Classical 91.5

The mirror that is the Visual Studies Workshop

Jul 29, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 11:26 am

The film is black and white, as was the issue. The camera work is a little jittery, as were the times. A Black man -- he looks to be in his mid-20s -- is talking about the relationship between the police and Black youths.

“They got feelings, we got feelings, they should consider that. I mean, if you get clubbed upside the head, man, it hurts. They should know that, if they get clubbed upside the head, that’s gonna hurt. You know what I mean?”

The conversation is from 1972, one moment in a 31½-minute collection of interviews called “Police Brutality.” Cable access TV before we knew of cable access TV. Amateurs making films, documenting history.

“That was Portable Channel,” says Tara Merenda Nelson, curator of Moving Image Collections at Visual Studies Workshop. “The bottom, sort of the core ethos, was that they were going to help people learn how to make their own media and represent themselves and then find ways to share their stories publicly.”

“Police Brutality” will be featured Thursday, July 30, on the lawn at Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince St. The program is called The Power of Protest: Poetry & Film, and opens at 7:30 p.m. with performances by four poets, Sarah Adams, Sabine Bradley, Reenah Golden and Rashaad Parker. Those will be followed by a series of short films on race, some with disturbingly violent imagery. The familiar social-distancing protocols will be observed: seating 6 feet apart, hand sanitizers provided, face coverings required. Donations will be accepted, on site and online, on behalf of Black Lives Matter.

“Police Brutality,” and the stories it tells, would be a lost film if it weren’t for Visual Studies Workshop, a Gothic-looking nonprofit at Prince Street and University Avenue, across from the Memorial Art Gallery. Founded in 1969, it offers support, research, film preservation and education for people who view books and images with a decidedly social-minded agenda. 

As the institution proclaims on its website, Visual Studies Workshop is a place where creative people can produce work that is “not what was dictated to them by the commercial pressures of publishers, galleries, and museums.”

So Visual Studies Workshop is a repository for films and videos that have been accumulating dust at local colleges and the Rochester Public Library over the years. But it was also a movement, through independent-minded filmmakers such as George Stoney and Bonnie Sherr Klein.

“George Stoney is known as the godfather of community access television because he was a filmmaker, but also believed strongly in this sort of amateurism,” Nelson says. “So allowing people who were untrained to use tools of production to create their own media to tell their own stories.”

Stoney was a professor at Stanford; Klein was one of his students. As Vietnam War resisters, Klein and her husband fled to Canada in 1967, but three years later moved to Rochester, where she founded Portable Channel, focusing on feminist themes. After she suffered a stroke, Klein began making films on disability as well.

Visual Studies Workshop has 910 videotapes created by Portable Channel. Half of them were produced for WXXI-TV’s “Homemade TV,” which ran from 1972 to ’75. VSW has been awarded a handful of grants to preserve these tapes, most recently a Recordings at Risk grant this spring from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

Portable Channel is a valuable window into a time that predates even “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

“Amateur video was somewhat unwieldy,” Nelson says. “You needed a lot of equipment and there weren’t screenings, so you either made films through production companies or big production houses or television studios.”

Along with making her feminist films and her series on activist Saul Alinsky’s efforts to get a contract for striking Black workers at Kodak, Klein and others associated with Visual Studies Workshop were stockpiling a pool of video equipment for use by people in low-income neighborhoods. What today we would call “under-represented communities.” Also making use of the equipment was a group that grew out of Portable Channel calling themselves the Women’s Video Workshop.

Many of these films are a mystery. Who are the people telling these stories? “We don’t have a lot of records, we only know what we see,” Nelson says.

One of these mysteries, “B’ism Allah,” by Portable Channel and the Women’s Video Workshop, will be shown at The Power of Protest: Poetry & Film. Black kids from Rochester, ages 10 to 14, Nelson guesses. She describes it as “poetry, but they’re also performing.”

Only recently was some light shed on this unidentified group.

“We were showing this piece, a couple of other screenings,” Nelson says, “and finally someone said, ‘Oh, I know who those are, those are The Black Seeds.’ ”

So not only does Visual Studies Workshop enlighten the community, but the enlightenment goes in the other direction as well.

“Community crowdsourcing is a big part of our kind of mission,” Nelson says. “Looking forward with the Portable Channel collection, we need to put this into the community so that they can tell us about the collection, so that we can get it right and accurately catalog the metadata, and share the work.”

But why bring out something like “Police Brutality” now, a half-century after the fact? Why not let the wounds heal?

Because “Police Brutality,” Nelson says, is “shockingly prescient.” Portable Channel produced it for what she calls the 1972 version of a Police Accountability Board, The People’s Defense Committee for Inner City Police Coalition.

“They were a group of mixed race,” she says, “so black people and white Rochester citizens that were coming together to raise awareness around police brutality in Rochester, and to get some legislation that would allow for them to be heard or defend themselves.”

Portable Channel is local history. And national travesties that coincided with the moment, including perhaps the most notorious prison riot in American history.

Nelson says this was when Attica was happening and it became "a huuuge part of the Portable Channel collection."

“There’s a lot of content about Attica, it’s amazing what we’ve got that’s unique, Attica-related content,” Nelson says.

There is a quote that appears in many forms over the years: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A couple of the films being shown Thursday reflect on the beating of Rodney King in 1991, setting off the Los Angeles riots the following year when the police officers on trial were acquitted. We’ve been living that pain again this summer, with the murder of George Floyd.

“Police brutality was a very important issue in the community then, and remains so,” Nelson says.

“It’s kind of uncanny how it mirrors our current moment.”

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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