A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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At first it was just another dream that floated out of the sixties, a time of many dreams. There were dreams of peace, of social justice, of people working together and living together and sleeping together and getting high together and making music together. Our particular dream was to move to the country and produce radio. We would sell innovative programming to stations across the country. We would distribute righteous information and live and work together, in a pastoral paradise, toward one goal. Together.
It was the spring of 1970. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin weren’t dead yet, and radio was the pre-Internet network that kept everybody in touch with the music, the players, and the latest news of demonstrations and mass arrests. Communes were also very big. So we figured, Why not a radio commune?
There were, of course, many reasons why not, and they’d soon become painfully apparent.
In the meantime, twelve of us settled into a big old house way the hell out in the boonies and began work on our radio dream of selling independently produced interviews and programs to commercial FM stations.
Four years passed. Jimi and Janis were now quite dead. In our personal lives our focus shifted from heady sex and heavy drugs to organically grown food and committed relationships. A couple of marriages took place, a thirtieth birthday was celebrated, and two babies had been born. We woke up one morning and realized we liked it there.
But we had a problem: automated playlists were taking the place of inventive programming, progressive politics was pretty much out of the question on rock stations, and the radio business was beginning the process of consolidation (read: monopolization) that would eventually lead to today’s radio conglomerates, like Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting.
As our radio business dwindled, my fellow dreamers and I took jobs driving school buses or doing construction. We started a truck farm and supplied organic produce to nearby restaurants and grocery stores. We painted signs saying, last chance for the best tomatoes you ever tasted, with big arrows pointing the way to a little produce stand in front of the house. We had regular “family meetings” in which we kept track of our pooled resources and joked about how, a few short years earlier, our goal had been to make the a-list for John and Yoko’s “bed-in,” and now our biggest goal was to freeze enough corn and peas to get us through the winter.
The promotional materials we’d sent out in the first flush of entrepreneurial zeal had listed the names of our producer, our distribution manager, our sales manager, and our dog. By now pretty much everyone was working in the garden, and the dog refused to spend any more time in the office. There was only one person left doing all the radio work. When a potential client would call, he’d say, “Hold, please,” and then come back on the line using a different voice, as if he were yet another zany employee of our thriving company. But we were trying to sell interviews with Abbie Hoffman and Frank Zappa to radio stations that wanted Donny and Marie. It wasn’t working, and we knew it.
Enter the U.S. government and your tax dollars.
It all started when two of us were charged with the task of finding out what was going on in the outside world. This scouting patrol was made up of me and our technical guy, Baba Bean. (You had to be there.) One of our first trips was to visit some fellow hippies who had formed a video commune about the same time we’d set up shop in radio. They called themselves “The Video Freaks” and were situated in the Catskills, where they hoped to marry media, art, and nature. They, too, had come up against the hard fact that innovation requires a patron with deep pockets, or a sponsor blind to quantifiable results, or a lot of luck, or sheer, unadulterated bullheadedness, or a combination of all of the above.
The Freaks, however, had found a new resource. They turned us on to the Byzantine world of government funding for the arts.
We didn’t know it then, but we were in the middle of a rare interlude, a kind of cease-fire in the otherwise difficult relationship between the arts and the state. For most of its history, the U.S. government has shown a spectacular indifference to the arts. During the Depression, the Works Progress Administration had employed more than forty thousand painters, musicians, actors, and writers, but the program ended with the Second World War. For the next twenty years, a political battle was waged over whether the government should be in the “arts business” at all. Then the Kennedy and Johnson administrations included the arts in the general expansion of government subsidies. The National Endowment for the Arts was signed into being in 1965. By the early seventies, we had entered into what can now be seen as the golden age of arts funding in America.
While Bean and I sat taking notes and drinking coffee in the Freaks’ kitchen, the crew back at the farm called an emergency meeting. Our great experiment was down to its last package of frozen peas. Taking a textbook capitalist approach, they identified our assets, which were a sound-production studio and people who knew how to use it. Theoretically, we could rent our assets to make money, but we weren’t set up to accommodate big-time commercial projects. Our studio was ideally suited for radio, multimedia production, and field recording. Although we knew a lot of interesting people doing such work, they were artists and didn’t have any money.
When Bean and I came home, we all took a vote and unanimously decided to give government funding a try. We designed our own version of an artist-in-residence program and took it to the state arts council, whose new media department was looking for ways to support the surge in artistic experimentation. They funded our program. We were very excited.
Artists began coming to the farm, and we produced sound for video, film, performance, art installations, dance, theater, opera, radio, and recordings. Although some of the more experimental projects didn’t always yield concrete results, everybody went away having learned something. The NEA lent its support. Things were going pretty well.
Then we received the Golden Fleece Award. The award had been established by Senator William Proxmire for what he called “the most egregious example of wasteful spending of taxpayer monies.” From our point of view, the most egregious example of wasteful spending of taxpayer monies during the senator’s tenure had been the Vietnam War. But the politics of politics being what it was, we found ourselves in the news. It was a watershed moment. We got serious. No more Mr. Nice Hippie. Now we were mad and determined to drain the Defense Department coffers of every last taxpayer dollar we could get our hands on, if only to show Congress that it couldn’t get away with ridiculing art. That was our job.
We went to our funders with a stack of endorsements, reports, and annotated records of every single hour of every day of residency work we’d done. We begged, we pleaded, we made a case for the importance of patience at this pivotal moment in art history. Artists were exploring media technology and needed the space and the equipment to see what would happen if you tied a video camera to a motorized cart, put it in a big sling, and shot it over the Hudson River. With sound effects.
OK, so we’d once worked with an artist who had tried to record the sound of his dreams by implanting a transducer into his brain. And, yes, we did stick a microphone in a giant ball of twine and crush it slowly in an industrial vise in an attempt to record the sound of stress. And, true, we sent a transmitter aloft in a helium balloon, and it floated over a nearby town, broadcasting a tape of peacocks mating (which, it turns out, sounds exactly like a lot of women and children being dismembered simultaneously). But that last one was a mistake; the customized amplifier we’d rigged up worked much better than we’d thought it would. These things happen when you’re trying to do something new. You have to make mistakes, you have to look ridiculous, you have to fail. Otherwise what you’re doing isn’t going to be very new.
Luckily for us, our funders recognized the truth of our argument. They maintained support for the program.
Throughout those years, we worked with many avant-garde artists at the beginnings of their careers: people who later became Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Harvey Fierstein, and William Wegman. We played a role in the development of art that was not about forms, but rather about ideas, events, media. Nam June Paik buried a TV monitor in the ground, and we followed, carrying lots of equipment.
We had many extraordinary experiences, but I remember one in particular that involved projecting a series of video images onto a waterfall. The waterfall was on the property of a neighboring farmer who enjoyed teasing us. When we called to ask if we could set up on his land, he said, “You going to do one of those goofy projects of yours?”
“Yeah,” we said.
Long pause. “OK, but I gotta be there.”
The shoot required carting heavy equipment through brush and over rocks, followed by some seriously complicated setting up, with endless loading of cameras and tape recorders and moving of microphones and lights. We needed to start taping at just the moment when the sunlight began to fade. A crew of six, plus the artist and his associate, were all running around like crazy. I was standing next to the farmer, thinking about each of the 1,468 things that could go wrong. Then I heard the words “OK, let’s do it.”
There was a pause, and suddenly we were watching great, luminous shapes of electric blue flicker and shimmer through the falling water. The sound broke gently over the rocks, a cow mooed in the distance, and the soft light from the setting sun illumined it all: a perfect marriage of nature and technology. I looked at the farmer, and he looked back at me. “Pretty nice,” he said, nodding his head slowly and smiling. “Pretty nice.”
So much beautiful work came out of that place, ideas and inspiration planted right next to the peas and tomatoes and corn. We worked with a changing array of techniques and materials: analog morphed into digital, and computer editing and graphics allowed for new possibilities. We had become an exploding experiment. It was great. I’m proud of every dime we squeezed out of the government, every dime that went to nutty artwork instead of to the military, that created subversive documentaries instead of tobacco subsidies. We had, in fact, realized our dream. Together.
In 1983, the Reagan administration began to notice that it was subsidizing artwork that was critical of the Establishment. North Carolina senator Jesse Helms discovered that “the arts” actually included living artists who looked and acted and thought differently than he did. This had to stop. Now!
Back at the farm, the staff was beginning to move on. The babies were getting older, we needed a more reliable car, and we had begun to discuss what we called the Theory of the Temporary. It proposed that organizations dedicated to supporting experimental art should themselves be, well, experiments. Some goals, we decided, were best accomplished out of a transitory process in which people come together, do what is needed at the time, and then disband before they become entrenched, institutionalized, and vested in their own survival at the expense of the work itself.
We saw ourselves as a floating, cloudlike structure that had coalesced, and now it was time to disperse, to melt away before we got too hardened in our ways. Besides, the golden age of arts funding was over. To keep the program going, we would have to raise money from corporations, establish an endowment, put on suits and ties, and learn which fork to use. And that was not going to happen.
Recently I saw a computer graphic generated by a program that maps networks. As the graphic unfolded, it revealed a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of connections, a chaotic mass of lines attaching themselves to little circles called “nodes,” which then attached themselves to bigger circles called “hubs.” Some lasted just a moment, others longer, while still others remained in place, forming shapes that evolved into yet another phase of the network.
It seems to me we humans are like those lines, connecting up to nodes and hubs and creating myriad networks that manifest as families, or the Freemasons, or poker games, or the World Wide Web. Sometimes they last a thousand years. Sometimes they last as long as a shared smile at a subway stop. Always they further the experiment that is us.