Caring.Sharing: ethics and concepts for saving and using VHS Archives

December 6, 2018

The VHS Archives Working Group at the CUNY GC (2018-2019) is engaging in sustained conversations as we are tool-building a lightweight app that can sit on top of a small stack of digitized VHS tapes so as to attend thoughtfully and ethically to the buzzing interplay of feelings, intimate community, video, and tech in relation to tape. We think hard about the connections between the digital migration of tape—its saving or loss—and also, then, safety. Although we start with tape, we attend primarily to people and their things:

  • the needs for the privacy of public things.
  • the needs for publicity of things that have been forced into privacy.
  • the needs for the privacy of vulnerable people and communities as some of their things become public.
  • the needs for vulnerable people and communities to have access to representation, and its salvage, in ways that empower and do not endanger them.

Carol Leigh, “Safe Sex Slut” 1987.

We are committed to the safety and care of vulnerable people and their objects. For our group this has primarily meant queers and trans people/of color, women and feminists, people affected by HIV/AIDS, and those with non-hegemonic sexualities and its representation. Attending to our people, and their practices and things, raises concerns that we understand as ethical, conceptual, and technological. This is what our group calls “caring.sharing.” We insist you shouldn’t share (digital media) without care (of those whose it is and was and will be). Attending to the experiences and wants of people, in community, at every technological step, is an act of ethical obligation and its technological formatting.

We believe that frames for thinking about and taking action on caring.sharing should be written into all encounters (personal, technological, interfacial) when the already fragile materials of vulnerable others become available online, including:

  • the ethics of reuse: “Can we develop queer archival practices that engage subtle questions of power and access, the strangeness of the past, the tension between the individual and collective, and the changing historical contexts that have shaped viewership, authorship, and privacy? Can we somehow account for both the delights and the troubles that our digital technologies facilitate? In short: Can we enact community-engaged, ethically informed, queer approaches to the conundrums that lie at the center of our documentary and archival impulses? Maybe some stories shouldn’t be told in public. Maybe some archival materials should remain hard to find. Maybe it matters who tells which stories. And maybe just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” (Rachel Mattson, Queer Histories, Videotape, and the Ethics of Reuse)
  • nostalgia and intellectual feelings:  Things matter to those who own, save, made and share them. How do we make sure to honor “the feelings attached to desire and sexuality, whether in a peep show booth or a backyard in the shadows of East Los Angeles.” (Juan Fernández, Nostalgia and “Intellectual Feelings”)
  • working from unmade, lost, or hidden archives: Sometimes there isn’t a record to be found because people chose to remain unrecorded because documentation can bring in the state, the family, or other outside forces of potential discipline or punishment. “Is it possible to reintroduce the cultural work of our archival subjects when there aren’t many video materials available?” (Jaime Shearn Coan,” Crucial Circulations: VHS and Queer AIDS Archives“)
  • finding and working from material that is too personal, graphic or painful to be shared, or was never made for curious, potentially violent others.
  • finding and working from personal archives of loss: can we be technologically tender?
  • attending to accessibility: so that saved things can be used by all who need them.
  • context-building: how to understand, preserve, and honor where work came from while enriching our understanding of past times, places, and people. This is critical, because it insures that things (and their peoples) aren’t and can’t be ripped from their original home, place, people, use, and values.
  • staying small; resisting scale: at some point, the number of objects, tags, people, or connections can get too large for the community that salvaged things to insure and protect them.
  • rules of engagement: objects online should be engaged with using agreed upon rules written by the community that made/saved them: community-specific, community-produced, iterative, and adaptive.
  • preservation with purpose: communities should know why they are saving and for what and whom.
  • activation as safety: easy to lose things can gain a toe-hold in memory, history, and advocacy when they are saved and used. Once known, procedures for safety can be written onto them.
  • acknowledging communal knowledge and other types of ownership within and beyond the tech.

From Bebashi AIDS educational trigger tape, late 1980s. See more: “Stacked on Her Office Shelf: Stewardship and AIDS Archives,” Theodore Kerr and Alexandra Juhasz

At previous meetings, we have come up with some tactics we want to build into the use of our tool. Scale, time, presence, and collectivity are key.

1. We recommend using our tool in a group:

  • the tapes should 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, to learn and share skills from/with each other.

2. Our tool should ideally be used locally and in shared time (online or off):

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

3. Caring.sharing happens best with and for and by a small group of people:

  • a known group, already known or getting known via tapey engagement.
  • with shared interests: already known or getting known via tapey engagement.
  • a groups with their own, known, self-developed, adaptable rules of engagement.
  • to be helped along, facilitated, by the tool, the tech, the instructions.

4. Ownership and access:

  • who holds the rights to the material?
  • do we respect the system that grants that? if not, what rights systems do we honor and why?

FOR OUR NEXT MEETING: TACTICS TO ENGAGE/OR WRITE INTO THE TECH:

  • write instructions and/or questions that move people through a set of issues with associated writing before they can touch the tool, or before each in a series of steps that follow one after the other in the tool
  • do this in short steps
  • allow users of the tool to answer, and thus to be “ethical” in any way they choose, but choose they must, first
  • create fields, pages, areas on the tool for users to fill in their answers (including none) to the concerns above; step by step, information would be built by the users to surround their now-digital always-vulnerable objects
  • step by step builders/users indicate their own degrees of comfort and concern, including none
  • create activities, engagements with the tool that build out user interaction and connection with others, with the material, with the material’s initial owners or makers and/or new users (what we call “party games’)
  • being alone with a tape found in a box is only a beginning of its/our care!

From “Compulsive Practice,” (Jean Carlomusto, Hugh Ryan, and Alexandra Juhasz, 2016)

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: