Back in 1917, when Marcel Duchamp originated the notion of "found art" by attempting to enter a porcelain urinal into a gallery show as a piece of sculpture, he probably never imagined that someday, hundreds would gather in dark rooms to watch big-haired exercise videos, scary corporate-training films and screamingly unfunny televangelist comedians.
But almost a century later, the Brooklyn-based Found Footage Festival is packing houses around the nation by pumping up the irony and humor that were always a part of the playful Frenchman's work. The 2011 installment of the festival rolls through Largo at the Coronet on Tuesday, with a special opening act: the legendary short documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot, shot outside a Judas Priest concert in suburban Maryland in 1986. Though not literally found footage, the doc was long available only as a bootleg passed around by underground-loving alt-culture types, giving it the same time capsule–gone– viral appeal as the festival itself.
FFF's objets d'art can come from unlikely places. Last year, Nick Prueher, one of the festival's hosts and curators, walked into a Salvation Army store in Atlantic City and found no less than seven ventriloquism how-to videos, lovingly preserved and lined up side by side on a shelf. "When you do what we do," he says, "that kind of thing can kind of make your year."
The appeal of a find like that, Prueher says, goes beyond the cut-rate awkwardness of all the dummy manipulation and voice-throwing tricks. "We like to imagine the backstory: Some kid in Atlantic City who really wanted to be a ventriloquist, worked really hard ... and then one day just gave up the dream."
Almost as good was a strange number hosted by Linda Blair, advising viewers How to Get ... Revenge!
"The tips she's offering are far too real to be anything but genuine," Prueher says of the Exorcist star's work, which, like the dummy videos, will be part of the Largo show. "And some of them are illegal — like putting a hose through somebody's mail slot. Some of them are federal offenses."
Found-object art and the use of public-domain footage in underground film have long, intertwining histories. Underground and experimental filmmakers have employed found footage to make everything from weirdly deadpan works of social criticism (Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws) to montages that probe the nature of cinema itself (Bruce Conner's A MOVIE). And found footage often shows up in documentaries, adding a bit of retro kitsch in the same way that a sampled fragment can drive a Beck song.
The guys behind the festival see themselves as a tangent to the tradition of appropriation in art film and documentary. "I wouldn't call what we do art, exactly," Prueher says. "Our influences were sitting around and making fun of bad television."
Prueher and the festival's other host, Joe Pickett, met as kids in the Midwest, where they spent long afternoons on rec room couches. In the early 1990s, they found a McDonald's training video called Inside and Outside Custodial Duties. They knew they were on to something.
Later, Prueher sharpened his point of view while working as a researcher on Late Night With David Letterman. Pickett was so zealous a found-footage connoisseur that he briefly took a job at a Suncoast Video store in order to borrow (and dupe) the company's staff training tapes.
"Ironically," Prueher says, "one of them was an anti-shoplifting video."
While he doesn't think of himself as an artist, Prueher takes his work, and his medium, seriously.
"It's a lot more truthful than a polished Hollywood film," he says of cast-off VHS tape. "Look at the AFI's list of the 100 greatest films: It's a very incomplete vision of who we are as a people. These unpolished, sometimes regrettable moments captured on VHS, you're getting an unvarnished look at who we are, warts and all. It shows our ambitions, our shortcomings, our diversity and our undying belief that almost anything is worthy of committing to videotape."
He and Pickett feel a connection to Found magazine and its search for poignant and revealing letters, cards and photographs. "There was this shift," Prueher says of the movement that the magazine helped focus, "where people realized that truth was stranger than fiction, and that these things open a window onto a time."
The festival documents a fairly specific time: The first VHS tapes were sold to the public in the late '70s, but the real explosion of material came a few years later, after the VCR format fended off Beta. "We refer to the golden age of VHS as 1985 to '95: Videos reach market saturation, everyone had them in their homes, and tapes were cheap."
Importantly, they were also inexpensive to produce. "It was almost like a gold rush — everyone thought, 'This could be the next Jane Fonda Workout.' "
Alongside celebrity exercise videotapes, weirder stuff showed up in suburban homes across America: rapping rat puppets, videos designed to entertain your cat, video lava lamps. "A lot of bad ideas were committed to VHS. Which is good for us," Prueher says.
Not all bad ideas work for the festival, though.
"Anything in the category of 'not meant to be shown in public' is what we're interested in," he says. "They're training videos you're meant to watch in the break room by yourself, or an exercise video you watch by yourself in your home." The festival, he says, "is a little bit subversive, since you weren't able to laugh at these things at the time. You're in a room with 300 other like-minded people and you're given permission to laugh at it."
These days, Prueher says, are rich ones for people like him. "People are a lot less selective about what they throw out now. Entire boxes are ending up at thrift stores."
The bounty is bittersweet. "The last VHS tape rolled off the assembly line in 2008," he says. "It's totally dead now."
So what happens to the festival that has curated this dead medium's absurdities?
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Prueher worries about that. The current festival draws about 5 percent of its material from DVDs, which are starting to show up in thrift stores in larger numbers, and the other 95 percent from videotapes. While he compares himself to a vinyl junkie who loves VHS for its imperfections and its lo-fi, analog charm, he hopes the festival can keep adapting to new technology.
"Every time we do a show," he says, "we think, that's it, we've found all the stupid videos. But then we'll find something like Rent a Friend. Someday we may be finding hard drives and SD cards."
For now, he's sanguine. "As long as people have bad ideas and access to video equipment," he says, "we'll be in business."
FOUND FOOTAGE FESTIVAL | Tues., March 1, 8 p.m. | Largo at the Coronet | foundfootagefest.com