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National Center for Experiments in Television

Contemporary to the activities carried on by individuals was a sudden growth of interest in experimental television at three major broadcast centers: KQED in San Francisco, WGBH in Boston, and WNET in New York. KQED and WGBH were first off the mark; in 1967 they both received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation to establish experimental workshops in television.

Brice Howard was the director of the first San Francisco workshop. During the first year, he asked five artists from the Bay area to come to the station, and he gave them access to the tools of television. They included a poet, a filmmaker, a novelist, a painter-sculptor, and a composer, Richard Felciano, who stayed with the workshop in following years. The TV director for the project was Bob Zagone, a young man who had been interested in innovative programming at KQED for some time. The experimenters found it increasingly difficult to work within the structure of a broadcast station, using bits of studio time left over from the news productions. Howard gradually moved the program out of the KQED building and set up a separate, genuine workshop.

The first-year artists, who were established in their own disciplines, were replaced during the ensuing years by people who concentrated on television itself (although they came from diverse backgrounds). The basic group came to include Willard Rosenquist, a professor of design at Berkeley; Bill Gwin, a young painter; Stephen Beck, an electronics designer; Don Hallock, a man with past experience both in broadcast TV and painting; Bill Roarty, a graphics designer who had also worked in television previously; and at various times two composers, first Richard Felciano and later Warner Jepson. In 1969, the workshop became the National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET), still under the direction of Brice Howard. Howard was an extraordinary man who provided an atmosphere where experimentation could go on free from pressures of a broadcast situation. The workshop gradually acquired and built equipment, and the members had time to learn the medium in a craftsmanlike fashion.

During the late 1960's and early 1970's, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting sponsored an internship program, in which TV personnel from around the country could come to the center to study. The center's current director, Paul Kaufman, described what happened:

...what went on was the formation of a workshop environment into which came dozens and dozens of stunned producers and directors from all over the public broadcast stations... as a result, a lot of people in the system were exposed, and a lot of people in a sense went mad professionally, because Brice's personality and the general ambiance in the Center so strongly contrasted with the somewhat uptight and constrictive relationships at the stations.
One of the people who "went mad professionally" was Bill Roarty, who came as an intern in 1969 and then came back to stay in 1971. His memories provide insight into the atmosphere at the center and into Howard's teaching:
What happened in that six weeks was fascinating, because everything they were saying about television connected exactly with everything I had been told as a painting student. They were approaching it essentially the same way... it was material, it was surface... The connection was obvious and immediate to me; the thing I was working in, television, was a medium, and I had never thought of it that way before.

...The idea that Brice spoke about so beautifully was that if you did divorce broadcast from the making of television, you can cut away an enormous amount of very conventionalized and superfluous ritual... the making of programs for broadcast in the old sense was at the very least manipulative, and not in any way connected to what I thought of as the creative process. It goes right down the line... you can examine the vocabulary people developed, "control room", "camera shots", etc. Broadcast was eliminated from our discussion but really it was included all the time, as a poor relative.
Roarty goes on to describe a typical day at the center, which at that time was in one huge room:
Warner and I would be working on a complex sound composition and immediately to our left would be Stephen, designing a circuit and then on the other side of that would be Bill Gwin, looking at a tape, and over there would be Willard, working on light forms. You couldn't help but be completely excited by the thoughts and perceptions of all the people around you approaching things each in his own way.
From 1971 on, the Rockefeller Foundation gave support to a new program of the center's. Paul Kaufman recalls:
The time had come to try to see if you could do something about changing the moribund characteristics of teaching about television in the Universities... We began a project that lasted for three years, which initially had people from the Center going out and visiting a lot of campuses, bringing tapes along, going to art departments, essentially saying to University people, "Look here, here's something new and something interesting, and you can do it. It's important to do it because we are going to have to train a whole new generation of image-sensitive people, and the schools aren't doing it". Well, out of this group of initial visits, about 5 or 6 places kind of surfaced as possible workshop sites, and eventually these became more or less mini-Centers in themselves.
The center entered a highly productive period in the spring of 1972. Don Hallock, Bill Gwin, Willard Rosenquist, and Bill Roarty all produced some of their most beautiful tapes. (Some of these tapes will be discussed in the third section of this report.) In the fall, Warner Jepson and Stephen Beck embarked on a concert tour around the country, giving performances with their audio and video synthesizers, respectively.

This burst of activity continued into the summer of 1973, when Don Hallock presented his "Videola" at the San Francisco Art Museum. Since that time, the direction of the center has been changing. There has been a shift from art to an interest in developing structural approaches to the medium. Paul Kaufman, the director, used the term "visual thinking" to describe his interest in finding a way of using all their experimentation of the preceding years to help figure out ways to get social, political, or philosophical ideas across on television without resorting to the traditional lecture form.

At any rate, the center as a place for aesthetic exploration is dissolving, and it leaves an empty space in the video world. Bill Gwin stumbled onto the old center in 1969 as a young painter, and here speaks about it as a place to learn:
It was lucky for me because I learned how to use things in a very slow and unpressured way. When I was first there, they had one black and white camera and one tape machine, and that was all. They added more equipment slowly, so I started off with the most basic kind of situation, and over a period of three years learned how to use all of that equipment. It was nice; there's no place like it anymore, which is a problem.

- Johanna Branson Gill: VIDEO: STATE OF THE ART, 1976

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