The Revolution Will Be Videotaped: Making a Technology of Consciousness in the Long 1960s

Peter Sachs Collopy, Technology’s Stories, 2014

In the 1960s, video recording technology became portable. Tools that had previously been available only in television studios turned up in art galleries, in psychiatric hospitals, and in the Black Panther Party. This cultural portability was facilitated by a material portability: the technology got smaller, it got cheaper, it got lighter. For instance, this 1970 Sony camera is part of a piece of equipment called a portapak. Between the camera and the deck it was a complete video production studio that was light enough for somebody to carry around and was battery-powered. These recorders used half-inch open reel magnetic tape.

Many of the people using these new video technologies, from artists to psychiatrists to political activists, were particularly interested in what video meant for consciousness. They were interested in the experience of watching yourself on a television monitor. For some psychiatrists this was a self-confrontation experience that could force a person to confront how other people saw them and not merely experience themselves through their own impressions. For some artists this was a meditative experience, that watching yourself could be a path to holistic self-understanding.

Many of these experimental videographers were also interested in pointing cameras at their own monitors, and in the kaleidoscopic visual effects that appeared when they did this. And they referred to both these kaleidoscopic effects, this practice of pointing cameras at monitors, and to watching oneself on a monitor, as feedback, borrowing a term from the field of cybernetics. This idea of taking the message of a system that comes out of that system, like what you see coming out of a television, and putting it back into that system in order to make it reflect upon itself was something that they understood as both an optical and electronic phenomenon that could be harnessed to aesthetic ends, and as a psychological phenomenon that could lead to new kinds of human understanding.

They also thought about this on a broader social scale. If you could watch yourself and understand yourself better, perhaps watching other people, or watching the world through other people’s eyes—watching video that they had shot—could help you understand others better. And this seemed a path to a kind of universal consciousness that had been described by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as the noosphere—the global mind—or by Marshall McLuhan, who as a media theorist was a big influence on experimental video, as the global village.

Subjects: consciousness, counterculture, cybernetics, media, technology, video, visual culture
Category: presentations