Everything on YouTube is Video Art…Nah

September 10, 2009

Again, I am moved to respond to Virginia Heffernan’s intelligent analyses of YouTube. She made some provocative claims about YouTube and the Avant-Garde this weekend in the New York Times—“it’s a place for art”–“scooping” me in the process, at least in regards to the claim by which I am starting a paper about Video Art on YouTube (to be published in the scholarly anthology, Resolutions 3), currently in draft form. There I make the claim: “Let’s imagine that everything on YouTube is Video Art.”

In my paper, I decide that while all the people-made stuff (a sub-set distinguished from the corporate made product that dominates the site) COULD be considered art in the sense that it has been carefully crafted and then consciously distributed with the intention of the public communication of self expression, I don’t want to consider the clearly unconsidered work on YouTube to be “Art.” In its self-aware isolation (I made this in my room, or my backyard with my wrestling buddies), it doesn’t consciously connect to other bodies or theories of video, or to other artists; it doesn’t show enough care. I suppose there could be a “scene” of butt-catchers, as Heffernan suggests, but towards what project, with what beliefs? You need a shared vocabulary, agenda, history, and set of goals to make an “art scene.”

Of course, as I often suggest, art video can be found on YouTube (like every other marginal form or desire) sitting precariously on the edge of NicheTube, and I believe that Heffernan is right to characterize Manhattan Bridge Piers in this way. However, I remain unconvinced  (even as I’d like to dream) that this presents the possibilities of a vernacular: most of what people are making can not be so easily traced back to the aesthetic or poetic preoccupations of art or alternative culture, in fact, quite the opposite.

Heffernan begins with the beginning and suggests that the first YouTube video, Me at the Zoo sets a “standard” for YouTube: “visually surprising, narratively opaque, forthrightly poetic.” However, I find that most of the videos on YouTube are neither surprising nor poetic, falling as they so easily do into the quickly consolidating vernaculars of either “good” corporate production or “bad” people-made videos (a case I made earlier in regard to her euphoric read of Susan Boyle). While DIY video may provide us with the lovely surprises she goes on to convincingly detail in what she introduces as the haul-fail genres (linked, I think, to what my students and I have called flow videos), these are all, generically, quite similar spectacles of the outrageous talent and behaviors of regular people to be mocked, adored or both. Of course, dominant television is already dominated by reality media that mocks and “rewards” the “talent” and aspirations of regular people. I’d suggest that pro media looks more and more like the (worst) of people made media (the subject of my last post).

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4 Responses to “Everything on YouTube is Video Art…Nah”

  1. Shawn Sobers Says:

    Greetings Alex. Long time. Hope all is good with you.

    Was interesting to read this post and watch the laptop video! In the first 20 seconds I thought it was afunny short film – it made me laugh with clever effects. Then half way through I skipped to the end not bothering to watch the whole thing. I sort of got the point and it became a mere technical exercise, with nothing much new or engaging to keep my attention.

    Reflecting then on your comments about whether these types of films are ‘art’, I agree with you that it is problematic to put it in that category. At first I was trying to resist this judgement, trying to take the full democratic view. Though I concluded by agreeing, as there was nothing in the laptop film which was aiming at that intention. As you know that is not a criticism of the film as one can enjoy a tv programme without considering whether it is art or not. Though as you say, in reference to Heffernan’s thesis that all on youtube is art, her thesis doesn’t really stack up. Of course the laptop video could be repurposed in an art context, making comment on some notional theme. But stand alone it doesn’t allude to anything other than the face value of what it was. A funny video (with the sound down).

    I would also give the same assessment about the bridge film. I think initially it could be much easier to make an ‘art’ judgement about that film as it leaves more space for the viewers imagination to read things into it, and it is easier to imagine the work in a traditional arts space. Though again for me it comes back to intention. Warhol’s eight hour film showing the lights on Empire State Building was challenging enough to make us question the whole endeavour, likewise Duchamp’s ‘fountain’ and Carl Andre’s bricks. But taken as an isolated film (in the context of Heffernan’s thesis) the bridge film is a technical exercise possibly playing at being ‘arty’, but with no actual substance. It didn’t push the envelope technically (which the laptop video did to a degree), or conceptually (Warhol, Duchamp, Andre). I’m not sure how of if this connects with your assessment of art works need to draw on a broader history and vernacular. For me though these films didn’t draw on anything other than their technical intent, which for me doesn’t make them art with a capital ‘A’, in fact ESPECIALLY when viewed via youtube, (no control of site specific context/installation, etc) which I guess is the complete opposite to Heffernan’s opinion.

    Anyway that’s my 2cents, and as usual I have waffled on for too long!! Ha ha

    All the best. Shawn

  2. Shawn Sobers Says:

    On re-reading I may have got yours and Heffernan’s thesis collapsed onto eachother. Apologies if I have (I’m tired and need to sleep!!). Ha ha Be interesting to hear your thoughts. Regards. x


  3. [...] 31, 2009 I recently refuted Virgina Heffernan’s euphoric claim about YouTube’s aesthetic gold (everything [...]


  4. [...] I’ve written already here that “everything on YouTube is video art…nah,” by which I mean not only the [...]


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