SMU profs to archive forgotten VHS tapes

Home video mash up will be displayed at local film festival

Mixtape maestro Jennifer Vanderburgh turns home videos into an analog mash up. (Photo: smu.ca)
Mixtape maestro Jennifer VanderBurgh turns home videos into an analog mash up. (Photo: smu.ca)

Since its inception in the 1970s, VHS has revolutionized the way we consume media. But with the growing market for digital home recorders such as DVRs and the advent of YouTube, analog video recordings have become a thing of the past, as obsolete as the Betamaxs that came before them.

But for Saint Mary’s University professors Jennifer VanderBurgh and Michele Byers, there’s more value in the medium than meets the eye.

“People are throwing away their VHS and really not privileging the medium at all,” Vanderburgh says. “What does VHS remember? We’re interested in figuring that out.”

Home Bodies

In association with the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative and the Halifax Independent Filmmakers Festival, VanderBurgh and Myers will attempt to answer that question with “Home Bodies,” a curatorial exhibition that finds the two professors searching through analog recordings in an attempt to archive Canada’s forgotten history.

A film and media studies professor in SMU’s English department, VanderBurgh was inspired to start the project after realizing the lack of archival space for VHS tapes and off-broadcast television recordings in the country.

Specializing Canadian television and its history, VanderBurgh saw the project as an opportunity to understand the early consumer habits of home videographers and how it relates to the proliferation of online video content.

“One thing we tend to forget is that being able to share and repeat viewing is a relatively new thing. It used to be that anything on TV was ephemeral and people just got used to do that,” VanderBurgh says. “VHS was the first opportunity for people like us to record our TV and share it with friends in their communities.”

Be Kind, Rewind

To create the project, VanderBurgh is asking anybody with recordings of home videos, television mixtapes or company training videos to drop off their unused tapes at the co-op’s Cornwallis Street office.

“We’re not just looking to filmmakers,” says AFCOOP executive director Martha Cooley. “We’re looking to people that have old family footage or just random stuff they’ve recorded.”

VanderBurgh and Myers will then work with AFCOOP editors to splice together the pre-existing footage into an hour-long mix that will be broadcast during a screening at the Bus Stop Theatre in April.

With the Feb. 20 deadline for submissions fast approaching, Cooley says the co-op has already received a lot of attention from VHS collectors.

Not gonna lie - that's probably more tapes then they need. (Flickr: august allen)
VanderBurgh and Myers’ footage collection will be cut into one hour’s worth of watchable art for a screening in April. (Flickr: august allen)

“We had a guy call who told us he had thousands, but he has yet to arrive,” she says, adding that any VHS donation can be returned to owners after the event.

Then comes the hard part. Once VanderBurgh has amassed all the tapes, she’ll begin dissecting each recording for anything interesting or of historical value.

“One of the things about found footage work is you have to wait to find the footage,” she laughs. “We’re not exactly sure how it’s going to look, but that’s one of the exciting things about the project.”

But for VanderBurgh, the best part is preserving the history for future generations.

“We really do hope that people will take seriously these tapes as archives of ephemera,” she says. “The archives aren’t appreciating it, so it’s up to us to take care of this memory.”