Alexandra Juhasz

For two years, the VHS Archives Working Group has brought together scholars, students, librarians, archivists, technologists, and community members to discuss and act upon questions and best practices about the use, preservation, digitization, and research of VHS collections that are held by organizations, scholars, artists, and activists.

In the 2017-2018 academic year, twenty or so people met monthly to talk about concerns related to their research and activism with VHS video. We focused on access, ethics, and preservation, centering queer and trans histories and representations of sexuality and bodies, and queer/feminist/of color AIDS activism. Here is a report from the first year.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, twelve committed participants are joining in sustained conversation, tool building, and programming, while attending ethically and thoughtfully to the buzzing interplay of feelings, intimate community, video, and tech. Engaging three community partners—the XFR Collective, Interference Archive, and Visual AIDS—and one design practice, Partner and Partners, this year's Working Group is building an open source "tool" that should be used on short stacks of videos by a known and manageable group of participants (party-goers). The tool will help partiers to best care.share for digital and other fragile objects of and for the community who made or needs them. Our prototype for a lightweight open source website generator (the "tool") should facilitate ethical research about and activation of small collections of digitized videotape. Using the tool, each communal engagement with video is a "party": a gathering of humans to work collectively and in real-time on an actionable task spending time in and enjoying each other's presence and some tapes; shared, task-focused, committed engagements with the materials enabled by using the tool ("My VHS Archives Party").

We prioritize keeping VHS and other fragile materials small and local: to respect the uses and needs of specific communities, the importance of engaging with archives in a group setting, and of dedicating both time and presence to community archival work. The tapes should connect to or produce a project of and for a community who understand, need, and want them.

Ours is neither an accessibility nor an archiving project. It’s less about getting things out there and more about doing things together for ourselves and our known communities. This is because we think hard about the connections between the digital migration of tape—its saving or loss—and safety. Although we start with tape, we attend primarily to people and their things:

· the needs for the privacy of public things.

· the needs for publicity of things that have been forced into privacy.

· the needs for the privacy of vulnerable people and communities as some of their things become public (from Caring.Sharing: ethics and concepts for saving and using VHS Archives).

We are committed to the safety and care of vulnerable people and their objects. We insist you shouldn't share (digital media) without care (of those whose it is and was and will be). Attending to the experiences and wants of people, in community, at every technological step, is an act of ethical obligation and its technological formatting. Thus, frames for thinking about and taking action on caring.sharing should be written into all encounters (personal, technological, interfacial) when the already fragile materials of vulnerable others become available online, including:

· the ethics of reuse: "Can we develop queer archival practices that engage subtle questions of power and access, the strangeness of the past, the tension between the individual and collective, and the changing historical contexts that have shaped viewership, authorship, and privacy? Can we somehow account for both the delights and the troubles that our digital technologies facilitate? In short: Can we enact community-engaged, ethically informed, queer approaches to the conundrums that lie at the center of our documentary and archival impulses? Maybe some stories shouldn't be told in public. Maybe some archival materials should remain hard to find. Maybe it matters who tells which stories. And maybe just because you can doesn’t mean you should" (Rachel Mattson, Queer Histories, Videotape, and the Ethics of Reuse).

· nostalgia and intellectual feelings: Things matter to those who own, save, made and share them. How do we make sure to honor "the feelings attached to desire and sexuality, whether in a peep show booth or a backyard in the shadows of East Los Angeles" (Juan Fernández, Nostalgia and “Intellectual Feelings”).

· working from unmade, lost, or hidden archives: "Sometimes there isn't a record to be found because people chose to remain unrecorded because documentation can bring in the state, the family, or other outside forces of potential discipline or punishment. "Is it possible to reintroduce the cultural work of our archival subjects when there aren’t many video materials available" (Jaime Shearn Coan, "Crucial Circulations: VHS and Queer AIDS Archives").

· finding and working from material that is too personal, graphic or painful to be shared, or was never made for curious, potentially violent others.

· finding and working from personal archives of loss: can we be technologically tender?

· attending to accessibility: so that saved things can be used by all who need them.

· context-building: how to understand, preserve, and honor where work came from while enriching our understanding of past times, places, and people. This is critical, because it insures that things (and their peoples) aren't and can't be ripped from their original home, place, people, use, and values.

· staying small; resisting scale: at some point, the number of objects, tags, people, or connections can get too large for the community that salvaged things to insure and protect them.

· rules of engagement: objects online should be engaged with using agreed upon rules written by the community that made/saved them: community-specific, community-produced, iterative, and adaptive.

· preservation with purpose: communities should know why they are saving and for what and whom.

· activation as safety: easy to lose things can gain a toe-hold in memory, history, and advocacy when they are saved and used. Once known, procedures for safety can be written onto them.

· acknowledging communal knowledge and other types of ownership within and beyond the tech.

For Spring 2019, we understand that we are designing two digital products: 1) a web page that introduces the project, holds (and connects) all its small stacks, seeks participants for parties, and serves as an entryway (or primer) to start a small-stack and/or find party-goers and/or commence partying while introducing many of the ideas above, and 2) the tool itself, which holds the small stack of videos and "party playbooks": activities and their digital containers and enablers that, when engaged, build out content into the tool and its small stack of videos (caring.sharing).


Stay tuned!


Alexandra Juhasz

Alexandra Juhasz has been making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid-80s. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke, 1995), and a large number of AIDS educational videos including Living with AIDS:...