Hazy, Haptic Allure and the VHS Aesthetic (2020)

research essay

            The VHS cassette tape, like a host of other analog media formats, sustains a life beyond presumed obsolescence. A handful of video distribution companies continue to release titles (both old and new) on cassette [1], largely catering to a subculture devoted to celebrating and collecting VHS tapes - “tapeheads” [2]. There is also another thread to the contemporary popularity of the VHS tape that has begun to supersede cassette spectatorship. It takes something as simple as typing “VHS effect” into a search engine to be greeted with innumerable pages of tutorials on how to make high-definition (HD) footage appear as though it were filmed with a camcorder. Mainstream interest around VHS can be witnessed in the online celebration of vintage, lo-fi Nollywood films [3], or the 1.4 million views in March 2020 alone on the Internet Archive’s “VHS Vault” [4; archive.org]. Not only is there a decided proliferation of mimetic VHS video filters on smartphones and social media applications [5], but VHS influence is also present in the 4:3 aspect ratios of “indie”titles such as mid90s (2018) or A Ghost Story (2017). This physical technology has been heavily remediated digitally, and its popularity can surely be partially attributed to nostalgic romanticisation. That said, I see indications of a formal allure to the prosumption of the VHS visual aesthetic. I would like to argue that this allure is haptic in nature, and simply bolstered by a post-digital environment.

              Visual delivery of the VHS aesthetic is typically untethered to its original technological processes, with footage being more likely to appear on an LED monitor than a CRT television. Nowadays, VHS footage is closer to what Henry Jenkins defines as a “medium,” or “a set of cultural understandings and practices that develop around a communications technology.” [qtd. in 1] I find this disembodied status can be partially explained with the cultural framework of the “digital swarm,” a term coined by Byung-Chul Han to describe the illusory, discorporate reality of online community. I believe the “decentered, deterritorialised…order of domination” [6] that governs online networks has shifted perception around the materiality of media hardware, such as the camcorder. The very intangibility of the datascape negatively hallucinates the physical presence of analog technology,compounded by the camcorder’s absence from mainstream store shelves and the availability of tools that allow the digital remediation of analog video. In its digitization, VHS video content is perceived as being palpably or materially equal to any video delivered in a digital format.

              Digitizing analog video creates other implications for its (im)materiality, as physical traces become more apparent when arrested from their original mode of screening. Splinters may scatter the frame, markers of dust on the tape. Glitches may cascade down the length of the screen, a result of wrinkles in the tape. Colours are muted due to the prioritization of black-and-white luminance in the rather blurry image. A natural chorus may even emerge through tape audio warping, adding a pretty, shimmering quality to the sound. Such “imperfections” can be described as the VHS video’s “cinematicity,” Caetlin Benson-Allott’s term for unique artefacts of expression in filmic media [7]. Benson-Allott additionally refers to these VHS idiosyncrasies as “substrates” that become “part of the spectacle, a perversion of medium and content that undermines the received significance of both.” [8] These details add visual excitement,and though they implicitly recall their mode of production, they take on a personality that acts as kitschy adornment.

              The cinematicity of VHS sits it in stark contrast to HD video, the latter being characterised by crisp lines and high frame rates (typically 30 fps, as opposed to the traditional 24 fps of analog film). While HD video is touted for its ability to represent reality accurately, there is evidence for aversion to higher definition and higher frame rates, which can appear jittery at times. When a Japanese broadcasting organization presented footage from a prototype 8K camera to an audience, many audience members experienced nausea [9]. To put this resolution into perspective, the size of the frame amounted to a 27-foot version of a standard 1280 x 1024-pixel computer monitor with proportionately detailed resolution [10]. This nauseated reaction was mirrored in the Lumière brothers’January 1896 screening of a moving train [11], so the Japanese audience’s aversion may simply be due to being unaccustomed to new technology,not to mention the prototype was rather extreme in its vision of high-definition. Nonetheless, these reactions do contest the notion that HD video is an appealing medium for depicting reality. In fact, to achieve a “cinematic look,” HD video is often “distressed” with edits that degrade, granulate or fade the image, thereby resulting in a loss of information and ultimately, an image of lower definition [12]. A “cinematic look,” however, is a beautified, intensified version of visual reality, so it may be fairer to say that HD video is a less appealing medium for depicting an idealised reality.

              This is where the VHS aesthetic enters as a tool of idealisation, as its blurry features make it less favourable as a tool of verisimilitude. Randall K. Van Schepen offers the term“misticism” to refer to the hazy appearance of retro images; an attractive mistiness that gives the image a sensuality antithetical to digital aesthetics [13]. The obfuscation references a material vitality, typified by imperfections and organicism. This incomplete image elicits a haptic response, wherein the viewer must “contemplate the image as a material presence rather than an easily identifiable representational cog.” [14] Haptic visuality can be rather visceral,as perceptual touch brings forth “memory-images” where the presenting image is compensated by personal associations [15]. VHS footage provides a hesitant,blurred depiction of material and space that makes for an emotionally stirring viewing experience. Even more speculatively, the artefacts resulting from tape signal interference in VHS footage (such as aforementioned “splinters”) seem to echo “floaters” that cluster in the eye’s retina [16], and a blurry image is closer to visual reality for those who need visual aids. Over 60 percent of the world’s population wears glasses or contact lenses after all  [17]! Substrates of VHS cinematicity seem to have more in common with the natural flaws of human vision than HD video. The appeal of the VHS video aesthetic is beyond mere restorative nostalgia. It could instead be described as a kind of generative nostalgia that actively responds to the viewer’s personal memories and sensorium, while in continuous juxtaposition to a datascape aesthetically composed of binaries.

            To return to Han, he suggests that the digital medium has made images appear brighter and more alive, an “iconic reversal” that results in images being considered superior to reality [18].When mediated by a screen, VHS footage is enlivened by luminosity, almost seductively so. In terms of haptics, this new luminosity intensifies the flaws embedded in the memory-image. The current cultural moment has been defined by the now-mainstream “hipster,” who views the imperfections of digital-analog assemblages as positive emblems of “esoteri[sm], social capital and authenticity.” [19] When coupled with the emotional power of haptic visuality, it comes, then, as no surprise that the VHS aesthetic has found novel popularity in a post-digital environment that prioritizes the human over the digital

1. Daniel Herbert. "Nostalgia Merchants: VHS Distribution in the Era of Digital Delivery." Journal of Film and Video, p. 4, vol. 69 no. 2, 2017.

2. AdjustYour Tracking. Directed by Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic. 2013.

3. Vincent Desmond. “Instagram Is Bringing Back '90s Nollywood.” PAPER, 17 March 2020.

4. Samantha Cole. “Archivists Are Uploading Hundreds of Random VHS Tapes to the Internet.” Vice, 27 February 2020.

5. Lucy Woodham. “How to Make Your Instagram Posts Look like an Old Video Recording.” The Tab, 25 July 2018.

6. Byung-Chul Han, et al. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects. The MIT Press, 2017, p. 12.

7. Caetlin Benson-Allott. Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens: Video Spectatorship from VHS to File Sharing, University of California Press, 2013, p. 151.

8. Ibid., 156.

9. Terry Flaxton, “HD Aesthetics.” Convergence,vol. 17, no. 2, May 2011, p. 116.

10. Ibid., 115.

11. Ibid., 116.

12. Ibid., 118.

13. Randall K Van Schepen. “Contemporary Misticism: Recovering Sensible Aesthetics in an Age of Digital Production.” Religions, vol. 10, no. 3, 2019, 186, p. 2.

14. Donato Totaro. “Deleuzian Film Analysis: The Skin of the Film.” Offscreen, vol. 6, no. 6, June 2002.

15. Ibid.

16. Luis Villazon. “What Are the Little 'Worms' That Drift across My Eyes?” BBC Science Focus Magazine.

17. Jan Willem Bruggink. “More than 6 in 10 People Wear Glasses or Contact Lenses.” Statistics Netherlands, Centraal Bureau Voor De Statistiek, 20 September 2013.

18. Han, In the Swarm, 26.

19. Claes Thorén, et al. “The Hipster’s Dilemma: What Is Analogue or Digital in the Post-Digital Society?” Convergence, vol. 25, no. 2, April2019, p. 337.

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