Nancy Cain joined forces with the Videofreex after CBS contracted them to produce the pilot television show, Subject to Change, and she stayed with the group after it was cancelled and the ‘freex moved to Upstate New York.
“One time,” Wendy Clarke recalled, “Arthur C. Clarke came over and he had just gotten this small laser that you can hold with your hands.” The science fiction author, another Chelsea resident, had been given the handheld laser beam projector by a crew member who was working on the film adaptation of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. The mischievous Clarkes (who were not related) projected the laser onto the Twenty-Third Street sidewalk below—and then Shirley, dressed as Groucho Marx, did a slapstick routine while playing with the beam on the ground. “People on the street would become fascinated with the beam,” said Nancy Cain, a member of another collective called the Videofreex. “They would try to take the beam with them as they walked all the way down the street and then they would turn the corner, but the beam couldn’t turn the corner with them.” Viva recalled, “I was with Arthur when he and Shirley had the laser. I said, ‘Isn’t it kind of dangerous?’ They said, ‘No no no, it’s fine.’ Well, I wasn’t so sure.” Viva and Shirley got to know each other when the two worked together on the 1969 film Lion’s Love. “I was married at the time to Michel Auder, and he, Shirley, and I all moved into the Chelsea. Shirley had the penthouse, and we also had a place, so we became close friends.”
From Chapter 22 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Former actress Nancy Cain joined the Videofreex after she took a job working on a CBS pilot that was to replace The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. CBS executive Don West had hired writers from Chicago’s famed improvisational comedy troupe, Second City, to create a hybrid television variety show, though Cain recalled that “he really wanted to create a cutting-edge documentary show.” West heard about the Woodstock footage, so he and Cain headed down to Ratcliff’s loft and were stunned by the tapes. “First Day #1 and First Day #2 documented a help tent for kids who were freaking out on drugs,” Cain said of the fuzzy black-and-white footage. “Don hired them immediately, and we all started on a pilot show to present to the network.” The group went from having no money to working with a healthy five-figure budget, which was a lot of money for the time. Mary Curtis Ratcliff remembered going to the bowels of CBS and, like kids at Christmas, hauling away whatever they wanted from a massive video equipment room. The ’freex stood out in CBS’s headquarters, a high-rise building called Black Rock where everything was carefully controlled by the network, from the air conditioning to the artwork on display. “There we were in our new suite of offices,” Cain said, “with posters and tacks on the walls—and music, boom boom boom—people going in and out twenty-four hours a day.” With all the resources and equipment they could ask for, the group began working on their doomed television show pilot, Subject to Change.
Nancy Cain, a member of the Videofreex, remembered Shirley Clarke as a wonderful, lively person whose Chelsea Hotel rooftop penthouse was like a salon, filled with artists, students, visitors, and her two little poodles. Fellow Videofreex member Skip Blumberg added, “Shirley was very eccentric, and I think, kind of out of her mind.” Her frenetic nature was expressed in the way she looked and dressed, with lipstick that sometimes smeared beyond her lips, and her place was a cacophony of cables, electronics, and other equipment. Videofreex members participated in the Tee Pee Video Space Troupe activities as well, and Shirley was also involved in their group. “Things were fluid then,” Blumberg said. “It wasn’t proprietary. So when Shirley worked on our thing she was one of the Videofreex, and when I worked on her things I was part of the Tee Pee Troupe.”
Nancy Cain remembered people on the street being amazed by their Portapaks because, at that time, most people had never seen themselves on a video screen before. More than being a mere novelty, the Videofreex were trying to create media on their own terms. “We wanted to make our own world,” Mary Curtis Ratcliff said, “and this video movement was part of changing the world. There were only three networks—ABC, NBC, and CBS—so this was an underground way of getting information out.” Skip Blumberg added, “We had this front-row seat to everything that was going on, because the major media wasn’t covering it. And if they were, they were covering it from the outside and we were covering everything from inside.” Predictably, the other CBS executives hated West’s pet project. When the network suits descended from Black Rock to watch the Subject to Change pilot on December 17, 1969, they were taken aback by the Videofreex’s studio production. Buzzy Linhart led the show’s house band, and the downtown audience sat in bleachers. “We put the CBS executives in our neighbor’s loft,” Cain said, “and they were smoking these big smelly cigars, like, straight out of central casting. They were obnoxious and they burned a hole in our neighbor’s futon, stuff like that. Then at the end, they just stomped out. I never really thought it was going to get on the air, and I was right. But it was a great adventure, then everybody got fired. Don West, he got fired.” Over the course of five months, the Videofreex had blown through about $70,000 of CBS’s money, about half a million in today’s dollars. They may have failed in landing a major network television show, but this freed them artistically and left them with a lot of equipment.
The Videofreex needed studio space to work on their DIY television show, so the network rented the Videofreex a loft at 96 Prince Street, the same building where the Paula Cooper Gallery opened in late 1968. “This was right when SoHo was beginning to happen,” Nancy Cain said. “There were some art galleries popping up here and there, but mostly it was still little factories making clothes or baking bread.” Unlike the Lower East Side, which was packed with people, only a few artists and other residents occupied SoHo’s empty industrial buildings, along with a smattering of small factories that were still operating. There were few stores around the Videofreex’s new loft—just a Puerto Rican bodega and some other small businesses. The biggest draw was Fanelli’s, right beneath the Videofreex’s loft, an old-fashioned bar that served inexpensive bean soup for lunch. “I loved that part of downtown,” Skip Blumberg said. “Everybody who lived in the neighborhood knew each other because of its small scale.” Blumberg moved into the Prince Street loft when their ragtag television studio was still being built; he put his mattress on a tall pile of sheetrock and every day it got a little lower as the construction continued. The control room was at one end of the loft—a large, open space where they hosted video shows every Friday night. The three-camera setup was much like any other television studio, but much looser and more informal (the audience sat on cushions placed on the floor and sometimes smoked pot).
For the first time, women played a large role in developing an emerging technology. Of the nine Videofreex, four were women, and they participated equally in most of the technical aspects of the productions. Unlike the film industry—which had a significant barrier to entry for women, as Shirley Clarke discovered firsthand—video emerged at a time when gender roles and relations were transforming in the United States. “It just all collided at a lucky moment in history,” Wendy Clarke said, “in terms of being able to be among the first people to explore a medium. That was so unique, and I feel so lucky to have been around then.” The Videofreex’s Nancy Cain said, “With the video camera, I was seeing it for the first time and so was everybody else, males and female, everybody. It was a level playing field. You all began with a same amount of knowledge: none. I must say that the men in the Videofreex, they were great. Everybody taught each other, and then you went out. We truly were equal, and I could do whatever I wanted. It was the best thing.” Steina Vasulka, another early video pioneer who cofounded the Kitchen in the Mercer Arts Center, maintained that so many women were involved with video because it was an underdog medium. “There were no men there saying, ‘Let me direct this scene,’ or anything like that,” she said. “So this allowed women to take control of the video-making process, like Shirley. She had a huge success at the Cannes Festival, and came back home and thought that Hollywood would be waiting for her, but they didn’t want to have anything to do with her.”
By the time the Kitchen opened its doors in the Mercer Arts Center, the Videofreex were preparing to leave New York. When their CBS funding ran out, the group reassessed their options. “We didn’t have any income,” Mary Curtis Ratcliff said, “and all of us were trying to live in Manhattan, but there was no real market for this stuff we were doing.” So the ’freex did what many in the counterculture did at the time: moved to the country and lived communally. They found a huge twenty-seven-room boarding house called Maple Tree Farm located in Lanesville, New York, about a three-hour drive north of the city. After moving there in 1970, the Videofreex also set up America’s first pirate television station, thanks to Abbie Hoffman. He had known Videofreex member David Cort from their college days, and the activist met the rest of the Videofreex during their time downtown. When Hoffman wrote Steal This Book, his subversive how-to guide published in 1971, he paid the ’freex to build a transmitter to test out for the chapter on pirate broadcasting. “We realize becoming TV guerrillas is not everyone’s trip,” he wrote, “but a small band with a few grand can indeed pull it off.” Ratcliff said, “Abbie had tried to get us to broadcast guerrilla television all over Manhattan, but you couldn’t broadcast from a VW bus, and you couldn’t get a signal with all those huge buildings all around.” In Lanesville, this wasn’t a problem, so the Videofreex used the equipment to build a little broadcast tower atop their farmhouse. “We turned on this little transmitter that Abbie had given us,” Videofreex member Nancy Cain said. “We took a TV set down to a bar about half a mile down the road, Doyle’s Tavern, and we turned on the TV set and the signal was there!”
From Chapter 28 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore