I am standing in the subterranean bunker of the Harwood Art Center in Albuquerque where I know I am safe. From 1925 -1976 this building was home to the Harwood Girls School. In 1961 New Mexico Governor Edwin Mechem had the basement of the Harwood Girls School reinforced with concrete and repurposed as a fallout shelter for himself and his family. It had only been 16 years since the first atomic bomb was detonated 200 miles south in Alamogordo. And, although the cement bunker was never used as a post-apocalyptic casita, Mechem may have found sanctuary in this window-less retreat when, in 1964, he voted against The Civil Rights Act.
In 1991, The Harwood Art Center established itself in the old Harwood Girls School converting the classrooms into artists’ studios and the common areas into exhibition halls. At that time, no one thought much about the lower level of the building.
Two years later, when David Nelson - who established Basement Films as a micro-cinema collective in 1991 - left New Mexico for Schreveport, Louisiana, the Albuquerque Public School System made a donation of four thousand 16mm “classroom” films to our organization. Keif Henley was the new president of Basement Films, and he negotiated a deal with the Harwood Art Center to house our growing collection of cinematic ephemera in their fallout shelter.
The word spread quickly that Basement Films was the New Mexico go-to organization for dead media donations. Our collection grew. Presently I am standing amongst eight thousand 16mm classroom films, five hundred 8mm films (mostly home movies), more than one hundred film projectors, multiple overhead projectors, thousands of 35mm filmstrips, an archive of audio tapes, and countless VHS tapes. When The Day of Reckoning arrives (there are billboards along the high road to Santa Fe that remind me it will be soon), everything except our rapture-proof, over-stuffed collection of unwanted media will turn to ash.
I am standing in this place that looks not-unlike the underground hide-out depicted in Chris Marker’s 1963 film, La Jetee. Here, for the first time, Basement Films is in the process of digitizing our entire collection. With the help of city-paid interns and volunteers, an air purifier, dust masks, flashlights, a shop-vac, and an old computer that has a workable Excel spreadsheet, we are making it happen!
Although digitizing the media archive is our current obsession, Basement Films has been involved in a number of different activities over the years. We host film loop-making workshops at high schools, we produce our annual Experiments in Cinema international, film festival, we host a monthly open-mic-style screening for local film artists called Cinemus Publicus (started by Ben Popp who now runs Grand Detour micro-cinema in Portland), we screen films from our archive at the Albuquerque Zoological Park, we stage multi-projector environments in bars, cafes and galleries, and, as a micro-cinema, we have hosted numerous traveling un-dependents such as Karen Aqua, A/V Geeks, Bruce Baillie, Craig Baldwin, Zoe Beloff, Martha Colburn, Bradley Eros, Heleln Hill, Jon Jost, Miranda July, George Kuchar, Jeanne Liotta, Madcat Film Festival, Bill Morrison, Eric Saks, Greta Snyder, and Willie Varela.
Basement Films has never secured a permanent screening space (though clearing out our bunker and making it into an underground screening room is tempting), so, as a result, we stage our screenings at site-specific locations. My favorite Basement Films screening took place in 1995. Sarah Lewison, Julie Konop, Florence Dore, and Gina Todus had just completed a bio-diesel road trip and documentary film project titled Fat of the Land. We screened their visionary look at the future of fuel on the side of their F-250 Ford van that was parked on a stretch of route 66 that runs through the city.
On another occasion - in 2001 - Basement Films was hired to screen films as part of the National Museum of Nuclear Science’s grand opening. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Basement Films offered a poetic gesture to non-violence by projecting images of domesticity and play on the museum displays that included a reproduction of Fat Man and Little Boy. I’ll never forget how, at that museum reception, an Asian family insisted that I take their photograph in front of those two infamous nuclear bombs.
Basement Films reinvents itself from time to time. Presently the membership includes Andrew Barrow, Dane Benko, Senaida Garcia, Beth Hansen, Jourdan Reese, Asha Hopkins, Peter Lisignoli, Marika Borgeson, Keif Henley, Jenette Isaacson, Bryan Konefsky, Michelle Mellor, Sahra Saedi, Ryan Sciarrotta, and Sean Williams.
Full report to follow.
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