The Guggenheim/YouTube Cake Mix

A few years back I covered the Guggenheim/YouTube video biennial fairly extensively. Though that show has been forgotten, I think there are important lessons worth remembering. Here is the best of that coverage, combined into a single post. There are many links to the videos; check out a few at least. You can also check out all the videos from the exhibition here. Enjoy!

My girlfriend, Heather, provided me with the right metaphor for the Guggenheim Museum/YouTube video art biennial of 2010, shortly prior to the start of judging. She said, “Before the invention of boxed cake mixes, cake recipes varied a lot. After boxed mixes became popular, everyone tried to make cakes that were like the boxed mix.”
This first video biennial, YouTube Play, would be unlike any subsequent one, because there is no antecedent. Other museums have tried video exhibitions, but this one was aimed at the amateur and the unknown so you couldn’t know what to expect. To some extent, that will always be true, but as one biennial follows another, artists will begin to get a feeling for what a successful video tastes like. Artists with greater reputations will join in. Innovation will continue, but imitation will sprout and grow.
I don’t condemn these upcoming changes, and I don’t expect future biennials to become dull or repetitive. But there is always a sense of discovery with the first appearance that is unrepeatable, for the producer as well as the consumer. I’m constantly reminded of this in music. Flipping through my collection of old LP records, I had to stop at the first album by It’s A Beautiful Day, a classic of hippie music. There’s nothing like it, from the haunting songs and the violin playing of David LaFlamme to the clear but oddly hallucinatory production sound. Their songs cover a wide variety of tonal landscapes, while maintaining a recognizable sound. The band made some good music in following years, but nothing close to that first record; their later albums drew inspiration from other bands and genres, until they lose their identity.
I want to start looking at Play by examining two text-based videos that made the biennial’s shortlist, Homo Modernus, Tractatus Philosophicus and In Order of Appearance. The former, by Claudio Molinari Dassatti and Iñigo Orduña, is a philosophical mash-up of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Marshall McLuhan, and an effective one, that neither becomes preachy nor too obscure. It’s too easy to become obvious, such as with Tiffany Shlain’s Yelp (Apologies to Allen Ginsberg) narrated by Peter Coyote, also on the shortlist, which just translates Ginsberg’s Howl into today’s Twitter-ing milieu. The graphics are, of course, appropriate from the McLuhan angle, and the commentary is worth thinking about.
In Order of Appearance, by Leor Grady, draws a logical line from films such as The Truman Show. Grady has listed people from his life in chronological order in a scroll like the ending credits from a movie. Simple, effective, at times evocative, and not in-your-face. Both these videos are short of visual flash and clatter, but they’d look good in a dark museum gallery.
If you’re submitting to a major art museum, you need to aim high. The animated submissions, while often entertaining, rarely aspired to art. One exception is Ero Machina, by Adam Cooper-Teran, which was designed as an art installation, and so works better in a gallery than on a computer screen. The same complaint can be said of the music videos, of which I didn’t see a single noteworthy entry. My current favorite band, Fleet Foxes, produces videos as good as any here.
And what on earth is Winner Best Action Hero! Star Wars Fan Film Chronicles of Young Skywalker doing on the shortlist? For what it claims to be it’s efficiently made and mild fun. Cameron Cousins, as the toddler Luke, is adorable. I applaud the judges for not taking this too seriously, but I would like to know their rationale for this choice.
I’m not going to analyze every one of the 25 winning selections in YouTube Play. Many of the tropes exemplified by these videos are very familiar to YouTube viewers. Postmodern mash-ups are frequent, such as Lindsay Scoggins’s Wonderland Mafia or Bryan Kretschmann’s Auspice.  Take something, do something to it, post it on YouTube – didn’t someone say that?
This Aborted Earth: The Quest Begins, by Michael Banowetz and Noah Sodano, combines old engravings and a future/past of religious radicalism with adventure movie cliches. The flayed horse is a typical comic relief sidekick, crying out for some Saturday Night Live alum to give it marquee value. The technical work of animating the engravings is admirable, but this idea has been done in Dave Malki’s comic strip Wondermark and Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations. For entertainment it is one of the best entries, but is it art? This Aborted Earth continued as comics and videos, but not for long. A shame; there was potential there.
Martin Kohout’s Moonwalk turns the familiar computer status bar into an abstract…what? The idea quickly becomes dull, as there is no point beyond the visual conceit of bars running to the horizon, like some grand staircase in an MGM musical.
I was frankly mystified by the inclusion of Christen Bach’s Bear Untitled – D.O. edit, which brings back memories of pixel-animated computer games meshed with a sub-par cartoon plot – the tortured romantic breakup between a hunter and a bear. It has the clumsiness of The New Yorker magazine’s attempts to turn its cartoons into short films. Bear Untitled was one I felt sure would not make the cut; it’s a good thing I’m not a betting man. I would have won with Synesthesia by Terri Timely (aka Corey Creasey and Ian Kibbey), which had the look of a winner from the start.
It’s very hard to work out the judge’s rationales. Choosing video works for a museum is a double-edged sword: do you choose videos that remind people of museum installations, ones that more closely resemble what they might see online, or both? I previously mentioned Ero Machina, which was not designed for YouTube, and suffers accordingly; it failed to make the grade. Synethesia succeeded, though it also looks like a video artwork rather than a YouTube video. Mixing audio and video from different sources, such as Wonderland Mafia, is becoming a YouTube staple. Not that this is new: Joseph Cornell took footage from a feature film, East of Borneo, and replaced the soundtrack with generic samba recordings to create his film Rose Hobart in 1936.
I have been thinking far too much about YouTube Play. The critic’s dilemma: by the time I get to know enough about the topic to write about it, it has begun to feel familiar, even boring. Unless it’s really well done, which, I fear, this was not. Curating by committee ought to be avoided, or carefully controlled until there is a better way of crowdsourcing material. Perhaps the most notable thing about Play is that it turned out not to be a biennial after all; two years passed, and no 2012 version appeared, and then none in 12014. Once, apparently, was enough.


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