A YouTube Theory of Montage

In her New York Times column “Pixels at an Exhibition,” Virginia Heffernan describes Rachel Greene’s “Artists Using YouTube,” an exhibit housed at the Kitchen gallery where Greene invited several artists to present and project selected YouTube videos. According to Heffernan, the catalog for the show suggests that YouTube provides the artists with “indirect fodder” for their own work. It’s an interesting idea, one that asks, as the Rhizome blog puts it, how “the memes incubated on YouTube are trickling down into the language of contemporary artists’ work and, in turn, re-emerging on the site.” It also invokes a difficult challenge: how does one represent YouTube? Or even one’s consumption habits? At the same time, the question–as it is posed here–seems to define YouTube in terms of its relationship to institutionalized art, which may very well constrain the cultural function of YouTube.

Like Heffernan, I found Sue de Beer’s collection to be the most compelling. De Beer starts with a clip depicting the ending of Fassbinder’s An American Soldier, follows that up with an (unsubtitled) interview with Coco Chanel, surveillance video from the Columbine shootings, and a scene from Houdini’s funeral,before concluding with “Footworkin,” a dance video shot in a Queens basement. As Heffernan points out, de Beer draws connections between disparate, seemingly unrelated videos. Heffernan goes on to add that YouTube should not be treated as “a nascent art form nor a video library but as a recently unearthed civilization.” Her comments here vaguely remind me of Benjamin’s approach to the Paris arcades, in which Benjamin sought to make sense of commodity culture through montage, through the connections between things. The attempt to create resonances between seemingly disconnected clips is very much in that spirit. Still, I don’t think we ought–as Heffernan seems to imply–to dismiss the “dime-a-dozen” clips. In fact, what seems missing from many of the curated clips is a true YouTube aesthetic. Other than the “Footworkin” clip, none of de Beer’s videos seem to have been made for YouTube, and while a clip of Coco Chanel speaking restlessly in her Paris home can tell us something about the dialectics of fashion or about cultural tastes, I wonder if these clip really tell us about YouTube’s cultural function, about the vlogs and mashups that seem like a key component of the YouTube aesthetic.

Update: Chris Cagle unpacks some of the ways in which montage works in mashup videos via a reading of Andy Borowitz’s mashup of Hillary Clinton’s now-famous New Hampshire campaign speech and an episode of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model.


  1. alex Said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

    Chuck, I think your thoughts about the KINDS of media deBeer selects to be critical. However, one key aspect of YouTube is that anything and everything is there, willy nilly. While I have argued that vlogs and corporate media are YouTube’s two strongest vernaculars, the random Fassbinder or Houdini, this detritus, is equally fondational and uncategorizable. This is not an “unearthed” civilization but rather mrely a more accessible one.

  2. Chuck Said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    I would agree that YouTube isn’t an “unearthed civilization,” but I wonder what it means to treat it like one, which is why I found Heffernan’s metaphor worth mentioning. I certainly agree that YouTube’s organizational system leaves a lot to be desired, but I wonder if it isn’t the job of the scholars and artists to create the categories that will make YouTube knowable, a process that would include recognizing the primary vernaculars that dominate the site (i.e., the vlog and the corporate media). And, of course, there are serious implications for the fact that YouTube, despite its populist self-representation, remains distinctly within the realm of the corporate.

    Then again, making “civilization,” to use Heffernan’s somewhat unwieldy term, more accessible potentially represents one step in the process of making it readable even if through lenses that are partially refracted by YouTube’s chaotic organization. I quite like the idea of YouTube “curators,” and wonder what we might learn from various attempts to represent YouTube via these various forms of montage.

  3. Dr. Strangelove Said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    Of course, the first that happens when a new media phenomenon roles across life’s stage is the scramble to find the right metaphor with which to describe the thing. Lost and rediscovered civilization — interesting.

    Nice addiction you have going here, Chuck. You make a very good point about Heffernan — that attitude towards pop culture forms is so last century (and very early last century at that). Heffernon sounds like a throughback to the Frankfurt school.

    I find it hard not to see an aesthetic that is particular to much of YouTube. I suspect that it will be mostly those protectors and gatekeepers of insitutionalized art practices that will deny that we are witnessing a new variety of nascent art forms. The labels will come later…

    You’ve been RSS’ed.

    Dr. Strangelove

    goes on to add that nor a video library but as a recently unearthed civilization.”

  4. Chuck Said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

    To be fair, I’m more than a little influenced by many of those Frankfurt School thinkers, Benjamin in particular. But the dialectic between art and YouTube (non-art? potentially art?), at least as it is presented here, needs to be problematized.

    That being said, I also wonder what it means to think of YouTube in relationship to art in other ways, especially when locating it as a site for “nascent art forms.” There are certainly a number of fascinating practices (political, aesthetic, etc) taking place on YouTube, and I’m intrigued by the processes of categorization–in fact I’m very much involved in that process, especially when it comes to “political” video–but I’m less persuaded by the desire to read YouTube in terms of art.

    Thanks for the kind words about the blog. I’ll certainly be RSSing you as well.

  5. Watching YouTube » Blog Archive » The Art of the Tube Said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    […] Chuck Tryon, an assistant professor of film and media studies at Fayetteville State University, suggests that vlogs and mashups “seem like a key component of the YouTube aesthetic.” Likewise, aljean has argued that vlogs and corporate media “are YouTube’s two strongest vernaculars.” […]

  6. Virginia Said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

    Many thanks, Chuck, for reading the column! And especially for the Benjamin comparison, which I have to take as praise. Thanks, too, for my new feeds: this blog and Strangelove.

    The figure of YouTube as an excavated archeological site is something I’ve been trying to get straight for some time (in a blog and in the column). My pages of rambling about it in this particularly column didn’t fit my 1200 wordcount–probably for the better. I do think we need a metaphor for a giant trove of artworks, many of them with 0 or 1 views, that have been as much found as made. YouTube’s vast inventory formed so quickly it was as if people around the world were sitting on libraries of zillion 2-minute videos they were itching to stash or present, or both.

    On the other hand, I think each video WAS made for YouTube. Maybe not shot for ite–but digitized, cut, titled, framed, and recontextualized for the community of YouTube. (Sometimes, say, they’ve been fashioned with a good midpoint image to load the dice for a flashy thumbnail.) The clips are fundamentally changed by virtue of having been uploaded to YouTube, rather than included in a documentary or even uploaded to Brightcove. In that way, the videos don’t seem like a new subgenre–like performance art or color-field painting–so much as the spoons and arrowheads that are tagged and bagged at an archeological site. (That tagging and bagging is analogous, I think, to the hugely significant work of the uploader. In response to Strangelove’s point that I’m claiming a special tastemaker role for myself, I actually meant that the YouTube aesthetic belongs to uploaders and commenters, and not at all to non-contributing viewers like me. I get my ideas about YouTube’s aesthetic entirely from reading titles, supplementary material provided by uploaders, and scrolls about scrolls of comments. Oh, and Frankfurt.)

    A lot of early critical work on YouTube is like Bernard Berenson/Renaissance painting stuff, i.e. attributions. Who’s “thewinecone”? Who’s “funtwo”? That kind of rote stuff is something that interests me — figuring out what we’re dealing with here, and getting some facts straight.

    You all seem like kindred spirits in the hunt for the YouTube consequences, or aesthetic, or principle of organization. . .Even though you found some of the column tripe, Strangelove, I hope you’ll consider commenting at themedium.blogs.nytimes.com. Or email me at heffernan@nytimes.com.

    Oy–sorry to ramble. Virginia

  7. Chuck Said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

    Hi Virginia, thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I’m glad to see this blog entry provoking such conversation. In my case, I think I was more skeptical of the framing imposed by the exhibit at the Kitchen than anything else, although I certainly appreciate Greene’s recognition that there is something of value to be gained by looking at (or maybe in) YouTube.

    I’m certainly fascinated by the “unearthed civilization” metaphor, although I’d stop short of the suggestion that this civilization was “already there,” waiting to be discovered. Instead, as you suggest here, it was created by the technological tools and the social framing of YouTube. And you certainly make a convincing case that all of the videos on YouTube were, in a sense, made for it due to the way that they are framed, titled, tagged, etc. There’s certainly a framing involved, one which makes the clips visible in a different way than if they were included in a documentary or whatever, and I am acutely aware of this framing whenever I teach film clips that have been anthologized by others to YouTube.

    I think I was simply a little disappointed that none of the artists focused on the genres that seem most explicitly tied to YouTube (fake movie trailers, political mashups, vlogs, etc). That being said, I do think the work of mapping YouTube is not unlike the work of the archaeologist–digging around in the dreck and detritus to try to make improbable and revealing connections.

  8. alex Said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 12:51 pm


    I’ve been calling that place of 1/2 views: nichetube. It functions by different rules and logic from its host, YouTube: a place of mediocre, mainstream, corporate fare organized by popularity and ad revenue.
    Nichetube works best when linked to other media platforms, as YouTube provides little a person who is looking for a small community of the like-minded might want.


  9. Chuck Said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

    I like the concept of “nichetube” as an alternative to YouTube, Alex, and I think you’re right to see it as made possible or linked to other media platforms, (I’m assuming you mean blogs, social bookmarking sites, email lists, or whatever, that provide better tools for self-organizing).

    In terms of the rest of YouTube (i.e., its status as a host for the mediocre, corporate, and mainstream), I find myself in the odd position of defending some of the videos. Not that I’d deny that much of it isn’t mediocre, banal, or whatever, and it’s certainly a site where vast media conglomerates can profit immensely. But I am interested in the processes that make it possible for something–a fake trailer, a presidential parody video–to go viral. I’m still trying to develop a better language for thinking about that, though.

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