Totally Busted: Do We Need a YouTube for Video Art?

Totally Busted: Do We Need a YouTube for Video Art?

Video Art Archive Network Forum
Gallery Loop, Yonsei University
Seuol, Korea Nov 8-9, 2007

Ross Rudesch Harley

“Where can I see more video art like this?” It was an innocent enough question, but the assembled panel of experts looked dumbfounded. Leipzig curator Jeanette Stoschek had just shown hours of “illegal” videos compiled from Germany in the 1980s and 90s; Christian Jankowski had presented an amazing array of his most inventive videos from the past six years; and I had just shown some equally brilliant recent work by Australian remix artists SodaJerk and Ms & Mr. Could they really be asking for more?

Yet this simple question, posed by an inquisitive student during a recent conference entitled “Video Histories and Futures” held at the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Art in Sydney earlier this year, remained unanswered.

What she was really asking was where she could go to find more work like this after the event. Sure she could wait for the next video forum (whenever that might be) or travel to Documenta, or even New York: but was that the only option she had? Why couldn’t she see more of this work on YouTube?

She has a point. While the history of video art is presently being be re-told in books and journals, and its presentation in museums and art events is more widespread than ever, video art remains something of an oddity in the current networked media world. As interest in the past and present of video art increases, for some it remains almost as difficult to access and view today as it was in the 1970s. If you can’t access a reasonable viewing copy of a work online, what chance is there of tracking down a copy anywhere else?

Of course it’s not going to stay that way for much longer. The efforts of organizations like Montevideo in Amsterdam, the Video Data Base in Chicago and Electronic Arts Intermix in New York have championed the collection and distribution of artist’s works for decades. It is thanks to their efforts that many video works have any distribution at all, and that more and more artists’ videos find their way into more general circulation. Recent moves to make parts of their collections available online (ie “A Kinetic History: EAI Archives Online” and “REWIND | Artists’ Video Collection” at the Visual Research Centre, Dundee Contemporary Arts and CARTE in central London) point towards a future where archives will become less repositories for dead content and more like a living, expanding database that will link past and future media arts.
Individual mavericks such as Jonas Mekas are also establishing the presentation of their ouevres online, and sites such as UbuWeb provide an ever-expanding assortment of digital files of hard-to-see material by key avant garde film and video makers. UbuWeb insists that the digital videos on the site are presented for educational and non-commercial use only and that copyright of artists is respected. Thought this may not be altogether entirely legal it’s hard to argue against the fact that

“most of us don’t live anywhere near theatres that show this kind of fare and very few of us can afford the hefty rental fees, not to mention the cumbersome equipment, to show these films. Thankfully, there is the internet which allows you to get a whiff of these films regardless of your geographical location. We realize that the films we are presenting are of poor quality. It’s not a bad thing; in fact, the best thing that can happen is that seeing a crummy shockwave file will make you want to make a trip to New York to the Anthology Film Archives or the Lux Cinema in London (or other places around the world showing similar fare). Next best case scenario will be that you will be enticed to purchase a high quality DVD from the noble folks trying to get these works out into the world. Believe me, they’re not doing it for the money. Please support these filmmakers and their distributors by purchasing their films. Please support the presenters of these works by going to see them in theatres whenever you can.” (www.ubu.com/film)

While not everyone is in agreement with this free-wheeling approach to copyright, there is something about the open and expansive spirit of projects like this one that makes it hard to deny the value of ad-hoc online video archives such as this. As Lawrence Lessig would have it, the more you share something the more valuable it becomes. UbuWeb is more than mere promotion for artist’s work: it is indeed a global digital distribution outlet that increases the cultural value of work included on the site.

When artists first took to making video in the 1960s, its radical form and function was often predicated on the ease of access to the means of production. For a couple of thousand dollars anybody could buy a portapak and start making videos. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? As Kate Horsfield recently reminds us in “Busting the Tube: A Brief History of Video Art”, groups such as the Radical Software collective of the 1970s saw beyond this to another immense shift in political and cultural power:

“Power is no longer measured in land, labor, or capital, but by access to information and the means to disseminate it. As long as the most powerful tools (not weapons) are in the hands of those who would hoard them, no alternative cultural vision can succeed. Unless we design and implement alternate information structures which transcend and reconfigure the existing ones, other alternate systems and life styles will be no more than products of the existing process.” [empahasis added] (Horsfield, p9)

We have to remind ourselves that this was written in 1970, to remember that the radical approach to the emergence of the “information society” has been a long time coming. In the 1970s and 80s, it was the one-way Tube of commercial mainstream television that had to be busted by video art practice. And while the dissemination of video art in alternate information structures has certainly been growing and transforming over the past thirty years, distribution and exhibition have remained the Achilles heel of all video art movements.
Make as many videos as you like, but who was going to keep them and where could you show them? The rise of the video festival circuit and the organizations devoted to the preservation and distribution of video art made perfect sense in this context. But despite all these valiant efforts to distribute alternative videos by alternate means, their impact has been necessarily stunted by the physicality of the networks. The video image may have been wrenched from its commercial televisual framework, but the objects [tapes] and viewing contexts remained. All that is now changing.

Which brings me to my question: Do we need a YouTube for video art? If the old Tube has been totally busted by the spread of do-it-yourself video, is it now time to design and implement an alternative distribution infrastructure for video artists?

By asking this I don’t mean to suggest that we actually use the proprietary service (quite the contrary), but that we respond to the conditions surrounding the rise of YouTube, today’s most popular video service on the web. According to Greg Sterling of the Search Engine Journal, YouTube presently contains 6.1 million videos with 1.73 billion total views taking up an estimated 45 terabytes of storage. Almost 70% of the online population has watched online video and the average consumer watches 73 minutes of online video a month. How many people came to your last video festival screening?

My question is really to ask what would it mean to put this model of user-generated content and distributed viewing, and exhibition networks in the service our institutional and individual video art projects?

What would happen if we could dynamically bring together our geographically distant and fragmentary histories of video art using the participatory and user-centric technologies of the peer-to-peer web? Perhaps the internet can offer new possibilities for stitching these “immaterialities” together into new relations in a rmashable, hyperlinked, electronic universe. Under such conditions, isn’t it possible to create, not a unified giant that takes ownership and control, but a multi-way read-write web of connections, links, videos, writing, biographical data, images, comments, debate and other important documents?

Unlike physical archives that must house objects and place them in a single location (an object can’t be in two places at once), digital archives don’t need physical space. They need server space. They chew bandwidth. Driven by metadata that allows an enormous amount of flexibility for classifying, sorting and browsing, these digital “objects” (ie video) can exist in many places (by way of hyperlinks) and in many categories and subcategories at once (by way of tags and folksonomies). Videotapes and DVDs, along with index cards and library stacks, just can’t do that.

The explosion of video on the web also coincides with a renewed interest in the re-tracing and re-telling of the history of video from different perspectives to the North American-European axis which has tended to have a monopoly on the grand narrative of video art. We are all familiar with the official accounts of well-known global celebrities, founding fathers, protagonists, subcultural groups and influential organisations that form important nodes in the Bigger Story of Video Art. But the problem with these histories is that they’re often monolithic and bounded by national boundaries. They miss the large waves of video art activity happening everywhere all at once all around the world. They leave no room for contestation. Forty odd years after the emergence of video art, it’s only natural that people everywhere would want to account for their own particular local history and to want to relate it to the broader history. As those early video tapes begin to disintegrate, the imperative to collect, preserve and interpret this output becomes more pressing. The need to tell the stories surrounding the making and circulation of these tapes becomes even more compelling.

A number of isolated projects are emerging spontaneously form their own unique conditions of existence. There are groups in Brazil, Australia, Japan, Hungary, Germany, Holland, France, Canada, the US and the UK working on their own local histories, many of which challenge and supplement the dominant histories of video art. And while conferences such as this one (together with the Refresh conference in Banff in 2005 or the Future History of the Moving Image symposium in the UK late 2007) seek to make links across the boundaries of national histories, our projects remain fragmented, disconnected and looking very much like unconnected silos not because we want them that way, but as a result of our of pre-information society organisational structures and distribution infrastructures.

We are presently witnessing the long process of transition from the world of atoms to the world of bits. Photo agencies are being superseded by flickr; the BBC film and video collection has morphed into BBC online; the Getty Research Institute is adopting the Long Beach Museum video art collection and giving it a home in its archive; the famous Bettman photographic collection is being challenged by the digital management systems of Corbis or GettyImages; and as web pundits are fond of reminding us, Encyclopedia Brittanica is being given more than a run for its money by Wikipedia.

So how might all these things come together in the age of peer-to-peer networks and the sharing of digital files across time and space? Videos circulate and are remixed, mashed up and broadcast over the web at an ever-increasing rate. They are being blown-up, torn apart, ripped, mixed and burned to such an extent that there is no going back. Images and sounds are coming unstuck, opening up a new space for the renegotiation of their associated history, archival context, and critical commentary. And in the process, innovative new ways of making, exhibiting, circulating, annotating and supplementing digital video works are emerging.

If the old televisual models have indeed been totally busted by the movement towards user-generated video inaugurated by video art of the 1960s, then I’m going to propose that we continue this process and hack the archives and the histories we are responsible for. I want to propose a Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) distributed network that allows us to collectively annotate, post, and grow video, new media and electronica cultures.

At the moment, John Gillies are starting out with a small node: “Sydney Video Art From UBU to iSlacks”. We are working with the existing dLux media archive and aiming to transform it by adding newly found historical video materials, and to blend it with the existing collection. dLux is neither an archive or a distributor of videos. They exhibit and promote media arts by regular workshops, screenings and inventive new programs ranging from mobile phones to SecondLife. Our project is to create a searchable database that can grow into a media-rich, taggable, expandable universe. This model is predicated on our initial research and input, but it is also designed to allow for user input and user-generated content to take over the site. From our small node, we want to link outwards and across to The Future Histories of the Moving Image group in the UK, Monash University’s Australian Vide Art Archive, the Perpetual Art machine project, The VDB in Chicago, 253 Media in Cologne, Griffith Artworks in Brisbane, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, the National Archives in Canberra, PICA in Perth, EAF in Adelaide, and other relatively small cultural organizations with an interest in the legacy and continuing transformation of video cultures in the network age.

It is clear from this brief description that we are not talking about replicating YouTube, with its restrictive user agreements and monolithic structure. Whatever the platform is for our new model, we need to link it, open it up, blow it apart as that’s what is necessary to avoid the creation of yet another proprietary walled garden and individualised silo.

Beyond the restrictions of YouTube, a large number of internet TV models are implementing a wide variety of promising alternatives for a very different approach to the digital networking of video. One of the most important of these is the Participatory Culture Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable and support independent, non-corporate creativity and political engagement. Its primary project is a free and open-source internet television platform called Miro (previously known as Democracy Player). On May 29, 2007, the Mozilla Foundation announced that it had awarded PCF a grant to continue their work on its open-source video projects. Miro is the PCF’s core project a free open-source desktop video application designed to make mass media more open and accessible for everyone. There are a number of obvious links that can be drawn between the aims of those involved with Radical Software in the 1970s:

“Television is the most popular medium in our culture. But broadcast and cable TV has always been controlled by a small number of big corporations. We believe that the internet provides an opportunity to open television in ways that have never been possible before. Miro is designed to eliminate gatekeepers. Viewers can connect to any video provider that they want. This frees creators to use the video hosting setup that works best for them whether they choose to self-publish or use a service. It’s the kind of openness that the internet allows and that we should all demand.” [emphasis added] (participatoryculture.org)

If just a few companies such as YouTube dominate online video, creativity will be restricted by their corporate terms and conditions of use. If the most popular video tools rely on closed, proprietary distribution systems, creativity and innovation will suffer. Internet video platforms like Miro are specifically designed to give video creators and viewers more freedom in the way they aggregate, browse and distribute video. Because it is open, it works with as many video hosting sites and video search engines as possible. Rather than being forced to use a few monopolistic services, the developers of platforms such as Miro believe that the future of media depends on creators being able to choose the publishing services that work best for them.

A number of other projects are worthy of mention here, including Wikimedia, OurMedia, Archive.org, Joost, BlipTV, Metacafe and OhTV. Another is Videoart.net, which highlights the problem of the intersection between local and international concerns. Founded by video artists and filmmakers based in New York City, Videoart.net provides a searchable online archive and connects artists with curators, producers, and the public. The Videoart.net archive is open to all genres, from short films, video installations to interviews. We could well adopt their mission as our own:

* To establish an international hub of video artists, filmmakers and audiences.

* To expand video arts into public spaces accessible to a wider audience.

* To create an online community of filmmakers and artists.

If we can imagine a growing collection of digitised work with large “metadatabases” and tag clouds associated with the collection, we start to see how we can preserve, distribute and contextualise video art material in a recombinatory history/archive project. Using web interfaces we can sort, aggregate and recombine elements into multiple histories and new relations. In order to achieve this we need to use new tools that help us grasp the power of the growing digital disorder.

Project Gutenberg (a volunteer effort to digitize, archive, and distribute cultural works) has done something similar to this in the realm of literature. Founded in 1971, it is the oldest digital library. Most of the items in its collection are complete texts of public domain books. The project tries to make these as free as possible, in long-lasting, open formats that can be used on almost any computer. Unlike some other digital library projects, Project Gutenberg does not claim new copyright on titles it publishes. Instead, it encourages their free reproduction and distribution. Since December 2006, Project Gutenberg has more than 20,000 items in its collection, with an average of over fifty new e-books being added each week.

Perhaps a similar distributed network of intelligence can be initiated for international video art. While there is clearly a need to address questions of rights (Creative Commons style), value (originals and copies don’t make any sense in the digital world, but in the artworld they do), and governance, success in other fields of endeavour suggest that these obstacles are surmountable. Indeed, the active negotiation of these issues has led to the most successful and innovative systems of the moment (think no further than Wikipedia and YouTube).

So the answer to my question is clear. Although YouTube has offered us a glimpse into the possibilities of globally distributed user-generated video networks, it also alerts us to the issues that video artists have been challenging for decades. As a loosely connected network of interested curators, researchers and artists, we have a powerful new means of distribution at our disposal.

The Tube has been totally busted by video art and user-generated content. Now we just need to re-make our own.

Sydney October 2008

References

Kate Horsfield, “Busting the Tube: A Brief History of Video Art”, in Horsfield, K and Hilderbrand, L, (eds)  Feedback: The Video Data Bank Catalogue of Video Art an Artist Interviews, Temple university Press, Philadelphia, 2006.