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

Prepared for Media Network

written by Jim Hubbard

 

INTRODUCTION

This report begins a process of attempting to solve the complex problems facing those who would archive film and video by HIV+ media makers. The process began with interviewing makers to determine the amount of material that exists and under what conditions it is currently stored and continued with discussions with representatives of institutions that collect moving image media in order to establish the state of storage facilities and the interest in caring for such materials.

Two important makers of AIDS media, Gregg Bordowitz and James Wentzy were interviewed. These two were chosen because they participated in many of the most important areas of AIDS activist video. The focus has been on AIDS activist video for several reasons. First, a large amount of this material exists, but it is in great danger because it was made under conditions that did not consider longevity a pressing issue. Second, much of the material has been stored under adverse conditions. Third, much of the material is under the care of people who have more pressing concerns. Fourth, Media Network is most familiar with this type of work and has supported it in innumerable ways. The number of makers was limited to two in order to complete this report within a relatively short period of time. Barbara London of the Museum of Modern Art Department of Film and Video, Jim Van Buskirk of the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library, Stephen Gong and Kathy Geritz of the Pacific Film Archive, and Mimi Bolling of the New York Public Library represented the institutional perspective and realities.

Before exploring the question of the ultimate repository of the material, it is important to understand where it came from. Therefore, a short discussion of the history of AIDS activist video precedes a discussion of the possible sites for its permanent disposition.

 

A SHORT HISTORY OF AIDS ACTIVIST VIDEO
(focusing on the work of Gregg Bordowitz and James Wentzy)

In early 1985, Gregg Bordowitz found himself dissatisfied with painting as a medium for expressing his political and artistic concerns. He decided to make a video about coming out during the age of AIDS. Some Aspects of a Shared Lifestyle _treated AIDS as a political topic and specifically attacked the Centers for Disease Control's statistical rendering of gay men and lesbian as invisible. It also formulated early attacks on the government for neglecting AIDS. David Meieran, whom Gregg knew from the Whitney Independent Studies Program, edited that tape. On June 30, 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Bowers V. Hardwick that the right of people to engage in gay sex in the privacy of their own homes was not constitutionally protected. On July 4th, a large demonstration against the decision took place in New York City, pushing its way from Sheridan Square to the Battery through huge throngs of shocked holiday revelers. Gregg and David taped that demonstration with the idea of making a video about the Hardwick decision called Hollow Liberty.

In February of 1987, ACT UP was formed and Gregg and David taped its first demonstration at Wall Street. At that demonstration they met Jean Carlomusto who was taping the demo for her Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) cable show Living with AIDS. They were drawn to each other because they were the only people taping the event with non-professional equipment. David Meieran knew Sandra Elgear and Robyn Hutt from the Whitney Program. They teamed up with Hilery Kipness through an ad on a bulletin board at Downtown Community Television (DCTV). Together, these six formed Testing the Limits. Testing the Limits: New York City_ was arguably the first direct action AIDS activist video. The significance of the tape derives from its having come directly out of the emerging AIDS activist movement. The members of Testing the Limits saw themselves as artists participating in a political movement and likened their situation to Dziga Vertov and Eisenstein's relationship to the Russian Revolution. (Vertov and Eisenstein were early Soviet filmmakers who saw their filmmaking activities as not merely documenting but actually propagating the revolution.) Testing the Limits was set up according to certain leftist principles. All decisions, including over 200 editing decisions, had to be made by consensus. It was expected that each member would work an equal number of hours and all labor would be shared equally. After Gregg and David started working on Testing the Limits they abandoned Hollow Liberty and that tape was never finished.

Testing the Limits was finished in 1987 and Gregg went to work -- at first part-time and then full time -- with Jean Carlomusto at the GMHC. Gregg chose to work at GMHC because it offered the fewest contradictions around the relationship between funding and production. With all its flaws, it remained the only institution producing video that was organized in the interests of people living with AIDS. Aiding Gregg's decision to move to GMHC was a split in Testing the Limits over philosophical issues. One course would have been to continue making fast, efficient, low budget documentaries that were immediately sent out as a feedback loop for the movement, a principle the characterized Living with AIDS. _ The other direction, which Testing the Limits actually took, was to settle down, rent an office, and raise money for a feature-length documentary designed to reach far broader audiences, that ultimately became Voices from the Front.

From 1988 to 1994, Jean and Gregg produced the weekly Living with AIDS _ cable show and 10-15 longer specials dealing with AIDS. Gregg's six years with GMHC represented a commitment to the daily practice of making work for PWAs and getting paid for it. He did not do any outside work until near the end of his employment with GMHC, when he began his series of portraits of people living with HIV.

In 1989, DIVA TV (Damned Interfering Video Activists) was founded by a large group of videomakers associated with ACT UP. The initiative to create DIVA can be seen as a direct response to Testing the Limits' decision to concentrate on producing feature length documentaries. The founders included Gregg Bordowitz, Jean Carlomusto, Catherine Saalfield, Ray Navarro, Ellen Spiro, Costa Pappas and perhaps 10 others. As many as 40 people shot footage at demonstrations and large groups of people were present at editing sessions. DIVA TV was also organized according to certain leftist principles. Members shared equipment and were broken up into cell-like structures, including editing and shooting committees. However, unlike Testing the Limits, it was accepted that not everyone could work an equal number of hours and there was no mandate for equal effort. All of DIVA's early tapes were edited at GMHC.

By the Summer of 1990 when James Wentzy tested positive, DIVA was moribund. As a reaction to his test, James decided to join the activist community. He felt that doing so would provide him with the health-related information that he needed to prolong his life. He spent about six months absorbing information and realized that no one was documenting the movement. He became involved with the Alternative and Holistic Treatment subcommittee of ACT UP. In the Fall 1990, that subcommittee organized a demonstration in Kansas City against a conference of "Quackbusters," people who lumped together legitimate alternative practices with purveyors of quack medicine. While filming this demonstration, James realized the absolute necessity of filming the political events around AIDS.

In January 1991, Wentzy, on his own, videotaped the Day of Desperation. This was the first demonstration he filmed knowing he wanted to do a weekly show. It was also the last demo filmed by Testing the Limits for Voices From the Front. _James continued to tape various events and, one day in the summer of 1991, David Buckingham taught James the basics of video editing at DCTV. Over the next year and half, James made 4-6 specials for cable access on the Day of Desperation, Campaign 1992, Two-Spirited Native Americans and HIV, and the treatment of HIV+ Haitian political refugees held at Guantanamo Bay. James always felt that he could never do a weekly show unless he owned his own editing equipment. Armed with an $8,000 grant from the North Star Fund, he went to the floor of ACT UP to ask for $6000 additional funds to buy equipment for a weekly cable access television show. It was unanimously granted. AIDS Community Television_ began broadcasting in January 1993 continued on a weekly basis until January 1996 when James was forced by Manhattan Neighborhood Network -- the corporation controlling public access -- to choose among three bad options: He could continue production on a biweekly basis, alternating with GMHC's Living with AIDS show, on Mondays at 7:30 (during the weekly ACT UP meetings), have a weekly show but during the day or he could stay off the air for 1 year and then return as a new producer. He reluctantly chose to alternate with Living with AIDS.

It should be noted that for the first year, James did not credit himself on the show. In 1994, he purchased an Amiga computer and for the first time credited himself as one of the producers. On-screen credit generally read "Produced by James Wentzy and _______ (i.e. Tim Donehoo, Jerry Lakatos, Tony Arena, Dean Lance, David Buckingham -- the names of people who helped him edit)". Also, for the first two years, he refused to use the name DIVA-TV because he felt burnt by the lack of support from former members of the collective (hence the weekly series title, AIDS Community Television). Production money for the first year came out of James's pocket. In the second year, outside sources covered the $9,000 of expenses and in the third year, James subsidized the show in the amount of ~$2,300.

 

WHAT EXISTS

The AIDS film and video community represents a large, diverse group of makers. It would be impossible to estimate the number of tapes, or even the much smaller number of films, produced by these makers. An idea of the extent of the possible collection is given by trying to enumerate the number of tapes associated with just two makers, Gregg Bordowitz and James Wentzy. GMHC owns and stores all the material used in the production of Living with AIDS._ This includes hundreds of 3/4" tapes and an undetermined number of Hi8 tapes. Testing the Limits stores approximately 600 3/4" tapes, 24 VHS tapes and 24 Beta tapes of Hi8 selects in cold storage in New Jersey. James Wentzy has 3/4" masters of his >156 AIDS Community Television _shows and approximately 190 Hi8 camera originals in his basement apartment in SoHo. Gregg Bordowitz has several boxes of camera original and video masters of Fast Trip, Long Drop_ in his apartment. Masters of his independent work are stored at Drift Distribution, Video Data Bank and the Banff Center for the Arts in Canada.

 

CRITERIA FOR SELECTING AN INSTITUTION

In evaluating the appropiateness of nay institution for housing material related to AIDS, interest in the material, quality of storage facilities, ability to catalog the material within a reasonable time and resources for remastering must be taken into consideration.

Ideally, the instiution should have already established an interest in collecting material concerned with AIDS and also maintain a strong interest in collecting material about lesbians and gay men and other communities affected by the crisis. This is important because a large portion of the video consists of unedited source material which is of real historical importance that may not be recognized by established institutions.

According to the latest research, extended storage of videotape requires a stable environment with a maximum temperature of 50 °F with 20-50% relative humidity (RH). A higher temperature can be compensated for by lower humidity. So 68 °F with a 20-30% RH would be acceptable. Tapes should be stored vertically with adequate airflow and kept away from sources of heat, sprinklers, motors, speakers, TV monitors and other magnetic devices.

Also, the institution should have sufficient staff to catalog the material on, at least, a collection level, within a reasonable period of time so that the public has knowledge of, if not actual access to, the information.

Normally, remastering would not be of concern with material this recent. However, a large proportion of this material is recorded on Hi-8 video, which is not a stable format. These tapes should be transferred to a more stable format as soon as possible, e.g. Beta SP. This is a largely unrecognized problem and will involve considerable expense. Furthermore, much of the material, including all >156 of James Wentzy's AIDS Community Television _shows exist only as a single master. Dubmasters and viewing copies should be made of all these tapes.

One troublesome complication is that the whereabouts of large amounts of this material is unknown. Many makers have died and their material has been passed to friends who do not know what to do with it or to family members who may not understand its importance. The public knowledge that an important cultural institution is interested in collecting this film and video might encourage these caretakers to donate it.

Finally, there are complicated issues of copyright, use and access rights. Much of this material was shot under collectivist and anarchist principles further muddying rights issues. Any institution taking this material would have to carefully work out a contract between the maker and/or his/her representatives and the institution that clearly delineates copyright ownership, uses nad access to the material.

After carefully consideration of these issues, it became clear that no single institution would be the perfect repository for all film and video material by makers with AIDS. However the New York Public Library, because of its century-old commitment to democratic access, and its clearly demonstrated interest in AIDS-related and lesbian and gay material is the one instiution that comes closest to meeting the needs of this material. The library offers an extremely stable, though not ideal, physical environment, the prestige to make fundraising to support the project easier, and a true commitment to the present and future importance of the material. Unquestionably, the library understands the historical importance of the source material as well as finished products.

 

NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The New York Public Library is an immense, multifaceted institution. The manuscripts division considers original records that document AIDS to be an important focus of the collection. Up to now, the Library has not collected films and videos about AIDS when they constituted the entire collection, but some film and video has been donated as part of larger collections of diverse materials. The Labrary's AIDS collection has come mostly from personal and organizational archives. Recently ACT UP donated its papers to the Library, which would be very interested in associated films and videos.

The library stores film and video in the Bryant Park stack extension underneath the park behind the Library's main building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Temperature and humidity are maintained at 68°F and 50% RH; there is excellent protection from fire and a good disaster plan is in place. The library also has a small Audio visual facility for viewing videotapes, although they do not have any Hi-8 equipment. Ideally, endangered material is simultaneously remastered to a Beta SP master and VHS viewing copies. Most of the material in the Manuscripts Division is catalogued according to national standards at the collection level in RLIN and downloaded to CATNYP, the library's on-line catalog. CATNYP is available at all branches of the New York Public Library and on the World Wide Web.

 

WHERE ARE THE YOUNGER MAKERS?

It has been suggested that there are no longer machanisms for recognizing younger makers dealing with AIDS because there are no longer any groups for them to coalesce around. Certainly it is sadly true that a void exists in the activist arena around AIDS and the activist enterprise that gave birth to Testing the Limits and DIVA-TV no longer exists. In fact, James Wentzy laments, "What is there to film?" However, as those older makers who continue to explore the diverse issues surrounding AIDS testify, although topics may evolve, for the foreseeable future, there will be pressing issues for makers of AIDS-related media. The inescapable conclusion seems to be that only a few younger people find AIDS important enough to make work about. Perhaps AIDS has become such an ineluctable condition of their lives that it has lost the fearsome quality that demanded action from older makers who saw AIDS as an imcomprehensible disruption, if not the utter destruction, of their lives.

 

SOME FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS

As stated above, the New York Public Library clearly offers the best environment for housing the work of Gregg Bordowitz, James Wentzy and the vast and rich collection of AIDS activist video. However, there are many films and videos that concern AIDS or are by makers with AIDS that might be more appropriately housed elsewhere. One solution might be to create a consortium of organizations that would distribute the work to the most suitable institution. For instance, work by Northern California activists could go to the Hormel Center, while work by San Francisco avant-garde filmmakers could be donated to the Pacific Film Archive and completed video art about AIDS might be collected by the Museum of Modern Art. Although many of these institutions would accept AIDS activist work, they remains wary of accepting large numbers of unedited videotapes. (For instance, James Wentzy's collection alone would double their video collection.) Another, more comprehensive solution would be creation of a National Center for Lesbian and Gay Media that would be dedicated to the collection of the full range of work by makers with AIDS, whether specifically gay or not.

e-mail author: Jim Hubbard

 


back to: DIVA TV Index

 

see also:

VIDEO INTERFERENCE, A&U November 1998

 

AIDS Activist Video Preservation Project:
DIVA TV Listings at the New York Public Library

 

The Estate Project website