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 troves of print media from social movements around the world. Its collection is so popular that other galleries borrow from it for their own programs, most recently City Lore in Manhattan and Stony Brook University’s Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery.
Run entirely by volunteers, Interference Archive is a true alternative to the city’s market-driven gallery scene. All of the workers make a living elsewhere, largely in nonprofits and creative industries. Despite a non-hierarchical approach to organizing, the archive runs smoothly and without conflict, speaking to the sustainability of art spaces without a profit motive.
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Hyperallergic sat down with two organizers at Interference Archive, Gaby López and Justin Mugits, who discuss what preservation means to them and how they maintain their many working groups, which mirror those found in a political organization.
The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Hyperallergic: Can you tell me 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 I currently work at a museum doing their public programming.
Gaby López: I have been involved with the archive since 2017 as a member of the education working group. Originally from Mexico City, I was professionally trained as an architect but now work as a curator for various cultural organizations and museums, and I live in Bed-Stuy.
H: How do political unrest and left-wing theory inform the curation and programming?
GL: Most of the programs are developed around the materials we have in the collection, which are made by participants of protests, uprisings, organizations, and art movements. That informs all the exhibitions — having a direct connection to the events being discussed.
JM: We work with the history of social movements, which can range from tenant organizing to student protests, Zapatista traditions, antifascist demonstrations, and feminist and anarchist art collectives. We embrace different schools of thought based on what our volunteers want to put together.
H: How did the archive first begin? What was the original collection, and how has it grown?
GL: Everything we acquire now is donated, and the collection is composed of works that were made for widespread distribution. Our focus is on accessibility, and we do not want to endanger anyone. For that reason, we largely collect zines, newspapers, posters, and print ephemera, rather than records of organizing that would expose sensitive personal information.
H: What kinds of preservation work does that require, if any?
JM: This is a living archive. You can go through and touch everything, as opposed to museum archives that require white gloves behind closed doors. In terms of care, everything is already in use. In some instances, we will reproduce items we had, because the original is not all that important.
GL: We believe that use equals preservation, meaning we preserve less the material quality than the idea and message. We are not really concerned about a little rip or wrinkle.
H: Fungibility, right? I love how everything is just tacked up without glass; you can engage without feeling any institutional barrier. Can you speak about the nature of volunteer labor in relation to the paid work you do elsewhere?
JM: We have a non-hierarchical organizational structure and try to make decisions through consensus. Because there is no boss, we work together to fill in empty space, but that also makes us unlike many other art spaces.
GL: Everyone is a volunteer here, and we organize through working groups. Unlike in museums, people can join whichever group interests them — no experience necessary. No one is monitoring us either, so people can put in as much or as little work as they want.
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H: Absolutely. Voluntary labor is seldom discussed even in labor journalism, and the art world has a lot of it in the jobs you do already. What are the different working groups and methods of sustaining the space?
GL: There is an administrative working group that applies for grants, and we are sustained by donations. We also have education, exhibitions, and collections working groups, a mobile bike working group for our portable screen printer, and one for the Audio Interference podcast, among others.
In the education group, we give tours to students interested in learning about the archive, and colleges will make donations for those. We also have monthly donors, which is how we pay rent.
H: Is it staffed mostly by art workers or people working in different industries too?
JM: We have a lot of archivists and librarians who do the brunt of the work. Then there are artists, carpenters who build the shelves and paint the walls, and people with not much art experience who just appreciate what we do. One volunteer even comes all the way from Washington Heights an hour before each opening to mop the floors.
H: What are some of your favorite programs you have seen or worked on here?
JM: Our 2015 exhibition Armed By Design/El Diseño a las Armas: Posters and Publications of Cuba’s Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America (OSPAAAL) was a highlight. It was held in our old space a few blocks away from here in 2015. I was not previously aware of OSPAAAL or the archive before this, and it motivated me to get involved.
GL: Our other 2015 exhibition, We Won’t Move: Tenants Organize in New York City, was remarkable to me, also in the old space. There was no storefront for the gallery like we have now, so it was a very different feeling. You had to actively seek it out. Now, people can stumble upon us randomly, which is good in a different way.
H: How do you make sense of curating shows from around the world and different schools of leftist thought? Are there any conflicts that arise?
JM: The way we organize is sometimes difficult because we are non-hierarchical, and no one delegates tasks, but that’s also our strong point. The admin group makes a lot of decisions, but anyone can be in it, and the most engaged people often are.
Many of us spend significant time trying to make this an alternative possibility for how people can organize themselves. Because of that, we are very conscious and think before we speak, because we are trying to build something truly different.
GL: When expressing opinions, people are well informed and legitimately concerned, not just making baseless accusations. There is always a sense of mutual respect for each other. I think people spend a lot of time reading the room to establish consensus. Someone will voice a concern, and everyone else will be attentive.
That said, I cannot think of any time when there was a serious conflict. In five years, it just hasn’t happened!