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)

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Committed media praxis is a doing as much as it is a knowing. Queerness is a manner of being as much as it is a politics, theory, or set of modish objects. Our labor in queer cinema studies might result in institutional anthologies, retrospectives, or canons, but for me it needs smaller, stranger sites, activities, and outcomes that honor how it’s done: its moods, weather, learning and loving.

Alex, Carolyn, Jazzy and Deborah at Union Square Park, as part of the event, “Dear J,” revisiting “Homosexuals: One Child’s Point of View,” featuring Jazzy and directed by her mother, Juanita Mohammed (1990)

In this talk, I introduce a multi-sited project (three websites: a graduate class, an in-process web app for vulnerable video, and a working group sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, at the CUNY Graduate Center) where I engage in inter-disciplinary, community-based, activist queer film scholarship: VHS Archives. In the talk, I will show some attempts to work with and use some of my own queer media archives, initially held on VHS tape. How I do and did this, often with others in and outside the academy, taking up many art forms and as well as adaptive platforms, and now making use of my own and other’s soon to be lost video fragments, is what I have longed called my committed media praxis. Theory adjacent and conversant, sexual and political proclivities in flux, responsive to communities and collaborators, primarily and definitively process-oriented and often production-based, my committed media praxis in queer media and its archives is about using media as one part of a beloved community’s efforts at doing our best at living queer feminist lives.

Please find here, my power point, script, and three screenshots of me reading (pretty poorly) from my computer: “My VHS Archives: confessions from the field of queer feminist media praxis,” for The Labour of Media (Studies): Activism, Education, and Industry Conference, held at Concordia University, November 17, 2018. Do take a look at the three sites linked above. There’s much to see and explore by colleagues, students, technologists, archivists, friends, and loved ones.

Snow kept me from physically attending.

 

Today I begin my first class at CUNY, ITP Core 2: Interactive Technology and the University: Theory, Design, and Practice, co-taught with Luke Waltzer, Director, Teaching and Learning Center, CUNY GC. I’m thrilled!

Here’s a few bullet points that can serve as a brief and relevant introduction to my past and current interests related to this class and digital thinking, making and pedagogy:

  • My DH Story: An Invitation (May 27, 2015) is a post I wrote in a similar fashion, introducing myself to DH Summer Fellows of an Institute I ran at the Claremont Colleges for two summers. It spells out some of my thinking about DH—a sub-field of academic inquiry and practice that holds some of my work (and some of this class)—while providing a list of projects and links to most of the digital projects I have worked on over the past 10 or so years (when I moved pretty firmly from video to the internet): particularly Learning from YouTube, FemTechNet, Feminist Online Spaces, and Ev-ent-anglement.
  • Visual Research Methods 2014 (January 7, 2015) is a post I wrote to try to sum up my students’ work over six iterations of this course at the Claremont Graduate University from 2010-2015. In this methods class for graduate students in the Humanities, I supported students to think and make visually (and digitally) across five traditions: video essays, documentary, ethnographic film, academic blogging and digital storytelling. That blog post holds a lot of links if you are interested, but I’ve culled a few here, pretty randomly, to give a tiny sense of the kinds of work they made, and that I support: Facing Down the DST/DH Divide, A digital story about digital storytelling the classroom, Instagram as Digital Storytelling and Visual Culture Video Essays published in Audiovisual Thinking.
  • I am presenting this as a post on my blog as a self-referential nod to my always changing commitment(s) to writing and sharing academic work in this and other digital formats. See “Why Don’t I Blog: On Internet Cultural Production in 2016.”
  • Given the unfolding devastation of Trumpism, I will personally engage in more direct scholarly, digital activism and education in my work this spring, and with students in this class if they are so inclined. Here are four of my recent efforts in this direction: Visual Resistance, Watching/Making Race, BC Against Trump, and Four Hard Truths about Fake News.
  • I will also be engaging this spring in an inter-CUNY research project, Feminist Archive/Small Archive/Media Archive, whereby I use my own 300-strong collection of feminist, queer, anti-racist, experimental, AIDS VHS video tapes as a test case to work through best practices for storing, sharing, and teaching with similar personal/professional materially formatted archives. See this recent essay that begins to make use of this archive: Stacked on Her Office Shelves: Stewardship and AIDS Archives.

I look forward to meeting you all today, and to learning about some of your digital research interests, practices and commitments. Below, please find a video I recently made with Jean Carlomusto and Hugh Ryan for International AIDS Day With (out) Art 2016. It also thinks about video archives and represents my ongoing commitments to videomaking as another form of digital pedagogy and activism.

This is my third conversation with Ted Kerr. We begin to consider what might be needed so that many inheritances of AIDS could be salvaged, shepherded, and mothered into a legacy of plenty. Read it CUNY’s  Center for Humanities newsletter.

Still from Grandma's Legacy, Bebashi, mid-1980s.

Still from Grandma’s Legacy, Bebashi, mid-1980s.

 

Ted Kerr (formally of Visual AIDS) and I continue our conversation about recent AIDS media on the Indiewire blog, /Bent. In our discussion about The Normal Heart and other recent work, we bemoan the paucity of women as well as the feminist pro-sex politics that defined our early AIDS media activism.

I begin the article saying: “I too was reluctant to watch the Normal Heart, so our anticipated conversation about it also forced my hand. I was worried that the mainstreamification of my own history would be upsetting, and I was right. In 1986, I arrived in NYC, fresh-faced and political (I was a feminist and also active in the nascent gay/lesbian rights movements), to attend grad school in Cinema Studies at NYU. I volunteered at (Kramer’s) GMHC soon thereafter, and found myself in 1987 working in the fledgling Audio-Visual Department, which at that time was the incredible Jean Carlomusto who was single-handedly producing a cable access show called “The Living With AIDS Show.”[8] With few real skills of my own, but a lot of chutzpah and real conviction, I suggested to Jean that I produce a segment for the show about women and AIDS. Feminist, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists in NY were just mobilizing around a shared raising awareness about the certain affliction that women (and children) would face in large numbers if the government, public health, non-profits, the media, and activists did not think logically (and politically) and realize, and act, on the imminent threat that HIV posed to communities outside the gay white men who had first organized GMHC (and hemophiliacs, Haitians and heroin addicts, the other known “risk groups” at that time).”

Juanita Mohammed in “WAVE: Self-Portraits” (The Women’s AIDS Video Enterprise, 1990)

Hope you’ll read it through!

 

Please see my conversation with Ted Kerr, Programs Manager at Visual AIDS, recently published at Cineaste. Initially asked to discuss Dallas Buyer’s Club we felt we needed to take a lengthier look at the much broader phenomenon of retrospective looking at AIDS fueled by home movie images of the crisis, often shot by AIDS video activists like myself. In the piece we suggest that “the past, signified by the home movies of AIDS, in particular, has many cultural functions, and just as many cultural formations. We begin with Matthew McConaughey’s butt (where else!), and use it as our entry into a lengthy discussion of Dallas Buyers Club, as well as nearly a score of past and present alternative AIDS videos that also broker in activist made home-movie-like images of a crisis past—Like a Prayer (DIVA TV, 1989), Keep Your Laws Off My Body  (Catherine Saalfield, Zoe Leonard, 1990), Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992), Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme, 1993), Silverlake Life (Peter Friedman, Tom Joslin, 1993), Video Remains (Alexandra Juhasz, 2005), Sex Positive (Daryl Wein, 2008), How to Survive a Plague (2012), Heart Breaks Open (William Maria Rain, 2011), Liberaceón (Chris Vargas, 2011), Sex in an Epidemic (Jean Carlomusto, 2011), We Were Here (David Weissman, 2011), When Did you Figure Out You had AIDS (Vincent Chevalier, 2011), United in Anger (Jim Hubbard, 2012), Untitled (Jim Hodges, Carlos Marques da Cruz, Encke King, 2012), Bumming Cigarettes (Tiona McClodden, 2012), he said (Irwin Swirnoff, 2013), and the poster campaign Your Nostalgia is Killing Me (Vincent Chevalier with Ian Bradley-Perrin, 2013). With Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013), we return our conversation to more conventional fare before concluding our thoughts upon so many home video returns.”

Vincent1.jpg

 “Your Nostalgia Is Killing Me” (2013), a poster designed for posterVIRUS by Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin

The new issue of Jump Cut (55, Fall 2013) is hot off the presses, and as always, it is bursting with great scholarly work on any number of issues near and dear to my heart: labor, third cinema, new queer cinema (by my compatriot, Roxanne Samer), feminist porn (by the delightful, Erica Rand), independent and experimental media (with an essay on Amateur Media by the always-on-the-money Patricia Zimmerman), and a statement on “The War on/in Higher Education” by the journal’s luminary editors (that thoughtfully addresses MOOCs, and other issues, a theme I will attend to in my upcoming post on my recent participation at the MWHEC meetings on this very topic.)

And that’s just my tip of the iceberg; there’s thirty or more essays to find and enjoy there!

Of course, while you’re checking it out, I do hope you’ll also spend some time with the special section I co-authored with Marty Fink, David Oscar Harvey and Bishnu Gosh on contemporary HIV/AIDS Activist Media. Our shared effort looks to links and disturbances across time, generation, place, region, and activist representational practices and media over the lengthy and always changing history of AIDS activist media. My piece, “Acts of Signification Survival,” focuses on both the spate of recent documentaries by my peers about AIDS activism’s past, and what their online life tells us more generally about activist media within digital culture. I write: “it is my belief that digital media brings in new concerns and different cycles. For one, in regards to the documentaries under consideration, the digital allows for what might seem an over-abundance of digital discourse and debate about what also can be perceived as a torrent of images and discourse that have as their subject our past fights for visibility. This produces a particularly clumsy incongruity: these many instances of visibility (the docs and their digital discussion) sit precariously near the constant specter of a diminishment of perceptibility.”

“Everything is Coming up Undetectable” by the Visual AIDS Staff for “Undetectable,” the Visual AIDS Summer 2012 Show.

“Everything is Coming up Undetectable” by the Visual AIDS Staff for “Undetectable,” the Visual AIDS Summer 2012 Show.