Army of YouTube by Rosemary Heather
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Army of YouTube by Rosemary Heather
Still from Jib Kidder's  Heavenhurst Prophet Posse

Still from Jib Kidder's Heavenhurst Prophet Posse

Faced with the awe-inspiring popularity of web-monoliths like YouTube, contemporary art risks becoming nothing more than a quaint relic of the 20th century.

It’s probably not fair to compare contemporary art practice with YouTube; yet there is evidence to suggest that somewhere in the ulterior of its collective brain, the art world does just this, and finds itself lacking. How else to understand the ongoing assurances given in art exhibition press releases and catalogue essays about the important role the viewer plays in the construction of meaning? And the intention to facilitate it with this very exhibition…

If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments that are already intuitively understood and enjoyed by the culture at large. Of course, the argument can be made that conceptualism’s emphasis on the disembodied life of the mind presaged our current embrace of virtual experience. And that the early networks fostered by post-minimalism and its precursors – Fluxus, mail art, conceptualism, etc – anticipated today’s social media. Emphasis on the relational in the last decade of art practice can likewise be seen as having the relevance of putting face-to-face human interaction back into the social media equation.

Still. There remains something desperate in the art world’s current desire to kowtow to its audience – by way of invitations to throw coloured darts at a map, or to converse with one another on bean bag chairs. Or whatever.

By all accounts, the Guggenheim New York’s recent theanyspacewhatever, with work by known relational practitioners like Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, was a boring show. A cursory Google search turns up dismissive blog reviews of the exhibition by its intended public; viz.,  Apparently, drinking coffee and standing around is art. Who would have thought…

In a recent e-flux article, Dieter Roelstraete voices similar doubts about contemporary art’s relevance, but from a different angle. In The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art he ponders the reasons for current art’s archaeological tendency – which ranges from artworks that investigate modes of museological display and historical re-enactments, to those artists who undertake actual archaeological digs. In Roelstraete’s analysis, such practices are symptomatic of two conditions: the first, to function as a corrective to a mass-culture that consumes its own products – movies, pop stars, best sellers – so quickly that it threatens to suck all cultural memory into a black hole of oblivion. The second, more troubling and readily suggested by the art world’s small army of past-reconstructors, is an inability to imagine the future.For Roelstraete, this amounts to a failure on the part of current art practice to live up to its role as the avant garde of our culture. But I would argue that his reliance on a modernist framework when thinking about this problem – a construct that believes in the necessity of an art avant garde – is itself misplaced.

Clues to what the future of our culture will look like are abundantly available elsewhere. All you have to do is look on YouTube.

It is only fair to point out that, in terms of video technology’s cheapness, ease of use and sheer pliability, 1970s art practice undertook some essential R&D that was cannily predictive of the technology’s current user-generated centrality to our culture. Nevertheless, YouTube is an ongoing argument for why its millions of users, everyday, have little reason to care about contemporary art practice.

When I look at the videos put on YouTube by San Francisco’s Jib Kidder to accompany the songs, sample-derived mash-ups, from his album All on Yall, I think of the 70s video work of, say, Dara Birnbaum or Christian Marclay’s work made in the decades after. But it is hardly important to know these art historical precedents to enjoy what Kidder does.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

When I asked Kidder – by email – why he chooses to use the cut-up technique when making his videos, he responded that the data itself solicits this response: “It’s what it’s best at – being copied.” In Kidder’s video for the song Windowdipper,  morphic resonances between each seconds-long ’slice’ of data creates a visual tempo connecting with the music’s beat. At the same time, through these resonances, the images editorialise not only on the artist’s chosen technique but also their context of presentation: YouTube itself.

Windowdipper’s rhythmic edits of video-viral clips of kids dancing visually reinforces the rhythm of the song. By doing this, the artist points to the way content on the web tends to self-replicate – the reason why the metaphor of ‘the viral’ – played out as dance fads and the hundreds of ‘answer’ videos that users’ uploaded daily – is so aptly applied to YouTube as a phenomenon. Kidder’s videos provide a glimpse into YouTube’s labyrinthine grandeur. His comment that the data – a lot of it sourced from YouTube – elicits this response from him, is a reflection on the awe-inspiring amount of material that is available to be viewed at the site. It is also suggestive of the way that certain entities on the web are manifesting characteristics of an emergent intelligence.

The standard example of what a properly defined emergent intelligence looks like is provided by the social world built by ants. Possessing only the most infinitesimal of mental capacities, these insects work together to create a second level intelligence: the exceptionally well-run entity that is ant society. Strictly speaking, the web at this stage of its development is far too heterogeneous to meet the criteria of an emergent intelligence. But still, it makes sense to suggest that there lurks within the myriad of hands that continually contribute to the social world comprised by YouTube a kind of autonomous intelligence that wants to be organised into a second level of meaning.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Somewhere within the dynamic tension that exists between its excess and its accessibility, the web offers its users the tools for potentially profound moments of self-reflection on their use of the medium itself. For instance, the numerous Flash Mob tributes to Michael Jackson available on YouTube in the wake of the pop star’s death function like a metaphor for this possibility. Organised via the web and instant messaging, each such tribute is filmed in public space from a high-enough angle to facilitate the pattern recognition that is central to the meaning of the event.

Choreographed with the idea that the individual movements of a few dancers will ripple out, so that within minutes the whole crowd is moving in unison, the Flash Mob dance event creates itself in the very image of the self-organising entity – ie web culture. In this way, it performs the function often attributed to contemporary artworks – to provide a framework of intelligibility for tendencies in the culture as a whole.

The art-YouTube analogy has further application in that it suggests a demotion of the individual in favour of the many. In this sense, YouTube makes good on Jospeh Beuys’ faith in the universal potential of human creativity. Absorption of the one into the many also provides a fair description of the art world today – as it functions, if not how it currently sees itself. If the phenomena generated by the web do what art is supposed to do, only better, then at the very least this should expand and clarify the definition of what art is. But it also has the effect of relegating much of the activity that currently takes place within the art context proper to the status of mere mannered relics of a bygone age.

About the Author: Rosemary Heather is a freelance writer and curator.
Rosemary thanks Ann Dean, Willy Le Maitre and Jacob Wren for their comments on this article.

Jib Kidder’s music can be purchased at

  1. This is a topic close to my heart at the moment, currently i am
    working on some research which leads to two exhibitions/shows/events
    around the position of the artist individual and the group, as well as
    the questions around exhibiting art as an individual. I mean, when you
    are invited to participate in an exhibition, be it a solo or group
    show, there is an initial act of faith between artist and exhibitor,
    then some kind of coalescence, and then a realisation that the
    situation does not really any longer belong to either artist or
    exhibitor. I was thinking about the novel The Man Who Was Thursday by
    GK Chesterton, about a poet/anarchist who is met by an undercover
    policeman and invited to have a drink, subsequently finding himself as
    one of an anarchist cell, and finally finding it was all an elaborate
    game dreamt up by the police chief/uber anarchist.

    This all came about through working with the french art collective
    France Fiction, who set themselves up according to an elaborate game
    of marbles.

    Plus at the moment i have an ant colony taking over the kitchen and bathroom!

  2. Kathy Slade says:

    Last spring Rodney Graham was putting together a piece for a group
    show that I think he said was somewhere in Greece.

    Artists were invited to put together/curate a list/program of videos off youtube. I can’t remember any details about the show but Rodney’s list is available on youtube and it is pretty great. It is funny too because it starts with that fucking awesome Bar-Kays at Wattstax that you have in your piece.


  3. Eli Bornowsky says:

    Well I certainly feel that much “contemporary art” would function much better outside of the museum, outside the context of art. It is embarrassing that certain practitioners rely on the justification of the art system when their “art” is so much more important in other ways. Nonetheless, there is still a category called art, a discipline. Something this category can give us is an experience that is not like the rest of culture. With YouTube the content varies, but the experience is always the same. Art will give an experience of reality.

  4. Earl Miller says:

    Great article. I touched on a similar subject (You Tube with reference to 70s video art) in a brief text I wrote for the Communism of Forms exhibition early this year. In my case, I made analogy between Cable TV as a means for dissemination of video in the 70s and You Tube as a current means. I also referenced Rosalind Krauss’ seminal article, “Video Art and Narcissism” in light of how single shot/non-edited postings on You Tube deal with the same kind of body and narcissism issues that 70s video artists did but, as with the work you note, without necessary having a knowledge of video art.

    I would be interested in any other articles/writers dealing with this issue.

  5. langer eli says:

    go make some art rosemary
    tell me the feeling of pulling off a painting or collaging images or coloured paper with scissors and glue or hanging your photographs on a wall and sitting back adjusting lights, turning out the lights in a room , spotlighting a sculpture or object that you make with your hands or that a friend made. or a drawing made by a child or by yourself with a mere pencil. tell me that got anything to do with watching a plugged in computer screen with its nauseating sameness and monotonal emotional levels. tell me thats got anything to do with looking at art with a friend or visiting an artists studio and the feeling of tactile wholeness and connectedness to the future and this bygone past that youtube and its few seconds of engagement provides. becaus it doesnt. and it never has. and those of us that make art and still make art despite the masses meeeting in cyberspace over the glowing electric pixels know that nothing even the promise of more people and more immediacy will bump us out of our intimate closeness with the material world which extends outwards from our bodies.
    the body rosemary doesnt exist in cyberspace

  6. langer eli says:

    thats just my first thoughts about it.if youtube challenges anything its not arrt. it might be television and passivity. but its not art.

  7. langer eli says:

    sorry but the bygone era is not so bygone as i would sit and watch an el greco painting or a jackson pollock for indefinite time as it renews itself endlessly. there is contemporary art which does the same thing. it acts and changes endlessly and provides a bridge to itself and to its maker which is unlike any experience. it is an experience which is closer to listening to a person speak or sharing a interesting view of a thing an event. it is like listeneing to glenn gould play a piano recorded or live or anytime. no not everybody can play a piano and thats not a problem for me. there are things we can all do and which make us different from eachother enough to appear as eccentric or as communal on youtube but thats its own bag. its not like someone who can make a painting in such a way or sing in such a way whose uniqueness and attention to its being has the resonance of being here, either on video or live or anywhere and youtube is nothing more than a new bulletin board or meeting place for people and it comes with so many limitations dont get me started. actually i dont cae because youtube is fine with me.

  8. langer eli says:

    and something else which should have bene th most obvious thing to me. some of us were born gifted with abilites for drawing pictures. we need to draw. its natural for us. its natural to paint or dance or play piano and we have a natural aptitude or ‘gift’ for it. people enjoy watching listening or looking at our performances or products and it give them a sense of what human beings are capable of they are inspired and moved or bored by our art. youtube can try compete but we have already been expresing ourselves all these years and to put it bluntly ican make art with mud and stick if i should happen to need tools.

  9. langer eli says:

    and by the way i have never tried to nor have i ever wanted my work to function as a flash mob event does. the idea that what i or my friends art would function in this way is a ludicrous idea.

  10. blizzard says:

    nauseating sameness?

  11. I agree with a lot of your analysis; I’m the last person to defend the extant art system, as you well know. I like your conclusion: “but it also has the effect of relegating much of the activity that currently takes place within the art context proper to the status of mere mannered relics of a bygone age.”

    But wasn’t that true even before the rise of YouTube? I think one could make a more Marxist analysis blaming the irrelevance of art as an avant-garde or even subversive practice on its total capitulation to corporate interests and its slavish devotion to the capricious practices of unregulated free market capitalism.

    YouTube aside, the art system had already become a Ponzi scheme in and of itself, effectively diminishing its production of meaning in favour of commodity fetish. But then of course you could argue, as you do, that YouTube is the great new populist art form that subverts all these superstructures and capitalist machinations. Unfortunately, populism for me hasn’t really worked since the forties, before the mass market became infected by supply side economics, when the average income populous was given access to quality goods and more sophisticated pop cultural entertainment.

    The other thing that makes me skeptical of your adulation of YouTube is the temptation to mistake America’s Funniest Home Videos (or most Nuit Blanche products, probably) for “art”. True, a lot of it is better than most gallery art, but I still don’t think what is being produced is necessarily revolutionary, or even avant-garde. (I’m only partly sympathetic to the Michael Jackson flash-mob stuff, for example. It’s kind of cool, but also pretty much lacking in any kind of analysis or true subversive energy: it might just have well been staged by Pepsi or the Jackson Family Reunion Tour.) Also, I think we may just be in a transitional stage with YouTube.

    Not to be a Debbie Downer, but it will become much more regulated and commercialized in the near future. Finally, I still can’t post most of my movies on YouTube as it censors its more extreme content without, as I’m sure you know, any explanation or possibility of appeal. That’s still not so good. But then again, maybe pornography is also a mere mannered relic of a bygone age. Although I guess I could post them on X-Tube, but it’s not quite the same, is it? Xxx Blab

    p.s. Oh, the art thing. Really? I mean, that’s how Japan operates, supposedly, or on the Marxist side, the former Soviet Union. Do you suppose we’re man enough to give up our bourgeois, selfish, ego-driven identities in favour of the big pop culture factory? Perhaps state art is the future after all?

  12. Rosemary Heather says:

    hi blab

    thanks for this nice thoughtful response. i like
    what you said about populism in the 40s. thats very interesting.
    something i would like to know more about.

    i am really really fascinated by the way youtube has been picked up as
    a tool and a communication medium. the basic impression i get is that
    significant cultural energy has left the art world – which at the
    moment is a bloated monstrosity mostly interested in a) creating value
    for its investors b) fulfilling its institutional imperatives, as
    dictated from above. most work being made now seems like ‘placeholder
    art’ while we wait for something to happen. the basis of my
    observation is really quite simple: youtube (and facebook and twitter,
    etc.) has a vitality that the artworld lacks. so, what to make of

    also another reason i wrote that text is because i am fascinated by
    the way people experience history – or not (and maybe im more
    interested in the ‘not’ as that seems to be more common). so i am just
    wondering how transformed is the world going to be by the digital
    revolution. i think the ‘america’s funniest home videos’ crack is fair
    enough, but im not sure that the question about whether its art or not
    is the right one. art could just become a “quaint relic” – as you’ve
    in the past said it kind of already is obselete.

    i always like to remind myself: hippie parents couldn’t recognize
    their punk offspring. i think that’s what’s happening now: things are
    changing, thats obvious. but why cant we recognize it? probably only
    because institutions are heavily invested in what’s already known.
    they are by definition, a bit behind the curve. in that sense, i am
    aware what i am saying is somewhat unfair to artists. there is lots of
    good art being made. so there you go, its a critique that throws the
    baby out with the bathwater. i admit to being guilty of that.

    one other thing, you say you can’t put your work on youtube – but why
    would you want to? wasnt your intention to make art that couldnt be
    absorbed by the mainstream? think my point was that art tries to be
    mainstream at its own peril, but nonetheless it suffers from a touch
    of popularity envy. so that points to a confusion about what its role
    is supposed to be. a long time ago i remember talking with you about
    the concept of ‘selling out’. to your credit, you certainly have not
    done this, but changes in the culture as a whole mean that maybe the
    concept itself has lost its bearing points.

    also, the point about ‘ants’ is maybe too cynical, but its meant to
    point out the kind of robotic, colourless quality a lot of work being
    made today has. i really really do not want to be nostalgic for the
    20th century. so im just looking around and trying to see what our
    actual options are: and its hitting me over the head, even though it
    might appear to be ‘silly or trivial’ or ‘not real or producing
    anything’ – as other people have taken pains to point out to me when i
    have had similar conversations with them.

    anyway. i dont know. nice to have this conversation with you.


  13. Eli Bornowsky says:

    There are numerous references in this discussion about the “robotic, colorless quality a lot of work being made today.” I don’t think we can generate this type of zeitgeist about contemporary art unless we are willing to actually criticize and articulate just what it is that makes art so supposedly bland. We already know that Youtube is changing our image world. But if all we can level at contemporary art is that its objects are complicit with capitalism, well then we will have a hard time propounding Youtube any better. If the “sell outs” in contemporary art are so apparent, why aren’t we criticizing them more brutally! Why aren’t we articulating the formal and conceptual and poetical problems of this art? Arguing about who sold out and who didn’t is cheap connoisseurship. We need more meat.

  14. Jeremy Bailey says:

    hey Rosemary

    great article! and there’s so much more to talk about!
    (I’m writing(trying to write) something tangential about 1970s video
    being a preview of youtube)

    love the inadequacy of relational aesthetics comments. It makes me
    feel better about myself.
    Concerning your thoughts on YouTube and emergence you may enjoy Bruno
    Latour’s writing on Actor Network Theory ANT

    thanks for sharing!!


  15. Because I got such a good response to this post, I made a blog about it. I’m posting all comments I got and also all links people sent me. Ill probably write a new post at some point, once I get a chance to what I think it all means.

  16. Vera Tollmann says:

    Hi Rosemary,
    thanks a lot for your anti-art/pro-Youtube article, which I only found now.
    Also reading the long column of responses was really inspiring.

    I’ve been thinking about Youtube (footage) as a subject of contemporary video art. So I thought of video art more as a medium which organises Youtube “into a second level of meaning”, as you describe it.

    For me it seems that Youtube temporarily is able to close the gap between art and popular culture, but also between web theory and cultural studies. I think art here in this case provides a “framework of intelligibility”. Also Youtube ‘refreshes’ art with its constant output and offers a stage for revising the producer-consumer model as early conceptual video art did with TV. Most recently, there were too many works made with an intentional backwardness when it comes to form.

    In addition, I dislike the hedonism in contemporary art which goes along
    with its “total capitulation to corporate interests” and its “devotion to
    the capricious practices of unregulated free market capitalism” (quote from
    Bruce LaBruce). Its interesting to ask why Youtube evokes expectations that
    art could be challenged or vice versa. On one side we admire the early
    conceptual video art works (those addressing the camera like many Youtube
    amateurs do today). Its characteristics appeal on Youtube in a mainstream
    application. Maybe one could say that Youtube accomplishes utopian ideas of avantgarde art, at least for a short time… I was repeatedly reminded
    of Youtube’s corporate property.

    Like Earl Miller who commented earlier on your article, I was thinking about
    similarities between early conceptual video art and Youtube. For the
    screening “Always on your minds” I made a compilation of video art works
    with different relations to Youtube. I presented the program at the Ankara
    edition of the conference series “Video Vortex” last autumn. Part of the
    program was a video by Karolin Meunier. In the video she seems to double
    form and content by performing for the camera and reflecting in her
    monologue the act of speaking and the condition of the speaker in general.

    The video’s text is a montage of quotes from about 10 different sources, like the video “Boomerang” by Richard Serra, in which Nancy Holt is interrupted by the feedback of her own voice or a paragraph from Rosalind Krauss well known text “The Aesthetics of Narcissism” in which Krauss writes on Boomerang. With her conceptual resumption or renewal Meunier connects the video Boomerang and its reception. In so doing she continues the discourse on video technology regarding the construction of subjects.

    I would like to recommend to you the Video Vortex reader:

    (On 20/21 November Video Vortex 5 takes place in Brussels, maybe you have time to go there:

    Best, V

  17. Christine Martin says:

    Hi Rosemary,
    Great article. as you know i “sold out” and left the security of the “quaint relic of the art world long ago. i have found myself in the strange and wonderful corporate and commercial world of social media and I am happy to hear some witty critique of these two spaces. – its weird but I almost cried watching the Michael Jackson tribute. but I can cry at a good Pepsi commercial too. i guess I am just very easily manipulated that way. i am also a big fan of Beuys’ faith!
    Thanks for starting this conversation!

  18. kenneth says:

    Hey Rosemary,

    Happy new year and all that! I just got around to reading your piece on youtube – I thought it was good and seems to have sparked some lively discussion (Eli!!). I’m starting to come back around to the more expansive idea I had of art several years ago. I think the time around Paul and Andrew and all the raw physicality and valuation of the work made me lean in that direction, toward value in the unique materiality, although that really goes against a lot of what I believe art can do (other than sit in someone’s house and have a prominent place on the balance sheet). I thought you negotiated the precipice well – there’s the very conservative artist-genius-unique-emanation on the one hand (which Krauss et al haven’t hesitated to call fascist to its face) and then the watery weak espresso line of Rikrit et al on the other. If I understand you right, I think you’re saying there’s room for something else between those two extremes, and that youtube and other ‘virtual technologies’ may facilitate its coming about. I definitely think there’s something there, but it’ll only be recognised if people can get away from the post-conceptualism reactionary attitude that sees somewhat more ephemeral art as hackish and without value, not ‘real’ art. art, the identity of whose ‘author’ is in question. anyway, have to get back to work!

    Take care,

  19. Jinhan Ko says:


    army of youtube is a good article

    gives me many points to ruminate on

    especially true for us here in vancouver where the sheer scale of
    economy around olympics and how it is sweeping up everything in its

    i am optimistic though

    the more youtube we have the more crap we need to consume this i am sure of

    there is hope for us yet


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  1. [...] Army of YouTube: Rosemary Heather – Article about YouTube and contemporary art practice. [...]

  2. [...] If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments already intuitively understood and widely enjoyed by the culture at large. [...]

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