The Uncanny Valley of “Electrocuted Squirrel”

by Will Brand on November 15, 2010 · 14 comments Opinion


I like video art and I like YouTube videos, but I like them according to two entirely different sets of criteria. Sometimes, though, it’s tough to tell exactly what’s art and what’s something else [1]. YouTube as a medium doesn’t particularly reward making a video’s provenance clear, and much of the video art on YouTube has been uploaded by someone other than the artist. If the uploader’s username isn’t “xXxAndyWarholxXx”, we’re missing one important way of verifying something as art. Further, it’s not always clear, even for works of art, whether I’m receiving the intended experience of an intentional work of art, the unintended or badly-translated experience of an intentional work of art, or the experience of a draft, sketch, or component that was never intended for public viewing on its own.

Most of the time I have to make the distinction based on the clip’s adherence to conventions which are accepted in video art but abnormal on YouTube – things like excessive runtimes and being utterly boring. The problem, though, is that while I can appreciate YouTube videos on the basis of YouTube criteria, and art videos on the basis of art criteria, there’s a bunch of stuff that’s way too boring to be on YouTube, but not quite intentional enough to make the leap to art. To steal a term from robotics, there’s an uncanny valley – a point where a video resembles both YouTube clips and video art so closely as to make the (art-aware) viewer uncomfortable [2]. For an artwork, this is a very bad place to be. A guide to the graph:

A: Werner Herzog Reads Where’s Waldo / Matt Damon’s Birthday Wish. The YouTubiest of YouTube videos, conceived and edited specifically to fit YouTube’s conventions for things like pacing. Not art.

B: Deer Beats Up Fat Guy / Adam Lore’s John Cage’s 4’33″ (2009). YouTube videos that perhaps aren’t necessarily meant for YouTube, which as a result lack some sort of polish – they’re a single take, the timing’s not quite right, they’re too blurry, and so on. Alternately, art videos which are specifically made for YouTube, and have merit both as a YouTube video and as an artwork.

C: Electrocuted SquirrelRashaad Newsome’s The Conductor (2005-2009). Art pieces that could work as YouTube videos, or YouTube videos that make me pause to consider whether there’s something more. I’m starting to get uncomfortable here.

D: Takeshi Murata’s I, Popeye (2010), at the New Museum now. The uncanny valley. Stuff in here can really go either way, which is why it makes me unhappy: this is the location at which I feel most acutely that I’m missing something, even when I’m pretty darn sure I’m not.

E: Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004). Videos that are certainly not your average internet video, but which rely upon some remaining similarity for their artistic power – the Claes Oldenburg inflatable sculptures of video.

F: Bruce Nauman’s Pinch Neck (1968). Shit that would not fly without being contextualized as art.

When I say I don’t feel comfortable in the space where art and YouTube blur, I don’t mean to question whether this video or that video is art or not; I hate that question as much as anybody. Certainly, I don’t mean to say that there can’t be any kind of overlap. Rather, that overlap needs to be a considered one and based upon a common understanding of exactly what’s overlapping what – Brillo boxes as art only make sense because I understand Brillo boxes are boxes that hold Brillo pads, and definitely not art. It’s a difficulty rooted in the the codelessness of YouTube today: cinema has codes; TV has codes; even the various ways of displaying video within a gallery have codes. I’m reminded of something Chrissie Iles said in an October roundtable, with regard to projection:

If you bring the image down to the floor, you’re negating cinema on a certain level. You’re saying: “This is not meant for you to watch all the way through like a narrative film. This is part of the ‘going for a walk’ of museum and gallery viewing. … Is the space painted white? If so, it [the piece] refers more to the gallery. Is it black? Well, then it’s more of an immersive space, like cinema [3].

Similarly, we know that Nam June Paik’s TV works refer to the mass entertainment and control of television, not to the dedicated immersion of cinema or the half-caring of the gallery; we know this because we have an understanding about what the TV set means and, moreover, have an understanding that that choice of display was intentional – the former being required for the latter. The idea that a black background indicates a cinematic space or a TV indicates a tightly controlled space is one which was not always obvious; it had to be made transparent.

Video art often relies upon these established codes of display to form the boundaries it can cross, and a lot of my favorite artworks exist in the valley between the boundaries of video art and television, video art and cinema, et cetera. So long as YouTube’s codes remain unexplored, we cannot cross its uncanny valley in safety. So what does YouTube mean? What are its codes?

It’s clear, for a start, that YouTube videos are meant to be watched all the way through, due both to their brief length and the choice-supportive bias the system of selecting videos entails. Psycho, like any film, was meant to be watched all the way through, and that cinematic code provides the frustration that’s so great about Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. It seems to follow that a Gordon-like durational riff on, say, the ever-present Antoine Dodson would be good art – but would it? I’m not sure.

YouTube videos tend to be seen alone, en masse – that is, as an individual experience (one person, one monitor) shared by millions. It shares this with television, but the individual choice of programming means much of the critical discussion around television is no longer relevant. Works like David Hall’s TV Interruptions, videos inserted unannounced and uncredited into the BBC’s programming,  cannot be replicated with their full meaning. What is the equivalent of this for YouTube? Interventionist SEO to entice users to interrupt themselves?

YouTube videos provide an obvious public space for reacting via comments and videos – something very new – and this, at least, has been explored. When artists choose to disable comments, or place their videos on sites without a system of commentary, can we at this point understand that as a conscious rejection of the ‘norm’ that is the particular community of YouTube? At what point will that norm become transparent?

None of this should be read to say that there aren’t artists and writers dealing with YouTube as a medium – certainly, there are. It’s just that their explorations into YouTube aren’t a common language like Debord’s ideas about cinema or McLuhan’s about television. Part of the problem, of course, is exposure – the Guggenheim’s selections for Play, for instance, didn’t do much to help. Until we survey the terrain of YouTube in a manner which is both thorough and public, and can assume this understanding in the viewer, we can’t even begin to bridge the gap between it and art. Until then, we’ll lose a lot of videos to the uncanny valley.

Footnotes:

1 I’m not trying to say this is a novel problem or anything – Fountain‘s a pretty shitty urinal, given it doesn’t have any piping, but it looks like a functional one, and a lot of Pop Art (and especially neo-Pop) changes entirely when given its proper context.

2 I realize that, given what modern psychology’s found about how we process faces,  the uncanny valley is probably only “uncanny” in the proper sense because it represents some dissonance between one’s culturally-trained sense of what’s a robot and one’s entirely separate, more primal ability to recognize other humans – and, thus, that I’m making a false equivalence by adapting it to two categories that only exist to the trained eye. I still like the graph.

3 “Round Table: The Projected Image in Contemporary Art”, October, Vol. 104 (Spring, 2003), p. 80

  • Vesabios

    Thanks for posting this. I worked on the Guggenheim play project as a vendor, not an employee of YouTube. The entire event was a complete let down for me and my colleagues. The people at YouTube obviously had no understanding of what fine art is — In fact, they were proud to be outsiders in that respect. I think that, in their eyes, YouTube represents a geurilla attack on the stuffy art world. It was almost like they were happy to usurp the norms established by viloa, paik, etc., with visual puns and music videos because that’s what people “really care about”. I actually heard the word “arty” used by the directors. It was schizophrenic though because then they spent a ton of time justifying the works’ inclusion by focusing only on the opinion of the judges, not the work itself. By the way, the judges were only given a short list of work to choose from. This list was heavily loaded with all of the youtoubey crap you’d expect, coalated by YouTube itself, of course — the aesthetic equivalent of people shooting bottle rockets out of their ass. I’m sure the judges chose as best as they could, considering. In any case, it was a forgettable event showcasing forgettable work. I really don’t think anyone is taking YouTube more seriously now as a vehicle for serious art.

    • http://twitter.com/wrbrand Will Brand

      Interesting stuff – YouTube effectively choosing the shortlist explains a lot. I agree that it’s a huge missed opportunity in terms of what I’d like to see, but I’d be interested to hear how folks at YouTube and the Guggenheim felt about it. Those are two institutions that- I mean, they succeed. They’re generally pretty good at doing what they set out to do. I guess I’d like to hear whether this was a success at something they alone had in mind, or a failure at what everybody else thought it could be.

  • http://hypothete.blogspot.com/ hypothete

    Excellent analysis. I keep trying to think back to how Murata’s piece was displayed in Free – if I remember correctly, it ran on a flatscreen TV in a well-lit area, and a bench was provided in close proximity to function as a pseudo-living room setup. When I visited the show, viewing was most definitely not an “alone en masse” affair, there were kids climbing all over the bench to watch Popeye in scenes of horrific tragedy.

    Another piece from Free related to this topic would be Trecartin’s Riverofthe.net. At the show, the website was projected onto a large, raised screen maybe eight feet up the wall, and the floor space where you might expect a crowd to gather and watch was taken up by Lizzie Fitch’s sculpture. The content of the website is mostly 10 second snippets of Youtube or Youtube-esque videos, jumping from video to video by means of user-provided tags, like a playlist. I thought it was strange that Murata’s piece was given a comfortable, “hearth”-like setting, whereas Trecartin’s 21st-Century channel surfing seemed to be made intentionally more difficult to view. Riverofthe.net’s display removed the group experience successfully, but also took more effort to watch than just loading up the site would.

    • http://twitter.com/wrbrand Will Brand

      You know, despite transcribing the interview with Ryan we posted a few weeks ago, and despite going to the show three times now, it hadn’t struck me how odd the display was. It reminded me of the open-air big screens that go up around World Cup time in Europe for home fans to watch the games together, like the ‘fan mile’ in Berlin. There’s probably a whole issue there about whether you can translate a user-directed, user-initiated site into something centrally-controlled and shared – even if it’s just a matter of individual random processes vs. communal random processes.More importantly, though, it seems to me that when Riverofthe.net‘s shown like that, we kinda miss the point of a lot of decisions that went into it. Ryan goes on at length in our interview about how important it was to hide the interface, to make the content spill over into everything, etc. Now, if I were trying to translate that sense of immersion into a gallery display, that kinda screams projector inside a big black box: give us nothing to think about except the piece, and let us (to use the provided metaphor) be carried away by the river. Instead, it gets a place that makes it seem like… well, if we’re talking internet terms, it seems like a banner ad. It’s not where I’m looking for content (eye-level), it’s surrounded by other things that want my attention (to the extent that there’s nowhere I can stand without looking simultaneously at something else), it’s flashing and moving- really, if I were Ryan, I’d be worried about the phenomenon of banner blindness.

    • http://www.jennifer-chan.com Ironicmuse

      I felt as if the install of videos at Free decontextualized Murata and Trecartin’s piece from their bad-taste YouTube environments just due to the size of the screens. They would have worked just as well on laptops.

      I appreciate the distinctions Will has parsed out between the viewship of video art and YouTube; they provide a good example of what goes on in an art historian’s head (and also my parents’…) in encounter with long and boring flipcam vids. But I wonder if there is really such a gap between video art and YouTube?

      I’m coming at this from a video art background where the pluralist approach to shooting/screening processes don’t make (even the hybrid) use of codes and conventions from TV to webcam awkward to show. I find screenings rather limiting

      Maybe art critics haven’t grown familiar with watching deer videos but another thing to note is that there have definitely been attempts all over the Internet to curate YouTube.

      Ryeberg.org for example has writers/curators writing expressive and intellectual essays on YouTube videos that span the film-on-YT posts to amateur dance vlogs. If we develop a language or interest for reading these videos conceptually or for their lack of concept then perhaps we might be able to flatten that valley. We really need a sustained passion not just for watching, but discussing it.

      • Will Brand

        I appreciate the sentiment here and in your other comment that I’ve entirely ignored videos going the other way – YouTubey YouTube videos being *intentionally* recontextualized as art through curating/writing/display, rather than merely lacking a context that can be imagined to be art. I’ve definitely ignored that whole idea, and it needed to be pointed out. I’m most interested in conceptual tautology peddling, and that comes with a few blind spots. I wonder, though, if we’re talking about the same thing – and I mean I’m entirely on the fence here. Maybe we don’t need a conceptual freakout and ten years of ‘look, it’s a medium!’ every time we come up with something new, as I’d have it. I’m thinking of how, when one envisions a Sioux warrior, inevitably the guy is on a horse – an invasive species only extant on this continent for a tiny fraction of that society’s existence. Maybe that tells us something. Maybe it’s less a matter of writing essays on a question than a matter of semi-naively appropriating junk until it’s no longer a question at all, as it seems you’d have it. I dunno. Wanna race?

        • Jennifer Chan

          I invite you to skype in and chat and deliberate on that, let’s figure that out in this un-screening, surfing, video and net art party I’m throwing together… if there isn’t a disconcerting lag between my laptop and you. http://www.facebook.com/#!/event.php?eid=150694711645809 If you’re interested, feel free to email me.

          I don’t know what anyone will be showing but I have invited people who have YouTube and Vimeo accounts.

          The parodic title isn’t intended to poke fun at any of these debates as much as wiggling that assumption that new media/”digital” artists only make immaterial work about technology and its cultural effects.

          Because many of us have read this article, and it serves as a discursive entry point between different people (users, video and net artists) who make work that is distributed on the web. I guess it’s also some attempt to socialize the theory and also the appreciation of all things infinitely small and immaterial. It’s also a litmus test to see who from outside of Toronto would willfully volunteer their art/YouTube videos as some kind of ambient party decor–that’s what it is at the end of the day, invasive trash! Your article is referenced at the bottom of the event.

  • Matt

    I enjoyed your use of choice-supportive bias as a characteristic of Youtube videos (or the Youtube experience).

  • http://www.jennifer-chan.com Jennifer Chan

    User-generated amateur video is folk art of the now–what’s uncanny about that? That was the stuff that was supposedly destined for YouTube Play according to the democratic submission process.

    And what about video artists on YouTube? Are those who execute our practice in a vernacular manner chameleons then?

  • RafaelBenOchoa

    Will, thanks for the analysis. It reminds me, I have used YouTube as a primary medium for displaying art. I’m not sure if my work falls under your “uncanny valley” category but I have received feedback to display it as a larger projection instead in a gallery. I beg to differ.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5AlxrHZHn_o&hd=1

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