This digital video art titled ‘Oops’ by Chris Beckman is composed entirely of appropriated YouTube videos, seamlessly stitched together via a motif of camera drops, which according to the artist “serves both as transportative adventure and metaphorical elucidation of YouTube itself (i.e. endless related videos) exemplifying the Internet’s infinite repository of ‘throwaway’ social documentation”. This work was awarded a 2010 Vimeo Award.
A few years ago when I first saw someone watching a video on YouTube, I dismissed the phenomenon, thinking it would never catch on as who would ever want to watch videos in a tiny box sized 425 by 350 pixels. I have learned my lesson well, and recognizes my lack of imagination when it comes to new technologies. That is why when these days people ask me ‘So why do we need Twitter?’, I simply answer ‘We just don’t know yet’.
Following are two video lectures by people who explain things well. We spend so much time on YouTube, passively watching videos or actively creating content, that spending an hour in order to gain better understanding of it all should not sound like a lot.
The first video is by Professor Michael Wesch, a cultural anthropologist who studied indigenous cultures and now explores the effects of social media and digital technology on society. Although the lecture is one hour long, I have already watched it three times in the past year:
The second video is by Professor Lawrence Lessig, one of the foremost authorities on copyright issues. In order to reconcile creative freedom with marketplace competition he founded Creative Commons as an alternative choice for the default ‘all rights reserved’. This is a twenty minutes video discussing how creativity is being strangled by the law:
We have to recognize [our kids] are different from us. We made mixed tapes; they remix music. We watched TV; they make TV. It is technology that has made them different, and as we see what this technology can do we need to recognize you can’t kill the instinct the technology produces; we can only criminalize it. We can’t stop our kids from using it; we can only drive it underground. We can’t make our kids passive again; we can only make them, quote, “pirates”. And is that good?
We live in this weird time, it’s kind of age of prohibitions, where in many areas of our life, we live life constantly against the law. Ordinary people live life against the law, and that’s what we are doing to our kids. They live life knowing they live it against the law. That realization is extraordinarily corrosive, extraordinarily corrupting. And in a democracy we ought to be able to do better.
- – Professor Lawrence Lessig, TED conference 2007
Last week, a friend of mine saw one of my photo collages and mentioned an amazing video she saw. The video, by Canadian artist and illustrator Ray Fenwick, is made out of three videos found on YouTube (#1, #2, #3), in each one a different woman sings Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. Check out the two versions of this work, before reading my interview with the artist, as conducted today:
Shahar Golan: YouTube, the new ‘Mirror with a Memory’, spawned so many cultural phenomena we have just started to notice and examine. Your videos, investigating a number of these aspects, could not have been made even five years ago. Can you elaborate on the ideas that triggered you to create this work?
Ray Fenwick: Well, I think a lot about the internet and its effect on culture, and internet culture itself. There is so much to think about, so many pockets of change happening at once that it’s hard not to think about. Making this work is just a way for me to wrap my head around what’s going on. I’ve never made video before this. All of my previous work has been drawing, and often they’re sort of narrative works that use humour, or kind of explore the idea of comedy. I did some drawings of friendship bracelets a while back, and that was sort of an attempt at thinking about the way the internet is redefining culture, something as simple as the idea of friendship. But ultimately no story I could think of was getting at what was interesting to me. Then one day I just stumbled upon one of these “me singing ____” videos and was totally fascinated by them.
I kind of ignored it though because I thought “I’m not a video artist, I’ll just keep drawing”. I do however make music, so I decided to synch up just the audio from a few of the videos. Then left it for a while. I put that on my ipod and found myself wanting to listen to it, which just told me that I wasn’t done with it yet. So after listening to it for a while I couldn’t resist. I liked the way it sounded, but also what it allowed me to think about. I thought the audio was doing something that could only be helped with something visual, even though I know it raises the intensity a bit.
To do the synch of the whole thing though, that process, it kind of lead me to make the cut up edited version first. You have to kind of loop small parts to get the synch right, or at least I do, and I found that these short loops were interesting. They manage to keep a lot of the earnestness and intensity even though they’re just little bits of the whole.
SG: In no particular order, here are things that popped into my mind while watching your video and its raw material:
- Seeing and being seen, allowing others to see us, and seeing ourselves while doing so.
- What we broadcast and transmit using our bodies, clothes, and the objects around us.
- Singing as this decade’s talent everyone wants to have/thinks he has.
- The awkwardness of not having something to do – as perceived during a break within a song.
- Saying ‘I love you’, saying it out loud, saying it to yourself, saying it to your significant other, saying it to complete strangers.
- Wanting to be different and unique and succumbing to being a faded xerox, a replicant.
Anything on that list you want to relate to?
RF: Well, I would say all of those things are valid readings. For me, what I’m most interested in with this stuff is the intimacy of it, the yearning to be known despite the exponentially increasing odds against that. It’s comedic, in that it makes you want to laugh because of the almost shocking directness, laugh in the way people do when they are surprised by something. Not laughing at these people, in that cruel way, but laughing at what we all do as humans living in this age. To that end, I didn’t choose people that were singing ‘badly’. These women can all sing, and it sounds good.
Also interesting to me are all the levels of intimacy. One is in front of a makeshift stage, one is in her room, and one is in a kind of home office. Even the stage, which is like a sheet hung up on a door or something, it still has this intimate feeling. The key thing is that the intimacy isn’t earned. It’s just given.
SG: How do you see the edited version correlating to the triptych version? To the raw material? Do you have any preliminary thoughts about how to exhibit this work, possibly in a video installation that includes the other aforementioned works?
RF: Well, I am going to try a few more before I think about whether to show it or not. I’m sort of working it out as I proceed. One thing I know for sure though is that I personally like the simple triptych one more, it feels more successful to me at the moment. I would love to be in a room where each separate video had one wall, so you were surrounded on three sides by the synched video. The intimacy of the video, the epic emotion of the song would be interesting at that scale I think. I feel the synched triptych is better as it feels more like a presentation of the ideas, less fussy. What do you think?
SG: I thought that seeing the synched triptych is essential to understanding the edited version, the latter being so addictive and so wonderfully sums up the ideas discussed.
RF: See, which tells me that the edited one is superfluous. Again, I think I want to try a couple other songs and see what I think about it. I think maybe why I am quick to dismiss it is that it feels so… YouTube.
SG: I do fear, though, that people who only watch the edit might falsely dismiss it as gimmicky. It is not!
RF: I hate the idea common on YouTube that everything needs to be summarized and given a hook to be relevant.
SG: I think it all depends on where you exhibit your work and who you see as your audience.
RF: Yeah, exactly. Context is everything. In a way this stuff would be even better if I hadn’t put it up online at all. In fact, haha, I put it up, then took it down for that very reason, because a day after it was online it felt like I was somehow trying to “tap in” to the sharing culture of the internet, where everything is shared without any filter. It took a talk with a friend to make me feel okay about it, or to loosen up enough.
SG: On Flickr the videos are licensed as CC-BY-NC-ND, which means the work can be shared and distributed as long as it is attributed to you, noncommercial, and it is not altered, transformed or built upon. The ‘No Derivative Works’ part of the license made me wonder, since your work is a derivative of the original videos uploaded by the three women. Was that just an oversight?
RF: Oh, it was absolutely an oversight. I had that for my other work, which is less obviously appropriated. I’m going to change that right now.
SG: Would you care to elaborate on the technical tools used in the making of these videos, and on artistic decisions worth mentioning?
RF: Well, I used really basic software for editing. The program I used for the edited version, Ableton Live, is actually intended for audio but still allows for very basic editing of video. It made sense because I could cut up the audio in a way I was used to and just have the video follow suit. I had to use something a little more robust for the triptych though. Luckily for me what I wanted was very little virtuosity in the editing of it… No transitions or titles or anything. I toyed with the idea of having the videos synched but alternating between the three videos, but it seemed less of a direct presentation. I think forcing them into synch is enough trickery.
SG: Most of your work consists of drawings, painting and comics. What made you venture into video, a new medium for you, and can you, at this very early stage, talk about the differences, apart from the obvious ones, including viewer reaction?
RF: Well, it was video itself that initiated the idea, so it didn’t make any sense to then transfer that to the world of drawing. I’m trying lately to just let an idea take the most appropriate form. As for the differences, well, people respond more to video, but that response isn’t necessarily more meaningful. But you can share a link to a video with more people than you can share a link to a painting. Which makes me a little sad.
To see more of Ray Fenwick’s art, visit his website at RayFenwick.ca