Inside the New Museum's Vast, Beautiful, and Totally Insane Digitization Project

The New Museum wants your tired, your poor, your huddled VHS cassettes yearning to be free.

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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.

The public submissions category offers what its name suggests: throughout the duration of the exhibit, members of the public are invited to submit their own moving image or born-digital materials—whether VHS cassettes or floppy disks or U-Matic tapes or Betacam—to be transferred and archived online. (The only requirement is that its content be artist-produced or somehow relevant within the arts—in other words, not your stash of baby videos.) In so doing, the museum aims to "produce an archive at once chance-driven and yet, we suspect, revelatory."

But the most esoteric category—the Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club archives—is the key to the exhibit's genesis. As the Museum's literature explains it, MWF was a "co-op 'store' of the artists' group Colab, directed by Alan W. Moore and Michael Carter from 19862000, which showed and sold artists' and independent film and video on VHS at consumer prices." By last decade, the collective's archives had been reduced to 800 videotapes piled in a storage bin on Staten Island. So Moore approached the New Museum, seeking a partner to digitize the vast data collection, and the Museum opted to expand the scope of the project to encompass a larger, vaster concern: "how to preserve the possibility of discovering works, especially those contained in obsolete formats, that are not already written into versions of the canon."

I spotted a glass case displaying the differently sized floppy disks, each representative of a different year or decade. The disks as they would normally appear sprawled across the lower body of the case; their insides filled the top row. Seeing them displayed this way, museum-style, it was hard to tell if the technology was from the 1980s or the 1880s.

Then, a technician pointed the way to a corner room exhibit displaying fliers, press clippings, and other promotional ephemera from the 1980s heyday of the Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club. "SEX & VIOLENCE NIGHT," screamed narrow black lettering on one particularly sordid-seeming flier. "LOVE JAM," cried out another, scrawled above a grainy image of a nude man on hands and knees. I spotted advertisements for a John Cage documentary, a Where Evil Dwells screening, and a collection of works by the artist Mitch Corber. It was, in brief, the most vivid time capsule of the mid-'80s SoHo artist community this side of Martin Scorsese's After Hours, rescued from neglect in a Staten Island storage bin.

Alan Moore and Michael Carter could not have imagined, back in 1986, finding their materials and videos housed in a New Museum exhibit and stored in perpetuity on some vast online archive. But thanks to their idea, countless fellow artists and homespun New York historians will have their own audiovisual and digital documents hoisted out of obscurity and into the public domain.

Forsberg, the conservator eying the Latifah video, was brought into the project to manage the team of transfer technicians. After several years as a filmmaker in Canada and then research fellow at NYU, he was inspired by the exhibit's ludicrous scope.

"It was so outrageous that the museum would offer this service to people," Forsberg told me behind tortoise-shell glasses and a thick mat of wavy brown hair. "Museums spend a lot of money to offer this service in-house. The New Museum does it all for free. It was just so ballsy."

I asked about the strangest submission he had received so far.

"It's more the juxtaposition of it all," he answered, pointing at the MTV Raps tape. "Like, seeing Queen Latifah next to Vector II graphics from 1982." Phil Sanders, a digital and interactive artist who ran an experimental East Village gallery in the '80s, had recently brought in vector animation from an early Apple computer, I soon learned. Forsberg showed me bits of it. Sanders would soon be in again to share old floppy disks and computers from his gallery.

"It's also a very weird experience when people bring in home videos," Forsberg said. "We're both strangers to each other, but you get to see them at these different periods of their life." Forsberg, fittingly, has hosted New York's Home Movie Day, which is exactly what it sounds like: anyone can bring in old home videos to be screened in a theater.

Tolliver found a more permanent repository for his. I asked him how he came across "XFR STN."

"I saw it on—was it Flavorpill, I think? I consider myself a video-maker, and I saw this opportunity," he said. "I was just like, 'Oh, man. These are just moments in time in New York pop cultural history.'"

Filing again past the three television streams, I was introduced to Ben Fino-Radin, a self-described "media archeologist, archivist, and conservator of born-digital works of contemporary art" whose bracingly clever personal website only reaffirms his passion for media preservation in the digital age. A recent graduate of the Pratt Institute, Fino-Radin now works as Digital Conservator for Rhizome, a New Museum affiliate, in between managing the Digital Repository for Museum Collections at the Museum of Modern Art. The New Museum's Johanna Burton brought him aboard her team to oversee the "XFR STN" born-digital transfer efforts.

Speaking excitedly as a decontextualized stream of black-and-white footage chugged along on the projection screen behind us, Fino-Radin rattled off the list of formats being transferred in the museum: "We're doing 5.25-inch floppy disk, 3.5-inch floppy disck, then there're zip disk, jaz disks, IDE hard drives, and with the video: U-Matic, VHS, Betacam, MiniDV, Hi8..." Reflecting on the exhibit as a whole, he pitched "XFR STN" to me as more of a timely public resource than an artistic project.

"The reason everyone involved in this is so passionate is realizing that there is really, really a need for this kind of resource," the conservator said. "Artists have all this aging material laying around, and the fact is, in 20 years we will not be able to do this. Anything on VHS is as good as dead."

Behind us, meanwhile, a recorded voice struck up from the projector: "It's 1981," a TV announcer loudly intoned. "The tape we're about to see is a copy—" Just as quickly, a technician flipped it off and apologized. Fino-Radin didn't flinch. The multisensory digital clutter bombarding him at all times seemed to be his natural working environment. It has been for some time. He's been involved with digital preservation since receiving an undergraduate degree in fine arts six years ago and "realizing all of our cultural heritage today is born-digital."

"We truly are in the last two decades where this kind of work is even going to be possible," Fino-Radin predicted, his certainty unwavering.

Just as "XFR STN" can be envisioned as an aid to the artists seeking to have their data transferred, it's also a service for those viewing the materials, a work of multi-technological media capture and preservation on an unprecedented scale. But the New Museum does not have the capacity to store terabytes upon terabytes of uncompressed, newly digitized data, and as its exhibit FAQ notes, "the act of digitization or data recovery itself is not preservation, but only the first step in a responsible plan." So the Museum has partnered with the Internet Archive, a nonprofit aiming to offer "a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form."

Fino-Radin described it as "the only repository that is willing to take material of that size."

"By opening this up to the public, we’re saying, 'This is the great effort entailed in preserving this history,'" he said. "We’re not talking about stone tablets anymore."

All photos courtesy New Museum, New York.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.