February 1, 2010
I drove out to UC Irvine with the kids to catch the Video Dada show (“dealing with intersections of video, art, and the internet.”) Martha Gever, the show’s curator, was kind enough to also drive out and chat with me after. The show puts into action and on to the wall many of the concerns I’ve been expressing here about video art on YouTube by transforming curating into the “real” (video) art practice and allowing YouTube work to become art by surrounding its 300 unruly videos with to-be-expected large-screen, flat, chic monitors. Importantly, Gever also provides thrift store couches and also on to the wall, big, scrawled messy handwritten quotations from media/cultural theorists as varied as Marcel Proust, Geert Lovink, and Virginia Heffernan. Without their raucous, ugly YouTube pages to frame them (ads, other videos, comments, tags) the projected videos looked pretty, like nothing other than honest to goodness video art in all its varied polyphony: cut-up, hand-painted, home-video-like, music-video-inflected, found-ads, and so on. It was that frame that did it, making art out of madness: slick screen, black box, curator’s stamp of approval. The wall demands respect, as does the hushed room with guard. And, unlike YouTube, the quotes create context.
Gever formally enacts many of the contradictions of video art on YouTube through the fitting design of her show. The Dada reference marks the play between art production and popular/capitalist consumption as definitive of YouTube video as it was of some urinals. Furthermore, Dada suitably organizes the cacophony and distraction of undifferentiated material–“all the objects in the [YouTube] archive have equal weight…They are de-contextualized and flattened” proclaims Robert Gehl, written on the wall–that defines both YouTube and the show (there are 300 videos playing, almost randomly, on something like ten monitors with nothing but typed lists of titles and authors to anchor them: you never really know or care what you are seeing). Gever was quick to note that while the order of the videos was not important, she had carefully and rigorously selected all of them (as “artful: carefully constructed, inventive, mindful of technique, and infused by sophisticated cultural intelligence”) through a painstaking, multi-year process of looking for video art in the sea of crap that included the additional looking-labor of several TAs, as well as Gever putting the names of hundreds of contemporary artists into YouTube to see if anything might come up (it did…) Refreshingly and tellingly, I recognized only a few names from the video art pantheon. However, when I went to find things to review on YouTube, I couldn’t (like LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “A Mother to Hold,” which I watched all the way through it’s grueling home movie like interaction with the artist’s crack-whore mother, or Guthrie Lonergan’s “Office Party” or “Kids.” While I couldn’t re-find them on YouTube, Gever had located both of these YouTubers through searching from the New Museum’s Younger Than Jesus show.)
It was important for me when I noted that I didn’t really want to watch most of the videos. Unlike on YouTube, I couldn’t fast-forward them, cut them off when bored, or jump to something else vaguely related. The myth of audience participation was completely denied here, and the work suffered from it, proving an affront to another definitive quality of YouTube video, but not in the best Dada sort of way. Gever writes: “the non-hierarchical, uncurated organization of YouTube provides a fitting venue for videos that are fleeting, provisional, rowdy, rude, epigrammatic, overtly political, or otherwise unruly in the themes that govern more disciplined precincts of art.” With this I agree which lets me see how YouTube can’t be as radical as Dada hoped to be. On leaving, my 12-year old daughter remarked that the show wasn’t really Dada enough in that it didn’t feel like much of an affront, nor did it inspire strong feelings since a lot of the video was simply fun or funny, and more so, in the end, the sheer undifferentiated totality of it quieted one, as YouTube always seems wont to do.