JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

 

Persevering despite the impossible:
a brief history of media activism in Buffalo, NY

by Marc Moscato

Out of the post-industrial ghost-lands of Buffalo, NY a media scene has emerged with an urgency, tradition and aesthetic all its own. With roots in early media activism of the 1970s, and supported by a network of artist-run initiatives, the city has only recently started to become recognized for its lo-fi, experimental and, above all, uncompromising body of film and video. This essay, originally written for DVD liner notes of Tough Stuff from the Buff, a film tour that traveled by bicycle to a dozen venues in 2010, acknowledges the origins of this tradition, while focusing on contemporary examples of those persevering against the odds of creating media in a dying rustbelt town.

Curator statements

Julie Perini

In the summer of 2007, I drove myself, my books, clothes, and other belongings from Buffalo, NY to Portland, OR. Hidden in the cool, dark trunk was a box of DVDs that contained the seeds for what would become Tough Stuff from the Buff. I had spent the previous four years in Buffalo, mainly working on a Masters in Fine Arts degree in Media Study, and I had mixed feelings about leaving the community I had come to call home. So I decided to take some of Buffalo with me: before I left town I gathered DVDs from some of the media artists working in Buffalo at the time. My plan was to create a program of work by Buffalo media artists that I could pitch to Portland venues. I hoped to use these films and videos as a mechanism to inspire conversation about the independent film and video produced in Buffalo, while also introducing myself to Portland’s media art community.

The program changed during the fall of 2007 when I met Marc Moscato and David Gracon, two former Buffalonians now living in Portland and Eugene respectively. We shared a love for the city of Buffalo, an educational background in alternative media, experience working at the city’s media access center, and an interest in radical politics. We began collaborating on the program, and through conversations and screenings we developed a line-up of films and videos that debuted to an enthusiastic audience at the Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts in Eugene. The success of this first screening led to more opportunities to show Tough Stuff, and after reworking the program through further conversations and screenings, we have developed a program that offers a broad, contemporary look at this rustbelt town. My thanks go to Marc and David for their commitment to the project and countless hours of coordinating work, and to the people of Buffalo who continue to inspire me.

Julie Perini: http://www.julieperini.org


David Gracon

In Buffalo, I learned that film and video could be punk, that media screenings could happen in a park, and that music can be made in abandoned grain elevators. Buffalo has inspired all things DIY. From making photocopied zines and small gauge film and video, playing lo-fi experimental music, to embracing critical pedagogy within and outside of academia.

In Buffalo, there is a tacit emphasis on small gauge film-making, the politics of the personal and/or quirky—where the end result doesn’t have to replicate mainstream media aesthetics. Media makers deliberately utilize outdated equipment and process film by hand, giving it an ethereal and “imperfect” look—while others embrace the latest in digital gadgetry. Some in the community scorn the university, while others seek to merge critical theory and praxis. The scene is friendly, and at times contentious. It’s a quirky community of artists, activists, academics, as well as those with day jobs, or work temp jobs.

But in the end, we must realize that culture is never static, and culture is never complete. It must keep moving forward. I’m hoping this program embodies this spirit.

I often tell people visiting from out of town that Buffalo is the future of capitalism. The failure of capital is palpable with the abandoned buildings, miles of dilapidated factories and a rigid social geography segregated by class. While this image may not be picturesque, to me it signifies opportunity. If Buffalo has taught me anything, it’s that culture happens from the bottom up, at the grassroots level. If there is nothing happening, you can make it happen, or develop a community that also wants to make it happen. There are countless abandoned and empty buildings waiting for it to happen.

David Gracon: dgracon@uoregon.edu


Marc Moscato

Two years ago fellow filmmakers David Gracon and Julie Perini asked me to collaborate on a video screening about Buffalo, NY at DIVA. I had grown up as teenage friends with David, doing zines together, going to punk rock shows and being active in Buffalo’s independent media community. I was also longtime friends with Julie, who I had met through Dorothea Braemer, Executive Director of Squeaky Wheel. I really had no choice but to say yes, and I readily agreed to contribute what I could to the screening.

A week later I was laying in a hospital bed hopped up on Oxyconton, after a freak accident that involved almost burning to death while making a pot of tea. Needless to say, during the recuperation time, David and Julie picked up the slack, organized the program and bottom-lined filling the seats of DIVA.

Recently, curator Amy Kazymerchyk invited us to screen the program at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver, BC. This DVD represents a reordered version of that original Eugene screening, with a modified lineup to more accurately reflect the city’s physical spaces, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) aesthetic and contemporary political struggles. It is my hope that in viewing this show we can learn more about Buffalo and its independent media community, as well as inspire a new generation of activist media makers in documenting their communities’ unique and marginalized histories.

Marc Moscato: http://www.marcmoscato.com


Persevering despite the impossible:
a brief history of media activism in Buffalo NY

by Marc Moscato

When people typically think of Buffalo, NY they conjure up stereotyped visions of snowstorms, obese people gorging on chicken wings, Love Canal, the Buffalo Bills losing football team and inevitably the fallen industries of Buffalo’s steel and auto manufacturing. Few call to mind the history of the city’s thriving media arts community. And yet for several decades, Buffalo has been highly regarded by avant-garde film circles for its vibrant experimental and activist film and video scene.

Buffalo’s contemporary independent media community can trace its roots back to its working class origins. Nicknamed “The City of No Illusions” Buffalo is rich in its history of people’s movements. From railroad strikes of the late 1800s, to the assassination of President William McKinley by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, to the abolitionist and suffragist movements, Buffalo has a long tradition of fighting for a more just world.

More recent is the late 1960s-early 70s radicalism found in Buffalo. In 1967, the city’s East Side erupted in race riots, largely based around Martin Sostre’s Black Panther-inspired Afro Asian bookstore.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The following year nine members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) barricaded themselves inside a Unitarian Church in protest of having been drafted for the Vietnam War.[2] In the spring of 1970, forty five faculty members at the State University of New York at Buffalo (now University at Buffalo) staged a sit-in and were arrested in the President’s office. This resulted in the Buffalo Police Department fortifying the college with armed police troops in full riot gear for three weeks, an unprecedented display that has never happened before or since on a U.S. campus.[3]

It stands to reason that Buffalo’s (and New York’s) media art would reflect its political turmoil. The advent of Sony Portapaks (portable video cam- eras) in the late 1960s made making media cheaper and more accessible than ever before, and Upstate New York’s video pioneers embraced the changing technology. In 1970, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) awarded its fist grant funding to several now well-known New York media activist groups and video collectives. These included Videofreex, Raindance Corporation (who produced both videotapes and the publication Radical Software), Global Village and People’s Video Theatre.[4]

At the time New York artist and activist communities sought to establish new screening environments in which to view and produce their work, often in opposition to corporate cineplexes. NYSCA funding played a pivotal role in the creation and sustenance of these alternative spaces, which included Artists’ Television Workshop (a public access show for experimental media on WNET, PBS, New York City), Community Center for Television Production (Bingham- ton), the Everson Museum of Art‘s experimental film programs (Syracuse), Media Study/ Buffalo (Buffalo), the Videofreex Media Bus (a traveling media show) and Women’s Interart Center (New York City).[5]

In 1972, Gerald O’Grady, an English professor at the University at Buffalo, founded the off-campus independent media space Media Study/ Buffalo. This organization provided photographic, movie, sound and videotape equipment, space rental and educational instruction. Among their programs was a twenty-week course in media awareness that featured guest lectures by Yvonne Andersen, Stan Brakhage, Ed Emswiller, Richard Leacock and Stan Vanderbeek. The center prided itself on educating the public on issues of media literacy in a period of rapid technological advancement, and its curatorial programming that organized screenings with visiting filmmakers, held in conjunction with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.[6]

In 1974, O’Grady saw the need for a formal academic program for the advancement of media literacy and independent media production, and founded the Center for Media Study (later known as Department of Media Study, or DMS) at the University at Buffalo. Under O’Grady’s direction, DMS amassed a faculty that reads as a who’s who of the 1970-80s avant-garde: James Blue, Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Woody and Steina Vasulka, and Peter Weibel. Remarkably, the history of DMS has only recently been recognized, through the 2007 exhibition Mind-Frames: Media Study at Buffalo 1973–1990 at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) (Center for Art and Media Technology) in Karlsruhe, Germany. Associated with this exhibition is the definitive phonebook-sized anthology, Buffalo Heads: Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973-1990 (MIT Press, 2008).

In 1974, a group of visual artists (some still students)—including Diane Bertolo, Charles Clough, Nancy Dwyer, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman and Michael Zwack—founded Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo. From its humble beginnings in a former icehouse, Hallwalls exhibited both local and international artists, by encouraging exchange shows with similar spaces emerging in other cities. After a period of growth in the 1980s, Hallwalls funding was reduced drastically during the Culture Wars of the early 1990s, when the organization hosted exhibitions with controversial artists such as Robert Mappelthorpe and Karen Finley.[7]

The 1980s brought many challenges to Buffalo’s media arts community. In 1985, amidst growing financial uncertainty, Media Study/ Buffalo closed temporarily. Out of this crisis, a series of meetings led to the birth of a new media arts organization: Squeaky Wheel/ Buffalo Media Resources. In the following years, this organization went on to publish a media arts journal (The Squealer), produce a weekly public access cable show (Axlegrease), in addition to offering educational workshops, internships, equipment access and video editing and computer imaging facilities.[8]

Those that frequented Hallwalls, Squeaky Wheel and DMS during this era were often tireless advocates for artistic freedom and innovation. Media artists such as Chris Hill, Jody Lafond, Barbara Lattanzi, Brian Springer, Richard Wicka and Julie Zando were among those active in Buffalo’s 1980s-90s scene. Adopting the video collective model of the early 1970s, these artists worked in small groups to confront issues of freedom of speech, media access, women’s rights and gay rights, and produced tapes under the banners of the 8MM News Collective, Buffalo Artists Against Repression and Censorship, the Media Coalition for Reproductive Rights and Tony Conrad’s public access show, Studio of the Streets.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the broadening of Buffalo’s art/ activist traditions. The addition of film and video makers Lawrence Brose, Ghen Dennis, Julia Dzwonkoski, Mary Flannigan, Pamela Hawkins, Anya Lewin (who operated the microcinema Cornershop) and Caroline Koebel brought renewed spirit to Buffalo’s media arts community. Coupled with developments in the city’s political activity, particularly the formation of activist groups The Buffalo Activist Network, Buffalo Critical Mass and Go Guerrilla!, Buffalo became a significant part of the national anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s.

Buffalo’s arts and activist organizations have also contributed to the rich ecology of the city’s art practice. The Western New York Peace Center, founded in 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War, continues to provide education efforts focusing on local responses to global violence and human rights concerns. CEPA Gallery, founded in 1974, has been an essential resource in providing equipment access and education programs for local photographers. Big Orbit Gallery is a contemporary visual art gallery started in 1991. In 2000, the organization launched a satellite project, Soundlab, dedicated to experimental music. These organizations, coupled with more decentralized efforts such as Buffalo Blue Bikes (a free bicycle program), the short-lived Community Access Infoshop, Food Not Bombs, the Nickel City Housing Cooperative, the Massachusetts Avenue Project (a community center on Buffalo’s West Side), University Heights punk houses and numerous others have contributed to a unique multidisciplinary arts and political community.

Since the 1990s, University at Buffalo’s DMS has added new programs in 3D graphics, virtual reality and robotics, while continuing to offer courses in experimental and documentary filmmaking. Hallwalls, now based in a converted church owned by Buffalo rock icon Ani Difranco, maintains a regular schedule of exemplary and internationally distinguished interdisciplinary programming. Squeaky Wheel continues its critical work by providing media access to those who would otherwise have none, and by serving as a central meeting point for artists, academics and community activists. And new media groups continue to gravitate to the city, including Sugar City (a recently opened all ages multi- media venue), Termite TV (a public access show and media collective) and Western New York Book Arts Collaborative (a zine education and access center).

While this collection of short contemporary films and videos acknowledges Buffalo’s notable history, it also charts a new course. It highlights the work of a new generation of film and video artists, many of whom are not as widely known or acknowledged as their predecessors. These artists represent a new energy and life-blood; a group that cares increasingly about place and a dying city’s hopes.

Many of the pieces in this program share commonalities and threads. Marked by a lo-fi, DIY and confrontational approach, Buffalo’s new crop of artists embrace its no pretensions reputation. Many works appear gritty, dissonant, tough, raw and unconventional. Some tapes are made by one person, often shot as a diary tape, while others are made with mutual collaborators working in small groups. Other works have a marked sense of humor, often deadpan, dry and tongue in cheek.

What is it about Buffalo that fosters this unique culture work? Certainly its history, network of artist-run initiatives and governmental support are significant factors. Yet, equally probable, is a media activism that arises from its harsh economic reality. Buffalo’s media community is at once fueled by a DIY ethic and a network of community-based organizations that reinforce self-empowerment through artistic practice.

Significant degradation of Buffalo’s economy over the past forty years has made it difficult for even its most ardent supporters to stay in the city. The building of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1957 to make way for more cost-efficient trade is often cited as the origin of Buffalo’s economic downturn. Rendering the Erie Canal and the economies of Upstate New York obsolete, it can be seen as one of the first steps to what some refer to as late capitalism or post-industrialism. Additionally, the closure of steel plants and heavy industry in the 1970s-80s and poor urban planning have devastated Buffalo’s economic standing.

Ironically, in a contemporary program that seemingly cares so much about its town, only 3 of 12 participating artists still call Buffalo home. Some have left to pursue academic programs, jobs at other arts organizations or to be closer to family living in other cities. Ultimately, no matter how inexpensive the cost of living gets, it is difficult to get artists to stay in a city that lacks jobs and urban density. Buffalo’s population has now fallen below pre-1900 levels; currently its population is half of what it was in the 1950s.

Still, I know of no other place like Buffalo, New York. Its arts spaces and media organizations, political communities, film and video work and people who reside there continue to resound with urgency and hope. Buffalo, as one of the first victims of free trade globalization, reveals much about current politics and economics. Because of this, we can look towards Buffalo’s artist/ activist scenes for models of perseverance—even despite the most impossible of odds.

Notes

1. Copeland, Vincent, The Crime of Martin Sostre. New York: McGraw Hill Co, 1970.

2. Retrieved June 2, 2009 from the World Wide Web:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Buffalo_Nine

3. Siggelkow, Richard, Dissent and Disruption: A University under Siege. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992.

4. Retrieved June 2, 2009 from the World Wide Web:
http://videoartsjolander.homestead.com/files/list_-__experimental_television_center_-_usa.htm

5. ibid

6. Retrieved June 2, 2009 from the World Wide Web:
http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/history/groups/gtext.php3?id=51

7. Licata, Elizabeth and Ehmke, Ron, Consider the Alternatives: 20 Years of Contemporary Art at Hallwalls. Buffalo, NY: Hallwalls, 1996.

8. Retrieved June 2, 2009 from the World Wide Web:
http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/history/groups/gtext.php3?id=83

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