by Eleanor J. Bader
At first glance, the Interference Archive in Gowanus looks like a typical small library.
It is a 725-square foot room, with floor-to-ceiling shelves and a massive number of boxes and file drawers. But when founder Josh MacPhee welcomes visitors and urges them to rifle through materials chronicling the last 50 years of left-wing activism—and to do this without first putting on a pair of gloves—it becomes quickly obvious that this is an unusual place.
“Within the realm of archivism there’s a tension between use and preservation,” MacPhee begins.
“Most institutions privilege preservation. We don’t. We want to privilege use since materials only have meaning when they’re in circulation. We want the ideas contained within our files and boxes to be accessible to all. If a book comes off the shelf and the spine cracks, for the most part it can be repaired or replaced, but even if it can’t, its value is not in remaining pristine. The book’s value is in what it gives to people.”
The Archive’s continually growing collection consists of ephemera from both domestic and international social movements. There are buttons, banners, posters, pamphlets, leaflets, cassette tapes, videos, and books of all types—graphic novels to scholarly tomes—covering a wide swath of progressive topics: Latin American art, nature and ecology, apartheid, the anti-nuclear movement, squatting, anarchist book fairs, and the Paris Rebellion of 1968, to name a few. What’s more, there are posters from Holland declaring that Bont is Moord—Fur is Murder—and flyers from ACT-UP, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Code Pink, the Pink Bloque, and Rock for Choice.
The archive contains all this and more, much more—and in a multitude of languages. Here among the warehouses of 8th Street, just a stone’s throw from the Gowanus Canal, one finds a budding international library of the modern left.
MacPhee explains that “about 80 percent” of the stuff in the collection was once stored in the apartment he shared with filmmaker Dara Greenwald (1972 – 2012) (see Rachael Rakes, “A Little Heap for Dara Greenwald,” Rail February 2012). “Dara and I grew up in the punk rock, D.I.Y. subculture. She came from New Paltz, New York and I came from the Boston area, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s we both independently began collecting stuff from shows and political movements we were interested in. I’d also started making art–album covers, flyers for concerts, and T-shirts—for my friends’ bands and had copies of everything.”
The pair met as students at Oberlin College and their loving partnership took them from Ohio to Washington, D.C. where they helped run the Beehive Bookstore, a left-wing shop and community meeting space. They also lived in Chicago, where they were involved in political organizing campaigns including the effort to close the Marion Control Unit that kept incarcerated prisoners on 24/7 lockdown. Eventually they settled in upstate New York, where Greenwald began working on a Ph.D. at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy.
For his part, while Greenwald studied, MacPhee made art. Then, in 1998 he started Just Seeds, a company to sell his work and promote the Celebrate People’s History poster series that was pasting lessons about social movements on urban walls throughout the world. Fourteen years later, Just Seeds has evolved into the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative (justseeds.org), a decentralized community of graphic designers who promote the sale of low-cost art in support of social justice efforts here and abroad.
Despite this work, it wasn’t until Greenwald and MacPhee were invited to curate a 2008 exhibition at Manhattan’s now-defunct Exit Art gallery that the idea for the Interference Archive began to gel. “The exhibit was called Signs of Change and we spent a lot of time during the two years before it went up doing research on social movement culture, the cultural forms that come out of people organizing for transformation,” MacPhee continues. “We wanted to understand how progressive art is distinct from capitalist art, even when it seems similar. What we found is that movement art and culture are often collective efforts, collaborative in some way. Furthermore, they take their form from whatever conditions the movement is struggling under.”
I’m not sure I understand his point about movement art and culture, so I ask the soft-spoken MacPhee for clarification. “Take Paris ’68, for example,” he replies. “When artists and designers made posters in support of autoworkers who had taken over a plant, the graphics were literally ripped from the artists’ hands as fast as they were produced and then plastered on walls throughout the city. The activists needed a way to get their messages out to as many people as possible as fast as possible, so the posters were not only visually compelling—a way to get people’s attention—they were an important means of transmitting information.”
It was an important lesson, he adds, about the relationship between visual imagery and mass mobilization—a lesson he and Greenwald repeatedly recognized as they studied the ways art interfaces with political campaigns.
Indeed, it was this relationship, this give-and-take, which led them to think about creating the Interference Archive. “We see ourselves as an archive from below,” MacPhee says. “We are trying to move toward a model in which the people who produce the material steward it together. This is our collective history—a commons of sorts—so we should hold it and share it with one another.”
As for the Interference Archive, “Dara came up with the name,” says MacPhee. “It captures the idea that the collection causes static, or interference, in institutional archives and in the larger society.” It is staffed by the volunteer team of MacPhee, screen printer Kevin Caplicki, and moving image archivist Molly Fair. Between 50 and 60 sustainers send the Archive a monthly contribution to offset their $1200 rent. The Archive also provides low-cost desk space to scholars like David Spataro, a doctoral candidate in earth and environmental sciences at the CUNY Graduate Center.
In addition, Interference hosts discussions and art exhibitions and sponsors short-term residencies for out-of-town activists. A group of design students from Montreal’s Ecole de la Montagne Rouge, for example, recently came to Interference for 72 hours to share graphics from the spring 2012 student strike with U.S. activists and use the files to generate ideas for this year’s organizing effort.
The Archive will celebrate its first anniversary in December and MacPhee is eager to expand—not only in terms of collecting more material for their already-near-to-bursting stockpile—but in reaching new audiences to popularize the idea that culture can inspire movements against all types of social injustice.
This was the notion that first set Greenwald and MacPhee into action, and while Greenwald’s death in January 2012—of cancer at the age of 40—is a tragedy, MacPhee credits the Archive with keeping her memory alive. If he, Caplicki, and Fair have their way, it will be a lasting tribute.