A Meeting of Worlds: YouTube Biennial at the Guggenheim

Your video could get the Guggenheim seal of approval.

The Guggenheim Museum: one of the art world’s most venerable institutions, home of masterpieces from the Impressionist movement to the modern era. YouTube: one of the world’s most expansive video repositories, home of sensations from children biting other children’s fingers to anime tributes galore. What could these two household names possibly have in common? According to the Guggenheim’s chief curator Nancy Spector and vice president of YouTube’s Creative Lab Andy Berndt, the answer is art.

“YouTube and Guggenheim…they may not be two words that pop into your head at the exact same time, but they’re really about a lot of the same things,” Berndt says in this sleek promo video/call for submissions.

The two cultural behemoths are joining forces to orchestrate “the first biennial of creative video,” called YouTube Play. Berndt and Spector announced an open call for submissions (in the above-linked video) on June 14th and will accept submissions through July 31st. Artists interested in having their work included in the biennial should upload videos on YouTube Play’s channel. Some numbers: at least 200 videos (10 minutes or less) will be chosen for inclusion on the YouTube channel, and a jury of nine “experts”—headed and organized by Spector—will select 20 videos for exhibition at “The Event.” This three-day display at the Guggenheim kicks off October 21st, which just so happens to be the 51st anniversary of the day the museum first opened its doors. The YouTube Play channel already boasts well over 9,000 subscribers, and entrants will be notified anytime between now and October 1st if their video is selected.

In the video that introduces the biennial, Spector stresses that Guggenheim’s collaboration with YouTube is all about the democratizing and accessible powers of the Internet. “At the Guggenheim we’re always interested in how to reach the broadest possible audience,” she says. “We don’t create a hierarchy here among mediums.”

Buzz words in the selection criteria include: “innovative, original, and surprising,” Guggenheim wants submissions that “debate, discuss, test, experiment with, and elevate video in all kinds of ways.” You can check out the details here. Keep in mind that in order to submit a video, “You cannot be a resident or citizen of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Myanmar/Burma, Syria, Zimbabwe nor any other U.S.-sanctioned country.”

This exclusionary clause is just one reason not everyone is excited about the biennial as an opportunity to merge high and low art forms. YouTube Play has already gotten flack from Art Fag City’s Paddy Johnson, who criticized Spector for claiming to be qualified to pull together a jury of informed “experts” who could fairly judge YouTube videos. Rather than respecting YouTube as a distinct culture, where the significance of videos is inextricable from a world rich with in-jokes, memes, and its own aesthetic language, Johnson and other critics accuse the Guggenheim of treating YouTube like “the post office,” a mere venue of delivery for video art by already established artists.

Artist and blogger Tom Moody fleshed out the post office critique and ripped on the corporate core of the biennial in a response to Johnson’s rant (in which Johnson recommended Moody to the Guggenheim as a bona fide expert in the field of YouTube art): “Most museum curators are trained in ‘video art’ but not necessarily understanding hacker crap or judging amateur efforts. This format plays to their expertise. Hewlett can help contestants get up to ‘professional’ speed and then the curators can judge the show the same way they would a selection of mailed-in DVDs, using evaluation criteria they’ve had since the port-a-pak era. But they get also the pop-culture juice of working with a new, hip, ‘people’s’ medium.”

Yet another side to the debate lies in the biennial’s connection to ongoing shifts in independent film distribution—primarily, the breakdown of traditional modes due in large part to new avenues made possible by digital formats and online tools. In a New York Times story published the day before the call for submissions opened, director of YouTube’s product management Hunter Walk said, “What we’re doing is removing the middle man.” A sentiment that resonates with the decreasing presence of the distributor-as-middle-persons, independent filmmakers could potentially take advantage of YouTube Play as an opportunity to get a hook in the emerging field of online distribution. The biennial may even boost the legitimacy and versatility of online distribution by sanctifying certain uses of YouTube with the high-art seal of approval.

The terms and conditions (literally) boldly proclaims, “We want something different. We are not looking for now, we are looking for what’s next.” But Moody isn’t so sure that the Guggenheim is out to shake up its long-standing legacy of highbrow appraisal. In response to the call for submissions, he writes: “The YouTube competition will ultimately be WhateverWeSayTube.”

About :

Courtney Sheehan is a film programmer, writer, and business strategist. Most recently, she served as executive director for Northwest Film Forum, the independent film nonprofit in Seattle. She is a frequent contributor to The Independent.