Go Deeper

Babysitting Winnipeg: Daniel Barrow Looks Back At The Golden Age Of Public Access

Posted August 17th, 2010

Some kids grow up watching cartoons. Daniel Barrow, a Montreal-based media artist whose practice centers on drawing and collection, watched public access. Yes, that public access, where you can watch taped recordings of school board meetings, PSAs about fire safety and alternative religious programming.

But in the 1980s in Winnipeg, Manitoba, public access was a little different. Daniel’s film Winnipeg Babysitter, which will be screened at the 2010 Philly Fringe, is a collection of archival footage from Winnipeg’s golden age of public access. I got him on the phone to talk about the making of the film, the YouTube generation, and what we lost when the big cable companies destroyed public access.

Live Arts/Fringe: Tell me a little about your project Winnipeg Babysitter.

Daniel Barrow: I’m best known for overhead animation work. I make manual animations using an overhead projector, and the piece that I’m presenting in Philadelphia is different in that I’m projecting video and using an overhead projector on top of the video projection to create a pseudo-documentary. Do you remember Pop-Up Video?

After the jump: archives from memory, the advent of user-generated content, and Winnipeg as a conduit to filmic fame.

LA/F: Of course.

DB: Well, I’ll be showing different clips of various programs from Winnipeg’s public access and using the overhead projector to create pop-up windows with scrolling text that just contextualizes what the viewers watching. Like interesting back stories and history of the various producers and programs.

LA/F: How did you choose and compile the footage you’re using?

DB: It wasn’t too easy. Basically I curated the entire program from childhood memories. As a kid I watched a lot of television, and all the programs I show, I remembered. There was at one time an official archive of public access TV in Winnipeg, but a large cable company bought our small local company and destroyed the archives for whatever reason. I started with the phone book, looking up people’s names that I remembered and trying to get in contact with the original producers in hopes that they had archived their own work on VHS.

LA/F: Wow, and that worked?

DB: For the most part it worked. There are so few degrees of separation in Winnipeg.

LA/F: Where did the idea for the project come from?

DB: It began when I learned that public access archive had been destroyed. I was working as a distribution coordinator at Video Pool, which is an archive of video art tapes. I thought maybe it should be considered part of my job description to intervene in some way in what seemed like a really tragic loss of cultural history. I never did anything about it at the time but years later I thought, “That’s a cool idea,” so I started looking people up and I wrote a proposal to a gallery in Winnipeg in 2005.

LA/F: Do you think you could’ve made this film from public access archives from any city, or is there something unique about Winnipeg?

DB: I don’t know what public access is like in other cities. I think that it’s fair to say that this footage is pretty remarkable and specific to Winnipeg.

LA/F: Do you know how the public access system worked back then? Did the performers themselves pay?

DB: For the most part it was a completely non-discriminating access policy. Any person could walk in off the street, fill out the necessary paperwork, and be assigned an hour of studio time. It was entirely democratic. The government mandated all of the cable companies to allocate a certain amount of budget for public access. Nowadays the cable companies are controlled by huge conglomerates with a lot of political connections, so they’ve dispersed all of their public access.

LA/F: So there’s no more public access?

DB: It’s called that but it’s not “public access” at all. It’s hired reporters who just do community announcements very short, produced pieces about community events. And of course there are advertisements which are scrolling on upper right-hand quadrants of the screen.

LA/F: User-generated content is everywhere now. Do you think that what made public access TV a unique medium—that ordinary people could create content—has been supplanted by YouTube?

DB: Public access is dying a slow or fast death depending on what part of America you live in, and people do regard it as generally irrelevant. But it was completely different from today’s YouTube in that it had a completely community-specific audience, which is really important when preserving documentary. All of these producers had access to production and technical services, and as a consequence over 30% of content was produced by senior citizens, which isn’t true of the internet. A more obvious reason it’s no longer as prevalent is the cable companies. In the 1980s there were over 60 different cable companies—now there are three. Larger cable companies have no interest in or attachment to community specificity; their goal is to make sure that everyone’s watching the exact same thing.

LA/F: Why do you think the original producers were making public access shows?

DB: The same reasons for any creative activity— I think that a lot of people just felt a creative impulse that wasn’t being expressed in their day-to-day lives and this was a venue that was presented to them to express themselves. Before [filmmaker] Guy Maddin ever made a film he had a Winnipeg public access television program called Survival, and Kyle McCulloch, who went on to make South Park, was involved with Winnipeg public access.

LA/F: Do you consider this to be a documentary film?

DB: I do. It’s also a curatorial program and a performance, and it’s absolutely archival, or I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of having about four hours of footage preserved in a climate-controlled vault. It’s excerpts from a television of a bygone era within a movie theater. Part of why I’m using a projector is that I really wanted to maintain a certain archival quality of the program. I didn’t want to introduce like a narration or text or in any way disturb the kind of 80’s formal qualities of the footage; I didn’t want there to be any blurred line between the documentary video I was making and the actual video excerpt. All of my interjections are using a completely different medium. It’s kind of like being in a museum looking at an old book with a sheet of velum placed on top of the page with historical facts and information.

LA/F: Where does the name Winnipeg Babysitter come from?

DB: I like it to remain open-ended, I like people to bring their own associative response to the title. It certainly does refer to the fact that television to me was a real babysitter as a kid. I also like the idea that it’s a reference to me in the room sort of moderating the experience of watching television.

Winnipeg Babysitter, will be screened on Sept. 4th at The Ibrahim Theater @ International House, 3701 Chestnut Street. 7:00 pm, $8.

–Ellen Freeman

Photos courtesy of Daniel Barrow.