Unfinished Blues For Marion Stokes
When I was a kid, newly a latchkey kid at that, I’d rush home from school and dive into television the way other kids might cannonball into a pool. Of particular interest to me then were the UHF stations — this was in the 1980s, during which, thanks to some union snafu, most of Philly did not yet have access to cable TV — that almost exclusively ran re-runs. In due time, I’d seen every episode of The Honeymooners, Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show — you name it, each of them fascinating in the ways the contours of their worlds were so little like mine. It was then that I first became obsessed with the past — not so much wanting it to repeat itself as wanting to understand what it was like firsthand. I wanted to know what it was like to go to a supermarket in 1962, what products were on the shelves, how much things cost. I wondered what it was like to listen to the radio or walk down the same street that would more or less look the same but different colors of paint on doors, different people wearing different clothes. I was aware, even at that age, that plenty of bad things happened in the past, and I wanted to know what those were like, too, and I found the resources then available to me wholly insufficient.
It was then that I had an idea that I’ve thought of now and again ever since: They should show reruns of the news. Like the whole 30-minute evening network news. Every night, or today, on demand. You could follow the plotlines of Walter Cronkite much as you would any prestige cable drama. Better still, you could pick up and drop off whenever you liked. “Oh, I stopped at Nixon,” you could say to your co-worker, to which they’d reply, “oh, that’s funny, that’s when I picked it up! Wait until you see what happens!”
I couldn’t have known then that across town, the librarian/activist Marion Stokes was several steps ahead of me. For Stokes, the news — both as it was happening and concerning its preservation — had moved into the realm of full-blown obsession. From 1977 up until her death in 2012, Stokes taped the news around the clock, daily, ultimately running multiple VCRs on multiple networks in six-hour blocks, because that’s the most you could fit on one VHS tape. Over that period of time she amassed hundreds of thousands of hours of tape — over 70,000 of them in total. She also collected newspapers, magazines, books, toys, dollhouses, and Apple computers. In time, she’d have to rent extra space — garages, other apartments — to keep it all.
What was behind all of this? Was it a type of hoarding madness? Or, as Stokes believed, a sense that electronic media was allowing important details to be aired once then disappear into a great mass of noise forever, to ultimately threaten us with lives that were ahistorical? Whatever it was, today the world is a better place for it: Though there are other humans on Earth who obsessively recorded and collected media in this way, Stokes’ collection was kept in the best condition, and now belongs to the Internet Archive, who continue to archive and transfer the media to this day, where it will be studied by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons for years to come.
In this cultural moment where perhaps the ultimate status symbol is to be as free from clutter and technology as one can be, the eyes of Marion Stokes twinkle at you from history — recent history, yes, but history nonetheless. And do you know what they say to me? They say: You, in your office, with the the 2,000 records and the hundreds of books and zines and posters that you keep up there, in part for inspiration, in part because they’re part of you: You’re not a hoarder (though being more tidy certainly wouldn’t kill you). You merely have your eyes open. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Keep on keepin’ on.
— Joey Sweeney
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a documentary directed by Matt Wolf, screens Friday, June 28th at 7pm at Lightbox Film Center. More info and tickets available here.