Video Dada (February 1, 2010)
NOTES: Origins and Context | See Also
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Origins of this content
During the Fall of 2009, I wrote a series of blog posts about video art on YouTube. I had been asked to write an essay about this question by Ming-Yuen Ma and Erika Suderberg, the editors of Resolution 3: Video Praxis in Global Spaces, a large collection of contemporary essays on video art. With their permission, I conceived of the essay in advance, to be composed of these blogs and reprinted to paper with paltry frame grabs of YouTube videos, as a way to point to my growing discomfort about writing and publishing about YouTube offline.
"Dada artists produced works which were nihilistic or reflected a cynical attitude toward social values, and, at the same time, irrational—absurd and playful, emotive and intuitive, and often cryptic. Less a style than a zeitgeist, Dadaists typically produced art objects in unconventional forms produced by unconventional methods." [cit]

"Martha Gever's critical writing deals mainly with the intersections between visual culture and social relations, and takes the form of studies of video and television, other types of popular culture, gender, and sexuality, as well as reviews of work in video, photography, and new media."[cit]

Since video's commercial availability in the late 1960s, video art has been a developing use of the medium. "The history of video itself is a long and ever-evolving tale, and with online media becoming dominant and new methods like walk-on-video being produced, it will no doubt continue to grow."[cit]

The Guggenheim's exhibition YouTube Play, a Biennial of Creative Video, was on view from October 22 to 24, 2010. "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," writes Roberta Smith for The New York Times Art Review.[cit]
I drove out to UC Irvine with the kids to catch the Video Dada show ("dealing with intersections of video, art, and the Internet"). Martha Gever, the show's curator, was kind enough to drive out and chat with me after. The show puts into action and on to the wall many of the concerns I've been expressing here about video art on YouTube. First, Gever transforms the practice of curating into the "real" (video) art practice. Then she allows YouTube video to become art by surrounding the show's 300 unruly pieces with to-be-expected large-screen, flat, chic monitors. Importantly, Gever also provides thrift store couches and adds to the walls big, scrawled, messy handwritten quotations from media/cultural theorists as varied as Marcel Proust, Geert Lovink, and Virginia Heffernan. Surrounded by ideas and without raucous, ugly YouTube pages to frame them (ads, other videos, comments, tags), the projected videos looked, well, pretty—like nothing other than honest-to-goodness video art in all its varied polyphony (cut-up, hand-painted, home-video-like, music-video-inflected, found-ads, and so on.) It was that frame that did it, making art out of madness: slick screen, black box, curator's stamp of approval. The wall demands respect, as does the hushed room with guard. And, unlike YouTube, the quotes create context.

Gever formally enacts many of the contradictions of video art on YouTube through the fitting design of her show. The Dada reference marks the play between art production and popular/capitalist consumption to be as definitive of YouTube video as it was of some urinals. Furthermore, Dada suitably organizes the cacophony and distraction of undifferentiated material—"all the objects in the [YouTube] archive have equal weight ... They are decontextualized and flattened" proclaims Robert Gehl, written on the wall—that defines both YouTube and the show (there are 300 videos playing, almost randomly, on something like ten monitors with nothing but typed lists of titles and authors to anchor them: you never really know or care what you are seeing). Gever was quick to note that while the order of the videos is not important, she had carefully and rigorously selected all of them (as "artful: carefully constructed, inventive, mindful of technique, and infused by sophisticated cultural intelligence") through a painstaking, multiyear process of looking for video art in the sea of crap that included the additional looking-labor of several TAs as well as Gever searching for the names of hundreds of contemporary artists in YouTube to see if anything might come up (it did ...) Refreshingly and tellingly, I recognized only a few names from the video art pantheon. However, when I returned home, and went to find things to review again on YouTube, I couldn't locate them. For instance, I looked for LaToya Ruby Frazier's A Mother to Hold, which I watched all the way through its grueling home-movie-like interaction with the artist's crack-whore mother, and Guthrie Lonergan's Office Party or Kids. While I couldn't find them again on YouTube, Gever had located both of these YouTubers through searching from the New Museum's Younger Than Jesus show.

It also seemed relevant when I noted to myself, at the show, that I didn't really want to watch most of the videos at the exhibition. Unlike on YouTube, I couldn't fast-forward them, cut them off when bored, or jump to something else vaguely related. YouTube's structuring myth of audience participation was completely denied here and the work suffered from it, proving an affront to another definitive quality of YouTube video, but not in the best Dada sort of way. Gever writes in the program: "the non-hierarchical, uncurated organization of YouTube provides a fitting venue for videos that are fleeting, provisional, rowdy, rude, epigrammatic, overtly political, or otherwise unruly in the themes that govern more disciplined precincts of art." With this I agree, which lets me see how YouTube can't be as radical as Dada hoped to be. On leaving the exhibition, my twelve-year old daughter remarked that the show wasn't really Dada enough in that it didn't feel like much of an affront, nor did it inspire strong feelings since a lot of the video was simply fun or funny, and in the end the sheer undifferentiated totality of it quieted the viewer, as YouTube always seems most wont to do.