Video Vortex #6: Beyond YouTube

The sixth Video Vortex conference was held in Amsterdam at Trouw, a building that used to house the printing presses where the eponymous newspaper was created. These days, Trouw is a restaurant and club and occasional conference venue. The venue’s former purpose reinforced the passing of the torch from old news media to the online media being discussed, alongside other relevant topics, at Video Vortex. Michael Strangelove, the first speaker of the day, referred to the “holocaust of capitalism” and how online video enables a subversion of the notion of culture as private property. As newspapers struggle to redefine themselves in this online era - the New York Times’ new paywall being a prime example - the war of ownership over content resonated not only throughout the conference sessions but even in the venue’s inkstained floors.

The initial speakers of the day, Michael Strangelove and Andrew Clay, made salient points about the notion of “compulsory visibility” (Foucault, via Strangelove) online, the “douchebag effect” induced by online video platforms (Strangelove), and the communities and revenue streams which develop around online smash hits such as Annoying Orange (Clay). Talk of douchebag effects and inane chattering fruit was unfortunately juxtaposed with the gravity of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, unfolding at the very same time. All morning, YouTube quickly populated with shocking videos of the damage, and it seemed immediately inappropriate to ponder how many millions Annoying Orange makes.

“Reality shear”, a term I’m borrowing from author Adam Greenfield, expresses the conundrum of that moment perfectly. I felt empathy for the speakers, who had to accept their fate of presenting their prepared papers onstage while a few attendees, myself included, had one eye (and a sinking heart) on the hastily made videos of wobbling highrises and toppling furniture being uploaded at the same moment in Japan. I predict many more reality shear moments in the future as world events are uploaded and shared in near-real time and fray the edges of our carefully constructed physical realities.

Matthew Williamson, speaking later in the day, struck at the center of this notion with a story he told from the Experimental Media Congress that took place in 2010 in Toronto. At the Congress, artist Michael Snow, creator of dozens of highly influential experimental films, was asked how he felt about one of his most renowned films, Wavelength, getting over 50,000 hits on YouTube. His response was that those fifty thousand or so viewers “saw a ghost". For Snow, upload culture gnaws at the edge of his artistic integrity. Though as Williamson put it, as he went on to reference ubuweb, "...are these all ghosts?"

In an inversion of what Matthew Williamson fingered as the Ubuweb paradox, Dagan Cohen of Upload Cinema showcased the work they do bringing YouTube back into a cinema environment. To recognize the fifth anniversary of YouTube, Upload Cinema screened a number of greatest hits, including the infamous clip of Gary Brolsma singing the Numa Numa song, with an invitation to the hundreds of viewers sitting in the theatre to sing and dance along. Upload Cinema proved to be an interesting example in more ways than one: not only does it promote a return to communal viewing in a cinema setting, but also plays heavily on nostalgia by, for example, printing old style cinema tickets (by the last printer in the Netherlands who still makes them).

The case of Upload Cinema also highlighted a common theme that arose numerous times of a sense of panic in the arts community over control and gatekeeping. Upload Cinema aims to present “internet classics”, and several other projects which were represented at the conference such as Instant Cinema, Impakt Channel, and ArtTube, exert control by presenting particular collections of content. As the conference proceeded however, I got the sense that what is perceived by some as panic over gatekeeping is simply a natural reaction once the challenge of commanding attention online is fully grasped. Breakaway successes like Gary Brolsma’s rendition of the Numa Numa song are hitting the slot machine jackpot of online video, whereas organizations with defined aims, and possibly funders to answer to, have accepted that they need to learn how to count cards.

The gamble that everyone faces in this wild west of online video is the struggle over access to information and control. Videos are frequently pulled from YouTube for “copyright violations”, and artists themselves remain hugely divided over whether they should support maintaining complete control or freely making their work available for others to use. Arjen Dunnewind from Impakt Festival spoke about the challenges of finding new audiences through their archives, and also acknowledged the fringe benefits of residing outside the glare of millions of hits: so far, no copyright complaints. Sandra Fauconnier of the Netherlands Media Art Institute also discussed how her organization’s contracts with artists ask them to affirm that they hold the copyright to all aspects of their work, something impossible for artists who work with found footage or remixing. It’s a known risk that the artists are taking, and all parties simply hope copyright holders’ sleeping guard dogs will continue to lie quietly.

Ownership and agency are not always about copyright issues, as Teague Schneiter’s presentation made clear. Schneiter presented Isuma TV, an online resource produced by Inuit and Indigenous people, and as a case study it raised several key points about what is at stake for remote audiences and producers. YouTube and Vimeo are standard tools in well-connected areas, but for many of Isuma’s users in remote areas, these tools are largely useless, as bandwidth remains a challenge. Additionally, Isuma TV users have uploaded over 2000 videos in 41 languages. So for the communities that use Isuma TV as a resource, innovation in terms of subtitling, video compression, and other adaptations of technology and infrastructure is not just an admirable goal, but a must for the survival of their platform. Copyright worries are not at the forefront; instead, sharing and ensuring access to aboriginal knowledge are primary concerns.

The ways that Isuma TV’s creators have had to rethink the standard online viewing experience was echoed in the presentations that reflected a desire for the “hackable web”. Ben Moskowitz of the Mozilla foundation presented Popcorn and Butter, tools for treating the web as a time-based material that can form the building blocks for endless constructions. Artist Evan Roth’s work, which marries open source sensibilities to pop culture influences, is also strongly about using the web as a material, thinking about its unique possibilities. Roth led a workshop that took place just before the conference, and showed the resulting animated gif music video that he created with participants, which was an eye-popping and hilarious montage featuring bacon, kittens, Captain Picard, ice cream trucks, Susan Boyle, and much more.

In one of the most engaging panels of the two days, Online Video as a Political Tool, Sam Gregory of WITNESS showed a still from the camcorder video of the Rodney King beating, which set off a chain of events that changed American history, and formed part of the inspiration to form WITNESS. Today, 20 years later, the image of that fateful moment is still haunting, representing the spark of what has become a shift in the balance of power. Cascading out from that moment, new technologies, techniques and methods for using the power of connecting images to viewers has been in constant evolution. As another speaker, Joanne Richardson noted, this power is being used by forces for good and for ill alike.

Before going to the closing party, I checked again on the emerging coverage from Japan on YouTube. Video Vortex covered the terrain from profound to quotidian, from world-changing to lite-entertainment, and if the complexity of the issues covered is any indication, online video will continue to push all our buttons for years to come.

Michelle Kasprzak is a writer and curator based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She is currently Project Director at McLuhan in Europe 2011, a cultural network project that will celebrate the legacy of Marshall McLuhan as a media and telecommunications visionary across Europe in 2011, the 100th anniversary of his birth. More about Michelle: