HomeAboutArchival Activist StatementsCorey O'Hara

Corey O'Hara


My hometown video store, Video World, paid $5.75 an hour plus unlimited movie rentals. On Fridays after my shift, I carried home a stack of broken plastic cases, playing and pausing and rewinding tape after tape after tape. Suddenly the world was a much bigger and brighter place for a queer without cable. But I’m A Cheerleader. Velvet Goldmine. John Waters. Divine! They asked questions I didn’t know I could ask. Fuzzy songs from a bulbous CRT TV.  Cool blue menus. Static noise light pictures bright white. A stack of tapes meant friends to make, worlds to find, be kind rewind and return by Tuesday.  

The Activism VHS Archive is a stack of tapes that shatters erasure of queer narratives and reclaims the right for people with HIV/AIDS to tell their own stories. It is a vast library of life lived, of persistence and vibrance, of communities and care. It is education, experimental art, biography, even elegy. As a video artist, I found thrills in Writing Desire by Ursula Biemann and the collection of Barbara Hammer works. The performance and power of Carol Leigh aka the Scarlet Harlot is as radical as ever. I am inspired by the WAVE videos and I was a Teenage Alien, in which queers create their own infrastructure for sharing their stories. We Care, He Left me His Strength and others focus on the stories of care workers, reminding us of the vast extent of HIV/AIDS community impact. It echoes themes of care we are looking to instill in our classrooms and syllabi, in our artistic and activist communities, in our creative processes and our archives. 

The stories in the Activism VHS Archive were made by and for communities that continue to endure, despite ignorance and underfunding. As the tapes decay, the importance of preserving these histories becomes not only for education but for preservation of  these communities. The vast world of queers artists and activists within the archive are erased in larger cultural media narratives. Ronald Reagan ignored AIDS. Mass AIDS narratives for my generation came from the likes of Philadelphia or Team America, an appropriately patriotic pair. Politicians continue to use marginalized communities for profit and for votes, while leaving issues of healthcare, housing and violence unaddressed. So much ignorance surrounding AIDS is still reflected in popular culture now. There is powerful community in a shared lineage of queer artists and activists, but only if that lineage is available to those who need it.

There is charming nostalgia in a VHS tape, but in a digital era it is bound by its own analog obsolescence. Video World closed in 2007. Blockbuster went bankrupt. Culturally we moved on to higher definitions and more portable options. It’s getting harder and harder to find a VCR. The tapes remain but their contents are less accessible by the day. The tapes remain, waiting, doing, being. Tapes that cared for us and taught us. Tapes we played and paused and played and paused. The magnetic and the plastic. Our disuse or label of obsolescence does not disappear the tape.The tape goes on, whether to the shelf, the trash, the sea and beyond, until the magnetic and the plastic break down and become their next forms.

How do we care for these items that cared for us so? How do we preserve the integrity of these stories? The Activism VHS tapes are safe in the confines of the BC library. We digitized their content. We transferred the image. We changed the form. From magnets and plastics to pixels and internet. In that transference, we cannot deny that a small part of experience is lost to convenience. As archivists, if we are taking away the physical ritual, we have a responsibility to care for and make available these stories in their new form; to take care in creating a new space for the ritual of visiting these stories. The ritual of the magnetic and the plastic is gone: the anticipation, the opening, the insertion, the play, the fast forward, the rewind. In this transference, we must continually return to where the VHS mantra begins: be kind.

- Corey O'Hara, multimedia artist