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.

No More Potlucks

An essay I wrote on the digitization of oral histories tapes at the Lesbian Herstory Archives just came out in No More Potlucks. You can read it here. This is the first piece of writing to come out of my research at this archives in 2012/2013.

An excerpt:

Colette shows me the digitization system she researched and designed, which includes a digitizer that connects a basic tape player to a laptop via USB, the free and open-source audio software Audacity, two hard drives for storing files, and a CD folder where the compressed versions of each tape are cataloged for visiting researchers who would like to listen. Colette talks with pride about her ability to design a system that was in budget and works just as well as professional equipment: we “realized we could do it on the cheap because this thing [pointing to the digitizer] cost ten dollars and we get the same quality.” The system is, above all, good enough—the audio quality is remarkable, actually, and the portable hard drives are a decent substitute for the stable online repository that the archives would love to have but can’t afford. Colette showed me how to set up the digitization station, how to watch for and eliminate clipping, and how to noise-reduce the files, all of which she learned through a process of “trial and error,” made possible by a willingness at this archive to try something at which one is not an expert, to be wrong, even to fail.

Thank you to Maxine Wolfe, Colette Montoya, Anthony Cocciolo, and the volunteer staff at the LHA for their hospitality and help with the essay. And thank you to SSHRC who supported the research.


VHS, Porn, and the Digital Archive

Image source:

Gay and Lesbian archives tend to have large collections of videotapes. These tapes are generally rare because no one else bothered to collect them, or because they’re amateur, one-of-a kind recordings. Gay and lesbian archives also have a lot of porn on tape, porn that is a critical record of queer sex cultures. Lest we forget, how, why, and with whom we have sex is important to document. It’s something folks have fought hard for, put their bodies on the line for. It’s as important as that tape of the 1989 Dyke March, or the 1992 Gay Games, or the 1993 March on Washington. It’s as important as a speech by Vito Russo. We are, after all, talking about the archives of sexual minorities–communities organized around sex.

VHS tapes are one of the least stable formats held in community archives. They degrade quickly. VHS is expensive to digitize through a third-party vendor. It’s possible to digitize in-house, by non-professionals, but it takes time and equipment. This guy, John Raines, volunteers to digitize tapes for the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco:

Photo Jane Philomen Cleland:

Raines is retired and he does this work at home, five days a week, because he thinks it’s important.

I haven’t spoken to Raines, though I’d like to, but I have spoken to volunteers at other gay and lesbian archives working on digitizing their moving image collections. I ask them how they choose what tapes to digitize. Always strapped for volunteer time and money, these archives have to set priorities. Decisions are based on “archival value.” This concept isn’t objective; it doesn’t mean anything in particular. Archival value is usually assigned to materials because of volume of researcher request, state of degradation, ease of acquiring permissions, appeal to granting bodies, and just simple perceptions of what is most important to remember.

Moving images of sexuality, especially “porn,” don’t fare well in a lot of these measurements, but then what happens to these tapes in this digital moment? What happens to our records of marginal sexual subcultures when these tapes get left in the drawer? And what will become of queer histories when we’re left to construct them without these primary sources?



The Librarian and the Pornographer

From the New York Public Library’s Acquisition Policy (1973):

Works of a Pornographic Nature

Pornography is defined as writings of an obscene or licentious character. The term, “works of pornographic nature,” is used here to include works judged pornographic by current standards and works formerly judged or considered to be pornographic.

3. Material sold in bookstores which specialized in “pornography for profit” 

The third category of material does not appear in lists or catalogs, but is to be found in outlets or bookstores specializing in “pornography for profit.” Three or four times a year a member of the staff will be delegated to purchase samplings of books and periodicals at these outlets. Collection in this category will be on a selective basis.

Audre Lorde Goes Fishing – Recreation and the Feminist Body

This is very minor but very wonderful piece of information uncovered during my current archival research at the New York Public Library:

In 1981, Audre Lorde was presented with the Gay Book Award of the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force (now the Stonewall Book Award), for her memoir, The Cancer Journals. The adjudication committee described the book as having, “the poignancy and immediacy of this black lesbian poet’s responses to physical and emotional trauma… This effort to retain control of her body, to preserve her sense of herself in a changed body, is intelligent and inspiring.”

Instead of a trophy or certificate, the Gay Task Force would present each recipient with a personalized token to honour their achievement. Audre Lorde was presented with the following “token”: “a set of fish hooks (for her favorite pastime).”

Writing in Progress, on jokes and feminist archives

This week I’ve learned not to leave writing deadlines for the Christmas holiday because it’s a real nerdy bahumbug. The article I’m working on right now is more generally about artist projects that use humour as a mode of encounter in feminist archives.

Working in archives of any kind is always hard, hunched over boxes, sorting through file after file, never sure whether you’ve found the right thing. When Derrida wrote of “archive fever” he wasn’t describing how your eyes and neck quite literally start to ache, but these haptic memories might be familiar to anyone who does research for a living. Much writing about working in feminist archives emphasizes these states of being and feeling, dwelling on the emotional reactions of artists and researchers: encounters with records of feminist activism can inspire optimism, or leave you depressed, worn-out by the sad forms feminist struggle can take. Feminist histories are often told against the backdrop of all kinds of traumas and injustices, from racism, to sexual assault, to domestic abuse, to the everyday exhaustion of trying to get by when the cards are stacked against you. Working in archives that house, in part, the insidious traumas of feminist burnout (Cvetkovich 2003), it helps to have a sense of humour; when the archive overwhelms, sometimes all you can do is find a way to laugh.

The objects we won’t put down

Casio Guts.

Yesterday I read Anna McCarthy’s (very short) essay in the current issue of Social Text (subscription required). It’s called “Casio” and it’s a personal essay about a Casio calculator she bought at a garage sale when she was twenty-three. McCarthy doesn’t use the calculator but can’t bear to part with it and the essay is a really beautiful reflection on the objects we attach to and what they mean to us across a great span of time. It’s also about moving, and the all the reckoning with objects and our attachments that this upheaval brings. This is the aspect of the essay that I attached to.

McCarthy describes an argument with her husband over the calculator during “what was a particularly grueling apartment move”:

“It was three in the morning, and he walked into my study with a look of desperation and a trash bag. I was sitting amid piles of books, assembling boxes. Can I pitch this, he asked, gesturing to the Casio on the desk. No, I said, growing shrill. No way. Absolutely not. He looked at me and suggested I take an Ativan.

But a talisman is better than an Ativan, especially when it works through the preemptive properties of forethought. By letting me fantasize about a disaster, the Casio reduced the probability that a real one would actually happen. The coincidence would be too great. Over the years, this fetish value has proven far greater than the thing’s value as a calculator.”

There are those who hold on to objects when they move in case they want to feel something for those objects again one day. This holding on happens under the guise of “I might need this later.” Then there are those who use a move to purge, often with abandon for future attachments, wanting to lighten their life in whatever way they can.

The weight of attachment is a bit different when it comes to the objects we share. When you end a relationship and divide your things in preparation to move, practically, and symbolically, away from the other, there are all kinds of half-truths you tell each other through objects. “You can have it, I never liked it anyway” can be a way of refusing to continue to share the same attachments to a thing; a gesture that wards off more hurt. “I have nice memories of that and I’d really like to keep it” marks a shared history that you won’t begin to deny. And then once you move and you’re still sorting through the detritus, the choices made about what to keep and what to throw away are always loaded with dead or far-too-present thoughts about what your attachment to an object meant in the past, and what it means right now, balanced with the suspicion that you might feel differently about it in the future.


Flame-throwers for the lady who shovels snow

This semester I’m working as a teaching assistant for a course called “Advertising: The Birth of a 20th Century Belief System.” The course is totally great so far and I feel especially fortunate to get to work with a really outstanding course director. Plus, when people ask me what I’m teaching this year I get to make jokes like, “basically, for my two hours of prep each week I practice talking like Terry O’Reilly.”

What I actually do in my prep time is look through a lot of historical advertising databases, which is how I stumbled across this gem:

Undated but circa early 1970s

Apparently kerosene flame guns are still used (albeit not commonly) in gardening contexts to kill weeds without chemicals, especially in the U.K. But I like the idea that some marketing team thought them the ideal snow removal tool for the independent woman who does not care for shoveling.