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

 

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.

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 Good, the Bad, & the Nostalgic: Exploring the World of a Vaporwave Artist

By John Campopiano

What sorts of things inspire and propel your creative pursuits? How about neon lights? Swanky hotel lobbies? 1980s or 1990s designer clothing? Elevator soundtracks? Carefree cruising on the boulevard? What about mid-summer rooftop cocktail soirées? Or the hissing of muffled analog? Dead media, the 8-bit era of video game consoles, or TV commercials from your youth? These images, eras, and ideas – somehow simultaneously familiar and yet foreign – are some of the primary themes and creative drivers behind the electronic music genre known as vaporwave.

Since  2012 one musician in particular, Luxury Elite, has been experiencing a steady rise in exposure as well as popularity.

Luxury Elite's 2015 album, World Class.
Cover for Luxury Elite’s 2015 album, World Class.

With 16 digital releases available (via their Bandcamp webpage) in addition to several physical releases on cassette, Luxury Elite has been pumping out dreamy, nostalgia-drenched grooves and, as a result, witnessed a healthy growth in followers which has only helped further cement vaporwave’s place in an ever-growing sea of electronic music sub-genres.

Excluding their own music-making, Luxury Elite also spent time running the now defunct Fortune 500 – a music label with heavy leanings toward vaporwave artists as well as a kind of, LE stated in a 2014 interview with Hong Kong Express, “last resort label” for artists unsure of where to take their music (but who also wanted to make a larger splash than most self-releasing efforts can achieve.)

We recently sat down with Luxury Elite to talk about everything from their creative inspirations in and process for music-making to the nuts and bolts of the vaporwave genre including some of the elements LE feels define it. We also touched on how they source some of the found sounds, “muzak“, and other samples that can be heard in their music, as well as some of the legal issues they worry about encountering along the way.

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New England Media & Memory Coalition: Can you give readers a basic primer on what vaporwave is?
Luxury Elite: [Vaporwave] is sample-heavy music, usually sourced from jazz/funk/disco songs from the 70s, 80s, even some 90s material. It’s sort of like when you were a kid playing with your sister’s boombox and you had fun speeding up and slowing down her cassettes you were listening to. It sounds silly when written, but there’s just something about the genre that really makes a person feel nostalgic about your childhood, about the 80s; it’s like a rose-colored glasses sort of vibe. It really romanticizes the 80s especially.

NEMMC: Can you talk a little about what your compositional style and whether or not you’re performing on any of your albums, or if at the moment LE’s music is 100% sampled?

LE: 100% sampled for now. I cut and chop these songs myself via a WAVpad editor and then add effects from there. I used to use Audacity but now I am playing around with Audition. I’ve almost included original composition on Crystal, because I felt like it felt empty, but I felt like my composition was really bad so I didn’t include it. I would like to include them one of these days, I just need to stop being so down on myself in regards to it. It took me months to actually do Luxury Elite because of insecurities but I did it, and look what happened.

NEMMC: Since the birth of this sub-genre has it evolved in any way or has the genetic makeup of it stayed relatively unchanged?

LE: It has evolved quite a bit. In the beginning, the genre was a bit more simple. Lots of looping, very simplistic stuff going on. As it gained popularity, new artists came along and then sort of went into their own directions. It’s been going into a more ambient direction, sort of a strange cryogenic ‘chamber-y’ feel, and I think Dream Catalogue [a vaporwave/dream music label] has a lot to do with that. I’ve also been noticing the new trend of trying to make vaporwave without samples, too, which I think is really neat when pulled off effectively. With all of these new directions, though, I feel like everybody still has a parallel path to the vaporwave sound and feel.

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Cover for Luxury Elite’s 2013 album, TV Party.

NEMMC: You’ve said in past interviews that the music you create transports you to a different time – a different life. Can you talk more about the transformative outlet vaporwave music provides you?
LE: You know how certain shows can suck you in, where you feel like you’re in that show? Twin Peaks was like that for me, I felt like I got lost in that world as I watched it, and I didn’t want to leave. That’s how vaporwave has felt for me since day one. It’s like I’m stuck in this world of aerial skyscraper videos and 1980s commercials. When I work on Lux, I imagine this world where Lux is a real person, living a life of grandeur. Never runs out of money, always with a wine glass in hand and the nicest pair of earrings. I’ve noticed when I am feeling down is when I make the best Lux music, because I run away into that world and use that as my escape from the real world. Sometimes the real world is too much to take, sometimes it’s good to escape. But sometimes is key, you can’t let yourself escape from the real world forever.

NEMMC: Can you talk a bit about the found sound / samples you use in your music, and how you they’re sourced?
LE: I usually find my music through hours of searching for tracks on YouTube. Music searching puts me in a trance, but there have been many times I have gone through and have found nothing. I am extremely picky with my samples.

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Luxury Elite’s album, Fantasy, on cassette.

NEMMC: On an aesthetic level what kinds of sounds are you attracted to? Would you say Luxury Elite has a “signature sound” or characteristic — even if buried underneath a sea of other sounds?
LE: I’ve noticed a lot of my songs have claps in them, I think I have a thing for songs with claps. They really have to pack a punch for me to fully enjoy them, or be one of those types of songs that gets stuck in your head, an “earworm”. I really like songs that ignite the imagery I like to use for Lux: skylines, beautiful people, lots and lots of gold. I like the songs to sound rich.

NEMMC: Would you say that your musical inspirations and creativity is at all fueled by nostalgia? Please talk about how nostalgia and longing have impacted you personally and musically.
LE: Nostalgia has been a huge motivation throughout my life. As a kid, I was obsessed with watching television with my parents and my sister. I’d be obsessed with watching MTV (fun fact, Sinead O’Connor made me cry at four years old, I guess her tears affected me that hard) and Mary Tyler Moore and Jenny Jones. I lived in front of the television when I wasn’t playing outside, and I know people usually frown upon that kind of thing but I sort of thank my parents for it because it really shaped how I am today. I am obsessed with pop culture and nostalgia and I am so thrilled that the 90s came back into style especially; it brings back all of those old memories for me.

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Image from Luxury Elite’s video mashup, Fantasy VHS.

Another fun fact for you: I used to really hate the 80s…I thought the fashion was cheesy, the music was awful, and it was just a bad time. My feelings on that started to change in 2011, which happened thanks to Tobacco, one of my all-time favorite artists and biggest inspirations. He released two DVDs called Fucked Up Friends that were filled with ridiculous commercials/porn/exercise tapes and the Fantasy VHS thing I did a few years ago totally ripped from that. But anyways, Turntable.fm came along and my girl Liz (from SPF420) got me into hypnagogic pop, especially James Ferraro’s, Night Dolls With Hairspray, album and LA Vampires’ release with Matrix Metals. It sucked me into a vortex. Around the same time I got way into Midnight Television. I knew of vaporwave because of Vektroid, who led the way into getting me into vaporwave. I would have never heard of it had it not been for her, Laserdisc Visions, release. I didn’t really get that release at the time, nor did I fully grasp the vaporwave concept until I got into Midnight Television the same week I fell in love with LA Vampires. I lost internet [access] shortly after that; Mr. Elite and I were too broke to pay the bill. MTV-Logo.svgThe rest of the summer was spent going to the library, getting albums to fill my fix of the lo-fi, tape hiss, 80s sort of vibe. I could not quench it, it became my life. (I’ve sort of gone off subject with this.)

Following getting my internet back and getting active on Tumblr again, I started a blog called ‘familyshowcase.’ I’ve told the story tons of times before, but I’ll quickly summarize: I was inspired by my peers who were posting tons of screencaps from various 80s commercials and I decided to do a blog of my own. I am on a torrent site that hosts hours and hours of old VHS rips and I downloaded lots of those as well as a ton of commercial blocks from YouTube and went to town with capping. I got totally lost in those hours and hours of blocks, to the point that it affected my real life. I was unhappy at that point in time; I was frustrated with my job and my financial situation was awful and other personal stuff was happening and I sort of blocked all of that out and lived life through these actors in these old damn commercial blocks. I was full-on in love with the 1980s and I was all for whatever these commercials were selling to me. I felt like a kid again, channel surfing and eating up all of the commercials. I loved it, but it became sort of a strange addiction. I ended up taking a break from the internet because of depression and other personal stuff; that’s actually right around when Lux started.

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Images from LE’s Tumblr account, ‘familyshowcase’.

Nostalgia is good and bad for me. I’m one of those people who focuses more on the past or looks to it when the present is not satisfactory and the future seems daunting. But nostalgia is so fucking inspiring. When I stumbled upon a commercial in the ‘familyshowcase’ days of perfume, jewelry, electronics, and saw these beautiful ladies sporting business suits and looking absolutely elegant, I would cap them like crazy. Those would be my favorite commercials, and those commercials really shaped how I wanted Lux to be. High class, rich, no cares in the world (well, outside of superficial, materialistic things of course). I work on Lux with that in mind and I pick what I sample carefully. Like I said, I’m extremely picky. I felt like vaporwave was sort of made for me, it’s why I am so passionate about it. A genre that plays around with old songs and rehashes them into something fresh, with heavy use of screencaps to accompany the sound/provide the visuals of what your song is going for…I didn’t live in the 80s, I was only 2 by the time 1990 hit, but vaporwave made me feel like I was a kid in the 80s and seeing all of the commercials, watching television with my parents and my sister. It just felt right.

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Luxury Elite’s album, Late Night Delight, on cassette.

NEMMC: It isn’t news to musicians/music lovers that vinyl has come back in a big way. We’re now even seeing a resurgence (albeit in limited markets) in cassettes. Can you talk a little about your views on how music is released – with regards to the medium? Have you released any of your music in a format other than digitally? What drove your motivations?
LE: Originally I had no desire to release anything on cassette, mainly due to copyright fears. But when the opportunity came along with the Late Night Delight cassette, I was too starstruck by the idea of it to say no. Cassettes are cute and tiny and fairly cheap to make (compared to vinyl) and much cheaper for a vaporwave fan to buy, and with vaporwave, I feel like vinyl doesn’t work as well. I mean, it does since releases in the 80s were either on vinyl or cassette, but vaporwave and cassettes go hand in hand. They’re more personal. The labels releasing them are doing them all themselves, and you have more say in the matter on album art, how the j-card will look, the color and design of the tape shell, all of it. It’s so worth it when you are holding your physical release in your hand. I prefer cassette to vinyl anyways, I think tapes are more fun to collect and cooler than vinyl.

NEMMC: How has the copyright and ownership of the content your sampling been addressed? Have there been any logistical challenges with reincorporating other music and sounds into your LE compositions?
LE: Copyright issues are terrifying to me. I am so afraid that somebody will find that I sampled their song and get absolutely pissed off and try to sue me. I try to not focus on it really, and just comfort myself by saying that I am not big enough for people to notice such a thing but it’s always something that stays in the back of my mind. There was a close call once with one of my tapes but the label was a total lifesaver and was ready to defend me to the death. Nothing ever came of it thankfully. The fact that my music is on Spotify and other digital distributors isn’t very comforting to me but like I said, I try not to focus on it. I’ve heard of bigger artists slipping through the cracks and never getting into trouble with their samples, but I’ve also heard of smaller artists getting C&Ds [cease and desists] for their samples. I can only hope that I never get detected and targeted…

NEMMC: Finally, I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on the recent news coverage of the Aurora man who digitized a few years worth of Kmart store music from cassette to the Internet. Does this kind of preservation of the seemingly ephemeral fascinate you? Might the KMart music be fodder for future Luxury Elite tracks?
LE: I had so many people link me to the Kmart rips! It’s hilarious because my mom used to work at Kmart, so it’s sort of this full circle thing for me. Props to that guy for never throwing away those tapes and holding onto them for so long. My favorite part is that all of the rips are tagged as vaporwave. He knows his target audience! I am messing around with some of those songs, but I may use them for another project. We’ll see. 😉

It’s clear to me after speaking with them that for Luxury Elite – and perhaps other vaporwave artists? – the vaporwave genre is as much an escape as it is a creative outlet. I’m fascinated by these feelings of nostalgia that one can possess for an era or lifestyle in which they’ve never actually experienced before. For Luxury Elite, seemingly forgotten or overlooked visual media (perhaps seen by some to be ephemeral or even unworthy of preserving) provide creative inspiration that so often drives everything from their sound to album artwork. Indeed, YouTube is a rabbit hole that seem to offer endless material to those waxing nostalgic for aesthetics signature of a different time and place.

Of course the very issue of repurposing content of which you are not the owner is a complicated and highly debated one – fraught with legal and ethical considerations – it is one I will not seek to unpack here. That said, I do feel it’s important to note that artists of any medium would be wise to address more directly the issue of copyright and, at the very least, possess a familiarity of the challenges that borrowing and recycling other individuals’ work can present.

Ultimately, I’m fascinated by the drivers behind what vaporwave artists create. I think there’s something to learn in this exploration into the nostalgic mind, the loss of original context, and the creation of a new context in which new realities and meanings are created, shared, and sometimes recycled all over again.

Dana Keller and Seeing History in Color

By John Campopiano

Color plays such a vital role in our everyday lives – even if we’re not always aware of it. Color also plays a significant role in how we think about and understand history. Surely we’re all familiar with black and white photographs (&/or film) and most likely have a similar kind of knee-jerk reaction when seeing something in black and white: It’s old. But perhaps we overlook the reality that the past, no matter how far back our minds dare to dream, was full of color just as our current reality is. So, what kinds of feelings or ideas come to mind when we think about someone exercising their artistic skill to bring color – and with it life – to images of the past? We strove to explore these very questions and others with Boston-based colorist and trained archivist, Dana Keller.
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John Campopiano: When did you first start coloring historical photographs?

Dana Keller: I have been colorizing photographs for a little over 2 years. My interest in it began when I had seen a collection of colorized photos online that was receiving a lot of attention for being very realistic. To me, these images, while indeed very carefully and thoughtfully colorized, did not really look true-to-life, but rather more like paintings. They no longer resembled photographs. I had seen many colorizations before, and they have always looked very stylized, or at least it was unmistakable that they had been colorized, as opposed to resembling an actual color photograph. Having a background in art and several years experience with photography, I began to colorize photos myself and attempted to concentrate more on the subtleties of realistic colors and shading, with the goal of eliminating as much as possible the viewer’s awareness of the fact that the photo was colorized, and to enable the viewer to see it from a new perspective, as if it were actually a color photograph.

JC: Could you discuss the creative liberties that are at play during the transformative process, namely, with regards to choosing colors to use in any given photograph?

DK: One of the more difficult aspects to colorizing is selecting the appropriate colors. No color information is available in the grey values, so in order to preserve as much authenticity as possible, researching colors is a must. But since it’s of course impossible to research everything, that can only take you so far. It then comes down to some educated guessing. Grey values hint at what the possible colors could be; mix that in with some context clues and historical knowledge, and you can then start to build a realistic portrayal of what the scene could have looked like to the photographer at that moment. The key word there is could. There will always be a significant margin for inaccuracy and some “artistic license”.

Another heavy difficulty comes from poor quality images. Of course most of these historical photographs are over a hundred years old and are often faded and worn, they contain very little grey values, which are essential in order to realistically apply color. Aside from the significant age factor, black and white photographs are largely taken with different aspects in mind than with color photographs, mainly exposing for contrast rather than uniform detail. Very often, a black and white image will be taken with too much contrast or with too much exposure to allow for a color version that will be suitable, so some image editing has to be done to attempt to bring out details if at all possible. Often times image details are simply irrecoverable, rendering the photos unfit for colorization.

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JC: I’m curious to hear a little about how you view a newly colorized work in relation to its original, non-colorized version. For you, what (if any) sort of relationship(s) exist?

DK: With black and white photos, we tend to feel somewhat distant and disconnected from the real and vibrant world those photos are actually portraying. And why shouldn’t we? The world was never in black and white, and it’s not something we are used to seeing in our day to day reality. By introducing color, these images can suddenly seem more familiar, and we are hopefully brought a little closer to the reality in which they were taken. Colorized photos can provide an opportunity for us to see a moment in history with a different perspective, a chance to connect with an increasingly distant but still very real and relevant past.

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However, even though colorized photographs may potentially portray a more realistic view of the world (i.e., not black and white), they should of course not be viewed as replacements or enhancements on the original black and white images, nor should they be meant to assume any resemblance of authority as a historical artifact. They are meant to give the viewer an opportunity to see an image from history with a fresh pair of eyes, not to change an original record. 

JC: Do you prefer to have a point of reference when colorizing a photograph (i.e., having a first-hand account of how something might have looked) or would you rather have full creative license?

DK: When attempting to be as historically accurate as possible, any reference material or knowledge that will assist in that is always preferred over having to come up with the colors from educated guessing. Not only does it save time in trial and error, but it’s always nice to have a solid reference for a color, especially when the grey value that it corresponds to isn’t one that I would have necessarily expected. By having one reference color, it can help to determine the lighting of the scene, and consequently help me in choosing other colors more accurately.

JC: Could you talk about your training as an archivist and if/how this training might conflict with some of the colorizing work you’re doing?

DK: Having been trained as an archivist, the fact that I am involved in and heavily advocate for colorization is an interesting controversy. As someone with a degree in archival science, it’s essentially part of my responsibility and nature to want to conserve historical documents/photographs as they are, and to preserve them for future generations. Several archivists and a great many others who have a passion for history see colorization as perhaps a misrepresentation of history or even a deliberate defacing or violation of the original records. I can certainly understand and appreciate their perspective from all angles.

My perspective, and what I believe to be the position of most colorizers, is that colorization is done out of a respect and reverence for history, not as a means of improving upon it. I see it as a very powerful tool–an opportunity to experience a closer connection to history and to offer that perspective to others who may want to experience it as well. And we’re free to take it or leave it. I want to reiterate that colorized photographs are not by any means meant to stand in for the originals or supersede their authority as historical records. For those who may not necessarily appreciate colorization, the good news is, no original photographs of history were harmed, destroyed, violated, overwritten, or disturbed at all whatsoever in the creation of these images. They are all still here for us all to see and enjoy and preserve for the future. And that’s part of the beauty of it, I think.

JC: Two parts:

Could you talk about an instance in which you received push back for your colorizing work? What were the circumstances surrounding the incident?

DK: When I first started colorizing, I shared some of my work with a few archivists, seeking their opinion on whether there was a place for colorization in the archives. Understandably, the idea was met with some backlash. This came mostly from senior archivists, their standpoint being that colorization, by its very nature, was completely contradictory to the mission of the archives, i.e., to preserve historical documents with minimal influence from the archivist. While in theory I agreed, I was still not convinced that there wasn’t a use for it within the archive world.

JC: Could you talk about a positive experience that stands out from your colorizing work?

DK: In my experience, the overall response to colorization has been very positive. The majority of people tend to see the photographs in a new way when they are colorized, and they express that it does indeed help them to appreciate the events and figures of the past as more relevant.

JC: Do you feel there is a place for the artist within the archives? Please explain.

DK: Absolutely. Art and design already play an important role through the curation of archival collections with how materials are represented and how they engage the public. In the archives, colorization can be considered another facet of that presentation. As mentioned above, colorization can help “connect” people to history; it can bridge the gap from a distant event and make it feel as immediate and relevant as it was when the photo was taken. This effectiveness can be used to engage different communities and generate interest. For example, a historical society, which was in the process of converting an old train station into a museum, commissioned me to colorize a photo of the building. They felt that the colorized image would allow greater opportunity for people to connect and feel the relevance of this historic place in their community, and would thus help generate funding for the project. Of course, being a historical society, they wanted to be as accurate as possible in the coloring process. In order to achieve this, they were able to take color samples from the base layer of paint on the building, which had been painted over many times through the years. By providing the data for the colors, we were able to color the image with a great deal more accuracy. So in practice, if we can build up the image with as much existing knowledge of colors as possible, often times using the archives own resources, we can then perhaps begin to create, theoretically, a more accurate—albeit of course artificial—representation of history. This can be a strong publicity tool, used to help tell the story of the images, giving people a unique and different way to connect to photographic collections.

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JC: Without giving too much of the magic away, can you talk a bit about the technical skills/components involved with colorizing photographs? (I.e., software, hardware, etc.)

DK: All of the colorizing is done digitally, but still done mostly by hand. I use Photoshop and a Wacom tablet to “paint” in the colors on multiple layers so that they blend together to hopefully create a realistic blend of color. Part of the trick to colorizing is keeping careful attention to light and shadows, quality of light, etc. Take an up-close look at an actual color photograph and you’ll immediately see that light interacts with the world in very complex ways, and nothing is just one solid color. Lighting will sometimes play tricks on you, too. Depending on the color temperature, (e.g. time of day, or sunlight vs. incandescent), something that you perceive as “red” may actually be blue or purple when taking a color sample. All of these variables are essential to keep in mind when striving for realism in colorization.