Endangered Data and the Arts

Last month, from April 17-22, 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, as 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.” Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh 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 1998, 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 inspired 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. Hillary Miller, Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York (Northwestern University Press, 2016); Naima Prevots, Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War (Wesleyan, 1999); and Kathy High, Sherry Miller-Hocking, and Mona Jimenez, eds., The Emergence of Video Processing Tools (University of Chicago, 2014)

[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.

Jeff Weiss, “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” and the Dilemma of Archiving Performance

I’ve been thinking, this week, about the trouble with archiving performance. The essay I’ve started writing about it — in my head, at least — is called “Community, Presence, and the Dilemma of the Performing Arts Archivist.” For me, the importance of preserving and facilitating access to documentation of performance events is driven by my own sense of the power of live performance, and a few exquisite experiences I’ve had as a performer, producer, and audience member– experiences that have shaped my sense of what is possible, and what’s important about our personal and collective struggles, and how we might live more electrically. The trouble is that the archival record rarely offers anything at all that can reproduce, convey, or document those experiences. We can learn a lot by reading correspondence related to, or watching a videotape of, a performance– but what we learn there has very little to do with what happens when you are gathered together with other live bodies in a room, telling each other stories.

This dilemma gains new depth as I mull the epic 3-day revival (or whatever you call it; revival is not really the right word) of Jeff Weiss’s “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” that ran at The Kitchen last week. As anyone who’s ever had the good fortune to see or participate in Weiss’s work will tell you, no archive will ever be able to capture the power of Jeff Weiss or “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” This is theatre that relies, for its power, on live presence; theatre that makes, and solemnifies, community. How to archive that? Why bother trying?

And yet, I still find utility in the archive. Its true that no collection of documents will ever replace the experience of sitting in the audience while Weiss and his co-conspirators make us laugh and laugh and burst out with a longing we can’t describe and then cry. But maybe the archive can help us make sense of those feelings, those longings, and the possibility we glimpsed in the confusing dark. Maybe the documentary record of Weiss’s life and work can tell us different kinds of stories to help us make our way. Maybe the archive can also help us understand how people and events came to take the shape they took, or transmit at least a hint of these histories to new generations. Weiss has been making disarmingly powerful theatre for decades; there’s precious little scholarship or writing about his life and work; and far too few members of younger generations know anything about this legacy.

Its not that there’s no writing about Weiss and his work; theatre scholar Stephen Bottoms, among others, has written about Weiss’s life and work: “Weiss wrote and appeared in his own material under the direction of his lover, Ricardo Martinez, with whom he shared a close personal understanding,” Bottoms writes in Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement (2006). “The results were extraordinary, as the superlatives showered on Wess by interviewees for this book demonstrate: ‘He’s just the greatest’ (O’Horgan); “A dazzling virtuoso, a consummate theater craftsman in every area’ (Patrick);…. ‘The best things ever done at La MaMa were by Jeff Weiss’ (Kornfeld). Very much his own creation, Weiss was untrained as an actor, having quit Stella Adler’s class–which he saw as an ‘offensive lesson in group therapy’…–after just one session” (p. 330).

Its just that this isn’t enough.

And so that’s why, as I came down from the high of experiencing “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid” last week, I turned back to La MaMa’s archival holdings for– well, for whatever we’ve got about Weiss and his work. There’s a lot here, too much to share in one tiny blog posting. But I do want to share some of it (especially material from the 1960s and 1970s), so that those you who are already Weiss fans can enjoy the inadequate delights they provide, and so that those of you who have never heard of him can begin to wonder about this incredible artist, his work, his legacy, and his worlds.

Below, a selection of items from La MaMa’s Archives documenting Weiss’s work. (Click on any image to see an enlarged version.)

1)The earliest object La MaMa’s Archives holds to document Jeff Weiss’s work is a postcard invitation to Robert Sealy’s “Waiting Boy.” This 1964 production marked the first of many times that Weiss performed at La MaMa. Sealy supposedly cast Weiss after seeing him waiting tables at La MaMa, earlier that year. “Weiss was” Bottoms writes, “an instant hit.” These were the days when La MaMa was still known as Cafe La Mama, and occupied a space at 82 Second Ave.

Invitation to Robert Sealy’s “Waiting Boy” (1964), Weiss’s first performance at La MaMa. Sealy supposedly cast Weiss after seeing him wait tables at Caffe Cino.

2)The archives also holds several objects that document early versions of “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” Among these objects is a photograph of Weiss performing the piece at La MaMa in August of 1966. This version of “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid” featured Weiss onstage solo. As Bottoms writes: “Welcoming the audience into his ‘home,’ [Weiss] regaled them with tales of his attempts to raise the cash to pay his back rent, while indulging tangentially in a ‘cascade of fantasies, reminiscences, meditations, poetry-readings, and miscellaneous schticks’,” (Playing Underground, p. 330). The photographer who created this image is unknown.

Weiss performing

3)We also have the poster created to advertise this production. The poster indicates that show was directed (of course) by Ricardo Martinez, with sound by David Walker. (Poster designer unknown.)

Poster for Weiss’s solo “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid,” (La MaMa at 122 Second Avenue, Aug. 1966)

4)The repository also holds a range of profiles of Weiss and reviews of his work. The clipping below, a February 1967 World Journal Tribune piece called “Talented Young Actor Chooses Poverty to Easy Compromise,” was written by critic John Gruen. The article offers a brief overview of Weiss’s life and work to date — Weiss was still only 24, but he had already written and starred in several well-received off-off-Broadway productions — as well as praise for the work. Gruen quotes Weiss, who had already come to understand his desire “to engage the audience– their role is as important and meaningful as ours. I insist on their involvement. I sweat up there for them. They’ve got to do some work, too.”

Profile of Weiss, titled “Talented Young Actor Chooses Poverty to Easy Compromise,” published in the World Journal Tribune in Feb. 1967.

5) The Archives also holds several photographs of Weiss’s performance in Harry Koutoukas‘s “When Clowns Play Hamlet” (La MaMa, September 1967). Below, a photograph of Weiss with his fellow performers Mary Boylan and Beverly Grand.  Set backstage at a circus,”When Clowns Play Hamlet” tells the story of three sad clowns. Joyce Tretick (critic for the publication Show Business) called Weiss’s portrayal of Pancho, a hermaphrodite clown who used to work at the freak show, “remarkable”: he was “totally in character with his role” and “his use of mime [was] both inventive and ingenious.” (Photographer: Ted Wester?)

Weiss with Mary Boylan +Beverly Grand in

6) Material in our collections also chronicle the changing nature of “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid.” In June of 1979, the Villager published a review of the latest iteration of the piece, mounted in May at La MaMa. In the piece, entitled “Jeff Weiss: Portrait of the Artist as a Sane Genius,” writer John S. Patterson explains that, in this version of the play, “Weiss tells the story of Mike, Jerry, and Dwight Deifendorfer, brothers awaiting the probate of their father’s will…These brothers follow an inevitable and illuminating path to the cooling unit of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant….[There] the power of their lust, [and] the insatiability of their greed…precipitates the disaster with which the nation lived for that nightmare week of incomprehensible terror.” But, of course, plot summary offers only a partial view of the power of Weiss’s work. “Weiss,” Patterson notes, “has created a structure which soars, arches, and blasts its way through this family with an inventiveness, wit, and perception rare enough in themselves but unusual indeed when subjected to Weiss’ theatre of extremes.”

Villager review of

7) But “And That’s How the Rent Gets Paid” wasn’t the only show Weiss wrote and produced at La MaMa in the 1960s and 70s. Below, for instance: a promotional photograph for Weiss’s 5-hour long “Dark Twist” (March 1979), which co-starred a young Nicky Paraiso (pictured at far right), among others. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Weiss and the cast of

These documentary fragments might be inadequate representations of Weiss’s monumental theatrical legacy. But I’m still really glad they exist.

Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections unConference

Its the dog days of summer here at La MaMa Archives, and we’re using them to look back at the work we did over the last nine months. A lot of what we’ve done, we’ve done quietly. Among other things, we’ve finished cataloging the (massive) Pushcart Show Files record group and our Half-inch Open Reel Video materials; nearly finished cataloging several additional record groups (including the Pushcart Photograph Files, Pushcart Tour and Troupe files, and our Film materials); presented at several conferences and symposia; helped to organize a Wikipedia edit-a-thon and two CollectiveAccess documentation edit-a-thons; served as a host site for several student projects based out of NYU’s Moving Image Archiving Program; and written a wide range of project documentation, finding aids, new workflows, and policy documents for the archive.

In reviewing and evaluating this work, we decided that it would be worth publishing, here, some of the writing that emerged from this work. Today we’d like to share the first of these writings: a short piece by Jack Brighton (Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media) describing the unConference session that La MaMa Archives Project Manager Rachel Mattson co-led with Yvonne Ng (senior archivist at WITNESS) and Rebecca Fraimow (NDSR resident at WGBH). The session was called “Alt-Archives: Community Based Video Collections.” And, as the session’s organizers wrote in their initial proposal, it was convened in order to consider “the archival challenge posed by video held by grassroots arts and activist organizations or in personal collections”:

In the past decade, moving image archivists have made great strides in developing tools to assist in the custodianship and management of both analog and born-digital video. However, many of these tools remain unavailable outside of large cultural heritage organizations — that is, they are too expensive, too reliant on technical expertise, or too esoteric for small organizations and individuals to access. In this session, participants will discuss the alternative ways in which community-based initiatives are reaching and empowering grassroots artists and activists with video collections. What questions does this work raise? What opportunities does it provide?  How might existing tools be made more accessible? Are there ways that large institutions might adapt their practices and policies to better serve the needs of community-based video collections?

This session will be led by archivists working on a range of grassroots video archival projects. At the human rights organization WITNESS (witness.org), Yvonne Ng has developed a set of strategies, materials, and trainings designed to help human rights activists implement solid archival practices; as a member of the XFR Collective (xfrcollective.wordpress.com) Rebecca Fraimow has helped develop a cost-effective, membership-based model to assist under-resourced artists in transferring legacy video to digital; and at the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (lamama.org) Rachel Mattson is piloting cost-effective tools and partnerships designed to improve the in-house video archival practices at small arts organizations.

We’re delighted to publish Brighton’s post-session reflections, below.

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Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections Unconference, by Jack Brighton, Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Originally published on the CLIR-Connect list-serve.

Video has become essential to the work of small community organizations of all kinds: in education, civil and human rights, and the arts and cultural life of any community. These entities are typically passionate about their work, and dedicated to documenting and telling stories about their areas of concern.  Examples of such archives include media projects associated with the Occupy movement in New York and other cities, or a local arts agency documenting street performances.  In the wake of hurricane Katrina, filmmakers, community organizations, and academics documented the events and impacts of the unfolding disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  Many community access cable TV stations record local music performances, and political and public events.

We know the materials in these community-based archives can be incalculably valuable as primary resources for the history and cultural heritage of the communities and subject areas they concern. In many cases they are documentary evidence of key events in the life of the community, including human rights abuses.

But many of these materials are among the most hidden of all hidden collections. The organizations producing them are typically interest-rich, but resource-poor. Maintaining a sustainable video archive within large institutions has proven challenging enough. For small community organizations, developing a sound archival practice is often difficult to even imagine.

I know this from talking with folks engaged in grassroots media work in my own community, and it was strongly echoed by the discussion that took place in this CLIR Unconference session. The question is how can we, the people who claim to have archival expertise and resources, begin to address the growing need for sustainable archival practice in these small organizations, in the absence of adequate local skills and resources?

Outreach, education, and intervention

A number of us have experience reaching out to community video archives in various ways. It’s often the case that the people involved understand that they have an archival problem – they don’t have the time or resources to catalog, properly store, digitize, migrate, and manage their media collections over time. So they need external help, sometimes just to know what they have and to prioritize dealing with it. We have some stories of success to tell about this:

–The Dance Heritage Coalition has developed templates for the creation of descriptive records for dance-related video materials. These are used by DHC-related organizations to get a better understanding of what video materials they have, before prioritizing what to digitize and preserve.

The XFR Collective in New York provides a variety of low-cost services to independent content creators for education, research, and cultural engagement. XFR Collective members have also made use of the DHC descriptive record templates in working with community organizations, an example of sharing good existing resources instead of reinventing them.

The Boston TV News Digital Library provides a number of information resources for archivists on its website, and is reaching out to other communities who have materials that could be part of their total collection of TV news video.

WITNESS provides an extensive online Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, which includes how to “start archiving your video at the point of creation.” This is a very smart approach, since many people producing video don’t think about how to archive it until it’s too late!

WGBH managed a massive media content inventory project involving 120 public television and radio stations, providing funding and training for staff at local stations to create a complete inventory of their media collections.

Adventures in community archiving

This kind of outreach can lead to some interesting conversations. At the University of Illinois, we recently completed a campus-wide media survey to measure the size and shape of our media collections across all departments. Our work in this was informed by the excellent Media Preservation Survey conducted at Indiana University in 2008 and 2009. They warned us, and they were right: When you start asking people about their hidden media collections, sometimes they want to give them to you.

So it’s important to clarify expectations. We calmly explained that we were trying to solve only the first part of the problem: understanding what was there. As I like to say, if you don’t know what you have, you don’t really have it. This is the case with many media collections held by community and educational institutions. Media surveys, which gather general information about the nature and extent of the content, can clarify what we have and how to go about prioritizing preservation, digitization, and access. It would be helpful to share survey instruments and expertise among institutions doing this kind of work, along with guidelines on how to communicate the nature of the work to constituents along with way.

Requirements, sensitivites, and pitfalls

WITNESS provides training and support for people safely using video in their fight for human rights. A key word is “safely,” as people shooting video of human rights violations are often at considerable risk. If obtained by those perpetrating the violations, raw video may be used to identify those seeking to expose them. So WITNESS video archival practice includes very tight security and access restrictions, especially to the raw video content.

Other communities have cultural sensitivities involving access. For some Native American tribes, it’s important that access to their intellectual property and cultural heritage be restricted to members of the tribe.  Because of this cultural requirement, the IMLS and NEH supported the creation of the Mukurtu CMS, a free open source platform for indigenous communities to manage and share digital cultural heritage content.

And of course copyright remains a factor in many community media archives, as it does everywhere else.

The bottom line is if we want to “help” these communities develop a sustainable archival practice, we must take time to understand their needs and requirements as the key stakeholders of their content.

Question: How do we scale this work?

This Unconference discussion reflected a strongly shared understanding of the realities and gaps in archival practice in community organizations. We share a consensus that small, grassroots organizations have video collections that are vital as primary cultural heritage resources. The challenge is how to address the gaps. We suspect the most productive approach would be to consider the right work at the right scale.

We can easily agree: not every community organization that creates video needs to stand up its own reformatting laboratory and trusted digital repository. These are resource and skill-intensive activities that can at some level can be scaled. The question is at what scale?

Are there natural organizational linkages that can provide technology intensive archival services for community-based media-producing organizations? There may be, but it seems the answer isn’t known to those in local communities.

What else can be scaled, and what should be local to the organization and/or community?

What levels of scale are a good fit given the types of institutions currently available to provide archival services?

What kind of interventions would best address the gaps in skills and resources at the micro level, and allow local organizations to leverage the archival services that can occur at a larger scale?

Can we develop a new model for a collaborate ecology of media preservation that leverages existing resources in new ways?

Some of the participants in this discussion are already doing some of this work. It’s clear to all of us that if we combine resources and share knowledge, we can do it better. Addressing these questions in more detail, in the context of local requirements and potentially scalable services and resources, seems like our next step.

Full notes taken during the session are available here as a Google Doc.

Respectfully submitted on behalf of the session participants.

The Native American Theatre Ensemble + La MaMa

Native American Theatre Ensemble in front of La MaMa on East 4th Street, 1972.

This week, La MaMa catalogers are working with materials related to one of the troupes that found a home at La MaMa in the 1970s: the Native American Theatre Ensemble (NATE). The Ensemble was established (as the American Indian Theatre Ensemble) in 1971 by a 26-year-old, Oklahoma-born, Kiowa-Delaware man named Hanay Geiogamah. (The group changed its name in 1973.) “The project,” according to an article published in Akswesasne Notes in 1972, “got underway in January [of 1972] with Geiogamah and associates undertaking a nine-month course in theatrical discipline and techniques at the eminent center created by Ellen Stewart in New York.” (Vol. 4, No. 4)

A program for NATE's production of

A program for NATE’s production of “Foghorn” and “Coyote Tracks” at La MaMa (1973) in which the group explains their recent name change. La MaMa Archives.

The troupe worked tirelessly over the next several years to create and perform original plays “for and about Indians” in a wide range of venues across the US and elsewhere. La MaMa’s collections– which include several cubic feet of posters, programs, photographs, correspondence, clippings, scripts, organizational records, and audiovisual materials created by and about NATE– document the Ensemble’s early years in-residence at La MaMa, its creative development, its domestic and international tour schedules, and the philosophy that drove its work. One document, entitled “A Proposal for a Tour of Indian Country by The American Indian Theatre Ensemble” (1973), notes that NATE’s goals included: 1)producing and presenting plays “about Indians” and reaching, with these plays, “every one of the 850,000 Native Americans, from reservations to urban ghettoes”; 2)contributing, with this work, to “the over-all effort to achieve freedom, equality of life and true self-determination for American Indians”; and 3)combating, eliminating and replacing (“as quickly as possible”) the “negative and defeating imagery which the media employs to portray Indian people.”

A letter to NATE from Rough Rock Community High School, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE's performance there was

A letter to NATE from a Rough Rock school teacher, March 1973. The writer explains that NATE’s performance was “one of the nicest things that has ever happened at Rough Rock.” La MaMa Archives.

Both in New York City and on tour, the troupe found enthusiastic audiences– of all ages. Fifth- and sixth-graders from the Rough Rock Demonstration School in Chinle, Arizona, sent the troupe a packet of thank-you notes after a 1973 performance. The New York Times ran a succession of articles about the group’s work, and positive reviews of NATE’s performances appeared in local papers, specialty magazines, and political newsletters. After a benefit performance at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis– the proceeds of which were donated to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee— the Minneapolis Star called their work “sophisticated,” the acting “boisterous and engaging,” and the “message…unabashedly political.”

Materials documenting NATE’s work are now cataloged and will be findable through our digital collections portal, which is due to launch in Fall of 2015. There is one set of objects that we’ve cataloged but can’t, yet, offer up to researchers: a collection of 1/2 inch open reel videos documenting NATE’s performances both in New York and on the road. These videos are fragile and difficult to play back. We’re hoping to digitize them in the next phase of our Pushcart Collection project, so that we can begin to make them available to scholars and students interested in late 20th century Native American culture and politics, political theater, and the artistic communities that have been nurtured by La MaMa.