3.8 / Without Price and With(out) Worth

Profile: Gene Youngblood

By Patricia Maloney February 1, 2012

Image: Gene Youngblood, circa 1970s.

This article is part of the Visiting Artist Profile series, which highlights some of the artists, curators, and scholars that intersect with the Bay Area visual arts community through the various lecture programs produced by local institutions. Gene Youngblood will speak on Friday, February 3, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco.

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I make a rather modest proposal that world peace, human liberty, and a healthy environment can only be achieved through a communications revolution. –Gene Youngblood, 1993.1

Media theorist and educator Gene Youngblood is a leading advocate for the promotion of democracy through mass media and for the belief that media itself needs to be democratic. A truly democratic engagement with the press, for example, through citizen journalism and public broadcasting, encourages equitable distribution of information, creates informed citizens, and promotes political discourse. Since the publication of his groundbreaking book Expanded Cinema in 1970, Youngblood has been prescient in understanding the impact of communication technologies on the democratic process and our capacity to participate in that process. As early as 1977, he forecasted the need for “user-controlled” and “two-way” communication, anticipating the Internet’s facilitation and dependence on user-generated content.

More significantly though, Youngblood has repeatedly expressed the need for a “communication revolution” in which “the media must be liberated.”2 He claims that in order for democracy to flourish in the twenty-first century, the media needs to be taken out of the hands of corporate interests or government control and placed in public trust. Further, he believes that individuals must mobilize the technology that is at hand to claim the “power to define the context that establishes the reality in which we want to live.”3

Any profile of Youngblood must necessarily take into account the technology about which he speaks, as well as how individuals have adopted and adapted that technology, and the corporate or government policies formulated in response. What follows is a chronological series of vignettes: Youngblood’s propositions and arguments interweave with artistic and political interventions that capitalize on the media’s power to represent. In each instance the potential to reclaim the means of democratic representation becomes more tangible.

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In 1967 Sony Corporation introduced a new medium for creative production and political commentary with its Video Rover—the first Portapak, or analog videotape camera that could be carried and operated by a single person. Its relative affordability and ability to instantly play back footage made it accessible and appealing to artists and activists.

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From 1967 to 1970, in the early days of his career, Youngblood was co-editor, film critic, and columnist for the underground weekly the Los Angeles Free Press. The publication was notable for its radical politics and advocacy of personal freedoms. Produced largely by unpaid volunteers and reaching a distribution level of over 100,000 copies, it was a national vehicle for activists and has been credited as influential in ending the Vietnam War.

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In 1970 Youngblood published Expanded Cinema. In the book, he defines video as an art form, argues for an expanded cinema that will unite art and life, and describes television as the software of the planet. He coins the term technosphere as a symbiotic state between technology and humans, projecting that this new age of media production will fundamentally change concepts of intelligence, morality, creativity, and the family.4

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Gil Scott-Heron records the spoken-word song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for his 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.

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In 1971 pioneering video artists Woody and Steina Vasulka founded The Kitchen in New York, a nonprofit exhibition space that was one of the first venues to showcase the work of video artists, performers, experimental composers, and dancers.

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In 1977 Youngblood published the essay “The Mass Media: the Future of Desire,” in which he sets out six propositions from which he concludes that the need for a communication revolution is the “supreme political challenge confronting industrial societies today.”5 He lays out the argument that a global economic crisis has arisen from the pervasive role mass media has played in shaping our cultural evolution and that this crisis can only be thwarted by an inversion of the fundamental structures and organizing principles of mass media.

Significant to his propositions are the tools he designates for inverting mass media: video, cable communication networks, home computers, movie publishing systems, domestic communication satellites, and large-screen displays. These tools facilitate unprecedented opportunities for individuals to disrupt or transform the means of production. No longer are we simply consuming the output of the media industry

but now have the tools to disseminate, exchange, or mobilize our own aesthetics, narratives, and representations.

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Youngblood articulates this idea even more specifically at the 1978 National Conference on Public Access Cable Television in San Diego. There he noted that equality could only arise from having the power to control the representation of one’s reality. As he states, “[W]e want the access to the power to create new contexts. Because it is precisely the dominant context that defines our actions of today that is the problem, I think, and it is the reason we are asking for access.”6

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This idea was playing out in an era when feminists, civil rights activists, and environmentalists were increasingly conceiving and choreographing their interventions and protests for television audiences. Between 1977 and 1982, artist-activists Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Lebowitz-Starus operated Ariadne, a collaborative and conceptual network based in Los Angeles that focused on the theme of violence against women; their efforts became “one of the most striking attempts by artists to turn the operations of mass media and broadcast television against itself for political purposes.”7

Ariadne-In_Mourning_and_In_Rage

Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz Starus (Ariadne). In Mourning and In Rage, 1977; social intervention. Courtesy of the Artist and the 18th Street Arts Center, Los Angeles.

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In 1980 artists Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway organized Hole in Space, a three-night “public communication sculpture” that unfolded simultaneously in New York and Los Angeles. An enormous two-way video screen was installed in a window of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fischer Hall in New York, while another was installed in a window of the Broadway department store in Century City. Satellite technology transmitted real-time, life-size images of people to each other; participants could see, hear, and speak to someone on the opposite coast with the same immediacy they could to someone physically adjacent. The event had not been publicly announced and no signage existed; it depended initially on chance occurrence and then on word-of-mouth to build an audience, which expanded to such a degree that by the third night, the sculpture was the site for transcontinental family reunions.

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CompuServe was the first commercial enterprise to offer Internet connectivity to its users in 1989, when it enabled subscribers to its proprietary email system to send and receive messages from other Internet email addresses. The company, whose services were used extensively for file exchange, successfully litigated two cases that would have long-reaching impact on access to online networks and the exchange of information. It won an appeal to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to exempt data networks from paying Common Carrier Access Charges (CCAC) on long-distance carriers, a decision that kept costs for dial-up service inexpensive. Additionally, in 1991, the U.S. District Court ruled that CompuServe, which was named as co-defender in a defamation lawsuit, was not responsible for the editorial content produced on its forums.

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In a 1996 interview Youngblood once again spoke presciently about the transformative impact of media technologies, saying, “The notion that the Internet and computers and the World Wide Web somehow combine into a new medium through which we can address this crisis of democracy is the biggest drama of our time.” What makes his statements singular in a moment when there was widespread reflexive commentary on the Internet’s burgeoning impact was his anticipation that we as users would need a period of acclimation to this technology before understanding how it would serve the aims of a democratic society and our desire for self-representation.8

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Such an acclimation came to fruition when the 2011 uprisings, political protests, and regime collapse in Middle East nations, collectively known as the Arab Spring, mobilized social media and the Internet to an unprecedented degree. Demonstrators connected and conveyed information through Twitter feeds, while citizen journalists broadcasted events globally through YouTube and Facebook, creating avenues for free expression in the face of government oppression.

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Since the Occupy Wall Street movement began on September 17, 2011, in Zuccotti Park, in New York, activists have disseminated information via LiveStream, an online video broadcast platform that viewers access by computer or mobile device. The participant-generated broadcasts of general assembly meetings, speeches, and demonstrations were continuously available for viewing or comment and were instrumental in the global spread of the Occupy movement and its intentions.

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On January 18 and 19, 2012, thousands of websites voluntarily, temporarily blocked or restricted access to their content in protest of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA), which, as written, would give the government unprecedented rights of censorship of online content providers. On January 20, 2012, Congress announced that it had postponed voting or any action on the bills in either the Senate or the Congress.

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On February 3, 2012, Youngblood will speak at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in San Francisco, as part of a screening of the documentary Secession from the Broadcast. 

Galloway-Rabinowitz-Hole_in_Space

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. Hole In Space, 1980; public communication sculpture, Los Angeles and New York. Courtesy of Media Art Net.

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The Visiting Artist Profile series is supported by the San Francisco branch of the Kadist Art Foundation. Kadist participates in the development of society through contemporary art by collecting and producing the work of artists and conducting various programs to promote their role as cultural agents. The foundation also supports the work of curators, academics, and magazines internationally through its residency program and by hosting public events on Wednesdays and a Saturday Reading Room at its space at 3295 20th Street in the Mission.

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NOTES:

1. From a 1993 interview on KNME-TV, Albuquerque, NM, excerpted in Secession from the Broadcast (2012) documentary, trailer accessed at http://vimeo.com/15435334.

2. Gene Youngblood, “The Videosphere,” in Radical Software, Spring 1970, Volume 1, No. 1, p. 1, accessed at http://www.radicalsoftware.org/e/volume1nr1.html.

3. Youngblood speaking at the 1978 National Conference on Public Access Cable Television in San Diego, CA, excerpted in Secession from the Broadcast. 

4.Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: P. Dutton & Co., 1970), 50-53.

5. Gene Youngblood, “The Mass Media: the Future of Desire,” in The CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 1977/78, accessed at http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Contributors/PeterCrown/MassMedia.rtf.

6.Youngblood speaking at the 1978 National Conference on Public Access Cable Television in San Diego, CA, excerpted in Secession from the Broadcast.

7. Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Alternative Media Landscapes in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s” in Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artist Space Movement Los Angeles: 18th Street Art Center, 2011), 74.

8. In the interview Youngblood says, “The question is who is making the decisions? According to what values, serving what ends? Maybe we don’t know what we want. Maybe we need the chance to converse with each other over a period of time to find out what it is that we want, because all this new technology is in fact new to us, and it takes a long time to imagine how it could serve your life, your life, your desires, your needs.”

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