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 . 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 . For an artwork, this is a very bad place to be. A guide to the graph:
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 Squirrel / Rashaad 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 .
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.
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