On a recent Wednesday in July, I discovered Queen Latifah performing on the fifth floor of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, on what had until recently been a grim stretch of the Bowery.
Actually, she was on a grainy television screen surrounded by media conversion equipment. The footage itself was two decades old, from a Yo! MTV Raps performance filmed in 1993 or 1994—with the stage outfits to prove it. And of the 15 or so staffers and visitors muddling around the exhibit, only two were paying attention to the streaming video: Walter Forsberg, the audiovisual conservator in the process of digitizing the footage, and Gabriel Tolliver, a former associate producer on the show who had brought the battered VHS tape to the museum. It contained the best of the Friday afternoon performances, Tolliver told me. "This was before hip hop got really corporate and the access got cut off," he recalled.
Welcome to "XFR STN" (that's "transfer station"), the New Museum's daunting new project, eight-week exhibit, and transfer lab all in one—an overwhelming attempt to digitize, present, and preserve artistic materials on obsolete formats, however obscure or unremembered. Three transfer stations sprawled across the Fifth Floor gallery, accompanied by television screens labeled for the three different sources of material: the New Museum's own archives, the Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club's archives, and public submissions. A small team of technicians huddled over the equipment, while found footage streamed on a projection screen on the opposite wall. There was more to see on the TV screens, too, free of context or identification: fuzzy black-and-white footage of a jazz pianist crooning, an artist's home videos, a clip of a man I didn't recognize being interviewed by another man I didn't recognize.