Art is Long, Life is Short: the XFR Collective Helps Artists Preserve Magnetic and Digital Works

XFR STN (“Transfer Station”) is a grass-roots digitization and digital-preservation project that arose as a response from the New York arts community to rescue creative works off of aging or obsolete audiovisual formats and media. The digital files are stored by the Library of Congress’s NDIIPP partner the Internet Archive and accessible for free online. At the recent Digital Preservation 2014 conference, the NDSA gave XFR STN the NDSA Innovation Award. Last month, members of the XFR collective — Rebecca Fraimow, Kristin MacDonough, Andrea Callard and Julia Kim — answered a few questions for the Signal.

"VHS 1" from XFR Collective.

“VHS 1″ from XFR Collective.

Mike: Can you describe the challenges the XFR Collective faced in its formation?

XFR: Last summer, the New Museum hosted a groundbreaking exhibit called XFR STN.  Initiated by the artist collective Colab and the resulting MWF Video Club, the exhibit was a major success. By the end of the exhibition over 700 videos had been digitized with many available online through the Internet Archive.

It was clear  for all of us involved that there was a real demand for these services, that there are many under-served artists who were having difficulty preserving and accessing their own media. Many of the people involved with the exhibit became passionate about continuing the service of preserving obsolete magnetic and digital media for artists.  We wanted to offer a long-term, non-commercial, grassroots solution.

Using the experience of working on XFR STN as a jumping-off point, we began developing XFR Collective as a separate nonprofit initiative to serve the need that we saw.  Over the course of our development, we’ve definitely faced — and are still facing — a number of challenges in order to make ourselves effective and sustainable.

"VHS 3" by XFR Collective.

“VHS 2″ by XFR Collective.

Perhaps the biggest challenge has simply been deciding what form XFR Collective was going to take.  We started out with a bunch of borrowed equipment and a lot of enthusiasm, so the one thing we knew we could do was digitize, but we had to sit down and really think about things like organizational structure, sustainable pricing for our services, and the convoluted process of becoming a non-profit.

Eventually, we settled on a membership-based structure in order to be able to keep our costs as low as possible.  A lot of how we’re operating is still very experimental — this summer wraps up our six-month test period, during which we limited ourselves to working with only a small number of partners to allow us to figure out what our capacity was and how we could design our projects in the future.

We’ve got a number of challenges still ahead of us — finding a permanent home is a big one — and we still feel like we’re only just getting started, in terms of what we can do for the community of artists who use our services.  It’s going to be interesting for all of us to see how we develop.  We’ve started thinking of ourselves as kind of a grassroots preservation test kitchen. We’ll try almost any kind of project once to see if it works!

Mike: Where are the digital files stored? Who maintains them?

XFR: Our digital files will be stored with the membership organizations and uploaded to the Internet Archive for access and for long-term open-source preservation.  This is an important distinction that may confuse some people: XFR Collective is not an archive.

While we advocate and educate about best practices, we will not hold any of the digital files ourselves; we just don’t have the resources to maintain long-term archival storage.  We encourage material to go onto the Internet Archive because long-term accessibility is part of our mission and because the Internet Archive has the server space to store uncompressed and lossless files as well as access files.  That way if something happens to the storage that our partners are using for their own files, they can always re-download them.  But we can’t take responsibility for those files ourselves. We’re a service point, not a storage repository.

"VHS 2" by XFR Collective

“VHS 3″ by XFR Collective

Mike: Regarding public access as a means of long-term preservation and sustainability, how do you address copyrighted works?

XFR: This is a great question that confounds a lot of our collaborators initially.  Access-as-preservation creates a lot of intellectual property concerns.  Still, we’re a very small organization, so we can afford to take more risks than a more high-profile institution.  We don’t delve too deeply into the area of copyright; our concern is with the survival of the material.  If someone has a complaint, the Internet Archive will give us a warning in time to re-download the content and then remove it. But so far we haven’t had any complaints.

Mike: What open access tools and resources do you use?

XFR: The Internet Archive itself is something of an open access resource and we’re seeing it used more and more frequently as a kind of accessory to preservation, which is fantastic.  Obviously it’s not the only solution, and you wouldn’t want to rely on that alone any more than you would any kind of cloud storage, but it’s great to have a non-commercial option for streaming and storage that has its own archival mission and that’s open to literally anyone and anything.

Mike:  If anyone is considering a potential collaboration to digitally preserve audiovisual artwork, what can they learn from the experiences of the XFR Collective?

XFR: Don’t be afraid to experiment!  A lot of what we’ve accomplished is just by saying to ourselves that we have to start doing something, and then jumping in and doing it.  We’ve had to be very flexible. A lot of the time we’ll decide something as a set proposition and then find ourselves changing it as soon as we’ve actually talked with our partners and understood their needs.  We’re evolving all the time but that’s part of what makes the work we do so exciting.

We’ve also had a lot of help and we couldn’t have done any of what we’ve accomplished without support and advice from a wide network of individuals, ranging from the amazing team at XFR STN to video archivists across New York City.  None of these collaborations happen in a vacuum, so make friendships, make partnerships, and don’t be nervous about asking for advice.  There are a lot of people out there who care about video preservation and would love to see more initiatives out there working to make it happen.

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