My VHS Archives Party

November 20, 2018

In 2017-2018, I initiated a working group sponsored by the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, VHS Archives. Over seven meetings and one public presentation (Come Play with our VHS Archive), approximately twenty people—anyone with an interest in the places where analog videotape meets queer histories and queer/feminist/of color AIDS activism—came together to consider ‘the difficulties, surprises, losses and bounty that adhere to the task of collecting, preserving, and facilitating access and ethical questions related to the reuse of video materials documenting queer and trans lives.’ At each of our meetings ‘members of the group presented the holdings, concerns, worries, plans for, and uses of a VHS archive important to their scholarship, activism, art-making or community.’ (The Work(s) of the VHS Archives)

And this year, we’re really working again.

During the 2018-2019 academic year we will be project-focused: prototyping a lightweight, static site generator for the ethical research and activation of small collections of videotape. Again with the sponsorship and support of the Center for the Humanities, this year we will engage twelve committed participants for sustained conversation, tool building, programming, and most importantly, attending ethically and thoughtfully to the buzzing interplay of feelings, intimate community, video, and tech. Engaging three community partners—the XFR CollectiveInterference Archive, and Visual AIDS—and one design practice, Partner and Partners, this year’s Working Group will meet to discuss, design, and implement a prototype for the community-based, internet-supported use of small stacks of digitized tape keeping in mind and at our fingertips a set of questions about archives, queers, tape, safety, accessibility and more … (The Work(s) of the VHS Archives)

Over the first two meetings of 2018, our group has been busy and focused. Each participant has moved (or tried to move) some tape materials (our own, those we have digitized by or from others, or some we have found already online) into our Github lab: these we call our short stack (it is by definition small, contained, manageable, knowable, and yummy!)
We explain to the technologists on the team what seems too hard, as access is key to the project. But then, so again, is digital media literacy. So we also want people who use our app to work (with others) to understand the many steps, technologies, implications, uses, and feelings associated to moving, saving, and using a small tape archive online. These responsibilities and actions shouldn’t be so easy as to be obscured.

Some notes from our last meeting:

1. We recommend doing it in a group:

  • the tapes should already be a project of a community
  • playing with your stack should be embedded in the world somehow, and fun
  • it should be used by people who understand, need, want the tapes, or a/the community, or the tech
  • different types of users could bring and learn different skills to the stack: to set it up, to add  videos, to comment/annotate videos, to curate, to show them
  • Questions of ownership are critical
    • What are the ethical implications?

2. It’s not an accessibility project:

  • maybe it’s sitting on the internet but it’s closed or has rules to engage
  • it’s not about getting things out but rather, doing things for particular people
    • then these questions about ownership don’t matter as much

3. There are a lot of services out there already, we don’t want to replicate them

  • We are not making a documentary
  • VDB, EAI already get things out, distribute, we are not distributors
  • We are making something that is collective and collaborative, the making makes the community
  • We are not a video hosting site (to show video work), Interference Archive does this
  • It is more like curating, within and for communities, making a small set of things exciting for a small group of people

4. If it’s local, safety and ownership issues both become manageable:

  • there’s a materiality and embodiedness to working in-person, in real time

5. The stack is about sharing with and for and by a small group of people

At our previous meeting, we decided that we were committed to our short stacks being engaged by an equally short stack of people: that is, a known group, with shared interests and their own known, self-developed rules of engagement (helped along by the tool, the tech, the instructions). This group could be online or off, or mixed, it could even be as small as one, but the one commitment that is critical, beyond interest in the materials, is time and presence.
This spending time in each other’s presence with and for some tapes is what we are calling the Party, or probably Parties: shared, task-focused, committed engagements with the materials and using the tool. (“Party”: a gathering of humans to work collectively and in real-time on an actionable task).
Our assignment for the third meeting is to IMAGINE OUR PARTY OR PARTIES.
My short stack is an object of one: it is VHS footage of a research meeting (albeit 4:19:19 in length!) In, 1995? I held a meeting in NY where 50-60 media feminists came to talk about the history of feminist film and video over the course of a day. I held four other such meetings: in Philadelphia, Chicago, Long Beach, and San Francisco. Those tapes, and the interviews I subsequently shot of 21 feminists (as well as many paper records, like logs, attendance sheets, and agendas, see below) are archived as part of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Collection. I archived (in 2003?) them there because I hoped that later scholars would (want to) access the interviews and research meetings for their own related projects. (This happened for this first time, this year, when a scholar from the Netherlands learned about the archive and asked for access to my interview with Carolee Schneeman, upon whom he writes. We learned it hadn’t been digitized, although it was available for use at the UCLA Film and TV Archive. One thing led to the next, and I ended up paying to have many of the materials digitized!)
The finished project is available as a documentary (1996) and a book (2001) of the same name: Women of Vision.
Here are the answers to my tasks for the November 20, 2018 meeting:
1. make an invitation: this would be an email, written by me, carefully.
2. a guest list: I would want 6-10 people with a keen interest in feminist media history. Ideally, they would be much like the people in the various working groups that I recorded on VHS, that is the process from before would be reflected and doubled: cross-generational, scholars, artists, activists, archivists, students, diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. It takes work to get a group of people who are both committed and diverse. It takes pretty deep connections to community.
3. What do they bring (their own videos, or are they just playing with yours?): For the first party or two, we would engage with my tiny, slow stack. Or maybe this is over several meetings because it is so long? Maybe we’d annotate? As we continue to party, I’d invite participants to add one thing of their own to the stack, each. We’d all have to see these, too. Carefully, thoughtfully, responsively, so that the stack would build to reflect who we all are at the time of engagement—our discrete interests and commitments—which would add up to a larger view of feminist media at this time if someone engaged with the whole stack. I’d want each participant to be fully committed to her own tape.
4. is there food? There is always food, it makes a meeting feel more like a home.
5. what kind of place: online or off, mixed? I’d want mostly offline with 1-2 people porting in via computer to keep these affordances of the digital live in our hearts and heads.
6. what kind of party and how many parties are they obligated to commit to? It would be a set of working parties with some time for connection and play. I would want people to commit to all of the parties over the course of two months ending with an exhibition. Each party would last for three hours.
1. Collections assessment party; rights/ownership party
2. transfer party; annotation party
3. writing/context party
4. curation part; acces
5. exhibition
Resources:
  • digitized paper materials
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