The seed of the New Museum’s digital archiving exhibition “XFR STN” (read as “transfer station”) was planted two years ago when Alan Moore–a member of the artists’ group Colab–submitted a proposal to Ethan Swan, then working in the museum’s education department. Moore had a cache of 800-odd videotapes in storage in Staten Island, all artist-made films that were screened and sold by Colab in the late ’80s and ’90s as part of the group’s Monday/Wednesday/Friday Video Club. His goal was to transfer the material from an analog to a digital format, thereby making it available to contemporary audiences.
But there was also a public service aspect to Moore’s proposal: artists who had been hoarding work stored on floppy disks, cassettes and other obsolete formats could have their work transferred to a permanently accessible online archive.
Enter Johanna Burton, an art historian who inherited Moore’s proposal when she replaced Swan in January. “Education is the R&D wing of the museum,” she explained over the phone last week while discussing the New Museum’s renewed interest in its own archives and in spreading the gospel of creating open-source digital archives of artists’ work.
For eight weeks this summer (through Sept. 8) the museum’s fifth floor is home to “XFR STN.” The bustling space is part high-tech lab, part gallery and part screening room. It’s run by Ben Fino-Radin, Rhizome’s digital archivist, and Walter Forsberg, an audio visual conservator tasked with overseeing the team of transfer technologists (former students at NewYork University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program, where Forsberg used to teach). Artists can schedule three-hour appointments at xfrstn.newmuseum.org.
When A.i.A. stopped by on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the lab was buzzing. Both Fino-Radin and Forsberg are blessed with the ability to explain the complicated transfer process to lay people without jargon; their excitement about the project is contagious. Two stations are dedicated to analog-to-digital video transfers, equipped to handle formats like VHS, DVCam, Mini-DV, Betacam and U-matic. The third station is set up for born-digital transfers of material stored on CD-Rs and floppy, zip, hard and jaz disks.
The born-digital station was occupied by Laura Splan, a Brooklyn-based artist who brought a shoebox full of disks holding photos, videos and research material dating back to the early ’90s. Set up at the two video stations were Marc Rosenblatt, who had a stash of cassettes related to a public-access TV show in Connecticut he worked on in the 1980s, and Gabriel Tolliver, a former producer of the popular MTV program “Yo! MTV Raps,” who brought in old footage stored on VHS tapes.
Forsberg, Burton recalls, was “interested but suspicious” when the New Museum approached him about participating in “XFR STN.” As he explained while monitoring transfers in progress and troubleshooting glitches at the lab, Forsberg didn’t want to be involved unless he could assure that the museum would adopt digital art best practices and address the long-term issues surrounding net art conservation.
The New Museum had been able to borrow equipment from all over the city but, Forsberg pointed out ominously, the technology making up the transfer stations would itself eventually become obsolete. A time will come–within the next 20 years, Forsberg predicted–when even the best trained and most industrious digital archivists will no longer be able to help artists with shoeboxes full of U-matic cassettes and floppy disks.
This is why Forsberg, Fino-Radin and the rest of the team felt strongly that “XFR STN” should not simply be a drop-in clinic for artists to move works from one obsolete format to another that will soon meet the same fate. Almost all the material that passes through “XFR STN” will be uploaded to archive.org, an online library able to permanently store digital material. In this sense, “XFR STN” provides a lasting solution to the problems endemic to digital art becoming “trapped” on inaccessible formats.
Burton hopes that other organizations will host similar open-call events so that more analog and born-digital art will become publically accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Two days a week the “XFR STN” lab is being used to digitize material from the museum’s own archives. Tara Hart, the New Museum’s digital archivist, recently came across an unlabeled Betacam cassette that turned out to be outtakes from when Marcia Tucker (the New Museum’s founding director, who died in 2006) took part in a short-lived TV show about contemporary art. This, along with other gems from the archives, will eventually be on view in a fifth-floor screening room, which will also serve as a space to display archival material, digital and otherwise. It’s all part of Burton’s goal to answer a question she asked herself in January: “What does a public service look like in a museum?”