Pixels at an Exhibition
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: May 18, 2008
What do video artists make of YouTube? Every minute, 10 hours of video are uploaded to the video-sharing site, which now shows hundreds of millions of videos each day. The place is a mess. Maybe artists should avoid it altogether.
The curator and Internet-art booster Rachel Greene has come up with another suggestion: artists could use YouTube, like a supply store, slag heap or rag-and-bone shop. To make the point, she recently asked a set of art-world figures -- Sue de Beer, Matthew Higgs, Matthew Ronay and Wayne Koestenbaum -- to present and project their favorite YouTube videos in Manhattan on May 13 at the Kitchen gallery. According to catalog copy for the show, "Artists Using YouTube," some of the videos on exhibit provide "indirect fodder" for the artists' own work.
Fodder -- aha. Maybe that's purpose of YouTube.
The shrewdest contributor to the show is the video artist Sue de Beer. De Beer's first choice of clip is inspired: the final scene from "The American Soldier," Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1970 film. Two slight men appear, backing nervously away from the camera, each with a gun pointed at the viewer. What an ingenious start. A woman in the frame cries out. The two men startle and turn, just as the camera does an about-face to show another armed man, on his knees, who fires two shots. Down fall both original men, as the film turns to slo-mo. The film is black and white, and the shapes are just simple enough -- lockers, as at a bus station; short staircase; pay phone -- to be readable at YouTube's dirtiest resolution.
The person who originally uploaded the Fassbinder clip to YouTube was evidently drawn to the song on the soundtrack ("So Much Tenderness") and framed the clip as a music video. But de Beer finds other significance in it. The threadbare print, the (mostly) immobile camera and the institutional quality of the set suggest a surveillance video. Indeed, one of de Beer's other YouTube selections shows actual surveillance footage from the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. She's pressing the connection. Taken together, the Fassbinder and Columbine images are a good reminder that since 1970, when "The American Soldier" appeared, documentary audiences have had considerable practice reading surveillance and evidentiary images. With Columbine scenes and murders of all kinds playing on thousands of screens in the YouTube googolplex -- the Saddam Hussein execution, the shooting of a police officer in New Hampshire -- the Fassbinder scene comes to seem like one of them. Just as primitive artifacts placed in the context of high modernism seem to anticipate it, or interpret it, so a vintage film clip set online amid the YouTube flotsam can take on entirely new meaning.
De Beer also chose a video that shows the fashion designer Coco Chanel pricklishly fielding interview questions in unsubtitled French while smoking in the middle of her ornate drawing room. It's moving and even unnerving to see a clip like this liberated from commentary. Even five years ago, you'd never have encountered it except in a documentary about fashion or feminism, where its significance would be assigned by pedantic talking heads. On YouTube, the strange tableau takes on a life of its own. Chanel can't settle down; she fairly squirms and won't take a seat in her own house. Similarly uncomfortable-looking is the dancer in de Beer's final choice, "Footworkin," an amateur video that shows a living-room dancer flapping and kicking to "My Funny Valentine." Behind the dancer is a wilted bouquet of foil balloons, whose muted shine recalls the gilded mirror behind Chanel. De Beer draws bright lines with her curatorial choices, proposing connections between disparate images and showing how video clips are reincarnated by the format and community of YouTube. It's an imaginative collection.
No artist should take lightly the opportunity to use YouTube. In my view, YouTube is neither a nascent art form nor a video library but a recently unearthed civilization. Everything's muddy and looks kind of ruined. If you don't have firm convictions about visual art, you won't come on them just by poking around; everything will seem worthless. But while most of the stuff being dusted off and put into baggies at YouTube are indeed bent spoons and dime-a-dozen arrowheads, an archeologist with his eyes open can still be surprised by treasure.
Points of Entry
THIS WEEK'S RECOMMENDATIONS
STILL IN THE EXPERIMENTAL STAGES: With Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno as alumni, the Kitchen (thekitchen.org) has long been a holy spot for video and performance. One look at YouTube, and it seems we're all video artists now. A pilgrimage is in order: 512 West 19th Street, New York.
SUE DE BEER'S KALEIDOSCOPE: Known for what ArtForum described as "psychedelic lighting and kaleidoscopic effects" in her own video, Sue de Beer has also been cited for creating too much useless beauty. At the Kitchen, her excavation of YouTube for "Artists Using YouTube" is keenly beautiful and far from useless. In disparate found videos, she traces a glorious and ghastly story that comes closer than any critical argument to making the case for online video as art. The whole set must be seen:
MORE CHOICES: Videos that conjure the 1980s (along with videos that conjure every era since the invention of film) run rampant on YouTube, and Matthew Higgs has disinterred some nice examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVIKF03KkVM; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iKyPMXQb5o; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utjyI3WpGNg. Matthew Ronay proves a separate point -- that magic is real in online video -- with his selections.