I have been criticizing YouTube for a few years now. Easy enough to do given its perplexing gaps in capability—all the things it won’t let you do: find things, surround them with meaningful stuff and people—not to mention all the crap video. Could I re-purpose the site to succeed at functions I require for video art? This is my goal with my project, Mommy’s Marriage, currently in active pre-production.

To prepare for this nouveau art video project (one of curating more than of art production), I first considered what might comprise YouTube’s strengths and unique powers for documentary: the capability to update and version; to allow the audience (or users) to participate and even for the subjects (of a traditional doc) to become producers of their own stories; and to create communities within media, including children, who can speak for themselves and to each other.

Then, I thought about what I don’t like about YouTube: how strong feelings, voices, and ideas remain siloed, individuated, unlinked, going nowhere powerfully alone. I wanted to see if I could construct, instead, a YouTube page as a collaborative, interactive, communal work, with a singular and defined set of purposes, a commitment to hard ideas, and a sense of safety and intimacy that is definitive of community and allows for the kind of video art that matters to me: personal, intellectual, political, and artistic.

Then, I returned to consider my completed old-school (video art) documentary, Dear Gabe (2003) that had told the stories of feminist family of my closest friends and myself. Whenever I screen it, people say, “You’ve got to do a 7Up: revisit these people in the future and see how they’re doing.” What they really mean and want, of course, is to investigate whether the many children in the piece made it out okay (at the time it was made they were quite young) given the non-traditional, experimental, highly ideological (feminist) homes in which they were being raised (lesbians moms, working moms, multi-racial families, adoption, divorce).

I figured, I could use YouTube to let these families, including the kids, answer for themselves rather than have me edit them, turning them into narrative and rhetorical functions of my own design. Granted, I had allowed all of my friends “final cut” on my past versions of who they are, but I really had turned them each into one strong note for a composition that worked to express my vision of feminist family in 2003.

Of course, I am also getting married in July 2010 (!), and my friend Deb has recently announced her engagement (to a Man). And Hali and Margie married in California last year while this was still legal. Why were all these feminists (and once-lesbians) engaging in such conventional acts in our feminist middle age, and how did our choices, once again, represent larger trends for our generation?

Mommy’s Marriage, my attempt at nouveau video art on YouTube, will go live in 2010 and live for about six months there, perhaps addressing or answering these questions (if my friends, their partners and children are interested). The characters (now producers or nouveau video artists themselves) will re-visit the old video, make new work of their own, and ask each other leading questions from which interactive video will be made. Viewers can also  join the conversation (with some monitoring at entry). Whereas the last piece focused upon work, gender roles, familial and personal choices and their consequences, particularly in regard to the shape of family, I imagine the new one will also include divorce as well as marriage, race, aging, and then, of course, whatever the children add to the picture, as well as our partners…

The most fundamental and difficult question that arises from this new kind of art video is about children and privacy. This continues to be a work in progress, a dialogue amongst my friends and the kids themselves. So our answers are unfolding. But, my current plan is to allow the kids to make whatever work they like, but to re-edit their video to protect their privacy and that of their friends (covering faces with other sorts of related images, for instance). While most of them (teens and pre-teens all) are already beginning to engage in a public life on-line (through their own incursions into YouTube and Facebook, for instance), their own images of themselves undoubtedly stay relatively private, found and viewed by the small number of intimates who would know these kids and care to see their mundane if personal representations of self, otherwise lost in NicheTube. However, when their work is part of my work it will most likely be seen by people all over the world who neither personally know or care about us nor necessarily support the piece’s founding commitments to anti-racism, feminism, anti-homophobia, and families of choice.

Of course the question of authorial control is also paramount. I’ve given this up to a large extent (although of course I still frame the piece by setting up its founding structure and themes as well as through some editing and curating, as well as blogging). What if my friends’ work is bad, mundane, unwatchable? What if there’s just too much stuff produced that is only of interest to us, like real home videos of yore? These are all problems that define YouTube generally. Thus, my intervention will be new: to take some control within all the uncontrolled video out there and produce structure within what is usually an undifferentiated, unvetted sea of stuff: to insure some quality, some vision, some clear goals within a space of real community and love.

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Dear Gabe: My Old Video Art

November 9, 2009

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