Digitizing “The Love Tapes:” Preserving Marginalized Voices and Memories

Decades before the rise of YouTube, Zoom, and Instagram, video artist Wendy Clarke created groundbreaking media projects that empowered everyday people to share their stories and connect. In her long-running “Love Tapes” project, a diverse range of participants entered a video booth and, for exactly three minutes, described what love meant to them. During the 1980s and 1990s, these video installments and follow-up projects were displayed in museum galleries and on PBS to provide a platform for amplifying marginalized voices and facilitating self-representation in an era before user-generated, social media content was possible.

Video tapes deteriorate rapidly, however—even more so than motion picture film. That’s where the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research (WCFTR) plays a vital role. In April 2023 the WCFTR received a $298,292 NEH Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Implementation Grant to digitize Clarke’s collection of 863 tapes, recorded on 13 different video formats. The award is the largest federal grant in the WCFTR’s 63-year history! This process will make them accessible to new audiences and preserve their social and artistic significance.

The digitization process is set to take two years, with most tapes expected to be transferred by the summer of 2024. Cataloging and creating transcripts will follow to make the content available online.

Tapes are digitized in real-time, plus the time it takes to set color, light, and sound levels. Another step often required before transfer is “baking” the tapes, which is needed if the tapes come with moisture damage. The tape is baked (in a special oven) to remove as much moisture as possible. VHS, Umatic, and ½” reel tape most often require baking.

In fall 2023, Clarke visited campus to discuss the digitization and preservation of her extensive collection. During these sessions, she not only shed light on the archival media industry but also offered glimpses into her life.

The Love Tapes collection will be hosted by the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s AV Data Core. This platform will allow users to search metadata, explore closed-captioned videos, and read contextual essays crafted by the project team and advisory board. Additionally, visitors will have access to digitized newspaper clippings, program notes, and various paper records from Clarke’s collection.

“Wendy Clarke produced an extraordinary archive that is both artistically and socially important,” says Eric Hoyt, the Kahl Family Professor and Director of the WCFTR. “We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with Wendy on digitizing that archive and sharing it with new audiences.”