Since 2011, Interference Archive has been an indispensable resource for experiencing politically engaged art and literature in New York City. Located on a quiet street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the library and exhibition space is home to a wealth of print media from social movements from around the world. His collection is so popular that other galleries borrow it for their own programs, most recently City Lore in Manhattan and Stony Brook University’s Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery.
Run entirely by volunteers, the Interference Archive is a real alternative to the city’s market-oriented gallery scene. All workers earn their living elsewhere, mostly in non-profit and creative industries. Despite a non-hierarchical organizational approach, the archive runs smoothly and without conflict, and speaks to the sustainability of non-profit art spaces.
Hyperallergic sat down with two Interference Archive organizers, Gaby López and Justin Mugits, who spoke about what conservation means to them and how they maintain their many working groups, which are analogous to those of a political organization.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: Can you tell me a bit about your background and how long you’ve been involved with Interference Archive?
Justin Mugits: I live in Flatbush and started volunteering here in 2015. Professionally, I studied history and anthropology and currently work in a museum doing their public programming.
Gaby Lopez: I have been involved in the archive since 2017 as a member of the Education Working Group. Originally from Mexico City, I trained professionally as an architect but now work as a curator for various cultural organizations and museums and live in Bed-Stuy.
H: How does political unrest and left-wing theory affect curation and programming?
GL: Most programs are developed around the materials we have in collection made by participants in protests, riots, organizations and art movements. This informs all exhibitions – with direct reference to the events discussed.
JM: We work with the history of social movements that can range from tenant organizations to student protests, zapatista traditions, anti-fascist demonstrations and feminist and anarchist art collectives. We adopt different schools of thought depending on what our volunteers want to put together.
H: How did the archive start? What was the original collection and how did it grow?
JM: It started as a collection from our founders Josh MacPhee, Dara Greenwald, Kevin Caplicki and Molly Fair. When Greenwald died of cancer, her documents and materials needed a home.
GL: Everything we acquire now is donated and the collection consists of works created for wide distribution. Our focus is accessibility and we don’t want to endanger anyone. For this reason, we largely collect zines, newspapers, posters and printed ephemera rather than records about the organization which would reveal sensitive personal information.
H: What conservation work may be necessary?
JM: This is a living archive. You can go through and touch everything, unlike museum archives that require white gloves behind closed doors. When it comes to care, everything is already in use. In some cases we will reproduce items that we had because the original is not that important.
GL: We believe that use equals preservation, ie we preserve less the material quality than the idea and message. We’re not really concerned about a small tear or crease.
H: fungibility, right? Love how everything is stapled together with no glass; You can get involved without feeling institutional barriers. Can you comment on the nature of volunteering in relation to the paid work you do elsewhere?
JM: We have a non-hierarchical organizational structure and try to make decisions by consensus. Since there is no boss, we work together to fill empty spaces, but that also sets us apart from many other art spaces.
GL: Everyone is a volunteer here and we organize through working groups. Unlike museums, people can join any group that interests them – no previous experience is required. We’re also not monitored by anyone, so people can do as much or as little work as they want.
H: Absolutely. Volunteer work is rarely discussed even in labor journalism, and the art world has plenty of it in the jobs you already do. What are the different working groups and methods of preserving the space?
GL: There is an administrative working group that applies for grants and we are sustained by donations. We also have workgroups for education, exhibitions and collections, a mobile bike workgroup for our handheld screen printer, and one for the audio interference podcast, among others.
In the Education Group, we offer tours for students interested in learning about the Archives, and colleges will make donations. We also have monthly donors that we pay rent from.
H: Is it mainly made up of artists or also people who work in other industries?
JM: We have many archivists and librarians doing the main work. Then there are artists, carpenters who build the shelves and paint the walls, and people with little art experience who just appreciate what we do. A volunteer even comes all the way from Washington Heights an hour before each opening to sweep the floors.
H: What are some of your favorite shows that you’ve watched or worked on here?
JM: Our 2015 exhibition Armed By Design/El Diseño a las Armas: Posters and Publications by the Cuban Organization for the Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL) was a highlight. It took place in 2015 at our old space a few blocks from here. I wasn’t aware of OSPAAAL or the archive before, and it motivated me to get involved.
GL: Our other exhibition 2015, We’re Not Moving: Renters are Organizing in New York City, I noticed, even in the old room. There was no shop front for the gallery like we have now so it was a very different feel. You had to actively look for it. Now people can randomly stumble across us, which is good in another way.
H: How does it make sense to curate exhibitions from all over the world and different schools of thought on the left? Are there conflicts that arise?
JM: The way we organize ourselves is sometimes difficult because we are not hierarchical and nobody delegates tasks, but that is also our strength. The admin group makes a lot of decisions, but anyone can participate, and the most committed people often are.
Many of us spend a lot of time trying to make this an alternative way that people can organize themselves. Because of this we are very conscious and think before we speak because we are trying to build something really different.
GL: When it comes to expressing opinions, people are well-informed and legitimately concerned, not just making baseless accusations. There is always a sense of mutual respect for one another. I think people spend a lot of time reading the space to build consensus. Someone will raise concerns, and everyone else will pay attention.
However, I can’t remember any time when there was a serious conflict. It just hasn’t happened in five years!