I am at a loss.
In the middle of Georgia, above a set of rooms, there is a closet with a door that opens to an attic. In there, lies a bunch of things. Stacked on top of each other are plastic bins that we will use and understand as an archive. Throughout the years, the collection has grown as more items were placed into the bins (the work has picked up once my parents divorced). The objects in these boxes stand the test of time. They are photographs, toys, and clothes from different eras of the bodies that occupy – or have occupied – the house. If time is not real, then let these bins be material markers of the time that has passed.
I am only interested in the videotapes.
At the beginning of every month, my mother calls me. It’s usually a check-in. I usually give her nothing. Not because of my obstinate and distanced qualities, but because nothing has actually happened. It is the same conversation every month. Videotapes. You must get the videotapes and save them because they are your memories.
In this writing, I want to work with a nostalgia that is not our own. Oftentimes, nostalgia is equated to ourselves, our memories, and our bodies through time. I am working with a detached version of the concept. A nostalgia that is not recognizable to my own memories and mind but is rather felt in my body. Scott Alexander Howard says that nostalgia is an occurrent emotion and affective experience that is both unrecoverable and desirable.
A reach into the past, and you know that it feels warm.
In this attic, if it is warm – and being in Georgia, it is always warm – an archive of feelings is hidden in a closet. In the upstairs of the house lies an empty room – last I was there which was two years ago, the room was empty, so things may have changed – with a closet with a door inside that leads you to an attic. You feel the warmth. A presence like a few ghosts. You try to find what you are looking for. You take the bin from the stack, carefully. You pop open the lid, and you take a VHS tape. You place it into the VCR and let it play. At first, you may have to rewind, or even fast forward if you are looking for something specific.
The tape you have chosen is me at three years old. It is the late nineties. I am in Japan with my mother. This clip was taken before I had any siblings. I am at Tokyo Disneyland. I have long hair. I wear a hat and overalls. My mother holds me. I am frightened of the Disney characters. I do not like their big heads. The three little pigs come towards me. You can see how scared I am. Though I am in my mother’s arms, I still reach into her and bury my face. Wanting this experience to all be over. That’s the end of the tape.
In graduate school, I learned and did a lot of archival work. For my field of study, the archives are particularly interesting. You can go from looking at photographs to a newspaper clipping to viewing a performance recording to something as mundane as a piece of fabric. Some archives are also alive, meaning that like us, they are fleeting. These archives are ephemeral and must be dedicatedly dealt with, not only in terms of their material composition but as well as the feelings they may produce. What I found valuable in my graduate program was not only how one uses these archives but also how one should touch them. And be touched by them.
A professor told me once that we may think we choose our objects and archives, but they choose you as well.
Jacques Derrida, in his book Archive Fever, writes that the word “archive” has the same root word that refers to Archon’s house, a patriarch and head of state. I didn’t read the book. But there is such a power that an archive has. Proving what can be kept in and what is kept out. Finding what is legitimate and what is not. What can be accessed and what should not be seen ever. So in a way, the attic in middle Georgia becomes illuminated.
Why does a house that I no longer live in have such power over me?
Google search: “Can videotapes melt?”
Answer: “As long as the magnetic material did not reach its melting point there's a very high chance that the footage can be recovered. Unfortunately, there are still limits to what can be recoverable and if the mylar surface of a tape gets hot enough it will warp permanently, causing unavoidable interference during playback.”
In another tape, you can see me at three years old, celebrating Christmas. I believe in this video, I am unwrapping Buzz Lightyear and Woody figurines. This was also the same Christmas where my father bought me a VHS of The Wizard of Oz. My first queer archive.
Queer archives hold a special place in my academic endeavors. They are, as you would say, quite queer, in every sense of the word. They are composed of ephemera and often delicate material. With their history, they are always destroyed. Never seeing my touch.
In 2001, someone vandalized nearly six hundred books that included such topics as queer history and narratives, women’s health, and HIV/AIDS material at the San Francisco Public Library. The items were retrieved but were damaged beyond repair. The library, instead of throwing the material out, commissioned artists around the world to make these queer materials into queer archives. For example, the artist Cedar Marie turned a ruined book about HIV and AIDS into a piece called, “The Best Medicine.” Using the damaged scraps, Marie placed fragmented pages into pill capsules that filled a pill bottle.
I feel warm when I am able to reach out and touch things because I so desperately want something to reach out and touch me back.
My mother calls me at the beginning of the month. She has been doing this since my parents got divorced the summer before I moved to New York and went to graduate school. That was really hard to live through. I helped my mother move back to Japan, feeling lost with her and trying to understand what life would be without her in the same country. I spent two weeks in Japan. I saw my relatives that I have not seen in eleven years. Saying goodbye was hard. Trying my best to get through customs at the airport, I remember seeing my mother crying and reaching out to me. But I could not turn back. Time.
She asks about when I am going back to Georgia so I could get the videotapes and save them from damage.
Nostalgia is both something we have and something that is not our own. We can remember the good times like a nice day that we lived or feel warm about a certain childhood object. But we also can feel nostalgia in detached ways. Perhaps a common example is the desire of reliving the 1980s again. The fashion. The films. The mood.
In the 1980s, postmodernism was at its peak. Important critical figures like Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard directly wrote about postmodernism and how nostalgia comes into play. Though some people may be dreaming of the 1980s, people in the 1980s were dreaming about the 1950s. Nostalgia is something not of our own, but rather a feeling we deal with.
Rather than us passing through time, we should see it as time passing through us.
Perhaps the thing that punctures a nostalgic feeling for people within my decade are VHS tapes. We all had our favorite one. They are probably a box somewhere along with the home videos. Locked away, and probably never going to be seen or saved again.
Putting two things together – VHS tapes and queer archives – two examples come to mind: Nelson Sullivan’s video blogs and Tom Joslin’s film Silverlake Life: The View from Here.
If you want a taste of nostalgia, then I suggest looking up Nelson Sullivan’s videos on YouTube. Nelson loved to film his everyday life. Always having a camera in hand. Always taking his viewers along with him from a thrift store in Atlanta to queer outings in Lower Manhattan. The great thing about these videos is that they were taken in the late 1980s. You will see a New York that your parents grew up with. A troubling era for queer folks. Nelson had a few now-famous friends in his videos such as Lady Bunny and RuPaul. There is such a warm energy and hum in the air as you play these videos.
The last video recording Nelson did was on July 3rd, 1989. It was a warm day in the city. Nelson was out walking the piers, reminiscing on what they used to be. He is with his sweet dog Blackout. He ends the day having a barbeque with friends. RuPaul makes hot dogs. Lady Bunny hides from the camera because she is not wearing makeup. The next day, Nelson dies of a heart attack at the age of 41.
Scott Alexander Howard says that nostalgia is an occurrent emotion and affective experience that is both unrecoverable and desirable.
Silverlake Life: The View from Here is also on YouTube, but I do not recommend it to everyone. It is a hard thing to watch and consume. We get to see the memory of the early 1990s. We begin by knowing the two main people in the film are dead. The rest of the film is viewing how they die. Tom Joslin and his partner Mark Massi die of AIDS. In order to preserve the life they have, they want to capture every intimate detail of their life. We see them dance together. We see them talk about being gay during their time and being gay with some of their family members knowing. We see them take their pills. We see their deaths.
In this video segment, you see me at around two years old. I am unable to use actual words. My mother records me, getting me to do something or capturing a moment. I want something. I don’t get it. I begin to cry. I want something from my mother. Is it food? Is it help? Is it her presence? I am crying desperately. An ugly cry from a baby. My mother does nothing but record, watching me. She zooms in on my face. Tears. An upset face. You see me reaching out to her.
The video ends.