Tape Condition: degraded

This summer Hazel Meyer and I produced an exhibition for the Canadian Lesbian and Gary Archives called Tape Condition: degraded. This immersive installation and community digitization station was the result of more than two years of research in the archives’ expansive, VHS porn collection.

Installation view of Tape Condition: degraded by Hazel Meyer and Cait McKinney. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

With this project we wanted to think about the materiality of queer porn archives and their digital futures. What happens to hundreds, and hundreds of discarded porn tapes as the archives modernizes and digitizes its collection? How do you classify this material and build database that house its complexity? Moreover, how can digitization act as a moment of rebuilding and repairing the historical exclusions within LGBTQ archives: the bodies, desires, and identifications marginalized within archival records?

The digitization station within Tape Condition: degraded. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid

We didn’t set out to answer these questions alone, but rather invited 11 brilliant artists and activist to imagine and write about their “Dream Tapes”: what they would search out and digitize in the collection first, if only such a thing existed. Thanks to Anthea Black, Derek McCormack, Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Guillermina Buzio, jes sachse, Jessica Karuhanga, Kiley May, Morgan M Page, Nica Ross, Nick Matte, Syrus Marcus Ware for dreaming with us. You can see all their work in detail in the PDF below. The show also featured new video work by Aidan Cowling titled Landscapes of Infinities.

A publication accompanied the exhibition, available in PDF form here. Designed by Cecilia Berkovic.

Can a Computer Remember AIDS?

Remember The Net (1995)? That strange blockbuster about this terrifying new thing called The Internet that starred Sandra Bullock, post-Speed. In the new issue of Drain: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Culture on the theme of AIDS and Memory, I consider The Net’s cultural legacies as a popular film that modelled online data environments and risk through the example of HIV/AIDS. The article is called “Can a Computer Remember AIDS?” (spoiler: it can’t, well, not really) and in addition to providing a close reading of the Bullock film, I outline early archival research completed for my new project on “Crisis Infrastructures,” which offers a media history of the early web through AIDS activism. You can read the whole article here.

Guest editor Ricky Varghese invited me to contribute to this special issue and the whole project is something to behold, featuring contributions from many of my favourite writers and artists: Alexandra Juhasz, Ryan Conrad, Francisco-Fernando Granados, Theodore (Ted) Kerr, Theodore (Ted) Kerr, and Michèle Pearson Clarke amongst others.

Doing Feminism

I am very excited to be part of a new special issue of Feminist Theory called “Doing Feminism: Event, Archive, Techné,” edited by Carrie Rentschler and Samantha Thrift, and featuring contributions from Kate Eichhorn, Anna Feigenbaum, Elizabeth Groeneveld, along with an article on feminist meme culture by Carrie and Samantha. This issue takes up questions of feminist historiography and movement-making in relation to a wide range of media practices, as Carrie and Samantha outline in their introduction. My contribution examines networks in building feminist history through a study of 1970s newsletter culture.

Little Joe: Queers and Cinema

Hazel Meyer and I have an article in the new issue of Little JoeThe publication is print only, but can be picked up at a range of art book stores, and if you’re in Toronto, there is a launch event at Art Metropole, January 16. Thanks to editors Sam Ashby and Jon Davies for inviting us to participate.

Hazel and I wrote about Tape Condition: degraded, an upcoming exhibition and series of programs we are organizing at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives this summer. The exhibition is about the state of porn and other representations of sexuality on VHS tape in the CLGA’s collection, situated in the organization’s acrimonious history of police censorship of these materials. Through an immersive installation, publication, and a series of performances and talks, Tape Condition: degraded will invite the public to consider porn-on-tape’s status as a vital record of LGBTQ subcultures at a crossroads as community archives digitize their collections, seeking preservation and improving access. What happens to the boxes and boxes of porn as materials of more obvious “archival value”—materials like less controversial oral histories—jump to the front of the digitization queue?

The article is about our research process, which has involved a lot of reading, but also a lot of sorting through, watching, and rewinding old porn.

An excerpt:

To help the archives improve its catalogue records, we’ve been asked to assign descriptive tags to the videos we watch. From a pre-determined drop-down menu in the archives’ database we can choose from subjects like ‘lesbian’, ‘bareback’, and ‘leather’. This practice leads to a lot of conversations that sounds like this:

Cait: Is he wearing Rubber?
Hazel: I think it’s Latex.
Cait: Ok, but this is sort of Drag isn’t it?
Hazel: I don’t think something can be ‘sort of’ Drag.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what we’re looking at because these 25-year-old tapes have deteriorated, marked as such in the database with ‘Tape Condition: degraded’, from which we take our name. Colours have faded, there are occasional streaks and drop- outs, and there’s always the risk that a tape will snap when played for the first time in decades. This is especially true of the homemade tapes. While the estimated life of High Grade VHS tape stored at ideal temperature and humidity is thought to be 60 years, these particular tapes have been kept in basements, garages, or hot apartments in their pre-archives’ lives. Digital files efface the materiality of tape by promising to separate content from cassette, but the research we’re doing in this collection is steeped in the physicality of VHS: we rifle through boxes and handle cassettes, sliding them in and out of their cardboard sleeves. We squint to read labels and play ambiguous tapes in the hope of finding the kind of videos we seek. Our favourite tapes are the homemade collages of dubbed clips.


Drawing by Hazel Meyer, 2015.

Contribution to Radical History Review’s Queering Archives

An article I wrote about the Lesbian Herstory Archives‘ photo digitization project is now out in the Radical History Review’s second Queering Archives special issue. The article is called  “Body, Sex, Interface: Reckoning with Images at the Lesbian Herstory Archives” (RHR 122, 2015).

Thanks to the special issue editors Daniel Marshall, Kevin P. Murphy, and Zeb Tortorici, for their thoughtful editing, and also to Saskia Scheffer and Ronika McClain at the LHA, whose radical archival work is the subject of this work. 

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Digitization of this collection began in 2010, the first self-directed project to offer extensive online access to the archives. Preparing this collection for an online database involves several factors. I consider digitization at the LHA as an expansive process that is not conceptually limited to the creation of digital files from “analog” sources; to digitize also encompasses the design and implementation of an online user interface, the creation and assignment of descriptive metadata to images, and the selection of which images to offer online. The complexity of images of sexuality presents opportunities for reflecting on the cultural politics of this process, including the accessibility of sexual materials in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) archives as they move online. An archive’s responsibility to provide access to images of sexuality is balanced with questions of legality, ethics, and propriety, creating a tension informed by the growing pressure of “queer liberalism” on these archives as they move further into public-facing roles mediated by the web.

New Exhibition Texts – Hazel Meyer and Karen Kraven

This May I had the chance to write exhibition texts for two shows in Toronto. Both shows are still up if you’re in the city and have a chance to check them out.

The Shape is Unmistakeable, 2015, lino block printed on a Vandercook press, 12″ x 18” (middle panel of a triptych). Printed by Olga Wieczorek under the auspices of the Open Studio Visiting Artist Residency, 2014-15.


The first is Hazel Meyer‘s The One About Baby at Open Studio. The text is available online here (PDF).

With the works shown in The One About Baby, Hazel Meyer explores disparate objects and moments united by her method of drawing-as-care for what is devalued or unnoticed. Documenting the eroticism of “minor” events in the artist’s life and reading practice, this work emerges as a pervert’s archive of throwaways—outdated ads, old porn magazines, pin-buttons, empty plastic bottles, discarded lesbian comic books, cut-off hair—rescued by drawing and insisted upon through the creation of prints.

The second text is for Karen Kraven’Flip Flop, Punch Front at Mercer Union, which gave me the chance to write about gymnastics uniforms. It’s available online here (PDF).

The gymnastics leotards in Flip Flop, Punch Front are also devoid of bodies, stretched in ways that discourage potential wearers. Shannon Miller and her peacock-like hand gestures are nowhere to be found; instead the garments are willfully still. Sara Ahmed has described the peculiar relationship between gymnastics and the will: more than any other sport perhaps, gymnastics is training through which limbs are finely shaped by an athlete’s ability to control their muscles according to routine.[i] Gymnastics leotards are containers for all that will; without muscle and movement stretching their contours, they lose some of their essential leotard-ness, becoming something else altogether. Like Jordan’s wingspan and Rigby’s splits, a leotard is the potential to be stretched, constructed in proportions much smaller than the bodies they cover. Anyone who has squeezed into a leotard will be familiar with the compression-anxiety of confronting an impossibly tiny garment on its hanger: “That thing is going to fit over me?” Kraven’s uniforms are displayed in various states of stretch and repose, but these accommodations have not been made for a body.

[i] Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 83.


“Not a game, Not a game, Not a game”: Outline of Some Theories of Practice

My old friend and colleague Dylan Mulvin and I have a piece in the new issue of Seachange journal. It’s about practice, which we define as “the repertoire of necessary and repetitive activities that precede ‘performance’—activities that are ignored, elided, and generally taken for granted because of their necessity and repetitiveness.” As long-time friends, sports fans, and mediocre athletes who have often practiced together, we consider a range of practice-related sites: drills, pre-game rituals, dissertation writing, comprehensive exams, the academic job market, and our (middling) jump shots. Ultimately we ask whether sports practice, in its often-deferred promise of improvement through the production of habit and bodily comportment, might help us better understand the complex pleasures and disappointments of ascending toward academic careers.

I’m very proud of this dialogue and very happy to have had the chance to collaborate with Dylan. We’ll also be presenting a panel together at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies this weekend in Montreal. It’s called “What was the Database” and it also features a paper by Kate Eichhorn.

Feminist Computing #5: Martina Navratilova’s Tennis Computer

Last month I gave a lecture at Toronto’s Trampoline Hall titled “The Many Wives of Martina Navratilova.” The talk, part of a night curated by Jon Davies, had little to do with my “real” research but it was a lot of fun, and what came out in the wash was this quite lovely entry for my collection of feminist computing stories.

The Coaching Computer

“Robert Haas, the man who programmed my nutritional needs, and an associate of his have designed and programmed a tennis computer that I have used from time to time. The computer is fed an entire tennis match about thirty times, analyzing and breaking down the points stroke by stroke until previously unseen patterns become evident. What we look for in this breakdown are my patterns and those of my opponent. We find tendencies. Perhaps one top player will continually hit a return to the same spot at break point, or hit the ball harder, or perhaps slice more when down. What the computer has pointed up is that when the pressure is on, players stay true to their tendencies, and this knowledge is helpful against patterned players such as Chris Evert Lloyd and Tracy Austin. By understanding both my game and that of my opponent, I feel as though I have a far clearer insight into what my future matches might hold. The computer is a good accurate scout.”

– Martina Navratilova, Tennis My Way (1983), p. 190.

The Circle of Lesbian Indexers – Book, Card, Computer

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a paper on The Circle of Lesbian Indexers here in Toronto at what looks to be a great symposium organized by Emily Drabinski: Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies.

This is new work, part of my almost-finished final dissertation chapter. In the paper I consider  The Circle of Lesbian Indexers, a group of six feminist information activists scattered across the U.S., who indexed hundreds of lesbian periodicals by subject between 1980 and 1986. Specifically, I examine The Circle’s manuals and correspondence alongside histories of computing from that era to examine how these women thought about emergent database computing and its potential for organizing their growing index. I argue that three “materials” critical to The Circle’s work—the book, the card, the computer—create a tension that is key to the promises of  information activism, and to creating a heterogeneous, feminist media history of emergent computing.

Circle diagram

Here’s an excerpt:

Cards allowed the index to be revised and re-sorted, and it allowed Potter to facilitate the Circle’s collaborative workflow, bringing multiple batches of cards into the fold of one growing index. This was no small task: In the Circle’s guide to indexing, Potter writes, “the numbers of cards we can safely manage without the help of machines seems finite. We can keep on top of hundreds (no problem), or a few thousand cards, but even dykedom has its limits” (Potter 1979a: 9).

At the limit of “dykedom” likes emergent database computing. The Circle used cards, but they thought about computers, discussing the merits of going electronic often in their correspondence and training manuals. Potter invested a great deal of hope in the possibilities that computer databases might present for managing the Lesbian Periodicals Index. She spent many evenings and weekends at Stanford University’s Computer Center, trying to learn how to use WYLBUR.

WYLBUR illustration

WYLBUR was a text-editing program that ran on the time-sharing system pictured here—this is when a big, central mainframe computer is shared by multiple users at individual terminals. This is an illustration from the hand-drawn manual to WYLBUR, created by one of the scientists who worked at the lab. The figure in this drawing is smiling at her terminal, but Potter was not. She describes learning the system with frustration in a 1981 letter to one of the other indexers: “I find I just can’t spend my every night and weekend at the Stanford center learning and then inputting. I need to spread some of the parts of this others!” (Potter 1981c). Potter didn’t want to be working alone at her keyboard in the sterile computer lab that was such a far-cry from the warm, domestic scenes she describes in The Circle documents. Scenes of workshoping subject terms with other Circle members in rocking chairs on her porch.