Joep van Liefland, Cultural Anthro-nonapologist
“Pop artists deal with the lowly trivia of possessions and equipment that the present generation is lugging along with it on its safari into the future.”
J. G. Ballard
The Video tape; VHS
What is it to the unknowing viewer? A black rectangular thin plastic brick with 2 holes in it.
Outside dimensions: 187 mm wide, 103 mm deep, 25 mm thick
The unrolled material inside was up to 500 meters long on a 240 length tape. Variable length- you could record up to almost 8 hours on store bought tapes- but the quality and speed at which one could record was a confusing subject that required some knowledge of the recording machines functions. There is often a human use residue on the tapes: the printed stickers on recorded tapes, sometimes half peeled off, and the blank stickers that come with blank tapes. Keeping track of the content. Dates, notes, copies of things on TV written with ball-point pen.
Are the black tabs removed? The recording tabs: pop-on, pop-off record or not-to-record unblocked tabs stopped recording, but you could easily put a piece if scotch tape over the square hole to record over any pre-recorded commercial tapes. The surface of the object is a combination of shiny plastic with a textured matte surface on some areas- there are recessed and raised indentations on the form to let the user know where they can apply the label stickers on the top of the tape and on the spine. As mechanical objects, they are somewhat fragile, but environmentally everlasting.
The tape inside is a strip of 1/2” black glossy plastic film that has magnetically charged particles on its surface. (“1/2 inch” is an industry term for VHS tapes)
An object of secret information: there are multiple tracks available on VHS, if you have the right machine. While the average home playback machine could play the two audio and single video track- there is a lot more information that is invisible to a consumer machine. VHS tapes have 4 audio tracks, 2 video tracks, Timecode, VITC, and 2 blank tracks that could hold a number of invisible informations: one might be proprietary information about the tape, and the other could be used to send any sort of electro-magnetic codes on. VHS is easily used as device for sending encrypted data, secret recordings or signals if you had the right machines.
A friend of mine had worked for “The Apprentice” TV show for a few years. He worked closely with Donald Trump regularly over the years, and he told me an interesting story. Early every morning, a secretary would deliver a folder with whatever press clippings or articles Trump was featured in, from the day before. Trump would then go and turn on a video camera he had set up, read through the clippings and give a videotaped response to whatever articles he was featured in. My friend noted that the video camera Trump was using in 2014, was the same shitty VHS camera that he had used since the 80’s. The telling part of the story wasn’t that Trump was a borderline psychopathic narcissist. Thats obvious, but what really told you that he was out of it, was that he still used a shitty old VHS camera from the 80’s. It was the dirty and revealing detail of the situation. A wave of images and questions were triggered for me: How long had be been doing this? And what had it done to him? Had it made his condition worse? Did it re-inforce his pathological traits and narcissism on a new level? Since the invention of the television, the consumer video camera allowed a lot of regular people, for the first time, to see themselves on an actual television. But why did Trump keep this old camera? Perhaps he paid a lot of money for it at the time, and felt that it was of a very high quality? Perhaps the quality did not matter to him- just the ritual of ego reinforcement that could be recorded and watched by other people on a television was what mattered to him, even if no one else watched it? Like a parrot mimicking its owner. Or, perhaps, it was that he could simply pile up the videotapes and have this massive physical video library of himself.
Regardless of who it is: The VHS system was instrumental to create, cement and reinforce the megalomaniac media obsessed freak. Without VHS there would be no Kardashians.
I wouldn’t categorise Joep Van Liefland as a “pop” artist, although his work makes an interesting contribution to that ongoing movement. The surface content of some of his material was popular entertainment for a fleeting moment, and it did burn its way into a collective consciousness. The artist has largely been dealing with a certain video culture and technology of a recent past. This video culture was dominated by the VHS (Video Home System) tape format. The VHS video era, and all its associated aspects; physical, cultural and formal, constitutes a rich model to analyse the late 20th century as well as the current human condition. A condition that has been literally and profoundly “conditioned” by media, and by video. This VHS videotape technology and culture constitutes the bulk of Joeps focus for the last several years. His work covers a number of the main visible components of the “VHS era” of video:
the tapes themselves; the equipment they are played on; the recorded content of the videos- both professional (a wide variety of popular entertainment videos, and amateur (home recordings and editing), as well as the pure technological content (colors, forms such as snow, feedback and ghosted images); the technological and electronic visual content of both VHS tapes and the machines that play them back (i.e.: what a machine sends out to a monitor without a tape in it, or what a tape sends out if it hasn’t been recorded onto yet); advertising and marketing material from commercial productions; ad and marketing materials from the video industry: video production and technology companies business to business materials and posters; historic materials from video post production, and technology firms
These categories constitute a finite, but almost limitless system of variables, in which Joep allows himself a great amount of freedom to operate within. Although the topic might seem narrow at first, the amount of material under this umbrella is enormous and profound. These categories manifest in the form of paintings, prints, sculptures, assemblages, installations, architectural forms, video films, at least at this point. I am sure he will continue to come of with more novel interpretations of this material. Van Liefland has been collecting materials for almost two decades now. It is an enormous trove, and one should not underestimate the responsibility of maintaining such a library. The video tapes, the machines that play them, the advertisements for the videos, the spaces in which they were rented or sold, the industry that produced them, the audience that grabbed onto the future via the medium, and the industry behind the industry- the myriad of companies that formed a technological background for the more geeky video heads, that supplied and developed the video industry. Whereas much of todays video culture remains hidden in software and in streaming, VHS had a home enthusiast technical aspect that mirrored the more professional video industry- people could get into the gear much in the same way that car enthusiasts could. In this sense, the physical bridge between the entertainment itself and the method to record and produce it, was more intimately linked.
Early video pastiche had several signature formal qualities that Van Liefland mines in paintings: roughly cut scenes, snowy edits, you can also hear the sound of static that happens when disparate materials are harshly pasted together. The idea of recording information over existing information became common with VHS: one could cut a home made scene, or found material into a commercial movie for the first time at home. Sure, it looked crude, but it was possible: there's the imprecisely human attempt to mechanically reproduce an electronic color spectrum as the reproduction of electronic color spectrum. I think we developed an intimate relationship to these video qualities, in the same way that a culture develops an intimacy with brushstrokes in paintings. Our collective ability to analyse different eras of film stocks and video qualities, cognitively follow extremely fast edits, not become nauseous from hand held footage, and simply form consensus on how well a commercial has been made is all due to our cultural conditioning to video. The color spectrum of video is red, green and blue (RGB). Within much of JvLs work, the particular VHS style of the RGB color spectrum is almost exclusively employed. This “VHS” RGB palette is used for prints, and the paintings that are prints, and are defined by these limitations. But we should realise that we now live in a world where much of our focus is existing in the RGB color spectrum. Its not the spectrum our eyes register in nature, but its how electronic colors are displayed to us, whether its a smartphone, a TV, a digital movie projection, a VHS tape or a computer monitor. Virtual reality will be in the RGB color spectrum. It is different from the primary colors of kindergarten art school. Thats what plastic colors and paper charts grow out of. Piet Mondrian’s primary colors: red, yellow and blue, are ineffective. The new primary colors are RGB.
JvLs artwork represents a model of an epitome. An almost perfect representation of a particular and profound phenomena in contemporary life. The artist uses a variety of forms of representation in dealing with this “representation”. He has produced a wide variety of art works that toggle between cultural poles upon a second inspection. the works often are both beautiful and cheap, dirty and clean, current and historic, deceptive and seductive, intensely detailed and seemingly haphazard, alive and dead; For some reason Joeps work never seem retro or static. This bouncing back and forth between poles finally settles at a point where you must simply accept the beauty and insistence of the object, and the artists gesture. They are a personal obsession and a cultural phenomena. The painstakingly produced leftover trash of mass production. Society’s dirty closet after a party.
As often with challenging work, the chance of an initial misinterpretation by audiences could enter into the mind, after the initial seduction of his work transitions into deeper analysis: why glorify this? there might even be a fair amount of guilt or embarrassment when we think of how much we loved videotapes- or perhaps we simply forgot. The Direct to video film production market started: VHS created the cultural shift into the self as a filmmaker and self protagonist. Anyone born before 2000 A.D. watched a fair amount of bad videos, and engaged in a certain amount of fantasy with VHS tapes. The Direct to video film production market started: VHS created the cultural shift into the self as a filmmaker and self protagonist. We shouldn’t forget, because the same satisfaction and pleasure that we had with VHS, we have with whatever is the current escapist technology: netflix series, smartphones, big screen tvs,… remember how much you loved your iPod? but none of these compare to the depth and breadth of VHS in my opinion. Perhaps for a younger generation, it might seem odd, or retro, but that would be missing the point. “Retro” requires a visual and romantic nostalgia to be effective or seductive as an art topic. JvLs work is absorbing and seductive, but not for nostalgic reasons, at all.
Where does art often spring from? Ones adolescence?- the point in our lives when we become more directly conscious of the visual culture we grow up in? Some theorise that it comes from ones personal history, and then how that history relates to a larger cultural spectrum is what makes it interesting to a viewer. This is where the sensitivity to its form and meaning lies. If one were to pick an artefact from ones personal history that pinpointed a turning point, and encapsulated a certain time and place on planet earth- the VHS tape is an amazing object. The visual culture it spawned, the fantasies it inspired, Its entire cultural and technological life cycle: it's all intertwined, and it quite literally covered the planet, in the form of video.
VHS was the gateway to the technological fiction world we now inhabit.