Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project and televising the revolution

TV archive material, like the 70,000 VHS tapes recorded by American activist Marion Stokes, offers artists a fascinating window on the recent past.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

▶︎ Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is in virtual UK cinemas and on most digital streaming platforms including BFI Player.

One day in November 1979, midway through television news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis, Marion Stokes, an African-American civil rights activist, public access television personality, librarian, communist, community organiser, early investor in Apple Macintosh and, crucially, radical TV archivist, switched on her VCR and started recording. By the time of her death in December 2012, when the last of her now extensive rig of VCRs was finally switched off, she had become a near-recluse and amassed an archive of more than 70,000 VHS tapes.

Marion Stokes's immense VHS archive is being digitised by the Internet Archive

Matt Wolf’s new film Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019) documents her life and work. Stokes was recording what she knew would slip off the record. As her son Michael Metelits notes, “Taping these programmes for my mother was a form of activism – she wanted people to be able to seek the truth and check facts.”

In the 1970s, this was pure praxis; Stokes was attempting to capture a process that the theorist Stuart Hall had termed only a few years earlier “encoding and decoding” – the encryption of ideological principles into mass communications as they were transmitted, mediated and consumed.

Stokes, the elderly archivist-activist, was still campaigning from her armchair, maintaining an unbroken flow of mass media, so that each new moral panic around race, class and culture was laid bare and on the record.

There’s more to glean from the 71,716 tapes that Stokes stockpiled over the 33 years she was recording. Now stored at the Internet Archive in San Francisco, where the collection is gradually being digitised, the stacks upon stacks of tapes form a miniature mountain range of VHS – a rolling landscape of TV time, which brings a vivid sense of scale to her operation.

Viewed en masse, the collection captures her obsession and deeply introverted attention to the social world that she had gradually left behind, but it also represents an immense sense of duration: the tapes are the physical manifestation of the ceaseless cultural production of news media – a sensation not totally unique to Marion Stokes’s collection.

Just a few years earlier than Stokes’s project, the artist Mochizuki Masao had begun a smaller archival venture with Japanese television. Between 1975-76, Mochizuki systematically documented a year of Japanese broadcasting, assembling an archive that in his eyes was to become truly representative of his nation’s media. Mochizuki was looking for different cultural forms to Stokes: though no less political, he wanted to focus on creating a system that would offer chance encounters with Japan’s flourishing light-entertainment shows, and to capture them in fixed images.

As Stokes was pioneering a new form of cultural studies-cum-mass observation, Mochizuki’s finished photo-works, which resemble outsized contact sheets of hundreds of television stills, call to mind the cultural critic and film theorist Siegfried Kracauer’s classic observation in The Mass Ornament (1927) that “an analysis of [an era’s] inconspicuous surface-level expressions… by virtue of their unconscious nature, provide unmediated access to the fundamental substance of the state of things.”

It is artists like Mochizuki who have usually paid the form of broadcast television closest attention, and for good reason: our TV archives provide artists with a ready-made durational medium whose logic is an intoxicating swill of asinine capitalism and, more poignantly, the recent history of our everyday lives.

Stills from Marion Stokes's archive

Artists and filmmakers have played with TV archives intermittently over the years, from early examples such as David Hall’s TV Interruptions (1971), which provided rebellious interventions in the daily flow of broadcast; right up to the present, with Alia Syed’s Points of Departure (2014), which examines her relationship to her hometown of Glasgow through local TV; or Anthony Wall’s continuous edit of Arena arts documentaries in his installation Night and Day: The Arena Time Machine (2016), which is cut and pasted together to last for 24 hours at a time; or even Jeremy Deller’s recent history of rave culture, Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 19841992, which used television news footage to bring an immediate sense of vitality and history to a classroom of bemused schoolchildren.

In their separate ways, Stokes’s and Mochizuki’s screen archives both use continuous broadcast to accumulate panoramas of a particular kind of everyday life; reminding us of the shift from the monoculture of broadcast media in the 20th century to the fragmented digital landscape of our present. This older form of broadcast television was a synchronous experience that provided companionship in its programmed rhythm: we would schedule our evenings to it, run home to catch our favourite programmes and assemble to watch the television together.

The monoculture, for better or worse, possessed what critic Stephen Heath once described as a “seamless equivalence with social life”. Explored as durational streams of programmes, television archives offer us the shape of these evenings spent indoors, our down-time, while providing us with a forensic view of social norms and attitudes.

All of which means that considering their value for activism and art-making, broadcast archives are woefully neglected entry points into the everyday lives and popular emotion of our recent past. Stokes knew this, as the TV was not just her window out to the world; she began to archive because she knew her collection would eventually become a window into hers.