With the assistance of a grant of $744,000 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the New York University Division of Libraries and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics are expanding the development of an innovative digital library documenting social and political performance throughout the Americas. The project, The Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library, is bringing together in one place materials that have been available formerly only in small, little-known archives in North, South, and Central America and will provide scholars from around the world the opportunity to access these rare materials.

The NYU Libraries are engaged in groundbreaking work to develop the complex infrastructure of content, systems, and human resources that will create and sustain a rich, dynamic, and productive digital library environment for research and scholarly communication.

NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, based in the Tisch School of the Arts and in the Faculty of Arts and Science, is a consortium of major academic and cultural institutions throughout the Americas that works at the intersection of performance and social-political life, creating or documenting dance, theatre, ritual, political rallies, funerals, civil disobedience, and resistance. Because social performance is ephemeral, it survives and becomes a resource for scholars only through its capture on video. The Libraries and the Institute are committed to collecting these video documents, preserving them in digital format, and making them accessible worldwide on the Web.

The Hemispheric Institute Digital Library project is producing high-quality digital masters of these taped events, which are then permanently archived at NYU and available to academics and the public via a searchable interface with the Hemispheric Institute’s website. DVDs are available for in-library use, and MPEG4 streaming editions allow Internet users to view the material from anywhere in the world. An important aspect of the project assures that the original material received from the small archives and collections and from performers themselves will be returned to them, along with a DVD, thus helping access and preservation at the home site.

Carol Mandel, dean of the NYU Division of Libraries, said, “I am delighted that, with the support of this Mellon grant, we can make available innovative uses of technology to give scholars, students, and the public resources for research and understanding they would never have otherwise. So much of this material is rare and in many cases unique, and it’s exciting to be part of a process that will make it accessible widely for the first time.”

According to Diana Taylor, professor of Performance Studies and Spanish and director of the Hemispheric Institute, “This digital archive will give these performances a second and third life-a life beyond the moment in which they were first created. While we cannot extend the ‘ephemeral’ quality of the live performance, we can certainly extend how scholars and artists throughout the world think of the staying-power of performance. Some of the work in our digital library radically changed the politics of the context in which they appeared. Some performances help change the world, and this digital library will allow us to understand how.”

Examples of material that will be included in The Hemispheric Institute Digital Library include:

  • The archive of C.A.D.A., an activist group of artists that used performance to challenge the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile
  • The archive of the cabaret, “El Habito,” run by Mexican artist Jesusa Rodriquez and her partner Liliana Felipe. Rodriquez has been called “the most powerful woman in Mexico” by the New York Times. She showcases performers who address urgent political issues.
  • The archive of Guillermo Gómez-Peña, a renowned Chicano performance artist whose work addressed topics in the civil rights movement, migration, and border culture.
  • The archive of American Indian Community House that has videotaped performances by Native performers for the past 15 years, including Spider Woman, the Coatlicue Sisters, and other major artists.

The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics is a consortium of institutions, artists, scholars, and activists dedicated to exploring the relationship between expressive behavior (broadly construed as performance) and social and political life in the Americas. The Institute draws from “live” practices and visual media (e.g. video, photographs) to explore the ways in which embodied behaviors participate in the transmission of cultural knowledge and social memory.

NYU Libraries, whose constantly growing electronic collections rank among the country’s largest in scope and volume, has been nationally recognized for its expertise in the digital preservation of material created in all physical formats over two millennia, including papyrus, paper, tape, and film. In addition, the Division of Libraries is part of a small, nationwide partnership of research institutions working at the forefront of the effort to develop and standardize the archiving tools that libraries need to capture, curate, preserve, and make accessible collections of Web-based and born-digital material.

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