On Tuesday, May 15th, Electronic Arts Intermix will host a screening of two new Hennessy Youngman videos, followed by a conversation between Youngman (Jayson Scott Musson) and EAI Public Programs Director Josh Kline. It looks pretty good. I might go.
One line at the bottom of the press release, though, caught my eye: “Jayson Scott Musson’s work is now available through EAI’s distribution service. For more information, please click here.”
It’s true: you rent or purchase an educational or exhibition copy of, say, How to Make an Art, on VHS, DVD, U-Matic, or Beta, for prices starting at $50. You can also, I imagine, watch Youngman’s videos by booking EAI’s viewing room; make sure to do that a few weeks in advance. If all that fails, maybe someone’s uploaded them to YouTube.
So, first things first: this is really weird. I mean, somebody just offered me my favorite YouTube videos on VHS, despite it being fairly well-known that it’s quite simple to download videos directly from YouTube—probably in higher quality. The angle, of course, is that EAI will preserve the videos forever and pay a significant portion of their fees on to Musson himself; it does make a certain amount of sense. In a comment on AFC two months ago, EAI Distribution Director Rebecca Cleman offered a few thoughts on the nonprofit’s role in an age of YouTube:
There are certainly impediments to providing access — and one of them is the obsolescence of technology. As John commented here, EAI has a long and important history leading and advocating for the preservation of video formats — at a time when very few institutions or dealers were willing to assume this responsibility (things have changed significantly only in the last decade or so). It is absolutely true that without these efforts, works by Joan Jonas, Dara Birnbaum, and Tony Oursler, among many others, would simply not exist.
The imposed scarcity model of editioning also, of course, impedes access — but it doesn't have to. Artists have been challenging the restrictive edition model by having editioned works posted on YouTube, circulating through distributors such as EAI, VDB, or LUX, and available for sale through a gallery. To me this perhaps outlines an “ideal scenario”— the works are available in a very general and open field, extending beyond the confines of the art world and high culture, while being appreciated by collecting institutions for their cultural value and impact. One of the many points raised during the panel, however, is how this impacts on the notion of “ownership” — which is especially important to public institutions acquiring the works and anticipating archiving and housing them as long as the Earth revolves”¦
Hennessy Youngman would seem to be the materialization of Cleman’s “ideal scenario”; those with money to burn (like institutions) can pay Musson his fair share, while the rest of us can continue to watch Art Thoughtz for free as long as Musson decides to keep them online. The archival side of the equation, though, still seems a bit far-fetched; the possibility of YouTube’s eventual obsolescence is one that’s difficult to comprehend in 2012. The site has remained essentially the same since 2005 and its video format, Flash, has a reputation for backwards compatibility and has only seen three major updates in the past nine years. Even if the site were to die, one assumes the same noble internet heroes who archived Geocities would gather up the remains of YouTube for history.
The real question here might be whether a VHS of How to Make an Art qualifies as the whole work. While Ryan Trecartin, another video artist in EAI’s collection well-known for putting works on YouTube, seems to fit neatly into artist/viewer dichotomy of video art, Hennessy Youngman is a more networked project. He addresses his audience directly as “innanet”, provides links at the end of his videos to the music he uses, and interacts with commenters, often hilariously. Hennessy Youngman isn’t a series of transmissions from outer space; he’s your big brother, here to help you understand art. That gets lost when he’s translated into the one-way medium of video.
So can Hennessy Youngman be a VHS? Jayson Musson would seem to say yes, and that’s probably the only opinion that matters. Still, we wonder where video ends and something else, something that can’t quite fit on a VHS, begins. AFC spoke to EAI’s Josh Kline, who confirmed that no EAI artist so far has requested that, for instance, YouTube comments be included in the archive. One suspects that might change. A growing body of young artists will look to Musson’s sudden success as an artist working not just on YouTube, but for YouTube, and want to follow. If more video art is produced with web audiences in mind, will EAI remain a video-only affair, or move to something more akin to Rhizome’s digital archives? It will be interesting to watch how institutions like EAI evolve.