The oft-repeated cliche about the early video movement in the United States is that it was driven by groups of people who came together with a collective desire to put video technologies “into the hands of everybody.” And in many ways, these groups (or collectives) succeeded. Workshops were organized at community centers free of charge to introduce demographics less likely to experiment with video to the medium. Video helped encourage a generation of women, in the process of liberating themselves, to pick up cameras and make experimental media. And information was freely circulated and available to all, via numerous technical manuals and how-to’s, including those printed in the magazine Radical Software, the Spaghetti City Video Manual authored by New York collective The Videofreex, and Dan Sandin‘s and Phil Morton‘s Distribution Religion, which provided a step-by-step guide for recreating an Image Processor.
It is odd, then, given this proliferation of technical know-how, that forty years later, the the number of people with the ability to fix and repair analogue video equipment, and transfer and preserve video tapes (particularly the ½ inch reel-to-reel format popular in 1970s Sony Portapaks) is relatively few. Information has become consolidated, and even programs that aim to teach a new wave of prospective archivists and preservationists the skills to rescue the massive amount of media art created between, roughly, 1968-75, can only achieve so much (especially with dwindling funds and resources.)
According to Mona Jimenez, an associate professor in the Moving Image Archive program at NYU and a veteran of the early video movement herself, preservationists need to get organized. “People [in the archival/preservation community] need to be thinking like activists rather than thinking strictly like preservationists,” says Jimenez, continuing:
There has to be a way to feed those collections back into the communities that produced them to see if they have relevance. There has to be something that starts the process. There are too few people that can put their hands in a deck. Even the simple kind of troubleshooting that we used to do in the seventies. If there were people available then who could run half inch open reel decks, why is it now that so few people can? It’s not like there weren’t a lot of people out there who were running that equipment. We’re running so short of time. I feel like a lot of us have been screaming fire for a long time and nobody is paying any attention.
I met with Jimenez at her New York apartment to discuss her work with Sherry Miller-Hocking in creating the Video History Project—an online archive of text documents, many of which come from Hocking’s own personal archive, that serves as a written history of early video. Though the Video History Project is the most comprehensive archive of this kind, Hocking and Jimenez are not alone in their activities. Among other archives and individuals doing the same are the Videosphere, a project of the Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications, and Computation, Davidson Gigliotti’s Early Video Project, the Radical Software archive, the Vasulkas’ online archive, jonCates’s Phil Morton Memorial Archive, the Media Burn archive, and cough, cough, my archive. Most of these projects (mine and Cates’s aside) are the impetus of people who were “there.”
A number of my professors at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago who were around in the 1960s and 1970s have told me that my generation (I’m 27) lacks an activist drive. And while I think that’s a gross oversimplification (and in many cases completely erroneous), I do think that over-professionalization in all spheres of the arts, from administration to creation has affected the kind of activities with which people feel enabled to get involved. That’s why when my conversation with Jimenez turned towards a discussion of what she calls “activist archiving,” I felt a great amount of excitement.
“I’ve been testing this idea of activist archiving,” says Jimenez. “It’s kind of pie in the sky a bit. But basically my idea is you have to be organizing towards preservation. You have to be organizing among people who care about a collection. The idea is to try to go into an organization and to try and give that organization some basic physical and intellectual control over their collection. To be able to take a collection and get to the point where somebody can describe it. Where the organization can describe it and describe it to someone else who might be able to fund it.”
Jimenez wants to enable institutions and individuals to take a more grassroots approach to collections, instead of farming out preservation work to a small few with the skills to do it. She has been talking for a while about creating a video summit to bring together like-minded preservationists to get some collections transferred, and she has worked with IMAP (Independent Media Arts Preservation) who runs inexpensive workshops for individuals to learn the basics of video preservation. “A lot of us have been talking for a long time. Let’s just videotape how to diagnose common problems with a video deck, how to make a belt, how to replace the rubber rollers, how to tell if the heads are worn. This is basic stuff. It does require a group of people to do it, though.”
In some cases, collections need to be liberated from institutions, particularly those who take on collections with no plans for future preservation. I want to challenge the notion that collections are necessarily better off locked away in the archives, instead of gathering dust in someone’s basement or apartment. I have seen both kinds of collections and the difference, it seems to me, is moot when there is no access and no plan to make it accessible. Preservation standards are important, but these standards should be understood as guidelines for best practices rather than strict rules to be adhered to at the detriment of making a collection more available and relevant to a contemporary audience.
Individuals need to challenge institutions, to self-educate and embrace the role that amateurs can play in preservation work. As Jimenez makes clear, it is vital it is that people act, and soon. “We’re running out of time. It’s very serious at this point. I don’t know the answer, but we have to just start transferring tapes.”