Tracking: VHS and Skate History
You can't get to the present without the past. In a time when culture was preserved on analog media this was an unwavering concept: our lives were filled with the medium of the era, and if you were a consumer of culture any spaces that weren't filled with contemporary media were occupied by media of an earlier era. If you watched movies you had a house filled with DVDs and VHS, and maybe even laserdiscs and projector reels. By comparison, you could wake up today and purchase every movie in existence, and aside from some shifted bits of permission very little would change; today all the movies in the world can't make a single VHS or DVD appear in your home. I was born in 1981 and by the time I was a teenager compact discs were the medium of the day. Music was the culture parlance, and it became the locus of many discussions about identity in a world before the internet made our identities as plasticine and immediate as a bio and a selfie.
CDs were tiny weekly temples of self-articulation wherein young people either doubled down, drifted into a new course, or otherwise set about orienting the overarching narratives of their identity. But these temples weren't free to enter: CDs cost $10 - $25 each if you purchased them new, and “What kind of music do you listen to,” was one of the first questions many people asked when getting acquainted. So that meant that constructing your identity was inseparable from collecting flat plastic: if you wanted to be able to relate to the world around you the best way was to start with music. One CD could become a means to gain entry to an entirely new social scene that could alter your next day and every day that might follow. When I got to college in Orlando in 2000 I had two giant CD binders filled with CDs. Even when I started using high speed internet to download hundreds of songs in my dorm, I would burn the music to CDs in order to be able to listen to it in my car, or give it to my friends. The CD was an essential medium of self-articulation in a time when there were few options for creating a socially legible identity. And one side effect is that they left a physical trace for culture, which added an element of spontaneity. When culture lives on a medium it can truly be discovered–you can happen upon something that you didn’t anticipate in a place where you did not expect to find it. When culture lives on an analog medium it resists control, and will ultimately over time define its own course independent of the humans who own the medium.
In skateboarding the VHS cassette changed the way we exist, and videos shaped the skateboarder’s identity in ways that foreshadowed the effects of the internet on all of society. For a skater with a video collection in the late 90s the rest of the world wasn’t an abstract place filled with unknowable strangers and unfathomable features. If you were a land-locked townie ass motherfuckerville USA in 1999, but you were an avid skater who kept up with a decent amount of videos then you knew about places all around the world because skate companies went on tour, and foreign companies made videos that were available in your skate shop. Through these videos we all came to know about people who we never met. But more importantly, even though we didn’t know each other, we shared in a common culture with these people. We consumed the same “content” and we held many similar standards for how to dress and what music to listen to. And most profoundly, we all practiced tricks, and developed styles that were cultivated direct from the videos of skateboarding’s innovators, and forebears.
Without videos skateboarding as we know it wouldn’t exist. Videos are the basis by which we all came to know what was possible in skateboarding. Even if you live around other skaters who can do all the tricks and that’s where you first saw those tricks being done, if you ask those people where they first saw the tricks you won’t have to go back many generations to find that the answer is VHS or DVD videos. Seeing skateboard videos shows skateboarders what is possible, and it has set our collective minds on paths that now grow within an incredibly dynamic and responsive globalized network. But, this network was spawned from a comparatively miniscule collection of VHS cassettes documenting small groups of isolated weirdos who chose to take to the streets and break the law with skateboards. It took on a vast degree of gradations that fit people from all walks of life from the likes of Wade Speyer to Lavar McBride, Chris Senn to Jesus Fernandez, and anyone else who chose to partake in it.
At this point people are debating where skating is going, and whether or not it is deviating from its roots. There is no definitive answer to that question, because when someone tells you whether or not skating is deviating from its roots they are just speaking in reverse to let you know what they love about skating’s past, what they love about skating right now, what they love about skating in the future, or some combination therein. But, VHS cassettes provide an uncontestable document as to what was happening. And it’s not that we need to worry about what can be proven and what can’t, but what’s on those VHS cassettes will always be worth more than whatever we think of what is on them. Who knows where skateboarding will go from here, and who knows what we as skateboarders will be concerned with once we get to the future. But regardless of what skateboarding becomes, or how it is articulated, the VHS cassettes that document the times of skateboarding’s innovation will always be a concrete reminder of how we arrived in such plasticine times.