owner of the Breathe Inn.

IMAGE 3.

The Breathe Inn (2019) by Skip Blumberg; courtesy the artist.

IMAGE 3.

The Breathe Inn (2019) by Skip Blumberg; courtesy the artist.

Unlike many of their contemporary back-to-the-landers, the Videofreex were not attempting to start living an agricultural lifestyle, or go off the grid. Instead, their aim was to plug into the nascent network of participatory media makers by making a space to live and work on media production together. The Videofreex cannily ascertained that the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA), which at that time had just started making media arts grants, was much more likely to distribute this funding to them if they presented a clear signal in the relative media wilderness of the Catskills, rather than competing against their peers in New York City. In 1971, NYSCA received 20.2 million dollars from the New York State Legislature, still the largest State governmental aid allotment to the arts in United States history.1 NYSCA also began a new program at this time, designed to facilitate distribution of these funds throughout the state, including to rural counties and arts councils, instead of allowing them all to be absorbed by New York City.

Yippie trickster and activist Abbie Hoffmann had underwritten the Freex production of a DIY television transmitter that he hoped to use to broadcast pirate television. In the city it had never worked, possibly because of competing signals. When the Videofreex installed the transmitter and antennae in the house at Maple Tree Farm, however, they were able to successfully send a signal into town a mile or two away. The Videofreex parlayed this initial successful signal into the first, and likely the longest-running, pirate television station in the US: Lanesville TV. In many ways Lanesville TV prefigured cable public-access television, featuring a diverse array of programming including playful, lightly scripted skits with neighbors; call-in shows; and variety performances.

IMAGE 4.

Raising the Lanesville TV receiving antenna (1975) by Nancy Cain.

IMAGE 4.

Raising the Lanesville TV receiving antenna (1975) by Nancy Cain.

The Lanesville TV station did eventually become a legal public-access cable television station, and the originators of Lanesville TV, especially Bart Friedman, Nancy Cain, and Parry Teasdale, did become important figures in early public access. Friedman and Cain went on to run the Woodstock public-access cable station for a decade. Public-access television, as a movement and as a organizational structure, prefigured much of the later internet-based alternative media outlets such as Indymedia and, in some ways, social media platforms.

The Videofreex were a shifting and changeable crew that included founders David Cort, Davidson Gigliotti, Curtis Ratcliffe, and Parry Teasdale and members that were picked up during the initial entanglement with CBS: Skip Blumberg, Nancy Cain, Friedman, and Carol Gooden (formerly VanTobel). All told, the group spent about nine years at Maple Tree Farm, from 1970 to 1978, when individuals and couples left the group.

Approximately forty-nine years after the Videofreex arrived in Lanesville, and exactly fifty years since the fateful encounter between two camera-wielding individuals at the Woodstock Music Festival, the Videofreex convened a reunion in the original Maple Tree Farm building in Lanesville. The town, which is fairly close to Woodstock, was bustling with boomers due to the simultaneous fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. The former ramshackle boarding house is now a well-appointed Airbnb, complete with in-ground pool.

I was invited, along with a few other “new generation” mediamakers, curators, and activists to contribute to “Maple Tree Farm Report: Participatory Media Roots & Branches,” a report devised by Blumberg to compare “early” independent video production models with contemporary digital media production. The intent of the “Maple Tree Farm Report: Participatory Media Roots & Branches” convening and report was to look back to the “work of the first indy video pioneers, focusing on Videofreex as an example of the several earliest production groups and artists using video as an artist's and activist's tool in the very beginning of the medium” and turn to the contemporary mediamakers and activists present to relate that work to “the current media situation and forecast the future of participatory media.”2 Questions, disseminated in advance by Skip Blumberg, included “How do methods and projects used by Videofreex and other video pioneers relate to current artist collaborative, participatory media projects and socially conscious works through social media?” and “How might participatory media look in the future?”

In total, 18 participants, including five of the original Freex, convened at the site of the Videofreex collective home and production studio, Maple Tree Farm. In addition to Blumberg, Friedman, Gigliotti, Gooden, and Teasdale we were joined by additional “roots” including Chicago video archivist, originator of Mediaburn.org, and TVTV member and documentarian Tom Weinberg; activist Eddie Becker; and Paper Tiger Television founder DeeDee Halleck.

Marisa Holmes, one of the younger participants (“branches” in the formulation of the convening) had been a key protagonist and organizer in the Occupy movement, and was a veteran of the Charlottesville protests and witness to the murder that took place there. During the structured conversations and exchanges of the convening, the responses of this younger contingent, myself included, were anxious and concerned about the direction of media and technology, and in particular the rise of a fascist right and the dire consequences of climate change, where the older generation's optimism in the potential of communications technology seemed harder to shake.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no conclusions were reached. This moment, in which the already-bruised democratic and egalitarian promise of internet connectivity in general (and social media platforms in particular) has been exposed for its mind-numbing, data-stealing, democracy-undermining, and thought-manipulating reality, is quite sobering. The general trend of media production and distribution had been toward broader access—from the mid-1960s, when the first Portapaks appeared, to the mid-2000s, when video on the web became viable. At some point the saturation point of total access to the means of production and distribution was reached, at which point we collectively started to notice that we'd neglected to consider who controls the platforms and the invisible, algorithmic structures that make them functional and profitable.

It seems to me that the radical early video mediamakers had a strong belief that access to the technology would sort out the problems of access to ideas, community, hope, resources, and information. In this idealistic formulation access to the tools of media production and distribution would lead naturally to media literacy and democracy: each sovereign individual making, distributing, and consuming media, with a full understanding of how it might be used both for and against them and their interests. In fact, the current granularity of individual access to production and distribution, with no control over the platform, has led to an extreme fracturing and distrust of all sources.

So maybe what's crucial and not understood about the Freex, Lanesville Pirate TV, and their cohort of collectively operating early video makers, is not their position as under-lauded early adopters of the technology but as originators of a new way of dealing with community, a new way of gaining access to places. The video camera was above all a means of access when it was still rare to be able to record. It gained these makers access to the Republican National Convention floor in 1972 and to the homes of otherwise skeptical community members in Lanesville. Now huge numbers of people can record and distribute through smartphones and the internet. The difference between the era of the Freex and the current paradigm is the apparent ability for media makers in the 1970s to use their access to the tools of media production to build community relationships through a public perception of expertise and trustability. I spent some of the time at Lanesville (when I wasn't acting as a “branch” and prognosticating about the future of media) interviewing Bart Friedman, Davidson Gigliotti, and Tom Weinberg. Skip Blumberg was busy being the facilitator, project manager, and impresario during the convening and didn't have much time to talk. He visited Nancy Cain a few weeks after the convening and I managed to catch up with them both via phone.

Many of my questions centered around my interests in resources, consensus, collaboration, and systems of collective governance. I also always want to know what people, particularly elders I admire, think about the future. Will it be happy or horrifying? Are human beings capable of learning from the past? Are our prognostications based on trial and error, experience, and logic, or do we tend to just project our natural tendencies and our early imprinting into the future, so that individuals constitutionally inclined toward pessimism imagine the worst while natural optimists figure everything will be fine? What can we expect from the future, and what practical, tactical things can we learn from the immediate past? In many ways we are extraordinarily lucky, that due to the accelerated pace of media innovation, we have access to these truly avant-garde originators of the form we are now inundated by. It is as if the first bloggers could talk to the originators of the printing press. In the media ecology climate change has already happened. Is it too late to direct our mediated present toward a more sustainable future?

Toward an understanding of the dynamics of these makers, and in hopes of gathering some wisdom for my own endeavors, I attempted to ask practical questions. I wanted to know how individuals who were living and working collectively managed to make decisions, share money and other resources, and be productive.

I also wanted to know how early adopters of now ubiquitous video technology were thinking about future technology back in the early 1970s—whether their predictions had been borne out or proven wrong, as well as how they conceived of the immediate technological future that we now face.

 

liz flyntz: How did the Videofreex handle collective decision making and resource sharing?

skip blumberg: It was like a lot of things in life: when you're open for something big, things can happen to you. [After the CBS funding ran out], I stayed with the group and gave the group four or five thousand dollars that I had saved from teaching. I was going to buy a VW van and do a Euro tour on my own. But instead I thought Europe would be there for a long time. And the Videofreex were, you know, an opportunity.

So I gave the Videofreex my money. In my opinion, that allowed me a share in the gear, because they had at that point three Sony Rover Portapaks and had built a studio on Prince Street. Because I had gone to graduate school in business, I became sort of an administrator of the group at that point. That was my role. We were a startup in 1969. I wanted to find out our goals, so we had a meeting and within a half hour it disintegrated into people just chatting with each other. Nobody had the patience for a meeting. And that was like the last time we had a big meeting.

So I started a nonprofit corporation. David and Curtis and Parry had already had a profit-making corporation. I learned how to shoot from Davidson and learned how to edit from Chuck and Parry. We taught each other stuff. It was an amazing time because we were a utopia. We were able to have a consensus organization. I led from the rear in terms of the corporation, and we got hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from NYSCA and the National Endowment for the Arts [NEA].

We stayed together, in my opinion, because we had separate domains and we all trusted each other and we were productive. Nobody was lazy. We all had our separate roles, so we didn't interfere with each other. There were conflicts. We didn't get along with each other sometimes. But in general, we stayed together as a functioning part of a highly productive group for nine years. It's amazing to look back because, you know, for somebody who had gone to graduate school in business and who has had many productions subsequently, the concept that these nine lunatics stayed together for so long is just astounding. And a testimony to the human spirit and the ability to overcome differences in order to gain bigger goals.

I guess it was because we also were politically motivated. Besides being against the war and for peace in the world, we were helping the environmental movement, which was nascent. We helped organize the first Earth Day. Men and women participated in women's rights marches and [we did] interviews with Flo Kennedy and the leaders of that movement. We were very close with Abbie Hoffman and with the Yippies and the Black Panthers. And although we didn't subscribe to the violence that both of those groups recommended, we did want there to be strong voices criticizing the status quo.

So we were engaged in the world and at the same time participating in this open culture, which was interesting. We grew our own organic food, and cooked for ourselves and participated in Whiz Bang Quick City, which was a weeklong conference about houses, temporary housing units, and geodesic domes. We participated in this whole alternative culture movement.

In undergrad I was a sociology major. So I thought in terms of sociology and psychology, groups and individuals. Business school was like an application to me, to understand how groups work. But what you're asking is crucial because of the pitfalls of consensus and seeing what happens, especially with leftist organizations, where they get involved in these internecine fights about details that are ultimately unimportant.

The deal is, the Videofreex didn't want to go to meetings because when you were at meetings, you didn't get anything done. We like to be in production. When you're in production, you get stuff done. If you're shooting, if you're editing, if you're fixing the gear, if you're doing what you have to do to keep the organization going like making dinner. The basic things. Then that's progress.

I'm looking back at the 1970s from the perspective of being in my seventies now. And there is a certain sense of wisdom at this age that you get from understanding the relative importance of things that you don't have in your twenties. So you get involved in mishegoss. That's what we used to say when I was growing up. Now it's a lot easier for me to, you know, forgive and to just see bigger things.

In a group, you always have leaders and followers. But in this group, there are a lot of creative people and you cannot tell artists what the fuck to do.

tom weinberg: [speaking about TVTV] I don't know the answer. We just kind of did the best we could. Sometimes people who thought they had the authority exerted the authority. Sometimes people who didn't have the authority had a better idea than other people. And it got resolved a different way. One person who was more or less in the driver's seat. It's very weird because to make TV shows there has to be producer. There has to be a director. The lines of authority are very clear. In the collective structure, it wasn't as idealistic as one may think. In other words, it was always one person who was the person or two people who kind of took charge. And then if people didn't like what was going on, then they had to confront them.

 

flyntz: What about funding?

blumberg: People would have different kinds of projects that we would propose for NYSCA or the NEA, which would be events or screenings or workshops, public events and other projects. So I would go around and ask each individual person what they had planned for the coming period in terms of workshops, traveling—we did traveling media bus tours.

Our nonprofit organization was Media Bus Inc. We would apply for projects that people would propose. When [the grant funding] would come through, we would have to figure out how the money would be spent because it would be far less than we were proposing. Some things were funded less so we did them less and some things we could spend and share because there was more for overhead, which was paying rent for a month or two. I don't know how we did the food, but we were on food stamps. So in other words, we survived for nine years. We had budgets but nobody was in charge.

nancy cain: There was plenty of equipment. You had to make sure that you charged up all your equipment before you finished. If you had a gig, that was good. Editing was great there, because if you had any problems we had Chuck [Kennedy], who had his shop right above the editing room. If I was working on an edit and something was going wrong, I would take the broomstick, and I'd poke it up into the ceiling and he would hear it on the floor. And no matter how many beers he had had, he would come down and fix the technical problem.

tom weinberg: [Speaking about TVTV] Ant Farm was part of TVTV in the beginning too. But they left earlier to do their own thing. Part of that was there was no money. At one point there was a meeting at Pier 40 in San Francisco, which is where the Ant Farm was before the fire. We all came together to try to figure out our future here. Doug Michaels and Michael Shamberg were in serious disagreement. Doug said there's no money in this. The only thing we're getting is image points. What we're getting is you know … “known”: articles and connections with people. And yet the people who are getting that credit are not us. So either that gets equalized in some way or Ant Farm doesn't need to be part of it. So it didn't get equalized and Ant Farm wasn't a part of it after that.

TVTV became a corporation. And we issued stock and sold it to people who had money. We were able to do quite a few programs with that, but we still didn't make much money from our distribution. It gave us a little bit of permanence, it was a structure. We had to deal with the conditions and corporation structure. We had actual certificates of stock, which we sold to our uncles and whoever we could get money from.

 

flyntz: My interest in this is that I do a lot of work with collectives and groups and I find that there usually are conflicts and power struggles. And it's amazing to me because it really seems like what you're saying is there really wasn't very much in terms of conflicts or power struggles.

blumberg: There were no power struggles because the biggest one was [one person] wanting to take too many resources. He didn't have a normal person's limits. Or even awareness in certain ways about his impact. Because he was moving forward. He was passionate about what he was doing. We had respect for all that.

cain: We had been out on a big shoot, we came back and on the stove was a big pot full of gasoline, and in the pot was his jeans. To get the grass stains out of his pants. So there was gasoline on a fire on top of the stove.

blumberg: The house could have blown up. It was an incendiary scene.

 

flyntz: How were the Videofreex organized? For instance, how did you make decisions and how did you choose what you were going to work on and how did you resolve disputes?

bart friedman: Well, pretty much the way we have been doing things here [at Maple Tree Farm during the convening] in the last few days. Just discussion with everybody.

The way you do video is an expression of your own personality. The way you see things through the camera is related to the way you see things in life. So it is hard for people to share a vision with other people, but in an effort to cooperate and to see things in a new way and to learn from each other, you say, OK, I'll work with you, I'll carry the equipment this time, I'll load the camera and change the batteries, or I'll do audio, I'll do the lighting.

So that was really a wonderful experience learning to collaborate with people. We just surrendered to the situation because occasionally you needed to ask other people for help. You wanted to do a multi-camera job, or an interview—if you wanted help on your projects, you had to be willing to help people. We were free to be as imaginative and as interested in whatever it was in the world that we were attracted to.

But some people are calm and they shoot that way and some people are like me. I was looking in four directions at once. And my camera work reflects that.

davidson gigliotti: David and Curtis and Parry made the decisions at the beginning. They were the Videofreex at the time, and they did the final edits.

I had gotten 500 bucks from CBS just for doing what I was doing. And so I had some money and I guess everybody had some money. They were living off savings or whatever. We didn't have any real income until the NYSCA thing kicked in.

It wasn't at all easy—it was like herding cats. Everybody had their own ideas about everything. But we realized, too, that in order to do what we wanted to do, we were going to have to work something out because we couldn't do it alone. That was clear. You couldn't do it alone because we didn't have the resources or the spaces or anything. Together we could live relatively cheaply and we had access to all of our equipment.

 

flyntz: Is this the future that you envisioned, the future that we have now? Is it the future that you envisioned when you all moved to Maple Tree Farm?

blumberg: I don't know. There were futurists among us. Doug Michaels and Ant Farm were amazing about looking to the future. They put out a booklet called 20/20 Vision.3 I just liked making stuff and surviving, doing what I wanted to do, having adventures, using video as a vehicle to explore the world. I made a lot of documentaries. We talked about current events being a future that we could never have ever possibly anticipated. Even Nam June Paik talked about TV Guide being as thick as a New York City telephone book, which was anticipating cable TV and 100 cable channels and then 60,000 videos a day going up on YouTube, but he never anticipated that TV Guide would be obsolete or that TV would be obsolete, which is what we are at the brink of right now.

At this point I'm thinking a lot more about the opportunities to leap over Donald Trump and get the better world that we want. We're at a crucial time in the future of the planet and the future of civilization on the planet, our species. We really have to act nimbly to get to this better place. But I believe that with good nutrition and education, we can get there. I'm hoping that the 2020 election gives us something substantial.

In terms of your previous question, Occupy Wall Street did a great job at publicizing what was needed and how we need to lop off the wealth. We're in a wealthy, wealthy civilization. And we just need to distribute it better. Occupy was great. But it stumbled because participants started getting involved in these minute differences. We have to get past the minute differences. Find leaders who have a politics of love, who have the intelligence and leadership not to vanquish the enemy, but to humble the enemy, and have the confidence to lead and get us to that better place. So every act that we do now, including this interview, including everything we do for the next two years, has to be toward that goal. The revolution is at hand.

IMAGE 5.

Harriet Benjamin and Videofreek Nancy Cain answering live phone calls on the air in the Lanesville TV studio at Maple Tree Farm (1974) by the Videofreex; screenshot from WNET VTR episode about “probably America's smallest TV station”; courtesy Videofreex.

IMAGE 5.

Harriet Benjamin and Videofreek Nancy Cain answering live phone calls on the air in the Lanesville TV studio at Maple Tree Farm (1974) by the Videofreex; screenshot from WNET VTR episode about “probably America's smallest TV station”; courtesy Videofreex.

When we're talking about singularity, you know, this is a transitional period right now. We're in an awkward period where the system does not quite work. Look at passwords, for instance—stupid stuff. We need protection. But passwords are not the answer.

Our big job is to put humanity into the algorithm so that the machines recognize this thing that's called life. This thing, this magical thing of heartbeats and brain pulses so that the machines recognize that it's not just chemistry and electronics. So that our values are in the algorithms for the machine.

cain: It's a future I would have wished for, for everyone to be involved in their own thing. There were 10 or 20 years of having politics really not be there and then suddenly the politics came back. There really wasn't any Videofreex politics and there wasn't any Videofreex for maybe 10 or 20 years and then it all came back.

 

flyntz: Do you think that's because things just didn't seem dire enough?

cain: You know, maybe other things were happening. When people would ask me about video and the video camera, I would try to explain to them that the video camera was for adventure, freedom, possibilities, and truth. I would reiterate that it wasn't movies or television, it was video. Video was roving, video came along for the ride. It was media that was participatory. All of those things came back and it all turned out to be true. From the first time that I held the camera, I knew that we were going to be friends for life, that I was partners with the camera.

 

flyntz: I guess the future question about the technology we have now is: is it something that you expected to have? It seems like everyone who I have spoken to has said, more or less, yes. We couldn't have envisioned everything, but we certainly thought we saw the way that video was going, that video was going to become more and more accessible, more and more ubiquitous. Smaller, better.

cain: Smaller, lighter, cheaper, faster.

weinberg: I don't think it occurred to me very much. I mean, the more people who had it, the more we thought that would be democratized. We didn't understand fully, even though we were victims of it, that eventually, the corporate superstructure would limit what you could do. And that, of course, is the case now. There are millions of people who submit videos to YouTube and nobody sees them unless it's like some viral thing. And there's no good way to find them either. Just because you can do something doesn't make it meaningful.

 

flyntz: But the political situation, what do you think about that? Did you expect it to turn out like it has? Would you have you ever envisioned Trump happening?

cain: I won $10 because he won the election, but it wasn't worth it. I expected that he was going to win but I couldn't have imagined how horrible it could possibly be; that's beyond me.

blumberg: I'll answer both questions. In 1969 or '70 or '71, I couldn't ever imagine. I could imagine the camera getting smaller and simpler, but I never imagined the camera merging with the telephone. And it being in my pocket all the time! Which I'm very excited about now.

In terms of Trump, in '68, '70, and '72 people were saying, real radicals were saying, “Elect Nixon, so there can be a revolution.” You know, let's get the worst guy in so there can be the revolution. That's sort of what's happening. No, we never envisioned this and also being from New York City, we knew Trump thirty years ago and he was never considered an authentic person at all. He was always considered a buffoon sort of salesperson, a hustler, a huckster. He grew up in Jamaica Estate. He wasn't a real New Yorker; he was some real estate mogul's kid.

I'm so pleased with what's going on now. I feel privileged to be living now, because it's in normal times I feel unsettled. But in unsettled times I blend right in. I'm a conformist in this situation. And there's opportunities for making big leaps now, if we can get together. We need to build a mass movement like Bernie Sanders says, maybe not with Bernie leading it and maybe not with Elizabeth Warren. I don't know who.

 

flyntz: So this technological future where we have the means of media production in our pockets from our smartphones, is this what you envisioned in 1971? Were you thinking about the future in 1971?

friedman: We all knew someday we'd have handheld color video. We were thinking, how do we go from black and white to color? How do we go from needing two or three people to go out on a shoot to one person doing it all? But we knew, too, that in the future, you would have the ability to be a television crew all by yourself. We knew everybody would be doing that. We wouldn't be the only ones. Yeah, I sort of suspected it would be like this. Not to this extent, but the fact that we would have the technology and the technology would evolve.

 

flyntz: So how do you feel about the situation that we're in now? Do you see it as just a step along the way, with a potential positive outcome in terms of democratic access to the media? It seems like the utopian ideal of everyone having a production studio in their pocket was that media would be democratized and everyone could express their opinion and there wouldn't be this extreme top-down broadcast model like in television in the 1950s and '60s.

friedman: Well, I think what's going to happen is that if I know you and depending on how well I know you, I would trust your media as much as I trust you as a person.

IMAGE 6.

“Why don't we do it in the road”: multi channel playback in the Maple Tree Farm living room in 1977 (Bart Friedman can be seen on the far right); photograph by Davidson Gigliotti.

IMAGE 6.

“Why don't we do it in the road”: multi channel playback in the Maple Tree Farm living room in 1977 (Bart Friedman can be seen on the far right); photograph by Davidson Gigliotti.

 

flyntz: So the other big question that I have is about this utopian ideal of democratized media. There's this idea that if everybody has the means of production and the means of distribution, that the problems of representation would sort of work themselves out. And it seems like that hasn't happened. In fact, we're dealing with the aftermath of that being proven to be not true.

gigliotti: We are in early days with this.

 

flyntz: Well, is this the future that you envisioned in 1971 or were you not thinking about that then?

gigiliotti: I was thinking about the future. Other people were, too. Frank Gillette was thinking about the future. Paul Ryan was thinking about the future. If you look at that first editorial in Radical Software, they were turning Marx on his head, kind of saying it's not land, labor, and capital anymore—it's information, that's what's important. I was always cognizant of the fact that this is the very beginning. You know, you get all kinds of crazy things happening in the beginning and sometimes the beginning lasts a long time.

So how it would evolve—we just sort of thought it would have to be better than what it is now. You know, the information order is today and probably has always been primary. It's the first thing. If we go back in time to the Middle Ages, the only thing most people knew was what they heard other people say. That's part of the information order. That's how people operate. Information is the big thing. When you change the information order, when you make sudden changes in the information order, it is always disruptive. Always.

Let's look, for example, at the printing press, which was invented around 1450, and it changed the whole face of northern Europe. The reason it did was because Martin Luther used the printing press to promulgate Protestantism all over northern Europe, challenging at that point the autocracy or the autonomy of the Roman Catholic Church, which in a sense governed Europe for that time. And the result was not peaceful. The whole sixteenth century is a story of wars, many of them religious. At a time when a quarter of the population in Germany was killed to bring this all about. So are glad we have the printing press? We wouldn't want to do without it, would we? We're glad it turned out the way it did. We love books. We love newspapers. The printing press brought us all that. But before it did, it brought us a lot of trouble.

IMAGE 7.

“Roots and Branches” gathering at the former Maple Tree Farm, now the Breathe Inn, in 2019 (Davidson Gigliotti is presenting); photograph by Liz Flyntz.

IMAGE 7.

“Roots and Branches” gathering at the former Maple Tree Farm, now the Breathe Inn, in 2019 (Davidson Gigliotti is presenting); photograph by Liz Flyntz.

 

flyntz: Are you drawing an analogy between the printing press and the Internet, causing us a lot of trouble?

gigliotti: You might say so. Yes. What I'm saying is that rapid and unexpected or let's just say rapid changes in the information order are disruptive. Even movies and radio. Think of what movies and radio did for Goebbels. Movies and radio did for Goebbels what the printing press did for Martin Luther. It enabled him to sell Hitler in Germany. As a result, we had World War Two.

 

flyntz: Do you think it's possible for us to make anything like accurate predictions about where this technology is going? Or do you think it's a too-complicated system?

gigliotti: Technology is always easier to predict than social conditions. Social conditions are not so easy to predict, but they are also heavily related to technology. Technology changes us and changes the way that we operate. Go back to Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, and when people started using the Internet on a regular basis, and then there were cell phones. I remember when cell phones were like bricks. Then the iPhone, the Mac computer that brought computers to ordinary people. All of this stuff created a massive change in the way we look at things and the way we interact.

But, as Marshall McLuhan told Paul Ryan and Paul Ryan told me, changes in the information order can be murderous at the beginning and during the change. What we have now is we're seeing that. It's a very chaotic time right now. There's a sort of a mass infestation, or whatever you want to call it, of cognitive dissonance affecting just about everybody at this point—left, right, and center. Nobody knows quite what to do. We have these massive polarizations, not just in this country, but in other places as well.

And we're just going to have to get through it. That's it. We'll get through it. Not in my lifetime.

IMAGE 8.

Videofreex standing in the field near Maple Tree Farm; photograph 1974 by the Videofreex; courtesy Skip Blumberg.

IMAGE 8.

Videofreex standing in the field near Maple Tree Farm; photograph 1974 by the Videofreex; courtesy Skip Blumberg.

IMAGE 9.

“Maple Tree Farm Report: Participatory Media Roots & Branches” conveners and families on August 10, 2019; photograph by the Videofreex.

IMAGE 9.

“Maple Tree Farm Report: Participatory Media Roots & Branches” conveners and families on August 10, 2019; photograph by the Videofreex.

 

flyntz: You mean humanity?

gigliotti: Yeah. Not in my lifetime. Maybe in your lifetime. But we don't know what it's going to look like. It's like being in a train, going through a tunnel. We can't see anything. We're in this tunnel and we're wondering what's going on. And when we come out of the tunnel, we don't have any idea what we're going to see.

And we're confronted with problems that cannot be solved on a national level. We have global problems. All the big problems coming down the pike. It's almost bad manners to discuss climate change and immigration in the same sentence, but they're inextricably linked. And you've seen, of course, what the political consequences of only a small amount of migration have brought us. Well, imagine when it gets really going.

And not only that, we have artificial intelligence coming down the line. Of course, you know, we don't perhaps put the importance on that that we should, because that's going to change a great many people's lives. It's going to change the whole work life of the planet, essentially.

Then the other thing we have coming down the line is genetic modification. All of these things are are totally unregulated and they're not specific to one particular country.

And that's why I'm pessimistic a little bit about things, at least for the near future.

NOTES

2.

20/20 Vision was a self-published catalog for a futuristic exhibition launched by Ant Farm at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 1973. It contained predictions for the future, calendars, and a variety of speculative designs.