The East Bay punk scene of the late 1980s and 1990s holds an iconic place in punk history, with the venue 924 Gilman Street and the label Lookout! Records incubating the pop-punk sound that would eventually go on to mainstream success. Digging into the history of the East Bay scene reveals the community of creative force, full of energy and ideas, that spawned well-known bands like Rancid and Green Day. Fortunately, we can now get more than a glimpse into that creative force through the East Bay Punk Digital Archive (https://eastbaypunkda.com/). The creator of the archive, Stefano Morello (http://stefanomorello.com/), was kind enough to answer some questions from me about the archive and how it came about.
What inspired you to create the East Bay Punk Digital Archive (EBP-DA)?
In the fall of 2017, I mentioned to Larry Livermore that I was considering writing my dissertation on the East Bay punk scene. I had been looking for ways to access Larry’s literary production, as well as other zines that, while being part of the mythology of the scene, were nearly impossible to find in libraries or archives on either coast. This was shortly after Aaron Cometbus’s papers had been acquired by Cornell University. Aside from a selection of his flyers collection, the majority of the objects in the archive weren’t set for digitization and traveling to Ithaca for a visit to the archive wasn’t an option with the limited budget I was doing research with (and living on!) at the time. Furthermore, even Aaron’s collection included only a fraction of the material I was hoping to access.
Larry’s response to my expression of interest was something along the lines of “Well, I’ve got a couple of boxes full of zines that are collecting dust in my closet.” As soon as he invited me to his apartment to take a look at the material, I realized that the cultural relevance of the work in those boxes extended well beyond the scope of my own research and I felt compelled to make sure it would be preserved and available to other academic and non-academic researchers. The digital form immediately came to mind, considering that I don’t have the means to preserve the physical artifacts and that the community I was trying to reach stretches across different continents.
What, to you, are some of the standouts in the EBP-DA?
The EBP-DA is a DIY open-access collaborative project. I tried to develop the archive according to some of the principles that informed the East Bay punk scene, especially DIY-ethic, openness, and some kind of horizontal relationality.
I had some web development skills prior to working on this project but knew very little about archival theory or building digital archives. Just like not having formal musical training doesn’t prevent one from starting a punk-rock band or being part of a scene, I didn’t let that stop me from engaging in this project, either. In addition to reading (and sometimes scoffing at) archive theory, I tried to reverse engineer some of the more established digital archives, and especially engaged in conversation with those who had more experience than I did: digital humanities scholars, but also zine librarians and archivists, from whom I learned about the ethics of acquiring and preserving zines and making them accessible. Similarly, I took the time to talk to the zine makers and artists that allowed me access to their personal archives and trusted me with the preservation of their work – about their experience in the scene, the zine-making process, and how they understood their work today, if compared to when they produced it. This is what I mean when I say that the EBP-DA is a collaborative project – punk’s DIY, whether it’s putting up shows, running a venue, editing a zine, putting out records, it’s often a do it yourselves, a kind of do it collectively. This emphasis on collaboration resonates with many of the communities that my project speaks to – not only punks, but also librarians, zine makers, poets, and certainly digital humanists, for whom the scope and cross-disciplinary nature of most projects often pushes against the persistent presumption that, in the humanities, intellectual work is fundamentally individual. In that sense, I see both the EBP-DA and my dissertation as products of collaborative knowledge, whereby my interpretation and use of the material is shaped by and negotiated through conversations with the people who created it and my academic/institutional position is put to use for the community, rather than just the opposite.
How has the EBP-DA been helpful to your own scholarship on punk? How might it be helpful to other scholars, journalists, and anyone who’s interested in East Bay punk?
As someone who had, until 2017, experienced East Bay punk especially from a sonic standpoint, the encounter with its literature gave me a sense of its self-theorization and sociality – for instance, the conversations in zines as diverse as Homocore, Lookout, and Absolutely Zippo are all evident indicators of the self-awareness in creating different sorts of imagined communities.
I also found striking that some of the conversations therein pre-date important debates around identity and social justice that have since then become much more central to both punk and what one might call “the mainstream” counterhegemonic discourse. Think about Larry Livermore’s advocacy for environmental rights in Lookout, or how Adrienne Droogas’s feminist punk critique in Too Far anticipates Riot grrrl by at least half a decade. In that sense, I think the material in the archive also highlights some underrated continuities among subcultural and countercultural currents in the second half of the 20th century. Apart from being a repository of primary sources for my dissertation, building the archive was also, and in some ways especially, helpful because of the relationships I built while working on it.
As far as the second part of your question – what I really wanted to do with the archive, or rather, for the archive to do, was to allow other researchers to access this material firsthand, rather than just through mediated analyses in my writing. I’m hoping that the archive allows cultural critics to see that punk, especially certain iterations of it, was far from being just a spectacle and to highlight both its engagement with politics and its ability to develop an alternative cultural apparatus. In other words, I believe the material in the archive speaks for itself much better than I could possibly speak for it.
What challenges did you encounter gathering materials for the archive? Punks can be incredibly generous and helpful, incredibly suspicious of “outsiders,” and, well, assholes (sometimes justified, sometimes not), and everything in between. What was it like navigating this as an archivist?
For once, tracking down some zine-makers was challenging enough: some signed their work with pseudonyms, some are not on social media, others are out of touch with the rest of the community they were once a part of. Upon getting in touch with them, some folks were especially reluctant to share their work online – understandably so. The Zine Librarian Code of Ethics was a good starting point to think about the ethics of collecting and making available material originally meant for limited circulation. It helped me put things in perspective and not take it personally when my enthusiasm wasn’t met with as much positivity – I remember thinking to myself that if someone were to approach me now and ask me if they could archive and make accessible my LiveJournal from when I was 16, my answer would probably be “absolutely not!” Furthermore, the issue of cultural appropriation is an especially sore subject in the context of subcultures. I made the mistake of approaching some people with emails articulated in the same academic jargon that I thought was expected of me to cast myself as a serious scholar. I was literally told to fuck off by a zine-maker whose work I still greatly appreciate. It hurt but it was a helpful lesson to learn in the beginning of this process.
Aside from these two scenarios (folks who, for different reasons, weren’t comfortable sharing their work online, and folks who didn’t trust my academic affiliation), the idea was mostly met with support. Being part of the Lost & Found community was extremely helpful to think through some of the issues one runs into when they are dealing with living artists or with an artist’s estate. In conversations with other researchers, I absorbed an ethos that also became that of the EBP-DA. As Ammiel Alcalay has taught me in that context, when you work with living artists or estates, you respond to kin-review, rather than peer review. In other words, a scholar/archivist is judged by the authenticity of their approach and their passion for the work. Of course, I assume that operating under Larry’s endorsement may have opened some doors for me, too.
How has the EBP-DA been received by academics? What kind of support did you get from academia in putting it together? How does it challenge or conflict with typical institutional methods of archiving?
Much to my surprise, the archive has been received with great enthusiasm by academics, especially at the Graduate Center, CUNY. My advisor, Eric Lott, has been onboard with the project from the beginning, and so have many others who have gone out of their way to make sure the EBP-DA would come to life. I was awarded two small grants by Lost & Found and the ERI that allowed me to travel to the East Bay to gather part of the material. The digital infrastructure was set up with financial and technical support from the New Media Lab and a Provost’s Digital Innovation Grant. I recently wrote a paper on the virtuous cycle that the project set in motion. Punk studies, whatever that is, has come a long way since Dick Hebdige’s Subculture. I would argue that in the academic settings I am a part of, punk is an increasingly interesting object of study because of the alternative pedagogies and epistemologies that it produced. Nevertheless, there still is much concern for how “spendable” the project is/can be on the academic job market.
As far as different methodologies of archives – for one, while I learned a lot by being in conversation with archivists, both institutional and subcultural, I’m not a trained archivist. The archive was developed mostly as an auto-didact and through involvement in communities of practice (that led to the development of further communities of practice).
What advice do you have for people creating digital archives, whether of the punk scene or of something else?
Get to know your material and, if possible, the artists and authors who created the artifacts in your archive and include them in the decisions involving the preservation and legibility of their material, if possible at all! Join (or build) communities of practice and talk to/work with archivists and librarians; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel altogether!
Finally: how can people contribute to the East Bay Punk Digital Archive?
I don’t have a one size-fits-all approach. I try and work with zine makers and punk artists according to their digital literacy, access to resources, geographical location, etc. Anyone interested in contributing to the archive with artifacts they created can reach out to me at [email protected].
East Bay Punk Digital Archive: https://eastbaypunkda.com/
Stefano Morello: http://stefanomorello.com/
Stefano Morello is a doctoral candidate in English with a certificate in American Studies at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His academic interests include American Studies, pop culture, poetics, and digital humanities. His dissertation, “Let’s Make a Scene! East Bay Punk and Subcultural Worlding,” explores the heterotopic space of the East Bay punk scene, its modes of resistance and (dis-)association, and the clashes between its politics and aesthetics. He serves as co-chair of the Graduate Forum of the Italian Association for American Studies (AISNA) and is a founding editor of its journal, JAm It! (Journal of American Studies in Italy). As a digital humanist, Stefano focuses on archival practices with a knack for archival pedagogy and public-facing initiatives. He worked as a curator and consultant for Lawrence Livermore’s archive, now housed at Cornell University Library.