March 15, 2016

Back to the Future: Engagement through Preservation


The role of education departments in the museum setting is being widely reconsidered today, in particular with regard to their orientation toward public address and, by extension, community-building in art. A useful case study in this respect arose in summer 2013 at the New Museum in New York, when Johanna Burton, the institution’s Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, acted as a core organizer of XFR STN (Transfer Station), an open-door, artist-centered media archiving project. Inviting artists to the Museum in order to digitize media-based work, XFR STN was oriented explicitly around the problem of obsolescence among artistic media in the digital age. Yet the project enacted a decolonization of the museum’s program through a decidedly local approach, giving rise to numerous exchanges among artists and audiences across disciplines and generations. Burton shares the thinking that led to the project and describes how it exceeded even her expectations, in ways illuminating for education in arts institutions in general.

Less than a month after joining the New Museum in early 2013, I was sifting through a number of orphan files with Ethan Swan, who had worked in the department in various capacities for nearly seven years and was leaving for LA. He had stayed on long enough to offer me a few weeks of overlap, so that a number of projects and histories could be transferred rather than lost in the gap so often produced as an effect of staff transitions. “Oh,” he was saying as we reached the end of discussing budgets, old DV tapes, and a file of letters relating to the Bowery Artist Tribute. “I’ve been holding on to this. It didn’t make sense for our program before, but maybe it’s something you’d be interested in.” Responding to my proclivity for research-oriented and archive-producing projects, Ethan had unearthed XFR STN, a proposal handed to him a few years prior by the artist and writer Alan W. Moore.

When I hear the name Alan Moore, I immediately think of Colab, a nickname for the famous New York City-based collective Collaborative Projects, who were responsible for the artist-driven exhibitions The Real Estate Show (Lower East Side, 1980) and the Times Square Show (Times Square, 1980). We recall these exhibitions as effusive, deeply critical affairs in which artists commented en masse on urgent political issues in New York at the time, such as gentrification and the so-called “cleaning up” of Times Square. These activities by artists, engaged in a kind of guerilla warfare against capitalism and bureaucratic control, retain their status as real and symbolic attempts to halt, or at the very least call attention to, the overwhelming effects of neoliberalism that we now inhabit more fully than anyone could have imagined in 1980.

So, what was XFR STN, and why would this be a contender for a “public engagement” project in the year 2013? The word “engagement,” etymologically, is tied to promises, pledges, and binding commitments. These days, too often engagement is aligned more with the consumption-based idea of something being momentarily “engaging,” with the understanding that if something more interesting comes along, there’s nothing lost in moving on to the next, newer, more entertaining thing. For my part, even if somewhat unrealistically, I wondered what it would look like to imagine “engagement” in this deeper sense — that is, to more visibly construct a mutual commitment between institutions and the publics that intersect with them.

What might such a mutual commitment entail? Digital preservation maybe is not the most likely contender for candidacy as “community engagement.” But alongside addressing the question of works of art recorded on increasingly obsolete magnetic media, XFR STN resulted, somewhat unexpectedly, in an expansive social experiment.

According to Moore, XFR STN was meant to be an “open-door, artist-centered archiving project” that would serve an immediately pressing need. In the mid-80s, Moore and collaborators had established the Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club (MWF) to serve local non-mainstream video artists who had difficulties distributing their work or otherwise having it seen. MWF became a kind of DIY service center — duping tapes, producing box jackets, sending and receiving VHS tapes — representing a true diversity of production by film and video makers, performance artists, poets, and others. But when VHS became obsolete, so did MWF. Moore’s collection of over 800 tapes was moved to an atmospherically unregulated storage locker on Staten Island. For Moore, XFR STN was a kind of “search and rescue” mission that would preserve works of art on the edge of disappearance. The initiative could make this work visible once again.

The group assembling around XFR STN opted to add two more endangered repositories to MWF’s video collection: the New Museum’s own archive of documentation of public programs dating from the late 1970s; and, perhaps most exciting and unwieldy, a collection yet-to-be-formed that we deemed the “public” collection. As artists brought their own material to be transferred during the run of the project, so they began conversations about their own and others’ artworks, generations of media, and, just as significant, the uses and potential meanings of such media across the decades.

Incredibly, a technical apparatus designed to exchange information among platforms became a platform for the exchange of information among people. XFR STN, then, became a public resource, a fully-operational digital preservation lab open during museum hours for eight straight weeks, with the explicit aim of getting as many moving-image and other works copied from VHS, Hi8, audio cassette, and “born-digital” into the world at large. All transferred materials were placed on the Internet Archive, arguably the world’s largest public archive.

On the one hand this was a deeply pragmatic project, answering to the urgencies of fast-moving technical obsolescence. But XFR STN simultaneously became a laboratory for discussion. Which art histories are written, and by whom? How does preservation replicate or refuse prevailing canons? Is visibility more important than economic return? Are digital works, despite their rhetoric of infinite reproducibility, themselves precarious?

Built from a team comprised of artists, educators, curators, and specialists in media archiving and digital preservation,1 XFR STN’s results were quantifiable, but also unexpected in terms of ongoing impact. As I wrap my head around just what “engagement” can be at its best and most rigorous, I look back to this example. While ostensibly not even an artistic project, or addressing in any way familiar tropes of social practice such as community outreach or social justice, XFR STN organically gave rise to vital questions: What forms a community? What skills or knowledge might be shared or transferred? How might we support one another’s activities, and how can we ask art institutions to address the pressing material needs of artists and audiences alike? Sometimes simply providing a service allows such questions, with major ramifications for how a museum might relate to its social world, to be posed.

In XFR STN, there were successes and failures. There were a few bad transfers and appointments we couldn’t accommodate. But happily there were hundreds of hours of footage we were able to resurrect from outdated media with the similarly rickety machines we managed to source. For me, though, it’s most interesting to look at the project as a model. We received some art world attention for our efforts, but the acknowledgements that were most meaningful came from elsewhere. The Library of Congress’s National Digital Stewardship Alliance, for instance, granted the project an Innovation Award. And, importantly, a core group consisting of original Colab members and a handful of technicians started a project called XFR Collective, that continues to serve the artistic community of New York and beyond with transfer services.

What promises do museums make to the communities that sustain them? Artists entrust their life’s work, and therefore, in some sense, their lives, to museums. What do these institutions owe them in return? Since this project, I’ve worked on others that have similarly tested the limits of what engagement is and does. All of these have been imbued by what I learned from XFR STN, which taught me that it is often by addressing needs immediately at hand that we find ourselves engaged in the most deeply urgent historical and ideological questions of our time. If engagement is commitment, and ideally sustained commitment, it is necessarily bigger than any of us who “curate” it. These are, after all, partnerships — not just programs.


This text is based on a talk Burton delivered as part of ENGAGE MORE NOW!, an international conference on the subject of public engagement conducted on November 6-7, 2015, at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Artwork by Dana DeGiulio

  1. Individuals: Alexis Bhagat, Johanna Burton, Michael Carter, Daniel Erdman, Ben Fino-Radin, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Walter Forsberg, Rebecca Fraimow, Tara Hart, Mona Jimenez, Julia Kim, John Klacsmann, Leeroy Kun Young Kang, Kristin MacDonough, Bleakley McDowell, Alan Moore, Taylor Moore, Peter Oleksik, Erik Piil, Isadora Reisner, Maurice Schecter, Jason Scott, Jen Song and Ben Turkus; Organizations: Anthology Film Archives, AudioVisual Preservation Solutions, DuArt Restoration, E.S.P. TV, Internet Archive, Metropolitan Libraries Council, Museum of Modern Art Department of Conservation, New Museum. NYU Moving Image Archive Program (MIAP), Rhizome
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