Looking Back on 250 Reels and Two Years of Collaboration

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One of 250 half-inch open reels

In 2017, the archive at La MaMa was awarded a $100,000 grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize 250 reels of half inch magnetic video tape. These reels contain footage of La MaMa performances from the 1970s – shows like Miss Nefertiti Regrets, written by Tom Eyen, Rat’s Mass, written by Adrienne Kennedy; shows from the Native American Theater Ensemble, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, the Great Jones Repertory Company and much more. Some of these performances haven’t been viewable for decades, and represent much of La MaMa’s most important early work. The generally accepted life expectancy for magnetic media is 10-30 years and that is really only if the tape is held in ideal environmental circumstances. With the oldest reel dating from 1970, we were already past that expected lifespan for these important reels, which is why it is so exciting to be able to say that the 250 reels in this collection have now all been digitized. More than that, this grant provided for the opportunity and resources to make sure that the digital masters are held in proper storage to ensure their longterm preservation. In two days, this two year grant project will be over, and I’m thrilled to call it a success.

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Still from “Renard” (1972)

In order to document our work, publicize the newly available collection, and hopefully share a project model for other institutions like us, the archive has produced a white paper: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of the 1970s-era Experimental Theater. As a small archive serving an arts institution, we wanted to share how we went about preserving these reels in a way that would make them accessible without having to give them up. Community archives, particularly ones documenting marginalized histories, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place: how they can preserve their material when they don’t have the funds or infrastructure, without giving that material over to a larger institution? Do you preserve your collections, or do you retain control of your own history? This is not an easy choice, and our solution is not one-size-fits-all, but we do believe that post-custodial models, as outlined in the above white paper, can serve community archives well, and should be more commonly adopted as a solution to that choice of preservation or control. In fact, we believe that it is a choice that shouldn’t be necessary at all, and certainly not so common.

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Ellen Stewart, in a still from “Play by Play” (1972)

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Still from “Heimskringla” (1974)

If the desire strikes you, share this white paper widely. If something in it catches your eye and you would like to know more, don’t hesitate to contact us here. La MaMa’s success was a collaborative one – the partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the Bay Area Video Coalition made this project possible in the first place. I want nothing more than to keep that spirit of collaboration and resource sharing alive. Fostering mutually beneficial relationships between archivists, artists and institutions is the only way to make sure collections like this remain accessible and in the hands of the communities who created them. This white paper was written with that spirit in mind, and I prefer to think of it as a living document, rather than a finished product. As this project ends, I find myself asking more questions: what’s next? How can we use this footage in the same spirit of experimentation and collaboration? How can artists, archivists, students and educators work together and what could be possible as a result?

 

I specifically want to thank all the wonderful people who have helped make this project a reality. Rachel Mattson, who got everything started, and gave me a shot at being a part of it, Amy Sloper, Morgan Morel and Jesse Hocking, who did so much and did it so well, Lousia Lebwohl and Kate Philipson, who were not only incredible metadata specialists but amazing teammates, Ozzie Rodriguez and Shigeko Suga, who have built the La MaMa archive into the amazing resource it is today, and to the NHPRC for seeing the value in our collection and in taking the collaborative path.

Pride at La MaMa Archives

What does Pride Month look like at La MaMa, where queer artists of all kinds have always found open doors? What does Pride mean, when queer artists have been the foundation of the experimental work that has made La MaMa, La MaMa? What it means in the archive is an atmosphere of queerness – it’s all around us, every day, in the material we handle, in the footage we watch, in the catalog records we create. It just is – a natural part of our ecosystem, which is, perhaps, a vision of the world we could be living in.

This ecosystem reflects Ellen Stewart’s vision, the one she developed as she took her touring companies all over the world, then returned with the artists she’d met on those travels, and provided time, care, and resources for them here at La MaMa, enriching the theater and the city with new voices and stories. Today, as we hear endless talk of inclusivity and diversity, I often find myself thinking of Ellen’s vision, of La MaMa, and the way I can see what diversity really means here in the La MaMa archive. It is not a matter of tokenism, or political correctness, but rather a naturalization of what it really means to be a human being – which is to say indefinable, innumerable and multifaceted.

In some ways, this means that trying to do something special for Pride at the archive feels a little redundant. I’m working with and celebrating queer artistry in my every day, for which I’m very grateful. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t fun to take the opportunity to show off a few of my favorites in the La MaMa archive – and there are so very many.


Belle Reprieve Flyer

Belle Reprieve Flyer, Split Britches 1991

First up is Belle Reprieve, a send up of A Streetcar Named Desire that was staged at La MaMa in 1991, after a run in London. Split Britches is a lesbian theater company founded by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, who both starred in the show. It was a joint production with Bloolips, which was an all male drag performance group, the mirror to Split Britches’ lesbian theater. Less adaption and more parody, Belle Reprieve treats Streetcar as a kind of modern myth, employing drag and masquerade to fuck with gender identity and sexuality; in the words of the OUT Magazine review, “a gender melee of an already gender confused play.” Perhaps the best summation of the play comes at the very top of the script, with the cast list:

“MITCH, a fairy disguised as a man (Paul Shaw); STELLA, a woman disguised as a woman (Lois Weaver); STANLEY, a butch lesbian (Peggy Shaw); BLANCHE, a man in a dress (Bette Bourne).”


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Ekathrina Sobechanskaya, 1982

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Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, 1982

In 1972, three members of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatre Company formed the Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, often headlined by co-founder Larry Ree, who performed under the name Ekathrina Sobechanskaya. A loving parody of classical ballet forms and traditions, this particular Trockadero performance happened at the Pyramid Club on Avenue A, and took place in October, in honor of the October Revolution.  Of a show in May, the Villager wrote, “[Ree] has always been quite precise in insisting that the Trocks are not a drag group…” Instead, Ree insists they dance “en travestie”:

“It is a very sophisticated approach to material by which a kind of wry humor is achieved that is not at all the ‘travesty’ that the English implies. Properly understood, [en travestie] does rather exactly describe what the troupe does, for though their dancing on point is often humorous, it is never cheap, never happy, never broadly satirical. It is not a joke about ballet, but a joke inside ballet — one made through great knowledge and great love.”


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Harvey Fierstein in “One Man’s Religion”, 1975, photograph by Amnon Ben Nomis

Harry Koutoukas was an Off Off-Broadway founder, legend, and icon who put up shows at La MaMa and Caffe Cino, injecting surrealism and the absurd into the lifeblood of American Theater. One show in particular was a set of two monologues; “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers”, performed by Harvey Fierstein, debuting his first time out of drag on stage.

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H.M. Koutoukas, 1974, photograph by Irene Vilhar

The first monologue, One Man’s Religion, takes place in a “burned-out writer’s apartment in NYC – mid 1970s” and the Pinotti Papers was “set in the heart of a dead Alcholic-Cocaine Addict”. Koutoukas was wildly prolific, turning out 3 plays a year during the 60s and 70s, many of which were produced at La MaMa, including “Medea in the Laundromat,” which Koutoukas called “a ritualistic camp.” An early adopter of camp in theater, Koutoukas flouted convention and obeyed no law but, in his own words, “the ancient law of glitter.” According to the reviewer from the SoHo Weekly News who went to see Fierstein perform “One Man’s Religion/The Pinotti Papers,”:

“There are shows, good and bad, that I feel I have things to say about. And there are other shows that are their own review, their own entirety. These are very special. They deserve their own unrefracted existence, in their own words. These Koutoukas ‘plays’ are such shows. To be seen, heard, experienced, in their own right. Just go.”


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That’s How The Rent Gets Paid Poster, 1966

Describing Jeff Weiss‘ series of one-man-shows, that were performed as recently as 2015, is no easy task. This first performance in 1966 was a chaotic series of monologues in which he assailed the audience with, “a cascade of fantasies, reminiscences, meditations, poetry-readings, and miscellaneous schticks…” Many years later, theater professor Alisa Solomon observed that, “critics didn’t yet have the language for the queer interventions of Weiss’s confounding yet compelling work, which addressed subjects like racism, liberal hypocrisy, sadistic parenting, and sexual violence.” With this 1966 kick off, Weiss began the artistic journey that would cement him in Off Off-Broadway legend, disrupting not only notions of gender and sexuality, but the conventions of theater and performance, leading reviewer Ross Wetzsteon to call Rent, “one of the most moving and harrowing experiences I’ve ever had.”


Tom Eyen Festival

Tom Eyen Festival Flyer, 1965

I’m ending this very brief glimpse into La MaMa’s rich queer legacy with Tom Eyen, one of La MaMa’s earliest and most celebrated playwrights – someone whose work should have been mandatory viewing for any celebrity who thought they had a good outfit for the Met’s 2019 Gala. A prolific La MaMa contributor, Eyen did 35 plays at La MaMa between 1964 and 1974, including Miss Nefertiti Regrets (Bette Midler’s New York City stage debut), Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down, The White Whore and the Bit-Player, Sarah B. Divine, and Frustrata. Eyen would go on to win the Tony for best book for Dreamgirls, but his roots were in Caffe Cino, in La MaMa, and in camp. One of his most famous, and perhaps most notorious camp plays was Women Behind Bars (1975), which featured long-time Eyen collaborator Helen Hanft, and would be revived a year later with Divine starring.

His dual shows happening at La MaMa and the Cino, seen above, earned a review from the Village Voice that managed to work the words “loud”, “crude”, “appealing” and “vulgar” into a glowing review – exactly the kind of praise that a queer artist might dream of.

La MaMa at #AMIA18

This year was my first time at AMIA! Otherwise known as the Association for Moving Image Archivists. It’s a wonderful conference full of archivists and AV geeks of all kinds, and a great place for someone who is managing a collection of media on all sorts of nhprc-logo-lformats. Resources galore! Friendly colleagues, eager to help out! And of course, informative panels that will give you a taste of what the professionals in the field are cooking up.

I consider myself doubly lucky, since I also got to present on our National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) funded project with my predecessor Rachel Mattson, as well as my colleagues from BAVC and the WCFTR. It was actually my first time meeting Morgan, from BAVC, and Amy and Jesse, from WCFTR in person, and it was a joy. Working with all four of them on this panel was gratifying – a chance to show off all our hard work to a room full of people who will appreciate it better than anyone. My only regret was that I didn’t get a photo with my co-panelists.

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I did, however, get a photo of Multnomah Falls

In fact, we were asked to share some of our documentation. An audience member pointed out that the Memorandum of Understanding designed by Rachel and Amy at the start of the project is quite unusual, and that other institutions might benefit from having it as an example. Anyone interested can find it here! (The only info I edited out are email addresses.)

Below, you’ll find the slides from our presentation:

 

 

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If you’d like to save the slides, download it here.

I was very happy with how we approached the panel. Rather than break the presentation down into individual sections, we were able to do more of a round robin discussion with all of us addressing each step of this two year long collaboration. After all, the theme of the panel itself was collaboration! We wanted that to shine more than anything else – that the solution to the problem of deteriorating, valuable material and no digital preservation infrastructure was to collaborate with like-minded institutions. We all benefit – La MaMa preserves and makes accessible important material, WCFTR expands their collections, and BAVC tackled the challenge of a large scale digitization effort that helped them streamline their workflows. You can read and download our project narrative here, although keep in mind some aspects of the project – like the staff involved, and a couple technical details – have changed.

I was so grateful for the positive response to our presentation. It meant the world to have other archivists engage with the work we’ve done, and it was especially meaningful to have students come up after to talk. AMIA was a treat – I can’t wait for next year – and I hope the documentation here is helpful. My inbox is always open to questions and ideas!

A new face in the archive

The most common question I get when I tell people what I do for a living is how I ended up working in archives. The story I usually tell is a fairly boring, circuitous one: studying history, not wanting to be a professor, but also wanting to use my degree; discovering the power of archives as an undergrad, internships and volunteerIMG-8049 (1).JPG positions, all leading to an eventual masters degree. The version that is a bit more involved and a little harder to explain is a story more about a feeling than a career path. It is a feeling that came on strong when I first set foot in the La MaMa Archive to interview for the position of Project Manager. For those of you who have never visited, the experience of entering the La MaMa Archive is a unique one. Immediately, you are surrounded by artifacts of all sizes, from the small hand drum from Korea, to the ten-foot tall wooden puppet, the largest of three Pinocchios, that was used in a 2016 production of Six Characters (A Family Album). It is cool and quiet, and each time you sweep the room with your eyes, you spot something new, strange and wonderful: an elaborate headdress, a large bird hanging from puppet strings from the ceiling, a lion’s head, a winged horse. These are the objects, but the feeling I’m referencing, and attempting to describe, is the sensation these objects impart. The air is suffused with their history and the mesmerizing stories they carry with them – not only about the performances in which they were used, but the people who built them, the time and care and creativity it took to bring them to life, and their lives since then.

I walked into this truly magical space on the footsteps of Rachel Mattson, my predecessor who is responsible not only for the creation of this blog, but for the catalog that has brought the La MaMa Archive into a future where its materials are not only preserved and processed, but used, loved, and remembered by the world beyond La MaMa’s doors. Over the course of an hour long conversation, Rachel’s obvious devotion to La MaMa’s collections would contribute to the sensation of creative magic. I told her, on our way back out to the street, that I’d felt a thrill when I stepped inside. She seemed to know exactly what I meant by that.

Part of this thrill is the physical magic of the objects themselves. Who could walk into a room full of larger-than-life puppets and beautiful costumes and not feel some awe? Another part is the magic of La MaMa and its place in history. I started my professional archives career at the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU, where the Downtown Collection documents the kind of wild, revolutionary, magical art that was being created in New York City from the 1960s on. There, I learned to love the brilliant, sometimes nonsensical, often obscene, work of artists like David Wojnarowicz, Martin Wong, Mabou Mines, John Vaccaro, and Maria Irene Fornés. The world of the East Village at the time of La MaMa’s founding was immeasurably expansive and exciting, challenging and tender. The theater became a vital part of that world, providing space and resources to artists who were shaping the future in ways we’re only just beginning to see and understand. At Fales I fell in love with that world, and joining the team at the La MaMa Archive has been a return to it.

My name is Sophie, I’m the new Project Manager at La MaMa, and I’m beyond excited to have the chance to continue Rachel’s work here. We’re halfway through our NHPRC funded project to digitize 250 half-inch open reels, expanding access to a treasure trove of performances from the 1970s. We’re working to digitize performances from the 1980’s and 90’s that have been accessible only through onsite VHS viewings. We continue to build our catalog on CollectiveAccess, and we’re eager to connect and work with our fellow performing arts archives in the city and beyond. Places like La MaMa, and the feeling you get walking through its collections, are absolutely why I work in archives. The doors, physical and virtual, are open for visitors to come see what I’m talking about.

La MaMa + Wikipedia

In fall of 2017, La MaMa’s Archives received a $100,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize and expand access to our collection of half-inch open reel videos. The collection documents over 150 productions that represent the enormous diversity of work being made at La MaMa during the 1970s. We have partnered with the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco, where the videos are being digitized, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, where the digital preservation masters are being preserved in perpetuity. At the conclusion of the project, researchers will be able to view access copies of these videos at both La MaMa and WCFTR. The project will enable the public to gain unprecedented access to information about the early Off-Off-Broadway movement through an audiovisual record of work by artists ranging from John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous to Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble.

In addition to digitizing and preserving these audiovisual materials, the project aims to expand access to these materials through multiple portals. Each of the productions documented on these reels is already described on La MaMa Archives’ digital collections site, but La MaMa’s catalog is not as heavily trafficked as other websites. In order to increase the discoverability of these materials, the project is supporting shared metadata across several platforms. We are augmenting the metadata about these materials on La MaMa’s digital catalog, and then porting this metadata to the Digital Public Library of America; we are also sharing this metadata with the staff at WCFTR, who are creating a detailed finding aid that will be accessible through the University of Wisconsin’s OPAC as well as WorldCat.  Additionally, we are editing Wikipedia, creating links to La MaMa’s digital catalog from Wikipedia articles about the artists and works represented on these half-inch open reel tapes. By linking from relevant Wikipedia articles to La MaMa’s digital collections site, we intend to simultaneously enhance the information available on Wikipedia about the early Off-Off-Broadway movement, increase access to La MaMa’s materials, and improve researchers’ ability to discover and learn about the artists whose work is documented by this collection – many of whom are underrepresented in the historical record and online.

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Screenshot of MoMA’s event page for the edit-a-thon (https://www.moma.org/calendar/events/3941)

As the metadata/access intern for this project, one key part of my job is to develop workflows and best practices for linking the collection to relevant Wikipedia articles. Before joining this project, I’d had very little experience editing Wikipedia. This project has given me the opportunity to learn about the best practices for Wikipedia editing that have been developed by librarians, archivists, artists, activists, and others in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) community. A number of GLAM-based groups are working to enhance visibility and discoverability of underrepresented people and communities on Wikipedia. One group that’s been working for several years to develop and share best practices for Wikipedia editing, in an effort to diversify the content on Wikipedia, is Art+Feminism. The group hosts Wikipedia edit-a-thons focused on improving Wikipedia’s representation of cis and trans women, feminism, and the arts. Art+Feminism’s fifth annual edit-a-thon was held at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on March 3rd of this year, which was, fortuitously, one month after I joined the project at La MaMa. I attended the MoMa edit-a-thon with Rachel Mattson, the project’s Principal Investigator, and Alice Griffin, La MaMa Archives’ metadata/digitization assistant.

Having spent the month of February familiarizing myself with the collection by creating metadata and records in La MaMa’s digital collections catalog, I came to the edit-a-thon with ideas of several articles I wanted to edit. I’d been keeping a running list of the “notable” people represented in the videos and whether each had an existing Wikipedia article. Many, if not most, did not. The first production I researched when I joined the project was “Shekhina,” which was directed by Israeli theater artist Rina Yerushalmi at La MaMa in December 1971. “Shekhina” was Leon Katz’s adaptation of “The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds,” a Russian/Yiddish-language play written in 1914 by S. Ansky. Katz, an American playwright and scholar, had a brief Wikipedia article. Yerushalmi did not. I arrived at the edit-a-thon with the intention of creating a article for Yerushalmi.

The daylong event began with a panel discussion “about the relationship between structures of inequality and structures of the Internet, the affective labor of Internet activism, and creating inclusive online communities,” as listed on MoMA’s website. This discussion was followed by a training on Wikipedia editing led by Siân Evans, a founder of Art+Feminism and an Information Literacy and Instructional Design Librarian at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. For me, as a beginner, this hour-long training was enormously helpful.

Among the most important things I learned was that there are established best practices for editing Wikipedia, and that adherence to these practices improves the strength of a article and decreases the likelihood of its being deleted. This knowledge has proved very valuable to me in my Wikipedia editing; because many of the artists in La MaMa’s collection are so sparsely documented, their articles are especially vulnerable. That being the case, it is crucial to adhere to the following practices as closely as possible. Art+Feminism summarizes the core best practices for editing Wikipedia as:

  • stay neutral
  • maintain verifiability
  • no originality
  • don’t be messy
  • use reliable sources
  • test notability, and
  • know your stub (a Wikipedia article that is too short and needs to be expanded).

Of these, I was most concerned with maintaining verifiability, using reliable sources, and testing notability. (For more on rules of editing, Art+Feminism has a PDF guide on their site.) To maintain verifiability is to attribute each piece of information to a reliable source. Wikipedia defines reliable sources as books, journals, magazines, and newspapers published by mainstream presses. This definition is reasonable, though there is a useful point to be made about the absence of underrepresented people and communities in mainstream sources and the way in which this definition of reliability can reproduce and further this underrepresentation (both on Wikipedia and elsewhere). Notability also mandates that secondary sources must be available to be cited within the article. This practice guides Wikipedians to determine whether a given person, for example, merits their own article. (Wikipedia offers more on guidelines and policies for editing here).

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Screenshot of Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rina_Yerushalmi)

I’d noticed, as I compiled my list of people and productions represented in La MaMa’s half-inch open reel video collection, that many did not have an existing Wikipedia article. Of those people without articles, some were notable by Wikipedia’s definition, and others were not. After Siân’s training, I began looking for secondary sources to determine whether Rina Yerushalmi would be considered notable. I did find a number of sources, primarily newspaper articles and websites, about her life and work. I spent the rest of the day creating Yerushalmi’s article. (Even after several hours of editing, the article remains far from complete, and I hope others will contribute.)

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Screenshot of references and external links on Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rina_Yerushalmi)

Since the edit-a-thon, I have edited several existing Wikipedia articles for artists whose work is documented by La MaMa’s half-inch open reel video collection, including Ed Bullins, Candy Darling, Paul Foster, Tom Eyen, Hanay Geiogamah, Geraldine Keams, Elizabeth Swados, the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Basil Anthony Wallace, and Ahmed Yacoubi. In so doing, I’ve developed a strategy that I believe maximizes the impact of my edits and citations to increase the discoverability of La MaMa’s archival collections and to support researchers’ efforts to learn about the artists represented in this collection. I make minor edits to the text of the article itself (where necessary) and link out to La MaMa’s catalog records as references for either new or existing information on the article. When editing an individual’s article, I also link out to their artist article on La MaMa’s catalog, placing this link in the “external links” section that’s often included at the end of a Wikipedia article. For example, on Rina Yerushalmi’s Wikipedia article, I linked out to “Yerushalmi’s article on La MaMa Archives Digital Collections”.

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Screenshot of Yerushalmi’s page on La MaMa Archives Digital Collections (http://catalog.lamama.org/index.php/Detail/Entity/Show/entity_id/2817)

Additionally, because Wikipedia’s power as an encyclopedia is partially due to the links that editors create between articles, I’ve made sure to enhance inter-textual linking between the articles I’m editing. For example, I linked Rina Yerushalmi to Leon Katz, as well as to “The Dybbuk” and to S. Ansky. I linked playwright Ed Bullins to actor Basil Wallace, who performed in a production of Bullins one-acts at La MaMa in February/March 1972. I also linked playwright Ahmed Yacoubi to White Barn Theatre, where La MaMa produced his play “The Night Before Thinking” in July 1974, and through White Barn Theatre linked Yacoubi to Lucille Lortel, who founded the theater space in a horse barn on her Connecticut property in 1947. Through these and other links between Wikipedia articles, we hope to create more opportunities for artists and researchers to discover and access the videos in this collection and to learn about the diversity of experimental theater that was being made at La MaMa during the 1970s.

“Eccentricity, inconsistency, and downright subversion”: embracing the constraints of a digitization project in the La MaMa Archives

Alice Griffin is the Metadata/Digitization Assistant in the La MaMa Archives. She wrote this post in conjunction with an ASIS&T Student Speakeasy presentation she gave at Pratt Institute School of Information in March 2018.

Since 2014, the La MaMa Archives has been working on a large-scale cataloging and digitization project (read this post by Project Manager, Rachel Mattson, which initially announced the project and launched the La MaMa Archives Blog in 2014). It started as a cataloging project, describing photographs files and show files from 1962 to 1985 using the CollectiveAccess (CA) platform, an open-source collection management system designed for museums and archives. The public-facing version of the catalog/digital collections website, catalog.lamama.org, has been accessible online since spring 2016 and continues to be an important resource for researchers, artists, and La MaMa staff. We are now in the midst of cataloging and digitizing materials from 1985 to 2000; we also edit records as needed, or when La MaMa artists past and present drop us a line to tell us more about a production, event, or person from La MaMa’s history. But while our database of works, productions, entities, and objects grows, our CollectiveAccess-powered platform remains essentially the same. Why is this? Simply put, we don’t have the funds to update to newer versions of the software or hire a developer to fix lingering bugs, integrate new features, or make the catalog more user-friendly. Despite this, our catalog is a useful project that is both practical for our use and exciting. And I think that the customized version of CollectiveAccess that we have is serving us just fine because we are acknowledging and working within our constraints.

I have to admit that the seeds for this blog post were planted by a complete misunderstanding of one of Don Norman’s “Seven Principles for Transforming Difficult Tasks into Simple Ones.” These principles, outlined in Norman’s seminal work The Design of Everyday Things (1988), explain how to design a human-centered, user-friendly product; they include things like visibility, good mapping, and simplicity. But I got hung up on principle #5: “Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial” (p. 189). Here, Norman means that good design should “use constraints so that the user feels as if there is only one possible thing to do—the right thing” (p. 199). This makes sense in the realm of design and user experience, of course, but when I read this principle I simply assumed Norman meant one should acknowledge and work within – or even exploit – the constraints, or limitations, of a project, whether those constraints be financial, physical, or digital. This seems to be an excellent optimistic mantra for any archives: take those constraints and flip them on their head; use them to your advantage!

Indeed, my misinterpretation of Don Norman’s constraints principle feels more useful to me in my role as the Metadata/Digitization Assistant in the La MaMa Archives than the original meaning. I have also been keeping this quote from Schwartz and Cook’s article “Archives, Records, and Power” (2002) in mind: “the history of making and keeping records is as littered with chaos, eccentricity, inconsistency, and downright subversion, as much as it is characterized by jointly agreed order, sequence, and conformity” (p. 14). It might be too much of an exaggeration to say that I have used constraints to my advantage, but I have recognized and tried to embrace the eccentricities, inconsistencies, and challenges of a low-budget digitization project. In this way, I hope to have added to the usability of La MaMa’s incredibly rich, if a bit wonky, digital collections site.

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The inspiration for this post and a reminderPresentation slide.

 

Embracing the constraints of a project does not have to be heroic. In this post I would like to focus on a couple of methods I have been using to work around one limitation of our CollectiveAccess platform – namely, how difficult can be to identify exactly who is who in a photograph. A quick note about catalog.lamama.org: it is a digital collections website, but it is also our only public-facing catalog. So, what does this double-duty mean? In part, this means that while some of the records on the catalog refer to a single object (such as a show program or a video), many others refer to a folder or group of materials. Most records describing photographs refer to a folder of photographs relating to a common production or theatre troupe, taken by the same photographer. Instead of creating individual records for each photograph, I catalog and digitize the photographs together. In this way, the catalog is navigable for the archives staff or a remote researcher to easily locate and look through all of the photographs related to a certain production by a certain photographer.

And photographs are a strong point of the La MaMa Archives collection. La MaMa photographers James D. Gossage, Conrad Ward, Amnon Ben Nomis, and Jerry Vezzuso documented many of La MaMa’s productions from 1961 through the 1980s. The photographs we have range from production photographs to promotional photographs to candid photographs of actors off-stage (like these photos from “God! It’s Too Late! (1979)”).

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The La MaMa Archives holds a range of photographs from its productionsPresentation slide.

The latest versions of CollectiveAccess (Providence 1.7.5 and Pawtucket2), offer an annotation tool where you can mark just who is who in an image. However, with our version (Providence 1.6.2 and Pawtucket1) we can only record the general fact that a person is depicted in a group of photographs. So, in this instance, the double-duty of the La MaMa catalog makes it hard for us to clearly indicate exactly who is who and in what photo they are. For example, this record of photographs from the 1967 production of Paul Foster’s “Tom Paine” describes 17 photographs of the production – and there are different people in each image. Legacy metadata enabled us to know that two of the people depicted in these photographs are the actors Seth Allen and Kevin O’Connor – but how do we know who and exactly where in the photographs they are?

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Object record for production photographs from the 1967 production of “Tom Paine” [OBJ.1967.0243] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

To address this problem, I have come up with a few workarounds that I hope help users of our collection understand what they are seeing, without sacrificing too much precious time. First, some of the photographs, usually the promotional photographs, identify who is depicted in the image on the back of the print. In these cases, I digitize both sides of the photograph and include a note in the record’s free-text description field: “Consult the back of the photograph for information about who is depicted.”

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The promotional photographs for “Shiro” identify who is depicted on the back of the photograph [OBJ.1981.0233]. Presentation slide. 

For records with one or two photographs, it is easy enough to identify who is depicted and in what photograph in the free-text description field. The record for production photograph from the 1965 production of “The Sand Castle” shows an example of this. The entities are already linked to the record down at the bottom, but this language in the description field identified which person belongs with which name.

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Object record for a production photograph from the 1965 production of “The Sand Castle” [OBJ.1967.0345] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

Sometimes, there are many photographs and many people to identify, so it does not make sense to write out each person in the description field; its too messy and time-consuming. A prolific photographer from La MaMa’s early days, James D. Gossage, has kept in touch with the Archives. He provides us with corrections to the catalog and has recently collaborated with Beth Porter, an original member of the La MaMa Repertory Troupe, to identify photographs from the late 1960s. These identifications come to me as PDFs, which I can then simply add to the media of the record with a note in the description field: “For more information about who is depicted in each photograph, click to see more media and consult the identification document compiled by Beth Porter and James D. Gossage at the end of the record.” So, Jim and Beth’s identifications are accessible to remote researchers, but it does not clutter up the description field with a long list. It is also easier to have the identifications document as a part of the media portion of the record, so the user does not have to toggle back and forth between the media page and the object record page. The two images below show the object record for production photographs by Conrad Ward from the 1967 or 1968 production of “Times Square” [OBJ.1968.0116] and the identifications document that is attached to it as a part of the media.

 

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None of these methods are perfect, and I’ll admit it feels a bit messy, but it is an efficient way to offer researchers detailed information within a catalog record. On the user end, the catalog record should still be fairly easy to navigate – but if a researcher is confused or has a question, we are available for in-person or virtual consultations. The La MaMa Digital Collections does allow researchers and artists the ability to peruse our collections from afar, but it does not erase the role of the archivist or the need for on-site visits to the collection. In fact, the digital site may expand these uses. The more productions, special events, venues, photographs, and programs we describe, the more inquiries and requests for access to the material we will receive.

Overall, I think this quote from a panelist at the fourth forum of the Diversifying the Digital Historical Record series sums up the essence of this digitization project and why it is a valuable endeavor: “the true measure of digitization success must be in terms of the community relationships initiated, created, and maintained.” (I am embarrassed to say that, while I wrote down the words of this panelist, I neglected to write down their name.) But, to the point, this project is not about creating a high-tech database user experience. This project has initiated new connections with scholars and theater artists and has enabled us to maintained relationships that La MaMa has had with artists and researchers for decades. The digital collections site is completely within the spirit of La MaMa, where flexibility and creativity are key. And La MaMa’s digital collections show an incredibly rich and diverse history that continues to grow as La MaMa is in the middle of its 56th season.

Works cited and Further Reading:

Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things. London: MIT Press.

Schwartz, J. M., & Cook, T. (2002). Archives, records, and power: The making of modern memory. Archival Science, 2, 1-19. https://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/methods/schwartz.pdf

A Poster History of La MaMa

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Panelists listen to a question from the audience at “La MaMa’s History Through Posters.” Left to right: Alisa Solomon, Theodora Skipitares, Cindy Rosenthal, John Jesurun,  Susan Haskins. Photo: Maya Bitan.

From October-December 2017, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club hosted a temporary exhibit— “A Poster History of La MaMa’s Downtown Community”—in the lobby of its Ellen Stewart Theater. Featuring a selection of original posters from La MaMa’s Archives, the exhibition explored the history of downtown theater, the changing aesthetic vernaculars of theatrical posters, and the transformation of print technologies over the past 55 years.

The exhibit was designed to overlap with the publication of Cindy Rosenthal’s new book, Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La Mama Experimental Theatre (University of Michigan Press, 2017), which tells the history of La MaMa through its posters—and included many of the posters featured there. And while the exhibition was up, La MaMa also hosted a series of related public programs—a panel discussion (featuring John Jesurun, Theodora Skipitares, Alisa Solomon, Susan Haskins, and moderated by Rosenthal); a book celebration; and two guided exhibit tours.

Poster Book Launch Party photo by Theo Cote 2

Photo: Theo Cote.

Why the focus on La MaMa’s posters? In her introduction to Ellen Stewart Presents, Rosenthal argues that La MaMa’s posters offer both a sweeping overview of La MaMa’s history and an poetic index of the creative practices deployed by its contributors; the posters offer, she writes, “a mirror” of the “politics and aesthetics” that shaped La MaMa’s communities. By way of explanation, Rosenthal quotes Meredith Monk, who believes that posters have the power to convey the idea and feel of a performance better, even, than documentary photographs. “Its hard to show in one photo what a play is about,” Monk observed. “A photograph taken during the course of a performance is capturing a specific moment in time—its not a distillation of the gestalt of the experience of a performance. But…a visual artist can distill one powerful image in a poster”—and that image “can represent a production” (Ellen Stewart Presents, p. 19).

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Poster for ‘One Arm’ (1962). This poster (made of cardboard & house paint) advertised the July 1962 La MaMa production of an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “One Arm.”

The history of La MaMa’s posters begins with the oldest artifact held in its Archives—a hand-painted poster created to announce the July 1962 production of Tennessee Williams’ “One Arm.” This black, white, and red poster—made of house-paint and cardboard, and containing only a few words of text—uses a visual style that echoes mid-century abstract painting, and doesn’t look much like the theater posters we’re used to seeing today. This design was both an aesthetic and a strategic choice: because La MaMa was, in its earliest years, an unofficial body in constant evasion of zoning regulations, artists worked to camouflage the advertising purpose of their posters. To the uninitiated, these posters were often indecipherable. But La MaMa’s communities quickly learned how to read these cryptic advertisements.

Poster for ‘Miss Nefertiti Regrets’ (1965).

Poster for ‘Miss Nefertiti Regrets’ (1965). This poster (made of magic marker, paint, and collage on paper) advertised the July 1965 La MaMa production of Tom Eyen’s “Miss Nefertiti Regrets,” which featured a young Bette Midler in the starring role.

For the first few decades of its existence, La MaMa’s posters were also generally crafted at a moment’s notice with scrap materials and little money, using the cheapest, most available modes of reproduction. La MaMa had (in Rosenthal’s words) “no funds designated for publicity and no one hired to design a poster or embark on a marketing campaign” (Ellen Stewart Presents, p. 10-11). Presenting artists—who, for many years, were responsible for designing and fabricating their own posters—used an ever-evolving set of design strategies and reprographic technologies. In the 1960s, La MaMa’s artists often created one-of-a-kind, hand-made posters, using house-paint, magic marker and/or photo-collage on cardboard. By the 1970s, artists were more likely to create multiples, using silkscreen, letterpress, and other printing techniques. The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion in the use of Letraset and the photocopy. And finally, in the 2000s, La MaMa took over the work of crafting all of its posters with computer-assisted design and digital reproduction technologies.

Poster for 'Vain Victory' (1971).

Poster for ‘Vain Victory’ (1971). This two-color silkscreen advertised the 1971 La MaMa production of Jackie Curtis’s “Vain Victory; or, The Vicissitudes of the Damned.” The production featured performances by Holly Woodlawn, Mario Montez, Agosto Machado, and Tally Brown, among others.

Perhaps most important among these technologies was the photocopy. Ozzie Rodriguez (Director of La MaMa’s Archives) calls the Xerox “the most important machine” of the mid-to-late-20th century, because it enabled theater artists to reach their audiences in entirely new ways. As early as the 1960s, Rodriguez recalls, ambitious directors “would get all the actors together,” then pair them up, give them buckets of “wallpaper paste,” and send them off to “put flyers up everywhere.” That, Rodriguez recalls, “was the underground communication that we had…That was how you got your audience.”

Poster "Kazuo Ohno" (1981).

Poster “Kazuo Ohno” (1981). This poster (a photocopy on plain white paper) advertised Kazuo Ohno’s landmark dance performances at La MaMa in 1981.

Artist John Jesurun believes that the photocopy also shaped the aesthetic character of La MaMa’s late-20th century posters. “We would spend time in a Xerox shop, just printing and reprinting. Blowing things up, cutting things up…It was all rulers and X-Acto knives…letters and pieces of paper cut up all over.” But in Jesurun’s view, it wasn’t just the machine that was important; it was also the subculture that grew up around the photocopy shop. “There was a whole aesthetic that came into being at the Xerox shops…a deliberate effort on our parts not to look professional,” Jesurun remembers. The photocopy, he concludes, was especially essential tool in “an age” like the late 1980s/early 1990s—which was marked by “a sense of urgency.” (For more on the history and significance of xerography, see Kate Eichorn’s Adjusted Margin: Xerography, Art, and Activism in the 20th Century [MIT Press, 2016])

Poster for 'Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women' (1992).

Poster for ‘Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women’ (1992). This poster (photocopy on white paper) advertised La MaMa’s 1992 production of Rhodessa Jones’s one-woman show about the lives of incarcerated women.

Today, perhaps because tools for creating posters are available to anyone with access to a laptop, it is easy to overlook the abundance of information that posters, as artifacts, carry. Indeed, as Rosenthal notes, “with the digital age and the impact of social media, artists and their presenters” place “less emphasis on the poster” in marketing efforts.  But La MaMa’s historical posters invite close investigation, and they reveal a great deal about the worlds from which they emerged. They tell an overlapping set of stories about artistic experimentation, the development of a pioneering theater organization, and the practice of visual communication across the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They suggest the ways in which changing reprographic technologies helped to shape the development of a collective visual style and supported the establishment new creative communities. And they offer a great deal of information about the ebb and flow of the artistic and political currents that shaped the East Village and NYC’s theatrical avant garde over the course of the past 50-plus years.

Poster for 'Springtime in Nickyland' (2015).

Poster for ‘Springtime in Nickyland’ (2015). This poster (a born-digital image) advertised the 2015 iteration of Nicky Paraiso’s annual springtime cabaret.

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Below: Watch video of the panel discussion held at La MaMa on December 4, 2017 about the history of La MaMa’s posters. Featuring John Jesurun, Theodora Skipitares, Alisa Solomon, Susan Haskins, and Cindy Rosenthal. Videography by Theo Cote. (This event was made possible in part by a grant from Humanities New York.)


Programming related to “A Poster History of La MaMa’s Downtown Community” was funded in part by a grant from Humanities New York. Special thanks to Scarlett Rebman and Laura Kushnick at Humanities New York for their assistance, and, at La MaMa, to Poorna Swami, Ozzie Rodriguez, Cindy Rosenthal, Joyce Isabel, Laura Indick, Theo Cote, and Alejandra Rivera Flaviá for their work on this project.

For more about La MaMa’s archival collections, please visit our ever-evolving digital collections portal.

 

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Paid Internship in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club seeks applicants for a paid archives internship. This is a temporary, part-time, paid position working approximately 20 hours per week (exact schedule to be determined). The internship will start in late January and last through May 2018, with the possibility of an extension through August 2018.

The intern will support a new, grant-funded project designed to expand access to a unique set of video materials from La MaMa’s collections. (For more information about this grant-funded project, please visit pushcartcatalog.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/nhprc-grant/.) With supervision from the Manager of Digital and Special Projects, the intern will conduct research and use a range of descriptive standards and strategies to improve the discoverability of these materials via Wikipedia, WorldCat, and the Digital Public Library of America. The intern will also be invited to participate in other work – including education, outreach, and assessment, and virtual meetings with our partners at Bay Area Video Coalition and Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research.

$15/hour. Must be available to work weekdays.

The ideal candidate will be enrolled in a graduate program in information science, archives management, or a related area, and will have an interest in learning about community-engaged archival practice, innovative strategies in archival description and access, and theater history. The ideal candidate will also have exceptional research, writing, and communication skills, and some combination of the following:

  • Familiarity with and interest in learning about archival metadata standards and metadata harvesting;
  • Familiarity with and interest in learning about emerging practices for using Wikipedia and Wikidata to support improved discoverability of digital special collections;
  • Familiarity with and interest in moving image archival practice; and
  • Experience working in an archives or library.

To apply, please submit the following materials to rachel [at] lamama [dot] org by December 24, 2017:

  1. a cover letter containing information about your experience and interest in the position;
  2. a current resume; and
  3. the names and contact information for two professional references.

La MaMa’s Archives Receives a Major Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission

For immediate use

The Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club receives $100,000 from the National Historic Records and Publications Commission

Grant will preserve and enhance access to a collection of videos documenting 1970s-era Off-Off Broadway theatre

(New York, NY.— September 7, 2017) – The Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club has received $100,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to support a collaborative project that will result in expanded access to a rare collection of videos that document theatrical work performed on La MaMa’s stages in the 1970s. La MaMa will work with Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) to digitize the collection of half-inch open reel videos, and will partner with the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) to store and digitally preserve these files in perpetuity. Newly created digital video materials will subsequently be made freely available to researchers, students, artists, and the interested public.

Activities for the two-year grant, “Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-Era Experimental Theatre,” begin in September 2017.

“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to preserve and expand access to this rare and valuable collection,” said Mia Yoo, La MaMa’s Artistic Director. “We’re excited to partner with BAVC and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research on a project that will make it possible for future generations to learn about the pioneering theatrical work that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s.”

The most complete audiovisual record of early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence, the collection includes 261 unique videos which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway performances (1972-1978) and the work of a diversity of ground-breaking artists, including: Mary Alice, Lamar Alford, Peter Bartlett, Julie Bovasso, Ed Bullins, Tisa Chang and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre Company, Candy Darling, Johnny Dodd, William Duffy, Hanay Geiogamah and the Native American Theatre Ensemble, Adrienne Kennedy, Wilford Leach, John Braswell, and the ETC Company, Tom Eyen, Harvey Fierstein, Mike Figgis and the People Show, Paul Foster, Grand Union, Nancy Heiken, Yutaka Higashi and the Tokyo Kid Brothers, H.M. Koutoukas, Diane Lane, Agosto Machado, Jun Maeda, Manuel Martin, Magaly Alabau and the Duo Theater, Leonard Melfi, Tom O’Horgan, Rochelle Owens, Ron Perlman, Lazaro Perez, Robert Patrick, Ozzie Rodriguez, Kikuo Saito, Andre Serban, Elizabeth Swados and the Great Jones Repertory Company, Sam Shepard, Harvey Tavel, Cecil Taylor, Mavis Taylor, the Third World Institute of Theatre Arts Studies, Winston Tong, Tad Truesdale, the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, John Vaccaro and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, Jeff Weiss, James Wigfall, Ahmad Yacoubi, Ching Yeh, Cal Yeomans, Rina Yerushalmi, Duk-Hyung Yoo, Joel Zwick and the La MaMa Plexus Company, and many others.

“This collection documents the impact of La MaMa’s open-door policy on aspiring artists caught in the revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s eager to explore our brave new world,” said Ozzie Rodriguez, the Director of La MaMa’s Archives. “We expect that expanded access to this video collection will inspire similarly daring creative experiments in the years to come.”

As a whole, the collection offers a glimpse into the kinds of conversations that La MaMa has nurtured since its founding in 1961 – and a window onto the diversity of artists’ responses to pressing social issues of the 1970s. Productions documented in this collection include:

A 1972 production of “Body Indian” – one of several plays written by Hanay Geigogamah (a member of the Kiowah-Delaware nation of Oklahoma) and performed at La MaMa by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the aftermath of confrontations between the American Indian Movement and the US government.

A 1976 production of “Godsong”– a gospel-rock song and dance revival of James Weldon Johnson’s Harlem Renaissance-era masterpiece “God’s Trombones.”

A 1974 production of “Ghosts and Goddesses” – a Chinese-American reworking of folktales written by Tisa Chang and performed by the pioneering ensemble that later evolved into the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre company.

A 1974 production of “Standard Safety”– a satire written and directed by the inimitable Julie Bovasso, about office work, bureaucracy, gender relations, and corporate culture in 1970s America.

A 1976 performance by Ekathrina Sobechanskaya and the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company – an all-male troupe, costumed as prima ballerinas, performing a high camp savage satire of classical Russian ballet.

A 1976 performance of “Who Chooses the Choices We Choose” – a play that was originally developed as part of a drama workshop by prisoners of the Taconic State Prison in upstate New York.

A landmark 1976 production of Fernando Arrabal’s “The Architect and Emperor of Assyria,” directed by Tom O’Horgan (director of HAIR on Broadway) and performed by Ron Perlman and Lazaro Perez.

As part of the grant project, staff at La MaMa and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research will enhance the public’s ability to discover these rare materials by linking collection and item descriptions from La MaMa’s digital collections website (catalog.lamama.org) to Wikipedia and the Digital Public Library of America. Information about the collection will also be discoverable through WorldCat. Over the course of the project, La MaMa and its partners will also create a short web-friendly video about the project, and will host three public screenings featuring highlights from the collection (in San Francisco, CA; Madison, WI, and New York, NY).

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About the project partners:

La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club is dedicated to the artist and all aspects of the theatre. The organization has a worldwide reputation for producing daring performance works that defy form and transcend barriers of ethnic and cultural identity. Founded in 1961 by theatre pioneer Ellen Stewart (recipient of a 1985 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship), La MaMa has presented more than 5,000 productions by 150,000 artists from more than 70 nations. A recipient of more than 30 Obie Awards and dozens of Drama Desk, Critic’s Circle, American Theatre Wing, and Bessie Awards, La MaMa has helped launch the careers of countless artists, many of whom have made and continue to make important contributions to American and international arts milieus. Tony award-winning playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein once said that “80% of what is now considered American theater originated at La MaMa.”

La MaMa’s Archives documents the work of La MaMa and promotes inquiry into the history of Off-Off-Broadway theatre. Conserved by people immersed in the theatre, La MaMa’s collections offer an intimate perspective on major social, aesthetic and political events of the past five decades. Its collections include posters, programs, flyers, correspondence, books, scripts, photographic materials, costumes, puppets, and film and video materials. Scholars and educators look to La MaMa’s Archives as an essential resource for information about the history of the American theatre and 20th century history. Among these, critic and scholar Alisa Solomon has called La MaMa’s archival collections “crucial” for anyone who wishes to understand the history of “American theatre [or] New York City.”

Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) is a leader in the audiovisual preservation community. Established in 1994, BAVC’s preservation program has allowed museums, artists and cultural institutions around the world to re-master, transfer, and archive seminal works on video and audio tape. BAVC’s preservation program has received support from the NEA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation. BAVC has also developed high quality preservation standards and practices, served cultural organizations nationally, and spearheaded research and development projects related to archival moving image and video preservation

Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research (WCFTR) is one of the world’s major archives of research materials relating to the entertainment industry. It maintains more than 300 collections from outstanding playwrights, television and motion picture writers, producers, actors, designers, directors, and companies. Housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Library-Archives and administered by the Communication Arts department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), the WCFTR is one of the world’s most accessible archives, and is regularly visited by researchers from around the world.  Research undertaken in its collections has revolutionized the scholarship of American cinema, theatre, and television.

 

Creating Metadata by Hand: Musings on the Limits of Automation in Archives

This post was written by Alice Griffin, who has worked in La MaMa’s Archives since November as the Metadata/Digitization Assistant. She’s leaving La MaMa at the end of July to pursue a Master’s degree at the Pratt Institute’s School of Information. We asked her to offer some reflections about her time at La MaMa. (We will miss her terribly and wish her all the best in her next adventure.)

“But… a computer could just do your job.” The first time I heard this remark it made me pause, seriously question the future of my career, and turn to my professional mentors for reassurance. Now, after being in this position for seven months, I feel confident that my position is not so easily automated away.

In the La MaMa Archives/Ellen Stewart Private Collection, I am the metadata/digitization assistant. My job is to add digital media to corresponding catalog records on the fantastically vast La MaMa Archives Digital Collections site, created by several catalogers and Project Manager, Rachel Mattson, over the past three years. As a result of this project, researchers all over the world can now see the photographs and programs that were initially just minimally described. This project of digitization requires a scanner, some metadata know-how, creativity, patience, and lots of time. The La MaMa Archives does have a lovely professional scanner, my metadata knowledge continues to grow, and I do have a considerable amount of patience. However, time is running short as the grant I was hired on comes to an end. I have added hundreds of digital objects to the digital collections since November 2016, but it feels as though my job has just started.

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Alice Griffin, a human, at her desk in the La MaMa Archives.

So, why can’t a computer just do my job? A computer is already helping me with many aspects of this task. The scanner I use to digitize photographs, programs, flyers, postcards, and other objects is connected directly to my computer and once I choose settings and file name, there’s not much more to do except click “scan.” Once I have my preservation (TIFF) files and access (JPEG) files created in Photoshop, it’s just a matter of an easy drag and drop to initiate Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) through Cyberduck to store them on the La MaMa Archives server or upload them to our digital collections site through a CollectiveAccess-powered backend. I also manually add metadata: a paragraph describing the material at hand, links to Library of Congress Naming Authorities and Subject Headings, information about the storage location and preservation needs of the object, and other bits to make it as complete a record as possible. But in the era of self-driving cars, why do we need a human to do this work? Even though I don’t think anyone would accuse a surgeon of obsolescence because of the rise of robotics in the operating room, I think this is a fair question and I would like to attempt a response.

Simply put, a computer does not yet exist that automates all aspects of my workflow; human labor and expertise are always involved. The labs page of the Stanford Libraries website lists the equipment that used for digitization projects and the rate of digitization. The robotic-book scanner can scan 4 times the number of pages in an hour as someone operating the manual book scanner. So, why even continue to pay student workers to do that manual work? The Stanford Libraries’ robotic-book scanners are not safe for fragile bound materials, and therefore careful human hands are necessary. Of course, book scanners are being engineered to have that gentle touch. In her article “The Hidden Faces of Automation,” Lily Irani mentions a “patented machine” engineered to turn the pages of rare books for digitization. But even this kind of machine was not fully automated; it “housed a worker who flipped the pages in time to a rhythm-regulated soundtrack” (34).

In 2006, the System for the Automated Migration of Media Assets (SAMMA), a system of robotics, hardware, and software, began being sold as a way for institutions to transfer media from obsolete formats to digital files in a streamlined and cost-effective manner. Three factors make SAMMA unusable for my project. First, I am not working with or digitizing La MaMa’s audiovisual materials (for some information about La MaMa’s awesome audiovisual materials, see Rachel Mattson’s blog post here). Second, SAMMA does not create metadata about the content of the materials, such as who or what is depicted. And third, SAMMA’s cost-effectiveness is relative; the costs for a community archives, such as La MaMa, to use tools like SAMMA or the book scanners mentioned above would be prohibitive.

While robotics, hardware, and software are useful, there is still always human skill and precision involved. Before even beginning to scan I must make decisions about whether each object is appropriate for digitization – are there privacy or rights concerns? And if there are duplicates of an object, I must choose the best copy to digitize. When scanning begins it is not just a matter of sticking a stack of papers into the automatic feed on a photocopier, or placing a book or videotape into a robotic scanner. Materials I work with must be handled carefully so that they do not tear or crinkle. Additionally, in order to fully describe an object I am digitizing, I must fill in several fields to physically characterize the object or objects: how big is the object? How many duplicates are there? Is it color or black and white? Throughout this work, the materials must be handled with care, one page/photograph/poster at a time. We want these originals to last because while digital files generally allow for easier access, they do not necessarily stand the test of time. Original photographic prints, negatives, and papers cannot just go in the trash once you have a digital surrogate.

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Object record for production photographs from the 1985 production of The Cotton Club Gala [OBJ.1985.0307] as viewed on La MaMa’s digital collections website.

Adding metadata also requires a human mind. The description field, in particular, even requires some creativity because, as a cataloger, I have to think about how different people will use the catalog. How will La MaMa archives staff search the catalog versus the La MaMa marketing or development staff? How does an academic researcher use the catalog versus an artist that has performed at La MaMa before? A human cataloger can take advantage of these nuances of use to create a more robust, user-oriented catalog in a way that a rigid computer program simply can’t. To give an example, I asked myself these questions while cataloging photographs from the 1985 production of “Cotton Club Gala,” directed by Ellen Stewart with music by Aaron Bell and choreography by Larl Becham. The description field is a beautiful thing because it allows you to tell the researcher in full sentences about the object: what production it’s from, who is depicted, anything of note about the object, or even if you’re not sure of the date. So, in the case of the Cotton Club Gala photographs, I made sure to address all these users in the description:

This folder contains eight photographic prints, five of which are duplicates, from “Cotton Club Gala,” directed by Ellen Stewart and produced at La MaMa in 1985. This folder also includes a typewritten letter on Vogue letterhead from assistant to Amy Gross, David DeNicolo, to La MaMa archivist Doris Pettijohn thanking her for letting them look at the photographs.

Valois Mickens is depicted in the third image.

The description is not long nor is it complicated, but it provides information in a readable format. There is information about prints and duplicates for archives staff; it identifies the production as directed by Ellen Stewart, which means it could be an important production for marketing use; for an academic researcher the whole description, including the letter from Vogue, because it gives context for the objects; an artist searching the catalog might also appreciate the whole description, or they might find information about who worked on the production and who is depicted more interesting. The description field is different for every object record, and therefore requires flexibility, creativity, and brevity to produce a paragraph that contextualizes the object without overwhelming the user.

The La MaMa Archives holds many one-of-a-kind materials; for some productions, the programs, photographs, or posters here may be the only remaining evidence that they took place. In this way, the La MaMa catalog does not just hold information gleaned from other sources, but it is a producer of information itself. When a researcher or an archives staff member notices a mistake in the catalog we usually need to consult our own material to solve the problem, a Google search will not help us. For example, when digitizing photographic prints for the 1965 and 1967 productions of The Sand Castle, written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Marshall W. Mason, I noticed that the performers depicted in the photographs weren’t matching up with the production dates that were handwritten on the back of the photographs. The La MaMa catalog was the only source I could turn to fix the confusion. I cross-referenced performers listed in the programs with who was depicted in the image and compared sets and costumes for both productions. In this way the La MaMa catalog functions as repository and generator of the history of off off-Broadway.

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Production photograph from the 1967 production of The Sand Castle [OBJ.1965.0216]. (This item was originally cataloged, in error, as documenting the 1965 production.)

While my position may appear to be a solitary one, it does require person-to-person interaction at a level that a computer cannot do. I am in regular contact with James D. Gossage, a photographer who documented many of La MaMa’s early shows. His own files and memories have corrected and enriched the catalog and in March 2017, Gossage donated programs, a poster, and some photographs that the Archives did not have before. He gave us the rights to three of the photographs [OBJ.1967.0349], which depict Tom Eyen, a playwright and director of many La MaMa shows and probably best known for writing Dreamgirls. These are beautiful portraits with dramatic light and shadow and the La MaMa Archives is excited to have them. It’s possible that Gossage felt comfortable passing along these prints into our care because, despite some errors in the catalog, he could see the work that we put into describing these materials to the best of our knowledge and ability. The humanity (and therefore error) present in the La MaMa Digital Collections website, reflects the deep humanity in the artists and their productions that the photographs, programs, correspondence, and posters document.

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Portrait of Tom Eyen by James D. Gossage, circa 1967. [OBJ.1967.0349]

No, my position cannot be simply automated away, but I’m sure I will continue to field questions about my position’s relevance. And while not receiving proper recognition for my work is mostly an inconvenience or a blow to my ego, it does reveal a widespread misunderstanding, or even misrecognition, of the mechanisms behind automation and making information available on the Internet. I am glad to see that there is growing scholarship on how obscuring the connection between human beings and automation deeply affects individuals and communities economically and emotionally. There is too much to delve into here in this blog post, but I would like to suggest some further reading. First, Safiya Umoja Noble’s article “Google Search: Hyper-visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,” examines how Google search results are not separate from human influence, but are in fact embedded in racist and sexist stereotypes that benefit advertisers. This aspect of Google is mostly ignored or glossed over. Noble reminds us that “the results that surface on the web in commercial spaces like Google are not neutral processes—they are linked to human experiences, decision-making, and culture.” Another article that reveals the human influence behind a process commonly thought of as automated is Sarah Roberts’ “Commercial Content Moderation: Digital Laborers’ Dirty Work.” Roberts exposes the human labor behind the moderation of user-generated content and how these workers impact the content they screen while that content also takes a toll on their well-being.

The third article I want to recommend here Lily Irani’s short piece “The Hidden Faces of Automation.” In it, Irani explains how the “data janitors” behind “cultural data work,” such as “transcribing small audio clips, putting unstructured text into structured database fields, and ‘content-moderating’…user-generated content” (37), are so easily and consistently undervalued and underpaid. Irani then asks two very important questions that I would like to highlight here: “What would computer science look like if it did not see human-algorithmic partnerships as an embarrassment, but rather as an ethical project where the humans were as, or even more, important than the algorithms? What would it look like if artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction put the human care and feeding of computing at the center rather than hiding it in the shadows?” I think Irani brings up a remarkable point in these questions. Even though technology fields are booming, computers continue to be limited by the limitations of humans; limitations of technical knowledge, sure, but also limitations of empathy for human workers. Perhaps technologists need to embrace this level of social responsibility in their work. It is not a failure to admit we still need to do things by hand; rather, this honesty allows light to be shed on a previously concealed issue.

Suggestions for further reading: