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.

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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.

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The Fogarty Building Funeral

By Angela DiVeglia

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Fogarty Building, unknown date

The John E. Fogarty Memorial Building, located on Fountain Street in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, was built in 1967 to house the state’s Department of Human Services. The Brutalist building remained in use by the department until 1999; it served as a middle school until 2003. Developers have proposed numerous uses for the Fogarty Building in the intervening years, including making it into a police station, a parking garage, or even a sports museum, but it has remained vacant for over a decade. In early 2017, current owner The Procaccianti Group received formal approval to demolish the building to make way for a Marriott Hotel.

Demolition began on March 13, 2017; on March 17, a group of people held an outdoor funeral for the building, organized by members of Doors Open Rhode Island, Providence Preservation Society, and the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities & Cultural Heritage. The funeral included a procession with a floral funeral wreath, a chorus of kazoos, and a series of eulogies.

I interviewed two of the Fogarty funeral planners: Marisa Angell Brown, architectural historian and the Assistant Programs Director at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, and Caroline Stevens, Director of Doors Open Rhode Island. Photos of the funeral were taken by Christian Scully of Design Imaging Studios.

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Angela DiVeglia: What was the significance of the Fogarty Building in Providence’s downtown cityscape?

Marisa Angell Brown: The Fogarty Building was Providence’s most significant Brutalist building. Brutalism is an architectural style that dates from the late 1950s in the US and Europe and hit the mainstream by the mid-1960s. Early Brutalist architects include Alison and Peter Smithson in the UK, who designed the controversial headquarters for The Economist magazine in London in 1959; Eero Saarinen, who designed the Brutalist US Embassy in London in 1960; and Paul Rudolph, who designed the UMass Dartmouth campus in the mid-1960s. The Fogarty was designed by a local Rhode Island architecture firm, Castellucci, Galli and Planka in 1967 after the style of some of these earlier Brutalist icons. From our vantage point today, Brutalism appears ugly and imposing to many, but in the 1960s, the style was embraced by vanguard architects who liked working with cast concrete because it could be sculpted into new forms, it was textural as it contained the rocks and sometimes the shells that were part of the concrete mix, and it was cheap. To many of them, cement seemed like clay: a tactile material that could bring some of the artist’s touch back into architecture, which at that moment in the field was dominated by the high modernism of glass-and-steel corporate headquarters like Lever House in New York City. So, losing the Fogarty Building is a significant architectural loss for the city of Providence. Because Brutalism is now on the rebound — many Brutalist buildings have recently been renovated to great acclaim, like Breuer’s old Whitney Museum in New York, now the Met Breuer — we may regret this demolition in years to come.

AD: What was the genesis of the idea for a funeral for the Fogarty Building? What were you hoping to accomplish in holding a funeral?

Caroline Stevens: I had heard about the “Funeral for a Home” project organized by Temple Contemporary in Philadelphia, and thought it was brilliant. Like many good ideas, the idea for the Fogarty Funeral came to me as I was drinking a glass of wine with a friend — in this case discussing the impending demolition of the building. The next morning, I proposed a session around it at the Hacking Heritage Unconference, organized by Marisa on behalf of the JNBC, and people rallied behind the idea, gave it legs and put it into action. But its inspiration definitely came from Philadelphia.

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The idea for the funeral came out of a need. Many people have trouble relating to architecture, and the Fogarty Building clearly suffered from this. I think that the act of personifying a building can help build understanding. Though it’s a bit late, holding a funeral is a great means of talking about a building in more accessible terms. For instance, I might describe the Fogarty as a bit rough around the edges and at times foreboding. But once you got to really know the building, you’d find it to have all of these great qualities: honesty, tremendous strength and integrity. It also had a great sense of rhythm.

In this way, a funeral was a means of providing new perspectives on the Fogarty, and fostering dialogue around our built environment more generally. We were interested in welcoming both friends and critics of the building, and used its demolition as an opportunity to consider how our downtown was changing — encouraging the public to take on a more active role in shaping its future. Regardless of an individual’s feelings on the building, its demolition marked a passage of time. It played an important role in our cityscape for nearly 50 years and that alone deserves reflection.

AD: What is the precedent for holding funerals for buildings?

CS: I think, but I’m not entirely sure, that the first funeral for a building was Temple Contemporary’s “Funeral for a Home”. Unlike the Fogarty Funeral, which was planned in just one week, the Philadelphia funeral was planned over the course of a year. The row house coming down was the last remaining one on the block, in a predominantly African American community. Its demolition was further evidence of the dramatic changes happening in the neighborhood. And though the building wasn’t significant architecturally, it had been home to lots of different people — all with their own stories. Temple Contemporary conducted several oral histories of its former inhabitants. From what I understand, the funeral was an amazing means of community engagement — the whole neighborhood came out for it. A local pastor spoke; a gospel choir sang. It brought people together.

Since then I’ve also heard of a couple of other funerals — for trees! There may be many more that I don’t know about.

AD: Right, people organized a funeral for a beech tree in Newport, Rhode Island last spring—and it was because the tree was nearing the end of its life span, not because it was already dead or cut down. Can you briefly describe the Fogarty Building funeral?

CS: About 30 people gathered for the funeral — an open casket. Demolition was well underway. Despite the sad state of the building in front of us, the mood was mostly lighthearted. It’s safe to say that it was the first building funeral for all of us, and everyone came with a smile and an open mind. We heard several short eulogies, each one offering a different perspective. Jana Planka, the daughter of one of the building’s lead architects, gave a moving eulogy on what the building meant to her father. It happened to be the fifth anniversary of his death, making her tribute especially meaningful. The notoriously anti-modernist architectural critic for the Providence Journal, David Brussat, likewise delivered a eulogy. His was more critical, but still respectful. We heard from an interior architect, a preservation consultant, and someone who shared a brief biography on John E. Fogarty, for whom the building was named. Afterwards, we piped “Oh Danny Boy” on bagpipes through our portable speaker and processed around the building, led by a young woman carrying the funeral wreath. We all sang along on kazoos, and ended at a local bar where we could continue the conversation over beers.

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Everyone, including those sad to see the building go, was happy and smiling. In this sense it felt like a celebration of a life more so than grieving of a loss. I think people were happy because we brought them together to do something new to all of us. I didn’t know everyone there, but felt connected to all the people, as we all had this building — and experience memorializing it — in common. The whole thing felt really special, to the degree that I now wonder why we don’t memorialize our buildings more often.

AD: Can you say a little bit about the relationship between urban decay and grief?

MB: It feels to me as though we often overlook decay in our cityscapes — it’s as though our eye literally jumps over moments of decay and focuses only on what appears new.  In this country, we tend to value the new and the young — decay makes us uncomfortable.  This isn’t the case in other countries, and this is actually something that interests me quite a lot.  I think this tendency is embedded in our inability to think about preservation and contemporary design as things that can complement each other, not as opposites.  In Europe, there is more of a comfort level with what is being called “experimental preservation” —  preservation projects that bring innovation and even a contemporary look and feel into the preservation of older structures.  Here, we tend to like to embalm our buildings — we like them young and timeless, or we like them dead/demolished.  I hope that this changes as we are missing out on the richness of experience that comes with productively and creatively synthesizing our past with our present.

AD: What is the role of media in documenting and preserving individual and collective memories of buildings and other physical spaces?

CS: Every building tells so many stories, from the architects behind their designs, to how their designs reflect the times in which they were built, to the people who lived and worked in the building, and what the building was trying to achieve. Documenting these stories in accessible ways is key to the preservation not only of these stories and memories, but also of the places themselves. It’s only when we’ve heard these stories and built understanding with our buildings that we care about them, and become advocates for their preservation.

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AD: What is the value of well-maintained historic buildings in a contemporary landscape? What about the value of poorly-maintained historic buildings? What is lost when those historic buildings are demolished? 

CS: When every building looks somewhat the same, coming from the same time period, it’s easy for a city to feel static and boring. I prefer walking through a city that has buildings spanning time, representing a variety of styles. That’s how a place starts to feel more dynamic and buildings are able to converse with each other in exciting ways. A contemporary building might disagree with its historic neighbor, but in the process the two create energy.  That’s why the demolition of the Fogarty Building was such a loss — it was our most significant Brutalist building in downtown Providence, and so different from its neighbors. Something that Marisa said recently really rings true to me: she doesn’t hate ugly buildings so much as she hates boring buildings. I couldn’t agree more.

AD: Anything else you’d like to add?

CS: The thing that made the planning of this funeral so special for me was how it brought all of these awesome people together. Many people played a role in its planning — everyone volunteering their efforts. Working as a team was energizing and fun. And we planned the whole thing in just one week! The quick turnaround time and teamwork was empowering, making me see potential for projects that I might not have before.

Keeping Maine Strange, Part I – The Beginning

By John Campopiano

In this multi-part series, NEMMC sits down with Brendan Evans, curator of curios and creator/owner of one of the few independent multimedia shops left in New England, Strange Maine. An unassuming honey hole of obsolete media, found photographs, and punk rock t-shirts, Strange Maine has been a local Portland staple and out-of-towner “must-see” since April 2003.

In Part I, Strange Maine founder, Brendan Evans, sheds light on how a compulsion for collecting and binge watching horror movies on VHS led to the creation of a tiny storefront that has grown into a small mecca for those determined to feed their passions for collecting all things local, independent, and offline.

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Strange Maine interior, 2017
NEMMC: What was the genesis of Strange Maine? How and when did it first open?

Brendan Evans: When my friend, Shea Mowat, and I were in our early 20s we were diehard movie junkies. We watched videos until 6am almost every night–with heavy a emphasis on horror, low budget, and art films. During the day we would drive all over Maine and New Hampshire visiting mom and pop video stores–which back then could be found in every New England town. Around that time they were all upgrading to DVD and selling off their VHS tapes for $1 each, 2 for $1, even 4 for $1–and these were gems! There were so many obscure 1980s horror videos in particular. We would fill Shea’s trunk with bags and bags of horror tapes. We had shelves, milk crates, stacks of these things. In fact, once a cop pulled us over at 2am for having a tail light out and he noticed all of these suspicious looking bags in the back seat. We told him they were all full of horror videos but he really didn’t understand what we were doing.

At some point we started talking about opening our own video store–even though we really didn’t have much money. I was working as a projectionist at a third-run movie theater in Portland while Shea worked in a group home with schizophrenics and the mentally ill. Between the two of us we only had enough money to buy mountains of tapes that no one else seemed to want. Initially, we thought we would buy an old van and drive around southern Maine like a bookmobile and rent these tapes out to people: drive a circuit and come back to each town at the same time every week to recollect our tapes and rent out more, etc., all the while continuing to scour thrift stores and yard sales for new inventory.

But we never got the van.

It was an idea that we knew was absurd and, though we were sincere, it just never really took off. But the seed was planted and we had acquired all of this stuff and wanted to spread it around to people. Meanwhile, after four years I quit my projectionist job. It had become very routine. After taking a month off (and watching more movies than ever– sometimes ten a day or the same one three times in a row) I realized that I couldn’t get another job. No one wanted to hire a high school drop out with no phone, no car, and dreadlocks down to his butt–just an overall bad looking dude.

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Congress Street in Portland, ME, circa. 1985. The local arcade, Starcade, would eventually become the second (and current) location of Strange Maine

But I tried. I applied to be a parking garage attendant, a night watchman–any low impact, menial labor–but the no phone, no email thing was a major stumbling block. So, I started looking at store fronts that were for rent. Even though this was 2002, rent was still pretty pricey: it was looking like $1,200 – $1,500 per month for second story office spaces or out of the way storefronts which I would have had to take a bus to get to. It was all pretty discouraging. But then one fateful day I saw a ‘For Rent’ sign in the window of a place right in the middle of downtown Portland (and only three blocks from my apartment.)

By that time I realized that I would need to sell records, too, in order to make a shop feasible, so Shea and I decided to open a kind of media thrift store with no particular emphasis on any format. Strange Maine was born.

NEMMC: And this was back in the early 2000s?
BE: Right. We signed a lease in February 2003 and had the keys on March 1. We worked seventy hours a week for a month and had our grand opening on April Fool’s Day of that same year. In those days, most of the contents in the store I had hauled over hundreds of separate trips from my overflowing studio apartment–from my place to the shop and back again. Over and over. Pile by stack by crate by sackful. This was all during the US invasion of Iraq and my route went straight through an occupation of anti-war protesters who were camping out in Monument Square. Most days I’d take a minute and add my voice to the chorus of the disaffected–it was an exciting and emotional time for me. I felt like I was joining society for the first time in my life.
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Interior of the original Strange Maine location, circa. 2004
NEMMC: So, was the majority of what was sold at Strange Maine originally from your personal collection?

BE: Early on we put a sign on the door stating that we were buying records, tapes, videos, DVDs, books, etc., and that folks should just drop in while we put the shop together. A lot of the early content in the shop came from those drop-ins, most of whom were willing to trade for store credit. Tons of punk rock kids would drop by with their hardcore 7-inch records and zines, which were previously collecting dust in their closets because no one would buy.

When we finally opened for business on that Tuesday, April 1 in 2003 there was a line of people waiting to get in–many of whom had credit slips and wanted to scoop up the stuff I had been putting in the window display in order to generate interest in the shop. Most of those things were from the cream of my own collection. I had emptied my apartment in order to jumpstart the shop and many of those records, books, and videos I sold I still miss today. But, of course, it was worth it to have some cool stuff in the shop.

I was 23 years old and only wanted to make enough money to pay my rent and eat three or four 7-11 hot dogs a night.

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Paul Reubens, aka, Pee-wee Herman, visits Strange Maine in 2005
NEMMC: It seems like, even today, that Strange Maine leans a little more heavily on cult and horror films and music. Was this always the case? 

BE: I did notice that some people were really excited about particular records and movies; passionate about books; thrilled to find 80s punk demos on cassette for $1, while other folks had the look of sharks or vultures when they’d find something they could flip for a profit on the Internet. But I think the punks who came to the store really dug the socialist approach I had toward that stuff and they really championed the store. I was there five or six days a week, noon until midnight, sometimes later. It was a great time.

My vision for the space and its contents continued to grow and I became very possessive of the shop–it became my world and Shea, who still had a day job, felt excluded and left about six months after it opened. Occasionally I would close for a day or pay a friend to man the shop so I could have a day off, there were  a couple of occasions where I handed over the keys to a regular who’s name I didn’t even know with the hope that they wouldn’t do anything too heinous. I didn’t have a computer still, or a cash register, and I didn’t accept credit cards…but I was proud of the fact that if the power went out the only real affect it would have on the store was that it would be marginally dimmer (though it was already the darkest record store I had ever been in, having just three or four 60 watt track lights for illumination).

Back in those days it was a very simple, funky, rinky-dink place. Some folks still view the shop this way–but now it’s very tidy, organized, efficient, and much more of a capitalist venture now than it was back then.
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Strange Maine interior, 2017
In Part II, NEMMC and Evans discuss the darker (at times morbid) side of Strange Maine. Coming soon…

Taking in the Trash with New Hampshire’s Chris Nichols & The Trash Pile

By John Campopiano

Back in 2010, Chris Nichols, originally from Massachusetts but now residing with his wife in New Hampshire, was searching for a new way to satiate his appetite for creative output after his days performing in local Boston area bands had come to an end. As an enthusiast for not just music but also film, specifically cult, horror, and genre films, Nichols launched The Trash Pile–a blog dedicated to finding, reviewing, and in some cases re-releasing obscure and forgotten films. But Chris isn’t all that keen or interested in releasing hard-to-find weirdo gems on digital platforms like YouTube (though he isn’t against other people doing it). Instead, Chris’ allegiances lie with a format that holds much sentimental value to hoards of likeminded collectors (including the founder of this blog): the VHS tape.

NEMMC spoke with Nichols earlier this autumn and asked him to rewind for us the story of The Trash Pile–the idea idea turned web show turned blog/podcast–and to share with us what motivates him to act as one of many faithful believers in the VHS format.

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NEMMC: While getting to know you over this past year it’s evident that the VHS format holds a great deal of meaning for you. Can you talk about how being an advocate and podcast figure within the niche community of VHS collectors has impacted you?

Chris Nichols: For years the VHS format was something my father and I shared and spent time enjoying together (although going to the theater was just as important to us). I started collecting VHS around 1991 and for years in my neighborhood the kids and families would ask if they could “rent” the movies I owned. Back in the early days of Excel, I would print out spreadsheets with details about what was my VHS inventory. I suppose that’s what led to me searching out more and more movies that I hadn’t seen before–this is also where the podcast came into play a couple of years ago. The podcast (and our old web show) were all about starting a dialogue around movies that had somehow skated under the radar of fandom or had never received a proper release here in the states.

NEMMC: This web show sounds intriguing. What was that all about?

CN: The show was done online and it followed the format of the podcast with the addition of covering new releases on DVD and Blu-ray (as well as comic books).
We didn’t really have any guests to speak of–just likeminded friends. Mark Anastasio from Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre called in once to hype their annual Halloween Horror Marathon.

NEMMC: The Trash Pile has had some stops and starts over the years. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in keeping it going?

CN: The biggest challenge I’ve faced in the last six years of doing The Trash Pile is maintaining my own drive–having the will to do it. I’ve experienced instances of bad luck, I guess, in my personal life that has left me feeling depleted creatively.  The co-host of the podcast, Jason, moved from Massachusetts to Georgia late last year, so having the ability to sync up and to record has been tricky. Really, it’s all bullshit excuses because I should just write to write, or podcast to podcast–for the enjoyment of it.

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Chris Nichols, left; Jason Potter (right)

NEMMC: Can you talk about some of The Trash Pile’s limited edition VHS releases? Have you encountered any rights hurdles with talent or production/distribution houses? If so, how have you navigated those hurdles?

CN: Most of what I do is on the grey market [unofficial buying/selling/trading areas that exist outside the perimeters of authorized manufacturing channels] and my re-edits and re-releases are always of films that are not available for purchase in the States. If something has been released here [the United States] and is currently in print, I don’t touch it. In terms of the titles I’ve done small batches of, it really just comes down to if it’s a title I, personally, enjoy. The whole idea of the grey market was something that fueled my love of international and genre films. When I was in high school my friend, Jason, and I would attend comic conventions in Boston every few months in order to search for and pick up new movies. Without those conventions we wouldn’t have been able to see a lot of these films that never made it to the States by that point (e.g., VERSUS, BATTLE ROYALE, etc.) or special edits of films that were very hard to come by (e.g., the x-rated version of ROBOCOP). Of course the distribution arena has changed dramatically over the years and a lot of these once hard-to-find titles are now popping up on sites, like YouTube, for free.

NEMMC: Has the increased availability of rare and offbeat titles on places like YouTube and via other grey market retailers that are flooding the bootleg scene making your work harder and/or is it changing the focus and scope of The Trash Pile?

CN: For me, it’s all about increasing the exposure of these films. So, if there’s a rival way for people to view it (YouTube, other grey market outlets, etc.) that’s all the better. The Trash Pile was never a money or business orientated venture, but instead a way to share fun movies with people interested in seeing them.

NEMMC: I’m fascinated by your work involved with the release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN (1993). Can you talk about the experience of both discovering and, ultimately, releasing it on VHS?

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VHS release of THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN courtesy of The Trash Pile

CN: Like a lot of video collectors, I try and visit weird thrift stores and yard sales, year round. You’re never guaranteed a hit every time, but it’s all about the thrill of the hunt. As far as finding THE MURDER OF SGT. MACKLIN, I was visiting a church book sale in southern New Hampshire when I saw the film while poking through any banana boxes stuffed with analog. I had never heard of it before, though that wasn’t a new thing as there’s always going to be something you’ve never seen before–but MACKLIN was different.

I’m a sucker for ghost stories, so, the film seemed like one that was worth the .75 cents. After taking the film home I looked for whatever information was available about it online, but couldn’t find a damned thing. I then looked up information on the director, Bob DuBois, and learned he was still around and living in the same Colorado town where he shot the film. I sent him an email and began a back and forth with him about how much I enjoyed his subtle little ghost story. I’ve always believed that no film should be lost and forgotten, so I asked Bob if I could do a small batch release of the film, and he agreed.

NEMMC: What do you think the value is in chasing down and re-releasing films considered by some to be lowbrow or trashy? What excites you about this flavor of cinema?

CN: It all comes down to one thing for me: entertainment. As I said before, I don’t think any media should be lost or forgotten, so a lot of what I’m doing (reviewing, watching, re-releasing) is an effort to not let a movie be forgotten. Believe me, there are a plethora of titles that I wish I hadn’t wasted my time on, but I know that there is an audience for each and every one of those films regardless of whether or not I like them all.

NEMMC: Jumping off my last question, what is the value for you of collecting and distributing films on the VHS format?

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Composite print VHS release of ALLIGATOR courtesy of The Trash Pile

CN: There will always be a new movie waiting if you continue to dig into past releases that may have missed the digital boat. There are a lot of solid digital distributors putting out titles for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray. However, there are still thousands of films that haven’t seen the light of a commerce shelf in decades and unless there is a push from fans a lot of these movies could cease to be. That’s really what collecting/distributing is all about to me; making sure that the right entertainment finds the right person. Life’s too short not to be entertained.

NEMMC: Do you think the VHS format will ever experience a resurgence the way vinyl has been experiencing over the last decade?

CN: That’s a tough question as a big part of the modern renaissance in vinyl can be attributed to, in my opinion, the fact that production of turntables never really stopped altogether. Manufacturers like Denon, Pioneer, Yamaha and Sony never ceased production on their turntables. It wasn’t long after VHS stopped being produced that the production of VCRs slowed. For a few years the DVD/VCR combo sold moderately well, but finding that option in stores is not an easy task nowadays. A VHS resurgence would require a company to start manufacturing new players, similar to what Crosley is doing with turntables. If we get to that point I believe you’ll see VHS again.

NEMMC: What does the future hold for The Trash Pile? What are some of your goals going forward?

CN: Honestly, I’m not sure. 2016 has been a ridiculous year for me due to a number of life-changing events, so, doing anything creative like podcasting and generating more VHS output seems like a real challenge for me emotionally. I have been focusing on doing some manufacturing of VHS for directors and distributors who want their titles on an analog format. For example, I just did a batch of VHS for an awesome indie film currently hitting the festival circuit called, MUTE, by A Color Green–a production company out of New York. And I’ve also had directors ask me to give their films a VHS release, like Jason Stephenson, who ask me to release his film STRIP CLUB SLASHER earlier this year. His film is now part of The Trash Pile catalog. That was a really fun project because I had the chance to reuse ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ pink clamshell cases for the release.

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VHS limited release of THE LAMP courtesy of The Trash Pile

Chris Nichols and The Trash Pile project are a fun and creative insight into one of the many different ways in which collectors and VHS enthusiasts are keeping the format alive while simultaneously introducing or re-introducing the public to a variety of largely forgotten films of yesterday. Those of us who share their passion hope that Nichols can keep the creative juices flowing and continue to expose us to more analog craziness in 2017 and beyond!

Taking Cues From The Cue Dot: A Providence-based Effort to Preserve Film Projection History

By John Campopiano

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The equipment is a connection to the past. A projectionist from the 1920s could come in here and run this. Nothing has changed.– Rick Shamel on the film projection booth, THE DYING OF THE LIGHT

As someone who grew up in film projection booths, Taylor Umphenour knew he wasn’t going to merely be a passive observer to what has been the slow, yet steady, conversion to digital projection. So in 2011 the Providence-based projectionist launched The Cue Dot, a multifaceted effort to capture the look, feel, sound, smell, and history of the film projection booth and all that dwells within them. The Cue Dot is a portal to another time when physical film ruled and the idea of living in a wireless world was still a thing of science fiction. NEMMC recently caught up with Umphenour to learn more about The Cue Dot project and to better understand how he’s taken his love of film and film projection to new, artistic heights.

NEMMC: Can you talk about the various phases you’ve established for The Cue Dot project and what influenced you to start all of this in the first place?

Taylor Umphenour: The Cue Dot started back in 2011. I’d been working professionally as a projectionist since I was seventeen: all through college, and after. I kind of grew up in the booth. I always had my own projects and side businesses going on, but working as a film projectionist was the one stable constant in my life over about nine years full of change and growth. I started seeing news stories about projection booths closing as they fell, one by one, to an industry-wide conversion from film to digital projection. I had a moment of recognition: the world of the booth, as with all things, wasn’t going to be around forever. So I put my other projects on hold and set myself to capture the energy and life of that special world before it changed forever.

Capturing the booth took four months of principal photography: with both film and video shooting, and sound recording. This was followed by many months of photo editing. The project is being released in phases mostly because it’s a personal project that cuts across multiple mediums.

The first phase was driven by gathering a group of likeminded people on social media: an audience for the project. I knew there must be other people out there like me who’d enjoy taking a trip into the world of the film projection booth, and I found them one-by-one on social media.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

The next phase focused on creating physical pieces of art that tied into the main project. I wanted a way for people to bring the feeling of this magical cinematic world into their own lives. I released the first edition of photography from The Cue Dot and sold archival prints from the site to people all over the world. I can’t tell you how many people have written in expressing their gratitude for my making this project. It’s been inspiring to hear from so many along the way—and it’s what has kept the project going.

Beyond this, I wanted to take the physical film—the lifeblood of the projection booth—and find a way to repurpose it for a new generation. This became an entire apparel collection called Film Leader.

The next big phase of The Cue Dot will be to build a solid community from the audience of social media followers. This work will begin with the opening of FilmProjectionBooth.com as a new expanded home for the project. My focus there is on creating a place for anyone who loves the world of the booth to come and experience it whenever they so desire. While social media is full of lively conversation and interaction, it’s very easy for work to be easily buried in an avalanche of distraction. My hope with this third phase is to create a web-based experience that allows people to get as close as possible to the experience of what it was like to be a projectionist in the old carbon arc film projection booth.

If FilmProjectionBooth.com is a success, it may pave the way for some surprise phases I’ve already laid the groundwork for—but those will have to remain surprises for the moment since each phase depends on the completion of the prior one in order to move forward…

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Taylor Umphenour

NEMMC: Are there other ways of capturing the essence of the projection booth that The Cue Dot is not yet doing?

TU: Absolutely. There’s technology that’s around now that wasn’t around when I shot The Cue Dot. I still think someone could do an amazing VR project taking people back into the booth. And there are potentially thousands of untold stories. When I first started the project back in 2011-2012, this was a story that hardly anyone was telling. But after the widespread conversion of theaters from film to digital projection, the story has become part of the zeitgeist—with quite a few other projects and pieces out there that have been made about this particular transition point in cinema history. It’s great to see so many people trying to tell this story in different ways—whether in short videos, feature films, articles, and so on. One of my early insights when I started making this project was how sad it was for something so beautiful to slip quietly into the past when so few people had a chance to appreciate it and experience it. It was as if the film projection booth was a special exclusive world that very few people were even aware of—and then one day, it was gone.

NEMMC: What kinds of challenges have you faced and anticipate facing as the project evolves?

TU: Funding is always the biggest challenge for personal projects that cut across multiple mediums. But the core challenges of this project are the same as with any project: keeping it compelling, telling a good story, being specific and clear, and creating an emotional connection with the audience. I tend to find that most projects have the defects of their virtues: that is, the very things that make them challenging are also the things that make them compelling to begin with. With The Cue Dot, I’ve chosen to focus on a place, a feeling, an era, and a process. It’s a challenge because there isn’t a main character to piggyback on. I’ve chosen to try to create something that stands at the crossroads of many different mediums, symbols, and historical shifts: mechanical vs. digital, human vs. machine, film vs. video, past vs. future. And yet to do this without focusing on a singular main character who can take us all through it has been quite a challenge.

NEMMC: We’re living in an era of remakes, reissues, and pop culture resurgences. Do you feel film projection will ever see a mass rebound the way vinyl records and other formats and mediums have?

TU: I’m a romantic about the subject matter of The Cue Dot, but a pragmatist when it comes to the economic reality facing many theaters, especially single screen operations. I don’t think film projection will ever see a mass rebound, but the key word there is “mass.” The economic model of theatrical exhibition has remained essentially unchanged for decades, and it’s now being forced to evolve, confronting real challenges with deeply rooted issues that go way beyond film vs. digital projection.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

That said, no technology ever invented by humans has ever gone away entirely. People are still making all sorts of things by hand that can be made with machines. And there are still a core group of theaters out there running films, some of them with reel-to-reel projectors. More important than a mass rebound, I think it’s important to keep the culture of it alive through storytelling, which I believe to be the foundation of community building. I do think there’s space in the market for a loosely affiliated network of film-based theaters, and that the novelty of such a thing will only grow, further adding to its appeal. My hope is that these theaters find a way to band together, pool resources, and create a strong film culture around what they’re doing. It’d be very gratifying if The Cue Dot can help inspire people who want to be part of keeping that culture alive.

NEMMC: Is the act of repurposing (or recycling) and possessing a willingness to adapt critical to keeping something–like the physical medium of film–alive? Have these approaches been part of your work with The Cue Dot?

TU: Repurposing and adapting is critical to keeping the medium alive, both in the big macro paradigm and at a smaller scale. The film medium and arguments about whether or not it’s “dead” are largely an issue of point of view, where in the chain you spend most of your time and focus, and how close you are to it. I’ve personally grown tired of these debates because they miss the point: from an aesthetic standpoint, film and digital are capable of being symbiotic… as symbiotic as painting and photography or television and radio. It’s also important not to confuse the medium for the economic model that has been built around the medium. This frequently gets lost in the debate about the way in which film technology needs to adapt for the future.

When it comes to The Cue Dot, I chose to shoot a lot of what I created for the project digitally. Ironically, it was done this way for the same reason the theater I was photographing was converting from film to digital: economics and flexibility. I knew that for the amount of material I wanted to shoot, I’d have to stop and spend six months raising money to buy the film stock I wanted. Only, we didn’t have six months to wait. A date had already been set for the theater’s conversion. If I’d waited until we had the funds to shoot on film, there would have been nothing left to photograph.

I’m interested to see how the economic model around theatrical film exhibition can be adapted, now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century.

NEMMC: Of course filmmaking has long been considered an art form, but the way you write about film projection may lead some to think you view the film projection process as another type of art form…

TU: Without getting deep in the weeds of semantics or touching off a huge comment thread about what constitutes an art form, I’d say: yes—I absolutely believe there’s the potential for film projection to become an art form. Whenever a technology or practice reaches the end of it’s “useful life” for its original purpose, you reach fertile territory for a new art form to emerge. When painting no longer had to shoulder the weight of capturing a likeness in vivid detail, it was able to evolve and grow in ways that created a new aesthetic vocabulary. When LPs were no longer the medium for listening to everyday music, DJs repurposed them and a new art form was born. Film projection—especially dual carbon arc reel-to-reel film projection—has that potential. As for the expressive potential of the medium outside the context of a cinematic theatrical presentation, who knows what the boundaries are. I’ve often thought it’d be fascinating to have a stage show where a team of a dozen projectionists used a dozen on-stage projectors to mix between different reels and create a kind of hybrid cinematic/dance piece.

As it originally existed, and as I captured it in The Cue Dot, I believe there was an art to being a good projectionist. A skill, but also a sensitivity. You were part of the performance. You were the last person whose hands were entrusted with those ribbons of celluloid. As time went on, the responsibility of that performance was gradually shifted from the human to the machine… until in the end, it was the machine’s responsibility entirely. At some point along the line, the sensitivity required of projectionist was shifted and the art was lost. At some point, it had more to do with the machine’s performance than with the projectionist’s. I’m not sure if that was when platters were added, or perhaps earlier with the end of carbon-arc… but at that point, a bit of the “art” of film projection died.

NEMMC: Has your geographical location of Providence, RI, played a role in the creation and evolution of The Cue Dot? If so, how?

TU: Providence is a great place to live for all sorts of reasons, but it’s most lasting contribution to The Cue Dot is that Providence is the home of the Avon Cinema. The theater opened in 1938 and has been run by the same family for three generations. Almost eighty years of continuous operation meant the projection booth at the Avon was unique. My friendship with the owners and their willingness to let me turn this project into such an elaborate endeavor played a determining role in The Cue Dot being as thorough and substantial as it was. I should also say that great credit is also to be given to the other projectionists, who happily allowed me to photograph and film them for months on end while they worked. The booth is a solitary place and that kind of invasion—with the lights and gear, and everything else—can be overwhelming. Those guys were troupers and their patience with the whole process is part of what makes this little time capsule so special.

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Avon Cinema in Providence, RI. Photo by Ken Zirkel

NEMMC: On your website it states, “The Cue Dot is far from over.” What does the future hold for The Cue Dot?

TU: The future is all about expanding the audience for this story and telling it in increasingly complex ways without losing the soul of what makes it so special. FilmProjectionBooth.com will be undergoing an expansion as the next phase of this project starts to click in to gear. I continue to receive messages from people with deep roots in this world, and that only reminds me that there are lots of people out there still waiting to hear this story and experience the world of the film projection booth and everything I was able to capture there.

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The Cue Dot: Into the Projection Booth

Interested in more stories about film and film projection? NEMMC has you covered! Check out these links below:

All For One (Continued) by Eric P. Gulliver

Inside the Booth by Stephanie Pixley

Providence Has a Film Society: The Arkham Film Society by John Campopiano and Josh Thomas Gravel

Crate Diggers Part 1: A Man & His Projector by John Campopiano and Andrew Bobola

 

The Electric Grandmother (Revisited) – *Article & Video

By Eric P. Gulliver

Plot: A trio of children, traumatized by the death of their mother, and their father get a very special robot grandmother to assist them.

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It’s a joke in my family that I have no memories before my teenage years. “Don’t ask Eric, he won’t remember,” my sister often quips. To justify this, I tell myself that new learning has had to shove old memories further down the memory-hole. But why do some memories stick and others don’t? This question has become somewhat of a preoccupation of mine as I approach my third decade. Trauma can’t explain all the memories I do recall, because some are pleasant: there is the giant water fight on Bayberry Lane where we all got soaked, even mom. Then further along when us Tucker Street boys lit an enormous dead pine tree on fire in the town forest. Like that pine tree, these moments, though few and far between, illuminate small pockets of space through my formative years.

It was during this same time that movies began to mean something to me. I didn’t just let them fade, I would watch and rewatch them. I wanted to know how they were made. “How can they do that?” I apparently asked upon seeing the chimney sweep scene in Mary Poppins. I use the word ‘apparently’ because this is a memory passed along by my family.

One film firmly planted in my mind was the 1982 television movie The Electric Grandmother, which for some reason, my parents let me watch. This film stayed with me. And create memories it did. Although scene details were hazy, I could remember the unsettling feeling it gave me and the questions it posed. Does Grandma have to plug herself in in the basement too? Did she come from a factory?

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Maureen Stapleton as The Electric Grandmother

And everyone’s personal favorite: My wanting clarification that my grandma couldn’t actually shoot orange juice out of her fingertips for breakfast. Something about the subject matter affected my small mind. I would reference the film as I grew up, and now, strangely enough, I have to remind my parents what the film was even about.

The difference in these memories was not in images but rather in mood. In terms of TEG, I remember being unsettled by the grandma being delivered by helicopter (it was later I would learn she was delivered in a sarcophagus, an object I didn’t know yet). I remember Maureen Stapleton’s calm, almost robotic tone throughout the film. And being stupefied when she descended to the basement and performed her before-bed (or shutdown?) mechanical exercise, before plugging herself into the wall and rocking alarmingly in her rocking chair. Something about this image scared me good; I was never totally comfortable in my grandmother’s basement ever again.

It was later that I learned that this film was based on a Ray Bradbury story, in a discussion with John Campopiano, who had tracked the film down after I referenced it in a discussion about obscure movies from our past. In a stroke of chance, another of John’s friends, Adam, also referenced TEG stating that he had an extended version on 16mm. This serendipitous reference spawned a night of revisiting The Electric Grandmother projected on 16mm film.

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The Electric Grandmother re-fills Agatha’s milk glass

For Adam and I, the film is still unsettling even upon second viewing as adults. The collective cringing of our fellow audience members validated our unease from scene to scene. This time it was the sound effects that proved most peculiar for me; the positively frightening opening noises of the sarcophagus and awakening/activating of the grandmother, and the sound of liquid coming out of her fingers. When I think more about it, even the word choices one uses in regards to describing TEG are significant, too. Was she awakened or activated? Was she turned off or did she go to sleep? Did she actually love the children or was she merely programmed? Such questions may form the ethical subtext of the Bradbury story. Perhaps my small mind wasn’t ready to ponder these questions yet, and why it has held onto them so many years later.

Summer Regattas, Peter’s Cove, Blue Hill, Maine, 1934

Summer Regattas, Peter’s Cove, Blue Hill, Maine, 1934. Alida Donnell Milliken Camp filmed a 1934 sailing regatta and many other summertime activities, spending every summer of her life on the coast of Maine. To read more about this video, the collection it comes from, and to explore more of the holdings at Northeast Historic Film please visit oldfilm.org [Mrs. Frederic E. Camp Collection, Northeast Historic Film, Acc. 0672]