The concept behind TV pioneer Tom Weinberg’s Media Burn Archive was simply to preserve independently produced videos. “What we’ve been doing for the past 40 years matters,” he explains. “If we don’t save videos as a view into the cultural past, no one will ever see it.”
Over the past 10 years, the nonprofit organization has collected, restored and digitized more than 7,000 such videos from a variety of non-digital sources.
Its online collection of more than 3,000 titles at mediaburn.org has generated more than 13 million global views and appeared in documentaries of all sizes and budgets.
One of the most popular videos they captured was during a 1975 San Francisco cultural gathering called “Media Burn.” Organized by Ant Farm art collective, it climaxed with a 1959 Cadillac driving through a wall of burning televisions in the Cow Palace parking lot.
“A freeze frame of the collision “went all over the world,” Weinberg remembers. “It was on the front page of hundreds and hundreds of newspapers.”
That’s just one scene from the viral videos that Weinberg and his friends began making with handheld and remote devices long before GoPros, camera phones, selfies and the Internet were a thing.
“We did things nobody had done,” he says. “That really begat the Internet. It begat YouTube. It begat all the video where people can see themselves.” Archive began with Weinberg’s Image Union collection.
Media Burn Archive was founded with Weinberg’s own vast personal collection. It includes 300 episodes of his iconic Image Union that showcases the work of Chicago independent filmmakers and is still on the air, since 1978. Weinberg produced the first 11 seasons of those seasons.
Thereafter, he explains, “We began adding individual, independent producer’s work that’s in sync with ours. All are independently made documentaries, not commercially oriented.”
The labor required to convert the material from analog to digital is nothing compared to the benefit of preserving the fruits of guerrilla television, a channel of communications that covers what the mainstream media generally ignores, he says.
Changing the way content was captured
Weinberg and his associates recognized the importance of the guerilla genre in 1967, when Sony introduced the first Portapak — a battery-powered, self-contained an analog video rig called the DV-2400. Although the cameras were designed to film things like corporate training, they used them capture the era’s artistic, political and social happenings.
“We made them for personal use,” he explains. “The first portable personal video that TV ever aired was our video of the 1972 Democratic and Republican national conventions.”
Since the footage could be reviewed as soon as they shot it, Mr. Weinberg got a first-hand look at the way people transform when they’re in front of a camera. “We’d show it to people on a TV monitor right there,” he says.
Three decades later, the phenomenon would become part of Weinberg’s expanded definition of “media burn” as well as an essential component of American politics.
“I use the term ‘media burn’ as a concept for what happens when people are on TV,” he explains. “Donald Trump is one of the great examples. There’d be no ‘Donald Trump for President’ if he hadn’t had a TV show.”
Supported by grants and a video digitizing service
The non-profit is run by executive director Sara Chapman, whom Weinberg recruited after she graduated from the University of Chicago in 2004 and whom he highly praises for her talent and management skills.
Dan Erdman is the archivist supported by three to five volunteers and interns. Their 1,000-sq. ft. office, “with a fantastic view,” Weinberg says, in a loft building in River North at 935 W. Chestnut.
Media Burn Archive is largely supported by grants from such organizations the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and individual contributions that are used for specific archival projects.
Other important funders include the National Endpwment for the Arts, National Historical Publications, the Richard H. Dreihause Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Dept. of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
One way Media Burn meets its monthly obligations is by providing a paid service that digitizes producer’s videos as a way of preserving them for the future.