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: http://www.statesrightsrecords.com/

Originally published, September 2009 at the now defunct site apengine.org

Fassbinder: Berlin Alexanderplatz – An Exhibition

August 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007

Fassbinder: “Berlin Alexanderplatz - An Exhibition,” 2007. View of the exhibition at KW, Berlin. Photo: Uwe Walter.

Writing about Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1983 when Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s 14 1/2 hour film epic was first shown in the US, the New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby noted that the – at that time – recent appearance of home video rental offered a way to negotiate the film’s unfeasible length, and also possibly presaged the creation of a new art form. Canby was right about this, but in a way that he could not have anticipated. The idea that video rentals could democratize and decentralize artworks, putting control into viewer’s hands has been borne out in spectacular fashion by the online video site YouTube, which invented not only new conditions for viewing but an entire universe of viewer-created content.

The question of whether the short videos that can be seen on YouTube can be considered art is entirely germane to Klaus Bisenbeck’s presentation of Berlin Alexanderplatz at the Kunst Werker in Berlin. A major force at the KW since its inception, and now also a curator at PS1 in New York, Bisenbeck is a controversial figure in the Berlin art world. This exhibition will do nothing to alter that reputation. All credit should be given to him for the scale of vision he brings to the staging of Fassbinder’s film. Although revered internationally, the German attitude to the director continues to be ambivalent. As a friend of mine said Fassbinder was “too gay, too political and took too many drugs” to really be a welcome addition to the pantheon of great German artists. Recognition of Bisenbeck’s achievement, however, can’t avoid mention of the obvious caveat about the way this exhibition reduces the conditions for viewing the work to the diminished scale of a contemporary audiences’ YouTube-like attention spans.

Originally made for German television in 1980, the film’s 13 episodes plus an epilogue, which have been re-mastered for 35mm, are shown as loops in 14 separate viewing booths. The film is also screened in its entirety in a small adjacent room outfitted with cinema-style seating. While this is intended to provide a context for the liberties the KW takes in presenting the film as an art installation, the intact screening of the film also makes the weaknesses of the latter strategy apparent. Perhaps this was intentional too? Certainly the exhibition is successful in staging a dialogue between the two formats of viewing. In contrast to the strong narrative pull one experiences when the film is seen as a whole, the installation caters to a more distracted form of reception. Temporarily constructed for the show, the 14 connected booths snake around the perimeter of the KW’s ground floor exhibition space, the last booth functioning like an exit into a central atrium-like area where the obverse screen of all the projections can be seen simultaneously. The effect is spectacular, the coherence of Fassbinder’s vision being blown apart into competing disjunctive fragments.

The claim of the show’s press release is that presenting the film in this way allows the viewer to decide “how they want to approach it”. The assertion ignores the fact that viewers’ have always been able to decide how they approach an art exhibition, but the KW is merely speaking in lingua franca of the contemporary art world when it emphasizes the viewer’s ability to participate in an exhibition as one of its main attributes. As English literary theorist Terry Eagleton notes, the current culture’s preoccupation with audience interactivity originates in reception theory’s insight that, “readers were quite as vital to the existence of writing as authors.”1.

Reception theory gave the world the idea that readers and viewers have an active role to play in the creation of meaning, but the question remains: What meaning can result from presenting Fassbinder’s film in this way? Fragmenting the German director’s massive cinematic accomplishment into bite-sized pieces would seem to play to our culture’s worst atomizing tendencies. Take the time to watch an episode from beginning to end, sitting in a viewing booth on one of the cushions provided, and your patience will be rewarded; Fassbinder’s greatness as a director ensures that. Presented with so much choice, however (leaving aside the possibility of watching each episode in full, laboriously going from booth to booth in chronological order to undermine the show’s premise) the urge is to flit around and sample the film, suggesting that the point is to experience its ambience rather than meaningfully engage with its content.

View the work as a momentary series of encounters, and the static quality of Fassbinder’s dramaturgy becomes apparent — but then he never was a director interested in naturalism. Enter a random choice of rooms in quick succession and you get the impression that all of Berlin Alexanderplatz takes place while the characters sit around talking to each other in one bar or another. The presentation makes the film’s typological connection with the genre of the soap opera apparent. Regardless, viewing the film in this way also gives it the fascinating quality of a parallel universe. Each screen is like a window proving a figurative glimpse into Berlin’s past, a world comprised of the extraordinary history of the city and the artworks and literature it has inspired.

The precedent for Bisenbeck’s show is Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho (1993). Gordon’s premise was that presenting Hitchcock’s famous film as an installation (slowing the projection down to a speed of 24 frames per minute) would reveal the film’s unconscious: the ulterior world it created beyond any of individual element of the director’s intention. Considered from this angle, Bisenbeck’s installation works exceptionally well; he compounds the brilliance of Fassbinder’s work by abstracting it. In the process, the prismatic reality he created is made apparent, not only in this film but in Fassbinder’s body of work as a whole.

1. After Theory, Terry Eagleton, Penguin Books, London, 2003. p. 53.

By Rosemary Heather

Curated by Klaus Bisenbeck
Kunst Werker Institute for Contemporary Art
Berlin, March 18-May 13th, 2007

This text originally appeared in Bordercrossings # 103

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.

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.

Army of YouTube

November 6, 2009 § 20 Comments

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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with YouTube at Army of YouTube.