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Record Keepers: The Bay Area Video Coalition Keeps the Static at Bay 

Wednesday, Jan 7 2015
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When Manchester University in Indiana stumbled on a tape in 2011 that may have contained the last speech Martin Luther King Jr. ever gave on a college campus, it had no way of playing it. So the school sent it to the Bay Area Video Coalition, a media nonprofit housed in a former mayonnaise factory on Mariposa Street in San Francisco.

"After a lot of research, we found out that that kind of videotape was only made for one year and was only playable on one kind of playback deck," says Ingrid Hu Dahl, director of BAVC's youth mentoring Next Gen program. "When we were finally able to play it back, you could hear his voice but you could only see lines. Eventually we were able to remaster it so you could see him and hear him, and we were able to preserve it, so we sent it back to the university," which was able to show the work. Even the civil rights hero's estate, known to be strict with such matters, allowed BAVC 10 seconds of the restored footage to use for promotional purposes.

Such preservationist acumen is but one aspect of this surprisingly integrated media nonprofit, which, if people know it at all, is generally regarded as a place for low-income people to get job training. That's accurate, but BAVC does more, from helping young musicians record albums to broadcasting public-access radio shows to keeping seasoned media professionals up-to-date on new technologies. They do so much that, midway through a 45-minute tour, I expressed chagrin that I hadn't known about all their resources and technical know-how before.

I'm not alone. "No one does the breadth of what we do," says Executive Director Carol Varney, noting that BAVC's reach is global. Hu Dahl adds that BAVC has digitized California choreographer June Watanabe's archive of videotapes, as well as work held by SFMOMA, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Tate Modern. And oh yeah, they worked closely with the Getty Museum's video preservationist, who exchanged ideas with BAVC's team, went back to L.A., and replicated BAVC's own suite there.

There is a sense of urgency to these endeavors, as "VHS and other kinds of tape have got to be preserved now," Varney says, as they will all, eventually, disintegrate. Even the machines, some of which haven't been manufactured for decades, require specialized knowledge, and BAVC scours Ebay for extras to harvest components from, the way a hot-rod enthusiast might keep a parts car behind the garage. Referring to an ancient-looking box, Mindy Aronoff, BAVC's director of training, says they know of only one guy, "in his 70s or 80s, in Castro Valley, who knows how to fix these." BAVC is rescuing from oblivion a sizable portion of the world's cultural heritage dating to the 1970s and '80s, and few people even know about it.

Salvaging treasure from self-destructing magnetic tapes is one thing, but BAVC's dedication to social justice in San Francisco goes beyond that. When I was shown "The Annex," a den for teenagers that's laden with high-end equipment, my jaw dropped. It's a studio for advanced filmmaking classes and a digital audio suite and sound booth (which BUMP Records, BAVC's youth label, uses twice a week to record music), capable of producing the kind of high-quality stuff that gets underprivileged kids a free ride to college. And it's got a great view.

As the best possible afternoon hangout spot, it's where kids get "a sense of healthy eating, greenscreen, taking photographs, storyboarding, songwriting, talking about issues that are going on, and snacks," Hu Dahl says, ticking them off as equally important parts of an education. The BAVC having been burglarized several times, she and Varney are obsessed with security, but they express nearly as much irritation with the kids leaving unwashed dishes in the sink.

There's also quite a bit of Girl Power to BAVC, and it's the synergistic, multimedia kind, centered on an all-girl game-design lab. Independent filmmaker Kristy Guevara-Flanagan worked with BAVC on a documentary project about Wonder Woman, which led to a videogame made specifically for girls to build self-esteem. "Anybody could play the game, but you could only choose to be a superheroine" as your avatar, Hu Dahl says. "And it would walk you through it, like, 'If you were faced with this situation at school, what would your superheroine do?' We paired [Guevara-Flanagan] with some game developers and teachers, and helped her prototype the game here. When the film was launched on PBS, the game was launched online."

Freelancers are another target demographic. Aronoff cites stats that some 40 percent of the American workforce could be independent contractors by 2020, and "the Department of Labor is finally taking notice." In 2012, the feds began supporting Gig Union, a BAVC program geared toward connecting freelancers with employers on a per-project basis, as well as helping them with planning budgets and doing their taxes (which most freelancers are terrible at).

Aronoff is especially proud of BAVC's lounge, which sounds like an organic version of the cross-fertilization chambers Silicon Valley is always trying to construct from the top down. It's a place where freelancers socialize and network; an Annex for adults. "They ask, 'Will you be on my shoot' or 'I'm looking for someone to code this part of my project.' People end up getting jobs in here," Aronoff says.

But every story needs a villain. The threat to net neutrality looms large. Though the government received 3.7 million citizens' comments urging the FCC not to hand the keys to the internet over to Comcast and Time Warner, Aronoff admits that she's "pessimistic." (The commission votes in February.)

"The worst-case is a replication of what's happening on television," Varney says. "We still have PBS, but every year, PBS is under threat. Similarly, for the internet, are we in a position where it will just be taken over by the huge conglomerates? That's highly likely. The beauty of the internet was that people actually thought they had a shot to get stuff out into the world, but if there's a tax placed on everyone who creates media, especially high-bandwidth media, the ability to do that is curtailed." As with the race to preserve decaying tapes, they're laboring under an externally imposed clock.

In the meantime, however, BAVC is chugging ahead. It's gearing up for a media entrepreneurs fellowship ("Bridges," for people ages 18-26) that starts up Jan. 8; an Artist-in-Residence program launching in February; and summer internships after that. Even if an unfavorable FCC ruling clamps down on the public radio shows that BAVC produces and Comcast is obligated to air, it won't necessarily have a direct impact on girls making documentaries about superheroines. Varney believes BAVC will still be able to fulfill its core mission, helping people to learn the tools so they can make stories and make social change. "Everybody who works here is like, 'Damn, I wish I had this in high school.'"

​Clarification: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Getty Museum's relationship with BAVC.​

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Pete Kane

Pete Kane

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Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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