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.

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