Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC)
Founded in 1976, Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) describes its mission as inspiring "social change by empowering media makers to develop and share diverse stories through art, education and technology." BAVC offers low-cost classes in video production, editing, web development, and software programming, with an emphasis on supporting community members and young media makers. In 1994, with funding from the NEA, BAVC also began offering media preservation services, realizing that early analog videotape, including some of BAVC members' own productions, were at risk for deterioration and loss. Since then, BAVC has preserved more than 7,000 hours of video materials.
Today, BAVC provides preservation assessment services, collection appraisals, preservation consulting, and digitization of obsolete analog video and audio materials. It also supports projects such as the QC Tools suite of video analysis software, and the AV Artifact Atlas, an online resource documenting the visual errors caused by various analog videotape defects.
Through its NEA-funded Preservation Access Program, BAVC also offers subsidized video and audio preservation services to artists and cultural heritage organizations. Because of its mission to empower independent creators, artists, and activists, BAVC provides its preservation services not only as a conventional vendor, but also as a partner for artists and non-profit media collections.
This interview was conduced by Carolyn Faber in November 2014.
PRESERVATION AS MISSION
Q: What makes BAVC different from other vendors who also provide preservation services?
MORIAH ULINSKAS: I think it's really more about who our constituency is. The thing that keeps BAVC's preservation afloat is our partnerships with large institutions. We work for major libraries or universities, or a large collection will get funded, and we'll do the preservation of it. At the same time, we transfer all of the things that we've learned from working with those larger institutions, that have these really developed best practices, to the individual artists who will walk in and have made one documentary in their life.
The thing that's really different about the way that we work with people has to do with our flexibility. We all know that there are best practices in AV preservation that say, "Oh, you need to create a 10-bit uncompressed file of your video," because that's what everyone says you should do right now. We have the ability to look at individuals or small organizations that come to us and say, "Hey, these are the best practices, but let's talk about what's actually sustainable and manageable for you or your institution." How we're going to prioritize your recordings for preservation, what resources do you have, what partnerships can you make. I think we serve as a really good sort of matchmaker. We're like, "Oh, ooh, you're a dancer. "You should know about the Dance Heritage Coalition. You should consider having your work preserved through them or included in their database." I feel like we end up in long-term relationships, and we don't really look at them as clients.
Q: It sounds like it's not just a client-vendor relationship, but more of a collaborative partnership.
BEN TURKUS: Right now, a good portion of the work that we're preserving is subsidized and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of a program called The Preservation Access Program, which is a favorite of Moriah's and mine. It democratizes access, and allows us to reach out to artists throughout the country who are in need of help with assessing the needs of digitizing their collection, and also advising them on longer-term file storage. We don't want to just return a hard drive to people and have that sit on the shelf in place of the tape. That could be very much more dangerous. So we're trying to help people figure out ways to deal with that.
THE PRESERVATION ACCESS PROGRAM
Q: How did the Preservation Access Program get started?
MU: Video preservation is very expensive. And BAVC being a non-profit, we have to work pretty hard to make ends meet. And the National Endowment for the Arts gave us a very generous grant a couple of years ago. The way that we set it up is, people would qualify for a different percentage off their preservation costs. So for an individual who has a bunch of 1/2" videotapes that would normally cost about $250 each, which is insane for them to try and preserve on their own, it comes down to about $75 per tape. And even those people whose work wasn't eventually preserved went through the process of applying, which was actually very educational for them. Creating the application made us create resources for people to understand what video preservation is and why it's important. And having people just do the process of filling out an application, the questions are essentially prompts for the people filling it out to think about whether or not they're ready for preservation, who their community is and what the plan is for the recordings once they're preserved. Are they going to be exhibited in an exhibition? Are they going to be incorporated in a documentary somebody's working on? So even if somebody only got as far as filling out the application, I feel even that was useful and educational.
WORKING WITH ARTISTS
Q: What are the biggest challenges you see in working with the artists you're connecting with through the program?
BT: I think in most cases they have a pretty major collection of video materials and audio materials, and lack of environmental controls, lack of intellectual controls and physical control. And they don't really know where to begin. And so we would visit artists and help them to identify items that are at greatest risk either based upon format, obsolescence of decks, and playback equipment, heavily deteriorating or degrading materials.
MU: One thing that we ask people to do is to fill out a blank inventory spreadsheet with the information about the tapes that they're applying for to preserve. And if somebody can't submit that, that's the obvious red flag for us. If you're in a situation where you can't even fill out the sheet, either you have so many tapes that are not accessible to you that you weren't able to do this, or you don't understand the things on the sheet, therefore you need some help.
Q: What differences do you see in addressing the preservation of individual artists' works from collections managed by organizations or archives in institutions?
BT: I think maybe the major difference would just be having a lack of education about how to organize and arrange materials, and with individual artists you really see it all. We have one artist who was accepted into the first round of the preservation program a year ago who actually is pretty remarkable in the level of command she has of her materials, and is very organized, but it's taken her a long time to make those selections. It's personal work. It's so hard to get that objective view of how to proceed with preservation if you have a lot of material as an artist and you care differently about those decisions. And for a larger archive or organization, it's easier to sit back and set those priorities, whether they're based up some type of content or need.
Q: Are there certain artists or pieces you've worked with through the preservation program that stand out as particularly challenging, or stand out as remarkable in other ways?
MU: The thing I'm digging, and this is an obvious one, is we've always done preservation videos for VideoFreex videos for Video Data Bank.
BT: One artist we worked with recently had actually come to BAVC in the past for work that was shot on 1/2" open reel videotape to be transferred, and was having trouble accessing files that were created. So it was a real example of needing to walk someone through the process of making sure that they can open them up and continue to work with some of the large ten-bit, uncompressed preservation files. And it was just clear that he really needs a lot of help in that realm that he's doing and continuing to make work. So the priority is always bouncing between wanting to ensure that old stuff is being taken care of, but also to still be vital and active in making new work.
MU: One of the interesting things that I've experienced with individual performers in the Preservation Access Program is helping them through the process of figuring out where all the copies of their videos are, because you're talking about performers. The performer has copies and the stuff that they'll come to us with as individuals is sometimes a box full of VHS dubs that were given to them after they performed somewhere. And the conversation is about where is this original recording? Has it already been preserved? Do you have access to that? Do you have rights to it as an artist in it or the choreographer or whatever? We deal a lot with choreographers. There's a lot of helping them re-engage with whatever organization or group it was that they did the original recording with to figure out where the original recording lives and whether or not it's already been preserved. And if it hasn't, we go ahead and we preserve it and should that institution have it too, and do they actually have an infrastructure that could support this artist at this point?
BT: We also have artists come with work on multiple formats, and they don't have the ability to play any of them. And they ask very nicely, very often, to have us preview them and help them determine which is the best. So, if they had a 1/2" open reel from the early 1970s, and then at some point there was a 3/4" U-Matic copy made, and then maybe even something else further down the line, which one of those is going to be in the best condition right now? And that really does vary depending on the quality of the masters. Often it would be that the original is probably the best, but-
MU: Unless it's falling apart.
BT: Yeah, unless it's falling apart.
EDUCATION AND COLLABORATION
Q: It almost sounds like the Preservation and Access Program, and all of the preservation work you do, is more like a preservation education program with a little preservation work on the side. Which is not to diminish the preservation work you do, but it almost seems like the last thing that actually happens.
BT: I've been trying to make sure that whether it's an individual artist or an organization, they really understand that the decision is theirs. It's one that they should make after weighing all the various considerations, especially choices of file formats. It's fraught subject matter, and there are standards and best practices that have emerged. But we find that it is still very much something still being worked out right now. Ten-bit uncompressed can be the best choice for someone, maybe. Maybe someone really wants an open-source solution but it isn't widely adopted enough. There's not a one size fits all for everything.
Q: Can you give an example of where you recommended one thing for one type of project and another for another type?
MU: Oh yeah. When we work with these big universities and institutions we recommend ten-bit uncompressed files because that's the industry standard. So right now, capture everything you can, because transferring from analog to digital is expensive and time consuming, and you need to get it done. Then you can transcode those files automatically later. But with individuals, I will actually recommend that they put things on the Internet Archive, and don't worry about it. Files aren't uncompressed, but they are actually broadcast quality, and somebody else is backing it up and transcoding file formats for you constantly. We have the luxury of being able to essentially make different recommendations and help people select different standards based on sustainability. What's going to be manageable. That's different when you're talking about a major institution versus an older choreographer.
Q: Are people generally positive or skeptical about putting their work on the online?
MU: People are pretty scared of it. I do always say, you have to be open to the fact that your work will be freely visible and people can hack it if they decide to. The example that I always give as my argument for why I recommend the Internet Archive is that, we're a non-profit, they're a non-profit. They're not like some start-up company that's going to make a bunch of money, sell, fold and abandon the technology. They have a board of directors. They have a system of checks and balances. It's not like the this situation where the content can just disappear overnight.
I think people just have to think about which risk do they want to take. Do they want to hold everything tight to their chest and risk dying with it there? Or do they want to make the work more accessible, and risk the possibility of somebody interpreting it or using it in a way that they didn't originally intend?
BT: I like the idea of people dipping their toes into it and maybe starting small, but coming around to the idea that access really tends to generate more interest in the collection and helps to get resources for long-term preservation.
MU: In the case of individual artists, they're going to be re-discovered, re-contextualized and re-historicized when the work is available to scholars or historians. They're more likely to have the legacy that they're thinking their recordings represent. They're going to be available to people that are teaching about that period or writing about that period.
Q: Using an example of an individual artist or an organizational archive, can you walk me through the process of how you would address a collection? I know it's not a straight line but, let's say someone comes to you and says, "I'm an artist, I made a lot of work in the 70s and I've got all these tapes, what do I do?"
MU: That's actually why we created the Preservation Access Program. We're going to walk people through that part because that way we can just clearly point to it: Here's some resources on our website. Here's an application. Here's how you can participate. The Preservation Access program was developed so that there is a system in place to receive individuals and support them instantly without completely upending all of the other work that we're doing; doing work for institutions, developing software, presenting at conferences.
MU: One of the first things that I throw out to them is how expensive preservation is.
BT: That, too. There's a negotiation process and once I think people understand the investment that they must make on their part, it kicks that thinking into place, what they feel most passionately about keeping around. For some of these people they don't know what they have and that's where the previewing of tapes, we're willing to go through that to a certain extent. I mean obviously we can't watch twenty copies of every single performance. There is a point where it becomes unsustainable for us.
MU: Right. And then depending on the format and condition it's also dangerous for both their tape and our equipment.
BT: We worked with one batch of tapes that were in the worst ultimate storage conditions for decades. And they required really heroic efforts on our part. It's a very expensive, very time consuming process and people need to be totally aware of that.
MU: Yeah, I was just thinking I had a collection of tapes that I worked on that had been burned in a fire and required that I stop every 5 or 6 minutes and re-clean the heads of the decks and backup—
BT: It was way beyond—
MU: It was way beyond preservation. But it was important enough to the collection because these were the last remaining tapes that hadn't been preserved, and they had sitting since the fire happened in the 70s. So we did it.
Q: For an artist reading this interview, thinking about preserving their work, what would you say to them, what's the first thing they should do? MU: I would think the first thing people should do is educate themselves on the storage. Pretty much all of the people are storing their stuff boxes that are either in their attics or their basement, which are like the two worst places possible to have them.
BT: I think basic inspection, just looking and smelling what you have will tell you a lot and maybe what you should be doing. If you have tapes that are covered in mold you don't really want those in your house.
MU: One thing that a lot of people make the mistake of doing, because a lot of you guys have VHS is they are like, "Oh I've still got a VHS deck," and they stick it in the deck and play it and they see image for a second and it goes away, and they're like, "Aw, this tape is ruined." And it's actually not the tape. They're probably clogging the heads on their playback deck and they've just actually clogged the deck. So people need to not try to do their own playback right away.
BT: With magnetic media you don't have the luxury of really knowing what's going on to the same extent you do with film or other materials. So looking at the object, the physical tape, can only tell you so much. Playback is always going to be a critical part of that and that's where I think one of the first things you need to do is feel strongly about work being preserved, you need to reach out and communicate with others.
Moriah Ulinskas, Former Preservation Program Director
Moriah Ulinskas served for four years as the director of the Preservation program at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), one of the only non-profit audio/ video preservation programs in the United States. In this capacity she oversaw hiring and management of staff and technicians, establishment of new program practices and incentives, development of regional and national partnerships, fundraising, outreach and dissemination, and program integration within the BAVC community. Moriah was Principal Investigator for BAVC's National Science Foundation ITEST award, author of an National Science Foundation ATE award and Principal Investigator for BAVC's National Endowment of the Humanities Research and Design award "Quality Control Tools for Video Preservation". She currently serves as Chair of the Diversity Committee of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, a member of the Community Archiving Workshop working group, and is a Master's candidate in the Public History program at California State University, East Bay.
Ben Turkus, Preservation Project Manager
As the Preservation Project Manager at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), Ben oversees all of BAVC's preservation and digitization activities, developing workflow, documentation, and technical cataloging protocol and practices. He earned a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Film Studies from Columbia University, and is currently pursuing a MA in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation from NYU. Prior to coming to BAVC, Ben participated in preservation projects at The New Museum in New York City, and the Genocide Archive in Kigali, Rwanda. Also, while attending NYU, Ben worked as a Media Preservation Assistant at the Barbara Goldsmith Conservation Laboratory at NYU's Bobst Library.