Where Is It? Videos 1-125

100 VHS video source tapes recorded from free-to-air television in the 1980s and 1990s; VHS player; TV screen.

Elastic: An Archive Project, Project X, Kings Cross, 2005.

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elastic archive

Before the age of downloading, file swapping, Digital Rights Management and software encryption, people recorded, stored and exchanged programs on crappy old VHS tapes. It was a revolution. Or at least I thought it was.

In the analogue dark ages before cheap VHS recorders, you had to wait up all night to watch those hard-to-see feature movies you only got to read about in books, or wished would be programmed at the cinematheque. In my undergraduate days, I discovered how you could rent films from the National Library in Canberra and screen them in sometimes makeshift conditions at the university. I was hooked. But boy, were those old 16mm films hard to handle. And you could never even dream of taking them home. It was about the same time I discovered film societies, filmmakers groups, post-punk rock, second-hand books, Ashwoods, St Vinnies, artist-run spaces and all the rest of it.

When domestic video recorders came onto the market, it was truly a battle of the giants Beta versus VHS. VHS was the low-rent version of the technically-advanced Sony-developed player/recorders, and that’s why it won out in the end I suppose. With the fast-forward button to edit out all the ads, TV never seemed so much like the cinema. Though inferior in quality, I couldn’t believe that I could program my own cinematheque at home. That’s exactly what I started doing, and these tapes are the result of that. Quality schmality.

I can’t believe how anal I was. Everything I recorded was noted in a little address book thing, numbered, alphabetically ordered, labelled in black or blue biro and the little stickers that came with the tapes, before being neatly stacked on my bookshelf. My aim was to fill the shelf in a year. It took me more like seven. Seven years of plenty, captured by my trusty timer-controlled NEC top-of-the-line VHS machine. (It still works by the way, as do all these tapes which were only meant to have a shelf-life of five to ten years).

Not only could it record B-grade Hollywood and European arthouse, it could also record HiFi stereo audio onto the same tape. At the flick of a button, you could turn a three-hour VHS into a six-hour mix-tape of audio-visual material. A snappy little overdub button allowed you to record audio over the top of, well, whatever took your fancy. And if you wanted to, you could connect one machine to another and start hacking into the free-to-air programming and make your own re-combinations.

I sure did. What would happen if you crossed “Shogun Assasain” with “To Live and Die in LA”, or if you cut out all the boring bits of old Universal horror films and set them to Quincy Jones’ soundtrack to “In Cold Blood”? I imagined other people like me growing square eyes and tough calouses on their remote-fingers, making up their own mini-movies and personal interventions into the constant flow of mainstream TV. We showed them to friends, in clubs, arty events and parties. The Law even seemed to sanction our actions with the famed “Betamax Case”, which basically decided that it wasn’t a crime to record movies and all kinds of other programming from free-to-air. OK, so we weren’t really meant to be publicly screening our cut-ups, but in the context it certainly felt well within the bounds of fair-dealing.

I wonder how long it will take for the legitimate world of digital recording and file swapping to catch up to the bad old days of Beta and VHS?

Ross Rudesch Harley
Sydney, October 2004