VHS as a medium of subculture

VHS as a medium of subculture

Marina Gržinić
Mirko Simić; Rok Sieberer; Mare Tralla; Andrei Ventslova; Csilla Könzei; Hard Cord Punk Collective; Information Telecommunication Technology; post-socialist bodies; Eastern Europe; Necrorealism; The Trial of the Four; reproductive media and technologies; prosumer; digital imaging; social media; VHS; video; electronic media.

Today, Information Telecommunication Technology users, almost all of us, use laptops and cell phones to produce and as well consume millions of images. These technical devices comprise a new category of spectator-ship and production-ship “prosumers.”

The cell phone is the main gadget that, with hundreds of apps, is becoming a platform for filming, recording, watching. In 2012 New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) traced the history of digital imaging and social media in the West in its three months survey of the short-lived video revolution “VHS.” The Museum of Arts and Design presented a retrospective of VHS (Video Home System) showing how it started a revolution in western audience attitudes to television. When JVC introduced VHS and the VCR (videocassette recorder) in 1976, it revolutionised western spectatorship, a phenomenon which was intensified in the 1980s. The audience changed in a hybrid prosumer [pro(duction) and (con)sumption] of entertainment at home.

This did not pass unnoticed in socialist Eastern Europe. Video gained a very particular status in the so-called “peripheral” totalitarian countries in the 1980s, where the communist state apparatus (especially the most repressive ones), began to exercise a looser control over artistic and cultural productions. This was also due to the disintegrational processes that grew from the political and economic chaotic Eastern European reality of the 1980s. In spite of the differing communist structures in Hungary, Poland and especially ex-Yugoslavia, these countries succeeded in developing avant-garde film and art productions throughout the 1970s, and connecting them to the video medium in the 1980s. Hungary connected the strong avant-garde film tradition to video, or at least, developed a conceptual approach to the medium through experimental film research. Poland connected the strong conceptual tradition in the visual arts with body art actions and happenings, performance and film productions. Ex-Yugoslavia, with its so-called Third Way into Socialism (i.e., “non-aligned self-management Socialism”), had already become a politically specific case (hi)story. The work shown at Western European festivals and cultural institutions in the 1980s were, in the first instance, video works by artists from ex-Yugoslavia, in addition to the works of those from Hungary and Poland who predominately emigrated (or were forced to live) to Western Europe or North America in the 1960s and 1970s.

The so-called “first line” totalitarian socialist Eastern European countries (i.e., Russia/USSR, Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany, etc.) suffered a delay of a whole decade in developing art connected to the electronic media, including the use of video as a social tool, in comparison with Poland, Hungary and especially ex-Yugoslavia. This delay was due to the repressive nature of the communist state in these countries, which executed an almost bloodthirsty control of art and cultural productions, not only over the written word, but especially over instant visual reproductive media and technologies (e.g., copy machines, VHS and even Polaroid photography). The severe censorship of literature was easily extended to cover visual reproductive technology. In this context, the underground film scene, which arose in St. Petersburg (at the time, Leningrad) in the mid-1980s, deserves special mention. The city had a strong underground scene known as the Necrorealist movement, which produced deconstructivist versions of the official Communist films on Super 8mm and 16mm film. Subsequently, in the late 1980s and 1990s, following the collapse of Communism, it proved impossible to stop the transfer of Necrorealist films onto video, facilitating their distribution and presentation at Western European art video, experimental and media festivals.

On the other hand, the 1980s was an era of the shaping of a new scopic regime of contemporary reality, giving priority to works proceeding from the eye and intended for the eye. This oculocentrism can be applied to political and social events, as well as to cultural and artistic ones. For example, ex-Yugoslavia witnessed the progressive disintegration of the watchful eye of authority, such as one of the most notorious trials in Slovenia, “The Trial of the Four.” The Four ‒ three journalists and a soldier of the then Yugoslav People’s Army – allegedly stole a top-secret army document in 1988. This trial may be perceived as an exemplary visual: the indictment of the Four was not founded on any actual offence. The Four were not indicted for the abuse of the document, but for having the knowledge of, or rather, for having an insight into the punitive, xeroxed, confidential army document. In this affair, it was the visual media and its technology that played a decisive role.1

We must remember that the 1980s, in general, are defined as a landmark in worldwide video art, first and foremost, because of its changing relationship to television. I do not intend to summarise its worldwide history: there are numerous accounts covering the West, but only a few about its reality in the East. This essay can be considered as one of the first accounts of the history and theory of the video medium in the Eastern Europe.2

In the 1980s, video became fully integrated into television imagery through music video. Music Television (MTV) not only radically influenced the rock and pop culture/industry, but also demonstrated how the consumer televisual culture, in an almost cannibalistic way, integrated experimental televisual video iconography. MTV’s strategies of visualisation derived largely from video art and experimental cinema. On one hand this was tied up with a whole revolution in the proliferation of cheap and accessible home video technology, and on the other with the development of increasingly high standard and sophisticated video equipment, which opened up a variety of research fields in art, culture, science and industry. Moreover, with the inclusion of digital video technology in the film industry, the video medium and its technology became situated between mass home accessibility and high standard TV/film industry performance. This has created a new social and technological status for video in the so-called industrialised world.

It is possible to detect a similar logic in the second birth of video in Eastern Europe during the 1980s. Video, even in its most amateur form ‒ a non-professional home VHS video system ‒ allows instantaneous replay of the recorded image. The instantaneous internal technological production (and post-production) principle proved crucial for the growth of the medium in Eastern Europe. Cracks emerged in the constant reproducibility of the totalitarian “original” image of power, to the point that that the replayed “copy” involved a decoding, which was not merely a pure, innocent, inner technological trick of the medium, but moreover, a political stance. The video medium’s potential for incessant replay thus brought radical changes to the watchful eye of the communist totalitarian system of power. These processes of replaying the video image may be perceived as a subversive mediatisation of the social and political sphere in Eastern Europe.

Therefore, to comprehend the second birth of video in Eastern Europe, we must take into consideration this switch from the technologically produced replay to the political one, and recognise that both forms were carried out in Eastern Europe, within the social, political and cultural underground. Due to these very possibilities, as well as video’s connection to theatre, film, performance and music, exploration in form and content became extremely important. The boundaries of some traditional art and cultural practices were broadened, and the clear distinctions between them became blurred, forging new dynamics and a multitude of levels for interdisciplinary work.

In the 1990s, technical imperfections in moving images were recreated by two nearly lost technological/narrative moments: the black & white picture and silence. Both are used convincingly by Mirko Simić from Ljubljana. By re-using and re-adapting amateur video technology (S-VHS), Simić obtained an excellent source for producing the unstable, imperfect video image. Through “granulation and scratching” of the black & white surface of the image, the art-video work clearly distances itself from the glossy mass media television image.

Rok Sieberer, one of the members of Hard Cord Punk Collective, the tribal hardcore punk community in Ljubljana, challenged to an almost absurd degree, the aesthetic and technical possibilities of VHS in his video work, “Crisis.” Sieberer created a frenetic video totality using the replay mode, and mixing it with almost neurotic TV zapping. In this work, two technological modes were employed: replay, which allows an almost intimate interactive research of the electronic image at home, and zapping, a new interactive modus for the viewers of mass-produced television pictures. “Crisis” is a crisis of a genuine information, and the desperate longing for it, while it is only possible to achieve the fulfillment of the gaze and its symbolic voyeuristic orgasm with the information by constant (auto-)replaying, zapping and re-recording instead.

Slovenia became independent in June 1991 following the Ten Day War but the subsequent economic crisis led to a shortage of film-making technology. However, thanks to the richness of visualisation and narration strategies, video art can be viewed as constituting an autonomous paradigm within art in Slovenia, a paradigm which may be defined and understood as a new economy of seeing.

Documentary video projects (realised by amateurs with VHS equipment, and by independent film and video groups with professional video equipment) captured different periods of political and social struggle in Slovenia, such as protests against the attempt to abolish abortion rights at the end of 1991, following Slovenia’s independence.

These non-professional documentary videos (often non-stylised and non-narrative) also enable us to make a comparison with state television's interpretations of those same events and relocate the responsibility of national mass media for particular versions of history. In this context, video offered “authentic” historical, emotional, artistic and political views on events, conditions, bodies, practices, languages and topics, narrated through its authors’ perspectives. Our knowledge is not based only on what we see, but also on what we can render visible.

Thus, from the mid-1980s to the 1990s, video-films were not merely a means of expression, but also a method of documenting political events, despite the mass media usage of video equipment as surveillance in airports, banks, shops, on the street and even in toilets.3 In the 1980s, important documents about non-official art and cultural productions were preserved with the aid of VHS video equipment.

Establishing a new style of visual “writing” with video was a result of the conscious visual reconfiguration of an “original” Socialist alternative cultural structure. This resulted in innumerable “explosive” contrasts and a series of “technical imperfections” (as I called them in the 1980s), which comprehend the outer and inner; sexual and mental; order and disorder; conceptual and political; original and recycled space and time. Furthermore, from such a point of view, we can detect and generalise two strategies of visualisation in video. These reflect two territories: (1) the body in connection with sexuality, and the social and historical corpus of the film and television medium, and (2) history in connection with politics. These strategies can also be viewed as two fundamental approaches to the aesthetics of the video medium and VHS in Eastern Europe in general.

Marina Gržinić, Cindy Sherman RE_performed, 1984. VHS video by Dušan Mandič and Marina Gržinić.

The 1980s in Yugoslavia witnessed the over-sexualization of the video medium. This was not only a process of art-political reflexivity of much-repressed sexuality under Socialism and Communism4, but the process of distancing and disassociating the video medium from its sisters: film and television. This was pursued through the externalisation of sexuality, adopted from the underground film tradition, e.g., Fassbinder, Rosa von Praunheim, Warhol, etc., whose films were shown in the underground venues of Ljubljana in the 1980s. This externalization took the form of overtly staged and politicised pornography and “gender-bending” of gay, lesbian and transvestite sexual attitudes. It was a process that can be simply explained: the sexual and civil rights stereotypes and prototypes were not only consumed in and by the underground, but immediately performed. This was happening in front of VHS cameras, in private rooms and bedrooms. This also meant that through VHS a political positioning of the sexual and social was elaborated at the highest level. In these works, the masquerade of re-appropriation presented not only the simple question of the formation of the identity of the artists or of the underground community, but also the process of negotiation to produce continually ambiguous and unbalanced situations and identities.5

In the 1980s, we also find several video projects that were created by copying, in most cases the political broadcasts of the national television network. These copied sequences were then re-edited and re-interpreted, taking into consideration the internal replay logic of the video medium. Selected TV sequences on political events were combined with music, and re-edited into vertiginous rhythmic repetitive works.6 This resulted in an almost obscene uncovering of the internal mechanism of the everyday communist political speeches and doctrine, which itself was based on the ritual of constant repetition. The thoroughly replayed and re-edited political speeches began to reveal their internal repetitive logic; the shorter and shorter units of the re-cut political speech started to function as a pornographic act, which put the viewer in a position similar to that of a peep show. The discourse of the orderly politician was transformed through technology into an obscene political striptease. Thus, a specific syncretism was produced through which it was possible to detect similarities between different, until then incompatible, levels and expressions. From this, we can formulate a thesis that in some cases VHS video art functioned as or took over the position of the “B-movie” under (post-)socialism. We can also interpret these video works as kitsch, grotesque, absurd VHS videos impregnated with sex, politics and rock ‘n’ roll, similar to the underground cinema of the West.

Marina Gržinić, Cindy Sherman RE_performed, 1984. VHS video by Dušan Mandič and Marina Gržinić.

The functioning of socialist societies involved a painful recourse to a psychotic discourse, in an attempt to neutralise the side-effects of pertinent interpretations and productions through hiding, masking and renaming history.

Recent political and social shifts represent a desire to retake possession of Slovene history. In the Slovene “post-war” period (post-1991), history has begun to play a starring role in art and culture in an effort to reject the blind retaliation, nationalism and racism that could rise out of the “ruins of war.” Through the re-appropriation and recycling of different histories and cultures, a multicultural condition has been constructed. For this reason one may define video art as providing an alternative history, which gathers the names and faces of forgotten or discarded cultures. It redefines their place in a contemporary construction of power relations, which also feeds back to the status of video itself.

From this, we can derive some significant generalisations about the status of video in Eastern Europe, with reference to the “technological switch of history.” It is possible to draw a thesis that with the (VHS) replay in particular, video gained a new political context in the East. In the West, replay gained a mass presence in bedrooms and kitchens, where it was used for the repetitive performance of blockbuster films, porn-films and/or personal documentation. With video replay in the East, on the other hand, we witnessed a process of a detailed deconstruction and reconstruction of past history.7 In the so-called post-socialist countries, video developed into a specific vanishing mediator between history and the spectator in front of the television screen. As the third eye, video enabled the viewer to read history, to see through the surface of the film image and possibly, to perceive the future.8

Eastern European video productions in the 1990s appear to have developed even more radical strategies of visualisation than a decade previously in the former Yugoslavia and, more specifically, in Slovenia. This refers to the Russian aesthetic and philosophical paradigm of 1990s contemporaneity, coined in the 1980s as Necrorealism. These also apply when talking of the works of the (Hungarian/) Romanian video artist Csilla Könzei (b. 1963). In the Ceaușescu era, Könzei worked as an editor for the Romanian TV; after the Romanian “TV revolution,” she founded a VHS studio with some friends. In her video work, “An Abstract Knowledge” (1993), she discusses the “third totalitarian eye” – the eye of the Romanian secret police: the Securitate. Securitate was, so to speak, present in every home, and made itself felt to every Romanian citizen, to the point of being a psychotic, violent, omni-voyeur.

Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid in Icons of Glamour, Echoes of Death (The Border of Control no.4), 1982. VHS video.
Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid in The Threat of the Future (The Border of Control no.4), 1983. VHS video.

The power of these strategies were recognised by Matthias Dusini, Ruth Maurer, Hedwig Saxenhuber who, under the project management of Georg Schöllhammer, exhibited a project/research with the title translocation (new) media/art in at the Generali Foundation in Vienna in 1999. They invited eight artists, media theorists, activists, and networks nodes: Luchezar Boyadjiev (BG), Marina Grzinic (SL), HILUS (A), Sanja Iveković (CRO), Ryszard Kluszczinksy (PL), Josef Robakowski (PL), Keiko Sei (CZ/Japan), Jiří Ševčík (CZ), Tommaso Tozzi (I) to present their VHS “collections.” The project was founded by the European Commission/Kaleidoskop, and I as all the others came with hundreds of VHS cassettes to Vienna and brought our histories, geographies, biographies, selections and theories inscribed into them. They, we and the public questioned the status of media art, video activism and last, but not least, the status of image, politics and the social. Our combined materials contributed to the formation of a map and panorama of specific areas of media art. At that point this was an early revolutionary look into the history of the media at the violent east/west point of encounter.

Marina Gržinič
Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Austria
ZRC-SAZU, Institute of Philosophy, Ljubljana, Slovenia


1 Cf. Aleš Erjavec, Marina Gržinić, Ljubljana, Ljubljana (Ljubljana: Mladinska knjiga, Ljubljana 1991).

2 Cf. Marina Gržinić, “Video from Slovenia,” in: Ostranenie : 1. Internationales Videofestival am Bauhaus Dessau, (Dessau: Bauhaus Dessau, 1993), pp. 179‒186. As well cf. Marina Gržinić, “Sex, Rock'n'Roll and History: (Video-)Filme aus Osteuropa 1950–2000 / Sex, Rock'n'Roll and History: (Video)films from Eastern Europe 1950–2000,” in Birgit Konopatki, , Ilona Traub (eds.), Festival Katalog 2000 / Festival Catalogue 2000 (Oberhausen: Karl Maria Laufen, 2000), pp. 69‒79. And Marina Gržinić, “Video in the time of a double, political and technological transition in the former Eastern European context,” in Edit András (ed.), Transitland: video art from Central and Eastern Europe 19892009 (Budapest: Ludwig Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009), pp. 17‒33. This text is based on these sources.

3 Here, I refer to the installation of video cameras in public toilets, where gay sexual activity was suspected. This situation is not exclusive to Eastern European state authorities ‒ similar measures were taken in the 1970s in West Germany.

4 Throughout Eastern Europe, severe anti-homosexual measures were introduced, whereby most were punished by law and imprisoned as criminals, or detained in psychiatric institutions. In the ex-Yugoslav territory, these laws differed from republic to republic. There was a legal penalty for being a homosexual in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. In Slovenia and Croatia, there was no legal ban but they were blamed and marginalized in the mass media and in public. All the other sexual orientations – transsexuals, cross-dressers and transvestites – were invisible in public life, except in a medical context.

5 Cf. the video works in the beginning of the 1980s by the Slovenian groups Meje Kontrole and Borghesia.

6 Cf. the video/film works by the Slovenian groups, Borghesia and Laibach, and by the Slovenian artist, Peter Vezjak, as well as by the Hungarian artist, András Solyom, etc.

7 Cf. the video works of the Hungarian artists, Ildikó Enyedi and András Solyom, of the (Hungarian/) Romanian artist, Csilla Könczei, and the group SUBREAL, and of the Polish artist, Grzegorz Krolikiewicz, etc.

8 Cf. video works by the Slovenian artists, Mirko Simić, Marko Peljhan/Brian Springer (Slovenian/USA collaboration), Polish artist, Jozef Robakowski, and Hungarian artist András Solyom.


Professor of Conceptual Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria, and Research Advisor at ZRC-SAZU, Institute of Philosophy, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Publications include: New Feminism: Worlds of Feminism, Queer and Networking Conditions (co-edited with Rosa Reitsamer, Wien: Löcker 2008), Border Thinking: Disassembling Histories of Racialized Violence (editor, Berlin: Sternberg Press 2018) and Opposing Colonialism, Antisemitism, and Turbo-Nationalism: Rethinking the Past for New Conviviality (co-edited with Jovita Pristovšek, and Sophie Uitz, Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2020).

Suggested Citation

Gržinić, Marina. 2020. “VHS as a medium of subculture.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.0000.193

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.


uzh_logo 356 145




Apparatus. ISSN 2365-7758