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.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF VIDEO TECHNOLOGY
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).
HOW A SINGLE VCR HELPED SPAWN AN ARTIST MOVEMENT
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.
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)
REFERENCES & CITATIONS
Bellis, Mary. “The History of the Cathode Ray Tube.” The Inventors, theinventors.org/library/inventors/blcathoderaytube.htm. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.
“Betamax”. Pcmag.com. 1994-12-01. Archived from the original on 2009-06-08. Retrieved 2012-09-16.
Bryan-Wilson, Julia. Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artist Space Movement. Julia Bryan-Wilson, 18th Street Arts Center, 2011.
Bryan-Wilson, Julia. “‘EZTV: Video Transfer’ ONE GALLERY, WEST HOLLYWOOD.” Artforum, Ju1 Sept. 2014, www.artforum.com/print/reviews/201407/eztv-video-transfer-47948.
Bryan-Wilson, Julia. “‘Out to See Video’: EZTV’s Queer Microcinema in West Hollywood.” Grey Room, no. 56, 2014, pp. 58–89, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43832274. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Dudley, Elyssa. “EZTV: Channeling West Hollywood’s Artsy Video History.” Southern California Public Radio, 16 May 2014, archive.kpcc.org/programs/offramp/2014/05/16/37487/eztv-channeling-west-hollywood-s-artsy-video-histo.
Frantz, David Evan. “EZTV: Three Decades of Video Antics.” KCET, 9 July 2021, www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/eztv-three-decades-of-video-antics.
“National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley.” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/314/national-endowment-for-the-arts-v-finley. Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.
Nuwer, Rachel. “The Inventor of Videotape Recorders Didn’t Live to See Blockbuster’s Fall.” Smithsonian Magazine, 7 Nov. 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-inventor-of-videotape-recorders-didnt-live-to-see-blockbusters-fall-180947594.
Paplin, Rick. “Filmmakers Forum” Interview with John Dorr (1984)
Reporter, Guardian Staff. “The Porn Pioneers.” The Guardian, 8 Sept. 2021, www.theguardian.com/technology/1999/sep/30/onlinesupplement.
Schwartz, Evan. “Who Really Invented Television?” MIT Technology Review, 1 Sept. 2000, www.technologyreview.com/2000/09/01/236187/who-really-invented-television.
Snowden, Don. “AND NOW A WORD FROM YOUR LOCAL VIDEO ARTIST . . . : TV Screens Are Today’s Canvases for Mixing Art With Electronics.” Los Angeles Times, 18 Oct. 1987, www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-10-18-ca-15229-story.html
“Sony Betamax Model SL-8600.” Betamax Collectors, www.betamaxcollectors.com/sonybetamaxmodelsl-8600.html. Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.
Times, The New York. “John Dorr, Filmmaker And Gallery Owner, 48.” The New York Times, 6 Jan. 1993, www.nytimes.com/1993/01/06/obituaries/john-dorr-filmmaker-and-gallery-owner-48.html.
“U-Matic (1971 – 1990s).” The Museum of Obsolete Technology, obsoletemedia.org/u-matic. Accessed 27 Apr. 2022. https://obsoletemedia.org/u-matic/