published in a&u
November 1998


The AIDS Activist Videotape Preservation Project Strives to Archive Activism for the Future

by Aaron Krach

The summer of 1998 will be remembered as the time AIDS activism found itself on a shelf between Babylonian clay tablets and compact discs. Not entombed, hidden away like a time capsule for future generations, but archived and made public for viewing by anyone.

The New York Public Library has just accepted the first one hundred hours of AIDS activist videotape into their permanent collection. The tapes are fulled with demonstrations, ACT UP meetings, civil disobedience and AIDS conference from around the world. One copy of each tape will be available on the public shelves for anyone to see.

It is a remarkable agreement between an established institution and individuals on the fringe. The AIDS Activist Videotape Preservation Project is part of an ongoing effort by The Estate Project, an out-reach program for artists with AIDS.

The AIDS Activist Videotape Preservation Project began two years ago with a phone call. Jim Hubbard, a New York-based filmmaker, was asked to write a report on video and film preservation for The Estate Project. Hubbard focused on hundreds of hours of raw footage and finished pieces by artists and activists dealing with AIDS. The artwork was never collected by major museums and much of the footage was never shown on national television. The risk was that rare and important footage would be lost or destroyed before its time.

"We need a stable environment, sixty-eight degrees and fifty-percent humidity. In a stable environment the stuff will be here in another hundred years," explained Hubbard. Left on shelves and in bedrooms, fluctuating temperatures can easily destroy the tapes.

With the need well-documented, a search began to find a site that would accept the footage. Several institutions were approached including the Museum of Modern Art, Anthology Film Archives and the San Francisco Public Library. Art institutions were unsure of how to deal with the tapes. They questioned their "aesthetic value" and ultimately decided the footage didn't fit their mission of protecting visual culture. The New York Public Library had recently become the storage site for all of ACT_UP's archives, and had recently offered to accept the AIDS activist videos as well. They offered everything, a climate controlled stable environment and continued public access to the material.

At the same time as the search, Hubbard began inventorying hundreds of hours of tapes in several locations. He worked primarily with three artists: Greg Bordowitz, Catherine Gund-Saalfeld and James Wentzy who were all three founding member of DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activist Television).

"Greg and Catherine have a couple of hundred hours. James has 150 finished shows and 700 hours of Hi8 tape," said Hubbard, trying to explain the complexity of the task.

Once that tapes were logged, they had to be transferred to a higher quality, Beta SP, for permanent storage and a VHS for the viewing copy. Video is a constantly changing medium. No format of tape --VHS, Beta, Hi8, 3/4", 1" or 2-inch -- has lasted for more than twenty years. Beta SP was chosen because of its durability and hope that it will be around until the next technology takes over.

The library is only paying for the storage. It is up to the Preservation Project to get the tapes to the museum in one piece. It costs over $80 an hour just to transfer the footage to Beta SP. Funding for the project has so far come from The New York State Council on the Arts and The Royal S. Marks Charitable Trust.

The next stage of the project involves a national effort to preserve 1,000 hours of tape. The Estate Project is currently trying to raise an estimated $400,000 for the project. Footage will be compiled from artists and activists across the country, from ACT UP San Francisco to independent video makers in Texas. The activist movement was as diverse as the country; the Preservation Project hopes to eventually include as many different types of footage as possible.

For now, there is no denying the centrality of DIVA TV in the first delivery of tapes. DIVA TV began in 1989 as a video collective offshoot of ACT UP. They were the video equivalent of Gran Fury, the ACT UP artists responsible for Silence=Death.

DIVA TV completed three finished pieces; Like A Prayer, about the infamous demonstration at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan; Target City Hall, documenting actions in New York City while David Dinkins was Mayor; and Pride 68-89, celebrating twenty years of gay pride. Each of these finished pieces will be in the collection.

"The reason why I started filming was because I respected and loved what the activists were doing," says Wentzy. It is Wentzy who continues to carry the DIVA TV banner around the country, disseminating tapes to public access stations. He sees himself as an artist and an activist.

The artists want to "counter to complete lack of information in the mainstream media," says Hubbard, who remembers seeing original works at ACT UP meeting or at festivals around the country. But "the most important thing is the raw footage," he adds.

It is the surely unedited footage that will someday be used in historical documentaries about the AIDS crisis. The mainstream media wasn't there in the way these activists were. The footage they have is from beyond the front lines. The hidden excitement of the entire project lies in the possible uses people may find for the seldom seen footage. One can only imagine the stories waiting to be told.

Patrick Moore, the director of The Estate Project, is also excited by raw footage. "It has a neutral political viewpoint," he says. People can bring their own viewpoints to the material. As the director of The Estate Project, Moore is used to arguments about what is good art and what is worth preserving. He is excited about the videotape project because it isn't necessarily about art. "The project is great, because we look at all of the footage as historical artifact," said Moore. As "artifact" instead of "art" it somehow becomes less political and easier for people to deal with.

"ACT UP just might be the last great activist movement in the AIDS crisis," says Wentzy as he looks back on his video-making efforts. He had three goals when he started working with ACT UP, and they have all come to pass in one way or another. His first goal was to motivate people to make change. Nobody would dare argue with Wentzy that there is still a lot of work to be done. But it is also inarguable that people with AIDS are living a different life than they were in 1989.

His second goal was to educate. Hundreds of hours of public access television programming over the years has educated more people than Wentzy realizes. In addition, his videotapes have screened at film festivals around the world and he is now the webmaster of

Wentzy's final goal was to create an archive for the future. Which is why he is both "thrilled and excited" by what is happening at the library.

Says archivist Hubbard: "Anyone will be able to take the subway to 42nd Street, walk in the door of the New York Public Library and say, 'I want to see this.' And they will be able to."



see also:

 Fever in the Archive
AIDS Videos Screenings
Guggenheim Museum
New York City
December 1st
World AIDS Day to the December 9th, 2000


Report on the Archiving of Film and Video Work by Makers with AIDS


AIDS Activist Video Preservation Project:
Archived Listings @ The New York Public Library


The Estate Project website



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