Video Art on YouTube: A Matter of Vetting and Consumption
October 26, 2009
I have been commissioned to write an article about video art on YouTube for the forthcoming scholarly anthology, Resolutions 3 (in the next few weeks I’ll be testing fragments of the article here): “While Resolution: A Critique of Video Art was one of the first critical texts on video art to be published in the U.S., Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices was one of the first books to tackle video as a medium across disciplines from a theoretical, activist, practical, hybrid, and transnational perspective, collecting texts from scholars, practitioners and engaged observers. Resolution 3, the third in a trilogy, continues this mandate and embarks on an analysis of the third decade of video as marked within and outside the margins of art production, broadcast interventions, festival codification, projected spectacle, museum entombment, digital tracing, 24/7 streaming, activist tool, essay, and camcorder document.”
As can be seen in the book’s description above, there is a common usage of the term “video art”–rather unself-critically shared across the art world, community media, and academia since the late 60s–which refers broadly to two of the major strands of non-industrial uses of the medium that quickly developed after the invention of the Portapak: that video which speaks to and against the art world and/or to activist communities and goals. In this rather rarified usage, video art carries assumptions about method, form, and audience. The term refers to hugely varied uses of the medium that nevertheless succeed at demonstrating 1) some awareness of previous forms (of art, media, or evidence) and an attendant attention to craft and 2) some manner of non-industrial funding, production, and distribution often in clear defiance to those models that organize industrial television, advertising, and film. Those (already) aware of this tradition understand how it loosely includes a wide variety of work that receives its authorization not in the text itself but via display or consumption: installations and single-channel work that circulate and are sold within museums, galleries, and other venues of the art world; another body of video that is sold or at least marketed by distributors so as to be bought/rented and screened primarily within institutions like libraries, universities, and non-profit organizations; work that circulates in festivals, and other non-industrial exhibition settings; work that the artist self-circulates as art to the audiences above.
“Video art has been given a bad name, and rightly so, by the sort of chi-chi experimentation that goes well with brie and white wine and mauve-walled art galleries and designer hair dos. Video is cheap enough to produce, by feature film standards, and yet its very cheapness and accessibility has created a contradiction: video-making is within the financial reach of many, and yet, like most modern art, it’s surrounded by a noxious aura of elitism.”-Peter Rainer, “Captain Video,” Resolution, 1979
In this sense, video becomes art only when it is vetted, circulated, or consumed as such. Thus, it is not immediately evident what this term might mean when applied to the millions of videos that circulate for free “outside the margins of art production” on YouTube, neither made nor seen as video art even if about “art.”
“The project’s focus is not, therefore, on ‘video art,’ as that term is commonly understood, or on video as an autonomous medium possessing essential features, but on video in relation to ongoing cultural, aesthetic, and political agendas and activities–video as a source and as a medium for contemporary expression that is allied with and parralleled by myriad cultural and critical discourses in specific and sometimes surprising ways.” Michael Renov and Erica Suderburg, “Introduction,” Resolutions, 1996
Much of the video on YouTube (made by people and not corporations) is home video, the third major strand of non-industrial uses of the medium. This tradition has been only sporadically understood to be within video art (most typically when it is used as a formal strategy by an already known video artist) because it (by definition must) fail the vetting and the circulation standards of Gen 1 and 2 video art, that is until YouTube began to change that. Home video, made by one who is not formally trained, does not speak to histories or theories of meaning making (outside the very real conventions of home video/YouTube itself), nor to larger communities but rather quite literally to oneself (and family and friends and all of YouTube).
Circulation without vetting. Access without training. Video without funding. Image outside traditional tradition.
Video art on YouTube? Pole Art.