criticismInternet and Cyber Projects
Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Missing the Magic: YouTube Play at the Guggenheim

YOUTUBE PLAY. A BIENNIAL OF CREATIVE VIDEO at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Videos on View at the Guggenheim in New York October 22–24, 2010 and at

a clip of Ok-Go performing at the Guggenheim, October 21, 2010, from the YouTube page under review
a clip of Ok-Go performing at the Guggenheim, October 21, 2010, from the YouTube page under review

YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video, the Guggenheim Museum’s laughably belated celebration of YouTube wound down on October 21, when a panel of cultural celebrities from the worlds of film, music, and visual/performing arts, including Douglas Gordon, Laurie Anderson, and Darren Aronofsky, chose the cream of the crop, or 20 videos, from a shortlist of 125 videos culled from 23,000 global submissions. The quality of the videos on the shortlist varies, but not greatly. The range goes from boring/unoriginal/pretentious/predictable, to amusing/cute/watchable but instantly forgettable.

One gets the feeling that the Biennial of Creative Video was really just an excuse for the Guggenheim to show off video projection technology that made it possible to project separate video feeds on each ringed layer of the exterior of the museum. In fact, if one visits the site, it is made clear that the projection technology is the real star of the show. Added on top of this, the dire-sounding band OK Go, who marketed themselves quite successfully through their use of YouTube years ago, performed on acoustic guitars while perched on tall orange ladders in the center of the floor of the museum during the culminating event on October 21. One supposes that performing on the floor wouldn’t have been artistic enough, and would not have allowed the person who was filming the event to place the museum’s projection technology, which was constantly flashing on every surface of the architecture above everyone’s heads in nearly every frame, in the spotlight. Forget about trying to figure out what video was playing and what was happening in each video. Just enjoy the projection technology!

It’s truly difficult to pick a favorite among the entries because one is overwhelmed by the ultra-thin artistic veneer covering all of them. If you made a checklist of artistic pretensions you would fill it up quickly. Black and white and grainy footage of African Americans living in the projects with rap music playing in the background, check. Surreal anime-inspired animation that verges on pedophilia and focuses on the female character’s vagina, check. Plenty of high art references that remind the viewer more of ancient MTV programming, when they actually showed music videos 24 hours a day, more than anything else, check. A bland form of feminism and social critique that includes many close ups of the actor’s deadpan face, check. 8-bit animation-inspired scribbles and barely legible narratives, check. Music videos starring actor or rock-rap star wannabe artists, check. Unfortunately, the clichés just go on and on.

The entry, “999 Days: Russell Higgs URBAN BARBARIAN” consists of 999 still images of the artist wearing silly headgear and covering parts of his face with – or sticking in his mouth – various common objects. The artist’s description of his work is snicker-inducing. According to him it is about “Being and Time” and “how we look and how we are looked at”. Well dude, this video consists of you wearing a bunch of stupid shit on your face and head. Not unlike every other entry in this strange contest, this video is tasteful, carefully put together, seamlessly constructed. It has art-appropriate editing and composition, all backed by a moody Brian Eno-esque artsy-fartsy soundtrack. These formal qualities are diametrically opposed to the true YouTube aesthetic. And to top it all off, the entries are rampant with professionalism: many of them have been winners of, or shortlisted for prestigious film and video awards. All of which completely undermines what the greatness of YouTube is all about.

YouTube videos have aesthetic value primarily because they exist outside any institutions and they are 100% unprofessional, if they are not archival footage. The artistry and profundity consists entirely of happy accidents, the oddities and quirks of amateur composition. Watching YouTube videos on your home or work computer and coming upon accidents and surprise juxtapositions, and jukebox-like videos that feature one still image and a song playing in the background, can truly be an exciting and surprise-filled experience. One can wade through videos or old television commercials or shows and satisfy nostalgic impulses, or come upon live footage of bands that do not exist in any other context. There is bizarre material aplenty and it is indeed quite difficult not to find something that relates to your interests in some way. Homogenizing the experience and presenting it as High Art in the museum context not only falsifies what the millions of computer users who visit and enjoy YouTube everyday get out of it, it also presents social and cultural history in a completely false and ahistorical manner.