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Kill Your TV: How Bay Area Video Art Exploded into the 1970s

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San Francisco had never experienced a Fourth of July quite like it did in 1975, when a custom Cadillac drove through a pyramid of 45 flaming televisions at the Cow Palace.  “The Media Burn” was a high point of a Bay Area artistic movement that was fueled by the cultural revolutions of the times and ignited by a new technology – the first portable video cameras.

Until the introduction of the first Sony portapaks in the late 1960s, television equipment had been expensive and cumbersome, the exclusive domain of big media. In the 1970s, Bay Area video artists and activists laid claim to these new tools, turning what they saw as an instrument of mass-media control into a medium for self-expression and liberation. In so doing, they joined  an international cadre of like-minded “video freaks” and made San Francisco a center of media art experimentation.

Inspired both by a communal instinct that was part of the times and the need to share scarce equipment, many of these artists formed collectives. One of the earliest, Electric Eye, experimented with abstract video imagery. Video Free America made a name in counter-culture reality television. TVTV (Top Value Television) aimed to provide a hippie alternative to network news, while Optic Nerve presented some of the first feminist documentaries. The T.R. Uthco team explored the narrative strategies of political speech and media spectacle.

Ant Farm, the court jesters of the Bay Area video scene,  brought an antic good humor to projects involving video, architecture, sculpture, performance and other media. Their iconic works – “Cadillac Ranch,” “Media Burn” and “The Eternal Frame” (a collaboration with T.R. Uthco) – embody witty critiques of consumer culture and the mass media.

This video was produced in partnership with SFMOMA in connection with the exhibition of Doug Hall’s video installation “The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described,” March 28-June 6 at the San Francisco Art Institute.


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