The Museum of Everyday Life

By Clare Dolan

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The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, VT

Perhaps the best, most basic introduction to The Museum of Everyday Life can be found in a text written on the occasion of its inaugural exhibition in 2011:

“The creation of The Museum of Everyday Life grew out of the following questions: What would it be like to imagine a museum which looked like a giant cabinet of curiosity, but filled with perfectly familiar objects rather than exotic ones? Could there be an institution which, rather than preserving rare and “authentic” objects, dedicated itself to deteriorating objects of no monetary value, but of immense ordinary-life consequence? What would it look like to defy the commodity-based model of collection and display? And how might it be possible to create exhibits by soliciting contributions from the public, to create massive participatory collections of objects and personal stories? Our goal is to explore, analyze and celebrate everyday life objects. This museum is the co-creation of all of us who live ordinary lives and have relationships with ordinary objects. Its purpose is a heroic, slow-motion cataloging of life; a detailed, theatrical expression of gratitude and love for the minuscule and unglamorous lives of the unfamous. We celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday.

In addition to a robust and ever-expanding permanent collection, our special featured exhibits have explored ordinary objects such as the safety pin and the match. These exhibits look at the objects in-depth, tracing their surprisingly fascinating origins, and additionally presenting a wide array of unique perspectives and uses of the objects. The creation of these special featured exhibits has involved the input of many people, from neighbors to college students, from fanatical collectors to local artists and performers, all of whom have donated their time helping to construct exhibits, maintain and improve the buildings and grounds, advertise, and perform at openings and events.

The Museum has three components: 1) The Museum of Everyday Life Philosophy Department, involving the production and publication of theoretical writing about people and their relationship to objects, curatorial methodologies, and encylcopedism, 2) The Museum of Everyday Life Performance Company, which creates puppet shows and performances in an ongoing effort to examine everyday life via the life of objects, and lastly, but most important 3) The Museum of Everyday Life Exhibitions and Collections, comprised of actual exhibits which make the theoretical work tangible and concrete. We are located on Rt 16 about 5.5 miles south of Glover village in Northeastern Vermont, and here, in the imagination of the beholder…”

The Museum has been something I’ve carried around in my head for a long time– an idea, a sensibility, and a wish. When I bought a dilapidated house and barn in remote rural Vermont in 2004, I immediately indulged in fantasies of what it could become. But it took me until the spring of 2010 to make my first exhibition. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the first official Museum of Everyday Life exhibit: “Locofocos, Lucifers, and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match,” inaugurated its opening season.

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International matchbooks from the exhibit, “Locofocos, Lucifers and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match”

In the beginning, I approached the museum mostly in a spirit of fun, wanting to play with the museum as Establishment, to mock the high seriousness and expense of these institutions. I started by writing a manifesto and making declarations about what a museum “should” be (see “The First manifesto of the Museum of Everyday Life”). But as I became more and more absorbed in understanding the actual mechanisms of arrangement and display, and the way different display strategies can encourage different feelings and responses in the viewer/participant, I began to more seriously develop the idea of the homemade museum as a real and potential tool for transforming our relationship to our lives – helping us to be both more self reflective and present in our day to day moments, to transform the way we think about being “ordinary” people and the mundane parts of being human. I would like to force all of us to look more closely at the questions “what do we value?” and “in what way do we value?” and “what objects surround us and why?”

The understanding I have now of the “everyday” is the foundation of everything I make, perform, and write about. I have discovered that this is my central concern, and gives coherence not only to my art projects but also to my politics, to how I try to live my life.

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Bread and Puppet Circus, 2009

I started forming this sensibility when I worked at the Bread and Puppet Theater, which was where I “grew up” as an artist and learned how to think about art-making and living. Bread and Puppet gave me an example of how one artist, (founder and Director Peter Schumann) and subsequently a whole constellation of people who have worked with the theater over its 52-year existence, have found ways to integrate an art practice with fierce engagement with the rest of the world, and to not forget or leave behind the dumb normal tasks of life that we spend 90% of our time doing. Schumann is a genius at connecting his relentless art-making to everything else: the world, its politics and people, everything that happens culturally and rhetorically and politically, plus the sunrise and sunset, eating, sleeping, scratching, getting dressed, sneezing, pooping, etc etc. Inspired by this, but being my own person, a woman of a particular age, I have developed my own perspective, and emphasis, and tactics. But the Museum of Everyday Life is my ultimate expression of this understanding: a locus where the everyday object is the vehicle for examining the intersection of the Ordinary and the larger world stage of politics, power, economics, historic events, natural disasters – the “big” things.

At the same time, the museum is also a profoundly intimate space. The Museum of Everyday Life lives inside each of us, a vast and echoing cabinet of curiosities, every minute of every day filling our endless drawers and cases with new additions to the permanent collection. My choice of the match as the subject matter of our first exhibition reflects both this intimacy and its connection to the “larger” world. A simple household match hums with danger and hope. When we strike it for a moment we hold between finger and thumb the Promethean gift of Possibility. Each match is a tiny revolution, a promise of radical transformation. The match reminds us that all objects in some way come from the human body. Not only does the design of the match accommodate the requirements of the thumb and forefinger which must be able to grasp it, and the shapes of cup handles and bowls, for example, mirror the human hand, but also the bowl and the cup and the match echo the very shape of human hunger and thirst, the body’s need for heat, the eye’s requirement for light in order to see. Every object in our museum of everyday life speaks to the body, amplifying it, extending it, the way an echo in a deep canyon empowers a whisper. Belying their status of apparent insignificance, these humble, mundane things toil away endlessly to unburden us of the vast problematic contingencies of the body.

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Title: Woman-Shaped Toothbrush. This toothbrush was found by Ron Kelley in 1985 when he moved into an apartment at 520 E. 11th. St. in NYC. Several years later Ron left the city for Southern Vermont. During the spring of 1990 his wife discovered the toothbrush lolling about on his desk. It surprised her. A lively conversation ensued. Since that conversation, this toothbrush was removed from Ron’s desk and brought down to the tool section in their basement where it languished for 24 years until it was resurrected for this exhibit, titled, “Toothbrush from Twig to Bristle In All Its Expedient Beauty”

Just as the bowl and the cup handle and the match are shaped by the demands and needs of the body, so also do the objects in the museum of everyday life record our attention and ministrations. The upholstery on the arm of a couch is worn smooth by caressing elbows, the chipped corner of a lacquered box is carefully glued back into place, a favorite wallet is creased and cracked by being opened and closed countless times. These things bear the proof of the lives we have led, the things we have done. They remember us.

In Syria, where everything is on fire, millions of people are on the move, carrying their last, salvaged possessions on their backs. Recently, the nation of Denmark declared its right to confiscate cash and valuables carried by refugees. Humanely, it claimed, excluding items of “sentimental value” from seizure. But what is sentimental? And what are “valuables”?

A gift from a lover, a family heirloom, a note, a paperclip, a pocket knife, a picture frame: in the museum of our everyday life a million invisible threads are tied to our fingers, ears, lips, and eyes, which are tied to every object, which are tied to the lips, ears, fingers, eyes and hearts of other people. The web is invisible. The object is seen, can be picked up, and cradled. Objects have secret powers that are not easily understood. In the noisy world of what we call our “popular culture” (the clangor of video and cell App and cinema and mp3 and reality show, of celebrity and specialty and infamy) the secret powers of the ordinary can appear to be muffled, smothered. Until the next hurricane. Until the lights go out.

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Pencil sharpener exhibit

These are some of the reasons I am compelled to pay such close attention to ordinary objects, and why I feel they deserve not just one museum, but many museums. And because I am in love with the visual vocabulary that is available within the museum form – boxes and frames and short texts and titles, vitrines, dioramas, curtains, drawers, shelves, pedestals, maps, doorways – I take particular pleasure in putting together the exhibitions on my own. This past February I picked the special featured object for our upcoming season and then began spreading the word. People have responded from all over, sending everything from ideas, associations, ephemera, suggestions of where to find multiples of the object, art made out of the object, special examples of the object, and unusual uses of the object. I do a lot of research and scour garage sales, the internet and my neighbors’ barns and basements for objects. Slowly an assemblage materializes. The fun is in sorting through it, arranging, describing and contextualizing – giving it shape. That is how the exhibitions come to be.

That’s the story of The Museum of Everyday Life.

Providence Has a Film Society: The Arkham Film Society

by John Campopiano

There aren’t many film buffs left in the New England area who are as passionate about print film and getting eyeballs in front of movies as Josh Thomas Gravel and the Arkham Film Society – a Providence, RI, based film group dedicated to, at their core, showing movies. As a film lover myself as well as a native of Rhode Island, I knew sitting down with Josh and picking his brain for an NEMMC post was a must. Thankfully, Josh found some time amidst his busy schedule of programming and penning film reviews to answer some questions for NEMMC.

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New England Media & Memory Coalition: What is the Arkham Film Society and when did it start?
Arkham Film Society: The Arkham Film Society is basically me – independently booking and hosting screenings of cult, horror, exploitation, or otherwise just strange movies with the help of a couple friends. The events are held around Rhode Island and occasionally Massachusetts and we try to present these movies on actual film whenever possible. We have gotten to the point where we are hosting (almost) monthly screenings as well as occasionally collaborating with film festivals. At the moment most of our events in Providence are being held at The Black Box Theater. They were attendees of our events prior to us working together and they have been extremely  helpful and generous with their space.
Our current screenings are a mix of 16mm and digital (when a particular title either isn’t available or would be overly cost prohibitive to screen via film). We have not had the pleasure of sharing any of our 35mm prints with an audience in quite some time due to many cinemas going digital and the higher premium placed on those who haven’t, but we are currently in talks with a couple of potential venues to bring back our 35mm screenings.

As to the A.F.S.’s origin story it is fairly simple: I worked on the Rhode Island International Horror Film Festival as a programmer for a number of years with my friends, Ric and Scott, and when it became obvious that our abilities were being limited within the festival organization we sought a way to continue programming outside of the festival.

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MANIAC poster from the Alamo Drafthouse/William Lustig poster series

The first Arkham event proper was in February of 2007 and it was a double feature of MANIAC (1980) and THE REDSIN TOWER (2006). Over the years both Ric and Scott have scaled back their involvement but are both still involved and still help out.

 

NEMMC: What kinds of films does the AFS have in its collection? With respect to collecting does the AFS focus on any particular format or genre? AFS: The film print collection is a small but varied grouping of films on both 16mm and 35mm. We have classics, comedies, documentaries, dramas, and of course horror…lots of horror. As for focus I am not focusing solely on a single format as that would limit our screening potential, but when purchasing new films for the collection I do tend to stick with the popular sub-genres within the cult film world such as horror, exploitation, and action, but in the case of someone donating film to the collection we take whatever is offered. We are always open to accepting any donations of film that come our way and are working to properly catalog everything and store it the best we can.

NEMMC: Does the AFS specialize in showing certain film genres?
AFS: I like to say that we present “cult films of all genres”, because every genre has their unsung gems and cult oddities. Admittedly when looking at our schedule we are definitely horror heavy – especially European horror heavy – but in the past we have branched into classics such as, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) and YOJIMBO (1961), more mainstream cult fare like JURASSIC PARK (1993), and even once co-presented a couple of classic musicals on film with an organization from Brown University screening THE RED SHOES (1948) and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). Overall I am open to showing anything that I enjoy and that people should see in a theatrical setting. However, since my main interests lie in horror we tend to show a lot of horror.

NEMMC: Why physical film in the first place? Where did that interest originate?
AFS: I can’t fully explain why film but it probably has to do with the fact that I grew up going to the movies practically every weekend and then gravitated to programming and then actual film projection. I guess it’s partially a nostalgia thing as I grew up watching movies projected on film, and in all honesty digital can not exactly replicate that viewing experience. It isn’t even a matter of having a flawless film print because sometimes when you watch a scratched and possibly faded 30 year old film print there is a certain sense of history there that isn’t replicated with a Blu-ray or digital film. It’s probably an interest I have always had which has just come to the forefront since I’ve been working with films.
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Arkham Film Society storage
NEMMC: Does the AFS have a larger mission aside from exposing people to the films themselves?
AFS: At the moment no. It would be fantastic to someday have a larger organization and potentially a venue that we could use for both programming and educational purposes such as screenings for schools and lectures about film history. But currently the A.F.S is essentially just an expensive hobby.

NEMMC: To date what sorts of New England-based collaborations has the AFS been involved with?
AFS: We have worked with a number of film festivals such as SENE, The Providence French Film Festival, and of course we program the Rock and Shock Film Festival held at the Rock and Shock convention in Worcester, MA, every October. We have also collaborated with other organizations such as All Things Horror for a Boston Strong charity screening of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), the Coolidge Corner’s @fter Midnite series with a screening of BRAIN DAMAGE (1988), and we have helped source films for the NecronomiCon convention in Providence.

NEMMC: Can you tell us about some of the more memorable acquisitions the AFS has received over the years?
AFS: I’ve had a few fun adventures in film hunting. A couple memorable moments include a time Scott and I drove out to Poughkeepsie and rummaged through the garage of a guy who had some films. We ended up leaving with six feature films that day including the cult slasher film MADMAN (1982).

A more recent experience was when my friend and fellow projectionist, Taylor, spent some time assessing the projection booth in an old theater in East Greenwich ,RI, which is now a performing arts space. There was some hope of getting the projection equipment up and running again since most of it was still in the booth. Unfortunately there were issues with the power running to the equipment which would have put the cost of the project way over the interest level of the organization involved (which I don’t blame them for as it started as a small project and quickly ballooned into a major renovation).

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35mm print of BIGFOOT…MAN OR BEAST

The fun part of that day, though, was going through the booth and storage area finding old film reels and shorts such as the short documentary BIGFOOT…MAN OR BEAST (1972).

NEMMC: How extensive is the film collecting community? 

AFS: It is actually pretty big but also a bit private; while there are many high profile film collectors such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino there is also a huge number of film collectors who are projectionists and theater owners with a passion for the medium.  But it certainly is a welcoming and truly international community once you start to communicate with and learn from other collectors.

 

NEMMC: Are there any inherent risks with collecting film? What are some of the logistical challenges (financial or otherwise) in collecting film?
AFS: As for what we are doing there aren’t any real risks. If we had any pre-1952 prints on nitrate stock that would be a fire hazard and I’ve heard of people having legal troubles if they have a large studio title, but we have neither so we should be good.
There are numerous logistical problems when collecting film and first and foremost is space. Film prints take up a sizable amount of space and when you get into the double digits of prints you have to start dedicating space to storing them properly. Films need to be stored in a low heat and low humidity environment or the film itself can fade and degrade, so it’s best to have a storage space with heavy duty shelving, temperature control, and a dehumidifier running – which all adds up.
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Josh Thomas Gravel
NEMMC: What does the future hold for the AFS?
AFS: As of now we will continue our regular screenings in Providence, RI, and we hope to both get back to presenting films on 35mm again and do more events in the Boston area. If anyone has a theatrical venue that would be interested in having us host an event or wants more info on what we do feel free to contact me through our website Arkhamfilmsociety.com.

Gator Bait: A Love Story

The alligator wants food to chew
Feed him just right or he’ll feed on…YOU
Better be lucky, with the spinner
That tells you to eat him
Or take out his dinner
Give him a TV only he knows
Just when his jaws are ready to close
Take out a jug, put in a case
He’s losing his patience
Just look at that face
Feed him a can
If that’s what you choose
Throw in a block and…YOU LOSE
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Original artwork from the ALLIGATOR  one sheet poster, 1980

By John Campopiano

All of us have a memory of a moment that we’re not entirely sure actually occurred. A blurry instance that we think happened but that we can’t corroborate with someone else or find evidence of no matter how sophisticated the keyword search in Google.

With this in mind, is it likely one might have a childhood memory of sitting inches from  a television set and watching a giant, man-eating alligator burst from the depths of a sewer onto a public thoroughfare? Doubtful. But maybe?

That’s the scene childhood friend, Zac, describes of his first viewing of the 1980 cult classic, ALLIGATOR, directed by Lewis Teague, starring Robert Forster and Robin Riker, and written by the man who also brought us PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), John Sayles. Originally from Massachusetts and now residing in Chicago, Zac and I shared in a screening of this film at a young age – perhaps too young to be watching the likes of an animatronic monster devouring unsuspecting pedestrians left and right – in his North Attleboro basement.

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Spanish version of ALLIGATOR poster

 

Zac recalls viewing this oddity, “My first memories of seeing the movie are burned into my brain. I was far too young to watch it, maybe six or seven (ca. 1991-92?), and I was downstairs watching it on TV in the basement by myself. The image that is forever etched into my mind is the scene where the alligator bursts out of the street where there is a manhole cover and comes above ground. It was terrifying…”

Clearly the film made an impression on Zac, as it did on me the first time I saw it (Zac’s 2nd go around with it.) Twenty years later that experience with Zac is somehow both vivid and largely unclear in my mind, much like a memory of an experience you can’t quite decipher or confirm. Zac again: “I had that memory of the movie [the alligator bursting from underground] and it had an impact on me for years, but it wasn’t until the two of us connected over it later that I realized it was a real movie in the world. I think I always half-thought that I had imagined it and made it up. Lo and behold, on a second viewing as a teen or adolescent, the same scene came up and it was all confirmed as a real thing in the world.”

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Campopiano visits the North Attleboro, MA house where he first saw ALLIGATOR (1980), February 2016

Indeed, these bizarre memories of reptilian horror were, in fact, real, and in the two decades since, Zac and I have sporadically cobbled together other memories of the film through various email and Facebook message exchanges. It has been – as these things often are – very enjoyable to wax nostalgic for a pleasant time (albeit foggy) in my adolescence. Of course, if you’re someone who happens to suffer from both nostalgia and an urge to collect, the buck does not, as they say, stop there.

In the years since first seeing the film several things happened: I exposed many friends and family (much to their indifference or outright displeasure) to ALLIGATOR. In 2014 I met the film’s director, Lewis Teague, at a convention in New Jersey and had him sign my original Egyptian ALLIGATOR poster [see photo below]. But it was even earlier, in elementary school that I learned of a rare movie tie-in game produced by the IDEAL company, appropriately called ALLIGATOR – The Game. And in the years since its limited release it has become somewhat of a coveted piece by many horror fanatics and board game collectors alike.

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ALLIGATOR – The Game by IDEAL (1980)

Truth be told, since those elementary school days I’ve kept an eye out for any relics from ALLIGATOR (copies of the film on any format, original one sheet posters, etc.) but it was the IDEAL game that continued to elude me no matter how savvy my search. This all changed when I discovered a seller from North Kingston, RI, selling the alligator piece from the game. No other parts of the game were included, but I didn’t care. The cool part of the game was always the 27″ long alligator itself – in all of its forest green, plastic glory.

The complete game with original box commands a high dollar (upwards of $100 or more) — so to find even the lone alligator in decent condition and under 100 miles from my home in Boston should be deemed a lucky, if not an improbable, find.

But could I really sink my teeth into it and seal the deal?

After some good-natured back and forth regarding price I was able to round third base and slide directly into the jaws of this delicious piece of 1980s nostalgia. After years of wondering when or if I would ever find it, it was mine.

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On a warm, Sunny Sunday in February I made the trek south to North Kingston, RI to collect my treasure. Almost immediately after breaking through the East Greenwich/North Kingston town line I felt as though I had stumbled into the most rural part of the state. Not much separated the modest cottages from an antique store (with a fabulous bathtub propped up proudly on the front porch) and some railroad tracks. The owner of my beautiful beast lived in (what felt like) an abandoned farmhouse. Kids toys and rusty farm equipment littered the property. I rang the bell.

A woman cracked the door open and peered out at me. Children could be easily heard running around and yelling in the background. “Hi, I’m here for the alligator toy…” I said.

She quickly called to one of her children to fetch the gator. “Here you go,” she said. I gave her the $15 I had haggled her husband down to and went about my way.

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Campopiano immediately after claiming his prized alligator, February 2016

Victory was mine and I couldn’t have been happier. Years of hunting were over. Not dissimilar to how I have felt over the years collecting other memorabilia, I now felt closer to a film I’ve appreciated for years. It’s a true sign of a collector when it’s not enough just to admire something from a distance – we must connect with it in a tangible, realtime way. Somehow it satiates our hunger for the past while justifying the effort exerted on the quest itself to find whatever it is we’re hunting for.

It’s funny how things like films (and certainly music) have a way of not only binding themselves to us but also binding us to others in our lives. My pal Zac and I never see one another, and yet we carry this bizarre little connection with us through life. I can’t pass his old street in North Attleboro or even see a status update of his on Facebook without thinking of ALLIGATOR. What’s more, I can’t see the VHS cover in my collection or catch the film on late-night TV without thinking of Zac. It’s strange, yet also strangely comforting.

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Campopiano and ALLIGATOR (1980) director, Lewis Teague, in New Jersey, March 2014

Interested in other horror movie-themed board games? Check out this great article by John Squires on Dread Central!

DearTomorrow, A Conversation with the Future About Climate Change

By Casey E. Davis, Archivist, DearTomorrow; Founder, ProjectARCC; Project Manager, American Archive of Public Broadcasting

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Since May 2015, I have been working with a team to develop a new online space where people can post letters, photos and videos to their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, future children and future generations about climate change.

As a professional archivist, I was drawn to this project because the collection will become a long-term archive, a record of how people are currently thinking about and taking action on climate change. These messages will be collected over the next five or so years and then re-released back to the public in the years 2030 and 2050, for the recipients and for future generations to see when they are older.

My contributions to the project include managing the letters and metadata and helping coordinate with potential long-term repositories to preserve the collection for research and understanding by future generations.

It has only been in the past several years that I have become aware of the seriousness of climate change and have spent time reflecting on how, as an archivist, I could participate in developing solutions. I want to make a contribution not only to the documentation of this important period of time, but also participate in activities that help shape this period of time. That is why I have joined the team of DearTomorrow and also founded Project ARCC, a task force of archivists striving to motivate the archival profession to effect climate change.

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DearTomorrow recognizes that one of the greatest challenges for addressing climate change is the disconnect between future climate change consequences and the need to take action now. By asking people to reflect on climate change through the eyes of someone young that they love, the project aims to make climate change a more relevant, accessible and immediate issue.

I personally experienced this shift in thinking when I wrote my own DearTomorrow message. In my first letter, I wrote about my October 2014 life-changing experience of coming to terms with the imminent threats of climate change on the future of our planet and its impacts not only on society but also on the responsibility of archivists to preserve history for future generations. For months after I had this awakening, I was paralyzed in fear. I was unable to talk about it with many of my family members who still deny climate change, and I didn’t know what to do about it to have a personal impact. In my second letter, written several months later, I wrote about how ProjectARCC was making a difference within our profession, and how the fear that I experienced was turned into action.

I’m not a parent yet, but as an archivist and as someone who thinks about the past — and a lot about the future — I understand the importance of preserving this epochal moment in history for people to one day understand what we knew, what we didn’t know, and what we did about climate change. DearTomorrow will be a resource for our loved ones to look back and see the actions we took for them. It will be a resource for scholars and researchers to gain an understanding about this moment in time. And right now, it is a bridge to action among those to take the time to think about the people to whom they are writing and for whom they are taking action on climate change.

I invite you to learn more about what I feel is a very powerful and important project, and think about ways that you can contribute to the project. Here’s how:

  1. Participate in this historic project by writing your own letter to the future. The key here is to think about someone young and important in your life who will access your message in the year 2030 or 2050. What will you say to them about the world we currently live in? Write about how you currently think about the challenge of climate change. Or perhaps reflect on a place or experience that is important to you and that you would like to preserve for them to experience in the years to come. The process is open-ended so what you say is up to you. Submit your message with a photo that is important to you.
  2. Participate in the photo promises project. Think about one new action that you could take in 2016 to reduce your environmental footprint.  This could be something in the home or in the community. Write it down, take a photo and submit it to deartomorrow.org.
  3. Participate in the crowdfunding campaign. Our team has raised over $14,000 in donations and commitments from over 150 people ranging from $10 to $1500. Contributions in all amounts are welcome.

Contribute a skill or expertise to the project. Our all-volunteer team is always looking for creative and motivated people to join in the project. Contact us if you have an idea about how you can contribute.

Crate Diggers Part 1: A Man & His Projector

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Box of films inherited by Andrew Bobola from his maternal grandfather, Donald Tyler.

If you’re one of those people who visit thrift stores and flea markets on a regular or even semi-regular basis, you know it’s not always easy to be amazed by what you find. Classic rock vinyl, outdated cooking books, clothing, antique hardware, and forgotten electronics almost always litter the shelves, boxes, and tables. So, when Andrew Bobola of Pawtucket, RI — a seasoned secondhand crate digger — stumbled upon a vintage Revere 85 8mm home projector in a local Pawtucket Salvation Army, it really caught his eye. NEMMC recently sat down with Andrew to learn more about his unique discovery, his patience and determination to bring the projector back to life, and how his somewhat impulse decision to bring the projector home has opened up a new way for he and his family to connect with their family’s past.

NEMMC: Walk us through your experience of first finding the vintage Revere 85 8mm home projector.

Andrew Bobola: A few years ago I was shopping at the local Salvation Army looking for the usual VHS and vinyl records and stumbled on a case (priced for $20). My curiosity got the best of me, so I popped it open and saw a projector in (what I thought was) perfect condition.

NEMMC: Did you decide to buy it right then and there? If so, why?

AB: Yes. I really liked the style and look of the projector. I had never seen anything like it before (in person) and the price was right. I knew if I didn’t buy it it would definitely not be there if I waiting and came back for it. Originally I thought it would just be a nice display piece…  

NEMMC: How did you make sense of what you had found and what to do next?

AB: Once I got it home I made a few Google searches to see what I could find. I discovered that it was a Revere 85 home projector and that it was actually missing a few pieces (a power cord, etc).

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Bobola’s Revere 85 8mm projector.

In my excitement of actually finding it at the store I overlooked the fact that it was somewhat incomplete. I also reached out to a few friends in Boston who know about film (Film Conservator at the Harvard Film Archive, Liz Coffey) to inquire about what exactly I had and what to do next with it. I also took to eBay to see if I had found something rare (I had NO intentions of flipping the project to make a profit, but rather to learn a little more and see what sorts of options I might have). It was after finding a few other projectors like mine I was able to figure out what kind of power cord I was going to need to make it fully functional.

First, I found an owner’s manual and ordered it with the hopes of learning all of the ins and outs about how it worked and what missing parts I had to track down. I also began reading a few message boards where other people also looking for projector power cords were sharing a lot of helpful information about what I would need (I didn’t want to just use any cord and risk damaging the projector.) I was also concerned about spending a lot of money to get it working again (not knowing what, if any, internal damage there might be) so my focus was definitely on finding a good deal.

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Revere 85 8mm Projector Manual.

Eventually I found and ordered a cord. After receiving it I set everything up, got it to power up, ran the motor, everything seemed good…until I attempted to flip on the light. The bulb was totally blown out. I went back to the Internet with the hope of finding the correct replacement (I needed a specific size, wattage, etc.) but it proved a lot harder to find than the cord. After a while, still with no luck, I had to sideline my little project.

After about of year I stumbled on a few of my mom’s 8mm home movies that were originally part of my grandfather’s collection and thought how cool it would be to be able to watch them in their original format. But how? I thought — if I could find that bulb — my projector might be the answer I was looking for. (At this point the projector was sitting in storage waiting for a place to be displayed.)

Once again I took to the Internet but this time I found what I needed! Once the bulb came arrived I watched a video on YouTube about how to properly load it into the projector.

NEMMC: What was the experience like watching these home movies for the first time?

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Tyler home movie: Bobola’s mother, Sandra, celebrates her 1st birthday, ca. 1965, 8mm.

AB: I really enjoyed being able to watch these films. After I got the projector working fully I immediately began viewing the films: my mom’s 1st birthday party, Thanksgiving Day, and other random shots of their neighborhood at the time.

I had seen pictures from my mom’s childhood but to see this was much cooler. I waited for her to come home from work and surprised her with the films. In the near future we plan to have my grandmother over to watch them with us so she can give us a play by play of who exactly is in them and to share any other stories about what was happening at the time.

 

Collector Communities & the Magnetism of Obsolete Media

The rush. There’s a rush you get when you’re rifling through boxes and crates of VHS tapes hoping to stumble upon that rare gem you’ve been looking for since high school. These boxes seem to always have a similar scent, that faintly familiar smell of a basement closet or a relative’s apartment (and that relative is always a heavy smoker.) The hunt is something I know all too well about. Since middle school I’ve obsessed over horror films and have spent (and continue to spend) hours researching, hunting for, and collecting movies on a variety of (mainly now obsolete) formats: laserdisc, betamax, VHS, and more recently DVD and blu-ray. (I also have some Video 8s tucked away.)

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John Campopiano with part of his movie collection, 2015

In my seventeen years of collecting I’ve come to realize that certain movie genres have greater appeal than others with respect to those diehard collectors: horror, exploitation, sci-fi, action and kung, and the more vague drive-in style trash/cult genres typically from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

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Lynne and Steve Salvail, owners of the now defunct American Video (Seekonk, MA)

Like many others, I wax nostalgic about being a wide-eyed kid in our local rental store (American Video) browsing the horror aisles. (Certain VHS covers are permanently burned into my brain.) Indeed, it seems as though even within a relatively small subculture of collectors there exist distinct subgroups who favor or specialize in specific areas from genre to case style (clamshell vs. slipcase, for example).

Below are some favorite hard-to-find tapes from my VHS collection. (Top, left to right: NUKIE (1987); GANJASAURUS REX (1987); WHEEZY! (asthmatic dragon video for kids, date unknown); THE BRAIN (1988, Greek version). Bottom, left to right: SLITHIS (1978, aka SPAWN OF THE SLITHIS); TREMORS (1990, screening tape with alt slipcase); TO CATCH A YETI (1995).

 

In her 2014 article for The A.V. Club,”Direct From Video: The Rise of the VHS Collector“, Katie Rife talks about some of the quirky particulars we collectors often experience when she says,

These fetishists fall into two broadly defined camps: the nostalgists, who are looking to relive childhood memories, and the aesthetes, who are drawn to the roughhewn beauty of low-budget horror. Both, like any group of collectors, err on the completist side—collecting every title from long- defunct distributors like Unicorn Video and Midnight Video is a common goal—and live to unearth hard-to-find or undiscovered videos that will make fellow hobbyists seethe with jealousy.

But regardless of your collecting preference, one needs outlets and venues in which to share, trade, buy, sell, collect, and get educated. Today, with so many subculture communities meeting and exchanging information via the Internet, finding these kinds of opportunities to meet fellow collectors in the physical world has become rarer and rarer.

Thankfully, however, there are people like Joe Fay at the Lyric Hall theater in New Haven, CT, who recognize that there’s not only a lingering interest in the VHS format but also a need for events and opportunities for collectors to come together to share knowledge and search for that long lost copy of something strange, or bizarre, or maybe even beautiful. So, when I learned about a VHS swap meet and screening event, Magnetic Fest, happening at the historic Lyric Hall theater (once home to regional vaudeville shows and variety acts) this past fall, I made sure I was there. After the event NEMMC caught up with Joe to talk tapes, Lyric Hall, and the increasingly fascinating world of VHS collecting.

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Lyric Hall theater, New Haven, CT

NEMMC: How and when did the idea for Magnetic Fest originate? 

Joe Fay: As soon as I started programming for Lyric Hall in October 2014, I wanted to host a VHS swap at the theater. It’s a grand old dame of a place, really a one-of-a-kind setting for watching movies, music, theater, dance, and other creative arts. But I really thought that a VHS swap and screening day would work well in the theater, to mix some old with some older, in terms of the age of the theater compared to the age of the VHS format. Somehow it made sense, to roll in what is essentially a dead format to many people, and give it new life at a place that has survived for over a century. I had attended VHS swaps in Texas, where I lived for most of my life.

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SEVERED event flyer

Then, last year, a friend and I drove to Pennsylvania to attend SEVERED, pretty much the premier VHS swap in the country. I think it was about two weeks after SEVERED that we had MAGNETIC FEST on the schedule.

NEMMC: There were some special events scheduled throughout the Fest. Can you tell us about whom you asked to curate these events and why they were asked?

JF: We had three screenings during the festival: RUN COYOTE RUN (1987), NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985), and FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) (1983). As it turns out, all three came about as the result of friendly relationships I had built with each of the releasing companies. The first movie, RUN COYOTE RUN, was distributed by Bleeding Skull Video (distributed by Mondo) in Austin, Texas, and I’m friends with one of the two guys who runs Bleeding Skull.

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR was distributed by Vinegar Syndrome, based in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had met some of the fine folks who run Vinegar Syndrome at Connecticut HorrorFest, then worked with them at Lyric Hall on some screenings, including the amazing RAW FORCE (1982)!

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They’ve been amazing partners, and hopefully we’ll continue to see the partnership between Vinegar Syndrome and Lyric Hall blossom. The third film was released through LUNCHMEAT Magazine, whose owner, Josh Schafer is just the best we have going in the world of VHS. Josh is one of a handful of people who truly lives the life of VHS, and he’s a wonderful champion of the format. When I was trying to fill out the screening schedule for Magnetic Fest, I needed a third screening. I actually announced the festival without a third screening. I billed it as “COMING SOON” or something like that, and was confident that I would find somebody to screen something in the meantime.

COzQ2gVWgAAqVMXNo more than fifteen minutes after I posted the initial rundown of Magnetic Fest, Josh contacted me to see if I wanted to run a movie as a SECRET SCREENING because the movie was about to be released on VHS as a surprise offering, and it was too early to announce the title of the movie. I jumped at the chance to show the movie, and of course did so sight-unseen. If it was good enough for Lunchmeat, it was good enough for me. We were able to tell people a day or two before the festival, and it turns out that the movie, FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) had its world theatrical premiere at Magnetic Fest in little ole New Haven. Subsequently, the movie was released on VHS by Lunchmeat.

 

NEMMC: How did you solicit vendor involvement for Magnetic Fest? Who were some of the vendors that participated? 

JF: Vendor involvement was all solicited through the Lyric Hall website and social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. I personally emailed several prominent VHS collectors in the New York area, but not one of them was able to come. The lion’s share of vendors were local, which pleased me to no end.

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VHS for sale at Magnetic Fest 2015 at Lyric Hall in New Haven, CT

We had one vendor from Massachusetts and a late entry from Long Island, but the rest of the vendors, including me, were from the New Haven area. Interestingly, one of the vendors from the New Haven area just happened to come to one of our weekly exploitation movie screenings, and saw the poster for the event in our lobby. Turns out she worked for CBS Fox video in the ’80s, and she brought original production pieces and other marketing materials from RAISING ARIZONA.

NEMMC: What (if any) sort of feedback did you receive about the Fest?

JF: I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews about the event. If we do it again, I will tweak the amount of time we keep the vendor’s room open, because I think seven hours was too long. Also, we’re toying with the idea of opening the vendor’s room for free, and charging for the screenings. But, we’ll play around with it if we decide to do it again. I’m assured that everybody who came had something good to say about the affair, so keep an eye on the Lyric Hall calendar.

NEMMC: Lyric Hall is clearly a historic space and therefore a fitting venue for those interested in VHS and obsolete media to congregate. In the past it served as a vaudeville outlet and silent movie auditorium for those in the New Haven, CT area. Can you tell us about the history of Lyric Hall and how you became involved with it?

JF: Lyric Hall opened as a silent movie theater in 1913, and later served the vaudeville crowds until, I think, the ’30s. At some point, the theater fell into disrepair, then served as an antiques shop for awhile before John Cavaliere bought it about eleven years ago now. John has lovingly restored the Hall to its present glory, and continues to tweak its look and feel.

My involvement with Lyric Hall started with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL in August 2014. I had just moved to New Haven from Texas, and was looking for a movie theater to get involved with, to do some, any kind of programming. I saw a listing for a screening of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL that I had just missed that previous weekend at the Hall. I called up and talked to John, explaining that I wanted to schedule and host movie screenings, something that I had done in my backyard in Texas, and always wanted to do in a more formal way. From the start, we were a match made in heaven. He pretty much left me free to schedule whatever I wanted. We did a month of Vincent Price movies

around Halloween, a month of rock musicals of the ’70s, a special screening of the New Haven movie DEATH COLLECTOR with the director, Tom Garrett, LIVE in person, and a bunch of other cool movies. Magnetic Fest was a logical extension of the movie programming, and fit alongside it just perfectly.

NEMMC: There seems to be a small yet passionate subculture of VHS enthusiasts who live and breathe collecting and trading. In your opinion, why do you think interest in the format has persisted well after its heyday?  

JF: It’s one part nostalgia, one part preservation, one part community, and two parts fun. Nostalgia: most people who collect VHS want to remember the thrill of the video store. Preservation: there are hundreds, even thousands of movies on VHS that have not graduated to later formats, so it is absolutely vital that we have collectors out there sourcing and preserving these movies. Community: serious genre movie nerds feel very comfortable with their own kind. It’s just like any other subculture, where people find meaning, identification, and self-worth in knowing that there are like-minded people out there pursuing the same “dead” technology that they love.

I don’t think this current trend for VHS will last long. In fact, it’s already on the decline, if you ask me. What will be left is what is always left after a trend goes away: the truly serious collectors. And thank God for them.

NEMMC: Jumping off the last question, what do you think are the primary drivers for VHS collectors? It’s certainly not for the superior visual quality!

JF: See above for most of the answer here, but the question of quality is a good one. I don’t understand people who, given the choice between a high definition, widescreen version of ALIEN or the pan-and-scan VHS of ALIEN will pop in the VHS of ALIEN. I don’t get that. Have you SEEN the blu-ray of ALIEN!? It’s AMAZING! To watch ALIEN on VHS today seems to me to be nostalgia just for nostalgia’s sake, and that doesn’t interest me. In the recent Noah Baumbach movie, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, there’s a scene where a Brooklyn hipster played by Adam Driver pops in a tape of THE HOWLING. This character is really into vinyl, VHS, and other retro stuff, and so naturally he enjoys THE HOWLING on VHS. But why? Shout Factory just released an amazing blu-ray of THE HOWLING, and it’s GORGEOUS! VHS-Logo.svgYet, this chump still finds value in watching this great movie on VHS. To each his own, I guess, but that’s not for me. Give me the better picture quality and sound, and leave nostalgia at the door for movies like ALIEN and THE HOWLING.

Now, I would think differently about watching something like NIGHT VISION (1987) on VHS. The movie itself was SHOT ON VIDEO, so it’s natural to watch it on its original format. As my friend Zack Carlson is fond of saying, “Why would you want to watch a movie shot on a camcorder, on blu-ray?” And he’s absolutely right.

There is also one other issue to me that helps me forgive people watching sweeping epics on VHS, and that concerns access to and availability of titles on home video. Many, many people have built large collections of movies on VHS $1 at a time by shopping at Goodwill and other thrift stores where VHS is cheap. You can certainly amass movies much faster this way than buying blu-rays at $20 or $25 each. And that is certainly understandable as a way to enjoy movies on home video. You just have to stop caring about presentation, which isn’t such a big deal to most people, sadly.

NEMMC: Are you a VHS collector yourself or do you merely admire from a distance?

vhs-398740_960_720JF: Yes, I am certainly a collector of a sort.I’ve always had some sort of video collection, going back to my dad buying two VCRs and dubbing movies in the ’80s. Just because ofmy age, I started collecting movies mainly when DVD hit, so most of my collection is composed of DVD.

I was one of those format snobs who left VHS behind for the greener pastures and correct aspect ratios of DVD. I wish I had tempered that transition more. At the present time, my focus on VHS collecting lies in two main areas: shot-on-video movies and movies not available in any other format. In that direction lies salvation.

Also, this:

Sifting: Technology, Trash, & Digging for Memories

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[Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture blog header image] Courtesy of It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
Do you remember those light up Santa lawn ornaments seen just about everywhere around Christmas back in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s? Well, they’re actually known as plastic blow mold light up lawn decorations and we had three of them when I was a kid: 2 3-foot candles and a Santa Claus. Once a year these objects lit up my life until, sadly, they finally burnt out and were relegated to the trash bin.

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[Santa lawn decoration] Courtesy of Homecolorideas.com
In the years since, I’ve thought of these objects frequently – in all their faded yellow and fire hazard beauty – and have longed to replace them. A reasonable person might ask, “Why? These things are just worthless trash.” Precisely. Oddball objects from my childhood (objects often created with a finite lifespan in mind) tend to be burrowed at the forefront of my mind and imagination. Fueled by a nostalgia for what was unquestionably an exciting and loving childhood, I find pleasure in scouring the various outlets (both in digital and physical) in the hope of finding items of yesteryear. And it turns out I’m hardly the lone traveler on this hazy sentimental quest for the forgotten and unsavory.

Brian Farrell of Abington, Massachusetts, first appeared on my radar when I stumbled across his ItsTrashCulture Instagram account somewhere in early 2015. From the moment I saw his colorful and entertaining posts (documenting everything from his flea market finds to obscure limited edition Halloween cereals) I was an admirer. It wasn’t just that I found his posts about “trash culture” entertaining, and his rationale for why trash culture is valid familiar, it was discovering someone who shares a strikingly similar appreciation for those material objects that appear to have been forgotten and swept away into the vast, shady corners of pop culture memory. Here is someone acting as a kind of pop culture archaeologist. My interest was piqued.

NEMMC sat down with ItsTrashCulture a.k.a Brian Farrell to talk about his motivations for collecting, his successful blog Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture, and how technology fits (and sometimes doesn’t fit) into his entire operation.

NEMMC: What is trash culture?

ITC: It’s an appreciation for the oddball and the obscure, the type of stuff that the masses might consider worthless or a waste of time.

Not everything is going to be [Ernest] Hemingway, [Steven] Spielberg or The Beatles, and that’s okay. Learn to celebrate the bizarre and the unappreciated with the same vigor usually reserved for “high art.” Trash doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. It doesn’t have to be thrown away. It shouldn’t be thrown away. Whether it’s art, music or a physical object, these things deserve to be preserved. We treat so much of our culture as disposable, moving on when anything shiny and new presents itself, and that’s criminal. You can find something worthwhile in even the trashiest of things if you look hard enough. Something worth celebrating. Something worth saving.

Not everything is going to be [Ernest] Hemingway, [Steven] Spielberg or The Beatles, and that’s okay. Learn to celebrate the bizarre and the unappreciated with the same vigor usually reserved for “high art.” Trash doesn’t need to have a negative connotation. It doesn’t have to be thrown away. It shouldn’t be thrown away. Whether it’s art, music or a physical object, these things deserve to be preserved. We treat so much of our culture as disposable, moving on when anything shiny and new presents itself, and that’s criminal. You can find something worthwhile in even the trashiest of things if you look hard enough. Something worth celebrating. Something worth saving.

NEMMC: Is there a connection between saving material objects from your youth and possessing a resistance to entering adulthood?

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[Movie novelizations for Dick Tracy] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
ITC: Resistance is maybe not the right word. There’s an element of avoiding adult responsibilities when you’re out hunting for or surrounding yourself with things that were intended for ages 8 and up. I don’t think that being an adult and enjoying childish things are mutually exclusive, though. It’s a distraction, maybe; a form of escapism in seeking out the types of things that you enjoyed in your younger days. I wouldn’t say it’s any different than binge-watching a television series or reading a book. Some people enjoy doing crossword puzzles and others like to complete their collection of “vintage” Toxic Crusaders action figures.

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[Toxic Crusaders toy collection] Courtesy of Zombiehamster.com
NEMMC: What drives your collecting?

ITC: There’s this jolt of electricity when you rediscover something from your childhood that you’ve nearly forgotten. It starts as a spark, but that energy spreads quickly. Suddenly remembering this thing also means remembering how you discovered it the first time. It can transport you back to being a kid again, those hazy days of yesteryear or perhaps a memory far more specific. You might recall a sleepover at your best friend’s house simply by finding an old He-Man toy at your local Savers Thrift.

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[Recent acquisition of VHS tapes from local library] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
It’s more than just adding another piece to your collection. It’s about reawakening and reconnecting with a part of yourself that you thought you’d lost.

…It’s partly driven by nostalgia, but there’s also an element of satisfying that primitive hunter-gatherer still lurking deep inside. Some collectors are content to purchase on eBay, knowing exactly what it is that they want and how to get it. That feels like cheating. You have to go out and really search for stuff – leave no flea market or garage sale unsifted. There are times where I enjoy the act of digging through bins and boxes more than anything else. Not knowing exactly what you might find inside, the strange new things you could discover, or perhaps there’s an old “friend” you’ll reconnect with. And sometimes you find nothing at all, but that’s okay. There’s always next time. There’s always a next time.

NEMMC: Have digital technologies impacted the way in which you source and preserve ephemeral objects?

ITC: Absolutely, yes.

..I find it difficult to express myself properly here. It could be that I feel so disconnected from a time when I didn’t constantly have a smartphone on hand to use as a resource and a tool. Possessing the ability to document every single aspect of my life: What I had for breakfast, what I was reading on my lunch break, the weird things I discovered when I stopped at the thrift shop after work. If there’s something I don’t recognize there, I can likely identify it via a search engine in just a few seconds. Or I can check in with one of my many collectible-based Facebook groups to see if anyone can ID it. [A primary example is the public Facebook group, Vintage Toys and Action Figures.]

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Snap a picture and share it on Instagram. Immediate preservation and there for everyone to discover.

Old VHS can be uploaded onto YouTube and then tossed away. A landfill of obsolete plastic and magnetic tape thanks to digital videos.

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Screenshot, 1980s diet infomercial

Commercials people haven’t seen in twenty years are suddenly available at the click of a button. Be careful, though, because it’ll lead you down a dark path where you’ll waste away hours of your life watching animated ads and ancient infomercials. Remember when Max Headroom was trying to sell Coca-Cola?

Catch the wave, kids.

NEMMC: What do you see as being the relationship between “trash culture” and that which would be considered by the masses to be high art or material culture of lasting value and significance, such as jewelry?

ITC: People have a strange relationship with the things they enjoy, whether it’s considered high art or something else entirely. The concept of guilty pleasures, of “so bad, it’s good”, and everything else in-between is sort of mind-boggling to me. Value is an arbitrary thing that we assign to objects and to art; who’s to say that you can’t find true merit in the works of R.L Stine? Why is CITIZEN KANE (1941) more culturally relevant than HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (1988)? It usually comes down to the product’s quality – perceived or otherwise – and that’s not always fair.

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[Poster] Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)
You may have an artist that is more technically proficient than another, but that shouldn’t devalue the latter’s work. Both are as equally important to different people.

You should never be embarrassed to enjoy things that may be seen as “trash” to the masses. There’s obviously something there that speaks to you, and you should never apologize or make excuses for your passions. While these things may appear worthless or bad to others, it’s the value and significance that you assign to them that truly matters.

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[Assorted comic books] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
Trash and high art are actually the same thing if you look at them the right way.

The same holds true for material things; a bottle of Crystal Pepsi could be worth its weight in gold and jewels to one person. It sounds crazy, I know, but I’ve seen people drop $50 on boxes of Hostess Twinkies before…

NEMMC: Items that are assumed to have a finite existence, or perhaps deemed outright ephemeral (here I’m thinking of fast food toys, stamps, toys with no clear association to an external product such as a film or television show, etc): What is the appeal of or draw to these things?

ITC: Speaking of strange relationships…

I hate seeing things simply tossed aside, which can be occasionally unhealthy living in such a disposable culture. Parent purchasing odd toys and collectibles for their children that get tossed aside when something new comes along. A couple months, maybe even weeks, and here’s the next big thing for kids to obsess over. Maybe those same children have decided that they want an iPhone instead. So, these families end up with boxes of Pogs and Pokemon cards sitting up in the attic for a decade or more. They’ll eventually be donated to the Salvation Army, but who’s going to  want them now?

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[Intellivision video games] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
That’s where I step in.

I feel oddly protective of these ephemeral things. I’ve talked before on my blog about taking unwanted and unappreciated objects, toys and books and VHS, taking them home with me to clean them up and treat them right. Like a sick or injured animal, I want to nurse them back to health. If no one else wants to protect and preserve them, then I’ll do it gladly. Sometimes I’m able to connect with someone else who can appreciate these things, and that’s even better. I’m always happy to get them into the hands of other collectors that will treasure them. Spread the wealth. Share the trash.

NEMMC: Talk about venues for sourcing prime trash culture: Flea markets, thrift stores, estate sales, antique stores, and so on. What, if any, significance, do these spaces hold for you?

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[Flea market hunting] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
ITC: It all comes back to the hunt. You’re not going to be able to walk into a big-box retailer and discover the kinds of treasure that are hiding away in places like flea markets and thrift shops. Literally hiding away. Part of the allure in visiting second hand sellers is the actual act of digging through boxes of stuff and not knowing what you might find. What others may have deemed as worthless junk, well, it could be exactly what you’re searching for. You’ll never know what’s lurking in bins of beat up toys, though, unless you’re willing to get your hands dirty. And your hands will get plenty dirty at the flea market.

Look at it as a form of pop cultural archeology; excavating long lost remnants of decades prior to best remember where we came from and where we’re heading.

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[Food soldier toys] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
Why would anyone want to forget about the Troll doll resurgence of the early ‘90s? There’s no better way to preserve such a culturally relevant period than discovering a “burial ground” of Battle Trolls at your neighbor’s garage sale. Future generations will thank you for your dedication and hard work. Your name will be synonymous with saving something truly meaningful from being lost forever.

NEMMC: Why start a blog and Instagram account and blog? What do you get out of maintaining these digital venues?

ITC: The idea behind starting up Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture was a simple one. I wanted to write about the stupid and wonderful things that catch my attention, whether it’s waxing nostalgic about VHS or showing off the decades-old party supplies I find at liquidation outlets.

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[Homemade sculpture, rescued from local thrift shop] Courtesy of Pop Pop! It’s Trash Culture/Brian Farrell
The blog was intended to be a place where I could share things I’m passionate about, hoping that it would allow me to connect with like-minded individuals with a taste for the odd and the obscure. It’s difficult finding people who enjoy similar films/music/books/whatever in your day-to-day routine, but the Internet opened a door to meeting good-natured weirdos who just want to chat about Happy Meal toys and the films of Fred Olen Ray.

Expanding into other social medias, like Instagram and Twitter, have allowed me to reach an even larger audience. There’s a glut of nostalgia and pop culture- based blogs out there, and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but by broadening my reach, I’ve been able to connect with more readers and several of my blogging peers. Instagram, especially, has been an important tool in building the It’s Trash Culture brand. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a picture of my latest VHS finds.

After our interview I found myself with even more questions for Brian about trash culture and his own collecting: How does he interpret this concept of “preservation” with respect to the material objects he collects? Where is the line between the indiscriminate amassing of stuff (some might call it hoarding) and targeted collecting? Does he possess any kind of cataloging system in order to monitor what he has in his collection? What’s more, how has the formation of larger collector communities supported and/or hindered the aspect of object discoverability? Finally, I would love to probe further into the restorative work he is embarking on with some of the objects he unearths. I look forward to following-up with Brian sometime in the near future.

The Tao of Trash

By Siobhan Lyons, PhD Candidate
Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies
Faculty of Arts
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

“For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century–Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot–had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience–from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”

-Marshall McLuhan, Playboy Magazine, March 1969

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Courtesy of Trash Culture Journal

An Intro to Trash

The above is an excerpt from famed media scholar Marshall McLuhan, in an interview with Playboy magazine. His notion that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experiences, from trash to treasure, shows the theorists’ own perception of where art comes from. Moreover, McLuhan himself can be described as transgressing the ordinary boundaries of art—appearing in Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, being alluded to several times in hit HBO program The Sopranos, and of course, being interviewed in Playboy magazine, as authors Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene and Vladimir Nabokov have also, already disrupting the conventions set up around high and low brow forms of culture.

Trash Culture is an elusive concept, and does not conform to one particular cultural group or categorisation, which is why, then, it proves to be an intriguing concept. More than popular culture, trash culture carries with it certain cultural and societal definitions and assumptions, all of which are subjective, though undeniably unfavourable. 4100886174_7ac06e4196_oBut it changes and adapts. J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous epic series The Lord of the Rings was considered ‘juvenile trash’ when first published (Sandbrook, 2015), but has gone on to be included on various ‘greatest works of literature’ lists, and is now considered essential reading for most youngsters.

Trash touches each and every aspect of culture; from music to fashion and literature to philosophy. Anybody who has read or is familiar with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957), for instance, will appreciate the merging of theory and trash in such essays as ‘The World of Wrestling’ and ‘Toys’, in which Barthes shows how useful these so-called ‘trashy’ elements are in society. Theorist Susan Sontag, too, was known for her embrace of pop culture, keen to shatter the ‘false divide between pop culture and “high” culture’ (Popova). Stravens, moreover, argues that Sontag embraced ‘certain forms of pop culture as simply another turn of the avant-garde’, and ‘embraced mass culture at the same moment that she was embracing the French nouveau roman’ (283). Objects seen as belonging to separate ‘fields’ are therefore considered, by some, to exist on the same plane of cultural existence, with trashy mass market paperbacks coexisting on the same bookshelf with Tolstoy or Nietzsche. The assumption that trash cannot function alongside high art is perhaps this century’s greatest myth.

What is Trash Culture?

But what exactly constitutes trash culture? As a theme or issue, it is relatively under-explored in both academic and everyday criticism. Richard Keller Simon’s book Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition (1999) 511QJuzWmLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_is one of the primary texts concerning the dynamics of trash culture. ‘The relationship between great books and popular entertainment’, he notes, ‘is important and worth examining carefully. What really is the difference between trash culture and the great tradition? Why is The National Enquirer so bad and a tragedy by Euripides so good?’ (2).

For Keller, the difference between trash culture and high culture is in storytelling methods, with Dumb and Dumber standing in for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Clueless a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, and Rambo a revision of the Greek classic The Iliad. And then there is Star Wars, perhaps the most notable creation to be considered trashy, whose narrative is taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in many respects is considered a retelling of The Bible. Trash, then, appears to be linked to a deviation from an original. Considered an inferior product, it gleefully repeats, becoming what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls ‘difference within repetition’.

Indeed, the issue goes beyond mere class and elitism, and extends towards anything from medium to aesthetics. The revamped version of classic stories supposedly affronts the integrity of the original, making the familiar strange in the process.

Moritz BaBler argues that: ‘the aesthetics of Trash can either appreciate the Die Hard movies starring Bruce Willis or the disco world of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever directly or mediated’ (32). For Vexen Crabtree, trash culture features ‘Cheap thrills, shock, brainless action, explosions’, with ‘no concentration or depth required’. This is what separates trash from the popular: its apparent absence of any redeeming intellectual quality. Yet this is also where a supposed contradiction emerges, as many highly intellectual figures profess their love of trash. die_hard_by_ron_guyatt-d5mc7ji.jpgAs Sontag herself once noted, she should not have to choose between The Doors and Dostoevsky: ‘I am for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture’.

The simple pleasure of zoning out, long considered a negative trait of humans, is seen to be beneficial for the brain. According to Lucia Peters, science backs up the benefits of mindlessness, saying: ‘Simply put? It’s an excellent way for you mind to solve problems in less conventional ways’ (2015). Evolutionary speaking, temporarily removing the need for in-depth concentration allows the brain to formulate ideas that would not otherwise form. It also gives the brain a much-needed chance to relax, making Trash enormously beneficial in the process.

There is, of course, the simple notion that anything trashy is that which appeals to the masses. But why is this considered such a bad thing? If some medium or story is appreciated on a wide scale, why does this translate as problematic? For theorist Raymond Williams, writing in 1961, the issue is simply that mass appeal translates as the declining quality of the medium itself.

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Raymond Williams

Discussing the notion of a mass public in relation to literature, he writes: ‘On the one hand there is the fear that as the circle of readers extends, standards will decline, and literature be threatened by “blotterature”. Related to this, but involving other prejudices, has been an essentially political fear that, if the common man reads, both quality and order (sometimes the one standing for the other) will be threatened’ (179).

We associate trash culture with more recent decades, but even in the Victorian era, trash was affiliated with the widespread dissemination of books, previously reserved for a minor elite. Famous figures such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain may have been celebrated for their focus on the working class, but ultimately they were derided by arbiters of taste who were keen to keep literature out of the hands of the lower classes. As Lisa Rodensky argues: ‘Reviewers note – both to praise and to blame – that Dickens’s novels reproduce the language of the lower classes’ (584). She explains:

Set against this cluster of meanings are those circulating in the reviews that relegate the popular to the lowest common denominator, a category of mass-produced novel and novelist that better classes of readers should resist for many reasons, among them the suspicion that a work which attracts so many readers will degrade them, make them part of a manipulated and undifferentiated mass reading public (584).

The issue then becomes about individuality, or what we may understand as the myth of individuality, and the desire to be differentiated from others, in which products and entertainment that is widely consumed makes us all the same. The more unique and obscure the product, seemingly the more unique we become. Because trash is unapologetically repetitive, it is seen to contribute to this dreaded system. Yet when it comes to choice of entertainment and consumerism, there is little difference between choosing between a pop singer such as Britney Spears and the more obscure Tom Waits. Why? Because according to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the products and entertainment we choose to define ourselves by actually say nothing meaningful about us at all. Indeed, they note that ‘something is provided for all so that none escape’. Rather than resisting the system, then, it becomes important to understand the benefits of trash and the place it has in society. Or, as Sontag argued, we may not have to choose between trash and ‘serious’ products at all: ‘There are contradictory impulses in everything’, she stated. Hence Star Wars novels such as The Courtship of Princess Leia may in fact go hand in hand with even the most complex Dostoevsky, without any threat to perceived ‘established’ categories of cultural acceptance.

Learning to Embrace Trash 

At this point it seems only necessary to point out that there is, of course, a distinction set up between Popular Culture and Trash Culture. Yet this distinction is replete with confusion and inconsistencies. While television programs such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer are, arguably, a part of high popular culture, reality television talk shows reside firmly within the area of trash culture.

One the website Human Truth, blogger Vexen Crabtree distinguishes between popular and trash culture:

There is a distinct difference between popular and trash culture. In many countries, the things that are massively popular are not intrinsically trashy. It is not essential that the most liked music has to be the most shallow music, nor that the most bought newspapers have to be the most absurd. The UK in particular has a popular culture that is very dumbed-down, but it has not always been like that (2001).

            In many instances, trash exists as a form of social anarchy, as seen in the British television program The Young Ones, and undoubtedly many others. Therefore, there is no one understanding of trash, though it has a pivotal role to play in shaping the cultural values of society.

The difference between popular and trash culture, then, is about its very approach; popular culture from Seinfeld to Twin Peaks contributes something intelligent and artistic, even if it appeals to elements as seemingly ‘crude’ as humour and sex. Trash culture is purposefully vulgar and sees the value in momentary mindlessness. A simple ‘Google images’ search gives a good indication of the aesthetics of trash: crude, colourful, and kitschy. Images of vibrant colours and outlandish appearances. It also involves images of sex and the body, the body transformed, alien, strange.

Returning to the beginning of this essay, Marshall McLuhan, whose perhaps most famous for his declaration that ‘the medium is the message’, becomes a useful figure in examining trash culture. His focus on how the medium itself, rather than the actual content, is useful insofar as we can see how moments in time and culture have been shaped by changing mediums.

The twentieth century, as Charlie Anders notes, was seen as the first wave of trash culture: ‘An era where there were a lot of 25 cent paperbacks with gun-toting lesbians on their covers, plus drive-in movies, stag films, cheap comics and weird burlesque shows’. Australian rock musician Dave Graney similarly celebrated the now respected genre of pulp fiction on Jennifer Byrne Presents: ‘The pulp world is very good because it was like 10 cent books for people. It was trash. It wasn’t coming through some critical avenue towards people. People just picked it up.

It was written for money. There was [sic] a lot of great characters in it’ (2011).

But Anders declares that we are currently living in the golden age of trash, and that the changing mechanisms of media in the 2010s exemplifies this celebration of trash:

Why is 2012 the best time ever to love pulp trash? Because we’re witnessing two things: the death spasms of old media, and the unruly birth of new media, at the same time. And both of these phenomena are unloading huge bounties of trash. You’re lucky to be alive at a time like this.

            Trash therefore becomes about experimentalism as a response to change. In the twentieth century, trash culture responded to the changes to literature, witnessing the birth of the magazine, the comic book, a new era which produced outlandish images. Now those very same mediums are changing and adapting, and the elusive space left over is where the experimentalism of trash finds its footing. The leftovers, the detritus, the excessive waste: these are the things that trash celebrates.

References

Anders, Charlie Jane. ‘Are we living in the Golden Age of Trash Culture right now?’ io9. December 6, 2012 http://io9.gizmodo.com/5917853/are-we-living-in-the-golden-age-of-trash-culture-right-now

Moritz BaBler. ‘New Standards of Beauty and Style and Taste: Expanding the Concept of Camp’. Quote, Double Quote: Aesthetics between High and Popular Culture. Paul Ferstl and Keyvan Sarkhosh (eds.). Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2005, pp. 23-43

Crabtree, Vexen. ‘Western Culture: Trash and Popular Culture, Elitism and Multiculturalism’. Human Truth. September 9, 2001. http://www.humantruth.info/culture.html

Lucia Peters. ‘Zoning Out Is Good For You, Says Science, So Go Ahead And Let Your Mind Wander Today’. Bustle, August 8, 2015, http://www.bustle.com/articles/102828-zoning-out-is-good-for-you-says-science-so-go-ahead-and-let-your-mind-wander

Popova, Maria. ‘Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us’. Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/11/susan-sontag-the-complete-rolling-stone-interview-1/

Rodensky, Lisa. ‘Popular Dickens’, Victorian Literature and Culture (2009), Vol. 37, 2009, pp. 583–607

Sandbrook, Daniel. ‘Did Tolkien Write Juvenile Trash?’ December 17, 2015. BBC Culture. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20151215-did-tolkien-write-juvenile-trash

Simon, Richard Keller. Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 1999.

Stravens, Ilan. Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 2012.

Williams. Raymond. The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1975.

Television

‘Jennifer Byrne Presents: Cult Books’, March 15, 2011, ABC http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s2815885.htm