The biggest video-sharing website isn't just for lame home videos or amateur soft-core porn anymore: Local artists are using it as a new medium for what they're calling “X-stream Dadaism.” Local businesses and nonprofits are using it as a mass marketing tool, and other local YouTubers are documenting some pretty interesting things. Our time online looking through video after video has us convinced that there's a bit of a YouTube evolution going on in Internet land.
Mick Jagger's unmistakable voice spills out of the open windows of a quaint little craftsman in Normal Heights. His mournful “You can't always get what you want”s are so loud that doorbell rings are left unanswered. Minutes slide by before Dr. Niku pops out from around the corner of the house and leads the way to the backyard.
“Welcome to The Infinity House,” she smiles, her red cheetah-print dress, red leather tassels on her cowboy boots and silver antennas fashioned out of duct tape blowing around in the afternoon wind.
Chilling in lawn chairs around back, Niku's partners in the renegade YouTube art project, dubiously dubbed The Infinity Lab (and, no, they won't be using their real names), drink beer and tequila while waiting for the sun to hit the 4:34 mark on their homemade sundial—they've learned through numerous backyard moviemaking experiences that, in the summer months, the hours between 4:34 and 5 p.m. are best for lighting.
Dr. Cuddles with Cats and Dr. Hueso, also dressed in red with duct tape and tinfoil headdresses, giggle, sometimes uncontrollably, when they talk about their most recent YouTube venture, “Another Formulaic Kruger.” The two-minute-and-21-second video shows Niku and Cuddles dancing mockingly around an art installation by artist and onetime UCSD professor Barbara Kruger at the newly expanded UCSD Price Center while an intense soundtrack is interrupted by The Infinity Lab's voices repeating things like, “What are you doing to Barbara Kruger's stuff?” and “Oh my God, dude, did she just piss on the floor?”
After The Infinity Lab posted the video on their YouTube channel, just for good measure, they wrote a mock press release titled “Pissed Off Artists Allegedly Urinate on Kruger Art Installation” and sent it into the blogosphere. Sure enough, a few bloggers ran with it and, before too long, The Infinity Lab was being criticized as juvenile, disrespectful, sexist and even passé.
“They were saying, ‘It's inexcusable to pee on someone's work, but it's also soooo '80s,” Niku says, fiddling with her Sony camera in preparation for the day's shoot, which involves a huge handmade cardboard cutout of CityBeat's cover that they plan on filming themselves busting through.
“The funny thing is,” Hueso adds, “this guy put our video up on his blog, and people had already been debating the morality of people peeing on another artist's piece, but they have no idea if we actually did it—they just assumed.”
This isn't the first time the threesome—all of them daylight in art education to support their moonlighting YouTube addictions—have used the online video medium to pull one over on the art world. This spring, The Getty launched a Video Revolutionaries website in conjunction with California Video, an exhibition that showed from March through June. The Getty invited anyone and everyone in Internet land to submit videos. The video that was viewed the most would be screened at the museum's “Fridays off the 405,” an evening event geared toward the young hipster crowd.
The Infinity Lab submitted a few videos and pretty quickly found holes in the site's security. They figured out that they could increase their view counts by using a program that changed their IP address and then simply refreshing the page. A few hundred refreshed pages later, and The Infinity Lab managed to get every one of their videos rated as the most viewed. Just for fun, they scrolled the words “This is a digital hijack” across the screen at the beginning of each video. And for even more fun, the pranksters put together a parody video of one of the other entries that seemed to be getting higher ratings through cheating, too.
“We saw these two lame birds flying around on another submitted video and, instantly, we knew we had to do a parody of it,” Cuddles says. “So, suddenly it was a parody party and we were out in the backyard having fun making fun of the other entries.”
But before The Infinity Lab had time to post their parody video—which can now be viewed on their YouTube channel—the Getty's Video Revolutionaries site was shut down. Within minutes of that happening, The Infinity Lab got an e-mail from a Getty representative congratulating them for winning the contest.
When the screening rolled around, though, The Infinity Lab didn't quite get what they'd been promised. One of their videos, and not even their highest rated video, and a few other entries apparently chosen at random were screened at The Getty, but not in the courtyard with all the action.
“I got VIP parking,” Cuddles says, raising an eyebrow, “and I went up [to The Getty courtyard], where there was this big party with beer and DJs and stuff, but then they had this little sign that said ‘Video Revolutionaries,' with a little arrow pointing down. So you go down the stairs and around the basement, and there's this little room where they're playing the videos and there's, like, four people in there.”
“It was sad,” Hueso adds, cracking up, “but the whole experience changed the trajectory of our work.”
Now, largely due to the snooty treatment by The Getty and the fun The Infinity Lab found in parodying other serious artistic works, the artists' mission has become to use YouTube to poke fun at the blue-chip art world. Their hope is that people question the preciousness of artwork and get a good laugh while doing it. Artists like Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons are at the top of the list, and they've already targeted Kruger and Fritz Haeg, the latter with a video parodying the “Animal Estates” project that a group of self-proclaimed “environmental artists” did for the Whitney Biennial. The parody stars Cuddles talking about her super-important “Cat Condos” project; when you search Haeg's name on YouTube, Cuddles' clip comes up just a few lines under a legitimate video of Haeg talking about his project.
“It's extreme Dada,” Hueso explains, switching out The Stones for The Doors and cranking up “Break on Through.”
“The thing about YouTube is that it's kind of like the wild, wild West; it's ever changing [and] evolving. We're not even scratching the surface of what we could do. We're still completely underground, so to speak.”
Artists aren't the only ones finding creative new ways to use YouTube. A YouTube spokesperson says people are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day and uploading an average of 13 hours of video every minute. The spokesperson said that, as of early spring 2008, YouTube had the sixth largest audience on the Internet in the U.S., with 200 million unique users visiting the site every month. And those numbers aren't lost on businesses and corporations looking to target a younger, more Internet-savvy crowd.
In recent months, Ray-Ban and Levi Strauss have been adding their own content in hopes that the clips will spread organically across the web through e-mail and reposts on blogs. The companies use YouTube profile names like Unbuttonedfilms and Neverhidefilms, and the videos are more covert than traditional commercials, relying on silly stunts like someone backflipping into a pair of jeans and a guy catching a pair of Ray-Bans on his face. They rip off the DIY aesthetic of user-generated YouTube videos to avoid appearing too commercial. The brands' names are never mentioned or pictured in any of the clips—the objective is simply to associate the products with people we're supposed to think are cool or quirky.
Oreo has also joined the ranks of YouTube users, holding an “Oreo Moments” contest that asked other YouTubers to make and vote on videos involving milk and Oreos. The winner, which will be announced Aug. 26, wins a spot as the featured video on YouTube's homepage. With product-sponsored contests like this one, not only is Oreo geting a free commercial, but, in sifting through the entries to find their favorite, viewers are being exposed to hours of positive Oreo content.
Locally, Kenn Morris of Crossborder Business Associates, a company that provides market research, analysis and consulting for businesses and organizations interested in the U.S.-Mexico border region, recently used the YouTube-contest model to help Tijuana's Tourism Bureau spread a positive message about the troubled city. Last month, for Tijuana's 100th anniversary, Morris relied on local bloggers to get the message out about his company's YouTube contest, which asked users to make a video postcard wishing the city a happy birthday.
“There were ultimately seven entries,” Morris says, “which, given that we had only come up with the campaign 15 days in advance, I think that wasn't bad. And there's a lasting effect, too. Last week, we had about 1,300 to 1,400 views of that channel. One of the videos had been watched over 700 times. This was an experiment, but we're going to keep using [YouTube] to keep getting messages out, and our big message now is what people love about Tijuana.”
Nonprofits have caught onto the message-spreading prowess of YouTube, too. Invisible Children, a local nonprofit that started after three young filmmakers made a documentary about the plight of children soldiers in northern Uganda, still relies heavily on video as the main marketing tool. The group makes short films every two or three months and longer films every six months, and then uses YouTube and its own website as the primary distribution tools.
“It's been very grassroots and viral,” says Invisible Children spokesperson Carolyn Sams. “People will pass on the video or they'll watch the whole documentary, which is up on Google right now, and that's been the best way to get our story out there.”
Another way YouTube's been aiding Invisible Children, Sams explained, is a YouTube dance battle between Miley Cyrus and her cohort Mandy Jiroux and a young break-dancing crew put together by Jon Chu and Adam Sevani (directors of Step Up 2: The Streets). Sevani went to film school with one of the Invisible Children founders and is donating to the nonprofit all proceeds made from the sale of the T-shirts worn in the YouTube videos.
“So that's another funny random way that YouTube is helping us,” Sams adds.
With all the businesses, corporations and nonprofits using YouTube's services to push their products and messages, one might assume Google, which bought YouTube in 2006, might cut the companies off and start charging for some kind of corporate account. But it hasn't. User accounts remain free, and YouTube makes money the old-fashioned way—through advertisements. Partnering with bigger content providers, like The Associated Press, Sony Music Group and The Sundance Channel, as well as smaller content providers, mainly YouTube superstars like Cute with Chris, The Amazing Atheist and The Creative One—users who consistently make original videos that get thousands of views—YouTube shares ad revenue. The pitches appear as both banner ads on partnered YouTube pages and in the partner videos themselves as Flash overlay ads that appears 10 seconds in.
Partnered videos then get preferential treatment by showing up on the YouTube homepage under the subhead “Promoted Videos.” And for nonprofits, YouTube has set aside special nonprofit channels that allow for premium branding, increased uploading capacity and the option of appearing for free on the homepage as a “Promoted Video.”
“We feel like there's room for everyone,” said Kathleen Fitzgerald, a YouTube spokesperson, when asked if the jump in commercial uses of YouTube bothers the company at all. “It's part of our goal of democratizing content.”
The Average San Diegan
If you search for YouTube videos uploaded from the San Diego region, you'll get a bunch of crap. The average YouTube user is still stuck on filming family trips to the zoo or—more frequently—filming themselves and their friends getting drunk and high at house parties.
There's no good way to track what kinds of videos are being uploaded to YouTube, either regionally or internationally, because, as a recent lawsuit that Viacom, MTV and other litigants brought against YouTube made clear, YouTube does not monitor content. If, as the litigants asserted, a majority of uploaded content is copyrighted material, like clips of The Daily Show and The Simpsons, the YouTube powers that be don't know about it. They're only alerted if the videos get flagged, at which point they're taken down.
A quick search through San Diego's YouTube community leads to just a few evolved users contributing worthwhile original content.
User Stellabelle (real name Leah Stella Stephens) joined YouTube just three months ago but has already uploaded 22 videos that range from strange to interesting and informational. Using her little Nikon Coolpix camera, which is made for still photos but allows for short, low-fi video, Stellabelle has a knack for getting people to open up and perform for her. Her best works so far are the workout videos with Bob OverMyer, an 87-year-old character she found at the Solana Beach Street Fair getting down on the dance floor and putting all the surrounding young'uns to shame.
“I was, like, oh my gosh, who are you? What's your name?” Stellabelle recalls. “And I told him, ‘We're going to make workout videos that'll blow everyone's minds.'”
Another local group making potentially mind-blowing videos is SceneDiego, an improv group that does performances and pranks in public places. They film all their stunts in order to keep a record of their work and to reach a much larger audience.
“We put a lot of work into planning these things and the people's reactions,” says Agent Neil, aka Andy, a group founder. “We get a sense of happiness and laughter during the mission, but by sharing them [on YouTube], it gives them an entire second life, and people who weren't there get to experience it.”
Andy uploads more content than the average YouTube user, and, as he reticently admits, he probably consumes more than the average amount of YouTube, too.
“This is kind of embarrassing,” he says. “I just bought an Apple TV. Do you know what that is? It's kind of like an Internet cable box that you use with your TV, so I actually cancelled my cable, and with this thing you can watch any YouTube video and you can download any television show you want to watch through the iTunes store. So, a couple nights I've got home from work and just got sucked into YouTube, because you sit on your couch, and you're watching YouTube with the remote and the big TV, you know, and it's a much different experience than watching them on your computer screen. I do watch a good amount of YouTube, I guess.”
Back on the content-production side, Reviewer Rob, a local entrepreneur who runs a print quarterly magazine called Reviewer, uses YouTube to complement his writing. From interviews with adult-film stars to interviews with local bands and people like Tim Mays, owner of The Casbah and Starlite Lounge, and club promoter MayStar, he uses the video interviews to capture details for his print work.
“As a writer,” Rob says, “it's good to do a video instead of a taped interview because so much is communicated with body language and people's facial expressions, as well as the settings, and you just can't get that on a taped interview. Plus, you can take the information, a video that you use for the material in your article, and you can actually make a whole separate medium out of it; you can go from print to web and make a video feature.”
One thing all San Diego YouTubers seem to lack is a sense of community. The bigger YouTube stars like Cute with Chris often hear from viewers through response videos, which are like a reply e-mail, but in video form. Thus far, San Diego YouTubers are still making and posting videos without really interacting with one another.
Back at The Infinity House, after the crew filmed themselves in the cardboard CityBeat cover, Cuddles bemoaned the lack of local participation. “What I find to be the best part of YouTube is that response-video idea, because what it does is make this community possible. You see this link, you see that this is a parody of that and you see how everything relates.”
“Yeah,” adds Niku, “no one has parodied our parodies yet, but we hope they will.”
Oh, and by the way, the jury's still very much out when it comes to whether The Infinity Lab ever peed on anything.
On the web: www.youtube.com/theinfinitylab, www.youtube.com/tijuanabirthday, www.youtube.com/user/invisiblechildreninc, www.youtube.com/stellabelle, www.youtube.com/scenediego, www.youtube.com/reviewer.