Provocative Objects / Spaces
9 November 2023 -
Welcome to the next in our Provocative Places and Objects series, in which our contributors look at places and spaces that challenge and confront us as design historians. This time, Justin Childress, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Master of Arts in Design & Innovation at the Southern Methodist University, looks at VHS tapes as memory objects.
Can you encase the ephemeral? What is the link between memory and materiality? We now find ourselves completely immersed in a digital age, with our sensory experiences housed in an ethereal space dubbed The Cloud. Streaming platforms and subscription services have replaced the carefully curated collections of our past, leaving behind a world devoid of the tactile sensations that once made these experiences so real. While our experiences remain authentic, our connection to their physicality has been largely severed.
But in the not-too-distant past, there existed a series of objects that served as gateways to this post-analog era without themselves being digital. If the post-analog media age is one of control, these precursors were early objects of autonomy, granting us the power to dictate when and how we engaged with them. Watching a film or video was an experience that hinged on a particular time and place, such as a movie theater or a living room outfitted with a television set. While we managed our attention, the media's physical accessibility and structured schedule formatted that attention. But that is no longer the case.
When the Video Home System (VHS) tape was introduced in the 1970s and became ubiquitous in the 1980s, recorded video became easily accessible, and the idea of a "home movie" was no longer fanciful.(1,2) Fleeting moments could now be captured and relived repeatedly. The notion of translating sights and sounds from the abstract to the tangible began to take root. Our memories could be transformed into magnetic tape and compressed into a small plastic rectangle held together by five screws, available for anyone to access at any time.
The VHS became a symbol of autonomy—an “inherited object of memory”(3)—with us in command of our experiences and remembrances. As noted by Jonathan Chapman, “Whether deliberate or not, every crack, scratch, and dent that products bear as we interact with them inscribe a story. These interactions with material things result in alterations, imperfections, and ultimately unique objects which carry traces of time and life.”(4)
But this materiality came with a caveat—the more times we played the tape, the more we subjected it to wear and tear, and the more unstable it became.
As it turned out, our memories were susceptible to decay. The VHS was a gateway for memories, but also fragile and limited in capacity. The ease with which we could preserve memories was matched only by the speed at which they would disintegrate. As the tape aged, it warped, colors faded, scratches appeared, and voices became garbled and static-filled. Over time, the material itself would decompose, rendering our memories inaccessible and fleeting. At times, the tape would snap, a reminder that memories, like the VHS, are prone to breaking.
By collecting tapes, we cataloged moments, although these moments remained unattainable on their own. The plastic brick stood mute, a mind without a body, without a Video Cassette Recorder—a VCR. A body without a mind. The VHS's language required a mediator; it contained the words but could not articulate them. The VHS and the VCR formed a symbiotic system. Together, they completed the circuit that began with recording, becoming a tool for recollection and reliving.
We surround ourselves with objects that we adore, and they, in turn, absorb our memories. The intangible becomes tangible. After all, the VHS is an "idea object." It is a storage chest that encapsulates and encompasses moments in time, rendering them real. As David Lowenthal muses, “we crave evidence that the past endures in recoverable form. Some agency, some mechanism, some faith will enable us not just to know it, but to see and feel it.”(5) By forsaking these idea objects and migrating to the digital ether, are we also forfeiting our connection to the physicality of memory? Can we find a way to capture the intangible and make it real once more? Only time will tell.
1 “Milestones: Development of VHS, a World Standard for Home Video Recording, 1976 - Engineering and Technology History Wiki.” ETHW, ETHW, 14 June 2022, https://ethw.org/Milestones:Development_of_VHS,_a_World_Standard_for_Home_Video_Recording,_1976.
2 Boucher, Geoff. “VHS Era Is Winding Down - Los Angeles Times.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 22 Dec. 2008, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2008-dec-22-et-vhs-tapes22-story.html.
3 Aharoni, Matan. “When Obsolete Technology Meets Convergence Culture: The Case of VHS Videocassettes.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, no. 1, SAGE Publications, Dec. 2019, pp. 21–35.
4 Chapman, Jonathan. Meaningful Stuff: Design That Lasts (Design Thinking, Design Theory). 1st ed., The MIT Press, p. 117.
5 Lowenthal, David. The Past Is a Foreign Country. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Started by the DHS Ambassadors in 2022, the Design History Society’s Provocative Objects and Places blog series looks at spaces and objects that challenge and confront us as design historians.
Past topics have ranged from the ancient Colosseum in Rome to the ultramodern Antilia in Mumbai; pink razors and Barbies to Lalique’s Bacchantes vase and nineteenth-century asylum photography. The full collection of previous posts can be found here.
We invite submissions for guest blog posts from students, early career researchers, and established academics to those with a general interest in design history. Post can be on any object or place from any era, anywhere in the world, which in some way incites discussion and debate.
Post should be 500-800 words in length, accompanied by at least one image with associated credits and clearances, and a short bio. Please send to the DHS Senior Administrator, Dr Jenna Allsopp email@example.com