Army of YouTube

January 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

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:

Originally published, September 2009 at the now defunct site

Kelly Richardson Talks Sci-Fi Futures, Life On Mars And Mariner 9

November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison

Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison

As part of the Future Projections program at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, UK-based Canadian artist Kelly Richardson brought a scaled-down version of her amazing new work Mariner 9 to the Royal Ontario Museum. A panoramic video installation, Mariner 9 presents a detailed portrait of the surface of Mars as it might be seen in the future—littered with space junk, but still apparently uninhabited.

Commissioned by Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, the TIFF installation offered North Americans a foretaste of the touring mid-career survey of Richardson’s work (also organized in the UK) that will arrive at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery in February 2013 and, in smaller form, at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in 2014. This survey promises to be an event in itself, with eight rooms at the Albright-Knox to be taken over by her work. In this email interview, Richardson talks about the origins of Mariner 9, our fascination with life on Mars, and what that might mean for the future of life on Earth.

Rosemary Heather: There was an almost unnerving coincidence at seeing Mariner 9 in Toronto at the same time that NASA’s Curiosity was exploring Mars. It makes your project seem more real, almost as if you are doing the advance work—mapping the mental territory—for this new era in space exploration. Care to comment?

Kelly Richardson: The idea for Mariner 9 did come about before I became fully aware of when Curiosity would embark on its mission to the red planet. The opportunity I was given to develop the work was during a residency as part of Tyneside Cinema’s Pixel Palace program. The timing was perfect for the commission to be presented in parallel with the Mars mission.

Because of the unique problems the piece introduced, I spent the majority of time during my two-month residency researching and developing the various approaches I could take to produce the work so that, by the end of it, I would be ready for production to begin. Interestingly, by this point—the end of the residency and the beginning of the creation of Mariner 9—Curiosity had departed for Mars.

As we had planned to launch its UK exhibition within days of NASA’s anticipated landing, roughly eight months later, the work was produced entirely during the time it took for Curiosity to leave our planet and arrive on Mars: simultaneous missions. Mariner 9 premiered in the UK three days before NASA’s landing, and given that I had included Curiosity in the work itself, I was obviously thrilled when it landed successfully.

RH: One goal you’ve said you have for the work is to produce an immersive experience for your audience, which the installation delivers when presented at full scale, as it will be for your show at the Albright-Knox. Is it correct to say this effect in part derives from the authentic look you were able to give the piece? Can you also say something about the kind of research you had to do to achieve this look?

KR: I’d say the convincing Martian landscape certainly contributes to the immersive quality of the work. I wanted people to feel as if they could step onto Mars and I did overhear a number people in the UK telling one another that that’s exactly how it felt.

This is the first piece I have done that was entirely digitally produced. Usually I begin by filming existing locations, which I then alter digitally to create the work. However, as I couldn’t film on Mars I had to take a different approach.

I discovered that NASA knows exactly how Mars is constructed and that it had made this data available to the public, which could then be brought into a 3-D program to faithfully create the lay of the land. Using images of the surface of Mars taken from various rovers as a reference, I could then texture my digital version by creating similar rocks, sand, etc., to produce a photorealistic terrain. So that’s exactly what I endeavoured to do—and of course, it wasn’t nearly as straightforward as I’ve made it sound here.

I put a great deal of research into actual missions that had gone to the planet to recreate digitally the graveyard of partially functioning and corroding remains from various spacecraft you see in the work. And as it is a “futurescape” several centuries from now, I also researched current thinking about what future rovers may look like.

Lastly, I wanted the scene to be set during a dust storm, which is one of the most difficult effects to achieve in 3-D. Research aside, the skill set required for the whole of this work was huge. In the film industry, it would have required a large team of people. Two of us (my partner Mark Jobe and I) worked on the project full-time for 10 months. We basically started from scratch, as we had to learn several new programs and methods of working to achieve the desired look.

RH: I love the way, even when describing the project, you convey a sense of why it is so compelling to you—the recent Mars exploration adding extra urgency. I am wondering about the sound. You took great pains to include details that give the piece visual verisimilitude; is this true also of the soundtrack? I recently saw Christian Marclay’s The Clock and noticed how the sound from one segment will often carry on over top of subsequent clips, providing an element of continuity (along with the timepieces) to the artist’s otherwise disparate selection of movies. Can something analogous be said about Mariner 9? Is the soundtrack what makes it truly immersive?

Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison

Kelly Richardson Mariner 9 2012 Installation view Courtesy of the artist and Birch Libralato / photo Colin Davison

KR: I’d say it’s equal parts visual to audio that makes the work immersive. The installation, at 43 feet by 9 feet, takes up far more than your immediate and peripheral fields of view. In fact, it’s so large that you really can’t take in the whole of the piece without physically moving around it.

In England, it was common to see people sitting in front of one area for a good while, and then relocating to another area for an equally long time. Holly Hughes, who is curating my mid-career survey at the Albright-Knox, also noted that when you walk around the work, the light changes as it would in front of a physical landscape and many people have noted how three-dimensional it looks, without the use of 3-D technology.

The sound does play a huge part in the immersive quality of Mariner 9, though. During my research I discovered that we don’t actually know what Mars sounds like. All attempts to record audio on Mars have failed so it’s mere speculation at this point as to how it would behave on the planet.

In lieu of this information, I created a soundtrack which, again, attempts to convince the viewer that they’re there, providing the tools for a suspension of disbelief. It is 5.1 surround sound, made up of a dust storm swirling around the room; faint, strange, rhythmic sounds; and mechanical sounds associated with the movement of spacecraft. The nature of the sound also reflects the function of the visual, which is both hypnotic and strangely beautiful, but equally unsettling.

RH: Finally, I guess the biggest question is, Why Mars? Aside from the current focus of American space exploration, are there other reasons this project took Mars as its subject?

KR: Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the way science fiction allows us to experience what life might be like in the coming century. Scientists and futurologists can speculate on what the future might look like, but artists are capable of visualising those futures, making them tangible. If hindsight is always 20/20, experiencing these potential futures offers us a window through which we can view our present time and the direction we are headed in with some measure of clarity.

Mariner 9 presents Mars as littered with the rusting remains from various missions to the planet. Despite its suggested abandoned state, several of the spacecraft continue to partially function, doing their job to look for signs of life, and possibly transmitting the data back to no one.

That search for life—to know that we’re not alone in the universe—is fascinating on many levels, but it’s also a beautiful, endearing endeavour, particularly for us as a species. We are destroying much of life as we know it, literally consuming our planet, at a truly alarming rate. I’m interested in that contradiction at this critical time in history when current predictions for our future are not just unsettling, but terrifying.

By Rosemary Heather

This text was originally posted at

More info about Kelly Richardson can be found here.

Kelly Richardson is represented by Birch Libralato.


Anri Sala: Air Cushioned Ride

August 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Anri Sala

Anri Sala, Air-Cushioned Ride, video/film, 6 minutes 4 seconds (2006)

The romance of the truck stop may sound like worn-out material for an artist to draw on. The idea would seem to evoke a familiar landscape ¬- one that is, let’s face it, from the last century. In Air Cushioned Ride (2007) the Berlin-based Albanian artist Sala makes the territory his own. A car-mounted camera slowly circles a row of 18-wheel vehicles, a scene that is set against the dazzling blue big sky of some nameless open country. Along for the ride is a soundtrack that alternates between two songs, on a country music and a classical music station, respectively. For the show’s opening, Sala had this composite tune arranged for live performance. Producing a full-bodied replication of the work’s soundtrack was a combined and rather large group of authentic-looking country/western and classical musicians. It was a novel accomplishment and something of a technical feat. What it added to the piece as a whole is less certain. The artfulness of the adaptation is its weak point proving that, in conceptual practice at least, antipathy to technique remains steadfast. Sala’s film, on the other hand, is entirely artless and so that much more successful. Initial assumptions about the time and place of the work give way to the realization that the scene you are looking at is not necessarily in the proverbial mid-western US. Country music and long-distance trucking are Americanisms that are at this point merely part of the general condition of things in the West. It is this fusion of old world and new that the artist neatly encapsulates on his soundtrack. By articulating an idea about the universality of placelessness, Sala achieves an absolute contemporaneity. Bypassing the easy clichés of pop culture, he carves out a concrete piece of the present.

By Rosemary Heather

This text originally appeared in Flash Art, July-September Issue, 2007
Anri Sala is represented by Johnen Galerie, Berlin

Kelly Mark: Always Working

July 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kelly Mark

The fusion of art with everyday life has been a perennial goal of contemporary art, but today it seems forgotten. An obvious explanation: this has already been achieved. The future as predicted by the avant-garde is here, in other words. The signs are ample, if poorly organized in the contemporary psyche; the futurologist Alvin Toffler has made a career out of the insight that the rate of change in the West far outstrips our ability to adapt to it. Even if the avant-garde’s penchant for prognostication is now a thing of the past, art continues to be adept at creating templates to help us recognize change, to see the reality of it. For a close-at-hand example, look no further than the work of the Toronto artist Kelly Mark; or, rather, look to the artist Kelly Mark, fusion of art and life.

Althea Thauberger

July 8, 2011 § 3 Comments

Althea Thauberger, A Memory Lasts Forever (2004)

If the observer effect describes the consequences of observation on the thing observed, the consternation effect is more specific: it refers to the feeling one gets watching video works by the Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger—what to make of them?

Thauberger’s art is capable of provoking the extreme discomfort of the sophisticated confronting the naive. This is especially true of Songstress (2001–02), the work that first brought the artist wide attention. Songstress has all the hallmarks of Thauberger’s art practice, which consists of creating portraits of social groups by initiating collaboration with them. The project began with an advertisement Thauberger placed in a Victoria newspaper seeking young female singer/songwriters.

Ryan Trecartin Makes Art Cool Again

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

The third time I visited Ryan Trecartin’s show of video installations, Any Ever in Toronto, it was near the end of the exhibition. A small army of people moved from room to room, notebooks in hand, recording their thoughts. Like few other art events I can think of, the show contained within it the seeds of a conversation. See Ryan Trecartin’s work and you want to talk about it.

Phil Collins talks to Rosemary Heather

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

RH: Can you tell me the title of your new film?

PC: It’s called ‘zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom)’ (2008). The title is in Serbian, and it means “Why I don’t speak Serbian (in Serbian)”. I have been working in the Balkans for the last 10 years, quite regularly, and have spent a reasonable amount of time in Kosovo. I’m really interested in historical and social contradictions that the conflict has thrown up. One time I visited, in 2003 maybe, I was with a friend from Croatia. We were at a video conference, and it was really cold. In order to warm up, we said, “Well, let’s go and get a beer.

Candice Breitz talks to Rosemary Heather

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Berlin-based South African artist, Candice Breitz

Candice Breitz has been Professor of Fine Art at the Braunschweig University of Art since 2007

When forgotten, pop stars become like wallpaper. Once they become icons, they take on an ulterior function in our daily lives. By recording a popular song as sung by its multitude of fans, or taking the overly familiar images of media stars and breaking them down into their constituent parts, Breitz makes evident the unconscious roles these icons play in our lives. If the idea of ‘Clint Eastwood’ has become as natural to us as a tree, Breitz works to make sure he comes to seem unnatural to us again, helping us to decode our world and understand it a little better. In Factum (2009), commissioned for her solo exhibition at the Power Plant in Toronto, she worked with sets of twins to literally construct a composite portrait of their public selves. Splitting the one into two–two people on two screens who look all but identical–serves as a nice metaphor for her practice as a whole, which reconfigures the mediated world into a self-reflective entity. I spoke with Candice in September 2009 when she was in Toronto for the opening of the Factum exhibition.

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