Capturing the Squid: The AS220 Archives Story

By Janaya Kizzie, AS220 Project Archivist and Kate Wells, Curator of Rhode Island Collections

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From the AS220 collection; Courtesy of the Providence Public Library

The first episode of TV220 begins with an MTV-like perspective shot of a video production room, and then shatters into a riot of random moments from the wild, bustling, daily life at AS220 in the 1990s. And the onslaught doesn’t stop there; from a young girl thrashing to a punk song while the AS220 manifesto scrolls over the screen, to a Bozo parody called Crappy’s Shit Shack, the strange, wonderful personality of AS220 comes out full-force in a mere 30 minutes. Similarly, the legacy of AS220 unfolds. Strange, improbable, deeply-motivated, wry, and, indeed, occasionally scatalogical, the story of how a small art collective became part of the redemption of a corrupt, post-industrial city is definitely worth preserving.

AS220 was started in 1985 in a one-room rental space as an artist-run organization committed to providing an non-juried and uncensored forum for the arts. AS stands for “Artists Space”; 220 for their initial street address. In over thirty years the organization has done the miraculous. It has grown to over 100,000 square feet in downtown Providence representing a $25 million investment in urban revitalization with galleries and performance spaces that have hosted local and internationally known artists, musicians, and performers for over 93,000 visitors a year. All while maintaining its mission to provide non-juried, uncensored and all ages access.

The history of the City of Providence during the 20th century follows the same patterns of urban growth and decline that many American cities experienced. AS220 began downtown during a period of severe urban blight and its growth mirrors the revitalization of the urban core as a cultural and economic destination. The City of Providence is now broadly recognized for its exceptional revitalization-based support for the creative economy, accomplished in no small part because of AS220. The organization provides facilities which include gallery spaces, a performance stage, a black-box theater, a print shop, darkroom and media arts lab, a fabrication and electronics lab, dance studio, 48 live/work studios for artists, a bar and restaurant.

The AS220 Collection had long been a dream for the Providence Public Library which has a mission to preserve the city’s cultural history in its Rhode Island Collection. The two organizations share physical proximity – they sit across a street intersection from one another – and serve many of the same community members. A change in library administration has created opportunities in the past several years for collaborations that encourage artists’ use of library collections and library staff use of creative spaces at AS220.

It was—as so many things in Providence come to happen–a set of serendipitous events that lead the Collection to the library. AS220 had been working with Rhode Island College to digitize parts of their archives as part of an informal agreement, however, when the staff involved in that partnership moved on, the work was left on hold. AS220 offices were quickly running out of storage space for their physical materials and contacted Kate Wells, the Curator of Rhode Island Collections at PPL about possible donation. Aaron Peterman, former Managing Director of AS220, became the Assistant Director of the Providence Public Library and was able to parlay his knowledge of both organizations into a full donation agreement. In January of this year, the Library acquired 75 boxes of AS220’s archives and over a terabyte of digital files from Rhode Island College.

The complexity of the AS220 collection presents many challenges to the archivist. AS220 is not built like other organizations. It is highly organic; it changes and grows to adapt to evolving environmental factors and its own mission. If your average organization is a primate, two arms, two legs, dogged symmetry, then AS220 (and, therefore, its records) is the color-altering, many-armed squid, altering its RNA on the fly.

Remarkably, the appeal of the collection lies in how very multifaceted it is. Like the organization itself, there is something for everyone in the collection. For the historians, there is the sea-change AS220 brought to a beleaguered downtown Providence, evident in documentation of grants, contributions, and commendations from the city. For the artists, there is an archive of the visual mark AS220 has made on the city over the decades, including posters, photographs of exhibitions, and art by significant local and internationally treasured artists such as Shepard Fairey. For the place-makers and tastemakers, there are instructions for how a small performance-space and gallery can transform into a hub for the arts encoded in every doodled-on letter, every project proposal, and the publications from local school kids and just-emerging artists, and every creative public service, from the Photo Lottery to the Fab Lab. And finally, for all of us, the lovers of good entertainment, the Foo-followers, the Foo(d) eaters, the Drink and Inkers, there are buttons, shirts, prints and pictures, each a memory a day or night where AS220 made our lives a little better.

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From the AS220 collection; Courtesy of the Providence Public Library

The creative output of AS220 is both a time capsule of Providence history, and a testament to the work AS220 has done to support the city’s artistic spirit.

Episodes of AS220’s local-access cable show TV220, which is part variety-hour, part surrealist fever-dream highlight AS220’s dedication to non-juried work and expression. The first 5 episodes were digitized by RIC for their digital collaboration with AS220. (Above screen shot from TV with link to first episode: https://youtu.be/wauPigRXa2A).

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From the AS220 collection; Courtesy of the Providence Public Library

Fools Ball, a predecessor to AS220’s well-known street fair Foo Fest, acted as a fundraiser for the organization and helped place the organization’s mark on the city’s culture. Documentation of the events form a large part of the archives, including planning records, invitations, photographs, posters, and merchandise like buttons and t-shirts.

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From the AS220 collection; Courtesy of the Providence Public Library

Hidden Trewth, a literary magazine created by students in one of AS220’s youth programs at the Rhode Island Training School, began in 2001. AS220 has offered formal youth programs since 1993, allowing local youth to express themselves creatively in innovative ways.

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From the AS220 collection; Courtesy of the Providence Public Library

AS220 Industries, both a source of income for AS220, and an important resource for local artists, has grown from a dark room into a campus of printing, audiovisual, and computer technology available to anyone in the community.

AS220-Subscription card 71 Richmond
From the AS220 collection; Courtesy of the Providence Public Library

Per their original mission, AS220 has been providing artists with a non-juried art space and studios since 1985. Here is a membership card from their second location, 71 Richmond Street (1986-1993).

An archivist will count herself lucky to find an artifact or two in an organization’s archives. The archives of AS220 contain piles of t-shirts, 4 full flat-file drawers of artwork, photographs, CDs, strange television episodes, buttons, more than one interactive poster, bandanas, 8 mm film, and at least one VHS cassette that looks like it came out of THE RING. Even the memos are works of art, from their level of design to their burden of doodles. The story of this unique collection, and the organization it came from is a window into the modern history of the city of Providence, and will be an invaluable resource.

Providence Public Library is currently arranging the collection and plans to open it to researchers in 2018. Work to migrate audio-visual recordings and to digitize materials will be ongoing. As materials are digitized, we’ll be making them available via our digital repository www.provlibdigital.org. A small selection of materials will be on view July-September 2017 as part of a showcase of new library acquisitions. The Library is undergoing extensive renovations thru 2019, but we hope to showcase the AS220 Collection in a full exhibit once we reopen.