Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

From TVTV to YouTube: A Genealogy of Participatory Practices in Video

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

From TVTV to YouTube: A Genealogy of Participatory Practices in Video

Article excerpt

CHRIS HILL'S description of early experiments in video as "a radical paradigm for a participatory democracy" (5) could easily be mistaken for one of the exuberant claims made on behalf of amateur video in the age of YouTube. As video defined as a specific medium came to an end in the mid-aughts, the emergence of near-instantaneous distribution through YouTube and other video-sharing sites evoked the utopian vision of early practitioners that low-cost portable video equipment would allow everyday people to engage in a democratically produced, decentralized public sphere. That early vision had waned by the close of the 1970s as programs distributed through local-access cable television failed to gain wide audiences, and entry into commercial markets proved elusive for most independent producers. Yet the proliferation of a new technology may be reviving the promise of an older one.

This article seeks to trace a genealogy between early practices in video as social experiment and contemporary video production as part of a globally distributed "participatory culture." Nearly forty years after the development of the Sony portapak gave first-generation videomakers the means to document a countercultural revolution, the ubiquity of the handheld consumer video camera combined with the ability to share images almost instantly has given a new generation unprecedented potential to effect change by bearing witness. The new video technologies proved the political undoing of US Senator George Allen in 2006 after he hurled his notorious "macaca" epithet at S. R. Sidarth, a campaign staffer for Allen's opponent who wasted no time uploading his video recording of the encounter to YouTube. In 2009, several people used cell phones and portable cameras to record the shooting death of twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant at the hands of Oakland transit police, and the footage posted to YouTube played a large role in the resulting criminal case against the shooter and the broader public discourse related to the incident. Indeed, amateur videographers worldwide have combined portable cameras with almost instantaneous mass distribution to bear witness to an array of misdeeds, from the merely embarrassing to the indisputably egregious. Although this assortment of citizen journalists, from chance eyewitnesses to enterprising storytellers, may not be conscious heirs to the alternative media movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, some members of the YouTube community have remarked its potential for, in the words of Gooyong Kim, "realizing grassroots democracy" (15). Examining the phenomenon of YouTube's citizen documentarians against the earlier countercultural video tradition raises the question of what it means to participate in today's video culture.

Much has been written about YouTube's status as a social platform for video distribution, but I aim to focus on the production and organizational practices embraced by early communities of videomakers and how those practices have continued among-or have been discovered anew by- those making videos today. The practices I refer to are evident in work such as TVTV's Four More Years (1972), in which the use of lightweight portable equipment proves an obvious foil to network television coverage of the Republican National Convention, and David Cort and Curtis Ratcliff's Mayday Realtime (1971), which captures the turmoil at an antiwar demonstration in Washington, DC, from the point of view of those experiencing it. They also are apparent in the video festivals and community screenings organized by groups such as Global Village, Video Free America, and People's Video Theater. Fortunately, online sharing sites have facilitated a renaissance of sorts for videos produced in the 1960s and 1970s, launching new efforts to digitize and archive early video footage and reenergizing existing ones. Efforts such as the Media Burn Independent Video Archive and Video Data Bank provide access to materials that were not widely available only a few years ago. …

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