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Last Night at The Guggenheim: YouTube Play Opens to Fanfare, Yet Flops

the guggenheim
How do we rate YouTube Play? We've been struggling to answer that question since last night, when we attended the opening at the Guggenheim and got our first look at the 25 videos chosen for the exhibition. Culled from over 23,000 submissions worldwide and narrowed to a shortlist of 125, the final 25 were picked by a rock-star jury of artists, designers and filmmakers. To say it bluntly, the show didn't meet our expectations -- which is a shame, since our expectations weren't very high.

What had promised to be a first-of-its-kind survey of the amateur video art on YouTube became a spectacle of celebrity and corporate sponsorship, eclipsing an uneven collection of works. We must say that we left the museum unimpressed -- saddest, of course, for the filmmakers who worked exceptionally hard on their videos.

Obviously, this is the opposite reaction of what the show's producers intended. With the fanfare of an awards show, the exhibition was hosted by comedian Michael Showalter of 'The State', featured a live performance by OK Go and transformed the museum into a blue-light-drenched nightclub full of hip, young things. But we left before all of that started, because the focus of the exhibition should have been about the 25 "winning" works, a selection of which we've embedded throughout this article.

Some Background

The announcement of the contest met a mixed reaction in the art blogosphere. Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine (and judge on Bravo's 'Work of Art,' which had a similar 'American Idol' feel as the Guggenheim show), wrote optimistically in June, "YouTube videos are obviously a form of do-it-yourself art, outsider video, folk-expression, and other things the art world says it loves... Who hasn't seen something on YouTube and thought, 'This is as good as anything I've seen in galleries and museums'?" After the shortlist was announced, though, Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City was thoroughly critical, saying, "Most of this work would never see the light of day in a museum or even a bad New York art gallery."

And Robert Storr, the dean of Yale University School of Art, offered a curmudgeonly gem to the New York Times back in June: "Hit-and-run, no-fault encounters between curators and artists, works and the public, will never give useful shape to the art of the present nor define the viewpoint of institutions." Johnson said Storr was "predictably myopic," while Saltz said his comment "seemed misplaced and out of proportion for just wanting to get YouTube videos into the museum."

But the contest was careful to call itself "a biennial of creative video," not "video art." The term "video art" carries a particular connotation and established history. By dubbing the works "creative video", it was as if the museum was suggesting that this history should not be applied to the presented selections, which employed animation and editing in a more popular, MTV-like style. Yet the fact that it was held at the esteemed institution further muddled our expectations of exactly what we might see -- was it to be viral eye-candy or an online paean to the museumed works of artists like Matthew Barney or Mariko Mori?

The Works

We're unsure exactly how the top 25 videos were picked. (You should be able to view all of them here, although the site's UI is a frustrating maze.) One of the Guggenheim curators at the event last night said that the judging criteria was "not very specific," but that the panel was looking for "something innovative... pointing toward what's coming next." To hear that coming from a curator -- whose job entails organizing an exhibition around aesthetics, reference, medium, relevance and history -- did not bode well.

The makeup of the artists was curious. Over a third of those chosen were American, only 8 of the 25 were women, and all but a few were under 40 years old. This did not strike us as a global perspective.

Several of the works were music videos. The most notable was also the most inexplicable -- Sean Metelerkamp's 'Zef Side' music video for South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord, which seems to only have been included because it helped land the band a record deal at Interscope. Pogo/Fagottron (who has made incredibly popular sonic mashups of childrens' films) was also picked, with a new work entitled 'Gardyn.' Lindsay Scoggins appropriated footage from 'Alice in Wonderland' (much like Pogo) and mashed it up with a Three 6 Mafia song for 'Wonderland Mafia', which the press release is quick to point out "has garnered almost 1.5 million views on YouTube."

One of our favorite videos, though, was also one of the least flashy. Irish photographer and video artist Lisa Byrne's 'Taxi III Stand Up and Cry Like a Man' features interviews with taxi drivers from Northern Ireland, talking about their experiences of being injured during paramilitary attacks in the 1980s and '90s. It was one of few works with political resonance and true pathos.

Almost none of the works, though, actually referenced online culture or YouTube itself. With the exception of Martin Kohout's 'Moonwalk' -- an ethereal layering of YouTube playback bars -- you wouldn't think that any of the works had anything to do with the Web. (Paddy Johnson had hoped that the show would include some of the various Internet memes that have grown and mutated over the years, but asked, "How will [the curatorial committee] be able to spot various web references? If the ability to locate art historical citation within art work is important, surely an equally rich background in the web is essential.")


We're sad to say we didn't like the show. Many of the videos included were perfectly good in their own right, but had absolutely nothing in common save for the fact that they were posted on the same video-sharing site. The amazing people involved with the selection (Laurie Anderson! Stefan Sagmeister! Marilyn Minter!) seemed like they were chosen for name-brand recognition -- as were Showalter and OK Go. The event seemed to self-consciously try to not play to the masses while doing exactly the opposite, putting the hipster fanfare of the event before the works, which were ultimately done a disservice.

Perhaps the Guggenheim is aware that the exhibition itself -- which you can find shuttled off in a side gallery, only open until Sunday -- is not lasting, and was never the real draw. That many of the works did not meet our definition of video art is, perhaps, moot. (Maybe we need to modify our criteria for fine art, but we like to think that art, generally, is somehow challenging, not easily digestible or status quo.) But, really, it's no big deal. Millions and millions of other amazing videos are to be found on YouTube, and this experiment only serves to remind us that there is no way to reduce the global creative output to a listicle of the 25 Best. Just because YouTube wanted to get into the corporate-sponsored culture event business, "the art world as we know it will not collapse," as Saltz wrote back in June. The show was only a blip on the radar.

Tags: celebrities, exhibition, features, guggenheim, laurie anderson, LaurieAnderson, Marilyn Minter, MarilynMinter, michael showalter, MichaelShowalter, ok go, OkGo, review, stefan sagmeister, StefanSagmeister, top, video art, VideoArt, youtube, youtube play, YoutubePlay