Collecting the Trash: The Cult of the Ephemeral Clip from VHS to YouTube
Iain Robert Smith / Roehampton University
In 1989, salesman Jack Rebney shot a promotional video for the motor-home manufacturer Winnebago industries. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that his angry tirades in the outtakes from that shoot would later end up as a viral sensation. Known as ‘The Angriest Man in the World’, or more simply as ‘Winnebago Man’, the clip was initially assembled by the crew in an attempt to get Rebney fired, but was later copied and traded among collectors of VHS ephemera. Years later, in 2006, this cult shifted online when the clip was uploaded to YouTube and subsequently picked up nearly 3 million views.1
As Lucas Hilderbrand has observed, YouTube has contributed to a culture of the clip that allows viewers to select the specific moments that they wish to watch (and rewatch) in a “new temporality of immediate gratification for audiences.”2 What the ‘Winnebago Man’ points to, however, is the ways in which this culture of the clip forms part of a longer history of collecting and re-presenting ephemeral media that is often ignored or forgotten. In this column, therefore, I would like to consider the ways in which contemporary clip culture relates to earlier attempts to collect and archive the ephemeral clip.
Key to this history is the role of bootleggers and video traders who would swap and trade rare and elusive tapes through fanzines, conventions and mail-order catalogues. These collectors would invest (sub-)cultural capital in texts which existed outside legitimate distribution with a particular emphasis on the peripheral and throwaway. Reminiscent of the collectors of printed ephemera such as John de Monins Johnson who would collect “everything which would ordinarily go into the waste basket after use,”3 these video traders would build up amateur archives of screen detritus from home movies through to corporate training videos. This is the paracinematic audience whom Jeffrey Sconce once famously described as being “more inclined to watch a bootlegged McDonald’s training film than Man with a Movie Camera.”4
Furthermore, this audience were not simply collecting the clips but also producing video mixtapes which would feature a collection of clips from a variety of sources edited together onto a single tape. There is not the space here to go into a detailed history of the video mixtape, or to properly explain how it draws on earlier filmic traditions such as the mondo film, but some of the more significant examples include Cathode Fuck (1986), compiled by Film Threat editor Chris Gore; Amok Assault Video (1989), compiled by underground publisher Amok Press; and Lost & Found Video Night, a ten-volume collection compiled by video distributor 5 Minutes to Live. As David Carter has observed, the status of such compilers suggests that mixtapes “have their origins in the underground film ‘zine culture and, more specifically, in the bootlegging gray market such publications either facilitated or encouraged.”5
Given that the emphasis within the genre is on novelty, it is difficult to identify ‘representative’ clips from this period although some of the more famous examples would include Crispin Glover’s notorious 1987 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, the Siskel and Ebert outtakes tape, and footage of The Cramps playing at the California State Mental Hospital in Napa. Collecting together these ephemeral moments and assembling them into a (loose) structure, these mixtapes functioned to lend order and coherence to various disparate found footage clips. They also provided a platform where texts that were once fleeting and forgotten could become more accessible.
The main shift, however, happened with the launch of YouTube in 2005 when many of these clips were made widely available online. Functioning as a repository of otherwise unavailable moments of popular culture, YouTube swiftly became the principle site for finding obscure video clips. Yet, as Will Straw has observed in relation to new media more generally, “the gathering up and convergence of cultural artifacts in places of storage and annotation produces particular clusters of cultural authority and weight.”6 As this suggests, the collecting of clips within these amateur archives has much to tell us about the Internet’s relationship to this ephemeral media history.
Indeed, a fetishism has developed around what Lucas Hilderbrand terms “bootleg video aesthetics”7 where VHS artifacts such as white noise and rainbows of discoloration indexically signal authenticity and are often seen to enrich the text. Various sites such as ‘Everything is Terrible’ or ‘Found Footage Festival’ have appeared which collate and archive ephemeral clips with a specific emphasis on the VHS format. Indeed, Nick Prueher and Joe Pickett who curate the Found Footage Festival have declared that only two rules govern Found Footage Festival:
1) Footage must be found on physical format. No YouTube.
2) It has to be unintentionally funny. Whatever it’s trying to do, it has to fail miserably at that.
Note the emphasis here on the materiality of the source format. The tapes are generally salvaged from garage sales and thrift stores with a recent blog entry explaining that they had “Just received a sweet box of tapes from the Birmingham Public Library today. Turns out, libraries are getting rid of their VHS too. We scored Squirrel Time, Beanies For Fun And Profit, Raging Hormones and, best of all, Babies Of The Wild Ones 2. We had no idea there was a sequel!”8 Collecting and archiving tapes which would otherwise be discarded, such sites invest value in ‘trash’ VHS material with a particular emphasis on the naïve and ridiculous. Of course, as Pierre Bourdieu reminds us, there is no better indication of cultural capital than the capacity to confer value on objects that are assumed to have none.9
In this age of streaming media, then, these amateur archivists are placing value on the sheer materiality of the videotape which I would argue forms part of a much broader fetishisation of the retro within contemporary culture — from the revival of vinyl records through to the use of apps which make iPhone photos look like Polaroids. Discussing bootleggers, Lucas Hilderbrand notes that “the true collector collects those objects that have to be found (and copied) rather than simply purchased at Best Buy.”10 In the case of these curators of ephemeral clips, a similar sense of distinction is constructed between the true collector who collects clips from videotapes and the lesser collector who simply searches for clips online.
To bring this discussion full circle, I would like to conclude by returning to the Winnebago Man. This ephemeral clip of outtakes from a 1989 promotional video has not only been traded by bootleggers, assembled into mixtapes and streamed from YouTube. More recently, it inspired the feature documentary Winnebago Man (2009) which tracked down Jack Rebney and explored the story behind the ‘angriest man in the world.’ Illustrating the complex intersections of media forms prevalent in the contemporary media landscape, the film points to the residual presence of old media within the current culture of the clip.
While it is important, therefore, that we attempt to grasp the latest developments within new media, this should not be at the expense of addressing the palimpsestuous presence of old media within these texts. Ultimately, the proliferation of short-form media on sites like YouTube, often seen solely in terms of the temporal specificities of internet-based platforms, should also be seen in terms of this subterranean history of the ephemeral clip.
1. Winnebago Man
2. Lost & Found Video Night
3. Found Footage Festival
Please feel free to comment.
- 2,996,730 views as of 9th September, 2011 [↩]
- Lucas Hilderbrand, “Youtube: Where Cultural Memory and Copyright Converge” Film Quarterly 61:1 (2007) p49 [↩]
- “Eavesdropping on the past – the John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera” (2010) [↩]
- Jeffrey Sconce, “‘Trashing’ the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style” Screen 36:4 (1995) p372 [↩]
- David Carter, “The Television Screen is the Retina of the Mind’s Eye: A Look at Video Mixtapes” Not Coming to a Theatre Near You (2010) [↩]
- Will Straw, “Embedded Memories” in Charles R. Acland (ed.) Residual Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) p12 [↩]
- Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Duke University Press, 2009) p65 [↩]
- Joe Pickett, “Thank you, Birmingham Public Library!” Found Footage Festival [↩]
- Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, 1986) p5 [↩]
- Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright (Duke University Press, 2009) p62 [↩]
Thanks for your post. T.V. Carnage, which originally was a series of VHS mixtapes of selected recordings of local television, seems to fit into the type of media that you are addressing. They have released many of them on dvd, and they have a website. I like the mixtapes/dvds the best, I think because of the juxtaposition that occurs with editing, but they have also shifted towards short clips, probably in response to the Youtube phenomenon that you are writing about.
Have you seen the Adult Swim show, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!? It seems to me like a good example of the “bootleg video aesthetics” you mentioned, except that it’s being practiced in order to create new content. They imitate many of the moments of the found footage mixtapes, through a series of odd/disturbing vignettes.
Thanks Nestor, you make a number of good points.
Firstly, there was only so much I could cover in a short column so thanks for bringing up T.V. Carnage. TVC is definitely an important part of this phenomenon and nicely bridges the VHS mixtape era and the more recent shift towards YouTube clips. Their first video ‘Ouch Television My Brain Hurts’ came just a few years after the initial mixtapes from Chris Gore, Amok Press et al, and — like Found Footage Festival — they are now putting on live screenings at cinemas around North America. When I start to develop this research further, I will definitely include them as founder Pinky Beckles is a significant figure in the shift I was outlining.
Also, I think Tim and Eric Awesome Show is a fascinating show precisely for the reason you identified. Much of the ‘comedy’ comes from recreating the aesthetics of this kind of cultural detritus — and I sometimes wonder if you edited one of their clips onto a mixtape whether anyone would notice it alongside the “authentic” VHS ephemera.
Excellent piece. Recently, Found Footage Fest’s Prueher and Pickett have been hosting some of their videos on the AV Club, a venue that, despite its development as an increasingly mainstream entertainment news-and-reviews site, has always associated with a certain cultist sensibility (think Films that Time Forgot, Commentary Tracks of the Damned, etc.). The animation that opens FFF’s AV Club videos literalizes their “trash” status when an anthropomorphic garbage can vomits up VHS tapes along with other cultural detritus like empty bottles, fishbones, and vinyl records. Between this and, as you both rightly note, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (I would also add the T&E spin-off, Check it Out! with Dr. Steve Brule!), we see these cultist practices incorporated into more “legitimate” entertainment venues–albeit ones that likely address a similar subcultural crowd.
Thanks Evan, that is a really good point about the ways in which these cultist practices have crossed over into more ‘mainstream’ avenues to some extent through their association with The Onion (the AV Club) and Cartoon Network (Adult Swim). Of course, only certain strands of this phenomenon will cross over in this way. For example, many of the more recent mixtapes such as the ‘Retard-O-Tron’ series feature the kind of extreme material that is very unlikely to move into more ‘legitimate’ entertainment venues.
In terms of the bootleg video aesthetic, there are also parallels with filmmakers like Harmony Korine (especially with Trash Humpers) who are attempting to capture the style of these old, worn-out tapes.
I was wondering about objectionable collections? I am asking because in my own research about advertising in South Africa, I have found people who collect tapes of commercials (featuring all white casts)–often posted on Youtube–that remind them of a South Africa they “lost” or “had to give up”.
Great article… The guy would never thought that his clip would still survive up to these era of YouTube videos (or any online video streaming sites)
Even though collections of ephemeral video have been around for a while, as you point out, I think your article highlights an interesting shift that has taken place in the media landscape.
I believe that the rise of YouTube has begun to place extra value on the random clip or obscure segment, creating a new kind of viewer mentality, that which craves constant consumption of quick content over sustained watching habits. It is this ‘new temporality of immediate gratification’ that Hildebrand talks about that I want to focus on.
So what has changed in the media landscape to bring this about? As your article states, the valuation of the ephemeral video clip is nothing new. Shows that highlight clips have long been a staple of broadcast television, such as Tarrant on TV, TV Burp and You’ve Been Framed in the UK and more recently Tosh.O and The Soup in the US. What has changed, however, is the accessibility and longevity of these clips now that they are archived on YouTube and shared by email rather than in the video store or through reruns on TV.
The digitization of both production and distribution has heightened the fetishism of ‘the clip’ to whole new levels. YouTube, with its addition of the ‘like’ button, the copy/paste ease of sharing, and the comment sections, has enabled devotees of the ephemeral video to spread their gospel with renewed vigor, capitalizing on the increased brevity of audience attention spans.
Now, more than ever, the snippet is the most prized piece of video. It is starting to effect how movies and TV shows are watched. Why watch the whole show when you can have a montage of the best quotes edited together? The best scenes from a movie are isolated and shared, saving the time and money of seeing it in a cinema. Now films are even starting to take on the look of online videos – Life In A Day (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1687247/) was a feature film comprised entirely of hundreds of clips of video shot by amateur filmmakers and shared with the director through YouTube.
Will this meteoric rise of video clip culture ever usurp television? Perhaps not, but it is certainly taking advantage of the stale and repetitive nature of television nowadays. Todd Gitlin talked about the ‘triumph of synthetic’ (Inside Prime Time, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985, p.63) in television, describing the mass of spinoffs, copies, and recombinant thinking that took over broadcast content in the 80s and 90s. It was a way for network executives to take advantage of hits, regurgitating successful formats, plots, themes and genres for high ratings, creating a mass of similar, homogenous programming that drew advertisers to safe bets and guaranteed audiences.
The rise of ephemeral clip culture directly combats this, offering content that is absurd, unique, and original, unintended for mass marketing but rather washed up on the web in the catch-all nets of YouTube. The movement your article talks about represents a creative rebellion against the video detritus of TV, placing value of small pieces of often unintended genius rather than corporate sponsored clones.
The last laugh? YouTube itself is owned by Google, who is doing deals with broadcast networks and studios to bring more of their content to the web. It may be the corporations who end up taking ownership of the main portal of these bizarre video clips. To quote a much shared clip, ‘touché, salesman.’ http://www.divx.nl/divx_video.aspx?vid=Jutf3ldIekiJ8ub5zeff_A&sr=1
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