Perfect Imperfection

Out with the new, in with the old

Text by Tony Coles

When I was lucky enough to get my own VHS recorder in my mid-teens, I was surprised to discover that when it rewound tapes, it rewound a little bit more than the existing unit in the living room. This revealed itself at the beginning of a much-used tape as a 30-second self-assembled montage of half-second clips, jumping from one to another with sheets of noisy static and all sorts of wild image distortions. It must have been the result of the other recorder not being completely precise with its rewinds, so it would start recording on some random strip of tape within that half-minute lead-in. The old recorder had created its own little piece of glitch video. In the modern age, the precision of digital reliability means this sort of serendipitous self-assemblage isn’t likely to happen. We are left with finding a strange fascination in failed image conversions, upset downloads and internet streaming snags – or deliberately encouraging them.

In the analogue age, such micro-interruptions were commonplace and always marked the passage of time for information, but they also marked our relationship with it. From vinyl’s inherent crackle and pop to the analogue noise and tracking artefacts on much-loved VHS movies, the accretion of flaws used to build up on the things we loved in tandem with our affection for them. Like the erosion and softening of paper pages in a battered paperback, the more you used something, the more it aged and, given the chaotic nature of how these imperfections accumulate, they created a personalised aging process unique to each individual’s instance of an artefact. This gives these mass-produced products their own narrative, a history, an aesthetic fingerprint and, in a deeper sense, reminds us that these things are still a part of nature and just as subject to its ravages as we are.

As an ideal canvas, the VHS tape is, in many ways, emblematic of the digital revolution that followed immediately after. Originally a powerful tool of liberation from the tyranny of timetabled broadcast television and a cheap distribution method, its engineering flaws and vulnerabilities became its downfall when the digital replacements arrived. Nonetheless, it presaged a new relationship with information as much as it did for moving pictures and sound. It is often noted that when a medium is superceded, the successor must perform its task as well as bring something new. The videotape did this to audio cassette tape, photographs and books by subsuming their capabilities as a medium, but obviously not as a practical device. However, the versatility of video tape meant that if one was purposely inclined, it could be a book or a radio or a photograph or a movie. It could even be a computer storage medium and, at a push, a musical instrument. The means of access might not have been particularly convenient but the capability was always there, and relatively cheap and certainly widespread. As a format for this medium, VHS fell into the “good enough” stream of emerging technologies where its quality of reproduction was adequate rather than triumphant and the level of control a user had over their recorded information was pretty standard. Its legendary battle with Sony’s video format, Betamax, was the first real format war of note in the information age and in winning it, set in stone a shared cultural experience that carried its own parameters for age and decay. One key strand of the VHS promise was the concept of home movies as permanent records that could be shared far more easily than film. With recorders rapidly matching parity with the number of televisions throughout the ’80s, VHS home movies meant more people had their childhoods and family events documented with full motion and sound than ever before. Of course, that particular promise – of eternal, easily shared memories – was actually somewhat hollow. If you had backed up a home movie from 1986 every four years by copying it to another VHS recorder so that the copy becomes the master, the level of degradation inherent in VHS’s “good enough” tolerances would render it unwatchable after four or so copies, so that memory would be lost around 2002. In reality, people just play the original tapes but often find them riddled with natural degradation that is just as bad.

It is interesting that the same generation who had their first baby steps recorded on VHS now celebrate it online via Tumblr and suchlike. VHS has been elevated to heroic status, like some fond nostalgic companion. Across Tumblr’s vast, acontextual image archive, its legacy can be seen as box cover and tape label scans or grimy stills from found-in-a-dumpster personal TV tapes. There are abstract works created from deliberate over-copying and tape abuse. There are documents of cumulative glitches born from contact with nature.

There is even an infographic demonstrating why VHS is superior to DVD. Key points such as fast-forwarding through logos and trailers, a lack of annoying menus and the similarity between VHS cases and books on a shelf are integral to the sentiment. One user, obsessed with VHS horror films, had built up a fascinating archive of noise glitches fleeting across the black screen just before the studio logo, presumably from the huge boxes of vintage VHS tapes he was regularly collecting via eBay. In terms of what fuels this romance, we can look at cultural landmarks such as Japanese horror film Ringu and its expert use of degraded VHS aesthetics to lend authenticity and creepiness to its killer tape, and Gen-X touchstone Natural Born Killers’ lurching mixed-media approach. Fans may well be just as influenced by the rapid-fire shifts of video quality in home video slapstick mishap shows like You’ve Been Framed, which often asked for submissions on VHS. There is definitely something more universal and personal in the growing love for a dead, supposedly obsolete format. The answer probably lies in the likelihood that this generation grew up with VHS as normality, rather than something that arrived. If a child grows up with the power to curate their own archives of television, the idea of a machine-based medium playing a central role of entertainer and educator (or even companion) doesn’t seem too strange. It follows that when that medium becomes forcibly obsolete, a wave of profound nostalgia is inevitable. There is likely a common experience with the media ageing and its imperfections, especially if you think how many children must have recorded their cartoons and films on hand-me-down tapes from parents. The worn tape probably left some degree of degradation the first time a cartoon was taped over a soap opera or sports event and the imperfect copy, which becomes more imperfect over time, takes on an acceptable veneer.

The dawn of the high definition era drew a line in the sand. With vital aspects such as transmission speed and storage capacity reaching critical mass, the concept of lossless media became a demand and not a dreamy aspiration. Clarity, resolution and precision were attainable virtues that became selling points and any disruption or deviation from the expected, shared standard was an intrusion on the experience and a failure of the machine. There was a grey borderland prior to this, where the internet provided the avenues for distribution and discovery, but the common person’s access speed was slow and storage media capacities were limited. Compression was a necessity and its cut-offs were harsh, leading to an entire decade of lossy media that brought its own flawed aesthetic. Pixelated video with colour banding was common and still JPEG images rarely stood up to one level of zoom without betraying artefacts. In the early days of streaming video, lost packets lead to a host of new intrusions, spewing lines of garbled data across momentary frames and the novel weirdness of shuffling motion behind a stuck, degraded frame. Imperfections in encodings or downloads lent a permanence to these new hiccups that, in a very real way, mirror the imperfections of VHS and audio cassette. I have MP3s from over ten years ago that have the odd squit of white noise or weird chirrup here and there, but these errors personalise that particular instance of a song and that instance has accompanied me across a range of media-playing devices. Those chirrups fix it as a unique version of that song that has precisely the same kind of narrative and sense of personal history as a long-loved VHS tape.

In an eight-year study of digital music preferences published by Stanford University in 2009, teenagers caused an anomalous spike of popularity for the lossy MP3, where clarity was “good enough”, but that jangly anti-aliasing could still be heard. It can be a difficult sound to describe, but if once you have heard a 96kps MP3, you will recognise it instantly. It has the sound quality of medium wave radio, but the harshness of the compression adds a shimmering undertone that is always present in the top end – a shuffling, jangling upgrade of radio static that is entirely unique, but seems to follow the timbre of the song in its intensity. This preference was put down to the media devices more than anything specific to the compression. As teenagers had grown up with the scant storage and poor audio quality of cheap MP3 players and mobile phones, they had developed a fondness for such imperfect sound. Of course, these are pretty much the same people who were born with VHS as a ubiquitous medium (rather than witness it arrive as a revolution), so the “acceptable middle” was no stranger. It was just how things were always supposed to be. Interestingly, a 2012 study along the same lines found that modern teenagers are now leaning towards CD-quality audio and away from the jangly MP3, a nice correlation with the vastly increased capacities and abilities of modern media devices. The high definition age set baseline standards well in excess of those seen in the early days of portable streaming media, including much better error correction. The rapid spread of cheap, accessible HD devices has raised the entry-level standard, although the reality of internet infrastructures and over-subscription means this flawless ideal isn’t always consistently experienced. YouTube is still happy to offer remarkably low-quality video and even the smoothest and sharpest of video streams can still be visited by a line or two of noise and corruption. The adoption of HD televisions as standard has revealed, in stunning clarity, the high compression artefacting of cable and digital television channels, bringing a real flavour of those early 2000s low-quality aesthetics to the fore. Digital broadcast television has its own palette of glitches that can find a gallery of sorts on home PVRs, even if the idea of a cumulative montage is out of the question.

Although still imperfect, HD strives to minimise noticeable errors and noise and, as its standards became widespread, that intrusion of nature on the artificial has found a new canvas. Today, it is our media devices that become self-generated pieces of glitched art rather than our old tapes, records and books. Portability necessarily means exposure to the elements, which often results in dents and dings and scratches, which means our devices take on a unique patina. Early iPhones had a metal back that would develop a rich pattern of polish and grit, given enough exposure to keys and keyrings in trouser pockets or handbags, and this has been remarked upon on by a few design blogs, one associating it with the Japanese term “Wabi-sabi”, the pleasing aesthetic of something that has worn over time. I prefer to see each minute bump and scratch as an anomaly in the device’s everyday life that builds an ongoing personal narrative for those units. When a glitch in media tells us that computers and connectivity are not infallible, a scratch on the surface of our devices tells us that they aren’t perfect or invulnerable either. It shows that they are as much a part of nature as us. As much as the first noticeable dent on a new mobile phone jars the mind, just as a flash of analogue snow on a newly bought VHS movie would have irked ’90s consumers, perhaps we should be marvelling at the resilience of both to still do what they need to despite the upsets and disruptions. And just perhaps, we should be paying more attention to how our things are ageing and what stories these imperfections relate. We should be wondering if our devices can be designed to age as beautifully as a good pair of jeans, a fine leather wallet or expensive suitcases sold as future heirlooms. Perhaps we should be thankful for the surface dings and dents because in a uniform, standardised world where perfect media can be trivially replicated (if not always reliably transmitted), it is the devices that are uniquely ours and they do that just by being with us all the time.

  • Perfect Imperfections Tank