New York's Interference Archive Is the Smithsonian of Resistance

When the latest barrage of bad news out of Washington batters your hope for the future, it’s time to plan a trip to Interference Archive in Brooklyn.

This place is the Smithsonian of dissent, the Louvre of political organizing—a vast treasure of pamphlets, posters, banners, flyers, photos, buttons, film clips, newspapers, t-shirts, ‘zines, audio recordings and other artifacts from movements that changed the world.

You’ll find troves of boxes, files, stacks and shelves shining light on anti-nuclear activism, radical comics, Cuban political posters,  politically-charged musicians, ‘60s underground journalism, British May Day rallies and resistance to sexual violence.  While some causes found more success (LGBT, Feminism, ecology) than others (prison reform, nuclear disarmament) the collection as a whole will raise your spirits and fire your imagination about the prospects for creating a better world.

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Interference Archive—which reopens in early October after a move to a storefront off 5th Avenue in Park Slope—welcomes the public as well as researchers, and hosts many college and high school classes.  “We want stuff to be taken off the shelf and looked at,” explains Josh MacPhee, one of the founders of this all-volunteer effort.  “We’re glad to see 13- and 14-year olds in here reading Black Panther newspapers that sell for hundreds of dollars on E-bay.”

Part of their space is a gallery where they curate exhibitions and traveling shows spotlighting their collection.  Interference Archive also hosts performances, talks, reading groups, workshops, film screenings, block parties and “radical playdates”—creative fun for families. When I visited their old location in an old industrial plant near the Gowanus Canal, materials on display showcased Queer culture (“Come out, Come Out, Wherever You Are”), disability activism (“If I Can’t Dance, Is It Still My Revolution?”), 1970s solidarity efforts supporting African Liberation movements, and artifacts from election campaigns, ranging from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to the Tea Party to a “Vote for Nobody” poster.

An exhibit from earlier this year—”Finally Got The News: The Printed Legacy of the US Radical Left, 1970-1979”—became a book, which disproves the widespread belief that the ‘70s  “was a dead time,” according to MacPhee.  “Actually as much or more was going on than in the ‘60s.”

“The mission of the Interference Archive is to explore the relationship between cultural production and social movements,” states the website.  That means “material produced in multiple as a tool for political organizing,” says MacPhee.  He estimates that about 60 percent of the material has been created since 1980.

The archive was launched in 2011 when four co-founders (MacPhee, Dara Greenwald, Molly Fair and Kevin Caplicki) pooled their collections accumulated through years of involvement with political causes and arts projects. A lot of this material fell through the cracks of other institutions, MacPhee notes.  “Academic archives were not sensitive to culture, and art archives were not sensitive to politics.”

MacPhee and Greenwald (both BMC alumni) had long opened their own collections to researchers.  “Shelves and closets in our apartment were jammed with stuff, and when people came to do Ph.D. research we had to go out of town for the weekend,” MacPhee remembers. Greenwald, who died of cancer in 2012, lived to see the Interference Archive’s first exhibit about women and punk culture.

Thanks to donations, the Interference Archive now contains 30,000 items, which are cataloged and stored by a team of volunteers, many of them library professionals. People’s financial contributions cover the organization’s operating costs (including the cost of the move after they lost their lease)  and foundation grants support special projects and exhibits.

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