Bootleg Video

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A bootleg video cassette [1]

Bootleg video is a practice. It is not the physical tapes that are distributed, created, copied, consumed, and sought-after. It is not the mechanism of adhering video signal to magnetic tape in a sealed plastic cartridge. It is not the television itself, the VCR, or the camcorder. Nor is it the adventure of creating a tangible document from what would have otherwise remained unknown to others. Bootleg video is not any of these things, yet its practice necessitates all of these things.

In brief, bootleg video is the practice of seeing what one is not meant to see, through eyes enabled by the aforementioned technologies.

A Brief History of Magnetic Tape

German Magnetophon, the spoils of WWII
Magnetic tape technology was first developed in Germany in 1934 as a method of recording audio. It was introduced to the US by means of espionage— it was not until the end of World War II that a German Magnetophon tape deck was discovered by army specialists and reverse-engineered. (Hilderbrand 38) Over the next few decades, once fully introduced into the market, magnetic tape succeeded phonoraphy and film in both the militaristic and broadcast sphere because the medium privileges verisimilitude and speed. It is worth noting that unlike the phonograph, which was originally designed for the business class, magnetic tape as a method of inscription is of militaristic origin.

Video's passage from the military complex, to its eventual adaptation by national radio and television industries, unmasks the medium as a method of controlling unidirectional flows of content from a central hub to its various nodes. Bootlegging video then represents an attempt to overturn this method of control: creating, viewing, or distributing a bootleg video implicitly puts the viewing context in the hands of the viewer. Since the relation between the intended consumer of content and the producer/disseminator of content has been established by the hierarchical relation between networks and the viewing public, the very existence of a bootleg video signifies, on a basic, phenomenological level, that a trespass has taken place.

Visuality and the Technical Exigencies of Bootleg Video

This Film Contains No Images

Unlike other visual media, the video image is comprised of an unbroken electronic flow that is scanned onto the screen. Where film consists of filmed images being projected at rapid speed, video requires that an image be generated on-the-fly from a pattern in the magnetized substrate that is analogous to the video signal originated by the image. This means that there is no actual image at any point on the video tape, only patterns attempting to represent an image. A monitor such as the television screen receives this unbroken stream of data, and passes the signal across the screen from left to right, top to bottom. Note that due to the unbroken stream of data into the apparatus, the signal must be gated in order for the human eye to discern an image: video "frames" consist of a fixed number of half-lines that interlock on the screen. (Spielmann 47) The uninterrupted rush of the real must be throttled in order to be understood; this puts video in an interesting position between the real and the imaginary. Friedrich Kittler's paradox of film is reversed here. In film, the material provides a cut-up representation of the real— human optical faculty must rely upon the afterimage to create the imaginary. (122) The video medium is bursting with the real, the imaginary can only be achieved by reduction.

Video tracking error
Video streams are always in motion. This attributes to the peculiar pops and hisses of the medium that lend to its notorious aesthetic. Even to pause video requires the apparatus to generate and regenerate a signal for as long as required. As a result, horizontal scanlines are seen to flicker impatiently across a paused video image. Every time a video cassette is inserted into a VCR and the play button is pressed, the VCR, television, and tape engage in a process of negotiation called "tracking," evidenced by a blank bright blue screen followed by flashing as all signals are calibrated. (Hilderbrand 65)

Dubbing exacerbates signal errors, and in bootleg video culture, a visual vocabulary is generated to describe the trajectory a video cassette must have taken to get to the viewer. Popular underground videos circulate through social networks in a ritual of viewing, replicating, and exchanging with others. A bootlegged video's genealogy is thus materially encoded onto itself; a pornography video might reach a node in the network displaying tracking errors at a particularly "juicy" part of the narrative— evidence that this particular sequence was watched, rewound, and watched again before being copied and distributed. (Hilderbrand 175)

America, This is You

Bootleg video, as a mode of mediation, is an incredibly easy-to-understand system comprised of several black-boxed technologies. The technology governing the recording of data onto magnetic tape emerged onto the world stage as literally a black box, the spoils of World War II. As far as dubbing (or duplicating video) is concerned, this act requires equipment coupled with a semi-specialized knowledge of a relatively complicated technology. One is inevitably reminded of how "difficult" it is to program a VCR to record a television show at a certain time, or the frustration of seeing a flashing LED display reading 00:00 where the actual time is supposed to be. However, Lisa Gitelman explains that as a technology gains acceptance in the home through commercialization, they become ubiquitous, blending into the home environment, "modern machinery evinces its own accepance and familiarity, the accomplishment of its transformation from invention to commodity." (209) The technologies attached to video (the television, VCR, and camcorder) became quickly mundane, as evidenced by their constant appearance in popular culture and entertainment: it was not until video culture became a part of the quotidian that projects like America's Funniest Home Videos became the model for entertainment based on user-generated content.

Two Infinities

Any mechanically produced object (film, video, or any other) attempts, as Walter Benjamin has so infamously established, to satisfy the modern compulsion to bring one's self closer and closer to the original. Both film and bootleg video imply the existence of an ur-event, the original that must be approached; the impossibility of capturing the original is best described in terms of either medium's futile relation to eternity. Bootleg video's relationship to film can be described in terms of Hegel's bad infinity and true infinity, which attempts to reconcile the simultaneous possibility of eternity existing as a perfect unit of time, and as an incomplete and unattainable horizon. (Zizek 1996:91) Film consists of serial images, each frame a complete image representing a closed expression of eternity (Kittler 117), and orients itself on the side of true infinity. Bootleg video is more aligned with bad infinity: the pops and hisses in each video signal exactly how far removed the copy is from the original. The viewer is thus always positioned within an asymptotal distance to the ur-event; bootleg video inscribes its distance from the original onto the material substrate.

Publics United through Timeshifting

The history of bootleg video begins not with television, but with radio. Magnetic tape's acoustic fidelity and ease of reproduction compelled radio stations to pre-record their programming for later broadcast. According to legend, Bing Crosby was one of the first advocates for pre-recording radio shows onto magnetic tape: his radio show's time slot was in direct competition with his regularly-scheduled golf game. (Hilderbrand 38) Thus networks were introduced, via magnetic tape, to the concept of timeshifting. The practice of timeshifting did more than appease the sensibilities of big-ring performers: it allows for viewers from different timezones to experience a televised event at the same time, thus synchronizing viewership. It is from network timeshifting of televised programing that the notion of "Prime Time" broadcasting arises. Thus timeshifting created the temporal possibility for a new mode of relation between networks and the television viewing public, forever changing the topology of the home, the private sphere, by linking it to the network and synchronizing its flows. As Vilém Flusser points out, this type of unidirectional communication is "'fascistic' rather than 'dialogic'." (83) Once the commercially-viable VCR democratized timeshifting, bootleg video emerged as the negative image of prime time television. Where the national viewing public was enabled and maintained by timeshifting televised programing at a centralized level controlled by the networks, bootleg video fan cultures were equally enabled by the timeshifting power wielded by each individual. Bootleg video as a practice is characterized by the democratization of the timeshifting process. Thus, it remediates the broadcast model propagated by the television networks, yet provides a way of multiplexing the vectors of transmission. Bootleg video tapes themselves are indeed "projectors of alternative worlds accessible to all human beings." (Flusser, 84)

Camcorder, VCR, Television, and the Repositioning of the Viewing Subject

As the old adage goes, a visual medium's success is measured by how readily the medium can be used to make, distribute, and experience pornography. This saying, however glib, does contain some truth as it pertains to video— video radically redefined and redeployed the viewing subject in several key ways that acted on the libido directly. Bootleg video practice is a fecund site where modes of viewership, modes of distribution, relations between viewers, and even the content itself are reoriented around libidinal impulses.

"Stories from the friends next door they never told..."
Still from the infamous Pamela & Tommy Lee video

Bootleg video also hinges upon a tension between desire and restraint; one desires to consume media, but not so much as to render it unwatchable. There is an almost causal relationship between the quality of a bootleg video and the amount of circulation it has enjoyed. As circulation entails the ritual of viewing, replicating, and exchanging, the process enters directly into dialog with Walter Benjamin's position on the aura of reproduced media. Whereas Benjamin posits that the aura of the original deteriorates with reproduction, media scholar Lucas Hilderbrand suggests that the aura of the original is strengthened with every copy of a bootlegged video. As described before, a bootlegged video's position in time and space is materially encoded onto the substrate in the form of deteriorated signal. To encounter a bootleg is to question where it came from, how far it traveled to reach your VCR, and who loved it so much as to partly destroy it. These mysteries create "a new kind of aura that references the indexicality of the original's aura" (176) and in so doing, call the bootleg video into dialog with the viewer-as-subject and the viewer-as-object. The video cassette as palimpsest of viewership reveals itself to be a method of watching one's self watching another: the viewer is aware of his position as peeping tom, and the video signal confirms this very position. The compulsion to "see one's self looking" is the drive towards death (Zizek 1996:94); in that manner bootleg video always finds itself locked in careful flirtation with Thanatos while remaining safely couched in Eros. A modern twist on the doppelganger effect in film, bootleg video is a mirrored site where the viewer can revel in a libidinal relation to the body. Wielding a camcorder as a proxy for the self, the videographer can externalize the most immediate and personal of sensations. Conversely, the VCR can stand in for the viewer to consume content. (Zizek 1998) This relation can be meditated from all positions in the bootlegging process: from behind the camcorder, at the dubbing station, or in front of the television, remote control in hand, scrubbing through the video track as one's whims may carry him.

Haptic Vision

Bootleg video reveals vision to be haptic. Its emergence onto the scene consequently redefines the eye in relation to its perceived agency and abilities vis-a-vis a visual medium. As Jonathan Crary suggests, the eye was once a considered to be a passive or "neutral receiver" in the face of painting. The advent of psychophysical analysis and film forced this model to be reevaluated. (72) In establishing that the same ocular faculty responsible for rendering the "imaginary" cohesive sequence of film from the "real" cut-up sequence of still images is the same faculty responsible for creating afterimages, the eye was upgraded to a more participatory or cooperative status during the film-viewing process. Bootleg video forces an upgrade of the mechanism once again: methods of tape viewership (pausing, rewinding, playing, dubbing, enjoying) necessarily involve the destruction of the medium. The eye is now an active, even aggressive, partner in the consumption of media.

Amorous Media/Promiscuous Media

YouTube inherits the triangular "play" symbol from the VCR
We automatically, and mistakenly, tend to place technologies on a Cartesian plane of progress where the gradient from analog to digital is seen as a linear function of time. Video as a medium defies this tendency. Despite its arrival nearly a century after film, and its obvious remediation of the medium, video is a purely analog medium consisting of continuous flows of electric signal affixed to a material substrate. As if analog video were an aberration on the timeline of viewing technologies, its successors (digital video, for example) take after film directly by reintroducing individual frames of singular images, and thus seriality returns to the experience of the moving image. Seriality is enhanced in digital video because each frame, a bitmap of pixels with corresponding color values, can be perfectly replicated. Whereas the allure of analog video was the manner in which the history of a tape's transmission was embedded in the content itself, digital video achieved the perfect copy, and obliterates this extra layer. Digital video also introduces the possibility of random access to any point on the timeline, which spells the end of the destructive physical process of scrubbing through video. Gaining random access, the act of viewing is no longer destructive. Although this can be seen as an improvement from the media preservationist point of view, the loss of one's power to destroy downgrades the status of the eye to that which it had occupied during the era of film.

Bootleg video is remediated in several popular forms: the DVD (and the various forms it inspires) exudes the same materiality of a video cassette in that they are tangible storage for audiovisual content. TiVo, and other consumer-grade digital video recording devices, mimic the VCR. Such devices are familiar because they occupy the same physical space in the home as the VCR. (Using a computer to timeshift televised broadcast can be achieved using some cables and a computer with good image capturing software; the design of the TiVo is replete with functional nonsense to materially replicate the experience of using the VCR and its form factor only manifests popular nostalgia for the original object.) Although these technologies are used in pirating media, neither of these products can reproduce the actual bootlegging experience. DVDs can be "ripped" and distributed, but since digital copies are indistinguishable from the original, the object's personal history is never expressed. TiVo's are designed to hold a limited amount of media on an on-board hard drive that cannot be switched. This limitation (definitely an intentional deterrent against the bootlegger's instinct to hoard beloved media) forces the viewer to periodically choose what to keep and what to delete forever— this practice encourages a new view of media as transient objects to be taken up promiscuously, as opposed to video which demands a certain degree of monogamy. You Tube is a slightly more accurate remediation of bootleg video as a mode of mediation, despite its lack of a physical or material form. As a video "goes viral," its trajectory can be traced and reflected upon. On You Tube, one's position as viewer is always seen in context of who else has seen the video, and how the video has circulated through networks of thousands/millions/billions of similarly-positioned viewers, or lovers.


  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. The MIT Press. 1990.
  • Flusser, Vilém. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. Reaction Books. 1999.
  • Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Hilderbrand, Lucas. Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright. Duke University Press. 2009.
  • Kittler, Fredrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Spielmann, Yvonne. Video: The Reflexive Medium. The MIT Press. 2008.
  • Zizek, Slavoj. "'I Hear You with My Eyes'; or, The Invisible Master" in Gaze and Voice as Love Objects. Duke University Press. 1996.
  • Zizek, Slavoj. "The Interpassive Subject" in Traveses. Centre Georges Pompidou. 1998. [2]