PETER SACHS COLLOPY (University of Pennsylvania)

In the late 1960s, videotape cameras and recorders became portable, leaving the television studio for the art gallery, the psychiatric hospital, and the streets. The technology of recording moving images on magnetic tape, previously of use only to broadcasters, became a tool for artistic expression, psychological experimentation, and political revolution. Video thus became portable not only materially but culturally. It was capable of being carried by an individual but also of being carried into diverse institutions, from the RAND Corporation to the Black Panther Party, from psychiatrists’ offices to art galleries, and from Attica Prison to state-funded media access centers.

As the technology of video, and sometimes even specific video recorders, travelled through these spaces, the discourse that coalesced around them transgressed disciplinary and professional boundaries. My historical research reveals that videographers across institutional contexts participated shared not only practical knowledge about the uses and maintenance of video equipment, but visions of its social significance, psychological effects, and possible utopian future. This discourse was concerned with trying out a novel technology in a variety of social situations, constructing new experiences, and building organizations which were themselves experimental in institutional form.

Central to this shared discourse was the concept of feedback, borrowed from the antidisciplinary nomad science of cybernetics and used to describe both the kaleidoscopic effect produced by pointing a camera at its own monitor and the psychological effect of watching oneself on tape. In its many forms, video feedback became a subject of interest to artists, engineers, psychiatrists, physicists, and media theorists, as well as “video freaks” who brought these forms of knowledge together to craft a media practice in which video became a tool for feeding society and ecology back on themselves, producing new forms of participatory democracy, communal consciousness, and cosmopolitics.