Every time a new technology appears, it promises to solve the problems of an existing medium—but in reality, it tends to introduce new problems all its own. In particular, this describes the relationship between television and YouTube, two tools of mass culture that are good at hiding their technological parameters.
At the height of the era of television in the 1970s, artists blamed television for its power to turn audiences into consumers. Using video—a technology that today is available to millions of amateurs—to tape their critique, Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman made Television Delivers People. At the early historical juncture of 1973, they criticized, in a humorous way, what pessimists like Neil Postman got worried about in the 1980s. Serra and Schoolman satirized the banality of TV programs by playing elevator music and scrolling critical messages, such as “the product of television is the audience,” across the screen.
With the popularization of the Internet, new problems emerged with regard to the relationship between medium and viewer. The passive television viewer was suddenly turned into an active user with the changes in form, amount, speed, and context of information transmission. This online audience is currently reproducing everything it learned from TV. The paradox: people undermine commercial media within the framework of a corporately owned medium. The participatory paradigm produces new disadvantages, because in order to rise to the permanent call for creativity, people have to exploit their own means and skills. Web 2.0 comes with hours and hours of labor.
Ramsay Stirling, a student from Copenhagen, recognized these new but not so different conditions and updated the Serra-Schoolman critique in his video YouTube delivers YOU. In it he states, “The New new media state is predicated on media subjectification,” and “Soft detournement is considered entertainment,” underscoring how the Internet user is a consumer, a producer, and the product itself all at the same time; inherent in such art is an indicator of the medium’s limits. Going further on the meaning of art since YouTube, Rosemary Heather suggests in her essay “Army of YouTube,” “There is a kind of autonomous intelligence that wants to be organized into a second level of meaning.” Some video artists like Natalie Bookchin have organized YouTube footage in such a way. In her typological work trip(2008), Bookchin took amateur clips recorded from cars and other moving vehicles around the world. These individual street views are orchestrated into an international road movie that comes along without suspense and narrative. In contrast, her multiscreen work Mass Ornament (2009) shows the scary homogeneity of clips of aspiring dancers. YouTube, therefore, becomes a signifier of cultural production, mirroringTV.