Archives And Privacy In The Age Of Accessibility

August 23, 2011

A little over a year ago it was announced that one of my alma maters (hey, it takes a village to educate a fickle mind…) was acquiring the archive of artist Larry Rivers. Though his artistic works are not as widely renowned as some of his contemporaries, the Fales Library & Special Collections at NYU has been developing their Downtown Collection since 1993 as a repository of materials documenting the ‘Downtown’ New York art scene from the 1970s-1990s, and the Rivers papers are rich in documentation of his relationships and extensive correspondence with other artists and writers from the 1940s-1980s, making it a significant historical collection.

Amongst the materials in the collection are film and video works created by Rivers, including footage of his then adolescent daughters he documented over several years for a series he entitled “Growing”. In this footage, Rivers shot his daughters topless or naked bodies and interrogated them about their bodies and physical development. Around the time of the announcement, it came out that Rivers’ daughter Emma Tamburlini had been trying to have those materials removed from the official papers as held by the Larry Rivers Foundation and have them given to her and her sister. She has stated that the process of the filming led to several emotional problems during her life and (understandably) does not want non-consensual, revealing images of her open to public access. When the Tamburlini story broke the NYU response was non-committal and the Rivers Foundation maintained their line of not giving the items to the daughters, but only a few days later NYU declared that they did not want the “Growing” materials as part of their acquisition.

The speed and tenor of NYU’s decision underscores the more clearcut nature of the privacy issues involved here. Accusations of exploiting children in such ways can cause even the most stagnant bureaucracy to react at a closer to reasonable pace. However, though this one issue is somewhat resolved, it points to the emergent concern of privacy in this age of accessibility. In the past, the combined issues of distance, a closed/secretive tradition, and format obsolescence helped keep archival materials little accessed and difficult to locate. Digital archives, online catalogs, and electronic finding aids have changed that, but, equally influential, is the shifting cultural paradigm towards greater sharing of information.

The current get-offa-my-lawn-kids! blame for this shift are the Zuckerbergs and the Anonymouses, those harbingers of “Wait — maybe our parents had some things right”ness…A concept that appears to have a fairly strong toehold if Salon and the New York Times both have articles within a few days of one another discussing the sad breakdown of the differentiation between “secrecy” and “privacy”. (Though, one has to admit, there is a reasonable argument for laying the start of things on the Boomers who put their colonoscopies on national television, discussed the presidential penis, gave the German prime minister a shoulder massage, and burdened decades of poor English literature students with confessional poetry.)

I needle here a bit because, admittedly, I have to agree with the current urge towards reassessment, but I am loathe to sound like I’m the cranky-old-man I really am. I blog in a public (to the five people that read this…Hi, mom!!!!) arena and reference personal topics, but I chose what to present and how to present it.

However, I would be utterly mortified if I saw that some home movie/video of me from youth were floating around out in the digital ether for anyone to see, to set to ironic music, or to gently mock in a series of Facebook comments. I was a goofy adolescent who enjoyed making people laugh (as opposed to my current instantiation of a grim middle-ager who enjoys curing insomnia), and much of the “archival” footage of me that may exist out there reflects that. Similarly, I always felt that the classroom was a place to test ideas, writing styles, and pushing concepts to logical conclusions in the name of learning (not the name of being correct). The idea that a grade school friend’s family could have sold some VHS tapes on ebay or that one of my alma maters (again, NYU) did in fact want to put all student papers online makes me understand the (perhaps exaggerated) fear of photography stealing one’s soul.

I should also note that this isn’t just a shift in the level of accessibility to materials, but also a shift in estimation of what is considered of historical (or monetary) value. The influence of bottom-up historical research, the appreciation of home movies and amateur documentation, and the nostalgia/re-purposing market have all contributed to private or semi-private materials becoming a more respected part of the cultural (or marketing) fabric of contemporary life. Once the provenance of your spinster aunt or insufferably boring neighbor, the previously mocked 8mm films and interminable slide show have become National Film Preservation Foundation targets and footage licensing fodder, distorting their real or imagined Antiques Road Show value.

In the initial Times article about the Rivers acquisition there was an interesting pull quote from David Joel, director of the Larry Rivers Foundation. He stated that he would not destroy the “Growing” films and videos because “‘I can’t be the person who says this stays and this goes. My job is to protect the material.'” I recall my first reaction to this quote, that it was insensitive and overly worshipful of the capital-A Artist and his capital-W Works. Though my own strong feelings about the exploitation of Rivers’ children persist, after a year of pondering I wonder now if Joel’s adamancy was the right tact, having a reverse psychological effect of preventing the materials from being publicly accessed or destroyed and, at least in some way, protecting the materials for some future date. Being thus protected, I’m not sure if they should ever be released, but, just as preserving everything is neither possible nor desirable, where and how do we sketch the line separating (or defining the convergence of) accessibility, discretion, and ethics?

— Joshua Ranger