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John Dorr's First VCR

July 13, 2022
Written by Michael J. Masucci

When we glance at an object in a thrift store, we are divorced from the unique narrative that is tied to the history of that abandoned, and now forgotten object. And even if we reject purchasing it, we might perhaps hope that some person will see some value in that object, take it home and give it once again, a renewed purpose. Even when we visit a museum, we often have no factual reference as to the person or persons who built, owned and perhaps even cherished that object. No matter whether it was once held as sacred, used as a tool for labor, or as an adornment to enhance an otherwise banal existence, the voice that was once spoken through that object is now silenced. Unless that artifact had been associated with a famous person or event, it now simply represents a class of taxonomically and morphologically similar objects. Certain ones housed in museums may have been determined to be an exemplary or artistically outstanding examples of that class, and specific facts may have survived about their history. But it is rare that the individual story of an otherwise unremarkable object is known. Through an autoethnographic approach, and still living memory, the otherwise unsuspected history of a now obsolete and largely worthless piece of electronics, is revealed for the pivotal role it played in the building of a alternative arts and socio-politically activated community.

SONY Betamax SL-8600 (1979) originally owned by John Dorr
Collection, EZTV Online Museum, Kate Johnson Memorial Media Lab, 18th Street Arts Center

John Dorr (1945-1993)

The EZTV Online Museum is a website dedicated to the preservation of video, art and ephemera related to the Los Angeles-based alternative art space and its institutional progeny, originally founded by writer/director John Dorr. According to the NY Times’ obituary of Dorr, EZTV was, “a video gallery and production and distribution center that enables independent filmmakers to produce inexpensive feature-length videos.” Not to be confused with the younger, better-known, and illegal bit torrent of the same name, EZTV championed independent video and served as both a production as well as exhibition space, art gallery and meeting ground for LA’s burgeoning alternative art movement. In the 1980s and early 90s, it also served as ‘ground zero’ for the AIDS pandemic. And a venue for performance art and early digital art.

EZTV’s 43-year continues today, although highly transformed, both as both an online museum archive as well as a small independent media lab and studio. Housed within that media lab, in addition to various ephemera, are numerous objects, often examples of the hardware used over the decades by the various artists that at one time or another called EZTV their home. Perched on a set of cabinets that house various cables and stationary supplies, lies an unassuming antique. It’s only practical function today, is as a clock. It is John Dorr’s first Video Cassette Recorder (VCR), a Betamax model # SL-8600.

Historically, video can be divided into two large technology periods, the analog period and today’s digital video period. Analog video images were first displayed on Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors, equipment with curved edges, concave front glass screen surfaces and an image size, measured diagonally, of no larger than 25” (and usually smaller). The CRT was invented in 1897 by German scientist Karl Ferdinand Braun (Bellis, accessed 2022). Although the invention of broadcast television is often credited to American inventor Philo Farnsworth in 1927 (Schwartz, 2000), according to the BBC, a year earlier, Scottish inventor John Baird demonstrated a working television system. Video recording was invented in 1951 by American engineer and AMPEX employee Charles Ginsberg, who declared his invention “one of the most significant technological advances” (Nuwer, 2013) since television.

AMPEX’s first reel-to-reel video recorders were expensive and difficult to operate. SONY invented the easy-to-use Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) in 1971, with the U-Matic format (Museum of Obsolete Technology website) In 1975, it released a smaller version of its VCR technology, called Betamax (Betamax Collectors website).

Dorr acquired his first Betamax in 1979. Its original price was $1.150, roughly $4,544 in today’s money. He had spent years unsuccessfully trying to get Hollywood to produce his scripts. At least one of his scripts was optioned, but never realized. Frustrated, Dorr turned to the video, producing a parody that he and his life partner George LaFleur had written, and over a weekend, using a borrowed black & white security camera, produced a feature-length production video called “Sudzall Does it All!”

Actor, co-writer George LaFleur in “Sudzall Does it All!”

“Sudzall” is a spoof on mass consumerism, focused on a hack TV director’s obsession with the product his work helps sell, a laundry detergent. The 90minute video premiered at the long defunct but influential LAICA (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art) and was later written about it their publication “Journal” in 1981. This proved to be Dorr’s only foray in the contemporary art mainstream. Despite his early opportunity to present his work at LACIA, he soon “discovered that none of the museums that show work by video artists were willing to screen his early tapes” (Snowden, 1987). Undaunted, he created "perhaps the country's first micro-cinema dedicated exclusively to video” (Frantz, 2014).

Left: Dorr’s original “Sudzall” script, Right: cover of LAICA Journal

Unlike the roughly 18 million Betamax VCRs sold during its 27-year production tenure, Dorr’s particular VCR was instrumental in inspiring independent, largely Queer, Los Angeles-based artists, writers, directors, actors and musicians, to create their own alternative arts movement. It was not only used to record the works, but to play them back at their public screenings. Dorr made it clear that these were not films, they were unapologetically, videos.

Consumer video was a new chapter in the symbiotic relationship between art & science. The video revolution, originally spawned by the pornography industry (Brooks, 1999), attracted many artists and other independent creators as well. It was a DIY cultural revolution.

In “Sudzall,” Dorr incorporates various references to Queer culture, as if it had been already mainstreamed in the then near-future of 1983. For example, a character watches a West Hollywood (an early openly Queer community) TV station, named “KGAY. ‘83” “EZTV grew during an era of rapidly developing video technologies and existed in a climate of heated, politicized discourses surrounding the representations of gays and lesbians in industrial media production; it talked back to those representations in diverse ways by multiplying them, ignoring them, perverting them, satirizing them, queering them” (Bryan-Wilson 2011).

Video still: “Sudzall Does it All!” (1979) John Dorr
EZTV Archives, USC ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives

Although there have been several scholars who have studied the work of John Dorr, most notably UC, Berkley professor Julia Bryan-Wilson, and he was profiled in a number of press articles during his life, his first VCR has gone unrecognized for the contribution it made not only to his own work, but the work of the various EZTV artists as a whole.

An interesting aspect of Door’s early VCR movies was that he created feature-length productions, without the use of video editing equipment. In fact, according to a 1984 interview, (Paplin, 1984), he didn’t at first even know that video could be edited. For his first three productions, he simply stopped and started each ‘take’ by pressing the pause button. This was sometimes ridiculed by other more-tech savvy individuals, such as a Los Angeles Times writer, who wrote dismissively that “he didn’t realize video tape could be edited, and shot his initial, full-length feature in sequence” (Snowden, 1987). But the criticism, although valid (a simple trip to the nearby library, pursuing any introductory textbook on television production would have spoken about video editing), also ignores a certain innovative aspect of Dorr’s character.

In his earliest works, Dorr, self-admittedly unaware that video could be edited, devised a work around for making scene-driven narrative work. He simple hit the pause button between shots, they re-set, changed angles, etc., the releasing the pause button on his Betamax to continue. The ‘flying erase head,’ a technical innovation that allowed for clean cuts between shots had not yet been invented, so a visible and audible glitch took place every time Dorr made a ‘cut’ on his videos. These technical glitches proved to be ‘deal breakers’ for early distribution.

Later on, when he acquired and was familiar with editing equipment, he revisited his early works and edited out those glitches on “Dorothy and Alan.” He never revisited or reedited his first two features. The newly remastered “Dorothy and Alan” is clean of the original glitches.

Video still “Clear Canva. (1984) James Williams
EZTV Archives, USC ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives

In addition to producing his own videos on this VCR, Dorr allowed other EZTV artists to use it for their own creations. For example, photographer (and EZTV’s first wall art curator) James Williams’ several evocative DIY short video art experiments. 

Flyer for screening of Terry Mack Murphy’s “Other Woman” and other videos, including “Sudzall” (1982)

The Betamax was also used to playback Dorr’s own videos, as well as those of his friends at screenings he staged at West Hollywood’s Community Center. In 1983, inspired by the support he found presenting these screenings, he, along with a group of ‘core members’ founded EZTV Video Gallery as a permanent space. A few persons, including Strawn Bovee, are still affiliated.

John Dorr acting in his second feature, “The Case of the Missing Consciousness” (1982)

Dorr went onto to create 2 more ‘video features’ on his first VCR before upgrading to a better one for his 4th such production. The second, “The Case of the Missing Consciousness” (1981) and then want was to be his most ambitious undertaking to date, the 2 hour “Dorothy and Alan at Norma Place” a biopic on the life of writer Dorothy Parker and her bisexual husband Alan.

Video stills from John Dorr’s “Dorothy and Alan at Norma Place” (1982, actors Strawn Bovee and George LaFleur)

It wasn’t until Dorr’s fourth feature that he recruited an editor and used a conventional video-editing system to complete the work. EZTV borrowed money to purchase a video editing system, better cameras and replaced Betamax with higher quality equipment. All the other EZTV artists migrated to the new and higher quality equipment. Dorr’s first VCR was retired.

By the late 1980s, Dorr and EZTV had upgraded their technology and his first Betamax was collecting dust. George LaFluer, knowing I still didn’t have a VCR at home, asked if I wanted to buy it for $100. I jumped at the chance, realizing that otherwise it would likely be sold to a stranger and be lost to what I was seeing was a local underground artistic movement. I actually never used it as a VCR. But I kept its red LED digital clock running to this day.

Along with the digitized videos, posters, articles, and other ephemera that will be contained in the EZTV Online Museum, there exists a need to find a suitable institution to also preserve the hardware that informed and inspired the independent artists to build their own community.

Various alums at EZTV 40th anniversary celebration at Highway Performance Space (2019)

Intended as a home entertainment appliance, John Dorr’s SL-8600 started a cultural revolution that persists, despite every opportunity to fail, to this day. 43 years after Dorr acquired his first VCR, EZTV exists both as an online museum as well as a physical space at the 18th Street Arts Center. 18th Street has its own very rich history. In the studios and workspaces which go back to the 1980s, Judy Chicago assembled her artwork “The Dinner Party” here, Highways Performance Space challenged the homophobic, sexist and racist dominant culture with its often-notorious work, and Electronic Café International anticipated today’s online and internetworked Zoom and Skype communities. The most significant U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling on funding for the arts, National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 524 U.S. 569, (1998) was also at the heart of 18th Street’s history. The, plaintiffs, the so-called “NEA Four,” were all artists associated with 18th Street’s Highways Performance Space. In fact, one of the NEA 4, Tim Miller, co-founded it.

It is ironic that the object being discussed here as a force in the independent revolution is a Betamax. The consumer market for SONY’s pioneering invention was cannibalized by JVC’s competing VHS, which offered more recording time per tape, but at a slight loss in quality. “To this day however, “Betamaxed” refers to a superior technology that is overtaken by an inferior one.” (PC Magazine, 2009). SONY stopped making Betamax VCRs in 2002. But some interest persisted for a while until SONY stopped manufacturing Betamax tapes in 2016.

Just as with Betamax, EZTV and John Dorr have largely been forgotten. Because of the economic insecurity of arts funding, and the passing of EZTV’s long-time president Kate Johnson, its future is uncertain. This breeding ground for innovative thinking, diversity and self-empowerment is hardly known by media art historians. “After Dorr (its major champion, front man, and director) died of HIV-related causes in 1993, EZTV gradually fell into obscurity, and its treasure trove of narrative and experimental videos, which were housed for years in the cardboard boxes and paper bags of surviving EZTV members, threatened to warp and disintegrate” (Bryan-Wilson, 2014). And although this is in some ways accurate, EZTV’s focus intentionally shifted from being a more public local theater/gallery as it was during Dorr’s time, becoming more of a laboratory/studio exploring the next media art revolution: digital art.

EZTV, after Dorr’s passing, was presented at spaces such as London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, (1996 & 97) the American Film Institute (1999), and more recently in the 2000s at Helsinki’s Wire Factory at lectures at the School of Visual Arts (New York), UCLA, University of Helsinki, USC, Parsons School of Design, CalTec, Claremont Colleges, Otis College of Art & Design, San Francisco Public Library, Cal Arts, and at various conferences including the College Art Association National Conference, and SIGGRAPH. In 2016, EZTV’s then-president Kate Johnson (1969-2020) won an Emmy for her co-producing and co-directing of a PBS documentary. Johnson also created some of Southern California’s largest site-specific digital projection events including on all five buildings of the Getty Center for the gala opening of its massive 70 organization initiative “Pacific Standard Time, LA 1940-1980”(PST).

EZTV logo projected on Getty Building as part of gala opening for PST (2011)

Johnson’s projection, which was an artistic representation of LA’s art history from 1940-80, was produced chronologically. In ending with 1979 and 1980, Johnson proudly and unabashedly projected the EZTV logo at the top of the Getty, along with brief clips of videos created on Dorr’s first VCR, including “Sudzall.”

All during the post-Dorr years, the surviving EZTV members, along with the newcomers, persevered in preserving the early years, along with such related materials of Dorr’s first VCR. These survivors had even before Dorr’s death, migrated from analog video to digital becoming some of the earliest adopters of what was to be the next and even greater cultural/technological transformation. Anticipating the digital/internet revolution allowed the new core group to make the transition ahead of the curve, leading to their continuation to this day.

In 2011 EZTV (including “Sudzall” and several other videos recorded on Dorr’s Betamax), was curated by Alex Donis as part of “Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artist Space Movement”, 18th Street Art Center’s component in PST. EZTV was included in PST as one of five exemplary alternative art spaces selected as 18th Street Arts Center’s official participation in the event. 18th Street. These five “influential and often overlooked artists and collaborative arts groups were fundamental to charting the course for the artists’ space movement and its vision of egalitarian artistic production and reception” (Bryan-Wilson, 2011).

Left: EZTV president Kate Johnson (1969-2020) watching “Sudzall” at opening of PST’s “Collaboration Lab.
Right: book, “Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artist Space Movement”

In 2019, two French researchers, Sibylle de Laurens and Pascaline Morincome produced and curated 4 events at the Kandinsky Library, Centre Pompidou. Included was a special screening, in association with film critic Gaspard Nectoux at the cinematheque, of Dorr’s “Dorothy & Alan at Norma Place”. In 2020, these three researchers traveled from Paris to Los Angeles for a one-month long residency at 18th Street Arts Center. There they conducted interviews and examined, in depth, the EZTV archives now housed at USC’s ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (the world’s largest Queer archive and library).

The achievements created on Dorr’s Betamax VCR had crossed not only the physical boundaries of oceans and continents, but the artificial boundaries between art and technology. This now obsolete relic of the early days of video self-empowerment was as much a milestone in technology as it was art. The perfect marriage of art and science, a relationship that has endured since pre-history. More importantly, it represented a political statement and movement. Dorr intentionally and specifically called his works videos, and not films, explicitly declaring that sociopolitical distinction. Video was ‘of the people.’

Display of early EZTV ephemera, including the original “Sudzall” script. Included as part of the 4th of 4 events at Kandinsky Library, Centre Pompidou, with guest lectures by Kate Johnson & Michael J. Masucci (2019)

One of several vitrines of EZTV ephemera for a month-long exhibition at the Kandinsky Library, Centre Pompidou (2019)
courtesy of exhibition series curators Sibylle de Laurens and Pascaline Morincome

In Artforum’s only coverage of EZTV, a review of USC ONE Archive’s three-month exhibition on EZTV, it “underscored EZTV’s role in shaping pre-YouTube networks of video distribution and viewership” (Bryan-Wilson, 2014). This important statement demonstrates the evolutionary patterns that artists have employed in the development of their self-empowerment.

“EZTV: Video Transfer”, curated by David Evan Frantz, three-month exhibition,
USC ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives Gallery (2014).

The Betamax, the once-dismissed beginning of the consumer-based video revolution, anticipated what was to flourish decades later. “Video had some serious image issues at the time, when most Hollywood bigwigs considered it a poor substitute for film. But this didn't stop EZTV from attracting an eclectic group of collaborators and media coverage” (Dudley, 2014). Today, people, formally trained or not in the media arts, use video as an extension of their very senses, recording their lives, simple or not, document profound and world-changing events, and have added immensely to the zeitgeist of the human experience. It has become ubiquitous and perhaps indispensable. Many have gained notoriety, as creatives or ‘influencers,’ and some of have impacted the lives of so many. The early Betamax videos produced by Dorr and his cohort, not only anticipated this revolution, but lived it. As among the earliest of the early adopters of the independent media revolution, they stood unincumbered by the financial expectations of the mainstream of either Hollywood or the commercial art world. They used a consumer electronic device, intended to record TV shows (or surreptitiously watch porn at home), and highjacked it, appropriating its innate capabilities to describe their lives, their communities and their worlds. In became their writing pen, paintbrush and musical instrument. And they created a legacy of worth worthy of the curatorial and historical remembrance that is being to spawn.

I will never know how many projects were actually recorded on Dorr’s first VCR, but I know of the most significant ones. And for those contributions that this relic from the 1970-80s home video revolution made possible, and the creativity and self-empowerment it inspired, this otherwise unremarkable object, related to the technological junk heap of history, and the story it represents, deserves to be preserved and appreciated. And the EZTV story continues to be written.

Coming to a Betamax near you…Sketches for LAICA screening. John Dorr (1980) 

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