This summer the Museum of Art and Design rewinds VHS culture.
This article originally appeared in the June issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “America’s Home Videos”.
Funnily enough, the killer and savior of outmoded technology is the same unwieldy force: time. Compared to many other vestiges of entertainment and gadgets past, VHS hasn’t been off the scene all that long, yet it still seems like it’s gearing up for the boomerang effect of nostalgia and cult fandom (some might argue this has been happening for a while now). Not that it’s going to re-conquer streaming and DVD menus anytime soon—we’re talking the type of reprise American culture gives to those beloved and comforting institutions of yesterday while it’s catching its breath from updating operating systems. But “VHS,” a program that New York’s Museum of Art and Design will be hosting from June 1 through August 31, isn’t trying to throw any elbows at contemporary technology, it’s simply reveling in a fascinating and fun selection of visual material that garnered significance during the VHS era and contributed to the ways we interact with moving images now.
MAD is linking the film-based program with its current exhibition “Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art” (through August 12), because of their unique ties to ephemerality. The fleeting nature of dust is a no-brainer, but for VHS it’s linked to shelf life. “The VHS phenomenon was just so short-lived,” says Jake Yunza, MAD’s Manager of Public Programs, “not to mention, you’re watching the electromagnetic tape disintegrate before your eyes.”
However short its reign may have been, the “video home system” launched by JVC on Sept. 9, 1976, along with the VCR (video cassette recorder) not only completely revolutionized the way that movies were watched—by putting them into a format that was viewable at any time—but also by creating a more accessible platform for making movies. Both the former and latter initially intimidated the film industry. Yunza recalls testimony given before Congress in 1982 by Jack Valenti, who was then head of the Motion Picture Association of America: “He’s actually quoted as saying, ‘The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.’” The malice ended soon after, however, when Hollywood realized the incredible profit it could make from the video rental market. Thus the birth of the video store.
With its ability to stock a large catalogue of films, the local video store became an epicenter of cultural discovery that in many ways created a more democratic experience for consumers than the limited offerings of current kings-of-convenience streaming sites like Hulu or Netflix. They were also cash cows. “A store could buy a tape for $25 from a particular catalogue and turn an incredible profit really quickly,” says Yunza. That money was used to launch independent films and associated companies like Miramax and New Line Cinema, which eventually became major industry forerunners. The 1989 independent film Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which was Steven Soderbergh’s directorial debut and the winner of that year’s Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival, has been credited as the breakout hit that revolutionized the independent film industry and led to its boom in the ’90s. The film, which stars Andie MacDowell and Peter Gallagher as an unhappy married couple and James Spader as Gallagher’s wayward college buddy who videotapes women talking about their sex lives, will be screened at MAD on June 21 at 7 p.m.
Along with increased funding for independent films there arose the culture of “backyard Hollywood” and independent filmmakers and experimenters who, whether they desired mainstream success or not, had greater access to production materials and an increased ability to make their visions a reality. On June 22 MAD will be screening Hellroller, a 1992 shot-on-video gem by Gary J. Levinson about a wheelchair-bound serial killer. Videomixx, one of the program’s many guest curators, will be showing an original “video mix tape” on June 29. Exemplifying the technology that VHS allotted to dub and edit footage either recorded or taken from other tapes, Videomixx’s piece, which will be made specifically for the program, will be a mash-up of music videos, rare concert footage, scenes from documentaries, 1980s cult films, cable access shows, experimental/underground works, found tapes, and probably whatever else he could dig up.
VHS also has an incredible ability to archive and distribute itself. On June 28 MAD will be featuring Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a 1987 film by Tom Haynes that was literally ordered to be destroyed in 1990 after Carpenter’s brother Richard sued Haynes over the film’s insinuations that he was gay. The film, which tells the singer’s story with Barbie dolls, remained an underground hit through the practice of bootlegging and copying tapes. The tape-of-a-tape practice is a large aspect of the analog aesthetic we now—sometimes falsely—associate with VHS. Guest curator Rebecca Cleman, the distribution director of the nonprofit arts center and distribution service Electronic Arts Intermix, will present “The Aesthetics of Analog” at the museum on July 5. Including examples of works by Dara Birnbaum, Cory Arcangel and Charlemagne Palestine, the presentation will highlight the visual tradition of home video that artists have drawn on in the same way they might look to any fine art media for aesthetic cues.
MAD will also be screening genre films like Mother’s Day (June 15 at 7 p.m.), a 1980 horror film directed, written and produced by Charles Kaufman, the brother of Troma Entertainment’s co-founder Lloyd Kaufman. The movie, which was made with a budget of $115,000, became a cult success on the video market, while Troma, a production and distribution company founded in 1974, churned out horror and exploitation films and garnered a loyal following with B-movies like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ’Em High. Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Something Weird (1967), a noteworthy example of the exploitation and underground film movement of the ’50s and ’60s that gained an audience at drive-ins and grindhouses, is emblematic of the low-budget, low-on-time-and-resources film style that many VHS-era films takes their cues from. The film (screening on June 8), is also the namesake of Something Weird Video, a distribution company begun in 1990 that Yunza dubs “the granddaddy big one” when it comes to re-releasing exploitation films, genre films and “forgotten classics” in general. Many films that would not have seen the light of day after their initial showings in small theaters in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were re-released on VHS to local video stores in the 1990s by Something Weird Video.
Straight-to-VHS releases were a phenomenon in and of themselves. MAD’s nod to this industry will take place on July 6 with a showing of the 1987 three-part straight-to-video Tales from the Quadead Zone, which starred actress Shirley Jones reading stories from a book of the same name to the ghost of her dead child. A possible instigator of the “so bad it’s good” attitude, MAD still encourages viewers to appreciate works like these for their own unique merits. “We’re trying to respect these works as they are and show them as they’re meant to be,” says Yunza. That’s why they’re actually inviting viewers to work out to Sweatin’ to the Oldies tapes at the museum. Let by artist Jeffrey Marsh, these relational aesthetics-esque public workouts, which will take place on June 21, July 12 and 19 from 7–9 p.m., invite museumgoers to sweat to old jams and old tapes. For more information about the programs’ specific screening times, go to the museum’s website, madmuseum.org.