The Home Video Rises to Museum Grade
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: October 21, 2010
Neither life nor art has been the same since the hand-held video camera became increasingly available in the 1970s. And they’ve been even less like themselves since YouTube came along in 2005, giving the world a continuously expanding bulletin board for moving images to which anyone can contribute just about anything. By now the YouTube video universe is, like the real one, large and complex beyond comprehension, and the repercussions for video art are equally hard to fathom.
It was inevitable that a museum would get involved, and in June the Guggenheim took the leap. Teaming up with YouTube, it announced the inauguration of “YouTube Play, a Biennial of Creative Video,” a juried exhibition with an open-submissions policy. Anyone anywhere could submit a video to a YouTube site, as long as it had been made in the last two years and did not exceed 10 minutes. (Most of the 125 “shortlist” works are under five.)
At the time of the announcement, there was much talk about originality and discovery, which sounds rather hollow now, compared with the low quality of the 25 finally selected. They were culled from 23,000 submissions by a panel of mostly artists, among them Laurie Anderson, Douglas Gordon and Marilyn Minter, led by Nancy Spector, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator.
Those who thought they heard the barbarians at the gate when the Guggenheim announced this project can exhale. There is no rabble here, only technically savvy competence, much of it already quite popular on YouTube and some of it already singled out for praise and prizes.
On the other hand, those who thought the gates were being flung open to encompass some of YouTube’s amazing creativity and egalitarianism as the world’s greatest showcase (and stimulator) of digital folk art will be disappointed, by the prevalence of high polish. The rest of us may be left puzzling over the difference between YouTube video and art-world video (a k a video art).
One way to explain the lackluster quality of the first incarnation of “YouTube Play” is that almost none of the final 25 works, which are being screened in a gallery at the museum this weekend, fit either of those categories. Nor do most of the 100 other shortlist videos, which are available for viewing at kiosks in all Guggenheim museums through the end of the year and indefinitely on the “YouTube Play” site (youtube.com/play). They seem to occupy a third sphere of slick and pointless professionalism, where too much technique serves relatively skimpy, generic ideas.
Nearly all of the final 25 are the work of trained if fairly young photographers, filmmakers, animators, artists, musicians, music-video or television-commercial directors or graduate students who aspire to these titles. There is barely a hint of DIY anything, anywhere.
There are a few signs of life, mostly in the area of animation. “Bear untitled D.O. Edit,” by a Danish animator named Christen Bach, depicts the violent breakup between a hunter and the bear who no longer loves him in a heartlessly deadpan video-game style that accents its absurdist twist while sending up the genre.
Absurdity wields a political edge in the rash and ornate “This Aborted Earth: The Quest Begins,” by Michael Banowetz and Noah Sodano, which evokes old engravings to revisit the Crusades and the killings of Muslims by Christians. The style is a little too “Yellow Submarine,” which is also the case with the more spare and linear “I Met the Walrus,” by Jerry Levitan, Josh Raskin, James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina. Their effort animates and illustrates an impromptu interview from 1969 that Mr. Levitan, then 14 and armed with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, conducted with John Lennon in Toronto. Lennon’s nonviolent philosophy is still pertinent.
Sean Metelerkamp’s interview with the raunchy South African rap trio Die Antwoord evolves into a low-key backyard performance and definitely holds the attention with music, attitude and setting. The video, “Die Antwoord Zef Side,” captures the group members in their old neighborhood among family and friends (or so it appears) in dazzling South African light and a moment of relative restraint judging from the trio’s other videos. Interestingly, the Metelerkamp video’s somewhat surreal grittiness echoes the work of the South African photographer Roger Ballen.
Elsewhere, there are tour-de-force effects that seem destined for television-commercial greatness. One example is the faux miniaturization of Keith Loutit’s “Bathtub IV,” which speeds up long shots of the real world to make it seem toylike a further trickle-down of 1980s set-up photography and video. Another is the intensified and manipulated sounds of Nick Bertke’s “Gardyn,” which turns the surfaces and sights of an Australian garden and an interview with its owner into something like a music video.
Amid all the artifice of the final 25, Lisa Byrne’s documentary short “Taxi III Stand Up and Cry Like a Man” may burn a hole in your heart. The third in a trilogy, it consists of interviews with taxi drivers who survived paramilitary attacks in Northern Ireland during the conflicts of the 1980s and ’90s. Seen in tight shots, mostly sitting in cars, the men speak cryptically yet frankly of their near-death experiences and injuries and the aftereffects. There is no visible art here, only a harrowing compression. Maybe Ms. Byrne’s piece should be required viewing for video makers who are considering submitting works to future incarnations of “YouTube Play.”
This exhibition can only get better, and it probably will. It is an idea whose time has come or come back, or perhaps simply come to a major New York museum for the first time. In many ways it is simply an old-fashioned open-submission exhibition of the kind that regional museums and art centers around the country have staged for decades except that it has gone digital. It would not have been possible in the old days: 23,000 videocassettes mailed in or hand-delivered would have brought a museum and its local post office to a standstill.
In the meantime, there is comfort to be taken in the 100 shortlist works before you turn back to the YouTube of your particular everyday life. (My version centers on musical escapism, tending toward things like the LED-light-wearing sheep, select Glee redos, and the fabulous pair of Israeli teenage girls lip-syncing the Pixies’ “Hey,” which has so far clocked over 31 million viewings, several dozen of them mine.)
My limited sampling of the full shortlist found several that are better, more realistic and low-tech than most in the biennial proper. I recommend sifting through them, to try to figure out what in the world the jury was thinking when it made its final choices. It takes an effort to make YouTube seem as tidy as this.
“YouTube Play, a Biennial of Creative Video” is on view through Sunday at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, at 89th Street; (212) 423-3500; guggenheim.org/new-york; and at youtube.com/play indefinitely.
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