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Uncovering the History of Film in Pittsburgh, File By File

In my role as archival assistant for the Time-Based Media Project, it is immensely gratifying to finish processing a group of archival records. The moment comes when a pile of indiscernible miscellany suddenly turns into a beautifully organized, clean and usable mine of information. It is a slow transformation that builds over time, but the end is abrupt. As one of our recent interns so eloquently said: “It’s like solving a large, complicated puzzle.”

Processing is a term we archivists use to talk about the “process” of preserving, organizing, and describing the old, often-historic materials and objects under our care. Our goal is to make the miscellany usable and searchable for the public, either through a traditional archival finding aid or some form of digital archives website. We archivists are convinced of the historic value of our materials and are always excited to share them with whoever will listen.

A few weeks ago, I labeled the last folder of a particularly important group of materials in our Department of Film and Video archive called the “artist files,” nearly cheering out loud as I slipped it satisfyingly into its neat, acid-free archival box. It felt great to solve that puzzle, and what’s more the files are going to play a vital role in a new digital archives website that we are developing, which we hope to share with everyone early next year.

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Boxes of archival material before processing in the Department of Film and Video archive at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph: Emily Davis.

The artist files are roughly 80 boxes full of letters, research materials, and ephemera that is to, from, and about film/video artists like Carolee Schneemann, Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, George Kuchar, and many, many others. In all, there are roughly 1,200 artists listed in our inventory. Some of these film and video makers visited the museum to share their art or give a workshop, but many more were simply people of interest for the curators, who screened films from a rainbow of genres in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Everyone from D.W. Griffith to Woody Allen has a folder with their name on it. Although the artist files make up a relatively small portion of the overall archive (40 cubic feet out of 450 cubic feet), they help us understand how exactly the film scene evolved and grew regionally and nationally during this crucial period.

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Boxes of archival material after processing in the Department of Film and Video archive at Carnegie Museum of Art. Photograph: Kate Barbera.

Before the Internet revolutionized the way film curators discover new artworks and artists, these files were the go-to source for moving image programming at CMOA. Organized in alphabetical order by artist’s name, they house a mountain of analog research materials and primary resources. There are hundreds of newspaper clippings, handbills, posters, resumes, filmographies, letters, invoices, notes, gallery guides, exhibition catalogues, post cards, greeting cards, and seemingly limitless other ephemera.

While processing the very last box of these files—excitement and relief mounting—I came across a wonderful stack of letters between Canadian artist Joyce Weiland and CMOA film curator Sally Dixon. Dixon had a penchant for delightful and warming letters, and these do not disappoint. Like many of the filmmakers who visited the museum in the 1970s, Weiland struck up a friendship with Dixon and would send personal notes and updates on her life. In one particularly good letter to Dixon from May 1, 1972, Weiland glued a few copies of the stamp she had just finished designing for the Canadian Postal Service commemorating World Health Day.

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Letter from Sally Dixon to Joyce Weiland dated March 2, 1972. Carnegie Museum of Art, Film and Video Department archive.

In addition to giving us small windows into the lives of the artists, these folders have confirmed many of the things we already knew about the story of film and video in Pittsburgh, as well as helped us discover parts of this history that we did not know to expect.

Thanks to a question from a researcher that arrived on our doorstep last month, we discovered that Joan Jonas, a well-known visual artist, performed her piece “Volcano Saga” here in 1986. Intrigued, we began combing through the artist files in search of more information. We learned that Pittsburgh had a burgeoning performing arts scene in the 1970 and 1980s, typified by the 99¢ Floating Theatre Festival (named for the cost of admission!) We also found that Jonas was just one artist in a series of performers who visited the museum in the 1980s.

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Joan Jonas performing “Volcano Saga” at Carnegie Museum of Art on October 11, 1986. Carnegie Museum of Art, Department of Film and Video archive.

The Department of Film and Video was well-known for welcoming experimental film and video makers to Pittsburgh but performance art was a something of an unexpected twist. In the 1980s, CMOA won funding from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for a Performance Art Series, in which film curator Bill Judson welcomed Spalding Gray, Joan Jonas and Ping Chong to the museum. As it turns out, the leap from visual art to performance art was a relatively easy one to make, as many performers used video to capture these events. In September 1986, Spalding Gray performed “Swimming to Cambodia;” in October, Joan Jonas performed “Volcano Saga;” and in November Ping Chong performed “Angels of Swedenborg.”

Processing an archive is a lot like solving a puzzle, but it is also similar to running a marathon, and having run one recently, I can confirm this with a good amount of certainty. The artist files are just one of more than 20 groups of records in the Department of Film and Video archive that we need to process before we achieve the level of public access we have in mind. My heart will continue to leap with joy at every mile marker I pass, but I know in my gut that I still have a long way to go.

Program Notes is a monthly series that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.