For as much as the modern TV and film industries love to fetishize the bygone aesthetics and entertainments of the ’80s and ’90s, there’s nothing quite like the real thing. While we love nostalgia-choked shows like Stranger Things, they’re so mired in an idealized version of the eras that they forget just how lame so much of it was.
Thankfully, video collectives like the Found Footage Festival and Everything Is Terrible! have spent years preserving (and often subverting) the explosion of amateur, studio, and cable access content that manifested in the VHS era, when anybody with a camcorder could put their vision to tape and disseminate it to the masses. Last month, a new archivist entered the arena after uploading hundreds of new, unseen clips to the Internet Archive’s VHS Vault, a vast repository of forgotten footage. Calling themselves The Vista Group, their trove of cleaned-up ephemera includes head-scratching, out-of-time clips like this one about yo-yo form and this gun safety video hosted by Jason Priestly and an animated eagle, but also an abundance of era-specific commercials as they aired on stations like UPN and Las Vegas’ Channel 8. We previously highlighted eight of our favorite uploads from the collection—like the Miracle Bow How-To Video and MTV’s Manson TV—but there’s so much more to explore.
We got the chance to talk with The Vista Group, who prefers to remain anonymous, about their hobby, their favorite videos, and the footage that eludes even them. They were even nice enough to put together a hour-long supercut of commercials, including everything from Rogaine commercials to ads for sex and psychic hotlines. Check it (and the interview) out below.
The A.V. Club: What can you tell us about your background?
The Vista Group: I come from a media management and digital design background, and have been involved in media capturing for a year this May. I am from Las Vegas, so heavy entertainment and gambler’s-dream-idealism has entered my psyche very early.
AVC: How did this hobby of yours begin?
VG: Pretty randomly! I have made a couple of holiday-themed video mixtapes with my partner, and I found this very obscure, yet amazing, music video from the ’80s. It’s called “Hollywood Halloween.” The quality on YouTube was terrible, so I had to get my hands on its original format. Turns out, it was from a music video mixtape that a music label sent to stores in Germany. I found the tape, bought a multi-system VCR, and the hobby began from there.
[You can find the grimy, occasionally unnerving “Hollywood Halloween” 53 minutes into the below clip.—Ed.]
AVC: Why call yourself the Vista Group?
VG: The Vista Group is two things: the name of the company a relative used to work for when I was really young, and a generic corporate aesthetic to appear like a ’90s parent company of some sort.
AVC: Where are you finding all this footage?
VG: 90% is Goodwill, 9% is eBay, and 1% is from personal tapes. I’ll stop into about five Goodwills every month, and grab only things that few others would find interesting: instructional tapes, workout tapes, travel tapes, art tapes. No feature films, no TV.
AVC: How does watching all of this old vintage stuff resonate for you now? Is it nostalgic? Comforting? Just plain weird?
VG: Good question. Part of it comes from my work ethic of “do something.” I love having a processing workflow into which I can put something, then have a better version of that thing come out at the end.
Another part is nostalgia. An adage in the vaporwave community is “we were promised a future that never became.” Some attribute it to 9/11, others to the natural decay of capitalistic appeal. I believe the former played a big role in the latter, and as we endure COVID-19, we’re seeing parts of the chaos and connection play out again.
It is comforting, too. Pre-Facebook, pre-selfie filters… just stuff. Vain self improvement, and general stuff to make your life better.
AVC: What do you hope to accomplish by putting it out in the world?
VG: To be honest, I’m not sure. While it’s mostly on YouTube, I think this is more of a therapy for me that I can pay forward to folks who would appreciate it. I’m broad in my cataloguing — title, year, format, frame rate, and so on. I’ll never name these files “crazy wacky workout video omg,” because I’m not interested in gaining attention through clickbait. I suppose a part of this is aimed at fellow creatives—those that can take this source material and make something more meaningful out of it.
Additionally, just like I chased after my mini-holy grail of that Halloween music video, I hope that my uploads can satisfy the hunger of those looking for something they only saw one time when they were really young, “and there were these grandmas that did workouts, but I can’t remember what it was…”
AVC: What do you think this footage says about the evolution in entertainment and advertising over the years?
VG: Tastes change, audiences burn out. Time flies. Tech gets better. More content becomes more accessible. Evolution is constant, and cyclical.
AVC: What’s the weirdest clip you’ve found?
VG: It has to be Basic Witchcraft. Born during the middle of the Satanic Panic, it’s like an antidote for hysteria. It puts pagan witchcraft practice into light, digestible, practical terms.
The second weirdest (or most delightful) would be a a clip of Angela Lansbury Fitness. It’s interesting, sweet, and a little unexpected.
AVC: What’s the most depressing?
VG: How To Raise A Street Smart Child. It’s from 1987—there’s a number of sad interviews and weird tips for parents trying to keep their kids safe. It’s not the content at large that’s depressing—it’s the fact that that kind of predatory behavior was prevalent enough to necessitate a tape like this.
Also worth mentioning is a tape called We Remember 9/11, or something like that, published by CNN. I skipped that one and donated it back to Goodwill.
AVC: Do you have any holy grail videos? Is there something you remember from when you were young that you’re trying to track down?
VG: I have one holy grail that I’ve been seeking since I was a kid: any “Count Cool Rider” TV broadcast on VHS. He was a local TV horror host back when I was growing up in the ’90s, and is now known for his show Count’s Kustoms.
I also have what might be a holy grail to many, to some, or really to no one: a full six-hour TV recording of the Spice Channel from October 26, 1996. It’s NSFW, but has some amazing home shopping and “ask us any question about a pornstar” segments.
AVC: What’s your personal favorite?
VG: Probably Mana! The Spirit Of Our People. It was created by the Church Of Latter Day Saints in Hawaii. They operate a Polynesian cultural center there. Such a wild combination of culture. I could watch it a million times.