Among the many programs broadcast on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) in the late 1990s was a show hosted by a transgender African-American woman whose name, for reasons explained below, I won’t mention here. I don’t know too much about the show—not the timeslot in which it was presented, not the specific dates on which it was broadcast, not how many episodes aired in total. The little that I do know about this show I learned from my friend, Michael Grant—a moving image archivist who specializes in the preservation of magnetic media, especially VHS tapes.Grant discovered a rare recording of one of the show’s episodes earlier this year, while digitizing materials from the archival collections of the Educational Video Center (EVC). After working with a short documentary made by a group of youth media makers—which only took up a portion of the VHS tape on which it was recorded—Grant fast-forwarded to see if the cassette contained any additional material. The final section, he discovered, contained a full episode of this aforementioned public access television show. Previewing the material to gauge its suitability for digitization, Grant wondered how a recording of this show had ended up on a tape in EVC’s collections. As far as he could tell, it was unconnected to the work of the organization or its affiliates. Perhaps someone at EVC had recorded it off-air? This seemed unlikely, since the recording’s edges were neat: it began precisely at the start of the episode and ended precisely at its conclusion. Maybe MNN had given EVC the tape upon request? This was possible—but if so, how did an EVC program end up on the first half of the tape? Grant finally concluded that what had most likely happened was that a tape containing a recording of MNN productions had been acquired by EVC (possibly it was something that an EVC instructor had and brought in to show to students)—which had been subsequently recycled and taped-over by EVC’s producers. In any event, here it was. What to do with it?
On one hand, the video held undeniable historical significance. It was a rare example of a television program entirely written and produced by a transgender woman of color. This particular episode marked the season premiere of the show’s second season, and featured clips from each of the eight episodes that comprised the show’s first season. Organized largely around viewers calling in to ask questions, the show featured frank talk about the host’s gender identity, her efforts to secure gender-appropriate ID, her seropositive status, and a wide range of other topics related to life in queer 1990s-era New York City. The recording was, in Grant’s view, “really moving, and kind of beautifully awkward in the cable access way.” He knew that it would be of enormous value to a wide range of researchers—folks interested in queer and trans histories and the history of public access television, as well as AIDS activists, documentary filmmakers, and a range of other viewers.But at the same time, the tape presented a set of ethical dilemmas—the most pressing of which concerned the ethics of access. Created in the early years of the internet era—long before streaming video was ubiquitous on the web—the show was meant to be broadcast (or rathernarrowcast, since MNN’s signal did not reach past the borders of its home borough) only to those residents of Manhattan who tuned in to MNN at a specific time on a specific day. If Grant digitized this material and put it online, it would be accessible to an entirely new and unintended audience. A show that was originally designed to be seen only by a few living souls on a specific date and time in a specific location would suddenly be available to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere, at any time. Add some metadata (the show’s title, its host’s name, a keyword or two) and it would be searchable and findable by—well, theoretically, the whole world.The same is true, of course, for a great deal the archival material that’s available online. Whenever you digitize paper materials, or physical artifacts, or born-analog films and videos, and share them—on Instagram, on Fandor, on your institution’s digital collections website, wherever—you radically transform their viewership, their context, and their affordances. Even open access advocates and digital librarians worry about the ethical implications of this transformation. “Just because you can [digitize],” one observer recently wrote, “doesn’t mean you should.” When a recent archival initiative made digitized versions of On Our Backs (a late 20th century magazine of lesbian erotica) available on the internet, for instance, it raised some concern. “Most of the OOB run was published before the internet existed,” librarian Tara Robertson noted. “Consenting to appear in a limited-run print publication is very different than consenting to have one’s sexualized image be freely available on the internet.” Robertson continued:
“Who in the early 90s could imagine what the internet would look like in 2016? In talking to some [of OOB’s contributing photographers], I’ve learned that some of their former models are now elementary school teachers, clergy, professors, child care workers, lawyers, mechanics, health care professionals, bus drivers and librarians. We live and work in a society that is homophobic and not sex positive. Librarians have an ethical obligation to steward this content with care for both the object and with care for the people involved in producing it.”
The public access television program that Grant found at EVC was different in form and content than On Our Backs, but it raised a similar set of ethical, privacy-related questions. When the show’s host disclosed personal information on air, she was without question engaging in a radical act of bravery. But these disclosures were made in what we might now call the protected realm of live television. Once spoken, they disappeared from the airwaves; they did not immediately get indexed and made available within the giant database that is the internet, becoming just so many searchable points on a data-rich graph.
Furthermore, a great deal of information about the provenance, chain of custody, and the creator’s archival wishes were entirely unknown to Grant. How did the program end up on a tape contained in EVC’s collections? Unknown. What kind of agreement did the show’s host make with the organization (if she had in fact been the one to pass the recording along to the organization)? Unknown. Did she want her work digitized and made available to a new generation of viewers? Unknown. Without more information, Grant was unsure how to handle the material. After some careful research he found the host’s personal page on a social media platform. He wrote her a message, and after some time, she wrote back. But her message contained very little in the way of clear directives. “My tapes are gone forever,” she wrote. “I’ve moved on.”
What did this mean? Did it mean she meant to destroy the tapes and doesn’t want any remaining copies in circulation? Or had she perhaps thought they had been lost, and was sad about that but had moved on? Grant reached out once again seeking clarity; but, this time, she didn’t write back.Grant’s presentation about this tape—and the dilemmas it raised for him—provoked wide-ranging discussion among the members of the VHS Archives group. Our conversation that night touched on the history of public access television: “It was a place where freaks met Baudrillard,” one participant remembered. “A little uncool, very marginalized, [and full of] edgy communities.” We also wondered about the status of public access television archives— “Does MNN have an archival collection somewhere?”—and about alternative distribution and access models. Might we imagine, and build, community-engaged strategies to offer access to queer archival materialsoffline? One participant suggested, as a model for this sort of work, Chris Vargas’s Museum of Trans Hirstory and Art—a series of a mobile exhibitions that “insist on an expansive and unstable definition of transgender.”
Finally, we wondered what Grant planned to do next. Would he continue to try to get in touch with the host? Did he plan to hold on to the digital file? When, if ever, would he feel comfortable making it public? We wanted answers to these difficult questions. Grant replied that, simply, he didn’t know, that he was still searching for good solutions to his dilemma.
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should is maybe a good tagline for the broader overlap between queer history, videotape, and the documentary impulse. In any case, it does a fairly good job of connecting Grant’s presentation to the second discussion topic on deck at the October meeting of the VHS Archives working group. That conversation was facilitated by Tara Mateik, and addressed the ethics of reuse and access in the context of documentary filmmaking—a conversation that gained new focus in the light of the recent Netflix release of David France’s documentary film about the African American trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.
The weeks leading up to our meeting had pulsed with news articles about the ethical breaches in which France had engaged in making his film. (“Did the Director of the Marsha P. Johnson Netflix Doc Steal a Black Trans Filmmaker’s Work?,” read one news headline.) First in an Instagram post, and then in a longer op-ed in Teen Vogue, filmmaker and activist Reina Gossett detailed the ways in which France had “capitalized on her archival research and ideas for his film.” Not only had France undermined Gossett’s efforts to get funding for her own film about the life of Marsha P. Johnson, he had also borrowed heavily from her language about and framing of Johnson’s life, and had badgered a long list of people to gain access to the archival materials she and her comrades had worked hard to uncover.
But Gossett’s critique extended further. “Too often people with resources…become the ones to tell the stories of those at the margins rather than people who themselves belong to these communities,” she wrote. “The process ends up extracting from people who are taking the most risks just to live our lives and connect with our histories.” Instead of rewarding the most powerful, or those most willing to bully their way through the filmmaking process, might we instead, Gossett wondered, “uplift and support the work of trans people to tell our own stories – on the screen, on the page, and on the streets”?
Gossett’s questions offered a critical frame for Tara Mateik’s presentation. Mateik, a transgender filmmaker and professor with a long history of making activist films, was among those who had been contacted by France during the production of the Netflix documentary. Over the course of the previous decades, Mateik had shot, and collected, several videos that France wished to use in his film. This included footage collectively shot by the creators of “Fenced OUT” (a collaborative documentary film about the efforts of “LGBTSTQ youth of color to save the Christopher Street pier and the West Village from re-development and gentrification” in the late 1990s); material that was collected in preparation for Sylvia Rivera’s funeral in 2002; and footage shot by Mateik on his own.
Mateik explained to our group that, some time ago, he had been approached by France—who had seen the videos online, and wished to gain permission to use excerpts in his film. After initially avoiding France’s inquiries, Mateik finally wrote him an email. “Dear David,” the letter began. “There are many complications in terms of approving this request”—including “legal rights and ethical protections.” Although the material might be in his possession, Mateik explained that he did not feel that he had the sole right to grant permission to use it. And indeed, after “reaching out to others involved,” Mateik had not “received any positive responses” from them. “In terms of the footage that I gathered for Sylvia’s tribute,” Mateik wrote,
“please understand that I feel an enormous responsibility for this footage, which was created with Sylvia’s friends and family expressly for her funeral. I tried to contact the videographer who shot the footage at the food bank but she did not reply– it’s been over ten years since I was last in touch and it’s been hard to track her down. I really can’t release this footage to be distributed in a new context without her permission– it wouldn’t be ethical.”
The footage created for the “Fenced OUT” documentary presented a different set of issues. Mateik told France that he had “reached out to collective members from Fenced Out about the pier footage” and
“they raised ethical concerns about how this footage was going to be used. As you know, there is a long history of exploiting trans people of color, and of documentary filmmakers using trendy social issue topics for their own gain, without a real and sustained commitment to these communities…The members were not in favor of approving this request, and I don’t have the authority to override them.”
Mateik concluded by saying he was “sorry these aren’t the answers you were hoping for, but please know I did pursue this to the best of my ability with the collaborators who share a stake in this work.”
Mateik’s reply to France really couldn’t have been clearer; he could not and did not grant permission for reuse of these materials in France’s documentary film. And yet, when Netflix released the film in Fall of 2017, it became clear that France had ignored Mateik’s explanations, and used some of these clips in his film anyway.
Although distinct in many ways from the questions raised by Grant’s encounter with the MNN material, Gossett’s and Mateik’s experiences—and France’s ethical breaches—called forth a linked set of questions for members of the VHS Archives group about the ethics of reuse and the politics of storytelling. As we considered Mateik’s presentation, we wondered about alternative modes of practice, and tried to envision an approach to documentary reuse of archival video that takes into account not just what’s permitted under the letter of the law, but ethical concerns, as well. 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? In the view of VHS Archives group participants, these are urgent questions which merit consideration from anyone interested in documenting queer pasts. Maybe some stories shouldn’t be told in public. Maybe some archival materials should remain hard to find. Maybe its matters who tells which stories. And maybe just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
1. Email from Alex Juhasz to VHS Archives group participants, August 2, 2017.