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Underground Media

August 1971September 1971

Underground media result from - a community concern to disseminate information not being transmitted by established media: hence underground newspapers, underground movies, underground tv.

They all appeared in the sixties, first emanating from New York, but now exist in all advanced capitalist systems. Underground papers fill a need not catered for in the mass circulation press: in many ways they are like the community papers thrown over the suburban fence, and like those papers most aspire to be free. Few are. The economics of publishing have resulted in an underground press that uses the exact same system as the capitalist press in production and distribution. Some underground papers own their own presses and avoid printer hassles.

They are exceptional. Some organize their own distribution thru streetsellers. Few have established viable markets by this means. Most underground papers have broken the self-imposed taboos of the commercial press, and many have broken taboos sanctified by law. For this their editors have suffered (viz: Richard Neville, Jim Anderson, & Felix Dennis now on trial in the Old Bailey, and Wendy Bacon, Graeme Dunstan and others from last years' Tharunka dragged thru Sydney courts.) Some underground papers have pioneered new printing techniques, such as Oracle and Oz with their visual equivalents of multi-tracked, overlayed stereo rock.

But by and large underground papers are distinct from their commercial competitors in their interest in printing minority news - not thinly disguised rewrites of public relations handouts, but personal views of what's happening in the community in which the papers appear. In this respect they have become integral to the growth of liberation movements that have emerged in the sixties. And they have fostered an alternate culture, or counter-culture that in its broadest application encompasses a myriad of human activity, but in its narrowest sense refers to hip clothes rock ā€˜nā€™ roll and dope.

In this latter sense, underground papers have merely duplicated established media techniques in increasing profits for the producers of these commodities. But in their continual positing of counter-culture underground papers have provided a forum for discussion long absent from the one-eyed papers of the press barons. In this they have achieved much, opening their pages to non-professionals who voiced what previously had been restricted to small group discussions in homes and pubs. In their intake of feedback they have imploded ideas and imagination destroying notions of society as a fixed and predictable system and have tuned in to the process of change, the living social organism of the community, and the collective consciousness of its members.

Underground movies have similarly destroyed the myth of Hollywood with its middle-class re-enactments of bourgeois myths. Personal movies have shown the way people live in the community, the varying lifestyles and individual preoccupations. Experimental movies have questioned the way we see, the role of conditioning in perception, the use of film as a tool to explore inner as well as outer space. So far they have only made small inroads into an alternative distributions system, largely thru film-makers' cooperatives and film-makers' cinemas, but they have effectively altered the content of movies in established cinemas, bringing about a sexual revolution in cinema that is now feeding back into the community and influencing the sex lives of its members.

Underground television has been least successful of the alternative media in terms its confrontation with established tv. But television is the most controlled of all established media, most protected by governments, and most feared by reactionaries. Hardware has been the chief barrier to alternate tv, with costs of television systems placing them, outside the realm of anyone but wealthy corporations. But in the late sixties, the availability of relatively cheap portable video systems has led to a growth in underground tv, suggesting that in the near future it will become the most powerful of the underground media, encapsuling all the functions of underground papers and movies with a higher degree of effectiveness than is possible in either of those other media.

The underground media have made people aware of a counter-culture, i.e. a life-style that is all-encompassing and is not narrowly prescribed and identifiable. They have given voice to minorities and individuals who in the so-called democratic media have been denied a voice. Underground video enables communication in the community thru a media that is readily available in every home. Instead of the one-way transmitted tv that is at present sanctioned by governments, new video systems open up infinite possibilities for feedback, with each home capable of generating its own programs on Ā¼ā€ tape, the information freely circulated, played back in any home, or any community throughout the world. Cable tv allows greater selectivity in programs, and community transmitters break 'down national big brother mindfucks that are at present compulsory dosage on television. New video systems will replace letter writing as a form of communication with increased articulation possible in their capacity for synchronous sound and vision. Video cassettes will replace LP records, and if underground tv maintains its effectiveness, these cassettes will not merely contain top of the pops, but will become valuable libraries of community information. At present underground tv is operating in limited areas, creating video theatres for immediate outlet, exchanging tapes in a search for feedback, and planning pirate transmissions in an endeavour to get alternate material on home screens. But the increasing availability of home recorders, cassette players, and portable hardware will soon give every member of the community the capacity to generate his own programs, his own information, opinions, views of the world he lives in.

The underground media have striven to improve the quality of human life thru postulation, discussion and criticism. Their means have been shoddy, often ugly, but their results can be seen in a whole generation of honest liberated children who are at present finding their way into public life in our communities. In them the effectiveness of the underground media will be seen, in the radically different society that is coming about. Then the underground media won't be underground, alternate points-of-view accepted as a necessary part of the social system, and people-to-people understanding an integral aspect of our way of life. In that video future of our ideals, life will be different, and its difference will be the direct result of our activities now in attempting to understand the process of change.

Albie Thoms

[Originally published in Tharunka, the journal of the University of New South Wales Student Union. August 1971. Volume 17, No. 17. Price 5 cents.]

Front page of the Underground Media issue of Tharunka, with the article by Albie Thoms (see text)
Front page of the Underground Media issue of Tharunka, with the article by Albie Thoms (see text)