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The Strange Powers of VHS: Glitchery and Malfunction from Another Dimension!

VHS was a different experience than Youtube, and different than Blu-Ray, and DVD, but not for what you’d think would be the obvious, that it is just a matter of high definition and aspect ratio. VHS was clunky compared to how people access their ‘video’ today, but there were a couple things that happen with VHS that don’t with discs and mp4s. I don’t want to get into the whole video store experience, or a lot of other details that are probably covered in Noel Mellor’s book “Adventures in VHS” I want to get straight to the heart of something very philosophical about it. 

I used to have a tape that I kept for some reason for a long time (though I don’t know what happened to it now) that was a video tape that I had recorded accidentally one day while “channel surfing.” This tape recorded hours of flipping through channels where you’d see totally random video, commercials, static screens, and scrambled screens and movie channels and news. You’d see a second or two of a channel and then on to the next, and it produced a very weird and funny form of ‘editing’ and strange phrases and odd moments would appear randomly by the flipping of the remote control. It was like watching absolute insanity, captured very specifically on a particular day in time, and it was a recording of a reality that nobody else could possible have. It was such a specific circumstance of serendipity and nobody else could have this very same tape of weirdness. 

There were moments of such hilarity based on the juxtaposition of images and sounds, based entirely on absolute accident that it created a strange sensation of new meaning. Your brain would fill in comparisons and implication and significance of meaning automatically while the images crossed the screen. Nobody had ‘created’ this thing, it was an artifact of absolute chaos and randomness. There was something ‘magical’ about it. When I say ‘magical’ I mean that not in the sense of nostalgia, but in the sense of the preternatural, almost mystical quality of its experience. One could imagine that it captured some sort of moments in time of some sort of madness, a subconscious survey of television ‘reality’ at a particular time. 

Many people have found this experience when taping over video tapes many times, stopping and starting at certain points where a video layer previously recorded shows up at the end of recording and some random juxtaposition of something occurs which can sometimes be utterly random, and sometimes profoundly silly. Like some form of cosmic editing had occurred and produced a result where somebody on screen says something just at the right time when one layer ends and the older resurfaces. 

Many people have experienced this ‘profound accident’ which is either strangely humorous, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes it borders on the mystical in it’s weird random statement, one that was made by nobody, no editing occurred, how could such a strange ‘statement’ have happened so accidentally?  Sometimes when people stopped and started to ‘cut out commercials’ they’d accidentally move the tape forward too far, or backward too far, and whatever was there previously recorded shows up randomly and produces strange juxtapositions where sometimes it’s completely random and meaningless, and other times absolutely amazing. To have such a thing occur, especially one which actually “suggests something,” though random, something which is a meaning which sometimes either never occurred to you, or one which is ‘just funny’ is also something which seems to imply something about the very thing you are watching that you recorded. 

This weird and often surreal experience of old layers of recording, especially if the recordings are old, and for instance something resurfaces from 1983, where something in 1995 was the most recent recording, can appear as a kind of ‘ghost of the past’ and even have implications on the recording of 1995 that you’re watching. All of this is happening without conscious control or direction, all random, all by accident, and all because of the technology of VHS, or in any other form of recorded video tape whatever the format (Beta, Super-VHS, VHS-C, whatever). 

What’s the point of all this? Why is any of it important? What does it all mean? Who cares? The point of all these observations isn’t just that glitches are funny, or that the glitches of VHS are superior in experience to those of DVDs, but that weirder and broader and more bizarre things occurred in the days where people used VHS. To help people understand much of this, it’s like when you first encounter a glitch in a video game where something astoundingly weird happens. People are sometimes amazed by weird video game glitches, which open up the game in ways it isn’t supposed to work and can sometimes continue and this experience never occurs again, making it a one-time only thing. 

Some little thing that astounded early hackers that they could make a device do something it wasn’t supposed to do opened up some sort of new channel of the experience of reality that excited them is something I would describe as similar but not the same. These glitches of VHS could produce all kinds of weirdness, of things chaotic and unmapped, producing thoughts previously unconceived of, but also sometimes acted in such a way as to ‘deconstruct’ the meaning of certain imagery being viewed. The ‘media’  was a strange and seemingly infinite thing, where strange sounds, and strange ideas could be accidentally produced through such incidental failures of the technology, and it almost seemed meant to be, or as if reality itself was cutting through the static, impinging on the distorted consciousness that ‘television programming’ produced. 

You don’t experience things like this on Youtube, or with DVDs or Blu-Rays, if something happens, the system that delivers the video you are watching simply stops working altogether, no strange exotic glitchery reveals itself. One might see certain degrading of ‘code’ which might produce a defect or two in the conversion of certain video files, but you simply do not get this weird ‘electromagnetic’ dispersal of chaos. It was a far more stirring thing within the VHS experience. There are distinctive ‘artifacts’ surely within other media, but none which, in my opinion produced the sort of effects which I saw when we all used VHS because there was no other media to use.

There really is no such things as ‘the days of VHS’ as if one cannot experience such things any more, one can still experience such things, all they have to do is start recording with VHS again, there’s no ‘days gone by’ because it is simply a form of technology that is no longer widely used, but it still exists, at least as far as these individual moments of experience are concerned. One can still play with VHS just as they can still play records or audio tape. The problem of course is that all this occurred in a time when it was so widely used so often that it was automatic, these things would just happen because of the regularity of use. You’d forget that the tape you grabbed was old and had defects, or you’d be taping things and forget that you didn’t hit pause or stop, and you’d accidentally produce all these results out of the mundane daily use of the technology.

There are surely possibly things similar to this that could occur today with the technology out there in regular mundane use, but how often do you see anything like this? Do you see ‘the internet’ or the experience of viewing things on your screen while surfing the net breakdown into such weirdness? Do you see Blu-Rays produce such extralinear unpredictable glitchery whose quality delivers such unusual weirdness that it feels like something erupting from the collective unconscious behaving as if it is dissecting something of reality which influences thought? The strange artifacts of video tape have surely influenced many a horror movie probably because of this reality, but could any of the modern technology do anything remotely similar?

One could imagine such things, but these were things that one could actually experience, the unpredictable which would produce something that could in fact amuse and even astound, something in the dark of night which while watching an old tape would emerge out of the magnetic recording and alter your perception of reality—or rather maybe, adjust your perception back to reality depending on how you look at it. Any glitch like this could all be a matter of interpretation, and act as a kind of Rorschach psychoanalytic mirror, but one can see intentional editing that mimics such things as having intentional meaning which one can make sense out of, there’s plenty of random meaningless glitches but many people remember ones which seemed so ironic, so meaningful that it seemed utterly impossible. These moments were all of course rare, and this made them all that much more astounding, their rarity and unpredictability made them seem like they came out of another dimension. It might have been as if some sort of electromagnetic discarnate gadfly (like Max Headroom) would invisibly interfere with reality, or your ‘recording of reality’ or what you thought was reality, jarring you back to reality but only for a moment. A simple accident producing a single moment of truth. 

Sometimes the chaotic static imagery itself was producing an unusual effect, defects of the tape or recording process could produce such unusual static distortion that was surreal and affecting that one could compare it to almost a psychedelic experience. The distortion of mundane imagery could itself offer a different version of reality to contemplate, distortions of such randomness that one could never replicate the exact situation ever again. It had no formula, no algorithm, no template, it was for all intents and purposes a completely ethereal experience, and one could experience such weirdness sometimes on late-night cable in the distortions of scrambled video transmissions as well and unless you recorded it, you’d never see it again.

This sense of chaos, unpredictability, and randomness was almost like a Ouija board experience, not the implications, but the feeling itself. Anything could happen. Today one randomly flips through links on Youtube, but nothing so similar occurs. The internet doesn’t scramble itself on your screen into a swirl of colored static or unusual random chaotic sound bytes.  

In the days when one could experience all these things, it seem to imply something far beyond the simple reality that technology breaks down and that television itself was a peculiar thing in and of itself, but that imagery and thought, meaning and transmission of thought, sound and intentional meaning could not only be scrambled, but that even that scrambling itself can produce an exotic meaning with an unexplainable origin that seemed a cryptic reciprocity of technology and consciousness. This chaotic element of malfunctioning technology could produce audibly and visually something valuable, an experience that broke through the mundane and monotonous reality of psychotic T.V. programming, sit-coms and ridiculous “news segments” and commercials.  

1 comment:

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