Matt Connors and Matt Wolf on the Marion Stokes Project
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)
Pre–Echo Press presents The Marion Stokes Project takes place at 7 Ludlow on Sunday, November 19, celebrating the launch of the new book INPUT, plus an exclusive new limited-edition print from Metrograph Editions, produced in collaboration with Pre–Echo Press and Du-Good Press.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is currently streaming on Metrograph At Home.
Who gets to decide what constitutes an archive worth keeping? And how do we immortalize the ephemerality of images? These are the central questions underpinning Matt Wolf’s 2019 documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. Wolf’s film follows the story of left-wing activist and archivist Marion Stokes, who recorded television 24 hours a day, for 30 years. After her death in 2012, her apartment was found filled with wall-to-wall boxes of VHS tapes of television broadcasts from 1979 to 2012, all meticulously labeled by hand.
Wolf is no stranger to diving into archives, incorporating them in previous films such as Wild Combination (2008), about composer and disco producer Arthur Russell, as well as Spaceship Earth (2020), a story of eight people who in 1991 spent two years living inside a replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2. Similar to their utopian project, Stokes’s was driven by an instinctive desire to question and contradict the messages being fed to us in society. An activist and radical communist, she was critical of American media from the beginning.
Her persona as a recognized public intellectual was boosted through her talk show, Input, where she invited guests with a broad spectrum of viewpoints to engage in spirited debates about current issues. A zealous defender of free speech, Stokes was far more interested in hearing opposing opinions than serving her own echo chamber. When she learned that television networks were not maintaining their own archives—with no one recording what was being broadcast—she elected herself to take on the role of vigilant media watchdog. Her unwavering devotion to keeping the tapes running for 30 years is nothing short of stupefying.
Following the release of the film, Wolf has now collaborated with fellow NYC-based painter and publisher Matt Connors on the new Pre–Echo Press publication INPUT, a 214-page visual companion, designed by Ben Tousley, containing image stills that Wolf pulled from Stokes’s recordings during the making of the film.
Among the images featured are not just those depicting significant world events, but also visual ephemera, including commercials, public-service announcements, sitcoms, cartoons, interstitial graphics, and esoteric human-interest reports—like an interview with Bruce Elliott, President of the anti-nostalgist Association for the Advancement of Time.
In an introductory essay, Wolf writes that the book contains “a stream of signs, symbols, faces, and typography that have shaped our unconscious values, tastes, beliefs, and aspirations. These still frames capture the texture of the recent past and resurrect ghosts from the deluge of media that washes over us.”
As such, the book serves as a monument to an incredibly fleeting medium: newscast video. Immortalizing it in print is an attempt to slow time down, to make sense of the onslaught of images that we’re fed constantly. Culling from over 700 hours of digitized tapes, Wolf has compiled a sequence of images that seem like they could all have been taken today—a haunting reminder of history’s tendency to repeat itself.
Speaking to me over Zoom from Manhattan, Connors and Wolf discuss their twin projects below.—Dalya Benor
INPUT, Pre–Echo Press, 2023
DALYA BENOR: Before we talk about your new book, INPUT, I’d like to go back a few years and learn about your entry point. How did you discover Marion Stokes and her story? What led you to make a film about her?
MATT WOLF: I’m always on the hunt for an unprecedented and enormous archive, and a story that goes with it. I read a blog post about Marion because her tapes had been acquired by the Internet Archive, and shipped from these storage pods in Philadelphia to San Francisco. I immediately had this visual in my mind of a kind of stream of fuzzy VHS shots from the history of television, and that appealed to me.
I reached out through a contact to Michael Metelits, Marion’s son, and went to Philadelphia to visit him. I arrived at the Barclay Apartment Building in Rittenhouse Square, this incredibly fancy apartment building, which I was not expecting. Inside, I found hundreds of Macintosh computer boxes piled up.
I took Michael and [Marion’s personal secretary] Frank Hileman out for lunch across the street at the Parc Restaurant, where Marion would have her daily martini, and they were talking about her life—the fact that she had been a communist activist, the circumstances in which she began this project, and her public affairs talk show; things that I had no idea about.
As we were talking, they both started to cry. I realized that Marion’s story was not just about her monumental archive and the history of television, but also this intense, emotionally involved family story. So I set out to interweave both the family elements and the story of this maddening project—and to also utilize the archive to show resonances across time, and how television shapes our consciousness, and how much of it is lost into the trashcan of history.
MATT CONNORS: Were they immediately willing with the idea of the documentary? Was there any resistance?
MW: They were really into the idea. Before she died, Marion said to Michael, “Who will tell my story?” She was a ruthlessly private person, who didn’t want anyone to know much about her when she was alive. But Michael believed that his mother wanted her work to be known, and wanted her collection to be made accessible to people forever.
While Marion was very secretive, she did work that had a newsworthy significance. I think the people who struggled with her personally during her lifetime recognized that, and felt that it begged to be appraised and appreciated and understood—not just for themselves, but for the world.
MC: I think it was a journey for her to become reclusive. She was a public intellectual for a big part of her life, and had this TV show that the book is named after. The nature of her work was for posterity, so that’s not that private. I think the thing that you discovered was the internal, interpersonal story of the family relations and that journey towards privacy.
INPUT, Pre–Echo Press, 2023
MW: There was concern about not telling a story about a hoarder, and pathologizing Marion. I tried to handle that with a lot of restraint and care, the fact that some people perceive collections as trash, and other people see the historical significance to it. It’s based on point of view.
I felt an affinity to someone like Marion. I’m not an archivist, but I’m somebody who makes use of these enormous collections and understands the value of saving things and not throwing them away. I wasn’t going to psychoanalyze Marion’s intentions, but I also wasn’t going to be rose-tinted about the sacrifices required for her to pursue a project of this scope.
DB: How did you decide what archival material to use in the film?
MW: I wrote an essay that describes the process of managing the archive. We had to index that entire collection ourselves. Marion, being a resourceful archivist, wrote incredible metadata on the spines of all her tapes, with information about the date, the time and the networks, and sometimes other metadata about what had happened that day, like the MOVE bombings.
We created a conveyor belt and took photos from the top of all of the cardboard filing boxes where the tapes were stored. Wikipedia has a summary of events from each year, ranging from the historically significant to the totally mundane, and I made a wish list of dates based on anything from Nelson Mandela being released, to the collapse of the Miss Universe stage.
Our archivist Katrina would identify the tape, and then people at the Internet Archive had to get a forklift, grab the pallet, find the box and get the tape. Then we would bring those to a preservationist. Once they were digitized, I worked with assistant editors going 10, 20 times speed through a tape, just hitting markers when something interested me, aesthetically, but also in terms of content.
As I was hitting markers, I started to grab images. I [knew that] taking these things out of context told a different story about the kind of flow and deluge of media that washes over us. I accumulated hundreds of images as a sub-archive.
MC: One of the things that’s shocking to people about the film, [is that] people just assume that anything that’s broadcast is saved. When that hits—that this stuff is actually lost otherwise—that’s when it becomes like, “Wow, this is really serious,” and the shift from hoarder to historian happens in people’s minds.
MW: I had to figure out how to actually use the archive to kind of prove that it was consequential and important. It was a process of realizing that the things that I was looking for were not that interesting. You don’t need to see imagery of the Berlin Wall falling. It was the esoteric stuff that was most compelling, whether it’s an anti-nostalgist or some local news event that really speaks to the present moment.
INPUT, Pre–Echo Press, 2023
MC: Looking at the new Pre–Echo Press book, the reaction we all are having is that if you manipulated the images a little bit, it could be contemporary, the cycles of history are so present. It’s haunting.
MW: When I make films, I don’t make reportage that really speaks to a pressing social issue. I try to make films that make old things feel new. As a result, a lot of those stories are kind of evergreen, because if an old idea feels contemporary, it probably will represent itself over and over again in resonant ways.
Tom Levine, one of the voices in the film says, “Archives create futures”. I think that’s a really resonant idea, that the archivist’s job is to capture everything. The job of the filmmaker—or the journalist, or the scholar, or the artist—is to editorialize that, to make something new out of the material that’s been saved.
DB: How did you two collaborate on the book? What was that editorial process like?
MC: I’m constantly saying, “Let’s make a book about something that seems like it’s not going to be memorialized,” or asking people if there’s a project that would be difficult to make a book out of. One of the things I like about Matt’s work as a documentary filmmaker is I find his voice to be very strong, but at the same time, very neutral. It’s a skill that’s rare. I knew about the sub-archive of the images, and I would also kind of call myself an archivist—I’m a collector and I’m a painter, so I feel total empathy for archives.
This seemed like a book that would be hard to make, because in a way, it’s purposeless, in the same way that Marion’s archive could seem totally purposeless. The time that lives in a book is different than a film, and it’s really gratifying to even further slow down the media that is the subject of this book.
DB: After spending so much time immersed in Marion’s archive to make the film and now the book, what takeaways have stayed with you?
MW: I think people can be a potent mix of dysfunctional and visionary, and that projects can be maddening and they can also be brilliant. I try not to over-idealize my subjects. I often make films about unconventional, or even problematic visionaries. And Marion fits squarely in there. There’s a lot of sacrifice and a lot of craziness that comes with pursuing monumental and historically significant projects. Finding the truth and protecting the truth is hard. She went about it in a very unconventional way, which I think was hugely consequential, and meaningful, and will continue to be for the future.
Dalya Benor is a writer from Los Angeles, currently based in NY. She writes about art, culture, and the in-between. She has contributed to The New York Times, Vogue, W, Dazed, AnOther, Document Journal and others.
INPUT, Pre–Echo Press, 2023