Youtube: History Re-linked

By Greg Tobey

When I began my summer internship at the Art Gallery of York University I knew that I would be curating a Youtube project. What I did not know was that I would sift through 1,385 videos, consuming roughly 48 hours of footage. At first I was lost. I did not know where to begin. I was thrown into this vast database without any restrictive guidelines or boundaries. With the reconstruction of General Idea’s exhibitions at the AGYU, I was to pull themes from this legendary Canadian trio whose performative aesthetic, affordable dissemination of material, and archival production preceded the Youtube phenomenon. I was to embrace General Idea’s strategies in an image databank so massive that at times I felt the weight of it bearing down on me. After all the moisture in my eyes evaporated, I selected 20 videos that run at a combined 40 minutes.

Curating a collection of videos on Youtube in relation to the work of the most important international Canadian artists was as confining as it was liberating. General Idea often used performance to explore and demystify cultural values. They were successful in deconstructing popular culture myths through the same mediums in which those myths were constructed. They used television and magazine formats, and pop-culture genres to engage in a process of fictional staging, focusing on how pop-culture formats function by examining constraints specific to each medium. By following some of the strategies employed by General Idea, I began to develop loose ideas surrounding my own curatorial project. And so began the most difficult part of the process.

Using General Idea’s paradigms while swimming through an ocean of videos on Youtube didn’t get me very far. I found myself drifting, treading, and coughing up the occasional gulp of water. As mentioned earlier, General Idea predated the Youtube phenomenon. Most of their work appropriated a dissemination device of some kind which challenged copyright. They established archives and image banks, they founded Art Metropole and created FILE Megazine. They were among the pioneers that used correspondence to mail and exchange art. On top of this, a great deal of their work is performative. Sound familiar? Youtube is all of the above. All videos on Youtube operate within parameters previously explored by General Idea. Because General Idea and Youtube are inextricably linked, the door was left open for a wave of possibilities. This is what made this process more liberating than confining and its precisely what kept me from drowning. But still the question remained, where was I to begin?

At first I tried to understand Youtube by watching the site’s most viewed videos. It seemed logical to get at the core of the site by navigating through the most congested traffic zones, but after watching cat faces, cats talking, and dogs with sunglasses on their butts I was more confused than ever. These videos weren’t going to make the cut and they certainly weren’t helping. So then I thought of General Idea and the way in which they inhabited specific pop-culture genres. I then began to explore commercials. Commercials oscillate between knowledge of the past and projections of the future, while remaining very much grounded in the present. They speak to an audience of the moment, who are well informed of the routine, and they reveal a lot about a cultures values, myths, and ideologies. When broadcasted on Youtube, commercials are ripped out of their original context. And as I repeat this process once more, by strategically incorporating the videos into my own project, their meaning shifted again significantly. I realized that when placed within a socio-political context the commercials were given new agency. And so I embarked on a journey through time.

As I surfed between  Coca-Cola and Exxon commercials from the 1950’s onwards, I began thinking about the post-War world. Between the so-called “Golden Age” and our current “Information Age” I started to narrate my own subjective account of modern history. With specific attention to American power politics, neoliberalism and its adverse affects on Latin America, I found myself engaging in a process of historiography. Western culture is fascinated by stories — and you have to admit we all love a good story. What’s even more fascinating or perplexing is that we’ve applied this paradigm to history. We all like to think that there’s a grand chain of causation that drives the course of history but in reality it’s extremely contingent. By conforming to the history-as-story paradigm in my Youtube project, as General Idea had done with pop-culture genres, I waged war on the foundation of history from within its own conventions, with Youtube as my Trojan horse.

I then turned to one of the most extraordinary Presidential addresses in modern history — and no its not from Barrack Obama. In his farewell address to the American nation in 1961, President Eisenhower, a former five-star general, warned the country of the institutional power commanded by the “military-industrial complex.” Like the commercials explored in this program, Eisenhower made a projection into the future — but what’s terrifying here is that his projection turned out to be absolutely right. At the core of American power politics lies this enormous, highly pervasive institution that has heavily influenced national policy over the past sixty years. Throughout my post-secondary education, whenever the opportunity arose I studied issues pertaining to this establishment. Drawing on what I’ve learned and discovered, I once again return to this phenomenon by critically examining it through the lens of popular media.

By exploring institutions that have had far-reaching implications on the post-War world, the socio-politcal context of my project took shape. Besides the military-industrial complex, big oil, corporations, and car manufacturers also come under scrutiny. I intermixed commercials produced by these institutions over the past fifty years with archival footage, a tribute video, clips of Andrei Tarkovsky and Allen Ginsberg, a profound presidential address, and perhaps the greatest live spectacle ever performed in history. The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony marks the beginning of the program as it also marks the beginning of a new point in history. Since history is a socially constructed institution, human numbers play a predominant role in my program. From the opening ceremony to the Zapatista and Cuban revolutions, performance, conformity, and rebellion are all given agency through sheer human numbers.

As General Idea once said,”we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites. We moved in on history and occupied images, emptying them of meaning, reducing them to shells.” Influenced by the Burroughsian parasite metaphor — like General Idea, I became a parasite. Through popular media formats I’ve infected institutions that have come to define our contemporary time. My arms became translucent tentacles that latched onto videos within the host Youtube. Just as General Idea took over LIFE magazine with FILE and T.V. itself with the Colour Bar Lounge, so I reduced history to its shell. In a world that has drastically changed with the sudden development of information technologies, the internet has given us the gift economy. Within this mode of exchange — that’s free of market value — I have curated a project for you. A project moulded through the eyes of a suburban kid who is tired of the corruption and sick of the lies.

First video