Date: 21.10.2019 — 17.11.2019
The screening series The Urge to Share presents art videos whose authors work with audiovisual content shared by users of social media, in particular on YouTube. Artists treat user-generated content as a symptomatic material, which they subject to a comparative analysis to reveal established patterns of online behaviour. Even though the vast majority of data generated by internet users is dominated by professional commercial production, we can also find content that – through its documentary attributes – captures the life of different communities. However, the idea of these audiovisual materials recording a truthful statement about their creators is questioned by some of the artists. In their videos, artists point out the structures of exploitative relationships that take place on seemingly democratic platforms. Images created by users can easily be appropriated or misused to produce a stereotypical depiction of a certain community. The analysis of user-generated content does not necessarily take the form of distanced voyeurism but can also serve as a tool of empathy. Sharing personal experiences in such a way might contribute to the activation of compassion and solidarity.
Daniil Revkovskiy & Andrey Rachinskiy – Labor Safety in Dnipropetrovsk Region (2018)
Neozoon – Call of the wild (2016)
Neozoon – MY BBY 8L3W (2014)
Penny Lane – The Pain of Others (2018)
Intellectual Property and Creative Labor in a Rising Tide of Everything
How do you describe something that is at once just itself and everything?
How do you describe how this thing is?
– Aria Dean, Eulogy for a Black Mass
Today, someone, well, nearly everyone, picks up a camera to describe how this (her) thing is. Now, someone has a camera phone in her hand almost all the time. He turns it on, points it at the world, and records the conditions in MINE BATKIVSHCHYNA, KRYVYI RIH in Ukraine (used in Labor Safety in Dnipropetrovsk Region), or she shoots her school chum repeating dance steps learned from endless videos about and of Black music and culture (used in Eulogy for a Black Mass), or she records the pores of her own skin as they mysteriously spit out strange threads of unknown origins (used in The Pain of Others), or he captures a giraffe quietly grazing on the savannah (used in Big Game). Then, each someone puts her thing about that thing online: one video and all its exquisite holdings of a specific place/time; nothing more or less than a mundane, precious depiction of just itself. The specificity of the thing, each thing, renders it perfect. But the ubiquity and ease of making and sharing each video quickly renders each precious thing into everything and thus, almost nothing. In this way, the value of the creative labor needed to make this thing, as well as the thing itself, are quickly washed away by the sea of everything.
How do you describe how this thing is if it is always already about to be nothing?
Someone wants their thing to be not only described – recorded and shared just as it is – but also explained and detailed by the addition of analysis or feeling. So, she turns on her phone or her desktop’s camera and testifies about her strong sentiments for her pedigree cat or dog (used in MY BBY 8L3W), or the dreadful things people say to her online about her sensitivities about the worms coming out of her face (in The Pain of Others). A man in Ukraine points his camera at his fellow-workers’ requiem to a dead mouse (in Labor Safety in Dnipropetrovsk Region): sacrilegious while also being self-referential to all workers’ heretical horrors which are typically left unnoted, under-memorialized. Because of each thing’s definitive local and personal specificity, as is true for every other people-made video already shot and waiting to be seen online, it too becomes the flotsam and jetsam of the utterly expendable.
While creative labor is expended for all these things, their makers will remain nameless (outside their anonymizing YouTube handles) even as, or because, all have unique faces, precise locations, and personal interpretations. Their labor is precious, has value, in its doing: the shooting and uploading, the anticipation of likes and shares, the pleasure in its (potential) motion. “If you like it, thumbs up, share it,” says @4eyes2sea about one of her many Morgellon’s videos (used in The Pain of Others), itself a drop in the sea of her own outpouring of YouTube production on this issue, not to mention its small but real part in the endless community output of fellow-sufferers similarly testifying to their pain from the same and similar afflictions.
Some of these everyday artists have political or creative intentions, others seek community, but once they themselves and their specific itselfs are dropped into the ocean of everything, which is nothing, how can anyone believe their work can mean or do anything? “We all need people, we all need human love. We all need people who get us, and love us, and accept us,” explains Tasha, @TashaLee, another YouTuber suffering from and frequently describing her Morgellons (used in The Pain of Others), a disease most people don’t and will never believe exists, even so.
How do you describe something that is at once just itself and everything and thus, nothing? How do you describe how this thing is?
It’s hard! So, artists join the mix. They turn on their computers, look at YouTube, and get to work. The duo Revkovskiy and Rachinskiy, the collective Neozoon, the critic and videomaker Aria Dean, the filmmaker Penny Lane, all have good work to do and then also share about and of “user-generated content found online, in particular on YouTube”. There, they have access to every itself that the endless someones have already made, now easily available for the artists’ art. They string together other’s just itselfs. They may add some titling, voice over, or music. Or not. But their new things, each describing something precious by being like and of all those earlier if smaller and already insignificant things, are wrought from a new kind of labor, hewing a novel kind of just itself. No need to turn on a camera to describe how this (her) thing is.
The video artist’s creative labor – a culling, pruning, and sharpening through montage – transforms the everythings (once momentarily someone’s actual itself) into a new something, made of everything, nothing, and also many discrete things. Because it becomes a new thing in and of itself it gains some value (back) by evading or pushing against the inevitable nothingness of the non-differentiable sea by plucking detritus from the wreckage and modifying it through more refined skills, procedures, analyses and signatures. Like those they use, their artistry is precious in its doing: the editing and uploading, the anticipation of likes and shares, the pleasure in its motion. And, similarities continue. Their video work also sits online, ready to be as expendable as the videos they use. (Well, not exactly, since their work can also move to museums, galleries, grant agencies, and art shows.) These workers – like those they use and think about – have political or creative intentions, but once lost in the sea of everything, rendering it nothing, how can anyone believe their specific itself can mean or do anything?
So, a curator turns on his computer and gets to work: Tomáš Kajánek. There, he has access to the things that some artists have made from everything. Of course, there are many things like this to choose from. Artists and everyday users have been making and refining compilation videos, mashups, collages, video essays, cut-ups, remixes from YouTube videos since the site began collecting videos. Tomáš Kajánek strings together six of what he thinks are the best of these uncountable things – a culling, pruning, and sharpening through selection – and shows them in an exhibition space in Prague: etc. gallery.
The curator can add some titling or writing to add a signature to his thing, an art show of internet video. There have been many of these as well. Kajánek’s show is like these – albeit with his particular signature and emphases – in that art shows of art videos made of people-made videos are all made up of but not entirely like the first things. By the time these are screened in Prague, the original works have lost almost all of their already small value through these many hand-offs. However, Kajánek’s creative labor does help to accrue some new value to all these things, perhaps like a mollusk slowly fabricating a pearl from a small piece of sand. His work permits all this forgettable, if undeniably powerful media, to enjoy the frame of an exhibition space and its affordances. For this short time, these videos and all those from which they were born are spared the fate of suffering the transience that is the outcome of a mass multitude of waves.
Later yet, a US feminist internet scholar (me) turns on her computer and gets to work: Alexandra Juhasz. I was invited to do so via email from a gallery curator in the Czech Republic: Markéta Jonášová. On my computer, I have access to the six things the curator chose and turned into one: Restless Image III: The Urge to Share. I am asked to describe this something that came from six things that came from everything and also nothing.
The thing I see on my laptop in Brooklyn is made of things with little and everything in common. It is discrete enough. Can I describe this thing? Sure. That’s my job. I’m trained and selected to do so. Contra internet claims about internet culture, expertise still has some (small) value and place in internet culture. I’ve been invited to work because I have decades of training in looking at, analyzing, and writing about video. My work is to describe how this thing is with words.
I see six artists’ videos, compilations all, created from carefully selected people-made video found on the internet and edited together with intelligence, focus, and clarity. Six artists’ videos about everyday people’s video views of: working conditions in Ukraine industries; much beloved personal pets or the globe’s suffering wild animals; black cultural production, internet culture, and identity; and a potentially psychosomatic disorder of the skin. These are all serious and carefully wrought artworks about significant issues in our contemporary world made by talented and thoughtful artists. They are well-selected, compelling, smart, and they also reference, implicitly, the incalculable other attempts by other artists at a critical project identified by the curator: “transforming existing footage into a critical evidence aiming to reveal the situatedness of the common behavioural patterns online”.
Beyond this, however, their connections can be best located in form and intention. The pieces of video from whence they came can be long or short, on screen as multiples or singles, and embellished with voice over, music, or titles. But because the four social issues under scrutiny are so important, so diverse, and so scattered, as is everything on the internet, they too, once edited by a curator in a room and written about by a critical internet scholar, also must become everything: that is, representative of all the things people care enough about to make a video about and subsequently a video about videos about their initial topic.
For Revkovskiy and Rachinskiy, it is the specific place of peoples’ video that matters over its people and producers; in this case the Dnipropetrovsk region in Ukraine. The original makers of the videos in their video go unnamed (understandably, as they would need to remain anonymous given the nature of their footage). Revkovskiy and Rachinskiy’s work is to select and edit tape, and then provide words on the screen – as either geolocation or subtitles from Ukrainian to English: Northern Mining Factory, KRYVYI RIH; ‘LEAKAGE OF NITRIC ACID; METALURGICAL ENTERPRISES; “You just keep going and doing that fucking shit, which I have to check after you and ask new people to redo this! When the fuck will we start to work properly!”
Taking a 180-degree turn, Neozoon uses people’s online video testimony against them, exploiting many people’s private itselfs as building blocks to make a larger political statement about private/public and human/animal relations, highlighting humans’ sordid attitudes towards and abuses of their fellow creatures: for sodomy, friendship, or trophy. The political and aesthetic impact of Neozoon’s work depends neither upon the specific place nor the name of the original videomakers or their just itselfs. Rather, it is the very ubiquity, the universality of pet love, human’s will to animal sounds (in Call of the Wild), and patriarchal conquest and cruelty that emerges through their edits.
Similarly, Aria Dean’s original artists stay unnamed and unplaced, but in this case self-referentially so, as her piece, like mine, is about creative work and its relations “to intellectual property and labor.” Of course, in her case, the political and aesthetic argument is about the theft and abuse of the creative labor of and its consequences for Black people. Her project makes visible the loss of identity, the possibility of a slow-build of a communal Black identity even so, and the many abuses and uses of these many identities, lost and found. The same is true for me in this piece. My claims need remain as global as the internet, and this art show, which links Ukranian workers, pet lovers and big game hunters, black cultural workers, and sufferers of Margellon’s disorder. Hence Dean’s point – which has also been my entry in – about how quickly the internet moves us from one-thing to everything, from one person’s this-thing to any artist’s that-thing and then at last to this-thing-about-all-that.
Penny Lane builds her disturbing feature-length documentary from the voluminous testimony of three YouTubers – @TashaLee,@4eyes2sea, @mfromcanada1 – the only YouTube artists credited across videos under consideration in this show. It is their work, and suffering, which is the basis of hers. Ostensibly about Morgellons, her video, like Dean’s, is a think piece about the ethical and political stakes wrought by artists, intellectuals, and everyday YouTubers describing this time and place of the internet: about using other’s pain (and pleasure) to make art, to be online, to describe how this thing is, and to (hope to) be seen and attended to for having done so. I too have hoped (following Dean) to add some considerations about (our) intellectual and creative labor in and about this thing. In all six pieces, the pain of others (and sometimes their pleasure or enthusiasm) – what brings them to define their thing – becomes the creative material that sets in place the chain of associations, inspirations, interpretations, and value that benefits each of us differently along this relay.
Writing about these videos in Brooklyn for an art event in Prague, I think of us (all those who are named in the show, whom I have named again here, and the many anonymous contributors) as a merry band of internet castaways, enjoying brief comradeship by doing our precious work atop a wee physical island at etc., there emerging together for a short time from the vast sea that surrounds and silences us. Differentiated from the noise momentarily by the various roles we play – filmmaker, vlogger, editor, curator, artist, writer – I end with this devastating maxim from a sister crisis: sea level rise is certain.
 See Catherine Russell, archiveology: Walter Benjamin and Archival Film Practices (Duke, 2018), or my writing about artist’s videos on YouTube in Learning from YouTube (MIT Press, 2011): http://vectors.usc.edu/projects/learningfromyoutube or my “Video Art on YouTube,” in Resolutions 3, eds. Ming-Yuen Ma and Erika Suderburg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012): 309-324.
 I myself have seen and written about or shown at these select YouTube video art shows: Public, Private, Secret, ICP NY, 2017. Natalie Bookchin: now he’s out in public and everyone can see, LACMA, LA, 2012. Video Vortex, Zagreb, 2012, curated by Tihomir Milovac. My co-curated art show, with Pato Hebert, PerpiTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/PerpiTubeSpace, 2011. Video Dada, UC Irvine, curated by Martha Gever, 2010.