If an unmarked VHS tape—fuzzed-out, riddled with static, awash in distortion—came to you in the mail, how would that sit with you? It’s the foreboding and sinister setup for both David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Michael Haneke’s Caché—works where the grain of VHS tapes suggests encroaching voyeurism and threatening mediation. Horrific violence ensues—the id stirring from deep repression cracked open.
Ty (Garrett, now) Segall gets this. With no context, this week, he announced the release of his new album, Emotional Mugger, with an onslaught of VHS tapes. They were sent with no press and little information to a limited number of editors. The Lynch/Haneke intertext is implicit in this tactic—with bound crumpled sheets of paper enfolded around the tapes, no less—but the unnerving currents of the ploy were also cut with incongruous humor. Segall’s not hectoring; a swift kick in the ass should knock something loose.
The tapes were labeled with only Segall’s name (including a heretofore unused middle name) and a track listing. The music was recorded over whatever movies were already on the tape; some still had a Blockbuster Video sticker emblazoned across. They contained cryptic, typed notes that deepened the mystery/provocation—disjointed ramblings about the title’s meaning and relevance. Soon, a website appeared with only a single video of Segall, dressed as a doctor, conducting a strange and ridiculous PSA-style short/infomercial. Eventually, he semi-capitulated, providing some explanation with a free-association (lyrics, most likely) (mock)press-release. For a preeminent glam-garage acolyte, all the world’s an absurd stage.
The Emotional Mugger project is a screw off to tactical and elaborate releases that have become mainstream normative. It’s DIY, and it makes fun of its own shoddiness—a low-budget intermedia project-cum-stunt where the presentation is allowed to (briefly) overshadow the music. This out-of-the-blue mailer follows a pattern, expanding on Segall’s disinterest in following set patterns in a well-oiled industry increasingly overly proud of its own cleverness. Segall’s prolificacy and formidable talent has been applied to an array of projects both expected and askew. He’s known for piling-on—tossing out multiple (great) albums in just months—tacking-on—playing in the back and foreground in multiple projects at once: GØGGS, Fuzz, Broken Bats, Wand, White Fence, Mikal Cronin, et al.—and stretching his sound, trying on new styles.
In 2005, some 94 million Americans still had VCR players; now, it’s all but a dead form. It’s no longer an easy format; most aren’t even equipped to play it—which is part of the fun Segall’s having, I’m sure. And it’s non-transferrable—despite the hard copy, you can’t import the new VHS into your library without some serious and odd rigging. Segall then is shackling in the best possible way—crossing wires to achieve a maximally discomfiting listening(viewing?) experience. He’s putting these few listeners through the media paces to earn the couch time—which is an absurd application in itself—to consume this new piece (and making them fully consider the medium and effort in the process). Then, they have to embrace an inferior and deceased format—listening to a garbled transfer that likely feels as if it’s degrading by the second, fitted, by all accounts, with 40 minutes of glitch and fuzz, then followed by what’s left of the written-over movie—the long-forgotten Michael Keaton movie My Life in some cases; others (luckier) got Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
The music has nothing to do with the movies, other than the fact that they are housed on the same cheap tape within the same eco-unfriendly plastic case. And that’s the idea, a nonsensical pairing of media. The Emotional Mugger tapes are destined to be obscure, passed-around totems, their scarcity situating them as artifacts scrawled on a once-ubiquitous medium—VHS cave-drawings marking clunky-radical history. In the VHS age, media slithered from long-held confines and took the first wobbly steps toward mobility and ubiquity, for better or worse. This mailer is both reminder and corrective, reassessing the linearity of that timeline and media historicity while also questioning where we are at present.
The 20-year reign of VHS—1977 to 1997—represents the last-gasps of analog before digitally-written home viewing. In its heyday, it was threatening, with the potential to upend industries and create new ones. VHS gave over control (somewhat) to the viewer, allowing audiences to curate and manipulate the text. We have reversed our love of this plastic case, but the mind-meld with machines it birthed is as strong as ever. It was always meant to be replaceable and surpassed; that’s part of its charm. It was always going to be a stop-gap to bigger things—that is, smaller things. It opened up new levels of convenience and individualization/adaptation/relation. But this has turned—we are onto hyper-convenience, where the promises and prescience of this shift in viewing formats has been refined, and will continue to be. In turn, our relation specifically to VHS is totally altered, it is an inconvenience by comparison, a timepiece laced with irony and skewed-nostalgia.
Today, media is mashed together. Formats aren’t specific; they are all-inclusive. A film is not a film because it is on film. And music is not music because of its conveyance. The definitions of the forms are at once uprooted, uncertain, and in need of more precision if they are to make any sense. Even then, they likely won’t do any justice. Perhaps Emotional Mugger posits an absurdity in this cross-pollination. But, putting an album on a VHS also suggests he’s not really after a treatise about the dislodged materiality of modern media either. By cavalierly crossing up forms he leaves us with just a lingering, amorphous absurd artifact, and that’s OK, and refreshingly obtuse, sidestepping the linearity of nostalgia by cricking the pipelines and crossing the wires.
It’s all well and good to revert to old formats and reconstruct old consumption constellations, but why not go back and disrupt the baseline, and use our hindsight to reorient our nostalgic gaze—cross-up old analog methods to make them approximate new forms in a way that is ironic, absurd, pointed, and playful. Albums are projects now—packaged to create a specific and attributable flavor that is recognizable and appealing to the right demographics and intended audience—so why not mess with the routine? They are many-tentacled things, and they permeate in unseen and invisible corners or our reality—so make it cumbersome to compensate. Segall also knows that in this modern world, video-tapes can hold a real menace, a firm tethering to machine. We’ve given ourselves over fully but wrongly overlook this because it’s all less tactile and more streamlined—fused to our bodies, expanding into daily life. Segall tapped into Videodrome territory here (and he expressly squares his focus on pseudo-psychoanalysis, to add another layer to this thing), touching on the continuum that extends on through and beyond the V/H/S movies. VHS potentiated living media—entities able to be overwritten and rewritten. Before, keeping things “crisp and free of snow” was the pinnacle; as canvases for experimentation, fuzzing out the senses is the goal. Segall, like many video artists, finds creative merit and weight in degradation.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.