Internet Killed the Video Star

Is YouTube bad for experimental video art?

A funny thing happened on the way to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 16th annual forum for experimental video art, new media, or whatever digital catch-all fits this fleeting moment: YouTube. Yes, content-delivery systems have evolved enough to render us an even more attention-deficient culture, dulling our senses or at least sating us with heaping piles of free media. While Scanners (a/k/a the New York Video Festival) once served as a practical conspectus for the handful of video pioneers whose work stood out from the pack, the fest will soon become a bimonthly affair just to keep up, a valiant yet uphill battle to cut through the explosion of online video—two-inch QuickTime windows are not exactly the ultimate format for experimental work, by the way—and catch the attention of the hypnotized masses who are growing more and more accustomed to getting their "art" between checking e-mail and the RSS feed.

"Many years ago, I used to say that video artists were the unpaid research and development branch of commercial media," quips Puerto Rican–born media maker Edin Vélez, whose experimental narrative A Certain Foolish Consistencyheadlines this year's program. "It was a funny-ha-ha thing to say at the time, but now it's true."

Vélez has been happily working in fringe-art territory since the '80s, and although Consistency is his first to be called a "narrative" (his air quotes: "There's a story in there if you look hard enough"), he won't soon be accused of selling out. With layers of soft-edged and often sexually candid images, this scriptless but linear series of vignettes chronicles the lives and romances of several New Yorkers, connected not by their interactions so much as real time and their neighboring strata within the frame. Pretentious fragments of running text and close-ups of full-on penetration mean that this project won't soon see a wide release, which raises another question: With main- stream culture co-opting avant-garde structures and form (not to mention a disintegrated line between video and film), what outlets are left for the boundary-pushers? "Everybody's at sea," laments Vélez. "I have friends who do viral gigs, like a show at [Williamsburg's four-screen venue] Monkey Town, or other small art spaces. Others go the gallery route." With so many seafaring artists and not enough lifeboats to go around, can Lincoln Center's expanding schedule provide safe harbor for everyone?

Scanners opener: A Certain Foolish Consistency
Edin Vélez
Scanners opener: A Certain Foolish Consistency

It's a frustrating unknown for Vélez, who has seen interest in work like his dwindle to a niche audience, as those who used to seek out experimental work are now content to just press play. "The problem is, I have no core [audience]. You're pressing my hot, hot button, which is: I finish the work, it's flawed but I love it, so who's going to see it and where?" Discussing possible solutions, we come to the futuro-distribution method for Four Eyed Monsters, that twee hipster Amer-indie that was uploaded to the virtual world Second Life and as a sponsored release on YouTube—great business, but with all that time and energy devoted to marketing, who has time and energy to make movies? Vélez would rather focus on his next project: "I look at [Monsters] with admiration, but mine is a different approach in media making: less garage band and more prog rock."

And with that cue, enter New York Press critic Armond White, who annually curates a program of forward-thinking music videos for Scanners. "I'm able to demonstrate that experimental forms of media are not necessarily elitist or esoteric. Music video exists to communicate with the wide audience." It's stating the obvious to note that MTV and VH1 barely play videos anymore (and when they do, they smother the content with ads that were once interstitials), leaving the Web as a poor substitution. "The Internet is not the ideal format for videos. They take on extra dimension and bloom on the big screen," says White.

"People dismiss music videos as just commercials for records, but at their best, they can be personal expressions not just of the musical artist, but the directors who make them. It's an alternative to conventional filmmaking and especially the movie-musical genre, which seems to have died out about 30 years ago." But didn't Hairspray just come out? White ripostes: "Have you seen Hairspray? It's dead."

 
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