In 2015, Yale University made news by acquiring nearly three thousand (2,700 to be exact) horror and exploitation movies from the 1970s and 80s, for the sake of posterity. There is, most likely, a fair amount of people who harbor skepticism regarding the efforts to historically preserve the historical legacy of Silent Night, Deadly Night or Trick or Treat, but academia isn’t interested in the content of the movies alone; that the countless acts of sex and violence that these 2,700 movies have to offer are housed within VHS cassette tapes, has come to mean everything.
When it comes to fetishized, outmoded media formats there are few, if any, legitimate contenders to the reigning, defending, undisputed heavyweight champion, VHS. Sure, there are audiophiles who insist that vinyl records are the only “proper” way to listen to music, and there has even been an audiocassette revival in recent years, but these are mere pretenders to the throne. At its core, vinyl is a boutique interest; ultimately, an album is the same work, whether record, cd, tape, mp3, or streaming. VHS, however, is home to thousands of titles that, thanks to copyright ownership issues and anti-pirating technology that prevented physical copying preventing their digitization, only exist on VHS.
What exactly makes a spool of magnetic tape inside of a plastic shell powerful enough to have developed its own attendant culture, one that still resonates as a recognizable aesthetic today, long after the technical obsolescence of the VHS tape? It’s time to grab your collectible clamshell packaging, press play, and find out.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the impact of modern technology. Platforms like YouTube and social media, combined with the universal access to a camera, video camera and the constant internet connection provided by smartphones, have utterly transformed the way that culture is disseminated and consumed. For the sake of not getting into a retrospective of the entire digital media age, it will suffice to say that the barriers to entry that limited access to traditional mediums like television, movies, radio, and newspapers, have evaporated in this new landscape. When anyone with a phone can point, shoot, and upload, the vast resources and specialized technical knowledge behind professional quality productions aren’t so much a requirement, but an aesthetic choice. Basically, in the modern age, everything that can be imagined, no matter how off the wall, has a potential audience, and a means to reach it.
In the old days of analog technology, there were just as many people with the impetus to follow their own creative vision; it’s just that it was a little bit more challenging to get this content out there. Oh, and we mean “a little bit” in the sense that the pyramids of Giza were a little bit difficult to build. The cultural atmosphere was completely different. The mere act of attempting to create something outside of the traditional media structure was enough to brand a person as a crank, freak, or nerd, or some combination thereof. It can’t be stressed enough that the specific content did not factor into this assessment either. Take underground music for example. It’s a phrase that a lot of people automatically associate with especially loud and aggressive strains, but an indie-pop album filled with Beach Boys and Kinks melodies would have been lumped in the same “weirdo” category, because why would anyone bother making an album that didn’t sound like Huey Lewis or Bon Jovi, and would never get on MTV? So right off the bat, there was an element of “us and them” polarization inherent in independently creative endeavors.
While there may be plenty of people who are perfectly willing to adhere to a live and let live outlook when it comes to enjoying their very much non-mainstream interests, in relation to mainstream culture, it’s just human nature to respond to a certain level of provocation. When the slightest flirtation with anything existing outside of the very narrow boundaries of mainstream culture is constantly framed as some kind of moral/existential/psychological failing, then an active opposition to mainstream culture can’t help but to become a self preservation mechanism. When things like music and movies take on a greater significance, where things you like become an integral part of what you are like, it facilitates an emotional investment that goes beyond mere passive appreciation.
VHS, as a physical format, was particularly well suited as a distribution method of non-mainstream artistic output. VHS may have triumphed over Betamax in the home video format wars, but the prohibitively expensive cost of VHS tape in those early days meant that building a personal library was well beyond the means of most people, leading to the emergence of the home video market, as independent video stores sprung up in response to this new consumer demand. In turn, the viability of the video rental market altered the financial reality of filmmaking; profits were, suddenly, no longer beholden to theater revenues.
The result of this new expanse of creative possibilities could be called, a deluge of cheap thrills and gleefully poor taste, the likes of which could never be equaled, and we mean that in the most complimentary possible way. Anyone whose childhood overlapped with the golden era of video stores will have their own specific examples of the fantastically lurid cover art meant to grab the attention of browsing customers seared into their consciousness, while the relative privacy and proto-on demand nature of viewing meant that actually viewing these movies was more a more attainable goal than at any previous point in history. Given the level of VHS devotion that still exists today, it’s safe to say that these works definitely left an impression.
The introduction of the camcorder would put the creative freedom enjoyed by professionals into the hands of the general public. While this revolutionary technology was, in many instances, used to make embarrassing home movies that might possibly end up in the hands of Bob Saget, there was one subculture in particular that found a better use for the camcorder, skateboarding. Handheld recording capability would immortalize the feats of skaters ranging from legends to amateurs, and pave the way for skateboarding’s transformation from public nuisance into a multimillion dollar industry, as skaters and skate brands produced the commercial videos that inspired new generations. Sony’s DCR-VX1000, introduced in 1995, would put even more power into the camcorder, as professional, digital video quality was made available to the public for the first time, but it all started with VHS.
Vans and Bodega rekindle their collaborative relationship to pay tribute to endless creative possibilities and DIY spirit represented by VHS with the Blank Tapes capsule collection.
A custom designed, blank tape packaging style box, complete with adhesive labels (so you can tell your skate videos from the copy of The Day After that your parents recorded off of the TV) houses the eternally in-style Authentic silhouette. This fixture of skate culture has been programmed to record the VHS vision, with a suede/nylon upper adorned with blank VHS cassette labeling, and a translucent plastic tongue that recalls the cassette’s magnetic tape spool. The VHS labeling motif continues onto the shoe’s midsole, while the outsole the features an RGB color model. An extra detail for VHS connoisseurs is provided by the footbed, which sports a holographic Bodega print, in the style of anti-pirating security stickers.
VHS culture isn’t just about looking backwards though. It’s preserving the maverick energy committed to countless blank tapes for the contemporary world, rather than historical reenactment for its own sake. To that end, Vans have outfitted the classic style of the Authentic with, new ComfyCush foam. The additional arch support and one-piece interior bring a new dimension of comfort to the Authentic’s familiar exterior.
Naturally, no one who hops on the VHS train is ever likely to decide they’re all set with just the one tape, so a hoodie and long sleeve t-shirt bearing an RGB Bodega Vision logo on the front and anti-piracy warning on the back, and a blank VHS cassette packaging graphic skate deck round out the Blank Tapes collection. Because VHS is more than a chunk of plastic, it’s a state of mind.
Skaters: Michael Follen, Alex Bellerud, Zachary Stanchfield. Supporting Videographer: Mike Chew.