Anda Korsts

Anda Korsts died two weeks ago, after cracking her head in a fall at her home in Lincoln Park. She was knocked unconscious and never came to. Her life had lasted just 48 years, the last few of them full of physical pain and deep unhappiness.

Two decades ago Anda Korsts was one of a handful of visionaries around the country who created a new medium–half art, half journalism–called video. Her colleagues from those days remember her as a flamboyant, mysterious autocrat. Did she truly descend from Latvian nobility, as she liked to hint? No one knew for sure.

Freed from bondage to the tripod by the portapak, the TV camera became, in the hands of those pioneers, an instrument that wandered and intruded and played magically with images. Korsts loved it. A former model and radio newswoman, Korsts strapped on a portapak and came into her own. She went everywhere and taped everyone, recklessly conducting interviews as she worked her camera. If her lens wandered off center because she was talking instead of aiming–no matter. If the available light really wasn’t good enough–so what?

Korsts was part of the national collective known as TV TV that scurried around the two political conventions held in Miami Beach in 1972, taking hand-held cameras places that were beneath the dignity and beyond the capabilities of the network crews. All of them were political radicals; Korsts was the one also viscerally anti-Stalinist.

She opened Videopolis, Chicago’s first alternative video space, where the city’s next generation of video makers learned and taught and did their early work. “She had a tremendous archive of tapes from a really critical period in the history of alternative video–” says Annette Barbier, a Videopolis instructor who’s today a professor at Northwestern and vice chairman of the Center for New Television “–all the original material that people were generating when they were just beginning to get access to video for the first time outside a broadcast environment and things were so exciting.”

Korsts helped create a series called It’s a Living that was picked up by the Public Broadcasting System. She did the video for a vividly remembered piece of multimedia theater, The Artaud Project. And she vanished. Videopolis closed. Anda’s sister Gundega Korsts told us, “She went to Disneyland and saw everyone with a TV camera, and she said, ‘It’s time to move on to something else.'”

An always difficult personal life became more than Anda Korsts could manage. Seizures that she’d first experienced in her 20s became so severe she could no longer drive. Her marriage ended. She was struck by cancer. Many old collaborators found her impossible to deal with any longer and threw up their hands.

Speaking at Anda’s funeral service, Gundega Korsts said gracefully, “Losing her parents in 1981 and 1982 seemed to mark a turning point, as if Anda turned inward, and sorrow at last became greater than all her drive and flair. Well-crafted but precarious balances between public and private, between American and Latvian, shifted under the weight of all this sorrow and despair.”

Her life had had the trappings of a triumph. Married to a successful Loop lawyer, raising three handsome daughters, she lived wealthily and in high style. “She became so completely and successfully American,” said Gundega wistfully. “If you’ve already made the decision that you’re going to be an American and not an exile, and just cherish the Latvian part, and this compromise doesn’t work . . .”

It didn’t work? we asked. “She forever felt lost,” said Gundega Korsts.

Their father wasn’t really a baron, she told us, although he carried himself like one. He’d been the finance director of a movie company in Riga. In 1940 the Soviet Union marched in, annexing Latvia by force, and in ’41, a year before Anda was born, an uncle and his family (and thousands of other Latvians) vanished inside Siberia. Then the German army took over. “She was this little lump of a baby born into a world that was falling apart,” said Gundega.

In 1944, Anda’s family fled south with the German army from the returning Soviets. They stopped in eastern Germany, and when the Soviet army overtook them, fled again. From war’s end to 1949, Anda’s home was a camp for displaced persons near Frankfurt. Sponsors brought the family to America in 1950, and the father, Voldemars Korsts, went to work as a hospital orderly on Cape Cod. By 1956 he was a CPA living in Chicago.

“She remembered not just the bombing but the air raids,” said Gundega. “For years and years she had nightmares of running and running.” In the DP camp, Gundega said, the refugees had little to talk about but what they’d suffered, and no possessions more important than the evidence of suffering they’d smuggled out–the photographs “of slit throats, of no eyes. You shouldn’t put that before little children,” said Gundega. “But there wasn’t anything else.”

And could this experience, we wondered, explain Anda’s urge to document?

“She certainly discovered a talent for it,” Gundega mused. “My personal response would be that the documenting would come from her talent to be an observer. The way it fit into her refugee experience is that the refugee is neither here nor there. The refugee doesn’t fit into the country in which he finds himself. That makes him the ideal observer. She sometimes referred to her skill as a tourist.”

The year 1980 brought Anda Korsts an astonishing blessing: the return of her fourth daughter. Born when Anda was just a teenager and given up for adoption, Lisa Kiyle had set out as a woman to find her biological mother. She became a fixture in Anda’s life.

Today Lisa is a graphics designer in California. After the funeral service, she went back to her mother’s home and began the task she has assigned herself. With help from some of her mother’s old collaborators, she means to sort through boxes containing hundreds of old tapes, some covered with soot from a fire a few years ago in Anda’s studio and others that appear to be in mint condition. Here is the video history that Annette Barbier remembers, Anda Korsts’s legacy.

War Is Opportunity

Now that the war is over the U.S. can get back to its recession and journalists can get down to some serious work.

The final score apparently will be in the neighborhood of: Their Side, 50,000 dead; Our Side, about 150. Let’s see if journalism can produce a levelheaded analysis of these results. If the American battle plan was as brilliant as it was immediately proclaimed, much of the brilliance must have lain in our generals’ recognizing how the enemy could be butchered and then being willing to butcher them. We rained bombs on a vast, blinded, immobile army until the starving troops were all dead or demented. Then we overran the survivors. The national euphoria is like Super Bowl frenzy; it’s something you either share in or you don’t.

The war was as lopsided as the vote used to be in Chicago’s river wards. Journalists being low-life cynics, it’s not surprising a few have already wondered why it turned out to be so easy. This war was sold to the public as a solemn test of national character demanding courage, patience, and above all, unity. Was this a bill of goods?

Before it was over, a brown envelope came in the mail from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Inside was something really special: a color 8 1/2-by-11 photo of George and Barbara Bush surrounded by American troops in the sands of Arabia. A certificate informed us that this keepsake was ours “in grateful appreciation of your support for President Bush at a time of difficult international crisis.”

We hadn’t realized our support was all that special. But the Republicans were so grateful for it that now they were asking us for money.

“I’m counting on your support right now,” wrote Michigan congressman Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, “if we are to defeat the Democrats that are trying to destroy George Bush’s ability to lead our nation.

“The plain fact is, ever since he took office, the Democrats have been determined to seize control of America’s national agenda, economic future, and foreign policy.

“As you read this letter, the Democrats in Congress are working behind the scenes to undermine President Bush and everything he’s trying to accomplish for America at home and abroad.

“The only sure way to stop the liberal Democrats once and for all is by defeating them on Election Day 1992, and replacing them with Republicans loyal to George Bush.”

These were routinely nasty things for one party to say about another in peacetime. But here was Congressman Vander Jagt virtually accusing the Democrats of subversion in a letter dated February 14–nine days before the ground war even started!

We picked up the phone and reached an aide to Vander Jagt named Scott Waller. Truthfully telling him that our forebears had voted Republican for generations (it’s sad but it’s true), we tried to explain why this solicitation distressed us. At such a dangerous hour, with the Democrats standing loyally behind the president, how did it serve the nation to attack them?

“Well, that’s a double standard and I understand exactly what you’re saying,” said Waller gently. “You have to look at it as a direct mail offering. . . . The bottom line is the funds. If it’s thought that a campaign piece will draw funds then it’s going to be used.”

The mailing didn’t bother us, we told him, just the timing of it. Couldn’t you have waited until the war was over?

“We felt it was appropriate,” said Waller. “The opportunity was there.”

Our mistake. For sharpies through history, war has always been first and foremost an opportunity.