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Here is the strange, but undoubtedly compelling and even heroic story of Marion Stokes, a historian and television producer from Philadelphia who from the late 70s to her death in 2012 made a continuous, unbroken 24/7 video recording of nine TV news stations. She generated a colossal archive of American public life: tens of thousands of videocassettes that had to be stored in nine apartments.
This documentary shows Stokes to have the fanatical energy of a hoarder, the zeal of an evangelist and the intensity of a visionary. As a young woman, she was a socialist, fiercely aware of her own status as an African American, which she made the point of debate in the local discussion TV show she produced in the 60s. It was there she met John Stokes, a wealthy white liberal: they married, and it was the second time around for both. Marion’s flash of insight came in the late 70s when she saw how TV news was being revolutionised. With rolling news and the arrival of late-night news programmes, there was simply much, much more being broadcast.
Previously, news had been carefully edited and curated by the powers that be for relatively brief programmes: important things happening to important people. Stokes saw that this vast new output would, almost accidentally, show more of the lives of working people and people of colour. She wanted to capture it – like Britain’s Mass Observation Project – and the TV stations were not keeping their own recorded footage.
But is this the whole story? Was the Marion Stokes project also a symptom of her own emotional dysfunction? She didn’t just hoard news: it was also books, Apple computers and piles of mouldering old newspapers, and it isn’t clear even from this film if Stokes herself ever rewatched any footage. After her death, the project was handed over to the Internet Archive in San Francisco, which digitised it and made it a searchable archive using the closed-caption subtitling: a resounding vindication of Stokes’s obsessive life’s work.
Having watched this documentary, I now think the project could also be seen as a gigantic adventure in conceptual art, and this is not to denigrate it in any way.
• Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is available on digital platforms from 6 November.
Source: The Guardian
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