New media and old institutions: 2

I’ve written about vidding quite a lot on this blog. It’s an artform that is getting steadily more attention: as one facet of the web’s enabling of grassroots, amateur filmmaking, as part of the long history of women’s work with media, as a valuable kind of media literacy. Last weekend, I made a pilgrimage to Riverside to attend the opening of an exhibition that features what is, as far as I know, the first vid to be exhibited in an art gallery.

The vid is Us by Lim (link goes to Kristina Busse’s In Media Res curation), a profound and multifaceted and deep and beautiful piece with which I have a very intimate affective relationship.

I have a short essay coming out in Cinema Journal’s In Focus section that talks about the way the vid comments on piracy and intellectual property in ways that address their significance beyond the (important) legal arguments for fair use by highlighting the artistic and cultural work of media ‘theft’. I love the vid not only for that but for the critique it embeds of academic work on fan cultures, like the work I have done, crystallized in the image of Henry Jenkins as Regina Spektor sings “the tourists come and stare at us”. That critique is not, in my interpretation (which has been strengthened through email conversations with Lim) an expression of hostility, merely an acknowledgment of the power dynamics brought into being by relative institutional status, and economic/cultural privilege.

So what about the power dynamics that come into play when this vid, which speaks to and from a particular subcultural context but has been distributed and discussed well beyond it, is shown to a new kind of public in an art gallery?

I bought the catalogue for the exhibition, which is a beautifully designed little book. The images from Us and the other artworks are shiny and stunning. As you would expect, each artist has a bio, detailing their training and achievements. Lim’s places her outside the professional art world, making it clear that she doesn’t produce work with this audience in mind; it is followed by an essay on the “Anthropology of YouTube” by Michael Wesch. It’s an excellent essay, which explains the work online video does very well. Although it doesn’t go into any depth on the particular activity of vidding, I think it provides a good introductory context.

However, anthropology is a word that makes me nervous; it hints at colonial dynamics, power held by the looker-on and explainer of a strange culture as it is denied to the members of that culture themselves. I know that those aspects of anthropology have been intensely critiqued; but I think it’s worth thinking about the discomfort anyway. As Julie Levin Russo reminded me when I talked about this with her, the problem with anthropological discourse here is precisely the critique that Lim makes of academic fan studies in her vid. Some artists are in the gallery and in the catalogue because it is part of their professional lives, because it will bring them material benefits; some are invited there from other contexts and have to be anthropologically explained. The relationship to explanation, to academic criticism, to exposure won’t and can’t be the same.

I would hazard a guess that, although vidding as a subcultural practice is pretty marginal, there are a lot more people out there who are familiar with YouTube culture than with the art world. But it’s hard to imagine an anthropology that would go the other way. That was what I wanted as I wandered through the exhibit, though: I wanted to record the conversations people might have been having in front of the vid, wanted to hear what interpretations it elicited in a setting so divorced from the ones where I had encountered it. It’s those conversations that are at the heart of what it means to show this work there, as far as I am concerned, and I miss the inbuilt archive for commentary–and impromptu anthropology–that YouTube, imeem and other online video-sharing platforms contain.