Does exhibiting YouTube clips automatically turn them into art works? Kolja Reichert takes a look
Seeing commercial video platforms like YouTube as fulfilling avant-garde hopes such as the empowerment of the amateur may be going too far. But they have created a new system for the production and circulation of images which tend to function in an uncontrolled and rhizomatic way while seeming to leave the sovereignty of the author behind. This proliferation has much in common with graffiti and street art, and, for the art business, it seems to hold the promises of reality shock and authenticity associated with those genres. Amateur videos can be increasingly found in art spaces. But what happens when productions made to be circulated online with no claim to being art works are taken into the art world? When artists or curators appropriate material for their own work or include it in exhibitions as found footage?
In the group show Private at Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle, the Leo Gabin artist collective exhibited works with YouTube videos showing young women tidying their bedrooms, dancing in the living room or fighting in the street (for example Killin’ it, 2009). Here, the unruly growth of the Internet is contained within finite works while raising many questions: what do artists find interesting about these documents of disinhibition? Why do they edit the material the way they do? Why do they choose that particular song as their soundtrack? And why do three men show footage of women only?
Leo Gabin reduce the clips to similarities of content and manipulate them using editing and music. This approach recalls ethnologists presenting the results of field work to those who stayed home: YouTube as an exotic country. But the collective fell far short of the complexity that might have been developed by this found material. Moreover, what came across as an engagement with the issue of authorship – presenting films by other people – was in fact no more than the appropriation of amateur productions to voice and to assert one’s own privileged position as an artist.
The problems begin as soon as the footage switches from one system of circulation to another: from YouTube with its constant demand for participation and its click-based scale of values, to the art context with its emphasis on reflection where selected authors show fixed works. Something that functions well on YouTube soon becomes less alive in an art space: at the Fuck Parade in Berlin in 2000, Matthias Fritsch filmed a goatee-bearded, muscle-bound techno dancer and put the video online, before YouTube even existed (the platform was founded in 2005). Later, reposted on YouTube, the clip sparked a wave of satirical imitations that Fritsch then exhibited in 2011 together with the original as We, TechnoViking (2010) in the group show Based in Berlin. In the exhibition space, the joy of dynamic creativity among strangers that characterizes such an Internet hype became an object of pure representation. The appeal of the Viking meme was based precisely on the fact that Fritsch’s video was not intended as art and on the promise of empowerment shared by the producers. None of the meme/copycat satirists complained (the rights to their works are owned by YouTube in any case), but legal action was taken by the person perhaps most eligible to claim authorship: the dancer himself. Consequently, Fritsch’s ‘work’ may not be shown until the dispute is resolved.
Acts of Voicing at Stuttgart’s Württembergischer Kunstverein suggested how the dynamism of YouTube clips can be preserved in an exhibition context (see the review in this issue). With Transgender Voice 3 (2008), this group show presented a decidedly non-artistic work – made by ‘anonymous’ in the media ‘YouTube’ – on equal terms among artistic ones. The video, in which a transgender demonstrates how she switches between male and female voices, maintains a tension between earnest and self-parody: with repetition, self-reflexive comments and the absurd fetish of a spanner used to illustrate the larynx. This work highlights not only the production of identity in a standardized webcam format but also the scope for modulating identity in general. The curatorial gesture of blithely including a non-artistic work – of connecting two systems of circulation that met on equal terms – opened a breach in the network of professional authorship and broadened the understanding of the other artistic works on show here. The video was used neither as a supplier of realness, nor to illustrate a topic, but rather was allowed to develop as its own agent on its own terms: presented as an artwork that didn’t have to be art.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Kolja Reichert is a writer and critic. His reviews, essays and reportage have been published in, among others, Welt am Sonntag, Der Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit, and Weltkunst. He lives in Berlin.
First published in Issue 8