Internet Art Dilemma

Remix of Michael Bell-Smith's current Artforum article [impermalink]. Only a few words were changed. (Mostly substituting "art" for "music video" references--the writing translates quite well for a variety of art forms.)

FIVE YEARS AGO, art was a specific thing you saw in a specific place. Working with art meant engaging a big-budget, commercially motivated form that was strongly tied to the galleries promoting it. Artists could be complicit with this structure, intervene in it, work alongside it, parody it, or deconstruct it, but, explicitly or implicitly, these acts were always undertaken with regard to this highly codified commercial system. It was a stratified relationship.

Today, discussions of who has access to technology aside, that relationship is far more level. Artworks are no longer about the gallery: They’re about YouTube. With the exception of certain pay-for-placement programs—a special fee gets your video into a “promoted” section, for instance—YouTube treats all videos the same, whether they’re from Barbara Gladstone or a guy with a webcam filming himself in his bedroom. And with few contextual clues, the online audience treats all videos the same: Be it a music video, a commercial, or a work of art, all viewers want is something to hold their attention.

While this leveling is utopian in some respects (“It’s like public access TV that actually works!”), it also puts artists working in video, or any other form that’s prevalent online, in a tricky position. They’re no longer working in relation to a singular commercial form; they’re working in relation to a constant and rapidly changing dialogue of videos, remixes, sharing, and commentary. In addition, many of the strategies artists have traditionally employed in the critique of culture—amateurism, appropriation, and humor—have become the customary language of YouTube and Internet culture. While the democratization of these techniques also seems utopian, with their spread comes their adoption by the very culture they were initially employed to critique, which brings their efficacy into question.

As an artist, I’m not sure how best to negotiate this new landscape. One option is to make work that takes up these new relations as its very subject. Another is to fully embrace the messiness, putting work online and allowing it to be read (and misread) as part of the Internet dialogue. Yet a third option is to distance one’s work from the mutability of digital media and single-channel video entirely, taking up forms that require a physical, and therefore more controlled, engagement—installation, objects, performance, etc.

I’ve tried variations of these approaches in my own work. For instance, some of my videos were designed to dovetail simultaneously with Internet culture and the preexisting threads of video art. These are distributed online as well as shown in traditional art settings, each audience bringing different associations to the work. Other pieces, including much of my work in animation, has focused on reconsidering Internet and digital aesthetics outside the framework in which they are normally viewed: a lone person sitting at a computer. With these pieces, the controlled physical engagement of the gallery is part of the project.

Perhaps more than suggesting a specific strategy, this new set of conditions simply requires that artists—and not only those working with video but those working in images, sound, and text—fully consider the context and distribution of their work, integrating into their practice an awareness of what’s happening online. This doesn’t mean making paintings of chat rooms*, but rather recognizing how the Web has changed (and continues to change) the way much of society thinks about media, information, and social relations. Perhaps ultimately, surfing the Web has become as necessary and fruitful an engagement with the world as opening the newspaper or taking a walk.

In the online video segment of the essay Bell-Smith has an interesting observation about how music videos by big stars have devolved from large-budget, art-directed blingfests into YouTube's prevailing "amateur sitting at home" style, using P. Diddy as a test case.

*Not paintings of chat rooms, exactly, but almost as bad: painting yourself perusing Google Images in your paint spattered pants.