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Doin’ It on Tape: Capturing Hidden Histories by Jerri Allyn

“Sue Maberry … ” (Board member, The Woman’s Building: A Public Center for Women’s Culture (WB) ), Martha Wilson wrote when asking me to write an article dramatizing the value of archives, “ … told me a harrowing tale of calling Annette Hunt to say, ‘Didn’t we make video of projects at The Woman’s Building?Annette answered, ‘Wait a minute,’ went to the curb and hauled the tapes back inside …” from a scheduled trash pickup.

It’s true. Annette, my collaborator in the LA Women’s Video Center (LAWVC founded 1976) at the WB, along with co-founders Nancy Angelo and Candace Compton - had been moving the video art, public service announcements, tapes we’d been hired to produce and documentary footage of WB programs - from home to home as she moved around LA. This time, she was moving afar, and was NOT hauling the 10 bankers’ boxes of women’s culture across the country. Luckily, the Long Beach Museum of Art (LBMA) wanted these stories captured on “new media” to join their collection. For decades the LBMA (1964-2003), adjacent to L.A., managed a video lab, open to West Coast, national, and international artists who traveled through the City of Angels. The breadth of videos, now residing in The Getty Research Institute, document LBMA's innovative approaches to collecting, producing and displaying video art, also include LAWVC’s 150 tapes.

There are tapes about queer rights, a deaf theatre troupe, and video art by WB performance artists Cheri Gaulke and Nancy Angelo giving birth to colored eggs, projected on a 5’ screen during Phranc and Nervous Gender’s music gig in my loft, a fundraising event for the LAWVC. I’ve learned in the archive world, these tapes are ‘primary materials,’ evidence of lives lived whether or not they get recorded in history books. And I’m thrilled that there are 21st century scholars, now drawing on this archive to: celebrate, in recent exhibitions and performances, the ‘intersectionality’ of the 1970s artists and punk rockers of varied backgrounds whose work demanded change; bridge the connections between social justice and cultural movements of women/queers/artists of color/abilities; explore civil rights won; and note those rights we are still demanding.

2011: Sue Maberry and Meg Linton receive funding to curate Doin' It In Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building, and Doin' It on Tape, part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 (PST) - an unprecedented collaboration launched by the Getty that brought together more than sixty cultural institutions from across Southern California.

“Video was omnipresent, preserving the voices of women who had dropped everything to be part of the Feminist Studio Workshop (FSW). Among these were lesbian students seeking role models, black women writers, and incest survivors who shared their experiences long before such speaking became acceptable.” - Nancy Buchanan, “Women Video Artists and Self-Articulation,” in Fuller/Salvioni, eds., Art/Women/California, 1950–2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

In the FSW, most of us first learned about women artists from our WB Professors, budding “Social and Feminist Art Historians,” who spent their research time following lead after esoteric lead to re-discover some creative women who made it into obscure books. The WB itself was named after a dusty book opportunely discovered in a thrift shop, noting, Art & Handicraft in the Woman’s Building - erected for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

In 2011, while still underrepresented, women artists and artists of color didn’t have to protest to get included. Squirreled away under beds, in studio closets, and garages, marginalized artists’ project files were dusted off. Luckily, while in the Feminist Studio Workshop, our professors underscored the importance of our creative work: “Mount your own exhibitions and find relevant public sites for your performances, if you can’t break into the art world; document it; save records and art that doesn’t sell right away.” So our WB files got thoroughly investigated for PST, as well.

When the WB closed its physical site in 1991, materials were accepted into The Archives of American Art, housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. We like to say the WB closed because we got the job done, but in reality, the 501.C3 entity has continued to mount projects, regardless of being without a specific site. The most recent opened in May 2017: Animating the Archives: The Woman’s Building, at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park, L.A. Inspired by 1970s and ‘80s WB artists’ archives, fifteen emerging artists presented an exhibition, performances, music, and writing events.

Once the PST exhibitions concluded in 2012, the Getty invited the curators to submit the collected materials about WB projects and artists’ collectives to the Research Library. Surprized and honored, FSW artists who partnered to build the public sanctuary known as The Woman’s Building, are now represented on both coasts.

2018: The Woman’s Building is declared a Historic-Cultural Monument in Los Angeles (Council file No. 18-0242), equally for its Beaux-Arts architecture and contribution to diversifying the cultural institutions in the City of Angels. Perhaps a renovating architect will activate a portion of the building to honor the WB, and feature a lobby gallery, which will continue to make known unsung voices – inspired by archives we saved by hook or by crook – now passed on to institutions that can share these once “hidden histories” with more artists, researchers, curators, scholars, activists and interested others.

As I write, Sue and Cheri are on the Isle of Lesbos, sharing an archive from the ancient world with their twin daughters – public sculptural relics saved and cared for by the government of Greece. While tourism provides the dollars for care, the historical content about an isle of Amazons that one learns about, is driven by humans with an insatiable curiosity to know about one another. To equity and inclusion for all!

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Jerri Allyn (MA Art and Community), artist, educator and activist, is a co-founding member of The Waitresses and Sisters of Survival, collaborative performance art groups, and the LA Women’s Video Center – all of whom originated through The Woman’s Building programs in Los Angeles, CA, USA. A community based, public practice artist, Allyn is interested in civic engagement through projects that provide a forum for multiple voices. The nature of her work moves fluidly between art settings, academia and targeted communities. She uses the most appropriate form, based on theme and intention. Allyn’s current project, Survivor: Here, There & Everywhere (2018-2020), furthers her investigation of the phenomenon of human trafficking. (2015 - Hidden in Plain Site: Creative Referendums to Human Trafficking)