My dystopian commute through New Jersey is bound by the cloverleaf exit from the Goethals Bridge and the helix to the Lincoln Tunnel; it is my first temporal displacement of the day. Moving in an arc between the exit and the toll plaza there is a moment when you can see where you have been and where you are going. If you have the option, it is the moment before a direction is chosen, up or down the line, as Robert Silverberg might say. During these moments, I sometimes review my projects and their inherent problems for the day ahead.
My studio is an interchange where I coax content from the past, sometimes, the content itself is looking back to a more distant past, creating a cloverleaf-like feedback loop. The Early Years, *MGZIC 9-950, is one of the current projects that has come to mind in the cloverleaf. It is a collection of over 130 U-matic videocassettes recorded almost 33 years ago in April of 1981. The cassettes are camera originals documenting a symposium, The Early Years, held at SUNY Purchase. The symposium looks back on the pioneering days of modern dance from 1900 through the 1930s. The participants came together and built their own time machine. Discussion panels collectively traveled back in time to prearranged periods, like the character in the novel Time and Again.
In addition to recording the panel discussions, effort was invested in documenting rehearsal and performance of signature dance works for a Gala Performance including Doris Humphrey's Soaring. Visually, Soaring looks back diaphanously to Annabelle Whitford Moore’s Serpentine Dance captured by Edison in 1897. Annabelle was the subject of a previous Time Machine blog post, Beauty and the Interval Between.
A number of things about this collection are remarkable. All of the tapes are playable with a simple cleaning, and all but one had splices that held fast. 1981 is not a good year for videotape. Tapes from this period are immediately suspect, as they are susceptible to deterioration through binder hydrolysis. All of the tapes are the smaller 20 minute cassettes commonly used in portable SONY BVU recorders. The tapes are well recorded, there is no head switching at the bottom of the frame, a characteristic of industrial U-matic recordings. The stock is Scotch, manufactured by 3M, which has always brought a smile of relief to my face as it usually responds well to cleaning. The brief notes on the cassettes include the names of the camera operators. The names written on the labels are four of the most distinguished independent documentary filmmakers of the time: D. A Pennebaker, Chris Hedgus, Hillary Harris, and Ed Emschwiller.
Presently, in the moving image labs of the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division we are capturing the work of this distinguished crew as digital files for preservation and access. This is a daily occurrence in our studio. We are always finding ways to fit the past into the present, and nudge it into the future.