VIVO Media Arts Centre Archive > Origins of the SVES and Crista Dahl Media Library and Archive

Origins of SVES & The Crista Dahl Media Library & Archive

By Karen Knights
Excerpt from The Crista Dahl Media Library & Archive: Preserving Vancouver’s Video Legacy, Virtual Museum Canada Community Stories, 2013


The Crista Dahl Media Library & Archive is a department of VIVO Media Arts Centre, a non-profit, artist-run centre supporting media artists and independent producers. It was incorporated under the BC Society’s Act on July 23, 1973 as The Satelllite Video Exchange Society (SVES). SVES’s public face was Video Inn, home of the Video Inn Library.

Video Inn has undergone two subsequent name changes: operating as Video In (1987-2007) and VIVO Media Arts Centre (2007-present). The library has been known as The Video Inn Library, The Video In Library, and The Video In Resource Centre. In 2007 it was renamed The Crista Dahl Media Library & Archive in honour of its greatest advocate and tireless volunteer, Crista Dahl.

The Portapak – Portable Video Recorder

“If you want to get into the future, get into video.” said Richard Lacroix at the 1967 Fusion des Arts conference in Quebec. His declaration came shortly after the introduction of the the Portapak.

The Sony Portapak – the first battery-operated, portable video recorder aimed at amateurs – was introduced in 1965 and commercially available by 1967. The technology was relatively crude by today’s standards: images were black and white only, editing was not possible (though artists eventually discovered a way), and, though sold as a portable system, its separate components weighed upwards of fifteen pounds each.

Despite these limitations, it proved a revolutionary technology. Video could be recorded relatively easily, unobtrusively, and inexpensively in comparison to film. Unlike consumer film formats, like Super 8, it could be shared immediately, the image erased and tape reused. It was seen by some as the missing link between non-commercial producers and broadcast television.

Yet, while aimed at the amateur market, it was not inexpensive. It was, in part, the collective action of artists that put the technology into the hands of a probing and curious generation raised in, and critical of, a televisual world. The Portapak quickly captured the imagination of social activists, artists of all disciplines, as well as media educators and critics interested in its potential as a democratizing tool to counter the homogeneity of commercial media.

“Looking back, it was a vibrant time, with no antecedents to fetter creativity, no video art, no video shops, no home video. Original in every respect, the first generation of video creation built the base on which alternative video activity continues today.” – Michael Goldberg

Several Vancouver artist societies and initiatives embraced the Portapak. One of the earliest was the informal art collective The Intermedia Society (founded 1967) which was rooted in experimental interdisciplinary art practice and influenced in part by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan and philosophies of Buckminster Fuller. Metro Media (founded 1971) advocated for education and activism through video, with an interest in the emerging community cable system as a dissemination medium. Both groups maintained a pool of video equipment that could be borrowed by individuals and communities who otherwise would not have access to it. Many groups, individuals and institutions directly contributed to the vitality of the early video scene and lay the groundwork for the eventual establishment of an alternative video library.

The International Video Exchange Directory

In 1971, Michael Goldberg, an artist working in part with Intermedia, and under the aegis of Image Bank, mailed 1000 postcards worldwide calling for groups and individuals working with small-format video to form an international network. People responded listing their contact information, equipment used, and experience. The resulting data was published in the “Video Exchange Directory Bottin Video International”, the first of eight such directories published between 1971 and 1978.

It is difficult to understand in the age of the internet how critical such directories were. Producers working alone or in small, un- or under-funded centres, had few other ways to seek out similarly minded people working with the new medium.

Video Inn would build on the directory’s “collect and share” theory of information exchange through other mechanisms such as its international print and document library, its public video library, The “Vancouver Area Video Access Listing,” which listed the holdings of all Vancouver area organizations that made video equipment accessible to the public, and “Video Guide,” their tabloid-style magazine

The 1973 Matrix International Video Conference & Festival

The growth of an international video network, developed through the 1971 Video Exchange Directory, was tapped into by Vancouver organizers to create one of the first gatherings of international non-commercial, alternative video producers. The MATRIX International Video Exchange Conference was held in Vancouver in January 1973. Michael Goldberg, explained the choice of title this way:

“…to the title ‘MATRIX’ the sense I get is that of a mesh, a variety of scattered points that inter-relate dynamically, in a spheroid rather than pyramidal pattern. It implies flexibility or randomness, like a telephone exchange, W.W.II searchlites over London, Ham Radio, or Geodesic Domes; if some of the lines are cut, the system can still function as a whole.”

MATRIX was attended by 160 representatives of the exchange network. Delegates came from Europe, Japan, the United States, and Canada. The conference was held at Crown Memorial Church at 19th and Cambie and the festival at the Vancouver Art Gallery’s original location on Georgia Street. The attendees played videotapes, exchanged information about their own projects and organizations, and discussed the most effective ways to move forward – debating whether a resource index of people and equipment and/or video libraries, should be established, whether there was a risk that the alternative video movement was focusing too much on the technology and not on what they were trying to communicate, and the strategies needed to challenge existing broadcast ownership structures and establish community cable and public access to broadcast.

The Vancouver Sun wrote that the international delegation was “a tribute to Vancouver’s reputation in this new field” and that Vancouver would “continue to play an important role in the esthetic and community use of video through the establishment of an international video library.”

The MATRIX Report, distributed to delegates following the conference, formally announced that initiative:

“‘Video Inn’ is the name chosen for the community lending library we are establishing with the help of Canada Council grant. The MATRIX conference immediately and concretely furnished about 75 software dubs, which are now available for viewing at the Inn. The long term effect of MATRIX on exchange is difficult to determine. ..The development of the library will depend partly on the responses of producers and partly on our response to the communities we are trying to serve

The Satellite Video Exchange Society & Video Inn

The Satellite Video Exchange Society (SVES) was incorporated as a non-profit, charitable and educational body in July 1973, six months following Matrix. Many of the founders had met during the organizing of Matrix, or at the conference itself, including Michael Goldberg, Patricia Hardman, Charlie Keast, Gan Matsushita, Janet Miller, Shawn Preus, Kazumi Tanaka, Paula Wainberg and Paul Wong. Additional signatories were Renee Baert, Annastacia McDonald, and Rick Ward.

As outlined to Matrix participants, the Video Inn Library was the primary purpose of the Society. The seminal role of a publicly accessible international video library was outlined clearly in an unalterable provision in its constitution. The focus was on the free access to, and free exchange of, alternative video.

“We felt that the free flow of alternative information through tape exchange could contribute to decentralizing media away from the one-way system inherent to broadcast television. We were experimenting with video technology and styles, and with the relationship of the media itself. While we were devoted to facilitating global video exchange, were such a movement to limit itself to video producers it would become a closed network. That’s why we decided our core service would be a non-commercial video library, where the public could choose from a wide variety of themes and genres largely ignored by the media.” – Michael Goldberg

The Video Inn, the public face of SVES and home of its non-commercial video library, opened at 261 Powell Street, occupying the ground floor of a typical turn of the century, low-rise commercial building between Main and Gore Streets, on August 1, 1973 (though it had been responsive to community needs in an unofficial capacity for several months). Video Inn’s name was a play on both the video input of a recording device and the rooming house in which it was located. Established as a collective, the Video Inn demanded great commitment from its founding members, whose efforts went largely unpaid.

The Video Inn Library

The Video Inn Library provided screening opportunities and distribution via tape exchange for independent producers and community groups who lacked venues for their work as well as access to alternative media for the public at large. Goldberg reflected on the scene at the time:

“We were one of the few video groups oriented to a general public, and we truly welcomed people in our doors. Our four viewing bays were often filled with viewers of all sorts: students, people on social assistance, passers-by, video makers from out-of-town, etc.”

People came to watch the library tapes, or to use the playback equipment to view their own recordings. Any tape submitted to the library was accepted. Production quality was not a consideration; video’s role as a democratic communication tool was of primary importance to the collective.

Crista Dahl designed a cataloguing system that took into account the subject-driven nature of production and the viewership at that time. Just as the videotapes in the library covered a broad spectrum of interests, the communities who used the library were just as diverse and included dancers, midwives (an illegal profession at the time), educators, artists, and activists involved in numerous social and political movements, including the feminist, gay liberation, First Nations, ecology, anti-nuclear, and poverty movements.

In three years, the Video Inn tape collection grew from 80 to over 600 tapes.

“More people coming in/phoning/relating to us as a resource centre. It’s great but I’m hoarse by the time I leave.” – excerpt from Video Inn day book June 12, 1978