Hennessy Youngman Goes Direct To VHS

by Will Brand on May 10, 2012 · 16 comments Opinion

Hennessy Youngman, in full regalia.

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.


Angelina Fernandez May 10, 2012 at 5:53 pm

I guess you can’t blame Hennessy for trying to make money off of his YouTube work. It’s a pity that he had to resort to transferring his work to video instead of maybe… making up some kind of weird short term contract where he’d get money for letting them screen his work directly off the internet. Idk I feel like there could be a way to do that without having to have the institution as a middle man. but maybe he benefits more from having it connected with them than not. still. kinda lame.

Hennessy Youngman May 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Angelina, you draft up that ‘kind of weird short term contract’ and I’ll look it over. People screen my shit directly from the internet all the time and they’ll always be able to do that for free for forever. And if you’ve noticed I’ve never even bothered to monetize my videos on youtube, meaning I’ve kept them advertisement free after being approached by youtube to do so. But, I think I’ll do that now because making a body of work for 2 years which has been free is just idk. kinda lame right? But yeah, get me your contract Angelina!

Will Brand May 11, 2012 at 11:30 am

Yeah, this is what I’ve gathered EAI’s big draw is—they just handle shit. The contracts have been tested, the prices and terms are out in the open and familiar to many curators, the distribution person does this stuff all day, etc. Artists can run their own shit, too, but why not let a professional do it?

In case it’s unclear, I think (and I’m betting everybody else does too) that you should absolutely get paid, and that this is a reasonable way to do it. This is all nitpicking at the borders.

Angelina Fernandez May 14, 2012 at 11:58 am

Aaa yeah I didn’t mean you shouldn’t get paid! I was just commenting on the VHS format being kind of lame, which is definitely nitpicking. I just wish there was a better way to preserve the youtube format where you would still get money– which…there probably isn’t. So it was more of a wishful thinking post. Sorry!

Nate Hill May 10, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Probably a political aspect involved in taking the partnership here and at the very least will expand Henolulu’s reach into the art world. Its all about who you know.

Jennifer Chan May 11, 2012 at 8:24 am

incase youtube pulls it off the web a la petra cortright and the rest of us who’ve “inappropriately tagged” our videos, there will be a very stable tape copy on some shelf in a distro centre. I don’t see anything wrong with that unless he starts restricting access to youtube vids just because there’s a more traditional format for distibution at eai

Corinna Kirsch May 11, 2012 at 10:57 am

Add to EAI’s list of ways to screen its videos (in addition to Betamax, VHS, and DVD): the internet. That way you’d get the complete “Art Thoughtz,” with commenting ability, and then there’s the video only “Art Thoughtz.” 

I’m interested in seeing what “Art Thoughtz” looks like when transferred to other media: just how grainy will they be? Even if YouTube vids aren’t great quality in the first place, they’ll end up losing integrity whenever there’s a transfer.

Paul Slocum May 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm

“Even if YouTube vids aren’t great quality in the first place, they’ll end up losing integrity whenever there’s a transfer.”

Why would EAI transfer from Youtube instead of from the original files that were uploaded to Youtube?  And it is actually possible to make a transfer from Youtube video without losing quality — use Download Helper to download the video file then transcode to a lossless format.

Corinna Kirsch May 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm

If there’s a magic way to make sure there’s no loss between all the different file formats EAI allows for in its rental service, please let me know. I didn’t think they’d take the vid from YouTube instead of the original file format. But this is something to ask them about. 

Paddy Johnson May 11, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I think we can assume that the number of people looking for VHS versions of Hennessy’s video (or most others) are pretty slim. 

Paul Slocum May 11, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Ah I misunderstood, but I think most of the media they distribute is less distorted from the original than Youtube transcoding since they’re working from the original files.

Corinna Kirsch May 12, 2012 at 11:30 am

Sorry about that confusion! ; )

Paul Slocum May 11, 2012 at 1:00 pm

I don’t really understand the general ongoing “this is weird” or “this is stupid” reaction to digital archiving of things that are online.  The Internet hasn’t been around that long and already tons of things I loved are gone from Youtube and everywhere else.  I think it’s short-sighted to assume that everything will be around and easy to access, and I’m glad that people like EAI, Rhizome, and The Internet Archive are thinking about and working on these kinds of archiving issues.

Rebecca Cleman May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I think the most interesting aspect of Will’s original post is getting a little lost in the confusion about image quality coming off YouTube and formats – which Paul has spoken to quite well.  I can confirm that EAI would be sourcing directly from Jayson’s master files, on a format that best suited the exhibition or screening conditions of the museum or cultural institution.  Truth be told, as Paddy points out, it’s pretty unlikely that anyone will see Art Thoughtz via VHS (and certainly not Betamax – sadly, they lost the format wars to VHS in the 1970s, that’s an interesting story unto itself) – but I’m kind of intrigued by the idea, considering the history of VHS in enabling the “at-home amateur professional” fostered now by YouTube and embodied in Hennessy.  

The question of what constitutes the actual “art work” is an important one and has precedents, especially in the documentation of performance art, but also in television interventionist projects such as those by Dara Birnbaum and Chris Burden.  When television becomes a weird relic- will viewers fully understand the impact of Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman?  

Speaking of this history, I think there’s room for Art Thoughtz to play in multiple spaces – both the open public space of YouTube, provoking one kind of response, and a targeted arts context, provoking another.  

And lastly – as great and unruly as YouTube is – it is an institution too, one that has changed significantly in the last few years, and will continue to do so (and I’m guessing, will get less unruly).  This institution, however, has no qualms about pulling down content if it impinges upon the interests of its corporate partners.  That’s not a great archival scenario on any level.

Will Brand May 11, 2012 at 7:23 pm

I think the “playing in multiple spaces” is interesting to consider both ways; at one point I was putting together a list of video artworks I could find on YouTube that didn’t make sense on YouTube (Maciunas’s “10 Feet” is way up there). 

The comparison to Dara Birnbaum and Chris Burden—I’d add David Hall!—is a good one; I’ve never seen any of their TV-specific works actually on TV, but I’m not super sad about that. They work as on-demand sections on a DVD, and that’s not the end of the world. Even within that, though, there are interesting gradations. Chris Burden has spoken about his TV pieces as him just wanting to be on TV, which is a kind of look-at-me idea that’s now a core part of how we use the internet (YouTube especially); I think you’ll probably always be able to ‘get’ that, in a sense. David Hall, on the other hand, was working specifically with the idea of interruptions and control, and in a context (1970s Britain) where there wasn’t really the option of changing the channel; that work’s force might be lost forever, now that we have so much more personal control over our media consumption. I can’t even begin to make the argument, of course, that Hall’s work therefore shouldn’t be preserved.

In any case, Art Thoughtz isn’t the work that breaks video as a medium. That said, it’s certainly coming; I look at videos by Petra Cortright, where both content and price are based on the piece’s presence on YouTube, or at Yung Jake, or at this work by Timo Bredenberg that draws on YouTube commenter culture, and I don’t know how we’d hold on to those videos without going online. I mean, is EAI even interested in getting into that area? Maybe it’d be best to rest on all those laurels. Shrug. 

PS- I just found EAI’s resource guide for ‘computer-based arts’ and I’m going through it now; I had no idea this was out there!

Helen Weaver May 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Jayson Musson is in his own right a genius. He has attracted the attention of both the   art establishment and the lay person and eventually this will pay of monetarily. What the EAI is doing is just a small blip on what will be Jayson’s career and you all are taking it way too seriously. Angelina, you are lame. At least stand by your comments “It’s a pity that he had to resort to” blah, blah, blah.

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