The Activism Files
By Maya Lau
Kevin Caplicki, Josh MacPhee and Molly Fair at the Interference Archive.
The posters, old and curled, shouted messages of women’s liberation, Latin American solidarity and the struggle against apartheid.
One by one, Molly Fair flattened them on the table. She had in her hands a screen print, dated Feb. 22, 1987, commemorating Malcolm X — “Our Shining Black Prince.” Another pictured Sonia Sanchez, a poet active in the civil rights movement. “That’s pretty cool,” Ms. Fair said, seeing Ms. Sanchez’s signature.
The materials, over 200 posters, had been donated to the Interference Archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, by Alexis De Veaux, an author, poet and political activist. They joined thousands of colorful objects — posters, fliers, zines, stickers, T-shirts, books, newspapers, games, videos — that tell the story of radical political movements in the United States and abroad.
The collection is carefully displayed on the walls and stacked high on shelves in the 725-square-foot room the organization rents in a barely marked warehouse building. Open three days a week and coordinated by a team of five volunteers, of whom Ms. Fair, 30, is one, the space is part library, part gallery, and unlike any other archive in New York.
“There are no white gloves here,” Josh MacPhee, one of the founders, said. “Anyone can come in and take something off the shelves and use it.”
Fittingly, Mr. MacPhee, 40, did not come to the project with a traditional archivist’s background.
As a teenager in Holliston, Mass., in the late 1980s, he became part of the punk and do-it-yourself scenes. With friends, he published zines out of a local printing shop. “We would make copies of copies of copies,” he said. “It was the heyday of the copy machine as a vehicle for teen angst.”
Though leaving graffiti was popular among his friends, Mr. MacPhee, who speaks in a thoughtful, cerebral manner, said, “I was never interested in writing my name everywhere.” Instead of tagging, he designed graffiti stencils and helped publish a magazine, Cut & Paint, that reproduced stencils by international artists. “I liked the idea that you could make images that were accessible to” — and replicable by — “anyone.”
At Oberlin College in Ohio, Mr. MacPhee met Dara Greenwald, another politically and artistically minded student. But he did not fall in love with her until over a decade later, after his activism took him to Washington, D.C. (to start an anarchist “infoshop”); Boulder, Colo. (to advocate for prisoners’ rights); and Chicago (to fight against high phone rates in prisons).
Along the way, Mr. MacPhee stumbled into a career as a graphic designer and artist. He came to realize he was not a natural organizer (“It’s taken me almost 40 years to say ‘hi’ to people I don’t know,” he said.) But having grown up in a creative household — his father was a high school art teacher — he excelled at designing T-shirts and tattoos, covers for records and demo tapes. He always stowed away the fliers and other “bits and pieces” of his activities. And when he came across similar items from other moments in history, he kept those, too.
By 2002, he and Ms. Greenwald had become a couple, and in 2005 they moved from Chicago to Troy, N.Y., so she could pursue her graduate studies, before finally settling in New York City. The two were “lefty hoarders,” Mr. MacPhee joked. Their Brooklyn apartment housed an assortment of social movement memorabilia so rich, he said, that Ph.D. students would visit to conduct research. “There were boxes everywhere — the shelves, the walls, the kitchen,” he recalled. “Our landlord was always like, ‘Whaddya doin’ with all that cardboard?’ ”
In 2008, the couple put on an exhibition called “Signs of Change” at Exit Art in Manhattan. A showcase of their political ephemera, it was a precursor to the Gowanus archive.
Then, in 2010, Ms. Greenwald learned she had cancer.
Mr. MacPhee became her full-time caregiver. Her illness was the catalyst for creating the Interference Archive, a longtime ambition of theirs. “She needed a place to live,” he said, “where she wasn’t sleeping under boxes threatening to crush her.”
So together with Ms. Fair and Kevin Caplicki, another of the archive’s main volunteers, Mr. MacPhee moved the collection into the Gowanus space. Its opening exhibition, in December 2011, was a punk feminist tribute to Ms. Greenwald and her interests, like the riot grrrl scene in D.C. and Ladyfest Midwest in Chicago.
Ms. Greenwald died the next month. She was 40.
There is a sense that the Interference Archive is a way for Mr. MacPhee to move on, to let his curated supply of political graphic art be revived through the hands of the public. Along with other volunteers, he gives around 30 hours a week of his time to the archive; he makes his living separately as a printmaker and graphic designer.
On a Sunday in late spring, Ms. Fair, who has a film background, explained, “We want to reimagine what an archive can be, as more of a community space.” Institutional archives often require academic credentials to enter, she said. Many museums, she added, keep their archives hidden from the public while they are cataloged, a process that can take years.
Very few of the Interference Archive’s 12,000 posters, 7,500 books and 7,500 pamphlets, zines and other objects have been digitally indexed. And while work is under way to change that, the archive’s organizers see its pre-computerized state as a virtue. In an age of instant Internet searches, they can offer visitors an opportunity to rummage around and find something they did not know they were looking for. A couch and a cooler with beer ($2 a bottle) invite them to stay.
Mr. MacPhee explained that one can often find multiple copies of a poster in the flat files. They are less precious, less mummified and more shareable that way. “Use is its own form of preservation,” he said. Where a traditional museum might put something under glass as a means of keeping it intact, at the Interference Archive, objects are thought to wither if they are not being touched, enjoyed and thus remembered.
Mr. Caplicki, a screen printer, said he wanted people from all political persuasions to come to the space, not just those from the radical left. And as word of the archive has spread, visitors have included students from across the world, academics and walk-ins. The organization is financed entirely by members — more than 100 people make monthly donations of perhaps $10, perhaps $50. The archive, which has had around 1,500 visitors to date, operates on less than $25,000 a year.
“We’re small and scrappy,” Mr. MacPhee said. But despite its modest resources, the archive continues to grow.
When asked why other activists, like Ms. De Veaux, would donate their personal caches to the Interference Archive instead of a more established museum where they might be more secure, Mr. MacPhee speculated that it was out of a desire to carry on the bottom-up ethos behind their politics in the first place. “They want it here,” he said, “because they know that people can actually get to it.”