VHS The Exhibition

Wendy Vogel
October 22, 2012

When it comes to contemporary artists’ use of film, obsolescence makes the heart grow fonder. Expensive and difficult to process, celluloid has effectively become a material relic of the twentieth century, suffused with poetic and political potential. Visual artists like Tacita Dean, for instance, have built a practice around the memorializing qualities of film; her 16mm portraits of aging artists, monuments and industry—including a Kodak factory on its last day of operation—poignantly elegize the changing technologies and ideologies of modern life.

Dustin Guy Defa, Family Nightmare, 2011; 10 min, color, sound; edition of 5; courtesy of the artist.

VHS The Exhibition, curated by Rebecca Cleman for the nonprofit space Franklin Street Works, argues for a similar reclamation of the now-outmoded home video technology of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Rewriteable and subject to quick degradation, VHS cassettes provided an inexpensive means to view movies in the privacy of one’s own home, record television, and document personal memories. This low-cost technology remained distinct from the video formats used by professional television studios and most artists of the era, who preferred Betacam or ¾-inch U-matic tape. VHS thus created an alternative, personalized system of circulation and viewing outside the confines of the commercial cinema, television and gallery systems. Cleman’s succinct exhibition engages with this history by highlighting the anti-aesthetic freedoms of the VHS format.

Works created both from and for television, installed in faux “domestic” installations, serve as the show’s introduction. Trevor Shimizu’s Final Analog Broadcast (2009), shown on a huge ‘80s-era television, documents the last half hour of the artist’s channel surfing on a cathode ray TV before the nation-wide transition to digital broadcasting. Footage includes an infomercial about DTV conversion and a Simpsons episode about obsolete film technology. Cleman pairs Shimizu’s tape with a legendary example of culture jamming ripped straight from YouTube—the anonymous Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion - WTTW Channel 11, Chicago, 1989. In this two-minute clip, pranksters interrupt a late night rerun of Dr. Who with a creepy parody of Max Headroom, the Coke spokesman-turned-cultural phenomenon from “20 minutes into the future” that prefigured CGI technology through analog glitch effects and heavy makeup. Originally intended as a one-off broadcast hijack for a limited television audience, the work was preserved on VHS and eventually circulated on the Internet. By appropriating this rogue television clip as an “artwork,” Cleman emphasizes the way in which VHS technology destabilized hierarchies between professional and amateur media makers.

James Fotopoulos, Jerusalem, 2003; 78 min, color, stereo, sound; courtesy of Fantasma, Inc.

The remaining videos explore the confessional potential of the VHS format—its ability to record private thoughts and base desires. Dustin Guy Defa and Sadie Benning turn the camera on their dysfunctional family dynamics. Defa’s Family Nightmare (2011) remixes video footage of his own family members watching pornography, drinking and fighting, with intertitles explaining their untimely deaths. Sadie Benning’s Living Inside (1989), an experimental self-portrait filmed with a Pixelvision toy camera, describes the ennui and sexual frustrations of the artist—then just 16 years old. Robert Beck and James Fotopoulos’ works chart the darker genres of pornography and horror made widely accessible through VHS technology. Beck’s haunting music video, created from found tapes of home movies and grisly how-to videos accompanying hunting equipment, suggests a fractured slasher narrative from the perspective of a killer. Described by the curator as “experimental sci-fi,” James Fotopoulos’s feature-length Jerusalem (2003) resembles a warped tape of amateur porn. A dialogue spoken by a chorus of voices—rendered nearly incomprehensible by remixing—recounts an alien abduction and sexual trauma. The visuals, subject to analog manipulations like ghosting and solarization techniques, oscillate between a man getting his hair cut and nude women practicing suggestive choreography.

Although VHS The Exhibition only includes a small sampling of works, the exhibition offers an ambitious proposition to rethink the parameters of “video art.” Contemporary video shows often recycle the same works by artists operating within the codified boundaries of the gallery system. Combining the absurd with the deeply personal, this mix of works historically grounds the expanded field of imagery made possible by VHS technology. At the same time, it underscores the personalization of media that prefigures today’s digital tools and ever-expanding online cultural archive.

VHS The Exhibition installation view; (left) Sadie Benning, Living Inside, 1989; (back) Dustin Guy Defa, Family Nightmare, 2011; (right) Robert Beck, Song Poem (Trips Visits), 2001; courtesy of Franklin Street Works.

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