Just in time for Memorial Day, the Smithsonian Institute released to its YouTube page previously unseen video footage of “Second-Generation New York School” poets Anne Waldman and Ted Berrigan performing their collaborative poem, “Memorial Day,” circa 1973. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, chase down the next person you find on the street brandishing a worn-out copy of some Donald-Allen-edited poetry anthology, and have her explain it.
Anyway, I’m writing about it here because this epic American poetry win (it’s the win that’s epic; the poetry is actually lyric) has a Baltimore dimension. Local experimental poet Megan McShea happens to work at the Archives of American Art and oversaw the preservation of the footage. She even went the extra mile and secured the permissions to make the video freely available on the Internet. Then she went the extra extra mile by sharing with BFB a little bit about her work with the AAA and the story of this particular art document.
First, what’s the mission of the Archives of American Art?
The Archives of American Art collects, preserves, and makes accessible historical documentation related to the history of art in the United States. We have collections from artists, galleries, museums, art historians, art collectors, journalists, art schools, artist co-ops and artist-run spaces. Anything that contains unique documentation of some trace of activity in the realm of visual art is of interest to us. There are letters, diaries, sketchbooks, photographs, notebooks, writings, interviews, business records, legal records, and AV recordings of various types – home movies, radio shows, public access TV, community meetings, documentaries, interviews, and the occasional documentation of performances or ephemeral artworks. We also have a huge oral history collection that goes back 50 years.
Once it’s here, in my department, we sort it out, arrange it in a logical way according to how the documentation was created, and write detailed descriptions of collections. We also do whatever it takes to preserve it so that researchers decades (centuries? millenia? it gets a little heady…) from now will still be able to access it.
What does your job regularly entail?
I do all of the above for collections that contain a lot of audiovisual recordings, which are typically analog audio and video recordings, and motion picture film. When someone doing research here wants to see or hear recordings from our collections, it goes through me and we digitize it if we can. I also oversee preservation projects for the films and recordings, which means making a copy that can ultimately replace the original, since analog media is obsolete and the means to play it in its original format probably will not exist down the road. Preservation requires sending the recordings out to specialized labs who create a very high quality copy, with strict requirements for documenting the process so the preservation copy can be authenticated and understood in its relationship to the original.
How did you come to possess the Berrigan/Waldman video footage, and what did it take to get it archived?
That recording was in a collection that was really exciting for us to get, the Holly Solomon Gallery records. Holly Solomon represented artists like William Wegman, Nam June Paik, Gordon Matta-Clark, Laurie Anderson, to name a few. But before she started the HSG, she had a loft space at 98 Greene Street in Soho, which seems like it must have been a lot like the artist-run spaces we know today. The documentation from that early period at the loft was full of video and sound recordings with names that would excite any literary type: Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, Ted Greenwald, Kenward Elmslie, Anne Waldman, Peter Schjeldahl, the list goes on.
The video was on this tough format for archives, half-inch video reels. As I explain in the YouTube caption, the invention of that format made video — with its instant playback — available to consumers for the first time, and lots of artists picked it up. So you’ll find these tapes in collections from that period — the late ’60s and early ’70s — often with tantalizing labels. But most archives don’t have the capacity to play it, and the signal on the tape tended to not hold up so well over time for various reasons. So you end up having to shell out and pay for a lab to preserve it before you even really know what it is.
For this collection, it was sort of a no-brainer that it would likely be worth the effort, and it was. The Berrigan/Waldman tape was actually mis-labeled, so we didn’t know we had that recording until after we got the video back from the lab. It was on a tape labeled tape 2 of another writer’s reading. So when I realized what it was, I was very excited. And when I contacted the writers and the camera person for permission to share the video, none of them knew the recording had survived, so that was pretty neat.
It turns out, it’s one of about 15 recordings in the collection of poetry readings at the 98 Greene Street loft from a series curated by Ted Greenwald. I hope to share more online down the road, but there’s labor involved in getting permissions, and well, there’s a lot of stuff here you might say (about 15,000 recordings and counting), and we have to be selective about how much time we devote to any one thing. But, happy to say, they’re all preserved now and will be available for researchers who come to our offices in New York and DC as we sort out the access and permissions stuff.
Does the work you do at the Archives influencing your own poetry?
Yes, I think so. In an oblique way. I love learning about artists’ processes from their stuff, and also about their relationships, that is, the community that made it possible for them to do their work and get it seen. That’s helped me understand the value of a creative community to someone doing creative work. I also think the barrage of fragmentary data that sweeps past my attention every day may have had an influence on my writing style, which is pretty fragmented. I’ve been doing this sort of work for 20 years now, so that’s a lot of data.