Varese Layzer

Iron Mountain
STATEMENT
In Iron Mountain as in Equity, I explore the idea of women in the workplace, the evolving idea of the working mother and the place of wage-earning business life within family life. I also invite an assessment of modern self-surveillance and the cost of recording, photographing and sampling our own lives. I also examine aspects of American middle-class life that remain unchanged over a century and the greater force exerted by the past over the present and the future. How are we defined and confined by what we keep?

The story behind Iron Mountain follows.

BACKSTORY
My father was a physicist, an avant-garde filmmaker, a composer, a musician, a poet and a computer pioneer.

One of his early projects involved programming computers to generate successive screens of carefully chosen text, text that therefore appeared to be moving, a form of concrete poetry. He later won grants to use this medium specifically to enhance the reading experience for the deaf.

Though he started with computers in the 60s, it was only in the 80s that my father achieved some celebrity, specifically for his work with the deaf. There was even local and national TV and newspaper coverage. But this ended by 1985.

My parents seemed to treat this period of fame as the high point of his life. The rest of his life – including his achievements in physics and music – seemed to be less important.

My parents didn't hoard but they did preserve anything they thought might later be useful, in any medium. On paper, this was indicated with the written word SAVE, which I was later to see hundreds of times on all kinds of documents and media. To preserve his reels of film, my father saved them more formally, gathering many of them and putting them in a high-tech storage facility: DuArt Lab, which is still on 55th Street. He paid to keep them there every month until he died more than 20 years later in 2006.

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When he was home, which was often, my father worked in what was designed to be the second bedroom of the apartments in that line (I slept in what was designed to be the maid's room). The walls were always full of books, file cabinets and reels of tape, both sound and film. I wasn't allowed in.

My father was also an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic. My mom was mentally ill too. When I was about 10 years old, I became the object of their delusions. I was treated as a menace, someone trying to infect them, steal from them, betray them. It was thought that if I could get into the study, for instance, I would find out secrets I would use against them somehow. (Even my father's age was kept from me for this reason.) I could be punished at any point for things I didn't know I'd done. I survived at home by obeying, doing things they liked ­– like performing and getting recognition for my accomplishments – and staying out of the way. This was all I knew and it wasn't always bad as long as I accepted the premise.

Nobody else knew about this.

When my father died in 2006, my mom started spending a lot of time in the study, trying to create an appropriate archive of my father's work. She didn't want me involved and, as desperate as I was to know about my father, it was painful for me too. My mom did tell me how things went.

The first thing she did was call DuArt Lab. They said that, though they had always cashed my father's checks, they had lost all of his films at some point in the past. So all that remained of my father's body of work were the reels he had left in the study.

No one knew if what he left in the study was rejected material or maybe exact copies of what he thought he had so preciously stored – and the study was often dusty, too hot or too cold and too dry for ideal preservation of anything. But my mom gathered whatever reels there were, however poorly they had been stored for so long, and loaned them all to DuArt, which, by way of apology, agreed to spend thousands of dollars to strike new prints.

They screened every reel, deciding with my mom what the "canon" was, created new prints, CDs, DVDs, Digibetas, and so on, and gave them to her. She meanwhile had all the audio reels in the study transferred to digital format. She stored the digital forms of his work in the study too.

As for archiving his work, no one wanted it – not Gallaudet, the university for the deaf that had participated in his work, and not museums for the history of digital art, though his colleagues in early computer art and music achieved recognition. It was also around this time that her quality of life began to get worse; she had cancer. Her full-time job became getting to doctors, obtaining medicine, otherwise staying alive and managing her day-to-day existence. She died before my father's films could be added to any major archives.

She left very specific wishes with people she trusted that the study's important contents were to be kept. In fact, when she was on her death bed in the early days of 2010, her only wishes concerned my father's work. As she told the chaplain at the hospital, taking care of that was the only thing she felt she had left undone.

In the last months of her life, she knew the apartment would go back to the landlord and on some level, she felt she had no heir. So she picked out a storage facility for the work, a facility called Iron Mountain, and told the executor of her estate that she wanted them to be stored there. "How long?" he asked. "Ten years," she said. "Ten years is a long time, Judith. What do you say to five?" And she said, "Seven and a half."

So when my mom died and a few days later I started the months-long process of packing up the apartment and making piles of things to keep, things to give away and things to send to specific people all over the world, I also made boxes for Iron Mountain. It's hard to describe how much I wanted to obey her and how much I wanted her to like me, even though it was too late.

Now that I was allowed in, I could see that the study was full of objects for me to choose from – original reels, copies, four filing cabinets filled with his work on all subjects, not to mention two closets full of hardware supplies, paintings, old dresses, records, ties and typewriters. There were 40 years of secondary source material about my mom's slow-growing cancer; all her X-rays; all records of her career as a civil servant and political activist; all my father's work in all areas; every prescription ever filled for any of us; records of my father's attempt to sue various perceived plagiarists (and some actual plagiarists); drafts of all his published articles on any subject as well as the final versions themselves; performance programs; punchcards; the contents of my father's mother's house from when she died in 1980 including all correspondence between my father and her from previous decades; more than 60 of my mom's journals, spanning 40 years; hundreds of pages of sheet music; and my childhood drawings.

Many personal things, I found, existed not only on paper but in audio recordings: me talking and singing as a kid, interviews with my mom on the radio, my father playing clarinet and piano, my mom flute, my father practicing speaking to get over his stutter, test sounds from the computer instruments my father was developing at Bell Labs – in the days when a computer took up a whole room. My mom had already transferred the reels that I would soon listen to but I also gathered old microcassettes and cassettes, packed them carefully into boxes for myself, unpacked them later, and had them transferred exactingly to MP3s.

I listened to every second. These were the first times I heard myself as a child, heard how my grandmother died, heard my mom laughing with her sisters in the days when everyone was healthy. Families tell stories and look at photo albums together, don't they? Now that I could get into the study, I was part of the family.

While this was going on, the landlord was waiting impatiently for the keys so he could sell our rent-controlled apartment for several million dollars. So I had to pack those boxes. I was asking myself, "What is it she imagined would go to Iron Mountain?"

And then I answered the question too, because there was no one else to decide. I packed the boxes and they were sent off.

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It turned out that Iron Mountain charges $250 a month to store even half a dozen boxes, even in a non-climate-controlled room. And it turned out that they are a terrible company: they repeatedly lost my payments, were unreachable by phone, threatened to turn me over to a debt collector and continuously addressed me by my mom's name.

After about six months, I brought myself to cancel the arrangement. I had the boxes shipped to me at my rented apartment in San Francisco, where they sat until late 2012. Though only two and a half years had passed since I packed them, I had no recollection of the contents.

It's now more than three years since I returned our family's apartment to the landlord. In that time I've managed to look through, listen to or actually read everything else that was there – including the contents of the rest of the house's rooms and the many other file cabinets – while attending to everything else that has had to be done. I dreamed about the apartment every week for the first two years; I still dream about my mom and dad.

I don't know if anyone else will ever know what life was like at home for us three. It's impossible to explain why I need to hang out there still, however I can. But also I don't want to be alone there any more. It's time to open the boxes from Iron Mountain.