Artists’ Television Access (ATA) is celebrating its birthday this Friday, September 5, with a 30-hour video marathon, one hour for every year of its existence. Wait. What? ATA has been around for 30 years? How did that happen? What pulsating nuclear death ray, what glowing green industrial slime spawned such a hardy creature? Marshall Weber, the evil genius who founded ATA (with John Martin) in the early 1980s just happens to be in town and will be showing Flatlands, his 130-minute video masterwork as part of the marathon, which starts at 1pm on Friday, ends Saturday evening at 7pm and will be followed by a celebratory party. I asked Weber to recount ATA’s origin story.
In order to understand how an organization with such an unlikely moniker — Artists’ Television ACCESS — arose, you have to step into a time tunnel, throw away your cell phone, dismantle your computer and forget the ubiquity of modern video. You have to imagine, if you will, a time before portable video cameras, non-linear video editing and YouTube. The year is 1980 and a young Marshall Weber drives cross country from New York in a ’65 Mustang to attend graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studies performance and video — and meets John Martin.
This is a time before art schools were so corporate; the only people institutionalized there were those professors coasting to retirement. Relationships between students and faculty were unnaturally (by today’s standards) egalitarian and often uncomfortably competitive and confrontational. (We live in a much “smoother” era today.) Weber didn’t much care for most of the teachers he encountered at SFAI, though he was deeply affected by the cultural politics of James Broughton and George Kuchar, both world-famous queer experimental filmmakers who taught at the school for years. “It’s one thing when some straight white man is showing you a film about Baader-Meinhof; it’s an entirely different thing when a screaming gay man who is totally involved in the leather scene is teaching you about film history while on LSD,” he notes.
Martin dropped out of school and Weber was encouraged to graduate early, so the two decided to open a gallery, which was originally located South of Market and named Martin-Weber. The whole ATA enterprise really began around equipment. “We thought there should be an art gallery that focused on technology and the focus should be on getting artists access to this incredible tech that was obviously going to blow up. It’s ridiculous now to think that this ‘access’ was to one camera, one video editing system and a couple of monitors. The pretension is kind of fabulous, but it was sincere,” Weber says.
Here another leap must be taken. Imagine the very first “portable” consumer video equipment. Weber describes it as “still bulky. You have a camera, then you had a portapack that had wires to it and then you had a battery pack. So it was not like a ‘go to the beach’ situation. It was seriously heavy, complicated, white balancing… Stuff going wrong. Batteries lasting like maybe 45 minutes, primarily 3/4″.
“They had just started making 1/2″ equipment at that time. One of the things that prompted Martin-Weber Gallery was that I had made some money drug dealing and working at night clubs and John had some money from his parents and from some other weird hustles I don’t really recall the details of, and we bought the first Panasonic 1/2″ video editing system in the Bay Area. Literally, nobody had one of these. So we got a space South of Market and we really wanted to be the super cool punk new wave art gallery, which we were. But we also had this amazing 1/2″ editing system, and John had a great Panasonic video camera — not a lot of people had video cameras — and we were the only ones working with 1/2″ video.
“We did fashion shoots for Macy’s and made thousands of dollars. We did lots of private jobs and we were also making art. We were making so much money renting out this system that we just let some community service organizations use the equipment for free — like the teen pregnancy program at SF General, for instance.” Weber says this was a natural extension of the duo’s interest not only in art, but in social action. “We both had political affiliations ranging from strident anti-war street activities to community service stuff, which was interesting because we were kind of complete fuck-ups.”
And again, the time tunnel has taken us back to San Francisco in the early 1980s. Dianne Feinstein is mayor. The Embarcadero Freeway is still standing. The AIDS crisis has just hit the city hard. You can see punk bands at venues all over town. In fact, there was a whole different kind of energy permeating the city. Weber says, “The punk ethos of being against institutions was very strong. It wasn’t a quiet, considerate, cooperative scene… There was an anti-conformity vibe and people thought the corporate organization of culture was a bummer.”
Turns out “access” has always been the key to ATA’s name and its success. A lot of ATA’s early alliances didn’t necessarily come about proactively from Weber or Martin or any of the skeleton staff at the gallery, they came from the generosity of the surrounding communities.
When they started their gallery, Weber and Martin thought they were on their own. “We didn’t think there would be anyone else to help us except the community we would form or the allegiances we would make,” Weber says. “Most of those allegiances were not in academia and they were not in the mainstream art world. They were with Galeria de la Raza. They were with political organizations, and our community opened up and we attracted people because ATA was both a scene and the place where you could walk in and have a show a month later. So many artists who are doing really well now just walked in our door and we said, ‘show us what you’ve got.’”
Artists’ Television Access turned into something of a misnomer; on any given night you could see performance, poetry, video, you name it. Weber also managed a year-round visual art exhibition program.
“One of the reasons why ATA survived is that we lived there; it was an artist studio. It was run by artists and when the corporation was formed, I had what, in retrospect, now seems like a brilliant idea: You could actually legally construct the corporate culture of an organization via its by-laws, which is like ‘duh.’ We had a by-law in ATA’s corporate charter that stated the board had to always be half artists. Over the decades this prevented the corporate takeover of ATA and secured the ATA culture.
“I think the culture remains pretty much the same as it was at the beginning. It’s kind of shifted from the new wave punk thing into a multi-cultural crusty queer thing, but it still maintains itself as basically an organization for emerging artists and for artists who are working outside the commercial art world.
“And for media that was really kinda crucial. Video art, for instance, really got bombed by music television and then appropriated by bourgeois museum people. Where it was once immediate, emotional, creative, and random, it became either a dumb music video thing or some giant, extravagant, we need to spend a million dollars, Bill Viola blah-blah-blah something for museums. It was interesting to see how one end — the commercial field — commodified video art and the other end — the museum world — commodified video art. And I think there weren’t a lot of places in between.
“Similarly, almost as fast as the alternative world of video reportage rose, the media learned how to shut it out. So you had a very interesting underground circuit of news stuff and then you had a very underground circuit of alternative music video and then you had the art that just wasn’t fitting in anywhere, and it was very similar to the circuit that experimental film formed — there were houses around the country and it was almost completely isolated from any other cultural exchange. It had its own audience. It had its own funders. It got some of the crumbs from the institutional world. It got crumbs from the commercial world.
“And ATA benefited from those crumbs. It was a horizontal organization. It didn’t have to worry about expanding and it didn’t have to worry about moving up the ladder of the art world, which we all hated just on principle even back then. In the early 1980s it was kind of already obvious where the art world was going.
“We were there for this amazing opportunity that gave us the ability to find a niche and then expand from there,” Weber says. ATA and the artists who worked and played there helped to define what an art video looked like.
The secret sauce for ATA was that it became a “horizontal equalizer” for any artist from any background in the city of San Francisco. You had access to ATA. There were no filters. There was a lot of volunteerism and a great activist board. And there were hundreds of shows a year.
“From 1986 on, Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema was located in ATA,” Weber says. “It was still a discreet organization, still discreet programming, but Other Cinema deeply affected ATA. Craig always had a show on Saturday nights. Period. That was his model. If you thought you couldn’t do something… you looked at Craig and you realized you had no excuse for not getting it done.
“And then there’s also that idea of access. Again, the punk idea of anyone can do it — not to be confused with do-it-yourself, which is a bourgeois corruption of punk. Punk was about anyone can do it and we’ll help you do it. It wasn’t about do it yourself; it was do it with us — connecting people up. So the culture of ATA remained pretty stable, but not stagnant because different kinds of content and different communities moved in and out of the space.”
Another of ATA’s secrets is that it actually integrated with the local communities — certainly with the Latino and queer communities, parts of the Asian community and to a lesser extent the African American community.
“One reason why you saw people from so-called, poorly named, marginalized communities or ethnic communities take up video was because they never got any coverage from the media,” says Weber. “So when alternative means of reporting came up, there already was a really strong culture of agitprop and reportage in the Latino community. The whole silk screen poster movement… I mean the mural movement was once a billboard movement meant to popularize social and political groups. The basis for all these cultures, when you look at what Siqueiros and Rivera were doing, their murals were the history of the socialist alternative to the capitalist takeover. It was educational. You saw a lot of these communities move into video because it was an extension of the broadside, the mural and the silkscreen print. There was a creative culture that didn’t see the difference between culture and news, and understood that the mainstream news was never gonna cover anything they were doing and was certainly not going to serve the communities they were in. They adopted video so they could communicate more effectively within their own communities and form solidarity networks.”
This combination meant that the audience at ATA was always expanding. While there is a core ATA audience that is interested in discovery and open to checking out new things, this strong connection to multiple communities has also assured the organization’s survival.
Weber says, “It seemed like we had one big loyal audience, when in fact we had a lot of different audiences that the artists brought along with them. There’s always an audience for something.
“You could walk in the door and not feel like you were stupid, or not feel like you weren’t rich enough to be there. The whole commodification of the art world and the whole intellectualization of — film, especially — kind of killed the audience. The audience doesn’t want to feel like they’re dumb or they’re not rich enough or they’re not cool enough. And as elitist and fucked up and snobby as John Martin and I may have personally been, with the help of other people I think we formed a welcoming organization.
“My dad ran a jewelry store his whole life, and I worked in it from the time I was a little kid. The one thing that he always drove home was that you have to treat everyone who comes in the door the same. It doesn’t matter who they are. That was something I always thought about with ATA. It’s like a culture shop; it’s just a store. It’s not some grand pretentious bullshit.”
Finally, what Weber remembers most about his time with ATA — he lived there until 1991 — is how “there was no trade-off. At the time, I was involved in this very diverse, extremely creative, extremely politically committed community that had lots of ethical integrity. The work was amazing.”
He thinks that the reason why ATA endures is that it still has the same welcoming vibe and strong connection to diverse and active communities. At 21st Street and Valencia, the heart of a radically contested neighborhood, ATA also has some pretty great real estate juju. Knock wood. No jinx.
So, what’s this Flatlands video he will be showing in prime time (8pm) on Friday night?
Weber says, “Flatlands is one of my favorite artworks. I made it in ’83-’84. I wanted to make an epic stereo video piece. It is very much an homage to Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, but it is also a pretty sincere exploration of dyslexia and the relationship of creativity to cognition. It is a real synthesis of everything I had learned and done in the decade before. I have slight dyslexia and my brother has severe dyslexia, and I was always really interested in why some people think this way and other people think that way. What social constraints does language place on creativity? So many hot topic items are in Flatlands, like health care, cognitive neurology, dyslexia, creativity — and it’s super psychedelic.
“The stereo video includes all of these random factors. You have two screens and every time you play the piece, it’s never the same. We are actually playing the piece on the vintage 30-year-old video cassettes. The whole feeling of it is… if you didn’t live through that era, you will not understand what the hell is going on — the textures of the video, the language, even the way people are talking and the acting styles. Every scene is written based on either a dialogue or a poem. It pretty much hangs together, but is hard to explain. This will be a charmingly alien experience for anyone born after 1990. But for anyone born before, it will be a rare chance to see what punk new wave videography was.”