Videos courtesy of Urban Video Project
Digitized by Ana Marie through XFR Collective
Preserved and accessible on Internet Archive
by Maddie DeLaere
A camera pans over walls layered in graffiti, vibrant and all-encompassing. Street art of flags from around the world, faces, and names large and colorful. Yellow cabs speed by as street signs appear on the screen: Wooster, Spring, Broome St. We are placed in 1995, in SoHo, New York. Meanwhile, cables weave from the U-matic tape deck around, down, and into the computer, transferring audio, video, and all of the pops and cracks from the aging tapes. It is 2022, in Brooklyn, New York. We are in archivist Ana Marie’s apartment, transferring a set of magnetic tapes from analog to digital.
From February to November, XFR Collective has been digitizing thirteen U-matic video tapes from Urban Video Project (UVP), a media education program at an alternative high school in New York’s Lower East Side in conjunction with Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The initiative at Satellite Academy (Forsyth St.) ran from the mid-1980s through the 90s, providing students with the opportunity to craft half-hour documentaries as a cultural preservation effort, exploring the culture of Black and Latino people in their communities and the legacy of the African diaspora.
Started by Salvatore LaSpada, a philanthropic consultant, Urban Video Project became integral to school culture at Satellite. It was emblematic of everything they were about: raising interest in learning and commitment to school through alternative pedagogy, hands-on, immersive experiences, one-on-one instruction, and allowing the students to be in control. LaSpada saw that the students were big consumers of media, but realized they rarely saw themselves as the producers of media. The mission of these documentaries was twofold: to engage the students in school through media production, allowing them “to be the tellers of their stories,” as LaSpada puts it, and to preserve the cultural heritage and current community of Black and Latino people in New York. Now, we get to preserve their efforts.
The UVP documentaries were filmed on U-matic video tape. The analog format was popularly used in budget television production as it was affordable, sturdy, and seemingly long-lasting. Kept in the appropriate environment — low temperature (but above freezing) and low humidity — it is a rather hardy format. But U-matic tape still falls under high preservation risk for The Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP) for other reasons: media and hardware obsolescence. Sony stopped producing U-matic recorders, tape decks, and parts after the 90s, meaning any existing parts or machines are decades old at this point. The end of U-matic tapes’ chance to be digitized looms ahead. Vintage tape players and parts will continue to become more rare and their maintenance and constant cleaning requires working knowledge of the U-matic format. Thankfully, the volunteers at XFR Collective care as much about analog as they do digital media, and are committed to the stories they tell, like that of Urban Video Project.
Core XFR Collective member Ana Marie has been overseeing the transfer of each UVP tape using a hodgepodge of AV equipment in her home. When beginning preservation efforts, starting with digitization, we didn’t know what exactly would be on the tapes. We didn’t know if we’d be able to see them at all, or what the students would talk about, how they would film. So, we started inserting tapes. Sometimes it went smoothly. The image would appear on a small monitor atop a tall rack stacked with AV equipment and appear again on the computer screen.
Sometimes it didn’t go so smoothly. The first transfer session attempted for the Urban Video Project resulted in no tapes digitized. The images warped, wobbled, and stuttered; the U-matic tape deck read back error messages. We knew there wasn’t much we could do. Aside from making sure the machine was clean and the tapes prepped, the rest was somehow predetermined. Maybe the moisture in the room where this box of tapes was kept had crept in, possibly years ago, turning magnetic tape within the U-matic case to goo. Soft Binder Syndrome, which can lead to Sticky Shed Syndrome — that’s one of the pains of magnetic tape. The miniscule magnetic particles don’t react well to heat and humidity, causing the binder element to break down. To remedy this, Ana “bakes” them, putting the tapes in a standard, consumer grade dehydrator to rid them of moisture and hope for smooth playback. Baking tapes for at least 10 hours can reverse Soft Binder Syndrome for enough time to transfer them to a stable format — in our case, to digitize them and upload them to the Internet Archive, where they’ll be accessible along with XFR’s other projects.
For the most part, a little baking (or a lot, Ana baked one of the tapes for a total of 72 hours!) made the tapes perfectly playable. But we held our breath with the first tape we tried during the second transfer session at Ana’s apartment, and moments later were mesmerized. Suddenly we were watching a video on capoeira, a tradition combining dance, martial arts, and philosophy. It’s difficult to capture in words — it’s physical, musical, both forceful and lithe, instinctual yet practiced. Capoeira began in Brazil, introduced by enslaved Africans. Students interview those involved in the practice while limbs fly across the screen.
“We just would go out… with the cumbersome equipment and the lights and everything,” Liz Andersen, UVP Project Supervisor, says. The documentaries were intensive and in-depth projects, much more than someone spontaneously doing street interviews with a camcorder. They were well-researched and planned shot by shot. “I mean, it was quite a production to make,” she says. Taking large cameras, microphones, and lights on trains, to neighborhoods near and far, UVP caused the entire school to change their afternoon schedule to two-hour classes, allowing other classes to develop more in-depth projects as well.
“It really became a project around community history, because we’re doing videos on things that are important to [the students] that were important in the communities,” says LaSpada. Unearthed is over five hours of video exploring ritual, arts, and life, revealing the nuances of the students’ experience: the anxiety and shyness, the excitement and passion, the responsibility and pride. Students really wanted to participate in UVP. The school consciously scheduled it as the last class of the day to encourage students to stay until school let out. An air of confidence can come from a microphone in your hand or a camera on your shoulder. “There’s a coolness factor to media,” explains LaSpada.
Satellite Academy was among the first “alternative” schools in New York City. Alternative schools, or “transfer” schools as they’re now referred to, strive to give opportunity to “at-risk” students. This brought students from all over the city to smaller schools with alternative pedagogical techniques. Satellite Academy (Forsyth St.)’s population was made of up mostly black and Puerto Rican students. Urban Video Project allowed them to increase representation of people of color as the creators and the subjects of media, providing alternate narratives to the often negative or stereotypical representations in mainstream media. Among those interviewed are playwrights, historians, musicians, academics, and artists. Students explore rap as more than a musical genre in “Rap! What it is…,” investigating it as poetry, a movement, and an evolution. In “The Orisha Tradition,” misconceptions of Santeria and associated religions from the African diaspora are cast aside through in-depth interviews with “creyentes,” or believers. The history of black filmmaking in “We’ve Gotta Have It” is chronicled by film historians and directors, analyzing the industry’s lack of true representation for people of color.
Immersive experiences taught the students skills no classroom could. The work to research, set up interviews, write questions, and then star in, film, and edit the documentaries was done by the students themselves. And those in the communities explored, whether it be in the Lower East Side, in Harlem, or anywhere between, were eager to participate. “People were so enthusiastic about supporting young people in the project,” says LaSpada. They weren’t just interested in youth; they were interested in members of their own community. Because of this excitement and support, “students could talk to folks that they would never have a chance to interview,” Andersen says.
After watching the tapes through and witnessing the immense cultural heritage preservation in front of me, I wondered where these tapes were for the last 25 to 30 years? I imagined them in a box in the back of a closet, or in someone’s basement on a cold floor with the spiders, or cushioned by some carpet and surrounded by beige in an old, drab office. If not brought to XFR Collective when they were, would they have ever been seen again?
Liz Andersen, keeper of the tapes, worked as project supervisor for over a decade of the Urban Video Project initiative. She worked alongside LaSpada, teaching students communication skills, fostering creative thinking, and developing ideas for new documentaries. After LaSpada moved out of the country, Andersen helped to hire UVP’s videographer and editing consultants to advise the students.
Digital files are no less susceptible to demise than their physical ancestors if not maintained — that’s part of the beauty of the analog form. The UVP tapes were in that supposed box in that supposed basement, so we still have them. And we were able to digitize them. But true preservation only begins with digitization. All the lists Andersen kept and so diligently updated on the libraries she sold the documentaries to, competitions the students placed in, grants they won, “it’s in some, you know, school computer, erased and dead and gone,” says Andersen, frustratedly, solemnly, but like she may have accepted this truth long ago.
That information is lost, but with oral histories, outreach to past participants, and the tapes being digitally preserved, we can sustain not just the cultural legacy the students documented but the legacy of the Urban Video Project itself. Salvatore LaSpada and Liz Andersen have not seen the tapes in over 25 years. It’s likely no one else has either. Now, vibrant as ever, they are accessible again. We are honored to present: Urban Video Project.
You can find these tapes, along with XFR Collective’s other transfer projects on Internet Archive.
Learn more about magnetic tapes and their propensity for degradation here.
FULL LIST OF TAPES (Chronological order)
“El Pasaje: Recollections from the Puerto Rican Migration” (Spring 1986)
Students from Satellite Academy High School on NYC’s Lower East Side hear about their history and the history of their classmates.
“New York, West Indies: Voices from the Jamaican and Trinidadian Migration” (Spring 1986)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City interview immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad.
“Eyes On Harlem” (Spring 1987)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City look at the community of Harlem in the mid 1980’s as one of the Legacies of the African Diaspora. They learn about present aspects of Harlem and the threat of hostile outside developers.
“Women Of Their Word: Conversations with Black and Puerto Rican Artists” (1988)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City interview Gerri Hollins, Composer and Playwright; Lillian Jimenez, Film and Video Funding Consultant; Anita Gonzalez, Choreographer, Dancer, and Videomaker; and Millie Rodriguez, Graphic Artist.
“Can You Catch It?” (1989)
Satellite students respond to the AIDS crisis. Tape also included two music videos after the program, added here as a separate file. One video is Konpa “Z” by Zshea. The other is not identified.
“The Orisha Tradition: The Gods In Exile” (Spring 1990)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City trace the journey of African deities to the Americas while they were being transformed to blend with Western religions. These religions then became a controversial footprint in NYC of one of the legacies of the African Diaspora.
“Rap! What It Is…” (Spring 1991)
High School students of the Urban Video Project in New York City look at the growth of rap music in NYC. They interview artists and examine rap’s roots as a Legacy of the African Diaspora.
“We’ve Gotta Have It: The Story of African-American Filmmaking” (Spring 1992)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City look at the history of Black filmmaking which has largely been ignored and forgotten as one of the Legacies of the African Diaspora.
“Capoeira: In Tribute to the Past” (1993)
High School students of the Urban Video Project in New York City look at this martial art/dance form as one of the Legacies of the African Diaspora. They explore Capoeira’s African and Brazilian roots, music and growth in NYC.
“Whose Art is it Anyway?: A Video Diary of Young Black and Latino Curators” (1995)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City curate an art exhibition in Soho focusing on black and latino artists.
“198 Forsythe Street: Satellite Academy” (1995)
Students from the Urban Video Project on NYC’s Lower East Side explore aspects of the building housing their school that they had never seen before.
“It’s Child’s Play” (Spring 1996)
High school students of the Urban Video Project in New York City talk about games they played as children and what it meant to them. They also talk to author and artist Bessie Nickens about her painting and childhood experience growing up in the south.
“New York City Teens Getting’ Down N’ Dirty” (1997)
Students of the Urban Video Project on NYC’s Lower East Side look at two nearby schools which are starting urban gardens to enhance their community and curriculum.
Descriptions written by Liz Andersen
Maddie DeLaere is a graduate student working toward her MLIS and Food Studies degrees at NYU. Her research and writing projects focus on culture, history, and identity (often where they intersect with food). She currently works as a Graduate Archival Assistant at NYU Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives where her favorite material to work with is ephemera.