By Janaya Kizzie, AS220 Project Archivist and Kate Wells, Curator of Rhode Island Collections
The first episode of TV220 begins with an MTV-like perspective shot of a video production room, and then shatters into a riot of random moments from the wild, bustling, daily life at AS220 in the 1990s. And the onslaught doesn’t stop there; from a young girl thrashing to a punk song while the AS220 manifesto scrolls over the screen, to a Bozo parody called Crappy’s Shit Shack, the strange, wonderful personality of AS220 comes out full-force in a mere 30 minutes. Similarly, the legacy of AS220 unfolds. Strange, improbable, deeply-motivated, wry, and, indeed, occasionally scatalogical, the story of how a small art collective became part of the redemption of a corrupt, post-industrial city is definitely worth preserving.
AS220 was started in 1985 in a one-room rental space as an artist-run organization committed to providing an non-juried and uncensored forum for the arts. AS stands for “Artists Space”; 220 for their initial street address. In over thirty years the organization has done the miraculous. It has grown to over 100,000 square feet in downtown Providence representing a $25 million investment in urban revitalization with galleries and performance spaces that have hosted local and internationally known artists, musicians, and performers for over 93,000 visitors a year. All while maintaining its mission to provide non-juried, uncensored and all ages access.
The history of the City of Providence during the 20th century follows the same patterns of urban growth and decline that many American cities experienced. AS220 began downtown during a period of severe urban blight and its growth mirrors the revitalization of the urban core as a cultural and economic destination. The City of Providence is now broadly recognized for its exceptional revitalization-based support for the creative economy, accomplished in no small part because of AS220. The organization provides facilities which include gallery spaces, a performance stage, a black-box theater, a print shop, darkroom and media arts lab, a fabrication and electronics lab, dance studio, 48 live/work studios for artists, a bar and restaurant.
The AS220 Collection had long been a dream for the Providence Public Library which has a mission to preserve the city’s cultural history in its Rhode Island Collection. The two organizations share physical proximity – they sit across a street intersection from one another – and serve many of the same community members. A change in library administration has created opportunities in the past several years for collaborations that encourage artists’ use of library collections and library staff use of creative spaces at AS220.
It was—as so many things in Providence come to happen–a set of serendipitous events that lead the Collection to the library. AS220 had been working with Rhode Island College to digitize parts of their archives as part of an informal agreement, however, when the staff involved in that partnership moved on, the work was left on hold. AS220 offices were quickly running out of storage space for their physical materials and contacted Kate Wells, the Curator of Rhode Island Collections at PPL about possible donation. Aaron Peterman, former Managing Director of AS220, became the Assistant Director of the Providence Public Library and was able to parlay his knowledge of both organizations into a full donation agreement. In January of this year, the Library acquired 75 boxes of AS220’s archives and over a terabyte of digital files from Rhode Island College.
The complexity of the AS220 collection presents many challenges to the archivist. AS220 is not built like other organizations. It is highly organic; it changes and grows to adapt to evolving environmental factors and its own mission. If your average organization is a primate, two arms, two legs, dogged symmetry, then AS220 (and, therefore, its records) is the color-altering, many-armed squid, altering its RNA on the fly.
Remarkably, the appeal of the collection lies in how very multifaceted it is. Like the organization itself, there is something for everyone in the collection. For the historians, there is the sea-change AS220 brought to a beleaguered downtown Providence, evident in documentation of grants, contributions, and commendations from the city. For the artists, there is an archive of the visual mark AS220 has made on the city over the decades, including posters, photographs of exhibitions, and art by significant local and internationally treasured artists such as Shepard Fairey. For the place-makers and tastemakers, there are instructions for how a small performance-space and gallery can transform into a hub for the arts encoded in every doodled-on letter, every project proposal, and the publications from local school kids and just-emerging artists, and every creative public service, from the Photo Lottery to the Fab Lab. And finally, for all of us, the lovers of good entertainment, the Foo-followers, the Foo(d) eaters, the Drink and Inkers, there are buttons, shirts, prints and pictures, each a memory a day or night where AS220 made our lives a little better.
The creative output of AS220 is both a time capsule of Providence history, and a testament to the work AS220 has done to support the city’s artistic spirit.
Episodes of AS220’s local-access cable show TV220, which is part variety-hour, part surrealist fever-dream highlight AS220’s dedication to non-juried work and expression. The first 5 episodes were digitized by RIC for their digital collaboration with AS220. (Above screen shot from TV with link to first episode: https://youtu.be/wauPigRXa2A).
Fools Ball, a predecessor to AS220’s well-known street fair Foo Fest, acted as a fundraiser for the organization and helped place the organization’s mark on the city’s culture. Documentation of the events form a large part of the archives, including planning records, invitations, photographs, posters, and merchandise like buttons and t-shirts.
Hidden Trewth, a literary magazine created by students in one of AS220’s youth programs at the Rhode Island Training School, began in 2001. AS220 has offered formal youth programs since 1993, allowing local youth to express themselves creatively in innovative ways.
AS220 Industries, both a source of income for AS220, and an important resource for local artists, has grown from a dark room into a campus of printing, audiovisual, and computer technology available to anyone in the community.
Per their original mission, AS220 has been providing artists with a non-juried art space and studios since 1985. Here is a membership card from their second location, 71 Richmond Street (1986-1993).
An archivist will count herself lucky to find an artifact or two in an organization’s archives. The archives of AS220 contain piles of t-shirts, 4 full flat-file drawers of artwork, photographs, CDs, strange television episodes, buttons, more than one interactive poster, bandanas, 8 mm film, and at least one VHS cassette that looks like it came out of THE RING. Even the memos are works of art, from their level of design to their burden of doodles. The story of this unique collection, and the organization it came from is a window into the modern history of the city of Providence, and will be an invaluable resource.
Providence Public Library is currently arranging the collection and plans to open it to researchers in 2018. Work to migrate audio-visual recordings and to digitize materials will be ongoing. As materials are digitized, we’ll be making them available via our digital repository www.provlibdigital.org. A small selection of materials will be on view July-September 2017 as part of a showcase of new library acquisitions. The Library is undergoing extensive renovations thru 2019, but we hope to showcase the AS220 Collection in a full exhibit once we reopen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stretching over 20 acres with more than 400 vendor spaces, the Hollis Flea Market (established in 1964) in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, purports to be the largest and oldest flea market of its kind in the Granite State. The outdoor market is so busy, in fact, that according to the official website, “we need two Hollis police officers to direct street crossings.” While the market offers countless options for vintage fashion, antiques, and novelty handmade items — on a recent visit we spotted a toilet seat fashioned into what appeared to be a four-string bass — a rust-colored barn on the outskirts of the market’s main drag is of particular significance to media-heads. [Authors’ note: John scouted out the location first, nearly two years ago, and urged Matt to visit, remarking in an August 2014 text that he’d “never seen anything like it.”] More than 400 miles and a hundred purchases later, this characterization still holds up.
The “Tape Barn,” as we’ve affectionately come to call it, really consists of two distinct entities, neither of which references the VHS format at all: Murphy’s House of Books and Ruth’s Book Barn. The main proprietor of both of them, Mark Murphy, has been a vendor at the Hollis Flea Market since 1998. Just three years later, he began a business relationship with another vendor, an elderly woman named Ruth, and integrated his book inventory with her movie inventory to help her with the weekly rigors of maintaining her vendor space. By 2004, this full collection of books, DVDs, and VHS tapes was moved into the barn as it exists today. More than 15,000 VHS titles adorn its shelves — most were purchased from private collectors over the years as video stores went belly up — with an additional 25,000 titles (Mark’s estimate) residing at Ruth’s home as overstock.
On any given Sunday from May through October, Mark and one or more of the Barn’s other workers can be found moving stack after stack of crates full of tapes to more than a dozen outdoor tables for easier access. The barn itself is appropriately simple, with only daylight to brighten your view of the shelves, and more than a few cobwebs to add a uniquely woodsy touch. There are three narrow, floor-to-ceiling aisles to navigate that extend about 20 feet back from the entrance. Unlike your favorite video rental store, which likely arranged titles by genre and displayed the front box covers, the Barn’s tapes are ordered alphabetically and show the box’s spine text, the way libraries shelve books. (A stiff neck is a common symptom of scanning the shelves over extended periods of tape-digging — the bottom shelves are the absolute worst in this regard.)
And, as most repeat visitors will likely discover, it’s not just them who feel the aches and pains from tape-digging at the Barn. Occasionally, as a result of being exposed to New Hampshire’s seasonal elements (wind, rain, snow) tapes will emerge each spring a little worse for the wear. Ultimately, it comes with the territory when you’re dealing with a grassroots project such as the Barn. With such a massive inventory and the lack of a staff, it’s not surprising that addressing preservation issues and performing general upkeep of every tape is essentially an unachievable goal. For the avid tape-digger, however, the questionable condition of some of the tapes is less a deterrent as it is an added element of intrigue and perhaps even excitement. The issue of ongoing preservation of their inventory is something that may continue to plague the keepers of the Barn while simultaneously grabbing the attention of like-minded collectors and admirers of the medium.
The patrons with whom we’ve shared this unique space seem to be film fans like us — people in their late 20s through their early 40s who have defined tastes in genre films, perhaps horror or direct-to-video action — with some material nostalgia for the VHS format itself. More important, most of them probably hold the notion of serendipitous discovery in high regard; stumbling upon an obscure or even a personally sentimental title in the “wilds” of a flea market or vintage store is somehow more satisfying than getting a used copy from an Amazon seller, or winning an eBay auction. In discussing her fondness for flea markets in a prior exchange with John, makeup and special effects artist, Stacy Still, articulated this idea, saying that “as a massive tape collector, I’m always on the hunt for new tapes, ones that I remember fondly from my childhood at the video store.” There are few people for whom the act of poking around a cramped and dusty barn to simulate the past experience of video store browsing still holds appeal, but there are even fewer places that provide this opportunity in the era of media streaming.
The Barn is just one of several remaining VHS treasure troves of which we’re aware, but unlike Scarecrow in Seattle, WA, or Movie Madness in Portland, OR, it doesn’t have a well-lit brick-and-mortar location to sell its wares. Its staff isn’t comprised of film buffs with a fondness for 1980s slashers or 1970s kung fu epics. Instead of engaging customers online through a dedicated Twitter feed or even a website, Mark relies on a local Craigslist post that he periodically refreshes throughout the market’s open season. Many VHS enthusiasts will visit the Barn and see a collector’s paradise; its selection, trade-in policy, and prices ($3 a tape or four for $10) really can’t be beat. Despite the breadth and depth of his inventory, it’s not evident that Mark shares the same enthusiasm for the format or the nostalgia that his patrons often do. (He owns “a few” VCRs and acknowledges that interest in VHS persists because “not everything is on DVD,” but also says that his books might actually outsell the tapes.)
With a presence at the Hollis Flea Market spanning nearly 20 years, and more than a decade of selling VHS specifically, it’s unlikely the Barn will be going anywhere anytime soon. (Ever try to sell out an inventory of 40,000 tapes? Not an easy venture.) It’s difficult to gauge Mark’s plans for expansion or advancement — he alluded to creating a searchable image database for his titles — but the beauty of the Barn is its simplicity. There’s magic in its dusty floors, in the awkward positions in which you need to contort your body to see certain rows, and in the pockets of crisp air near the back wall on a warm July morning. For purely selfish reasons, we don’t want any changes at all, because we’ve never seen anything like it.
John’s purchases from The Barn:
-Aberration (1997, Artisan Entertainment)
-*Batteries Not Included (1987, MCA Home Video)
-Blood Link (1986, Embassy)
-CHUD II (1988, Vestron Video)
-Circuitry Man (1989, RCA Home Video)
-The Club (1994, Imperial Entertainment Corp.)
-Code Name: Zebra (1990, Star Classics)
-Count Yorga, Vampire (1970, HBO Video/Orion)
-Cutting Class (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-Cyborg Cop (1993, Vidmark)
-Dark Breed (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Dark Universe (1993, PRISM Entertainment)
-Death Drug (1986, Academy Home Entertainment)
-The Dirt Bike Kid (1986, Charter Entertainment)
-The Dive (1989, M.C.E.G Virgin Home Entertainment)
-Eat and Run (1986, New World Video)
-The Evil Within (1994, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Expectant Father (1993, Video Treasures)
-Florida Straits (1986, Orion Home Video)
-Forgotten Warrior (1986, Monarch Home Video)
-Freddy’s Nightmares: The Series (1991, Warner Home Video)
-Gargantua (1998, 20th Century Fox)
-Ghosts That Still Walk (1986, Interglobal Video Promotions)
-A Gnome Named Gnorm (1994, PolyGram Video)
-Graveyard Story (1992, Goodtimes Home Video)
-The Haunted Lantern (1997, Asia Pulp Cinema)
-Jack Frost 2 (2000, A-Pix Entertainment)
-Jaws of the Alien (1988, Star Classics)
-Kuddly Kittens (1990, MNTEX Entertainment)
-Little Monsters (1989, MGM Home Video)
-Lobster Man From Mars (1990, IVE)
-Meridian (1990, Full Moon Entertainment)
-Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn (1983, MCA Home Video)
-The Meteor Man (1993, MGM Home Video)
-Mr. Nanny (1993, New Line Home Video)
-My Mom’s a Werewolf (1988, PRISM)
-My Uncle: The Alien (1996, PM Entertainment)
-Planet of Dinosaurs (1993, EDDE Entertainment)
-Playing Dead (2000, Academy Entertainment)
-Prehysteria! (1993, Paramount Home Video)
-Project: Alien (1989, Vidmark)
-Proteus (1996, Vidmark)
-Psychic Killer (1975, Embassy)
-Psycho II (1983, MCA Home Video)
-A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987, Warner Home Video)
-Screamers (1980, Embassy)
-Shallow Grave (1990, Paramount Home Video)
-Short Circuit (1986, CBS Fox Video)
-Spaced Invaders (1990, Touchstone Home Video)
-Stepmonster (1993, New Horizon)
-Strange Invaders (1983, Vestron Video)
-The Surgeon (1993, A-Pix Entertainment)
-The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986, Media)
Matt’s purchases from The Barn:
-Abraxas (1990, United American Video)
-Angel of Fury (1992, Imperial Entertainment)
-Anguish (1987, Key Video)
-Bad Blood (1981, Academy Entertainment)
-Band of the Hand (1986, Columbia TriStar Home Video)
-BrainWaves (1983, Embassy Home Entertainment)
-Cage 2 (1994, Summa Video)
-The Carpenter (1988, Republic Pictures Home Video)
-The CBS/FOX Guide to Home Videography (1983, CBS FOX Video)
-Chinatown Connection (1990, Southgate Entertainment)
-Cut and Run (1985, New World Pictures)
-Dead Tides (1997, Live Home Video)
-DeepStar Six (1989, IVE)
-Double Blast (1994, Vidmark)
-Dragonfight (1990, Warner Home Video)
-Eye of the Eagle (1987, MGM Home Entertainment)
-A Fight for Honor (1992, York Home Video)
-Fist Fighter (1989, IVE)
-Free Spirit: The American Biker (1991, Visual Entertainment Group)
-The Joy of Natural Child Birth (1985, MCA Home Video)
-Laser Mission (1989, Platinum Disc)
-The Legend of Gator Face (1996, Lions Gate)
-Link (1986, Home Box Office Home Video)
-Making Contact (1985, Anchor Bay)
-Merlin and the Sword (1986, Vestron Video)
-Mindfield (1989, Magnum Entertainment)
-The Moon in the Gutter (1983, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
-Nightflyers (1987, IVE)
-Ninja Enforcer (1976, New Pacific Pictures)
-Ninja Mission (1984, Media Home Entertainment)
-No Retreat, No Surrender (1986, New World Pictures)
-The Playroom (1989, Republic Pictures)
-Raw Courage (1984, New World Pictures)
-Rock House (1988, Coyote Video)
-Rooftops (1989, Avid Home Video)
-S.A.S. San Salvador (1983, Vestron Video)
-Sudden Thunder (1990, AIP)
-A Taste of Hell (1973, Star Maker Video)
-Thunderground (1989, SGE Home Video)
-Torment (1986, New World Pictures)
“‘Do we want to preserve this art or keep it alive?’ The former approach treats a work of variable media like a musical recording, locking in time some masterful performance. The latter approach treats the work more as a musical score, the same piece open to future iterations. Because these works don’t self-record, self document, or exist in a stable medium, preservation is an interpretive act. Both recordings and scores are valuable resources for the future: recordings keep the radical performative intentionality intact for future exhibitions, and scores keep the patina of history and provenance intact for future research.”
– Richard Rinehart, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, in Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach, 2003
A chilly rain misted the eager faces of those waiting in line outside Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, NY on Saturday, October 3, 2015, yet the weather would not diminish the current of excitement bubbling across the crowd. The second night of a three-night concert run by Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) had been sold out for months, yet hopeful fans walked down the line of ticket-holders, a finger in the air, inquiring to anyone and everyone about extras.
Who was this act with such a fervent draw? Some new Pitchfork-blessed hipster rock act? Hardly. You would not hear JRAD on the radio, or likely know of their existence were you not part of an extended scene of post-jam music fans known as the New York City Freaks. The grassroots, decentralized NYC fan group (and accompanying listserv) had ultimately been responsible for launching the band in 2013, when JRAD played their first show at the Freak’s 13th annual private party, the Freaks Ball. JRAD is a Grateful Dead cover band, for all intents and purposes—but to describe them as merely such ignores the reality that the band is, in fact, a super group. Some musicians in its lineup have played with members of the Grateful Dead—including Joe Russo—yet none of these musicians are known primarily for that work. Russo (drummer) and keyboardist Marco Benevento have long been musical collaborators, known under the moniker The Duo, under which they have been touring internationally, performing progressive, instrumental jazz-funk/experimental music for over a decade.
Both Russo and Benevento are notorious in the NYC club scene, creating new and one-off projects weekly when not on the road. When I lived in New York City from 2004-2006, their current incarnation was Bustle in Your Hedgerow, a rock/jazz fusion group performing all instrumental Zeppelin covers, featuring searing garage-psych guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA), and Dave Dreieitz of Ween on bass. Their shows were frenetic—intimate, raucous events that engaged the entire audience in a surreal time- bending encounter.
Now here I was, ten years later, waiting outside Brooklyn Bowl to see this new Russo/Benevento/Metzger/Dreiwitz amalgam, and the anticipation amongst my fellow fans was palpable. Brooklyn Bowl, which opened in 2009 by Peter Shapiro (longtime NYC Freak) is a green-constructed bowling alley and concert venue in the heart of Williamsburg, was named the best rock club in the country by Rolling stone in 2013. The club now boasts locations in Las Vegas and London, and is known among music fans to support top-quality audio and lighting concert experiences in a non-arena/non-theater setting. In layman’s terms—the room sounds great, with space to dance, and the ability to get up as close to the stage and performers as you desire.
JRAD did not disappoint that October Saturday. The first set featured nearly ninety minutes of non-stop music. The band weaved in and out of Dead classics like “The Other One” and “Truckin,’” performing favorite covers like “Dancin’ the Streets,” featuring the vocal styling of Jersey-indie starlet Nicole Atkins, harkening back to a 1970s-era Dead with Donna Godchaux on back up vocals. While the idea of a Dead cover band may sound tired and cliché, JRAD transforms the music into a palette both fresh and contemporary—teases of Radiohead, electronica-tinged jams—this is not your dad’s Grateful Dead. It is as if Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Stevie Wonder’s band decided play Jerry Garcia tunes. It cannot be understated what phenomenal musicians these are—and for many Deadheads, (at least those whom I know who are mostly under the age of 50), the Grateful Dead shows they saw—mostly in the 1990s—were during an era in which the band, and especially Jerry, were declining. JRAD never puts on a subpar show for its audience, and because of that, the audience gives back, adding to this collective, vibrant live experience.
Of course, this live experience is mediated and enhanced by technology, unifying the immaterial with the material world. Liveness, a quality identified in mass media presentation studies, has seeped its way into computing, digital humanities, and user experience work recently, highlighting the intersection of human and technical in contemporary culture. “The study of liveness has . . . focused primarily on the experience of liveness, through which performances, art or entertainment are lived” (Schofield, et al, 10), and can also be understood in terms of concurrent computing processes which require continued progress amidst a cooperative ‘give-and-take’ arrangement of shared activity.
These connected concepts of liveness pique the archival mind: in terms of the October 3rd JRAD show described—can that quality of shared, collective exchanges, be preserved or captured? What aspects a live concert experience can be archived? Should any remain in the ephemeral realm? When art exists as a temporal event, what role does media materiality play in articulating and recording the “artifact?” In the Variable Media essay, “Performance Art Festival+Archives” by Thomas Mulready, the author discusses the challenges to accurately representing the original performance once it is over, pointing out that photo and video often fall short, prescribing limited perspective and scope (Mulready, 35). Using the JRAD performance event as a case study, I examine the parameters around archiving cultural activity, how the process both creates digital memory and shapes collective memory, and how it can move us “from a spatial notion of archives” to one in which “time-criticality” (Parikka, 54, 59) connects the ephemerality of human experience to that inherent to technology’s material constructs of code and algorithm-based structures.
I would assert, while never completely possible, the enhanced potential for interactive, digital encounters with media—including aspects of Drucker’s performative materiality concepts, Whitelaw’s generous interfaces discussed earlier in the course, and Parikka’s interpretation of Ernst’s operative media archaeology cited here—offers the preservation and cultural heritage communities exciting avenues for exploring ways to document and share the myriad instances of “liveness” in human activity. What would this entail exactly? Ippolito’s seven evaluative variable media criteria provide a good framework, albeit in an alternate order.
Reproduced. One of the benefits of the jam-band/Deadhead scene is its fans’ attendance to (and obsession with) high-quality, transparently sourced recordings of ALL live performances by the artists in their aesthetic canon. The Internet Archive’s Live Music Archive (LMA) includes a Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Collection of 156 live concert recordings of the band (and other Duo performances), including the JRAD show from October 3, 2015. New York Freak and audiophile/sound engineer at Brooklyn Bowl, Peter Costello recorded many of the shows (with help from partner/fellow freak Eric McRoberts) and gave permission to the LMA to host the digital collection.
Detailed source information about the equipment used to record and transfer audio are listed on each shows’ page within the collection. Among snobs in scene, Costello is considered to produce some of the highest-quality recordings. It should be noted that concerts recorded in other locations have different creators, thus there is some disparity across the collection.
The Live Music Archive is a partnership between IA and “etree.org . . . a community committed to providing the highest quality live concerts in a lossless, downloadable format.”
The LMA includes non-commercial concert recordings by “trade- friendly” artists (those that allow/promote free audience recording and distribution of said recordings), thus working to archive music that would otherwise not make its way into the cultural record. Etree.org is notorious for its strict audiophile (and metadata) standards, and functions under a system of self/community-policing to ensure only the highest-quality recordings are used as “seeds” for downloads and subsequent copies. These community-developed standards align with audio preservation standards, allowing for only lossless format uploads, and encouraging preservation-level 24-bit audio.
In a 2000 article from the International Journal of Digital Libraries, “Methodologies and tools for audio digital archives,” the authors identify two types or approaches to audio preservation (which share striking commonalities with the concepts of emulation versus migration): “(1) the sound preservation of audio history, and (2) the sound preservation of an artist” (Orio, et al, 203). The Costello/McRoberts JRAD recordings (like most contemporary non-commercial audio recordings in this subculture) are matrices of a soundboard recording and microphones recording from the stage. I would classify this approach as aligning with the second preservation type listed above, as it is a mix of both what goes through the artists’ inputs and the live version of the sound they hear onstage (and version heard through their monitors), and efforts to reproduce “with the intent of obtaining ‘the live sound of original performers,’ transcending the limits of a historically faithful reproduction of the recording” (Orio, et al, 203).
A Type I approach to audio preservation aligns more with a classic Deadhead taper ethos which glorifies the raw, unedited recording captured by a taper embedded in the audience at a show (though this version is certainly still mixed and minimally processed after transfer for best sound output). I posit—which method comes closer to capturing the “liveness” of the event? For instance, the Costello/McRoberts recording includes snippets of the deejayed music playing over the PA before and after the show, and at set break, but it does not capture the raucous funk dance party that seamlessly extended from the band’s closing strains, led by beloved New York-based, New Orleans- inspired DJ Cochon de Lait. For nearly two hours after the official end of the show Benevento, Dreiwitz, and Russo joined audience members on the dance floor in a unique, memorable merging of the audience/performer boundary, yet this part of the cultural event is missing in the high quality soundboard matrix recording.
Another example: towards the end of the first set, around 5:45 into the timeless classic “Fire on the Mountain,” the band dropped out to allow keyboardist Marco Benevento to carry the crowd along on an expansive solo, delving into Gershwinian moments of bliss for over 3 minutes, until the band finally rejoined leading into a triumphant conclusion. I was standing on the floor only 10 feet from Benevento at the time and can still acutely recall the complete, ecstatic sense of jubilation that exploded across the crowd at that moment. In a review of the show by collection creator, Costello, he affirmed my experiential memory, noting “I’ll spare you all the hyperbole, but I want to add one final thought: I’ve worked at Brooklyn Bowl for nearly 6 years, & I have never heard a crowd react louder in their appreciation for a band than the reaction tonight to Marco’s solo in ‘Fire on the Mountain.’”
Does the LMA recording of the show share this “perpetuation of the sound . . . as it was initially reproduced and heard by the people of the era” (Storm, 27)? At the close of the song, the recording clearly captures bandleader Russo’s acknowledgement of the singular, cultural anomaly that had just occurred, as he extols extemporaneously, “Marco- fucking-Benevento, Jesus Christ. Where did we even find this guy?” Yet at the very moment when the crowd erupted, the recording barely hints at the ridiculous decibel achieved by applause and cheering; and, while the concert’s archival record on LMA includes a typically meticulous setlist (best practice in Deadhead fan culture), it fails to mention the solo or crowd response.
We must ask, what is the archival object the LMA is actually reproducing? The collection item includes extensive encoded metadata, files in various formats, and even image files of the concert-run poster, but this is ultimately an audio archive. The LMA FAQs pragmatically explain their reasons for only collecting audio materials, stating, “…unlike audio, where we actually have a shot at archiving the vast majority of any given band’s live concerts (in very high quality format), video is scarce and, unless made by the artist (in which case, it’s typically for commercial purposes), is not of particularly good quality.”
Performed. As the Variable Media questionnaire discusses, cultural heritage materials that involve explicit performance add many complexities to the preservation paradigm. In a proposed collection archiving the sound recording of JRAD 10/3/15 that also attempts to curate and preserve its “liveness” and broader existence as a temporal, reflexive cultural event, I would suggest adding images of the paper set lists (and any notes) used by the musicians onstage, any recordings or notes (or emails/messages) surrounding the process of planning for the event, and extensive photographic and video information providing evidence of the band setup, audience positioning, lighting, etc.
Installed. A live music event might not be viewed traditionally as an installation piece, but in fact, the technical parameters—ranging from lighting patches, input lists, to hospitality riders and security provisions—all comprise of the historical record. These elements can be viewed as both contextual information, and as components of the artifact’s media archaeology. In Parikka the author describes how “modern technical media are media of mathematical codes, and in their execution they become processes defined by patterns of signals unfolding in time” (59). Thus, the liveness of the concert experience is an amalgam of organic, human interaction with mechanical, computer- generated activity. Documenting the event would require documentation of the unique technical parameters, including the computations required to support the live production’s digital technology.
Contained. While the contained criteria does not directly related to the JRAD preservation plan, if ephemera or non-digital materials were added to the object—the paper set list, printed photos or posters, a Russo drumstick, a signed t-shirt—concerns regarding long term storage and maintenance of these items would be useful.
Networked. “Society in the digital age has become increasingly organized around the various ways to organize and diversify the intertwined or networked processes of production and consumption,” Deuze and Blank write in the recent piece, “A Life Lived in Media,” addressing the interconnected way we interact and exist both with and within media in contemporary society (11). Thus, the infrastructure supporting these networks becomes paramount, such as when working to preserve variable media requiring streaming digital content. If video were added, the bandwidth and storage needs would increase exponentially. Further, if we were to attempt to capture the full live experience, multiple viewpoints would be necessary, with professional and audience-sourced footage, offering a web of perspectives. I would also suggest creating a network with other fan sites and social media, expanding the collection items to include links to tweets posted during and after the show, photos shared, reviews written, and connections to the likely numerous other audience-sourced recordings, each of which would offer a unique aural reproduction of the concert.
The LMA culls metadata from MusicBrainz, a crowd-sourced recorded music metadata silo that provides records using an abstracted model, which offers a lot of potential in the future climate of Linked Open Data. What if our set list and audio/video files included in the digital JRAD collection hyperlinked to song or artist-listings with rich bibliographic information? For example, Nicole Atkins is identified on the LMA show page for 10/3/2015, but the user has to separately Google her to source any further information. What if this data was all networked to our proposed archive? What if you could also immediately connect to the lyrics of each song, and recordings of the same by other artists, including The Grateful Dead? The possibilities are limitless, if the not the technical capacity at this time.
Encoded. In the same respect, while the robust technical and descriptive metadata provided by the LMA is all encoded (and downloadable in that form), if we were to design and develop a rich, interactive archive of the concert experience, all additional media would need to be encoded. In the Orio piece referenced earlier, the authors present several tools for insuring the integrity of audio preservation—including digital fingerprinting and watermarking, digital image processing techniques applied to recording grooves, and the process of audio alignment, where algorithms are used to compare two alternative performances of the same work. If such a technique were applied to recordings of a live music culture where countless versions of the same song exist, the data re-use potential in musicology alone would be immeasurable.
Duplicated. One could certainly re-stage the concert event from October 3, 2015, but ultimately, any real duplication would be impossible. The very nature of a live, collective concert experience is one in which the audience and temporal components are as integral to the creation of the cultural object as the band on stage. Indeed, the ethos of Deadhead subculture centers on this notion that “being there” is the primary fan experience—though I would note, the advent of simulcast technology has challenged and expanded this principle, and is something I hope to investigate in future research.
The Internet Archive and LMA focus considerable energy and intellectual resources on storage and preservation. The IA is quite transparent about its data curation approach, stating the process includes “parsing, indexing, and physically encoding the data . . . stored on DLT tape and hard drives in various appropriate formats, depending on the collection.” In terms of preservation, IA describes the familiar practice of ‘many copies in many places,’ and long-term migration plans utilizing their own custom Petabox system in lieu of tapes. The reviews in the comments section indicate preservationists and archivists alike have lauded this system. In addition, the IA states they “will be collecting software and emulators that will aid future researchers, historians, and scholars in their research” to address long-term issues surrounding format and software obsolescence.
However, for the JRAD 10/30/15 show (or entire JRAD collection) hosted in the LMA, only audio, image, and metadata files are included in preservation planning. While the open access archive’s ingest allows for user-sourced contributions, the media formats are limited, and thus, the preservation scope as well. The simple upload of several files would become a much more complicated process if incorporating the other media elements discussed above that document the “liveness” of the cultural event. It should be noted that IA and the LMA have recently launched an initiative with Columbia University and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona to “run their code on the music collection to help their research and to provide new analyses that could help with exploration and understanding.” Other projects involve pilot runs with generating audio fingerprints, and use of image files showing the audio spectrum of a given musical record—both of which could prove highly applicable to the proposal discussed herein.
What is the digital object when dealing cultural materials such as these? Can our original model of content + metadata contain such content complexities? And are long- term storage systems prepared to handle the layered needs of variable media such as these? These dilemmas reflect the cross-disciplinary nature of cultural heritage archives which aim to document the artists’ works, and the cultural setting in which the same exists. The temporal and operational nature of computing means our cultural record now exists as electronic signals and calculations. Parikka points out, “archives are not even spaces any more but addresses: a necessary precondition for any data retrieval is addressability” (58). The existential idea of all information, all bits of culture being simply pointers to a location, is rather breathtaking, in my opinion. GLAM professionals face monumental challenges in the arena of digital preservation, certainly, but what an exciting time to be involved in cultural heritage curation.
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