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On handling the Peter Rubin Collection

Piles and piles of dusty ‘banana’ boxes stacked on 6 pallets, handwritten scribbles and stickers: pretty much every archivist’s nightmare awaited me on the first day of my internship at the Eye collection center. I was taken on to assist experimental film curator Simona Monizza on the rather extraordinary (for Eye standards) Peter Rubin collection.

By Eleni Tzialli06 September 2017

Stacks of boxes in the collection centre

Consisting of mostly VHS (and Super VHS) tapes, photographic slides, audio cassettes, an immense amount of documents but also some 16mm reels and even floppy disks, this project is outside of Eye’s comfort zone. This collection was donated to Eye by the Amsterdam VJ academy in 2016 since it seemed like a logical home considering Peter Rubin’s film collection is already stored at Eye. The second week (of my four month long internship) is coming to an end, and this blogpost is to share with you the progression of the challenging Peter Rubin collection.

Before I dive into the progress of this collection, some words about Peter Rubin and his work. Rubin was born in 1941 in the U.S.A. and studied filmmaking at the New York University. In 1968 Rubin moves to Amsterdam where he continues his career as a filmmaker. In 1976 he starts working for Holland Experimental Film (HEF) until well into the 1980’s. The 80’s were the real turning point for Rubin’s career as he digresses from film and enters the glitchy wonderland that is VHS. It was then that Rubin started working at the infamous Amsterdam club Mazzo as their in-house VJ (Video Jockey). Rubin worked 7 days a week at the Mazzo producing live video shows everyday until Mazzo finally closed its doors in 1989. At that point Peter Rubin’s career was at its highest point and it was then that Rubin started VJing in Germany in the Techno collectives Mayday and Love Parade. He worked closely with the renowned German DJ Westbam producing the collection of music videos “A Practicing Maniac at Work”. At the time he still kept Amsterdam as his base and also worked in several parties at the Panama and Melkweg and raves like Immortality and Awakenings. He lived most his life in Amsterdam but soon before his death moved to Berlin until he passed away in 2015. After his death the VJ academy with the help of his family and friends managed to collect all his work and belongings which is now in the possession of Eye.

For this project we have decided to focus on Rubin’s VJ work in the 1980’s and 1990’s, as we see it as the core of this collection, and assess the overlaps between his film and VJ practice. Once the research phase is done, the goal is to preserve and digitize a number of VHS tapes we find critical and eventually be able to reconstruct one of his shows. But before we get to that, we have to sort out the collection we acquired from the VJ academy which is what we are focusing our efforts on at this moment. The collection arrived at Eye in boxes Rubin put together himself with his written notes on them. These boxes contained his works as well as a lot of his personal belongings; from postcards to sweaters to an entire boxes of taped sports championships (see figure 2), VHS tapes with anything related to 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, and it is tapes like these which prove to be one of the main problematics of this project.

Euro and World Cup Soccer championship tapes
Figure 2. Euro and World Cup Soccer championship tapes

The first two weeks consisted of a lot of inventorying, sorting and carrying boxes. The pallets we focused on were those which contain boxes of VHS tapes (namely pallets 1 and 3). Each pallet consists of ~20 boxes and each box fits 69-72 tapes, so a total of ~2400 tapes and the boxes were given an individual number.

In the beginning of this process we were very thorough, giving an inventory number and cataloguing each tape in a spreadsheet. Each tape got a unique inventory number which indicated Peter Rubin (PR), the given box number and their given tape number. So the first tape of box 34 would indicate PR-34-001 (see figure 3). This strategy, although the most thorough, proved to be extremely time consuming. I could only get through 2 boxes in each day which meant working on each box for 3.5 hours nonstop. We found that a lot of tapes seemed entirely personal, movies he liked, sports matches and world news which meant a lot of work thoroughly inventorying tapes which would likely be discarded later in the process.

Box 34 inventoried with individual numbers
Figure 3. Box 34 inventoried with individual numbers.

After an interview with Daan Nolen from the VJ academy which was illuminating on Peter Rubin’s and VJ workflow in general, we decided to change our strategy. Instead of inventorying each and every tape we decided to go through boxes and mark the tapes we thought would be most relevant and take photos to document everything (See Figure 4). The photos would then be sent to people who are more knowledgeable on Rubin’s work and then be checked to see if we missed marking any important tape in our selection. Of course this method runs the risk of missing something that could potentially be important but the limited time and funds do not allow a deeper investigation at this time. Our motto is: “When in doubt, mark it!”. This change of strategy proved to be faster and more efficient in terms of output and as I write this, we managed to go through all of the boxes with VHS tapes and can definitely say that we have a much clearer overview of what is in the VHS collection.

Tapes marked with the green dot as important
Figure 4. Tapes marked with the green dot as important.

The above process ran rather smoothly but there are some issues we faced which I will highlight in the following paragraphs. Firstly, a main issue we dealt with at this moment is deciphering what is on the tapes. Fortunately most tapes have some sort of identifiable text and from viewing some tapes we discovered that the text matches the content. The issues with the texts is that they range from a number, to an event name, or in a lot of cases a large amount of content information which at times is rather obscure (See figure 5). A number of tapes also contain pieces of paper, a lot of the time with what we discovered to be time codes relating to specific images (see figure 6). In time a lot of these texts became more and more clear. For example we found a number of “Barb” tapes, which in the beginning we thought referred to Barbie but later on I found out that they refer to a specific event series at the Panama in Amsterdam called “Barbarella”. Similarly a lot of tapes referred to an Elsa which I discovered refers to Elsa Wormeck a.k.a. Elsa for Toys, a VJ who worked with Rubin in the Love Parade parties and at the production company Mediamorph in Berlin. The abbreviations IMM refers to Immortality (a party in Amsterdam), NF refers to No Frontiers another event in the Netherlands, TJ to Tape Jockey and LP could refer to either Love Parade or Long play (a method of recording content on a tape which allows for more content in less space). Though these names and abbreviations have become clearer, some are still obscure, for example he used the abbreviation NG, ODY, SLUV and LIB a number of times and the name Jos is constantly reappearing but we do not know what and whom Rubin is referring to (if anyone has any idea do let us know).

Example of tape with a lot of content information
Figure 5. Example of tape with a lot of content information.
Example of paper note with information inside tapes
Figure 6. Example of paper note with information inside tapes.
IMM tapes referring to the Immortality parties
Figure 7. IMM tapes referring to the Immortality parties.

Furthermore another question, which is also a more ethical one, is what to do with all the content tapes we have received. We call content tapes, tapes which contain material directly recorded from television, either for inspiration or for entertainment, these tapes can also be referred to as “source” tapes. Being a VJ, Rubin relied heavily on not only the animators and technicians who worked with and for him, but a great part of his work process was taping footage directly from television. A lot of the time he would tape entire TV programs but then would copy an excerpt from them and would add it to a compilation tape, thus: Do we then keep the source tape (what we also call content tape) or simply the compilation tape? The line between the tapes he used for his work and the tapes he used for his personal entertainment is permeable and thin. This question is then followed up by another issue: Copyrights. A lot of these TV programs have different authors and owners which Eye does not have the rights to. Of course this is not a problem if the material will never be published or used but simply kept as a document of Rubin’s work flow, but their storing also requires space.

In the coming weeks we will continue inventorying and hopefully start the process of making some selections for digitization.