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.

MoMA

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).

Yerushalmi

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.)

Yerushalmi 2

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”.

La MaMa

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.

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“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

2017.12.04 Poster Panel Discussion photo by Maya Bitan 22 copy

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.

***

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:

Endangered Data and the Arts

Last month, from April 17-22, 2017 archivists, librarians, records managers, educators, and researchers marked the first-ever Endangered Data Week (EDW). Designed to highlight and provoke discussion about threats to the public availability of federal and local government datasets, the week featured a wide range of events – Twitter chats, data rescue harvests, data storytelling, data-scraping workshops, letter writing meet-ups, and panel discussions. Over the course of six days, approximately 17 universities and 8 professional organizations convened more than 50 events. As the organizer of a new Digital Library Federation (DLF) working group on Government Records Transparency and Accountability, I helped to organize the project and worked to convene a webinar on the subject of the Freedom of Information Act that formed a part of the week’s events.

EDW was originally the brainchild of Michigan State University’s Brandon Locke, and was sponsored by the DLF in partnership with DataRefuge, the Mozilla Science Lab, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance. “There is good reason for concern about the ongoing availability and collection of data by US government agencies,” Locke wrote in a recent post in Perspectives (the online Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association). Not only has the new presidential administration signaled its opposition to open data and data-collecting initiatives (“most notably those concerning climate change”), Congress has also recently taken steps to restrict public records access. For instance, federal legislation has been introduced that would prohibit recipients of federal funds from creating, using, or providing access to geospatial databases that track “racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing” – language that, as Locke notes, could “hinder researchers’ efforts to “analyze changes in neighborhood demographics, urban development, policing, and the impact of redlining and other discriminatory housing policies.”

You might be wondering why an archivist who spends her days working in a performing arts archives is so invested in questions of government transparency, the Freedom of Information Act, and endangered data. I can think of a dozen ways to explain the source of my interest – but here I’d like to talk about just one of them: public records and data are very important to artists, arts organizations, arts journalists, arts funders, and arts scholars.

On one hand, arts organizations routinely rely on public data and records to inform their practice and to justify the importance of their work; public data informs arts administrators’ work in the areas of audience development, fundraising, public relations, infrastructure-building, and advocacy. To take a very hard-boiled example: government-collected data is routinely used to “quantify the broad ‘impact’ of the arts and culture sector in financial and programmatic terms” (as the cultural think-tank CreativeEquity recently put it). In other words, by documenting the ways in which arts programs drive local economies, contribute to youth development, and lead to lower crime rates, arts advocates give government agencies a bread-and-butter rationale for spending public money on arts programs. The 2015 Center for Urban Futures’ report on Creative New York, for example, relied on public data to document its finding that New York City’s economic engine is powered by artists and the creative sector. This finding has, in turn, been used to advocate for increased public spending on the arts in New York City. Funding for small arts organizations is often dependent on this kind of advocacy.

Funding for my home institution, La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, has been shaped over the years by these sorts of data-driven advocacy efforts – as well as by data collection efforts designed to streamline government services. In the 1970s, for instance, La MaMa received part of its funding through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA). Established in 1973 by the Nixon administration (yes, that Nixon administration), CETA was a block grant project established in response to public data indicating that funding for “job training” and “workforce development” was fragmented and duplicative, and thus inefficient. Individual states could decide how to spend their CETA funds; and New York State decided to give a portion of that money to arts organizations. With CETA funding, La MaMa incubated several ensembles that were responsible for staging more than 35 events (plays and concerts) between 1978 and 1980.

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Program for “3rd CETA Chamber Concert” (1978) (From La MaMa’s digital collections.)

Although thesedays La MaMa is more likely to get funding from private foundations or state agencies than from federal job training initiatives, our ability to fund our programming continues to depend on the availability of a wide range of public data.

For instance, like many other non-profits, we rely on data from sources such as 990-PFs – tax documents that private foundations must file with the Internal Revenue Service, which contain the names of foundations’ officers and grantees – in our fundraising and cultivation efforts. Although data found in 990-PFs is not government-created, it is made public due to a government mandate. It serves as a critical resource for a wide range of arts organizations and their allies, who use it to conduct prospect research, to understand the broader funding landscape, and to find new potential donors. It also supports a broad base for fiscal transparency, oversight, and public conversations about tax policy, private philanthropy, and funding for the arts. This kind of transparency enables us as a city and a nation to ask questions like: Who is giving to the arts? How has that changed over time? Why? (And so on.)

Of course, public records and data also serve as essential tools for scholars seeking to write about the arts in social and historical context. Scholars of the history of modern dance, or the rise of video art, or the role of the arts in the life of American cities (among other topics) all rely heavily on government-created records in their work.[1] Examples of the creative uses to which arts-engaged scholars have put public records abound. But for the sake of brevity, consider just one – Robin D.G. Kelley’s masterful biography of Thelonious Monk. In his effort to portray the life and work of this perennially misunderstood, incandescent musician, Kelley makes powerful use of land and property deeds, birth, death, and marriage records, court testimony, Selective Service records, the Census, as well as Monk’s FBI file, the annual report of the New York City Department of Corrections, and an array of other documents. Indeed, the public record becomes a rich source of evidence for the biography’s most important thematic frame: that Monk’s life and work reflected — and remixed— the idea of freedom in African-American history and culture. “Thelonious Monk’s music is essentially about freedom,” Kelley argues. In one early section of the book, Kelley does a deep dive into the public record to trace Monk’s family’s experiences with enslavement and liberty in the US over the course of a century. After locating Monk’s Great-Grandfather John Jack, born in 1797, from a combination of Census records (including the 1860 Schedule of “Slave Inhabitants of Sampson County”) and property records (including a deed of gift which transferred ownership of Monk’s Great Aunt Chaney from one slaveholder to another), Kelley learns from the Census of 1870 that Monk’s grandfather Hinton Cole, born into slavery, learned to read and write shortly after emancipation. Throughout, Kelley demonstrates that if Monk’s music was “essentially about freedom,” it wasn’t an accident. He had “inherited…a deeply felt understanding” of the topic “from those who came before him.” This foregrounding sets the stage for the rest of Kelley’s account of the pianist’s life and work.[2]

Finally, open data and records also comprise important source material for working artists. The public record served as an important basis, for instance, for last year’s hit Broadway musical Hamilton. (Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has often discussed the historical and archival material upon which he based the show.) But creative engagement with government documents is hardly new, and the list of artists who have used public documents and data in their work is very, very long. In his landmark Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real‑Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, for instance, Hans Haacke used public records to chronicle “the fraudulent activities of one of New York City’s largest slumlords over the course of two decades.” Visual artists Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh also used public records in their Index of the Disappeared project, which considered the “difficult histories of immigrant, ‘Other’ and dissenting communities in the U.S” after 9/11. And in the 1980s, the activist art collective Gran Fury deployed government data in the silkscreened posters they wheat-pasted across New York City. A poster they created in 1988, for instance, featured an image of a baby doll and text that read: “One in every sixty one babies in New York City is born with AIDS or born HIV antibody positive. So why is the media telling us that heterosexuals aren’t at risk? Because these babies are black. These babies are Hispanic.” In addition to functioning as complex aesthetic works in their own right, each of these projects contributed to wide-ranging public conversations about urgent social issues.

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Poster by Gran Fury. (Screen-grab from ICP)

For good reasons, this year’s Endangered Data Week focused on the importance of government data for environmental scientists, social scientists, and humanities researchers. Such scholars and their publics have a great deal to lose when government agencies can’t or don’t collect data about weather patterns and housing discrimination, among other information. But artists and their audiences also rely heavily on publicly accessible government data. It is hard to know for sure all the ways that the data upon which arts-engaged individuals and groups rely are threatened. And we must always consider the ways in which public data collection might inform more widespread government surveillance of civilians. But government data initiatives contribute to the well-being of a cross-section of people – including artists. And if we want to ensure that creative practice can endure – and can continue to inform public conversations about history, politics, and contemporary life – we need to fight for the continued existence of a robust culture of data transparency and accountability.

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[1] See, e.g. Naima Prevots, Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War (Wesleyan, 1999);  Kathy High, Sherry Miller-Hocking, and Mona Jimenez, eds., The Emergence of Video Processing Tools (University of Chicago, 2014); and Hillary Miller, Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York (Northwestern University Press, 2016).

[2] Robin D.G. Kelley, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009), pp. 2-14 and 463-467.

Digital Collections Treasure Hunt

Maybe you’re thinking: I want to search La MaMa’s new digital collections site, but I don’t know where to begin. Or maybe you’re a history buff dying for some clues to the fascinating secrets of downtown New York’s past. Or maybe you just like a good challenge. Whatever your needs, we got you covered – with our new Digital Collections Treasure Hunt! And its a pretty rewarding challenge: there are hundreds of amazing, little-known stories buried in La MaMa’s archives.

So far, no one–even La MaMa’s most knowledgeable insiders–have been able to answer all of these questions without turning at least once to a keyword search in our Digital Collections.

Email rachel [at] lamama [dot] org for the answer key.

1. How many times did La MaMa move between 1961 and 1969?   

  • Never
  • Once a year
  • 4 times

2. Which playwright dedicated a 1969 La MaMa production of his work to the Stonewall Rebellion?

3. Which member of the Black Panthers staged several plays at La MaMa in the 1970s?

4. Why did the American Indian Theatre Company change its name to the Native American Theatre Ensemble? (Hint: the answer is in a program for a 1973 La MaMa production)

5. Who performed alongside “The Mell-o White Boys” at La MaMa in 1984?

6. What was the first La MaMa show to feature Nicky Paraiso (Programming Director/Curator for the Club and La MaMa Moves!) as a performer?

7. Which of the following was not one of the plays that the Great Jones Rep performed?

  • “The Iliad”
  • “As You Like It”
  • “Medea”

8. Name two Japanese theater makers whose work appeared on La MaMa’s stages before 1985.

9. Which actor from La MaMa’s 1969 production of Adrienne Kennedy’s a “Rats Mass” (directed by Seth Allen) went on win a Tony Award?

Be Kind Rewind: Setting Up A Film Rewind at La MaMa

       This Spring I have been interning at the La MaMa Archives while I complete my first year in NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program. When I first met Rachel, we discussed a few potential projects for the semester. One idea involved La MaMa’s collection of 16mm film, which had been catalogued by previous intern Genevieve Havemeyer-King. Unfortunately, the films couldn’t be inspected thoroughly at that time because La MaMa didn’t have a film rewind. But the archives needs a better record of the content of the films, how the images look, and which films should be prioritized for more long-term preservation. I thought the project sounded perfect for me.

        Very early on, Rachel warned me that working in community archives comes with its own special set of challenges. Unsurprisingly, funding is at the top of that list, and with La MaMa’s limited resources, I was tasked to get a rewind set up at virtually no cost to the archive. There are many little things that go into properly inspecting film. Ideally, I would need lint-free gloves, cloths to remove dust, isopropyl alcohol for cleaning, a spring clamp to keep the reel secure on the shaft, a light box to illuminate the film, and a loupe to magnify it. Most of these are inexpensive items, which we purchased from online retailers. And I found that I could just use my iPad as a light box. But we still needed the most important film-inspection equipment: the film rewind bench. Kelly Haydon, a Preservationist at Bay Area Video Coalition, had donated a pair of rewinds to La MaMa Archives last year. Rachel and I planned to make our own bench by screwing these rewinds into a wood plank, then clamping it to a table. But when I got a look at the set, it was clear they weren’t ready – they were missing handles and shafts (Shafts are the rods that the film reel slides onto for viewing).

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The donated pair of rewinds

        So I began my search for the missing parts. The rewinds we had were produced by the Hollywood Film Company, which is still in business, but multiple requests for a quote on spare parts were never returned. I spent a lot of time browsing eBay, but when you have no money, sometimes the best option is to ask your friends for help. I don’t yet know that many people in the archiving community, but an email sent out to the AMIA Listserv garnered several kind responses. One man actually sent us a pair of shafts free of cost (Thanks Danny Kuchuck!). I am quickly learning the benefit of having a community of archivists to turn to.

        As I worked on this project, I also spent time on other tasks in the archives, but after several weeks, I still hadn’t had any luck acquiring the right kind of handles for the rewind. It was admittedly turning into a frustrating situation. I took a week off to go on a class trip to the Library of Congress’s Audiovisual Conservation Center, and everywhere I looked I saw perfectly good film rewinds. I must have seen fifty of them, each one taunting me, reminding me that I didn’t even have one to work with. Then I got an email from Rachel:

“OK you’ll never believe what just happened- i found a pair of handles for the rewinds. apparently Kelly DID give me handles when she gave me the rewinds. and, er, she also gave me (wait for it): SHAFTS. i found all the hardware hidden in a secret location i had forgotten about.

ACK! so this is exciting and also annoying. sorry! and hooray!?”

        I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, but I ended up laughing. I wish that I could have been there to see her reaction when she realized we had the missing parts.

        As soon as I got back to La MaMa, Rachel and I got to work. The two pieces of the rewind needed to be secured to a flat surface, roughly two feet apart, so Rachel and I went down to the basement, found four screws, and drilled the rewinds into a plank of wood. We brought it back up to our office and clamped the board to a table using a pair of C-clamps. This has become my workspace.

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Our imperfect, but functioning rewind bench

After a month of ups and downs simply trying to set up a rewind, I can’t believe how quickly everything came together when I returned from my trip. I couldn’t be upset that we had the parts the whole time, because that time turned into a valuable learning experience. My first internship could have gone a variety of ways, and I feel so grateful to be in a place where my ideas and opinions are welcome, and where the work I do will actually matter. The final result of our rewind isn’t perfect, but it will do the job, and I couldn’t be happier. 

Now let’s look at some film.

– Caroline Roll

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It works!

List of the items we acquired for the film rewind bench:

Rewinds – Donated ($0)

Shafts – Donated ($0)

Handles – Donated ($0)

Spring Clamp – eBay ($25)

Wood – Found at La MaMa ($0)

Clamps – Found at La MaMa ($0)

Microfiber cloth – B&H, purchased used ($3)

Lint-free gloves – B&H ($5)

Loupe, B&H ($5)

Split reel – found in La MaMa archives ($0)

iPad – used my own ($0)

Total Cost: $38

The Little Elephant Is Dead (La MaMa, May 1979)

In spring 1979, cities across the United States celebrated “Japan Today,” an international symposium on Japanese culture organized by The Japan Society with grants from the National Endowment for Humanities and the Japan Foundation, among other organizations with an interest in cultural exchange between the US and Japan.  The Japan Society coordinated the events held in New York, which included panels, film screenings, exhibitions of Japanese art, courses on traditional Japanese art, and performances of Japanese plays, dance, and music. These events included a production at La MaMa—the Abe Studio’s (listed as “The Kobo Abe Theater Troupe” in “Japan Today’s” promotional materials) An Exhibition of Images: The Little Elephant Is Dead from May 14th to 18th.  (New York Times C24)

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Both sides of a flyer advertising The Little Elephant Is Dead. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0103).

Given La MaMa’s history of showcasing Japanese directors, the venue was a natural fit for the Abe Studio. La MaMa hosted about one experimental Japanese play every year throughout the 1970s, beginning in 1970 with The Golden Bat (by Higashi Yutaka) and La Marie Vision (by Terayama Shūji). Little Elephant was performed at the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center (May 8th-12th) before relocating to La MaMa for the next week of performances.

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Uncredited production photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

The “Japan Today” celebration tour of Little Elephant marked a shift in how Abe was understood as a writer and artist in the States. Following the translation of his novel The Woman in the Dunes to English in 1964 and the success of its film adaptation directed by Teshigahara Hiroshi, Western readers and critics quickly recognized Abe’s significance in contemporary Japanese literature. The Little Elephant Is Dead, however, marked the first performances of Abe’s theatre in America. Visiting six cities that were a part of the “Japan Today” celebration, the Abe Studio introduced American audiences to the theatrical method Abe had been honing since his playwriting debut The Uniform (New York Times Magazine 33). Perhaps conscious of audiences’ expectation of complex characterizations and dialogue from reading his novels, the press materials for The Little Elephant Is Dead seem to dispel these expectations and preface Abe’s theatre as an entirely different genre of work. A press release written on behalf of “Japan Today” from March 12, 1979 sells the performance on its dream-like images rather than emphasizing Abe’s literary prowess:

In the play, Abe fully uses the bodies and language of his actors, which together with his own synthesized music and projections makes for a satisfying expression of unique art form…The accompanying dialogue, which is sparse, also suggests a series of merging and dissolving images through the poetic association of one phrase with the next. The ultimate effect is one of a dream which communicates intense vitality.

Abe’s first play to tour in the US was also the last of his playwriting career. Without knowledge of how Abe’s playwriting had evolved in the decades prior to Little Elephant, the contrast between Abe’s literature and his theatre must have been shocking to his American fans. While his novels frequently use dream-like imagery to immerse the reader in the bizarre and nightmarish situations his protagonists face, the imagery of his plays occupied a much more important role in the work in lieu of a traditional narrative to drive the performance. Accordingly, in the press lead-up to Little Elephant‘s NYC run, Abe presented the play as a focused exercise in image creation. “My intention is that the play’s dream images—like the image of the little elephant in the play–remain mysterious and unexplained,” Abe told the New York Times Magazine in an article published two weeks to the La MaMa performances (New York Times Magazine 84).

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Men carry “the dream” onto the stage. Uncredited photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

To create the images of Little Elephant, the Abe Studio primarily used fabric to create dynamic set pieces and characters. In the opening scene, a large cloth spread across the stage rises and undulates. The exact mechanisms of this movement are unclear due to Abe’s commitment to describe images in his script rather than explain how they were to be made. Because of his writing style, imagining the stage using the script and limited photograph documentation is a considerable task. Abe’s script, translated by Hideo Levy, provides insight into how Abe might have intended audiences to understand his cloth creations. As much as the script is an instruction on how to perform Little Elephant, it is also a document of Abe’s process. Rather than an object of physical manipulation by actors, Abe describes the cloth is a living being:

The cloth dreams. Lifting an orange-gleaming face, it rises and, panting, grows supporting pillars and turns into a great curtain. The curtain breathes, giving off a flourescent [sic] light, and dreams of the shadows cast by the many lives which have passed before it. Yes, it dreams of the many visions seen inside it.

As the play progresses, both anthropomorphic and cloth-like characters converse about the nature of dreams while the clothed-over stage shifts around them. Elephants and dreams of elephants are repeatedly mentioned and analyzed by the play’s characters as they confront tangential obstacles and enigmas. These scenes include a hunt for a suitcase filled with light, a plant called shellweed that makes you dream of fish, a “pseudo-fish” dying and coming back to life, and a wrestling match that results in the wrestlers losing their desire to fight and revolting against their referee. Each individual scene introduces new combinations of characters working toward reaching an abstract philosophical conclusion about the situations they face. In the last few scenes which take place in a mock court, the motif of the little elephant becomes the center of conversation:

Cloth E: Something like that could only be an illusion! It would never be in Japan in the first place.

Cloth F: But elephant fossils have been found in Japan too.

The dream: Three to six!

Cloth E: It was extinct before man ever lived here. It’s none of our responsibility.

The dream: Seven to eight!

Cloth F: But the elephant as an idea arrived in Japan along with Buddhism.

Cloth E: So you’re telling me you recognize it—the way it hangs about like that?

Cloth F: I don’t recognize it, but I can’t ignore it either.

Cloth E: It’s started to rot.

Notably, this exchange is the only scene in which Abe attempts to connect our reality to the dream world that his characters inhabit. While the play is filled with allusions to earthly animals, it is devoid of proper nouns and places. As far as I can tell the events of Abe’s dreamworld do not serve as an allegory for a real world crisis. In my opinion this is one of the text’s greatest strengths. Because the play lacks a coherent message, the bizarre turns of the script do not read as forced. Instead, Little Elephant uses these turns to thoroughly explore the slipperiness of dreams and human concepts for its own sake. Abe comes closest to expressing an explicit message in the penultimate scene, when the words “DON’T FEED THE ANIMAL” are projected upon the ground-cloth (this time inflated into a spherical bulge).

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The ground-cloth swells. Uncredited photograph. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105).

Reading the script for The Little Elephant Is Dead, I wondered about Abe’s process and how he put together such an eclectic set of images. Thankfully, I discovered an interview that answered some of my questions. A year before the “Japan Today” festival, the Japan Society asked Donald Keene, one of the world’s most prolific scholars and translators of Japanese literature, to interview Abe Kōbō for their newsletter. They met at the Keiō Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, where Keene observed “not only the sound of Abe munching peanuts but the celestial strains of a harp being played in the distance, a feature of the elegant club.” (Keene 190) The transcript of the interview was later reprinted in Keene’s anthology, The Blue-eyed Tarōkaja. Keene opened the conversation by asking Abe what led Abe to start writing plays, to which Abe replied “it was an accident” (190). His first play The Uniform was written the night before the deadline for a short story requested by a magazine. Desperate to complete the story, Abe admits,”it occurred to me that it might be easier to work out something if all I had to do was write dialogue, and I didn’t have to go to the trouble of writing descriptions and the rest.” (190)

As Abe became more comfortable writing for the stage he began to focus on the images he presented on stage rather than dialogue: “Basically I had come to feel that writing a play and staging it were almost the same thing.” (191) By the time Abe started writing plays, he had already published several novels and a number of short stories. Experimenting in this new format, Abe desired to present experiences that he could not express effectively in prose. In my view, his desire to experiment with wordlessness and breathtaking images is directly related to his familiarity with words and how to use them effectively to produce emotions. The scarceness of words in his later plays can be understood as a reaction to the strength and volume of his literary work. He told Keene:

The dialogue of a play is also a kind of action and movement. Words that are not movement I can employ in my novels, and there is no special need for them on the stage. I don’t like plays, whether by myself or by other people, the meaning of which can be communicated in the form of fiction. Novels do that sort of thing much better. The dialogue of a play must be related to the action, and within the words themselves there must be action. The words must be part of the action. Words without an element of action have no place in the theater. (193)

Abe’s commentary on dialogue in plays brings into question whether or not Little Elephant should be categorized as a work of experimental theatre. In comparison to the Western theatrical canon with which his New York audience was most likely familiar, the prioritization of image over dialogue was definitely shocking. From Abe’s perspective, however, his process is the Occam’s Razor approach to eliciting reactions from an audience: Among competing hypotheses, he seems to be telling his audience, select the one that relies on the fewest assumptions.  By employing non-human characters, Abe cuts out the responsibility of characters to establish connections with the audience and embraces the simpler and more immediate approach of using them as aesthetically compelling creatures.  As Abe contextualized Little Elephant, “Some people may feel on first seeing this play as if it is rather far removed from theater, but I believe that structurally it consists of a groping for the very origins of theater.” (193)

In press reviews of The Little Elephant Is Dead, critics of New York generally praised its visual spectacle while acknowledging the lack of cohesion inherent to its format. Comparing Little Elephant‘s use of visual imagery to Tadeusz Kantor’s Dead Class (which ran at La MaMa earlier that season) Mel Gussow of the New York Times applauded Abe for the play’s ambition and scale:

The Little Elephant is Dead…has a script–one that is poetically descriptive, but not fully suggestive of the sweep of the experience. In the case of Mr. Abe, the play is the performance… a sequence of impressions, both visual and aural. The world is illusory; watching it, we enter Mr. Abe’s fantasy. In a sense, the author is like an action painter, drawing from a palette of light, sound, film, props and actors…this is experimental theater with a sense of humor… (New York Times C24).

Some critics were understandably frustrated with the way Little Elephant’s blunt, conceptual dialogue worked against its strong images. While Abe’s dialogue is entertaining when read on the page, I can imagine that some audience members might have disliked the play’s attempt to provide commentary on a visual spectacle that speaks for itself. Eileen Blumenthal of the Village Voice succinctly expressed this frustration, writing that “while the work suffers from both expressed lack of and pretensions toward ‘meaning,’ its individual images range from funny to unnerving to exquisite…” (Village Voice 89)

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Promotional photograph of Abe by Thomas Haar. Courtesy of La MaMa Archives (OBJ.1979.0105)

The Little Elephant Is Dead encapsulates Abe’s unique contribution to Japanese theatre.  He crafted his plays with an utmost respect for the visual and performative components of theatre that distinguish it from the novel. Theatre provided Abe a way to painstakingly recreate the dreamy images that inspired the prose of his greatest written works. In selecting Abe’s piece for the “Japan Today” celebration, the Japan Society deliberately offered American audiences a work with an unabashedly modern theatrical vision to compliment their plurality of traditional performances. By providing a venue for The Little Elephant Is Dead, La MaMa continued its legacy of showcasing works by Japanese artists that expanded on the limited representations of Japanese theatre in America, which exposed audiences to a great deal of and kabuki while largely excluding contemporary Japanese artists. The American tour of The Little Elephant Is Dead was a significant theatrical event that contributed to the international recognition of Abe as a playwright in addition to the diversification of representations of Japanese art in America.

—Jameson Creager

 

Published Works Cited

Blumenthal, Eileen. “Animal Dreams.” The Village Voice [New York] 28 May 1979: 89. Print.

Gussow, Mel. “Stage: ‘Little Elephant Is Dead,’ a Japanese Play; Action and Imagery.” New York Times [New York] 16 May 1979, The Living Section sec.: C24. Print.

Scott-Stokes, Henry. “JAPAN’S KAFKA GOES ON THE ROAD.” New York Times Magazine [New York] 29 Apr. 1979: 33, 84. Print.

Keene, Donald, and J. Thomas. Rimer. The Blue-eyed Tarōkaja: A Donald Keene Anthology. New York: Columbia UP, 1996. Print.

Archival Objects (from La MaMa Archives) Cited

Program: “The Little Elephant Is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0102)

Promotional Flyer: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0103)

Press: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0104)

Production Photographs: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0105)

Booklets about “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0107)

Promotional Material: “The Little Elephant is Dead” (1979) (OBJ.1979.0201)