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Whose Lens is it Anyway?

On a recent foray with a friend, the conversation turned to funding. Because I am a funder, this is not unusual and the opportunity was evident. My friend asked, “how are decisions made, who gets what, and why?” This is a routine query. 

Peering sideways at the issue of public money for a moment, the simple answer is application and review, although both are complicated realities for this public funder.  NYSCA (New York State Council on the Arts) employs a multistep process involving eligibility criteria, program staff, peer-review panels, a committee of Council members, and the full Council. Panelists are professional, each with relevant and specific expertise.  After meetings, lengthy discussions and ratings, the best applications are recommended for funding.

But there’s a curve when preservation is thrown in, especially of film and media. To strain the metaphor, it is a whole new ball game. Deciding “who gets what” takes on additional responsibility. Preservation proposals follow the same review process that all NYSCA applications do, but ultimately, howwe decide what is of public preservation value is relatively new territory, especially as it relates to media and technology as art forms. A little background may help. 

NYSCA was established in 1960 through the New York State Legislature with backing from Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The Council began its work in 1961, and the dawning of support for independent film followed on the heels of opera, theater and dance. In 1966 – 67, the Film Project appeared under the guidance of Peter Bradley, becoming the Film Program in 1967, and redefining itself again as the Film & Television Programin 1969. It is notable that in the space of a few years, the Council recognized that a whole new horizon of creative expression had arrived, bringing new content through newly acknowledged aesthetic forms: television, video and film.

Early Council grantees in film and television included visionaries who made, screened, and discussed independent work for public audiences. Among them were Shirley Clarke, Cahiers du Cinema, Andrew Sarris, and Rodger Larson. The great 1976 Bicentennial Project supported narrative and documentary filmmakers such as Ed Lynch, Nancy Graves, Dee Dee Halleck, Richard Kaplan, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, and soon the grantee list included Martha Coolidge, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers.  Spike Lee was there too, in the pre-digital NYSCA era. Among independent media organizations, Experimental Television Center was an extraordinary client, in particular because of its exceptional partnership with NYSCA Electronic Media & Film, and as a colleague that resourced media artists and preservation activity with Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, and Woody and Steina Vasulka.  As Sherry Miller Hocking recalls, “I think that’s what strikes me most in reflecting on the earliest days of media activity in the State. It was a grand adventure. We all, funders included, had a sense that we were inventing a medium providing this revolutionary technology to people for creative purposes. The future was a complete unknown, and NYSCA was eager to help build a new field with us.”


A Washing Machine of Activity

Today things are amplified. It is not just the application process or fundamental accountability requirements that keep people awake at night. It is the fact that there is so much more of everything now. In the high-speed world of digital art and technology it is nearly impossible to pinpoint the single moment when a unique contibution becomes seminal (it could be argued that this was also true during the 1960s and 1970s). Indeed, it is the rare bird that can fly while simultaneously grasping the significance of the moment. But it is not impossible. One such moment occurred recenty, with an applicant who proposed to look at the importance of preserving works from 2008 to the present: works that are difficult to address given technology developments (particularly social media). The panel viewed the applicant's particular approach to archiving social media as impressive. It was seen as a breakthrough, an important step; it had value. Artists had not traditionally thought about technology changing and the attendant preservation issues. Today, they have to think about making time-based work accessible over time: “Humans cannot create matter. We can, however, create value.”1

On the practical front, then, there are two simple ways that preservation funding debates are won. First, one must decide that a project is important, and then let everyone know it’s important, creating context to support value. Then it is a matter of the language and process you engage to identify, catalogue and create the manifest. One of the funder's roles, in fact, is to support creation of the language and the standards of evaluation and share them as public tools. It is a partnership in the decision-making process toward a common ground.

But we certainly can’t save everything, and there isn’t enough money anyway. Clarity of purpose and well-articulated value is, therefore, the ticket. Right now there is no single formula for funding preservation, and there never will be. We can use basic Council benchmarks of artistic excellence, good grant-writing, managerial competence, and service to the public to ascertain the worthiness of a proposal, but we also need to reflect on the materials we are proposing to preserve. Will they expand the rich and diverse resources that exist, and do they have the possibility of advancing our shared cultural heritage? Adventure is hazardous and suspenseful. 

So whose lens is it anyway? In the case of NYSCA, media preservation funding is evidence of value through a process that was designed to support strong and important work, marking ideas that were (and are) truly groundbreaking.  

History, however, is selective, and preservation sits amidst that selection process. Time is fluid. Archives can change based on policy decisions and leadership succession. Still, we are building new ways of looking forward through media preservation practices. As long as the digital medium continues to push us, the basics of video and similar types of preservation will be challenged by advancing technologies and their cousin, obsolescence. The future of preservation choices and practices will require that we remain flexible in our decision-making, as well as responsive. 

1. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi


Karen Helmerson

KAREN HELMERSON is Director of the Electronic Media & Film Program for the New York State Council on the Arts.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

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