YouTubing the art world

imgres.jpgThe debut of Robert Knafo’s NewArtTV, which is dedicated to offering online streaming video coverage of exhibitions, gallery shows, artist interviews, art world events, etc., gives us an opportunity to take a fresh look at a persistent question: Just how does one “cover” visual art in a televisual format, be it web-based or otherwise?

We should note that Knafo’s enterprise is not the proverbial “first to market” here. Basel-based VernissageTV has been up and running since late 2005. LXTV, a more broad-based lifestyle site, offers segments on art and collecting. Both artinfo.com and artreview.com are ramping up their menus of streaming video options (full disclosure, I’m working on a project for the latter). More independently, James Kalm maintains a channel on YouTube where he regularly posts more guerrilla-style first-person coverage of shows and openings. And I’m sure there are more, both on YouTube and beyond.

NewArtTV itself seems to follow the format favored by PBS’s Art:21, the well-produced and thematically organized series that forgoes a narrator in favor of voice-overs by the artist alone. VernissageTV gives up on narration of any kind, offering instead only a steady stream of “composed” installation shots. True to the YouTube ethos, Kalm’s episodes tend towards running commentary with the “record” button pushed.

These are different approaches to be sure, but it seems to me that they are only beginning to scratch at the surface of the “coverage” question. What is more, we should probably also ask how streaming video, the new promised land of web-based content (as the current writers strike more than amply demonstrates) might alter the relationship between “coverage” and “criticism”—is there room (or rather time) for the latter in a YouTube world?

4 thoughts on “YouTubing the art world

  1. Before the internet I worked as a film critic and met all sorts of people at press screenings: reviewers from the metropolitan dailies and weeklies, feature writers for the cultural glossies, true believers with obscure academic or semiotic journals. There were also “entertainment reporters” who worked for radio, TV and celebrity gossip rags. The publicists who organized the screenings invited widely, because all commentary might prove useful to the film’s potential market. But I did notice that, if the film was a real stinker, and discerning critics gave it a unanimous thumbs down, the publicists could always fall back on certain “reporters”, who would obligingly supply some variation of “immensely entertaining” for the blurb sheet.

    This is not to disparage the burgeoning industry of art related streaming video, merely to hope that their efforts not be mistaken for art criticism. While offering compelling, intimate and immediate impressions, they do not approach the deliberate analysis, circumspection and authority of good art crit. Nor should they. In fact, the producers of these new sites might be the first to differentiate their enterprises from traditional criticism, in that the particular parameters and advantages of their medium are better viewed as original and unique rather than comparatively.

    In my brief experience, the sites vary widely in approach and coverage. I frequently click on James Kalm, whose absurdist ad-libbed recitative, hushed but informed off-screen commentary and jiggling hand-held camera are tantamount to an ongoing act of performance art. NewArtTV has a more “serious” persona, striving for the incontestable presentation of quality. Obviously Robert Knafo has been biding his time, accumulating content, so his site could seem to spring full blown with a large menu of choices. Most of the other enterprises fall somewhere in between these two poles — the extemporaneous/instinctive/Dionysian vs. the scripted/calculated/Apollonian. I look forward to the development of Jonathan’s artreview.com beta site, which hosts blogs, video and also has the MySpace orientation of Saatchi online (artists creating their own content and posting jpgs of work).

    The streaming video universe, especially in the domain of the fine arts, is young, confident and expanding. But perhaps we can agree on one thing? That it’s not a replacement for art criticism.

  2. In a survey that I once published at the National Arts Journalism Program, with the help of TV analyst Andrew Tyndall, we were able to demonstrate what everyone with a channel changer and a set top box already knew: Mainstream TV news basically ignores art, not to mention visual art.

    They key finding of that study was that in the 1990s, the evening news broadcasts of the major networks dedicated, on average, 30 seconds to arts and culture on a typical night. Mind you, that was arts and culture broadly defined. The biggest “arts” story of the decade was Michael Jackson’s sex life.

    So it has fallen on long-form TV and guerilla TV to cover the visual arts–with mixed results. I find that the Bermuda triangle of visual arts coverage oscillates between three poles. First, splashy PBS productions that function as vehicles for narrators who, shall we say, do not suffer from a deficit of ego and self confidence; these shows are ultimately about them. Second, ernest educational ventures, also destined inevitably for public broadcasting, that all too often lapse into political correctness and basically turn your living room into a classroom. Third, the groovy and nutty hangers on who go around galleries with their video cameras.

    The search continues for truly great arts coverage, and here we come to a paradox. If people have figured out how to make every conceivable sport TV-worthy–even snooker and poker–how come no one has managed to do the same for art?

  3. Almost forgot. I was part of an early art video effort. Horace Solomon (1929-2005), husband of Holly, co-founder of the Holly Solomon Gallery, a NY collector since the 50s, and a lively figure in Pop, Minimalist and Conceptual circles, started his Arts Video News Service in 1988, a subscription-based monthly service featuring reviews on art in New York galleries and museums. He kindly asked me to be a reporter, and I remember covering, among other things, a show of Peter Hutchinson at the John Gibson Gallery in SoHo.

    The approach was familiar from TV news programs: the camera moved around the gallery, there was voice-off commentary, and occasionally the reviewer became a talking head, sharing the screen with images of the art he discussed. The VHS tapes (this even predated DVDs) were sent to an audience of subscribers, mainly college libraries, museums and arts institutions. This distribution system seems quaint compared with the instantaneous access of broadband internet, but that’s how things were back then.

  4. James Kalm responds.

    First of all: many thanks to Misters Neil and Kaplan. It’s gratifying to realize that ones “peers” are aware of one’s work.

    As somebody who’s been engaged in the guerilla art TV scene pretty much by myself for the last year, I believe that this is just the beginning of a revolution that will change the face of art criticism forever.

    Although there have been precedents in video art coverage on public access TV for decades, the on-demand feature of YouTube and other internet based media, as well as the ability to instantly have input, provides viewers a more engaging experience, whatever they want whenever they want it. There will, no doubt, be a swarm of copycat and special interest programming that will pop up in the future, and, as with all media on the web, the viewer should beware.

    In the year since I began, I’ve been approached by other content providers (some mentioned above), and because of my personal style and ethics I’ve decided to remain independent, and woefully uncommercial. A constant question is: how to make this pay, or as Walter Robinson kindly advised me “You gotta have a business plan.” A glance at my view numbers, available on all YouTube videos, will tell you that this is still a very narrow interest demographic. Although I’ve been offered some meager remunerations (bribes) I, as Steve mentioned above, still consider the “Kalm Report” as part of a wider ongoing art project in which I’m endeavoring to document aspects of the art world that have remained invisible to the commercial media and academic discourse. This goes beyond focusing on just the artworks exhibited, but includes the people, venues, institutions and relationships that constitute the “real” art world. I’m constantly challenged to overcome the elitist mentality of exclusion and have made the “hidden camera unauthorized footage” a signature style device which distinguishes my work.

    Finally there is a democratic aspect to this approach to reporting that seeks, if not to over-throw the authority of the “critic”, then at least to provide opportunities for a wider spectrum of individuals to participate. I’ve been astounded by the penetration and reach of YouTube. I’ve gotten subscribers from every corner of the earth, and I encourage viewers to comment however pedestrian or erudite. This approach is in its infancy. I’m sure once we figure out how to turn a buck, the field will be swamped with imitators. In the meantime stay tuned.

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