“Coming here is such a weird thing for an archival organization to do,” XFR Collective member Rachel Mattson tells me. We are standing in the middle of a warehouse in Sunset Park. A naked man strolls past, bathed in the glow of projections, heading toward a huge cat-shaped structure that visitors enter from between the hind legs. It’s the opening night of MIX NYC’s 28th New York Queer Experimental Film Festival, and at the entrance to the festival’s art installations, XFR Collective (pronounced “transfer collective”) has set up their decks and monitors, ready for work.
The history of archives is one of caring for paper material, and audiovisual material is often overlooked. There’s less urgency to preserve moments so recent they were recorded on videotape, and doing so requires a unique set of interests and expertise. That’s where XFR Collective comes in, offering low-cost digitization services to communities outside the mainstream.
The group originated as XFR STN, an installation at the New Museum in 2013 offering free digitization of analog video. Since then, they’ve continued to host weekly meetings in a member’s apartment, transferring tapes over dinner while discussing strategies for stockpiling equipment and finding partners who have important media confined to analog. Setting up shop at MIX is a step back in the direction of visibility. “We’re trying to demystify the process,” explains collective member Yvonne Ng. “We want people to see us doing work, to show it’s not just something you send away to a vendor like this great mystery.”
The organization is run by volunteers, most of whom graduated from NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program, and they are evangelical about their work. “It’s really hard not to impart the history of archiving onto someone,” says member Marie Lascu. “But your stuff is important. It’s not going to end up in the Library of Congress or MoMA, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. You created it, you value it, don’t leave it on a format that won’t last.”
A sense of impending doom underlies conversations with XFR Collective members, who crusade against what’s known as the Magnetic Media Crisis. Videotape degrades over time. Statistics aren’t conclusive about how quickly this happens, but studies document quality reduction after just 10 years. Mattson explains, “It’s not only about the condition of the media itself; it’s more about the playback deck. Unlike film, you can’t hold video up to the light and see what’s on it. It’s an electric signal, so you have to play it to see it.” With the video industry’s move toward digital, tapes and the decks that read them are no longer produced, and the people who know how to use (and more importantly fix) them are aging. Some archives and museums have started to stockpile equipment, but if an individual wants to preserve their own media, professional digitization vendors can be prohibitively expensive.
At MIX, XFR Collective is offering its services for free. “We’re here because this is a space where a community of people gather who don’t necessarily have access to a lot of money or large institutions,” says Mattson. “What I’m hoping is that we’ll have people who are digging under their bed and find a videotape of something they did in the ’80s or ’90s, documenting their lives, that they didn’t even realize they wouldn’t be able to play in the future.”
Transfers happen in real time, so even if your video isn’t programmed in MIX’s festival lineup, it can get a screening in the nostalgic 4:3 ratio of XFR Collective’s CRT monitor. On opening night, the sign-up sheet for appointments was filling up with a list that reflects the ubiquity video once had: a stepmother’s wedding, an artist’s first video art piece from college, a weekly nightclub drag performance that ran for six years, childhood home movies, documentation of the first national conference on women and custody, where lesbians had a prominent voice, at John Jay College in 1986. Mattson had spoken with someone who had 50 boxes of VHS tapes, some of which documented a gay Latino public access TV show. “That will be lost if we don’t transfer it. No one else is going to do it.”
“Those home movies might be the only documentation of a really important event or a specific cultural lifestyle,” Lascu says. “The cultural narrative is often filtered through a specific group of people, and so we want to reach out to the people who are normally left out of that.” XFR Collective isn’t alone in trying to preserve the visual history of marginalized peoples. The group is part of the lineage of the 1960s New Social History movement, which emphasized the politics inherent in archiving and sought to document voices unheard. Other organizations that stem from this tradition are Interference Archive, Librarians With Palestine, the Culture in Transit Project, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives. But none of these focuses specifically on analog video, or on artists.
Visitors to MIX have been asking XFR Collective, “What kind of art is this?” according to member Lorena Ramirez-Lopez. “And I tell them, ‘We’re going to help with your art!’ Though I do think the way racks are set up is beautiful.” She points enthusiastically to the green abstractions on the vector scope and waveform monitor. “It’s kind of geeky.”
Geekiness may be the most radical aspect of the group. Aside from one male member, they are all women, diverse in age, race, and experience. “I think it’s really important for us to do the technical stuff,” says Ng, “The archive field has a dichotomy. The people doing cataloging, arranging, putting things into archival boxes — that’s predominantly female. The people doing the programming, the coding, fixing the machines — that’s predominantly male. We’re all archivists but we didn’t learn this in school.”
At MIX their rack was equipped with a mini DV and VHS deck, but their permanent setup allows for transferring U-Matic and Beta. And the goal is to expand to other formats too. Ng tells me it took them hours just to set up the equipment for this installation, but she’s smiling as she says it. “We’re still learning by doing it, and that’s what we want other people to do too. Because it’s not impossible.”
MIX NYC 2015 continues at 155 26th Street (Sunset Park, Brooklyn) through November 15.
Correction: This article originally misstated the name of the NYU program that many XFR Collective members attended as well as the number of tapes of a gay Latino public access show. Both have been fixed.