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?



First memories of the queer web

Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of queer folks I meet in non-academic settings about their first memories of using the web. This has grown into a curiosity of mine kind of organically because after I tell someone that I’m interested in “the early adoption of online media by queer communities of users, roughly from 1995–2000” they often want to talk about their early adoption of online media. It’s a topic that I love because it’s gossipy, and it draws on shared cultural memories of an emerging queer web that represented an emotionally potent escape for much of my peer group, who were teenagers during the age of dial-up.

Usually these memories are related to porn. I like the story one friend told me of going to the library to search for and print off a picture of two shirtless guys making out. The printer was a dot-matrix and the image it produced was “barely recognizable,” but it still became a prized possession. He actually liked how pixelated it was, because if his parents found it, they might not recognize the figures as two men. He knew what it “really” was and that was what mattered.

These kinds of events, because they’re heady and come along with a healthy dose of gay shame, are easily remembered. What people seem to have a lot of trouble recalling are the everyday textures of the queer web; what kinds of sites they went to, what they searched for, what browsers they used, who they talked to and why, what it felt like, looked like, etc.

The Awl has this new series that I’m enjoying call “Know Your Internet History!” in which they profile popular web portals from the “pre–2000 World Wide Web.” The profiles tend to focus on the people who made these sites, rather than on the people who used them, and so it has a bit of a hero-worship quality (okay, so the text that introduces the series literally asks “Who were these early heroes of the internet?”). But I think it’s really compelling as way of doing an unabashedly partial history of a medium that often evades documentation. I especially like the idea of a research method that combines this attention to select sites or practices but puts more emphasis on the memories of users (if these even exist). With this kind of approach there are big questions about sampling–how do you choose which sites matter–but one of the advantages is a method that might be able to (maybe, sort of ?) account for the early web in un-monumental, everyday terms.


Piles and piles of digital stuff

In the latest issue of No More Potlucks, Tara-Michelle Ziniuk interviews Laura Yaros, host of Matrix, the longest running feminist radio show in Canada. Laura touches on two issues that come up again and again in my own conversations with activists and archivists working with lesbian material: 1 ) digitization is crucial for preservation, though by no means a magic bullet solution and 2) digitization has no necessary relation to the provision of access. In other words, if you digitize it, the digital documents will probably still sit in a metaphorical drawer; other ways of promoting access are needed. The interview is great for anyone interested in digital and queer archives, or the history of community radio in Canada.

As I’ve started working more earnestly on my dissertation proposal, talking to a lot of queer and lesbian “archivists” – I use the term loosely to describe a range of practices from the informal or accidental collector to the community archive coordinator – about the scope of their projects, I’ve noticed that there’s often a similar refrain at the beginning of their stories: an attempt to communicate, in no uncertain terms, the daunting scope of their archives. Language like “piles,” “drawers-full,” “mountains,” “boxes and boxes,” “stacks” gets invoked against digital “stuff” (why are digital documents always called stuff, Dylan?). This digital stuff is also described as overwhelming but with metaphors that are less spatial, and more about keeping track of hardware and software over time: I’m going to have do something with those files, or those USB keys, eventually.

Brought together, a process emerges: I have piles and piles of stuff in my apartment that I need to digitize, then I have all this stuff on my computer or on the Internet that I need to do something with. Access provision is a third step that complicates the assumptions folks often make about digitization as the neat end-game for our messy feminist archives. As Laura points out in the interview, gesturing, I think, toward this access issue: “But that’s not all we should be doing – not everyone is going to know that material exists and to look for it. Maybe we need to have workshops or conferences or informal gatherings where some of this material is shared. Even just our stories, we all have our stories. In addition to written and electronic preservation, we need to preserve an oral tradition as well. It doesn’t have to be formal or academic.” The question then becomes, how do digital access provisions get imagined in ways that are unique to queer-feminist methods and circles?