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Online Video as Art (gasp!) & What This Means for Movement-Building

September 8, 2009

Picture 7Of all my beach reading over the Labor Day weekend, I was most impressed by Virginia Heffernan‘s new article “Uploading the Avant-Garde” in the New York Times magazine. Heffernan’s thesis that YouTube is establishing “a home for the vernacular avant-garde” is something I’ve been thinking about, especially in regards to video and social justice movement-building.

These days, you can’t help but hear that digital media technology is having a profound effect on our society: sectors from newspapers to photography to the movie industry are all trying to come to terms with the new emerging reality. Even so, some of the same old questions persist, like the place of “The Professional” vs. “the Amateur”. Some folks continue to see the superiority of professionally-created media. A few years ago I read Andrew Keen’s anti-internet screed, “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture” and found his observations interesting if not a tad alarmist. It seems to me that digital technology is here now and our task is figuring out to make the most of it. I’m not denying the important place of professionally-made content: I’m only saying that we should respect amateurs for the surprises they might have in store for us. ParadiseGardens

For example, whenever I bring up “The Academy vs. Folk Art” in discussions about user-generated digital video, I’m often met with puzzled looks. To me, it makes sense. Last summer, I made a pilgrimage to “Paradise Gardens“, the landmark built by renowned “outsider artistHoward Finster in Summerville, Georgia. Like many self-taught or naive artists, Finster was definitely seen as an howardphotooutsider, perhaps even a little nutty.  But Finster saw himself as a man of visions. When I walked around the weathered remains of his chaotic sculpture garden/art park, I found myself admiring this vision and the gumption that lead him to build such a place. Finster learned his artistic skills by simply making art. In much the same way, amateur filmmakers attempted to create celluloid versions of Finster’s Paradise Gardens. Not long ago, I read 17laverents190the obituary of Sidney Laverents who created a nine-minute short “Multiple SIDosis” that is now listed in the National Film Registry alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas.” (Note: I’m doing further research on more examples beyond white men: suggestions welcome…)

In the 21st century, digital videographers are also experimenting and learning while doing… but online. As Heffernan points out, “what’s surprising is how little the homemade videos [on YouTube] resemble the pro goods. Sure, there are parodies of mainstream clips here and there, but mostly the amateurs are off on their own, hatching new genres.” Just as Finster unwittingly created a new genre of visual art and Laverents extended our understanding of what is film is, we’re witnessing something similar happening online.

So what does this mean for movement-building for social justice? For one, we can all create and distribute media today like never before. Instead of geographically-specific art-sharing locations like Howard Finster’s art park in rural Georgia and Sidney Laverents living room, we now have the ability to share our social justice-themed art with lots more people… immediately. Of course, both men honed their technical skills over the years. Their successes created entirely new genres. In much the same way, videographers can create art… but it needs to be good: effective, compelling and interesting.

What excites me about video is that it is often collaborative. While it’s possible to make something on your own, the best video content always seems to come from interactive between people either in conceptualization, production and/or distribution. And collaboration, after all, is the cornerstone of civic engagement. It seems to me that if a group of people can see a video through to completion, they’ve learned something about collaborating, something that they can apply in their larger civic lives and social movements.

To quote Margaret Mead (as many have), “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Maybe we can add “…one video at a time.”

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