Faced with the awe-inspiring popularity of web-monoliths like YouTube, contemporary art risks becoming nothing more than a quaint relic of the 20th century.
It’s probably not fair to compare contemporary art practice with YouTube; yet there is evidence to suggest that somewhere in the ulterior of its collective brain, the art world does just this, and finds itself lacking. How else to understand the ongoing assurances given in art exhibition press releases and catalogue essays about the important role the viewer plays in the construction of meaning – and the intention to facilitate it with this very exhibition?
If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments already intuitively understood and widely enjoyed by the culture at large.
Of course, the argument can be made that conceptualism’s emphasis on the disembodied life of the mind presaged our current embrace of virtual experience; and that the early networks fostered by post-minimalism and its precursors – Fluxus, mail art, conceptualism, etc. – anticipated today’s social media. Emphasis on the relational in the last decade of art practice can likewise be seen as having the relevance of putting face-to-face human interaction back into the social media equation.
Still there is something desperate in the artworld’s current desire to kowtow to its audience – through invitations to throw coloured darts at a map, or converse with one another on bean bag chairs, or whatever. By all accounts the Guggenheim New York’s recent theanyspacewhatever, which featured work by known Relational practitioners like Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija was a boring show. A cursory Google search will turn up dismissive blog reviews of the exhibition as such by its intended public; viz., Apparently, drinking coffee and standing around is art. Who would have thought ...
In a recent E-flux article, Dieter Roelstraete voices similar doubts about contemporary art’s relevance, but from a different angle. In The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art he ponders the reasons for current art’s archaeological tendency – which ranges from artworks that investigate modes of museological display and historical re-enactments, to those artists who undertake actual archaeological digs. In Roelstraete’s analysis, such practices are symptomatic of two conditions: the first, to function as a corrective to a mass-culture that consumes its own products – movies, pop stars, best sellers – so quickly that it threatens to suck all cultural memory into a black hole of oblivion; the second, more troubling and readily suggested by the art world’s small army of past-reconstructors: an inability to imagine the future.
According to Roelstraete, this amounts to a failure on the part of current art practice to live up to its role as the avant-garde of our culture. But I would argue that the author’s reliance on a modernist framework when thinking about this problem, a construct that believes in the necessity of an art avant garde, is itself misplaced. Clues to what the future of our culture will look like are abundantly available elsewhere. All you have to do is look on YouTube.
The site is an ongoing argument for why its millions of users everyday have little reason to care about contemporary art practice. That said, it is only fair to point out that in terms of video technology’s cheapness, ease of use and sheer pliability, 70s art practice undertook some essential R&D that was cannily predictive of the technology’s current user-generated centrality to our culture. For instance, when I look at the videos put on YouTube by San Francisco’s Jib Kidder to accompany the songs, sample-derived mash-ups, from his album All on Yall, I think of the 70s video work of, say, Dara Birnbaum or Christian Marclay’s work made in the decades after . But it’ iss hardly important to know these art historical precedents to enjoy what Kidder does.
When I asked Kidder by email why he chose to use the cut-up technique when making his videos, he responded that the data itself solicits this response to it: “It’s what it’s best at – being copied.” In Kidder’s video for the song Windowdipper, morphic resonances between each seconds-long “slice” of data creates a visual tempo connecting with the music’s beat. At the same time, through these resonances, the images editorialize not only on the artist’s chosen technique but also their context of presentation: YouTube itself.
Windowdipper’s rhythmic edits of video-viral clips of kids dancing visually reinforces the rhythm of the song. B By doing this, the artist points to the way content on the web tends to self-replicate – the reason why the metaphor of ‘the viral’ – played out as dance fads and the hundreds of ‘answer’ videos that users’ uploaded daily – is so aptly applied to YouTube as a phenomenon.
Kidder’s videos provide a glimpse into YouTube’s labyrinthine grandeur. His comment that the data – a lot of it sourced from YouTube – elicits this response from him, is a reflection on the awe-inspiring amount of material that is available to be viewed at the site. It is also suggestive of the way that certain entities on the web are manifesting characteristics of an emergent intelligence.
The standard example of what a properly defined emergent intelligence looks like is provided by the social world built by ants. Possessing only the most infinitesimal of mental capacities, these insects work together to create a second level intelligence: the exceptionally well-run entity that is ant society. Strictly speaking, the web at this stage of its development is far too heterogeneous to meet the criteria of an emergent intelligence. But still, it makes sense to suggest that there lurks within the myriad of hands that continually contribute to the social world comprised by YouTube a kind of autonomous intelligence that wants to be organised into a second level of meaning.
Somewhere within the dynamic tension that exists between its excess and its accessibility, the web offers its users the tools for potentially profound moments of self-reflection on their use of the medium itself. For instance, the numerous Flash Mob tributes to Michael Jackson available on YouTube in the wake of the pop star’s death function like a metaphor for this possibility. Organised via the web and instant messaging, each such tribute is filmed in public space from a high-enough angle to facilitate the pattern recognition that is central to the meaning of the event.
Choreographed with the idea that the individual movements of a few dancers will ripple out, so that within minutes the whole crowd is moving in unison, the Flash Mob dance event creates itself in the very image of the self-organising entity – ie web culture. In this way, it performs the function often attributed to contemporary artworks – to provide a framework of intelligibility for tendencies in the culture as a whole.
The ant-YouTube analogy has further application in that it suggests a demotion of the individual in favour of the many. In this sense, YouTube makes good on Joseph Beuys’ faith in the universal potential of human creativity. Absorption of the one into the many also provides a fair description of the art world today – as it functions, if not how it currently sees itself.
If the phenomena generated by the web do what art is supposed to do, only better, then at the very least this should expand and clarify the definition of what art is – but it also has the effect of relegating much of the activity that currently takes place within the art context proper to the status of mere mannered relics of a bygone age.
The author would like to thank Ann Dean, Willy Le Maitre and Jacob Wren for their comments on this article.
Jib Kidder’s music can be purchased at: http://www.statesrightsrecords.com/
Originally published, September 2009 at the now defunct site apengine.org