Before the invention of YouTube, Zoom, and Instagram, before a city was transformed by waves of “urban renewal,” the AIDS crisis, and a terrorist attack, hundreds of people took turns entering a video booth inside the World Trade Center and—for exactly three minutes—described what love meant to them.
It was 1980, and the participants came from a diverse range of backgrounds. African Americans, Asian Americans, Puerto Ricans, and people of many other races and ethnicities all recorded love tapes. So too did members of New York City’s gay, lesbian, and transgender communities. Their responses were generally unrehearsed and unpolished, blending joy and sadness, sharing both anecdotes and raw emotions. The participants occasionally invoked clichés, but more often stumbled for the words that could somehow capture feelings, memories, presence, loss.
The World Trade Center Love Tapes became the basis for one of Wendy Clarke’s many video-based works of art, appearing in museum galleries and on PBS stations. Through additional installments of the Love Tapes and subsequent projects such One-on-One, The Link, Remembrance, and Growing Up Gay: The Out Tapes, Wendy Clarke continued to collaborate with participants whose voices were often not welcomed within mainstream culture (including incarcerated individuals and people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS). Through her prompts and process, Wendy Clarke invited participation in ways that gave these individuals agency and never reduced them to stereotypes or cast them as representatives for entire cultures or identities.
Today, Wendy Clarke’s video projects remain powerful works of art. However, they have also taken on new meanings: an archive of the voices of marginalized communities; a model of participatory media culture that preceded the world wide web; a challenge to traditional cinematic canons, which have long been biased toward narrative feature films and white male directors. In creating her art, Wendy Clarke defied our expectations of media production and generated an archive in the process.
The WCFTR is proud to care for Wendy Clarke’s large and important collection. Thanks to funding from Friends of the UW-Libraries, we have been able to digitize and make available 15 hours of Love Tapes recorded at the World Center in 1980. You can view them on the WCFTR’s Internet Archive page.
Thank you for stepping into the Love Tapes booth with us and for listening to these voices, recorded in the past, speaking to our present and future.