Communication Video: Some Overseas Experiences(edited)

Communication Video: Some Overseas Experiences




Megan McMurchy

From my present vantage point—as director of one of the first group of 'community access video centres' to be set up in Australia—I have approached the task of writing a piece on community use of video with some diffidence. An eight-months study tour of the U.S. made in 1973–4 with the assistance of a small grant from the Australian Film and Television School has given me much information about how community access television works in that country but not a lot of confidence about predicting the extent to which that information might be usefully applied in Australia. My idealised expectations about what I would encounter during my visits to community access centres in the U.S. were conditioned by what I had already picked up from books like Guerilla Television and Community Access Video. I felt that I was about to be introduced to some really awesome new alternative to the restrictive medium of broadcast television (four years of working for the Australian Broadcasting Commission had left me with a deep distrust of institutionalised media). These expectations were both confirmed and disappointed in unexpected ways.

One of the first things I discovered was that 'community access' in the U.S.—existing as it does solely within the context of the cable television industry—is very much the undernourished illegitimate offspring of a 'new' industry which is in fact owned largely by the same old entrenched media interests (broadcast television, newspapers, motion picture producers, etc.). 'Public Access' was a public relations gesture offered grudgingly as a trade-off for government approval of the corporate scenario for the industry.

However, regardless of the compromised and precarious nature of its existence, the grass-roots struggle for access to cable's abundance of channels has aroused in members of many communities an awareness that there is an area of their lives

exposure to media interpretation of their daily reality over which they can begin to exert control by creating their own interpretation of that reality. 8,000,000 American homes are now linked by cable to a potential source of multi-channelled information about the lives and concerns of people in their own neighbourhoods but it still remains to realise that potential. This imperative was clearly expressed at a conference I attended during June 1973 in Fullerton, California, where a group of advocates and users of community access from all over the country came together to declare their dedication to 'the concepts of absolute open access to information, access to the tools of production of that information, and access to the systems for its distribution. This we express in the interest of implementing the democratisation of the informational processes in this country and returning control of the media to communities'. Access to information about the nature of our governments and institutions, our environment, our day-to-day technology, our minds and bodies may provide us with the best means of achieving significant control over the forces that presently determine the shape of our lives. A major priority must be the demystification of the role of the 'experts' who define the parameters of our existence the politicians, the scientists and corporate technocrats, the doctors and psychiatrists, the broadcasters and advertising men who strive to confirm our mass sense of helplessness. The skills hoarded by these professionals must be decoded and disseminated as widely as possible so that people can begin to make real, not meaningless, decisions about the direction and quality of their lives. I believe community video has much to offer as a catalyst in this process. The applications of video technology that await exploitation by a community are limited only by the collective imagination of that community. There is no ideal range of projects to be engaged in. I intend in this article merely to mention a cross-section of the activities I saw at first-hand or heard of during my travels, in the hope that these might trigger off local variations or extensions of these ideas. There are some very straight-forward services a video centre can provide to the members of its community : a weekly 'newsreel' of local events ; up-to-date tapes on where to go and what to do for entertainment in the area ; replays of local music concerts and sports events ; local talent shows ; interviews with local  overnment officials and police etc. who may be questioned on the exact nature of their duties, powers and attitudes ; replays of local council meetings ; tapes on local history and skills. (One of the most extensive attempts to preserve a visual record of an entire region 's history and life style is currently taking place in the Appalachian region of Tennessee and Virginia. Tapes have been prepared on topics such as strip mining and how it affects farmers, the traditions of mountain music, and the disappearing

skills of molasses stirring, apple butter making, weaving and quilt-making, horse-shoeing and moonshining . Taped conversations with old residents of the region—miners, union activists, mid wive s and musicians—also form part of this Living Newsletter.) In Australia the lack of programme-originating cable systems makes the distribution of such tapes a problem ; however, the use of strategically located viewing centres (in pubs, coffee shops, supermarkets, community centres, libraries, schools, clinics etc) should manage to overcome this difficulty to some extent. In any case, much programming is likely to be geared to specific, well-defined audiences if a football club wants to check out the preliminary form of its players on tape, or if a Rotary club wishes to tape the proceedings of its annual general meeting, the question of wider distribution of the tapes doesn't usually arise.

Many of the services that video centres are in a position to make available could be grouped under the heading of 'survival information', a term I found being used by the Washington Community Video Center to describe a series of informational tapes they had made on the issues of consumer health education and nutrition, welfare rights, child care, legal aid, tenants' rights, housing problems, and environmental questions; tapes which , in short, 'inform residents about vital facts relating to their survival in the city'. One of the tapes I saw was 'Women and Health' shot by Elektra, a women's video collective, containing a dramatised segment in which women acted out the traditional examination by a male doctor (prying questions, moralising, mystifying examination and illegible prescription); a demonstration of breast examination and use of a speculum for pelvic self-examination; and a discussion on the need for self-help clinics and more emphasis on preventive treatment. Others were an orientation tape for people seeking housing in Washington, made with the help of a Spanish-speaking legal services group, giving information on tenants' rights and leasing procedures; and a slum-clearance tape that was shown to city officials who subsequently agreed to

convert a wrecked and deserted apartment building in to a playground. Tapes made in other cities dealing with urban survival issues included programmes on different aspects of 'the drug problem' ranging from a New York tape called let's Get High With Frank and Guy' (produced by the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), through straight coverage of a day in the life of a young junkie, to tapes promoting the views of groups such as the Harlem Team for Self Help, a drug-prevention programme aimed at young blacks. New York tapes on housing problems have covered the squatters' movement and hotel tenant harrassment —in one tape hotel residents explained how they formed a hotel tenants' coalition to fight for enforcement of protective regulations. Workshops in day-to-day legal problems, methods for dealing with the intimidatory tactics of police and welfare officers (using role-playing situations which in playback allow participants to observe the dynamics of these power plays),

familiarisation with court procedures, and information on how to obtain legal aid formed the subject of a series of 'community law' tapes made by New York's Alternate Media Center. The Video Access Center in Columbus, Indiana, prepared a series of tapes (run daily over the local cable system) explaining how to fill out income tax forms. The established forms of media have traditionally failed to provide a forum for social minorities to present a real image of themselves to society at large. They have actively inhibited such a presentation by subtly reinforcing stereotypes (even within the condescending format of 'sympathetic out- sider's view' documentaries), alternately sensationalising and trivialising minority view-points and practices. If the concept of alternative video means anything, it must mean an unfiltered voice for minority groups and the powerless in our society. Despite ABC television's attempt to convince us that 'public access' is only of interest to fringe groups and eccentrics, there are groups in our society with an urgent need to define a public identity for themselves, and a need for a medium through which they can directly serve their demands on the society that oppresses them. In the United States and Canada, women's video groups have proliferated in the wake of the women 's movement producing tapes on women's health problems, abortion, natural childbirth,

single mothers, job discrimination, and the myriad practical difficulties encountered daily by women in a society structured for male convenience (for example, a tape called 'No Carriages or Strollers Allowed' examined the mobility problems of wo me n with children). One of the regular daily features on New York's public access channels is 'Feminist News and Events'. Some of the tapes produced by the Women's Video Collective in New York include 'Operation Food Price Rollback', 'Sex Role Stereotypes in Schools', 'Women Who've Lived Through Illegal Abortions' and 'Sisters of the World in Solidarity'. Video offers itself as an ideal tool for consciousness raising and organising with its potential for both intimate in te ra ctive exchanges and widespread programme distribution. A group called Women in Cable have leased an entire cable channel in Memphis, Tennesee to run programmes for seventy local women 's organisations they are exploring the possibility of a national network of women's channels. The opportunity portable video offers women to acquire a proficiency in a technical sphere most of us have been frightened away from is not to be overlooked either. Ethnic and racial minorities probably suffer mo re widely than other identifiable social groups from media stereotyping. They are also systematically denied access to a means of destroying these stereotypes. Video might contribute usefully to a long-term attempt to achieve this destruction and project a real image of these group's social identity and needs on to the public consciousness. A flow of information in the other direction is also necessary : ethnic groups in particular require access to information often unavailable to them because they don't share the larger society's common language. Tapes in the appropriate language and format providing essential facts on everyday legal problems, social welfare regulations, consumer advice etc can partly fullfil this need. In the United States, black media groups have taken the position that only by actually controlling —preferably owning the medium through which these two-way communications are transmitted can they hope to project an undistorted image of their social realities. So in many cities across the country black (and now also Spanish-speaking) groups are vying, with occasional success, for cable franchises Other minorities gays, the aged, the handicapped, mental patients and prisoners—have an equal interest in acquiring an alternative means of presenting the reality of their alienation and exploitation. New York's Gay Activists Alliance obtained its own video equipment to tape demonstrations (so that GAA had its own record for possible use in court), and to produce medical and educational tapes for viewing by both its own members and the public. GAA regularly shows its tapes over New York's public access channels which also run the regular programmes 'Homosexual Renaissance' and 'The Lesbian Family Show'.


One of the most active groups working out of the Community Cable Center of Washington Heights-Inwood (in northern Manhattan) is closely associated with the Gray Panthers, an old people's action group dedicated to improving the social lot

of aged citizens (one of their immediate goals is to abolish the compulsory sixty-five years retirement age). The mainstay of the cable group is an old man who got turned on to video by reading Guerilla Television. A weekly programme called 'As Old As We Are' is run over New York cable, providing information on health, exercising, and local social events for senior citizens. It also contains discussions with old people taped in their homes and centres, coverage of their hobbies and activities, and plenty of old time dance music. Organisations such as Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Mental Patients Resistance, the League of Women Voters, the Divine Light Mission and the hundreds of other groups with a cause are probably the most consistent users of community access facilities they are for the most part well-organised, capable of extensive fund-raising operations and have a vested interest in disseminating their viewpoints as widely as possible. These groups are not the power-mongers in our society, but nor are they powerless, or without voices that will be listened to. The voices that are still rarely heard on public access channels are those of the unrepresented millions of suburban housewives, city office workers, school children, ghetto mothers—on and on —who don't have causes but who have dissatisfactions and joys in their lives which could be communicated valuably to the society that so infrequently thinks of their existence as individuals. The tapes I remember best are those that dealt with people, not issues: a Puerto Rican kid called Moses Reynolds who went out with a portapak and interviewed street gangs in New York the Royal Javelins, the Teenage Lovers, the Dynamite Bros. who told him 'My job is to start rumbles— I'm had enough to kick ass', 'I'd like to see the dope get outa the street "cos it's fucking" our people up —we fuck up the junkies': or the Ku Klux Klan wizard taped at a meeting of Pennsylvanian Klansmen who screamed 'I want to go down in history as the man who scared the Jews so damn bad that they jumped in the ocean—ten million of 'em—swimmin' for Israel with a nigger under each arm'. (The Klansmen cheered but since the day the tape was shown on the local cable system the Klan hasn't marched again through the streets of that town.) Confrontations with new realities, intimations of mass feedback... video cannot transform a community, but it can explore and monitor the multi-dimensional reality of that community. Its ultimate usefulness may be as a tool to define a shared coCommunication Video: Some Overseas Experiences



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