This is the first in a (hopefully) continuing series of interviews with folks who are out there starting archives.
Molly Fair, from Interference Archive, was good enough to answer the following questions about the archive. She was also good enough to answer follow-up questions and even more follow-up questions. Needless to say, we have much love for Interference Archive and what they’re up to. We also want to say that the model that they’ve adopted should serve as an example to rest of us as we struggle with starting our own archives. Read on to learn more.
Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. This work manifests in public exhibitions, a study and social center, talks, screenings, publications, workshops, and an online presence. The archive consists of many kinds of objects that are created as part of social movements by the participants themselves: posters, flyers, publications, photographs, books, T-shirts and buttons, moving images, audio recordings, and other materials. Through our programming, we use this cultural ephemera to animate histories of people mobilizing for social transformation.
Interference Archive is open to the public Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays 12-5pm or by appointment.
Interference Archive is located at:
131 8th Street — #4
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Find out even more from their website: interferencearchive.org
SaA: A lot of people want to know how independent collections are started. Can you tell us about how Interference Archive got its start? How many people came together to form the collection? Was there a particular event that sparked the idea of the project?
MF: Interference Archive was started by Josh MacPhee and Dara Greenwald, who had amassed an extensive collection of materials including books, prints, music, moving images, and ephemera through their involvement in social movements, diy and punk subcultures, and political art projects. Through their experience doing research in archives for a large-scale curatorial project called Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures, 1960s-Now, started thinking more critically about the ways these materials are collected, described, and made accessible by traditional institutions. They started to envision making their personal collection into a public archive, which would allow these materials to be more accessible and the archival work conducted by movement participants with firsthand knowledge of the materials. There were other models of grassroots archives that inspired us like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which is also in Brooklyn.
There were other models of grassroots archives that inspired us like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which is also in Brooklyn.
We found a space at a reasonable price to rent, and moved the collection there. Initially there was a core group of four people coordinating (which as since expanded), with many others who contributed their time and labor.
SaA: Continuing with this theme, can you say a few things about any formal training anyone active in IA has in either archives or libraries? If so, surely this has shaped the project in a number of ways. Have there been anything that trained individuals have felt that they must ‘unlearn’ (dependence on funding and unrealistic ‘best practices’, etc.)?
MF: There are quite a few people who work in libraries and archives who are helping to coordinate the work of designing a database and figuring out our cataloging workflow. However, this work is also conducted by others without formal training. We are trying to think about best practices that would make sense to a wider group of people who will engage in this work, and don’t want to make these processes inaccessible.
We are trying to think about best practices that would make sense to a wider group of people who will engage in this work, and don’t want to make these processes inaccessible.
This is really a challenge, and at times we have to check ourselves. However, a lot of us have had experience doing projects outside of an institutional context- whether from activism or art-related, so we know its possible to imagine alternatives.
SaA: Maintaining independent archives can be tricky. Tell us a little about any fundraising that Interference Archives does. Does IA seek funds through events or programming? Are there any paid staff? How does IA handle the need for supplies?
MF: So far we have mostly reached out to our community to donate, and around a hundred people are monthly sustainers and one-time supporters. We are able to cover half of our rent for the space this way, and the rest comes out of our own pockets. The same goes for supplies we need. We now fiscally sponsored through a non-profit, so we might start looking for grants, but that takes on a whole other dimension of work. At this time, the archive is 100% volunteer operated- there are no paid staff.
SaA: In your forthcoming chapter for Informed Agitation, you write about how various activists have expressed interest in donating to IA. You write, “We recognize that there are limitations to what we can accept into our collection, since we lack the resources of well-funded institutions.” Can you tell us a little more about how you handle these situations? Do you accept donations? Do you work with area institutions to find other homes for material?
MF: We do accept donations of people’s collections, so far we have not needed to deal with any tricky situations- like someone donating work that is in danger of completely falling apart or needing special care. We try to make clear to people that the space is hands on, so if it is something that can’t be touched or needs to be in some special case all the time in a temperature controlled environment, it probably shouldn’t be at Interference Archive. We have allies in other institutions, so would most likely try to help find homes for these kinds of materials should the issue arise, while keeping in mind the wishes of the donor.
SaA: Philadelphia (always our point of reference) is home to a rich culture of collecting institutions. We have many repositories that have collecting scopes that overlap, to various degrees, with many of the independent collections around. Does IA feel as though there are ‘traditional’ collections (i.e. universities, historical societies, etc.) in New York that could be collecting the same material? How does IA relate to these organizations? Has IA had any contact or communication with these repositories?
MF: A lot of our focus has been on engaging in and building solidarities with movements today (such as the anti-nuclear movement in Japan since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, the student movement in Quebec, the international Occupy movement, and radical artists in Mexico), which has also resulted in us accumulating materials that probably are not focused on by institutions in the NY area. However, our goal is not just to focus on collecting. We are interested in engaging with the materials in ways that build community and allow us to better understand our history and the times we live in.
However, our goal is not just to focus on collecting. We are interested in engaging with the materials in ways that build community and allow us to better understand our history and the times we live in.
This is reflected in the kinds of programming we do with exhibitions, talks, films screenings, and workshops and inviting movement groups to make use of our space and resources. Other institutions in NY probably have some similar historical materials, but their goals are not the same as ours in terms of actively participating in and supporting social movement culture. We’ve established relationships with people working at smaller institutions outside of NY like the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (as individuals we’ve donated our own artwork there for years) and at the Anarchist Archive at the University of Victoria in Canada (who have expressed interest in sharing information about Canadian materials in our collection).
SaA: As a follow-up to this, could you say something about how much attention the collection gets in relation to how the space is used for other events. For instance, is there a significant overlap between the people who look at the collection and who use the space for talks? Do you find that the collection brings a different audience than do the talks or film screenings?
MF: In our experience the events serve to raise awareness within IA and externally about what is in the collection. Having events around these materials gives us the opportunity to focus on inventorying and describing materials of a particular subject. After event openings people have consistently come back to the archive during open hours to do research with the materials, so again publicizing the materials we have through the events and exhibitions raises interest and awareness about our holdings. There is overlap between people who come to events and talks and people who use the collection.
SaA: To stay on this topic for a little longer — and this question is meant to be a little controversial, but we think it’s important — does IA (especially members who are trained in archives or library science) ever face the criticism that the name ‘archive’ is misused? For example, I’ve found that some traditional library and archives question the use of the term in alternative, community and DIY spaces because of the lack of sufficient long-term planning for the holdings. Archives, the argument goes, do more than simply collect and promote, they provide an environment for long-term preservation and protection, they arrange and describe to professional standards to ease the discovery of the material; simply having a collection of material does not make an archives.
MF: We’ve never faced criticism for using the word “archive” inappropriately. It is absolutely within our longterm goal to be an archive and to be a sustainable project. In fact many professionals who have come through have been impressed with what we’ve accomplished in such a short time with limited resources.
Many professionals who have come through have been impressed with what we’ve accomplished in such a short time with limited resources.
We are actively working to create a database to catalog the collection, we are investing in housing like flatfiles and archival boxes, and we are thinking about investigating other physical spaces to move to that could be more permanent…preservation and intellectual control are absolutely our goals.
SaA: One of the central aims of the Start an Archives! blog is to collect and share information useful for others to start independent collections. To this end, do you have any final thoughts, suggestions, warnings and/or advice for anyone else who would start a project similar to Interference Archives?
MF: It’s a lot of work, and therefore necessary to have a good solid crew of people who are invested in making the project sustainable.
SaA: Thanks for sharing your experiences, Molly! We appreciate your time and all the hard work you put into Interference Archive.