MARCH 17, 2020
WHETHER OR NOT Tolstoy was right in suggesting that only art is capable of setting violence aside, artists have long been uniquely positioned to rouse, revolt, speculate, complicate, tell the truth, and offer protest and possibility in polarized and violent times.
In collaboration with Creative Capital, the nonprofit known for supporting provocative and progressive work, and which in 2019 celebrated its 20th year of funding and advising artists, LARB will publish 12 essays over 12 months on issues facing contemporary art in the United States. Each contributor focuses on a particular year of Creative Capital’s history and/or on a specific artist, beginning with Johanna Fateman’s introduction to the series, which reflected on the founding of Creative Capital (1999) in response to the subsequent decreases in federal funding for individual artists. In this essay, Orit Gat puts the rise of YouTube into conversation with the projects of several artists, looking back to 2006 as a way to think forward about our digital futures.
Together, the essays in this series reflect the current state of arts writing as a field, just as they reveal the myriad ways that art matters now as much as ever.
I remember the first time I realized what YouTube was for: it was 2006, I was sitting in a friend’s living room, and he was playing music videos on YouTube. We didn’t watch the videos, just listened to the music off the speakers set up next to his IBM desktop. At that point, I still had CDs that I then imported into my chunky laptop and then exported onto my new, shiny, second-generation iPod that could hold more music than I could consume: 20 gigabytes of songs in one black-and-white clickwheel-operated interface. I knew YouTube — then a year-old video sharing platform — existed, but I couldn’t figure out what I may want to use it for. That afternoon on my friend’s couch in Paris was my first experience of the availability of culture online.
In 2006, I still used my university email account exclusively (it started with a string of numbers that had nothing to do with my name or initials), I hadn’t joined Facebook yet, and I suspect I used an Internet Explorer browser without realizing how quaint the application’s name was. In 2006, Time magazine’s Person of the Year was “You.” On the cover of the special end-of-year issue was a desktop with a YouTube player on the screen, and the text embedded in it read, “You.” The caption below: “Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world.” In 2006, YouTube was sold to Google for more than a billion dollars.
I was 21 and I took so much for granted, even though I saw it change so quickly. One moment I was using internet cafés to send letter-length emails to friends back home, and a year later I was getting school assignments in my inbox. What was fun quickly became work and, in a way, it felt obvious — the only path for email to take was to become work. Another 2006 internet phenomenon: the founding of ChaCha (from mandarin Chinese, “cha” means “to search”), a search engine that answered questions using human “guides” — independent contractors who were paid $0.02 an answer. The Time cover story choosing “you” as person of the year, discussed how Web 2.0 was a “massive social experiment,” in which internet users did not “just watch,” they also worked: “We made Facebook profiles and Second Life avatars and reviewed books at Amazon and recorded podcasts. We blogged about our candidates losing and wrote songs about getting dumped. We camcordered bombing runs and built open-source software.”
In Time’s vision of the future, a “diet of predigested news” will be balanced with “raw feeds from Baghdad and Boston and Beijing.” The camcorded bombing runs uploaded to the internet and the mention of Baghdad are there for a reason — the article was published in the third year of the Iraq War, five years after 9/11, a reminder that we all became users against a backdrop of war, financial crisis, political and social upheaval, and a growing use of technology as a tool for governments to control populations. Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience, for example, was created after the artist was subjected to months of FBI investigations following an erroneous tip in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Having seen what living under constant surveillance was like, Elahi created a work that is also a form of alibi, a constantly updating record in the shape of installations, videos, prints, sound works, and so on, logging Elahi’s communication, movement around the world, financial transactions, and other personal data — and making them available for the public (or a government agency) to view.
Elahi’s preempting of surveillance, claiming it by tracking himself instead of leaving the government to do it, echoes nicely with Paul Vanouse’s Latent Figure Protocol, realized from 2006 to 2009. The self, implied and analyzed through technology in Elahi’s work, becomes the content of the media installation Vanouse has built, which uses DNA samples which are then translated into images. The artist created the imaging process and used it both to create visual works but also to explain to his audience how risky the use of DNA databases — for the legal system, for example — is, as DNA is vulnerable to speculative and discriminatory use.
Looking back to 2006, 14 years later, it is easy to say the sale of YouTube for over a billion dollars was great business for Google. By 2007, YouTube required as much bandwidth as the entire internet had in 2000. It uses about 10 percent of global bandwidth today. Google developed YouTube to retain users, especially by building and honing the site’s recommendations algorithms. In a data-driven advertising economy, attention can be monetized. Coming to write this piece, that was all I could think of: how YouTube has changed over those years, and how specifically its recommendation algorithm has created the world we live in today, with disinformation and radicalization because the tweaks to the format meant that users who remained on-site were served growingly niche videos, until they found themselves on track to brainwash.
Whether or not artists used YouTube specifically, 2006 marked the peak, decline, and end of a certain kind of digital optimism: for his project titled The Source, for example, Cory Arcangel published a series of books with the source code for his body of software work since the 1990s. Making the source code into an artist’s book both locates the artwork beyond just its digital manifestation — the creative work of writing the code is a form of documentation of the work — while also bringing the ethos of open-source communities, where one’s labor is made available for others to build upon and maybe improve, to what was thought of as proprietary, an artwork.
Other projects from 2006 included a Healing Pool by Brian Knep (a floor projection inspired by reflecting pools); a data visualization project dedicated to tracking the flows of capital through art in Laura Carton’s Investor Relations; and a translation of art history by Brody Condon, who in 3 Modifications took Flemish master paintings and translated them to video-game-aesthetic digital tableaus. All are forms of insistence on a new visual culture, one that involves and comments on the new digital aspects of our lives. YouTube represents so many of the contemporary stakes of digital lives: the attention economy; the ecological cost of hosting huge amounts of content, some of which no one would ever watch; the centralizing of users around the same platforms owned by the same multinational corporations; the terrifying prospect of a future without privacy. The Time article reads, “we are so ready for it,” and I think of the digital future these artists represented to us at the same time, from Arcangel’s optimism and resourcefulness to Elahi’s attempt to control his own data by tracking and releasing it himself. I wonder if anyone would have been that optimistic back in 2006 had we been able to guess what our technological lives would be like in the future. Now we know better.