Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
There’s too much news. On cable, the internet, our phones, we’re inundated with terrible happenings that are prone to make even the most socially engaged feel flickering hopelessness. Matt Wolf’s documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is set to play at more festivals throughout the summer, ruminates on this modern phenomenon via a fascinating, previously little-known figure.
The film’s press materials describe Marion Stokes in perversely appealing terms: “a radical Communist activist, who became a fabulously wealthy recluse archivist.” The reality wasn’t quite so straightforward, and the film paints a picture of a prickly, fiercely intellectual woman driven by forces that at first seem confusing. Stokes started out as a librarian, and she and her first husband were devoted left-wing activists. Later she began hosting a Philadelphia public affairs show with the wealthy John Stokes, who became her second husband. Stokes’s money gave her the luxury of time, and she took on a project that became her life’s work. In 1979, during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Stokes began recording the news on VHS tapes around the clock. She kept at this until her death in 2012 — in a tragic sign of the times, her final recordings captured coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Altogether, she recorded 70,000 tapes.
Recorder finds poignancy in Stokes’s obsessive mission, rather than look at her as an oddity. The film becomes a treatise on the power of archival work. With the advent of streaming and the shift away from physical media, it’s easy to assume that everything exists online somewhere, and will remain there indefinitely. This is patently untrue.
Stokes’s tapes were left to her son, who features in the film. Inheriting an unthinkably large number of recordings in a dying format created a conundrum. He didn’t want to throw them out, as many people might. He calls his mother’s project “a form of activism,” and while he acknowledges that she was a difficult person, he respects her tapes and the fact that they were an extension of her beliefs. After much deliberation, the entire collection was donated to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to digitizing physical media. The tapes will ultimately be available on the Archive’s site, free for anyone to access and search.
Many TV networks likely don’t have much of the material Stokes recorded in their proprietary archives. Archiving is often given short shrift. Media companies tend to focus on the future, and the budgeting of corporate overlords doesn’t usually leave much room for things that might uncharitably be referred to as “old.” The Internet Archive’s digitization of Stokes’s collection is the culmination of her socialist mission. She wanted information to be accessible, and she wasn’t discriminating in what she recorded. The ephemeral material on her tapes — commercials, forgotten local stories, jingles, lo-fi graphics, newscasters with bad hair — might be the most compelling stuff of all.
While Recorder is fairly conventional in structure with its incorporation of talking heads, it makes creative use of the archival riches its subject collected. The snippets of tapes we see are grainy and often soothingly banal, the textured stuff of the past. It’s not all nostalgia, though. Wolf places Stokes’s recordings in context. In one particularly effective sequence, he creates a grid of news channels in the moments leading up to 9/11. The footage starts calmly, with a sinking feeling setting in as each show receives word of the event. Without any commentary, Wolf succinctly shows us a moment in which the world shifted.
Marion Stokes couldn’t have had better timing. While her project overtook her life and wasn’t fully understood while she was doing it, she was savvy, fully realizing the importance of a then-new technology and getting her foot in the door right as 24-hour news coverage became a giant force of American culture. Stokes remains something of an enigma, but watching Recorder, one thing becomes clear: We can learn a lot from the ability to rewind.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project will be screening at various festivals throughout June and the rest of the year.
The pandemic raged on, plus we were forced to learn about crypto-art.
From North to South America, artists used the bold colors, figuration, and appropriated imagery of Pop Art, but with a biting political message.
Yemen Blues brings their sonic blend of Yemenite, West African, and Jazz back to Joe’s Pub in New York City this December, featuring opener Ahmed Alshaiba.
Coralina Rodriguez Meyer invites women to reconnect with the indigenous and syncretic spiritualities of their ancestors to find new power.
A young, Black, gay man from the American South, Kelly was a determined, self-taught innovator who worked his way into the highest levels of international fashion.
Join designers, artists, educators, and publishers, including Sonel Breslav, Printed Matter’s Director of Fairs and Editions, for talks and conversations exploring artist book publishing.
Stephen Raw, the 69-year-old artist behind the project, has been photographing and collecting rusty objects since he was 17.
Researchers and artists are working to restore biodiversity in Kofele, Ethiopia, through a 50-meter tree nursery in the shape of a lion that will be visible from outer space.
Students can expect to pay significantly less than half the cost of attendance of equivalent private graduate programs, thanks to the college’s position in the State University of New York (SUNY) system.
Acclaimed director Jane Campion returns to film with an all-star cast featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and more.
Detroit police received a tip that led them to Andrzej Sikora’s art studio, where police took James and Jennifer Crumbley into custody.
In 1962, Andy Warhol desperately wanted to be like his accomplished new pal, Marisol.