By Gregory Zinman
July 23, 2010

As a media platform, some of YouTube’s best qualities are its anarchic, associative character, its inherent eclecticism, and its easy accessibility. A user may flit from a fan-subbed anime clip to a homemade mashup of evangelical churchgoers (seemingly) headbanging to heavy metal band Slayer, from POV snowboarding footage to a clip from a Buster Keaton movie. As MoMA’s Kathy Halbreich pointed out in a recent issue of Artforum, a lot of people who do not identify themselves as artists are doing wonderfully creative things on YouTube.

By recontextualizing existing materials, by creating new aesthetics, and by reaching audiences who are neither avid gallery-goers nor film buffs—but who sure do watch a lot of videos on the Internet—YouTube has the potential to reshape the understanding, as well as the reception, of the moving image.

For this reason, it’s worth keeping in mind how we watch material on YouTube, and how that differs from how we’ll watch the works in YouTube Play. An intriguing contextual shift will occur when the videos move from the YouTube Play channel to the Guggenheim itself: the kind of focus we bring to what’s playing on our Web browsers at home or between tasks at the office is very removed from how we view works presented in a gallery or museum.

Online viewers are used to being in control—watching what they want, when they want. A programmed show at a museum presents an entirely different kind of viewing scenario—one that is highly circumscribed by curatorial gatekeeping, not to mention the institutional weight and history of the museum and its holdings. Do YouTube clips become something else when shown in Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda? Can an institutional critique take place within the parameters of YouTube Play?

This biennial presents an excellent opportunity to explore the relationship between videos that self-identify as art and other moving-image material (advertisements, message-board gifs, etc.) that is created—and, until now, received—outside of the art world. It also provides an occasion to ask what a museum should do with art (or nonart) that is infinitely replicable and intended to be disseminated for free. YouTube works are public works, made and distributed outside of the systems of capital and production that define the cinema and gallery worlds, and are designed for (at least potential) mass consumption. YouTube Play thus offers the Guggenheim a chance to start a dialogue regarding how our visual culture is being radically reshaped online.

Of course, museums have always been involved in bridging public and private worlds—that negotiation comprises the very core of the museum’s project. New technology allows museums to close that gap even further. Recent examples include Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum incorporating user-generated tags into their collection of online images, and the collaboratively-produced, crowdsourced, and publicly-curated Nieuwe groeten uit… (New Greetings From…) photo show in Arnhem, Netherlands, this past May.

With YouTube Play, the subject switches from the still to the moving image. In my next post, I will offer some theoretical and practical ideas regarding how the museum can best address the unique curatorial challenges presented by online moving-image works.


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