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.
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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?

New additions to our team

I’m thrilled to be able to introduce, now, several new additions to the La MaMa Archives cataloging team. This great crew is helping us successfully complete the final quarter of our CLIR-funded Hidden Collections cataloging project.

Michael Grant joined the team as a part-time Cataloger back in September. Michael graduated from New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Masters program last spring. In addition to contributing to La MaMa’s cataloging projects, he works at NYU Libraries reformatting and preserving critically out of print VHS and audiocassette titles, ensuring their accessibility for use and study in the future. He is also a member of XFR Collective. At La MaMa, Michael has been working on a describing video materials from our Pushcart Collection.

September was also the month that Deborah Shapiro began what is becoming a yearlong archives internship here at La MaMa. Deborah is in her final year of the master’s program in Archives/Public History at New York University. As an intern at the La MaMa Archives, she is currently working on a digital exhibit about xerographic reproductions in La MaMa’s holdings. This exhibit will investigate questions about archival practices related to photocopied materials, and will offer (she hopes) a few ideas about what kind of information and evidence photocopied materials might provide to researchers.

In November, we welcomed two additional part-time Catalogers to the team. Jameson Creager  is a recent graduate of Princeton University where he studied East Asian Studies and worked at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. In addition to cataloging at La MaMa, he currently works in the archive department of the news program Democracy Now!  Amilca Palmer comes to La MaMa with 10+ years of experience in the world of documentary filmmaking. She has worked as a researcher and producer on a wide range of documentaries, including Koch (2012), African American Lives II with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (2008), and Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice (2004).  At the moment, Jameson and Amilca are working to catalog materials from La MaMa’s Director’s Files.

For more about each of these (amazing) folks, see About the Team.

La MaMa at #AMIA15

I don’t travel to all that many conferences, but when I can, I try to make it to the meeting of Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). This annual event brings together a cross-section of scholars and practitioners, and offers a wide range of workshops, panel discussions, screenings, and networking events. Attending AMIA conferences has made me a far more competent and thoughtful archivist.

At this year’s conference, I had the opportunity to give a 5-minute “lightning talk” about La MaMa at a panel that was part of a daylong stream devoted to “Access, Outreach, and Use.” Below is a slightly edited version of this talk, which was entitled “Candy Darling and Copyright: Expanding Access to the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre.”

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Hi, and thanks to the organizers of the Access, Outreach, & Use stream for all their hard work. I’m here at this pop-up/lightning talk session to very briefly discuss the approach that one community-based performing arts archive is taking to access, use, and preservation of its analog moving image materials.

Specifically, I’m here to talk about work that’s happening in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Sometimes called the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway theatre, La MaMa was founded in 1961, in a basement in Manhattan’s East Village, and it quickly became an important site of theatrical experimentation. I don’t have time in this lightning talk to detail the long list of artists who found a creative home at La MaMa over the past five decades, but as Harvey Fierstein notes, the theater has played a critical role in shaping American theater and culture for half a century.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.28.13 PM.pngOne of the most infrequently noted of La MaMa’s many remarkable features is its archive. Occupying 5000 square feet in a building on East 4th Street, this archive holds over 30,000 unique objects–photographs, posters, flyers, masks, puppets, costumes, set pieces, and audiovisual materials. The archives has been run on a really small budget for years, but in the past decade, La MaMa has taken steps to make its collections more accessible. In 2014, we received a CLIR Hidden Collections grant, which supports the creation of a searchable catalog of materials from La MaMa’s earliest “pushcart” years (1961-1985).

Among the most vulnerable and valuable of materials in this collection is a set of ½ inch open reel video—which document approximately 170 Off-Off-Broadway theater performances staged between 1972 and 1980. They comprise the most complete audiovisual record of the early Off-Off-Broadway experiments in existence.

Productions documented in this collection include: A half a dozen experimental theater productions staged by the Native American Theatre Ensemble in the early 1970s in the aftermath of several high profile confrontations Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.29.49 PM.pngbetween the American Indian Movement and the US government;

A recording of a March 1976 performance of playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s “A Rat’s Mass,” directed by Jazz musician Cecil Taylor (Kennedy was a key figure in the 1970s-era black arts movement. One critic called “A Rat’s Mass” “a kind of black spiritual” in which brother and sister rat “gnaw and nibble…on the standards of life that Americans use to hold themselves together”); 

Three early works of the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre; two performances by Grand Union dance company; an early performance by the all-male Trocadero Gloxinia Ballet; a dozen productions staged by the Playhouse of the Ridiculous;  collaborations between composer Elizabeth Swados and director Andrei Serban;

And a bilingual (English/Spanish) production of Tom Eyen’s “The White Whore and the Bit Player” featuring Warhol superstar Candy Darling in role of White Whore.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.30.33 PM.pngAmong the many challenges we face in making this collection accessible are five core issues:

1)Format obsolescence: Playback equipment for ½ inch open reel video is fragile and rare–the last machine of this kind was manufactured in the 1970s, parts are difficult to replace, and only a handful of living technicians know how to repair them. In 2011, Bay Area Video Coalition’s then-Director of Preservation, Moriah Ulinskas, wrote that she informed clients and partners “that they have 5, maybe 10 years left” to digitize their ½ inch open reel video–after which time “these recordings are gone for good.” As a result: digitization is a critical piece of our access strategies. Without digitization, no access to this material is possible.Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.32.57 PM.png

2)Copyright and Actors’ Equity regulations: Audiovisual materials documenting live performances require consideration of two sets of rights: 1)rights to the recording itself and 2)rights to the underlying performance. Additionally, if members of Actor’s Equity appear in any of these productions, the recordings are also subject to Equity code regulations.

3+ 4) Preservation infrastructure + Resources: La MaMa has limited financial and staffing resources. As a result, collaboration has been critical—with NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, for instance; and with Bay Area Video Coalition.

Screen shot 2015-12-02 at 12.36.02 PM.png5)We also face several issues that make cataloging these materials to facilitate access challenging.

On one hand, there is no well-established controlled vocabulary to assist in the description of theater materials. The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, which is may be the most likely, offers only very limited terms to describe theatrical performances.

Meanwhile, Library of Congress Subject Headings and other, more general controlled vocabularies, offer very limited terms for describing avant garde theatre artists, productions, and archival materials. Take, for instance, the ½ inch open reel video documenting Candy Darling and the production of “The White Whore and the Bit Player” in which she appeared. Is this queer theater? It is not about queers. More importantly, the term “queer theatre” is, in this context, anachronistic; or, at least, it wasn’t used by the people making this work. And anyhow, queer theater isn’t a Library of Congress subject heading.  And yet, to my mind, it is critically important to offer user-findable access points to help artists and scholars interested in the history of theatrical work created by LGBT people and communities locate related materials.  Similar descriptive issues arise in relationship to many of the other artists and productions documented by these videos.

OK: my five minutes are up! Read our blog, tweet at me, and tune in next year when (hopefully) more of this collection will be in the process of being digitized.

-Rachel Mattson

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Archiving My Time at La MaMa: A Goodbye Note from Suzanne Lipkin, La MaMa Cataloger

For the past year and a half, I have had the joy of cataloging many of the programs, flyers, letters, brochures, clippings, contracts, receipts, photographs, and the occasional Frisbee residing in the La MaMa Archives. From 1962-1985, La MaMa’s “pushcart” years, Ellen Stewart’s vision propelled a generation of theatre artists to launch the off-off-Broadway movement. Starting from a basement in the East Village, by 1985 La MaMa had grown to a campus of several theatres in the neighborhood and sent many of its productions and artists well beyond it, to Broadway, to the silver screen, and around the world.

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Suzanne at her desk at La MaMa.

My journey through the material treasures saved from this era has followed a similar trajectory. In the early days, I cataloged documents from the very first year of La MaMa’s existence. Some of these shows had only a single program or flyer remaining to mark their place in theatre history. As time went on, the files became more complex. La MaMa and its personalities garnered more press clippings, business and personal correspondence piled up, and productions extended their runs or went on tour, leaving behind an extensive trail of administrative and artistic documents.

I have had the cataloger’s privilege of deep engagement with these documents: I have felt the texture of the papers upon which La MaMa’s history is printed, I have come to recognize Ellen Stewart’s scrawled handwriting upon any blank space in any kind of document, and I have glimpsed the nature of the relationships between some of La MaMa’s most beloved and influential figures. At the same time, these materials cannot fully capture the essence of witnessing an early La MaMa production or, behind the scenes, the countless telephone calls exchanged in the course of artistic creation.

The purpose of this project is to reveal what has been hidden. Through our Collective Access catalog, which will be accessible through a public website in the next few months, our cataloging team has striven to bring La MaMa’s history in an accessible manner to anyone who seeks it. While much of La MaMa’s story lies in the people who lived it, this project has, for the first time, given thousands of archival materials unique classification and description, and it has linked La MaMa people, productions, and objects to one another in clearly denoted relationships. In my time with the project, I was able to contribute over 2,000 object records to the catalog.

This month, I embark on a new stage of my professional journey as a staff member at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. My time at La MaMa has immersed me invaluably in theatre history, the off-off-Broadway community, and the triumphs and tribulations of archiving and cataloging. I am immensely grateful for this experience, and I look forward to continuing to bring theatre history of all kinds to the researchers, artists, and enthusiasts who pursue it.

Preserving the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre*

We had a packed house on October 19 for “Preserving the Videotaped Record of 1970s-era Experimental Theatre: A Screening and Panel Discussion.” More than fifty people gathered in La MaMa’s newest venue, The Downstairs, to screen newly digitized clips documenting La MaMa’s 1972 and 1973 seasons– and to discuss the challenge of preserving this kind of legacy video material.

The event had its origins in a collaboration in which La MaMa Archives was fortunate enough to participate last year. In late 2014, faculty from NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program (MIAP) asked us to serve as a host site for a Spring 2015 student project designed to introduce new archivists to the challenges of planning and overseeing a video digitization project. After inspecting a subset of our obsolete video collection (5-15 objects), students would be required to draft an RFP for the digitization of these materials, select a vendor, and then ensure the successful completion of a preservation-level digital migration of these materials. NYU would cover the cost of the transfers, and at the conclusion of the project we would receive a)a set of preservation-level digital copies of our materials and b)recommendations that might inform future migration projects. Meanwhile, participating students would learn how to apply their knowledge of archival best practices in the context of an actual collection.

We jumped at the opportunity.

MIAP Student Erica Gold inspects La MaMa's half inch open reel video collection.

MIAP Student Erica Gold inspects La MaMa’s half inch open reel video collection.

The invitation to participate in this project came at an auspicious moment in the life of the La MaMa Archives. In 2014, we received a Hidden Collections Cataloging Grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to support the creation of a digital catalog describing materials from our earliest collections (1961-1985). That grant enabled La MaMa to hire one additional full-time and two part-time Archives staff. (I’m the full-timer.) A year and a half later, we’ve cataloged roughly three-quarters of all the material in this earliest collection.

Among the most important results of this cataloging project is that we can now very clearly see which elements of our collection are most in need of conservation and migration. At the top of this list is a cache of rare video, shot between 1972 and 1980 on a Portapak camera, documenting 170 early Off-Off Broadway productions. These videos represent what is likely the most extensive video documentation of the theatrical experiments of the early Off-Off Broadway theatre movement in existence. But video shot on Portapak cameras—a format known as half inch open reel video—is obsolete and at-risk, in large part because the equipment required to play these materials back is scarce. The last machine of this kind was manufactured in the 1970s, parts are difficult to replace, and only a handful of living technicians know how to repair them.

So when MIAP asked us to collaborate on this project, we were extremely receptive. We had already begun developing a strategy for migrating these videos to digital. But we were not yet ready—logistically or financially—to undertake a wholesale project. Partnering with MIAP presented a low-risk opportunity for us to gather information that will enable us (we hope!) to mount a large-scale half inch open reel video migration project in the near future.

A still from digitized video of

A still from digitized video of “Short Bullins” at La MaMa (1972).

The official collaboration concluded successfully in May 2015 when students returned to us our original reels along with a harddrive containing a set of digital files. But we didn’t want to the collaboration to end there. So last week (October 19, 2015) we revved up our video projector, opened up our doors, and invited all comers to a post-game roundup. The discussion featured comments from Peter Oleksik (Assistant Media Conservator at MoMA and professor of MIAP’s Video Preservation II course); Genevieve Havemeyer-King, Ethan Gates, and Michael Grant (students who worked on this project); Rachel Mattson, Suzanne Lipkin, and Ozzie Rodriguez (members of the La MaMa Archives team); and Bill Seery (Director of Preservation Services at The Standby Program, who performed the transfers of our video). How, we asked, can small organizations meet the challenge of preserving historic, live performance captured on video formats that are now obsolete? What specific preservation concerns do half inch open reel videos present? And how are we educating a new generation of archivists to handle these challenges?

And then we screened excerpts from the videos—material that had not been publically viewed in over 40 years. These clips showcased four productions: “Short Bullins”—an evening of non-naturalistic one acts written by Ed Bullins (an important figure in the Black Arts movement); Tisa Chang’s Peking Opera adaptation “Return of the Phoneix”; Paul Foster’s “Silver Queen”; and Tom Eyen’s “Three Drag Queens from Daytona” (a queer satire based on Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame”). The response from the audience was extremely positive—so much so that we’re thinking of organizing an upcoming series featuring screenings of the full-length videos.

A still from digitized video of

A still from digitized video of “Return of the Phoenix” at La MaMa (1973).

From La Mama’s perspective, this collaboration was important for a few key reasons. On one hand, it offered us a low-risk opportunity to consider and experiment with what we wanted from a vendor. We chose, for instance, not to ask for mezzanine-level digital files. We requested only 10-bit uncompressed preservation-level files and Mp4 access copies. But as I prepared video clips for the big screen, I regretted that decision because mezzanine-level files would have made my editing process easier. This collaboration also offered us the opportunity to teach new archivists something about what it looks like to work with a small, community-based archive. Valuable, at-risk video is as commonly found in small arts and community-based organizations as in large university or government repositories. But the needs of small repositories are distinct from the needs of larger institutions. We’re going to need a new generation of archivists who understand these distinctions, and who believe in the importance of small organizations’ collections.

Finally, this collaboration made it possible for us to begin to share these videos with researchers and members of our communities for the first time in 4 decades—and to plan for future migration projects. We still have approximately 245 half inch open reel videos that haven’t been digitized at the preservation level. So our work in this area is far from over.

We hope to make video of the October 19 event available soon, so keep your ears peeled for details.

*This blog post originally appeared on the website of the Theatre Library Association. Photograph at the top of this post: a still from digitized video of Tom Eyen’s “Three Drag Queens from Daytona.” The videos discussed in this post were most likely shot by Amnon Ben-Nomis. 

Medea (and More Medea) at La MaMa

This month, Dario D’Ambrosi brings Medea back to La MaMa. D’Ambrosi, an Italian theater-maker whose connection with La MaMa extends decades, has devoted much of his career to making theater with and about people with psychiatric disabilities. His Medea (which uses both English and “Attic Greek”) builds on this legacy, and features actors with a range of “diverse abilities” (including epilepsy, neurological disabilities and down syndrome).

Promotional Flyer: "Medea" (1963) (OBJ.1963.0008)

Promotional Flyer: “Medea” (1963) [OBJ.1963.0008]

D’Ambrosi joins a long list of artists who have brought Medea to La MaMa’s stage. La MaMa artists have found inspiration in this iconic tale about the righteous anger of a woman scorned since the earliest days of Off-Off-Broadway. Our Archives contains documents going back to the first appearance o Medea on the La MaMa stage–which was in 1963, when Donald Julian directed a version of Jean Anouilh’s Médée. (Anouilh [1910-1987] was a French dramatist best known for his adaptation of “Antigone,” which critiqued the Vichy government.)

In Anouilh’s version of the classic tragedy, the title character lives in a trailer park and dies in flames. Staged at 321 East 9th Street, the production starred Ellen Maris as Medea, Steve Merrick as Jason, Mary Boylan as the Nurse, and Robert Altman as Creon, Boy, Guard, and Narrator.

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Program: “Trilogy” (1974) [OBJ.1974.0157]

 

Two years later (1965) Harry Koutoukas staged his “Medea, Or, Maybe the Stars May Understand, or Veiled Strangeness” (also known as “Medea in the Laundromat”) at 122 2nd Ave. The production starred Charles Stanley in the title role. The Village Voice called this version so “eccentric as to be nearly unthinkable. The play is an enactment of the final terrible scene when Medea murders her child to avenge herself on Jason….Medea is the very heroine of old–fanatical, hideous, wronged, ecstatically suffering. But the action is set in a laundromat.”


In the 1970s, Medea was a mainstay of the work of The Great Jones Repertory. It premiered at La MaMa in 1972, and  formed a part of the company’s core repertory for many years after that, featuring in their tours to Germany, France, Lebanon, Iran, and elsewhere.

And in 2005, La MaMa hosted Jay Scheib’s reinterpretation, which starred former Great Jones Rep member Zishan Ugurlu, and told the story backwards. As Scheib explained, “What I hope to achieve in reversing the story—by running it in reverse—is to reveal a gripping examination of the process leading to Medea’s slaughter of her two sons, a king and his daughter, and her brother. Medea is a play about passionate ambition and irreversible decisions. The details of these decisions are what interest me…We all know how Medea ends. We barely remember how it starts…Suspense and her great accomplice—broken expectation—these are the tools of our experiment.”

Join La MaMa and D’Ambrosi and his cast October 8-18 to see what this new experiment reveals.