There are a lot reasons to collect old stuff. Libraries, archives, and museums preserve their collections to build a sense of cultural history. Middle-class collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries collected trinkets from around the world to make themselves look sophisticated. Today there's a new breed of collectors who split their time between moldy thrift stores and the bowels of the internet. They're the dead media hoarders.
Ryan Beitz might be the poster child for this new kind of hoarding.
Since 2008, Beitz has been collecting every VHS copy of Speed that he can get his hands on. Last year he raised $3,000 on Kickstarter to push the project along. The “World Speed Project,” as Beitz dubs his undertaking, got covered by Vice, CBS and A&E. Similar projects have popped up since, building massive collections of the crappiest, most useless media artifacts.
Why would anybody dedicate this much time, money, or storage space to a pile of crusty video tapes? The World Speed Project's Facebook page justifies the collecting as “an exercise in what Sigmund Freud referred to as 'The Repetition Compulsion.'” Buying a thousand copies of the same movie is definitely repetitive, but it might also be evidence of psychological maladjustment, if we take this Freud business seriously.
The repetition of hoarding connotes fixation on the past-- a constant reliving of days gone by. This kind of temporal displacement led Freud to theorize the “death drive,” a return to pre-conscious or inanimate states. Surrounded by VHS tapes, with no VCR in sight to play them, the collector regresses into a magnetic-tape womb. At least, that's the sort of heady philosophical interpretation that Ryan Beitz would like us to take.
Not everyone is convinced that VHS hoarding needs a deep meaning. Fuckyeah1990s is a Tumblr account that can post a picture of the Spice Girls and get a hundred reblogs any day of the week. The blog's founder started building his own VHS stockpile after reading about the Speed Project. “I guess I wanted to one up him,” he explained to me. “Like, not only can I collect every copy of Speed, I can collect every copy of Men in Black, Jurassic Park, Sister Act, The Matrix, Space Jam, Forrest Gump, Twister, and Star Wars: Episode One.”
Send your VHS copies to:
Chairman Ryan The World Speed Project7445 Midfield Ave Los Angeles, CA 90045 U.S.A.
“I got about 100-150 copies of each of the titles I was collecting before I got bored,” said the 90's blog admin, who asked to remain anonymous. “If I really wanted to I could have thousands of VHS tapes, because my followers are very generous and dedicated to 90's culture,” he told me. When asked what he thought about the Freudian implications of collecting, he called them “hecka gimmicky.”
While the Speed Project overstates its significance, Fuckyeah1990s goes out of its way to act nondescript. He rarely hypes the VHS collection, revealing it only through occasional posts that say things like the following: “have you heard about antibiotic resistance and how millions of people are going to start dying from it by 2030… not me though, I have over 170 copies of Forrest Gump on VHS.”
Have you heard about antibiotic resistance and how millions of people are going to start dying from it by 2030? Not me though, I have over 170 copies of Forrest Gump on VHS.
It's hard to make a guess at the real historical significance of these dead media stockpiles, because they're from a moment of history that's too recent for the past, and too old for the present. As time moves on, however, documents from any given era get rarer and rarer. “Trying to get every single copy of something isn't actually all that new,” says Zack Lischer-Katz, an archival scholar and moving image preservationist. “Look at something like the Gutenberg Bible. There's only so many copies that exist, so everyone wants to know where the copies are, who owns them, or how certain copies are different.”
If variation between copies of a media artifact is historically significant, then our recent reliance on centralized streaming services changes our relationship to reproduced texts. The more our video viewing habits move online, the more of a novelty it is to play with real, physical objects. Looking through the World Speed Project with Zack, he finds value in physicality. “There's something about the materiality of the tapes, the way they're arranged in space,” he says. “There's an enjoyment of the mass of it all.”
There's something about the materiality of the tapes, the way they're arranged in space. There's an enjoyment of the mass of it all.
Movies aren't the only media going online-only. Video game distribution is moving online just as fast, making cartridges and discs seem like useless relics. Save Shaq-Fu is a cartridge hoarding operation that's been running since 2009, aiming to stockpile copies of the Shaquille O'Neal-licensed fighting game Shaq-Fu. The project calls itself “a global movement dedicated to Shaq-Fu preservation,” but not everyone is convinced.
“I wouldn't call that preservation,” says Peter Sutton, a moving image archivist who works with the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece. “With preservation, there has to be access. But this isn't exactly hoarding, either. It's designed to be displayed, so people know you have it.” Personal collections with limited display have been a popular way for people to demonstrate their cultural prowess for centuries, but they're worlds apart from the cultural and historical institutions that make media available to the masses.
Sean Kelly is cofounder of the Video Game History Museum being built in Frisco, Texas. He's totally dedicated to preserving old games, but he isn't on board with the Shaq-Fu hoarding. “The whole idea is so far out there that I can’t decide if I think it’s a joke or if it’s a group of folks who have WAAAAY too much time on their hands,” he said via e-mail. “The vast (VAST) majority of people who reviewed or played Shaq-Fu will say that it’s simply not a good game.”
The vast majority of people who reviewed or played Shaq-Fu will say that it’s simply not a good game.
Do bad games deserve a future? In my exchange with Sean Kelly, he made an interesting quip about Shaq-Fu: “maybe the plan is to gather as many as possible and bury them in Alamagordo so they can be dug-up thirty years from now?” Alamagordo, New Mexico is the site of a landfill where Atari dumped their excess inventory after a video game market crash in 1983. For years, the Alamagordo landfill was ground zero for the game industry's biggest urban legend-- that hundreds, maybe thousands, or even millions of copies of the Worst Game Ever were buried underneath its desert sands.
The supposed Worst Game Ever was ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. The game was so bad, the legend told, that it single-handedly destroyed Atari's business. An archaeological dig in 2014 revealed that ET was just one of many Atari games buried in Alamagordo. The 1983 game market crash was bigger than ET or Atari alone, and the dump was part of an overall effort to get rid of useless inventory. But however bad ET might have been, the dig attracted a documentary film crew and dozens of spectators. After the dig, the city of Alamagordo held onto all the cartridges, in case they turned out to be valuable. And why wouldn't they? Garbage media can captivate the masses.
The World Speed Project made its founder $3,000 on Kickstarter. Fuckyeah1990s' author is a retro-culture juggernaut. Save Shaq-Fu is a cultural point of pride for its founders. The ET dig stands to make big money for the town of Alamagordo. Dead media is a part of our living culture, and it's all alive on the internet. Eventually the web sites we use today will all seem as decrepit as a pile of Jurassic Park tapes. A new generation of hoarders will have to step in, to determine the value hiding in all of our digital refuse, and decide what lives on.
The game was so bad, the legend told, that it single-handedly destroyed Atari's business.