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Media Burn's 30-year collection of Chicago-centric independent video is finally available on the Web. But could you keep it to yourself for now?

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It had to be a little painful: just when Google ponied up $1.65 billion for YouTube earlier this month, producer Tom Weinberg was finally preparing to launch Media Burn (mediaburn.org), the Chicago-based streaming-video site he says he was working on before YouTube was a glimmer in Chad and Steve's eye. Weinberg's been making and promoting independent video since 1972, right after portable cameras were introduced and the genre was born. He created the WTTW video showcase Image Union and produced it for 11 years, then spent four seasons at the helm of The 90s, which brought indie video from all over the world to PBS. His resume includes an arm's-length list of other video programs and television series as well as teaching posts that stretch from primary school to college. He cofounded TVTV, which pioneered the use of handheld cameras for broadcast, created TWTV, a for-profit production company, and founded the Fund for Innovative TV, Media Burn's parent organization, which he runs out of a storefront on Irving Park near the Kennedy--each focused on alternative, offbeat, socially progressive documentaries. After 30 years Weinberg had accumulated an archive of 4,000 videotapes, many of which were beginning to deteriorate, so in 2001 he and his FITV colleagues founded yet another organization, now called the Media Burn Independent Archive, to get those taped pieces of history transferred to digital media before they were lost.

Then came the big bang. "While we were working on digitizing the archive, the technology for streaming video on the Internet came along," he says. Overnight, Media Burn turned from a means of conservation to a potential vehicle for instant content delivery to the whole world--or at least anyone who uses Firefox or Internet Explorer (the only browsers the site is currently compatible with). But it would take money to realize that potential. While YouTube and Google Video, fueled by millions in venture capital, took the technology and ran with it, Media Burn crept along on a budget of $250,000, much of it raised from family and friends. The technology is more or less the same as on the big sites, Weinberg says, but Media Burn is short on server power and bandwidth. For that reason it's getting a low-profile release: he's afraid too much interest could max out the server. (The site is already suffering from some extremely long load times.) So far Weinberg has posted about 400 videos from the archive, including an abundance of his Chicago stuff: a day in the life of a bike messenger; scenes from a horse rehab farm; all of Chicago's mayors since Daley the First; old-style politicos like Dan Rostenkowski and Vito Marzullo; and the world's largest collections of Studs Terkel and Bill Veeck footage. There's also a promo for Bluestar, "a think tank in space where humans and dolphins live and work together," and the 1975 Ant Farm art collective performance that inspired the Web site's name--a record of a '59 Cadillac plowing through a pyramid of 27 flaming television sets.

And there's a nifty feature Weinberg says is exclusive. Each Media Burn video has a descriptive log: peruse it, select any segment, and jump straight to it, easy as skipping tracks on a CD. "No one else has that, as far as I know," Weinberg says--at least not this week. Next week? "This whole thing works so quickly, it's hard to stop anybody from doing anything." In the future Media Burn plans to add selected new work, but it won't be like what you see on YouTube. "They show short videos, put up anything," Weinberg says. "It's not very well categorized and there's no curating. That's more comparable to the music business--what you see is what got hot this week. What we're doing is a visual archive of history and culture." He says $200,000 will cover immediate hardware and software needs, but without it "we can't really go much further."

It Ain't Rushdie

Blake Palmer Gallery's announcement of the exhibit it's opening October 31 came with a prominent disclaimer: "This show is sensitive in nature and does not reflect the views of the gallery." It wasn't the usual Halloween gore that owner Collin Palmer (a self-taught artist and former Merc trader) was trying to distance himself from: the group exhibit, "Satanic Verses," was set to include his own painting of the severed heads of Moses, Christ, and Muhammad served on a platter against a collage backdrop that includes images of Hitler, Bush, bin Laden, and LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte. "If your religious belief will be offended we recommend that you not attend," his announcement advised.

Both the exhibit and the painting were responses to Deutsche Oper's recent cancellation of Mozart's Idomeneo after Muslims objected to a contemporary staging that included a portrayal of Muhammad's severed head. Noting that he came to this country as a child from Jamaica and feels strongly about artistic freedom, Palmer said he wanted the show to be a statement about free speech. He said the message of the severed-head work, which he'd planned to show anonymously, would be that it's "time for people to come out and say 'we're sick and tired of religion being divisive and being used as a cover for all kinds of awful things.'"

But ten days before the opening Palmer had second thoughts. After consulting with leaders of a local mosque, who he says told him pictures of Muhammad are forbidden, he decided to alter the paintings. "We have come to an agreement about how Muhammad should be displayed without upsetting them and creating major problems," he wrote in an e-mail. "Plus I still get to get my thoughts across."

He says he'll now be signing it.

Miscellany

a Richard Stromberg says if the Chicago Photography Center doesn't raise about $120,000 in the next few weeks toward a down payment on the handsome Lincoln Avenue quarters it's been renting for the last three years, it'll likely be out on the street. "We're looking for investors, not donations," Stromberg says. The minimum pop is five grand; CPC is promising 5 percent annual interest and full repayment in five years. According to Stromberg, folks who come in at the $20,000 level will never have to pay for another CPC class, facility use, or coffee.

a Former Illinois Arts Council executive director Richard Carlson is the new head of finance at the League of Chicago Theatres, still running under acting executive director Lyle Allen.

a A spokesperson for Steppenwolf says they're not getting the audience bail-outs they braced for with The Pillowman, a play that dwells on abused and murdered children, but are getting the highest ever attendance at talk backs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner, Matthew Gilson.

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