Introducing Eyeball Scrummage

Sean Bnjmn

A still from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

According to legend, it used to be impossible to immediately access any extant media at any time, anywhere, from any connected circuit, kitchen appliance, or bath towel. Since the Stone Age, your average recipient's possessive, interpretive, and creative access to such material has been progressively wrestled from its source authority. The written word got its printing press eons ago and sound has been committed to wax for more than a century, but – a more limited 8mm/16mm film market notwithstanding – it wasn't until the mid-to-late-1970s that similar consumer access was truly, fully extended to the Moving Image. Predictably, mankind went apeshit.

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Freed from the magnet grip of television networks, CCTV overlords, and vanguard video artists, the home video revolution that blossomed in the 1980s changed the way humans experienced visual media, forging a messy, low-res bridge between mid-century celluloid and today's digital bloodbath. It was such a revolutionary revolution, in fact, that there was actually a bitchy, chrome-collared W-A-R between JVC's VHS technology, Sony's Betamax and something called VX made by Panasonic that came in last. VHS won, ironically, on the strength of its technical inferiority, promptly snatching popcorn-eating revenue bots out of the theater and plopping them down on the couch, free to democratize distribution channels and cultivate challenging, independent work. The ensuing culture that built upon the ease and accessibility of video technology and the VHS standard was all-encompassing, dressing every imaginable variety of content in similar clothing. For the first time, Chevy Chase sat on your shelf next to your kid's soccer game, the golf instructional video your wife bought you, that gang bang porn you watch daily, last year's Superbowl that you taped, “Sneakers,” the Def Leppard concert bootleg you picked up on the street, your weird cousin's art piece, and a VHS Head Cleaner you picked up to protect your investment.

Cue the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle, who have been running an ambitious, timely series this summer under a catch-all “VHS” moniker that betrays the program's focus and brevity (10 screenings and 3 special programs). Fortunately, it is an effective and eclectic series curated by some folks who are obviously comfortable tanning under TV static: Jake Yuzna, MAD Museum's Manager of Public Programs, Matthew Desiderio, producer of the richly apropos upcoming documentary Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector, and Rebecca Cleman, distribution director of the nonprofit media arts center Electronic Arts Intermix.

The series' greatest strength has been showcasing the format's range of cultural permeation; nearly every selection points in a different direction to multitudes of media nuggets awaiting a 10,000-title iteration of this program. Most represented, appropriately, are the flicks that found life on the home video market after marginalization from theatrical success due to bottoming-out extremities of budget and theme. The requisite Troma Entertainment selection is the Kaufman brothers' 1980 production Mother's Day, one of their earliest features (recently remade by Sir Brett Ratner and a Saw series bro), while Troma's distribution-only kin Something Weird Video is represented by their namesake: the 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis classic that is far and away the oldest and most pioneering schlock in the series. Also in the shot-on-film, discovered-on-video camp is NEKRomantik (1987), Jörg Buttgereit's vile ode to a necrophiliac with relationship issues and a busybody cat. Buttgereit's film, destined to out-of-print obscurity throughout the VHS, DVD and Netflix eras (and likely into eternity), is astonishing in its commitment to a somber, realist depiction of some of the most transgressive acts possible.

The lone inclusion in the series for which the word Hollywood could be whispered is Steven Soderbergh's 1989 debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, an ideal choice given not just its significance as one of the earliest financial successes of that era's independent film movement, but the movie's pregnant, modern characterization of a man with a fetish for videotaping women. Much further afield – and certainly the least narrative feature screening in the series – is prolific film and media artist James Fotopoulos' 2003 video Jerusalem, one in a series of inter-dimensional travel works that uses the production standard of videotape as a means to undercut reality. Then there is the inclusion that arguably best exemplifies the capacity of VHS trading culture: Todd Haynes' notorious bio-pic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), which famously depicts the Carpenters front-woman's anorexic demise via stop-motion Barbie doll animation. After her brother Richard Carpenter became unduly upset over an implication of homosexuality (hm), his successful legal attempts to destroy the film fueled an unprecedented bootleg shelf life (read: “Streisand effect”). Further testifying to the inability of surpressing this gem, you can find the full 43-minute film right here:

VHS culture's grassroots distributive power stands alongside the significance of a much smaller number of features actually shot and edited on pre-digital video. Two of these beyond-obscure titles for the series, selections Hellroller (1992) and Tales From the Quadead Zone (1987), both exist at the confounding intersection between high-concept narrative aspiration and laid-bare home video amateurism. Hellroller, by a genre nomad named Gary Levinson, is a subzero-budget slasher featuring a serial killer confined to a wheelchair. The infamous Tales From The Quadead Zone, a three-part horror anthology of bizarro tales narrated from an evil telephone book by actress Shirley Jones to the ghost of her child, is a misfiring mutant of a movie, lumbering out of the dank bedroom of Chester Novell Turner, creator of the similar and infinitesimally better-known Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984). Quadead is all empty space, static, and brain-dead emotion, featuring a simple, ominous Casio synth score (by Turner himself), uncertain direction and pacing, and a creeping vibe of suburban insularity. The bulk of opinions peg Turner's video as a failure: low camp in the so-bad-it's-good tradition of guffawing at the screen in satisfaction. This is an unfortunate reaction to an earnest and authentic classic of outsider work that deserves appraisal outside standard bipolar judgements of quality. While it indeed fails to scare by virtually any typical horror movie standard – especially none of the glitchy, handheld contemporary ones – there is nevertheless an undeniably unsettling air to Tales From The Quadead Zone that is impossible to manufacture. In the world behind this video, silly amateurism becomes frightful instability and ubiquitous incompetence begets a sense of all-pervasive dysfunction; legitimately scary is the loneliness, isolation, difficulty of expression, and disconnection from reality that lurk in the subtext of this video. A spoiler-free preview of this tone can be gleaned from the eerie, childlike drawings (by lead actress Jones) that run throughout the credits:

Beyond the realm of narrative fare is the rabbit hole of the video mix tape, those schizophrenic archives of recorded anythings that spin all notions of context and intent into a rapid-fire sludge of fringe humanity, predating YouTube by about thirty years. Skipping through history, this tradition of compiling visuals began long earlier, roughly with Joseph Cornell and the Surrealists, then moving through Bruce Connor and the experimental film scene of the 1950s and 1960s and into European mondo film of the 1960s and 1970s. After that, the video culture's form was further refined by the slightly-earlier worlds of the vinyl DJ and audio cassette, all with a consistency indicating that the evolution of media technology is bound chiefly to a human instinct to pinpoint, collect, and arrange morsels to appreciate.

By the 1980s, the tape thieves who spurred the VHS sharing universe simply thumbed their remotes at the FBI's Warning tones, predicting the time when all your friends and their grandparents would be plainclothes pirates already. The video mix tape community in the post-VHS era remained relatively small, distributed primarily through mail-order DVD-R labels – the vast majority of which (Super Happy Fun, Brutallo, Revenge Is My Destiny, 5 Minutes To Live, Pimpadelic Wonderland, et al.) have ceded – and today, of course, the long-form mix structure has fragmented into shorter, more digestible clips streaming online or raining from the Cloud. Despite this, many of these classic mixes (and more current incarnations) can still easily be found via smaller, usually torrent-based communities. Varying greatly in tone, editing style, and content by nature, the current crop of mix tapes in web circulation have – despite an inevitable overlap of content – each found their own niche. The Retard-O-Tron mixes are two of the most popular and earliest of the Internet era, and their focus is decidedly more prurient. The “Amok Assault Video,” compiled by alternative Amok Press in the mid-90s, focuses a bit more on the occult and extreme footage. There is a laundry list of others, certainly too many to describe in detail, and then the whole realm of commercially-released ephemeral junk: TV Carnage, Everything Is Terrible, Animal Charm, et al. Check out this excerpt from a Crazy Dave tape – one of the most artfully made series of mixes – for a great example of how the pacing and curation of these mixes differs from today's piecemeal tradition:

MAD Museum has included one video mix program in their series, an original guest-curated by local artist Videomixx (note the TWO Xs), who presents his creatively-titled “Video Mix Tape.” Despite this – and the interesting fact that Mr. or Ms. Videomixx seems to have no online presence whatsoever – this hour-long mix is engaging and cohesive, a nicely arranged series of clips focusing on New York City in its 1980s heyday of crack, crime, and coitus. Included are a few clips from better-known productions of the era – Liquid Sky (1982), Hi, Mom? (1970), Downtown 81 (1981), some Nick Zedd moment, Hustling (1975), the requisite C.H.U.D. (1984), etc. – but the majority of footage is culled from the more exciting worlds of local or guerrilla journalism and special interest videos. Highlights include an at-home fashion show of men in dresses, AIDS rallies against Mayor Koch, a sad interview with a newly-homeless man merely at a “low point” in his life, a costumed rally to save urban gardens, a series of seedy Olde 42nd St clips, plenty of LES drug talk (“just when you thought it was safe to relax in the gutter”), shots of the thriving downtown queer and drag scenes, and some surprisingly honest CBGB punks subject to interview, all nicely paced by killer minimal synth tracks of the time.

Given the current state of NYC real estate, it was particularly interesting to see a number of neighborhood-specific pieces – like “6 Stories On 3rd Avenue” and “3rd Avenue: Only The Strong Surive” – that now seem like reportage of theoretical struggles from a different planet. Among these were a video featuring the relocation of an East 20s shanytown, a “How To Squash A Squat” LES time capsule, and – a bit more in step with the modern world – the testimony of a starving inhabitant of Chinatown. An 1980s Puerto Rican community in South Williamsburg is featured as an unsurprising haven for gangs, while another particularly hard-to-believe segment comes from the long-gone gentrification transition in Park Slope(!), depicting inklings of the approaching army of sidewalk cafes, and titled, pointedly, “Where Can I Live?”

Following this more traditional mix edit was Videomixx's more musically-focused 10-minute music video compilation of two Hi-NRG classics with video on the mind – Trans-X's Living On Video and The New York Models' Love On Video – which, while somewhat perfunctorily edited, was an engaging and well-formed time capsule in which to set. This shorter piece's strength lied in its implementation of a number of more colorful, psychedelic visuals, including a very memorable chroma-keyed face melt and a mysterious, vaguely Nagel-esque bit; on the whole it was exciting to find that the majority of these moments were very hard to pinpoint. Unsurprisingly, there was a bit of the Club Kids mixed in, some Grace Jones, a little Robyn Byrd, neon neon neon everywhere, and lots of vogue-ing, all of it adding up to an accurate visual survey of the dark disco days that have such a vice grip on many of today's hippest aural and visual touchstones.

It is impossible to consider VHS without noting the extensive catalog amassed of workout videos, easily the most numerous heap of special interest tapes produced on the format. The first of the “VHS” series' three special programs, called Sweating To The Oldies, was a three-part fat-burning nostalgia exercise led by artist Jeffrey Marsh, with on-screen assistance from Richard Simmons, Susan Powter, Jane Fonda and other fantastically fit celebs.

At this point, if you're feeling as if you've missed the best of the series, you're wrong. Throughout August “VHS” continues in installation form with two ongoing special programs at the MAD Museum's Education Center on the 6th floor. One is a selection of public access television highlights – culled from the history of community programming across all 50 states o' the nation – presented on monitors throughout the floor. The other is a fully functioning video store (operating out of one of the Museum's Open Studios on select dates) that promises a truly unique breadth of selections. Viewing stations will be available to watch tapes on-site and some you'll even be able to check out and take home, just like the good 'ol days. Check out the full details here.

Finally, check out some video mix tapes: the first link here is a grab-bag compilation of notable contemporary mixes – including the excellent “Amok Assault Video” mentioned above – while the other, slightly more worthwhile torrent link is the first seven volumes of esteemed-yet-defunct DVD-R label 5 Minutes To Live's extremely well-assembled “Lost and Found Video Night” series, one that could be considered something close to encyclopedic. Enjoy!

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