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Berkeley resident documents street artists

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Thursday August 09, 2001

Few would imagine as they pass Claire Burch’s quiet wooden house in south Berkeley, that they are walking by historical archives. 

Inside the house, hundreds of video tapes carefully labeled fill the shelves of all the rooms and hallways. In the office, more tapes, catalogs of the database, a computer, and television monitors, occupy most of the space. 

For 20 years, Claire Burch a visual artist and writer who moved from New York City to Berkeley in 1978, has taken her High 8 video camera with her wherever she goes. Almost every day, she hits the roads of Berkeley filming the life of the city’s homeless, runaways, and people on the fringe. 

Today her collection of videos is what she calls “a sociological archive of life stories of street survivors.” It comprises about 3,000 hours of edited and unedited film, which documents the history of People’s Park from 1980 on with a specific focus on the arts. 

“When we came here, I got involved in filming People’s Park because I began to know many of the people,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out why some very talented people in this country were on the street not doing anything with their work and living in ways that made it hard for them to do it.” 

What Burch does is social work: she documents the challenges street artists face and simultaneously helps them find venues for their work. Art and Education Media, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1989, not only produces and distributes documentaries about street people, it also offers social services referrals and artistic training to runaways, parolees, addicts and people with mental illness. 

“I find that as the camera follows them, I begin to love some of them and I want a better and happier life for many of them,” said Burch as she explained her motivation. “When the camera follows people almost daily, you begin to see the whys of their life, the camera begins to be more forgiving.” 

But today Burch worries about her collection. At night, she says, she has a recurrent nightmare. In her dream all her tapes are on sale at the Ashby flee market and teenagers record music videos on them. 

“It’s scary,” said Burch. “If I could have digital copies and store them in some safe place I would just feel that it’s not all going to disappear.” 

With the exception of a few video films that are available at UC Berkeley Moffitt Library and at the Berkeley Public Library, all the footage Burch accumulated in the past two decades is stored in her house. A fire or any other catastrophe, she fears, could to destroy unique documents. 

That is why she is currently working with five volunteers to raise the funds that are necessary to hire staff, upgrade the organization’s equipment, and digitize the archives. 

“We’re in the process of putting together a very strong database and we’re seeking funding,” said Elaine Marie Lawton, an artist and photographer volunteering at Art and Education Media. As she gets older, Lawton added, Burch wants to solidify the organization to make sure the archives will live beyond her.  

“We are trying to preserve the organization as itself and not have it depend too much on her.” 

For additional information or to make donations to the Art and Education Media, visit the following Web Site: