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<nettime> Vernacular Video (expanded version), Tom Sherman 2008
Tom Sherman on Tue, 25 Nov 2008 15:16:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Vernacular Video (expanded version), Tom Sherman 2008

[Note: the following is an expanded version of "Vernacular Video,"
originally published in shorter form in Les Fleurs du Mal, issue #2,
Montreal, Quebec, September 2006; and is now in print in the Video
Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube, Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer
(eds.), Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2008.]


Tom Sherman <twsherma {AT} syr.edu>

Video as a technology is a little over forty years old. It is an
offshoot of television, developed in the 1930s and a technology that has
been in our homes for sixty years. Television began as a centralised,
one-to-many broadcast medium. Television's centrality was splintered as
cable and satellite distribution systems and vertical, specialised
programming sources fragmented television's audience. As video
technology spun off from television, the mission was clearly one of
complete decentralisation. Forty years later, video technology is
everywhere. Video is now a medium unto itself, a completely
decentralised digital, electronic audio-visual technology of tremendous
utility and power. Video gear is portable, increasingly impressive in
its performance, and it still packs the wallop of instant replay. As
Marshall McLuhan said, the instant replay was the greatest invention of
the twentieth century.

Video in 2008 is not the exclusive medium of technicians or specialists
or journalists or artists -- it is the people's medium. The potential of
video as a decentralised communications tool for the masses has been
realised, and the twenty-first century will be remembered as the video
age. Surveillance and counter-surveillance aside, video is the
vernacular form of the era -- it is the common and everyday way that
people communicate. Video is the way people place themselves at events
and describe what happened. In existential terms, video has become every
person's POV (point of view). It is an instrument for framing existence
and identity.

There are currently camcorders in twenty per cent of households in North
America. As digital still cameras and camera-phones are engineered to
shoot better video, video will become completely ubiquitous. People have
stories to tell, and images and sounds to capture in video. Television
journalism is far too narrow in its perspective. We desperately need
more POVs. Webcams and videophones, video-blogs (vlogs) and
video-podcasting will fuel a twenty-first-century tidal wave of
vernacular video.

What Are the Current Characteristics of Vernacular Video?

Displayed recordings will continue to be shorter and shorter in
duration, as television time, compressed by the demands of advertising,
has socially engineered shorter and shorter attention spans. Videophone
transmissions, initially limited by bandwidth, will radically shorten
video clips. The use of canned music will prevail. Look at advertising.
Short, efficient messages, post-conceptual campaigns, are sold on the
back of hit music. Recombinant work will be more and more common.
Sampling and the repeat structures of pop music will be emulated in the
repetitive 'deconstruction' of popular culture. Collage, montage and the
quick-and-dirty efficiency of recombinant forms are driven by the
romantic, Robin Hood-like efforts of the copyleft movement. Real-time,
on-the-fly voiceovers will replace scripted narratives. Personal,
on-site journalism and video diaries will proliferate. On-screen text
will be visually dynamic, but semantically crude. Language will be
altered quickly through misuse and slippage. People will say things like
'I work in several mediums [sic].' 'Media' is plural. 'Medium' is
singular. What's next: 'I am a multi-mediums artist'? Will someone
introduce spell-check to video text generators? Crude animation will be
mixed with crude behaviour. Slick animation takes time and money. Crude
is cool, as opposed to slick. Slow motion and accelerated image streams
will be overused, ironically breaking the real-time-and-space edge of
straight, unaltered video. Digital effects will be used to glue
disconnected scenes together; paint programs and negative filters will
be used to denote psychological terrain. Notions of the sub- or
unconscious will be objectified and obscured as 'quick and dirty'
surrealism dominates the 'creative use' of video. Travelogues will
prosper, as road 'films' and video tourism proliferate. Have palm-corder
and laptop will travel. Extreme sports, sex, self-mutilation and drug
overdoses will mix with disaster culture; terrorist attacks, plane
crashes, hurricanes and tornadoes will be translated into mediated
horror through vernacular video.

>From Avant-Garde to Rear Guard

Meanwhile, in the face of the phenomena of vernacular video,
institutionally sanctioned video art necessarily attaches itself even
more firmly to traditional visual-art media and cinematic history. Video
art distinguishes itself from the broader media culture by its
predictable associations with visual-art history (sculpture, painting,
photography) and cinematic history (slo-mo distortions of cinematic
classics, endless homages to Eisenstein and Brakhage, etc.).

Video art continues to turn its back on its potential as a
communications medium, ignoring its cybernetic strengths (video alters
behaviour and steers social movement through feedback). Video artists,
seeking institutional support and professional status, will continue to
be retrospective and conservative. Video installations provide museums
with the window-dressing of contemporary media art. Video art that
emulates the strategies of traditional media, video sculpture and
installations or video painting reinforces the value of an institution's
collection, its material manifestation of history. Video art as limited
edition or unique physical object does not challenge the museum's raison
d'etre. Video artists content with making video a physical object are
operating as a rear guard, as a force protecting the museum from claims
of total irrelevance. In an information age, where value is determined
by immaterial forces, the speed-of-light movement of data, information
and knowledge, fetishising material objects is an anachronistic
exercise. Of course, it is not surprising that museum audiences find the
material objectification of video at trade-show scale impressive on a
sensual level.

As vernacular video culture spins toward disaster and chaos, artists
working with video will have to choose between the safe harbour of the
museum and gallery, or become storm chasers. If artists choose to chase
the energy and relative chaos and death wish of vernacular video, there
will be challenges and high degrees of risk.

Aesthetics Will Continue to Separate Artists from the Public at Large

If artists choose to embrace video culture in the wilds (on the street
or on-line) where vernacular video is burgeoning in a massive storm of
quickly evolving short message forms, they will face the same problems
that artists always face. How will they describe the world they see, and
if they are disgusted by what they see, how will they compose a new
world? And then how will they find an audience for their work? The
advantages for artists showing in museums and galleries are simple. The
art audience knows it is going to see art when it visits a museum or
gallery. Art audiences bring their education and literacy to these art
institutions. But art audiences have narrow expectations. They seek
material sensuality packaged as refined objects attached to the history
of art. When artists present art in a public space dominated by
vernacular use, video messages by all kinds of people with different
kinds of voices and goals, aesthetic decisions are perhaps even more
important, and even more complex, than when art is being crafted to be
experienced in an art museum.

Aesthetics are a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty.
For the purpose of this text, aesthetics are simply an internal logic or
set of rules for making art. This logic and its rules are used to
determine the balance between form and content. As a general rule, the
vernacular use of a medium pushes content over form. If a message is
going to have any weight in a chaotic environment -- where notions of
beauty are perhaps secondary to impact and effectiveness -- then content
becomes very important. Does the author of the message have anything to
show or say?

Vernacular video exhibits its own consistencies of form. As previously
elaborated, the people's video is influenced by advertising, shorter and
shorter attention spans, the excessive use of digital effects, the
seductiveness of slo-mo and accelerated image streams, a fascination
with crude animation and crude behaviour, quick-and-dirty voice-overs
and bold graphics that highlight a declining appreciation of written
language. To characterise the formal 'aesthetics' of vernacular video,
it might be better to speak of anesthetics. The term anesthetic is an
antonym of aesthetic. An anesthetic is without aesthetic awareness. An
anesthetic numbs or subdues perceptions. Vernacular video culture,
although vital, will function largely anesthetically.

The challenge for artists working outside the comfort zone of museums
and galleries will be to find and hold onto an audience, and to attain
professional status as an individual in a collective, pro-am
(professional amateur) environment. Let's face it, for every artist that
makes the choice to take his or her chances in the domain of vernacular
video, there are thousands of serious, interesting artists who find
themselves locked out of art institutions by curators that necessarily
limit the membership of the master class. Value in the museum is
determined by exclusivity. With this harsh reality spelled out, there
should be no doubt about where the action is and where innovation will

The technology of video is now as common as a pencil for the middle
classes. People who never even considered working seriously in video
find themselves with digital camcorders and non-linear video-editing
software on their personal computers. They can set up their own
'television stations' with video streaming via the Web without much
trouble. The revolution in video-display technologies is creating
massive, under-utilised screen space and time, as virtually all
architecture and surfaces become potential screens. Videophones will
expand video's ubiquity exponentially. These video tools are incredibly
powerful and are nowhere near their zenith. If one wishes to be part of
the twenty-first-century, media-saturated world and wants to communicate
effectively with others or express one's position on current affairs in
considerable detail, with which technology would one chose to do so,
digital video or a pencil?

Artists must embrace, but move beyond, the vernacular forms of video.
Artists must identify, categorise and sort through the layers of
vernacular video, using appropriate video language to interact with the
world effectively and with a degree of elegance. Video artists must
recognise that they are part of a global, collective enterprise. They
are part of a gift economy in an economy of abundance. Video artists
must have something to say and be able to say it in sophisticated,
innovative, attractive ways. Video artists must introduce their brand of
video aesthetics into the vernacular torrents. They must earn their
audiences through content-driven messages.

The mission is a difficult one. The vernacular domain is a noisy torrent
of immense proportions. Video artists will be a dime a dozen.
Deprofessionalised artists working in video, many sporting M.F.A.
degrees, will be joined by music-video-crazed digital cooperatives and
by hordes of Sunday video artists. The only thing these varied artists
won't have to worry about is the death of video art. Video art has been
pronounced dead so many times; its continual resurrection should not
surprise anyone. This is a natural cycle in techno-cultural evolution.
The robust life force of vernacular video will be something for artists
to ride, and something to twist and turn, and something formidable to
resist and work against. The challenge will be Herculean and

Venturing into the Broader Culture of Messaging

The culture of messaging is transforming art into a much more extensive
social and political activity. The role of the individual artist is
changing radically as complex finished works of art are no longer widely
embraced enthusiastically by audiences. Attention spans have shrunk and
audiences want to interact with the culture they embrace. Audiences are
consumed by the compulsion to trade messages. Today, messaging is all
that matters. Instant messaging, voice messaging, texting, e-mail, file
sharing, social networking, video streaming and all manner of
interactive synchronous and asynchronous communication are the order of
the day.

The speed and pervasiveness of electronic, digital culture is erasing
the function of art as we knew it. The world of top-down,
expert-authored one-to-many forms of communication have given way to the
buzz of the hive. The broadcast and auteur models, where control of
content remains firmly in the hands of a few, have disintegrated.
Speaking horizontally, one-to-one or many-to-many, now dominates our
time. Our cultures are no longer bound together by the reception and
appreciation of singular objects of thought, but by the vibrations and
oscillations of millions of networked transceivers. Transceivers, those
devices for receiving and authoring messages, the video enabled cell
phones and laptop computers and PDAs with webcams, are erasing the
differences between artists and audiences as both move towards a culture
of messaging.

In the early 1960s the communications revolution, satellite-based
telecommunications, made it impossible to maintain an art separate and
distinct from the culture at large. Boundaries between art and the
broader culture simply broke down due to increased communication.
Abstract expressionism, the zenith of Clement Greenberg's high modernism
(art for art's sake) was crushed by a deluge of advertising imagery. Pop
art marked the beginning of the postmodern era. Postmodernism resulted
from a technologically determined collapse of the boundaries segregating
and protecting the art world from a broader culture dominated by
advertising. Chaos has characterised Western art ever since, as for five
decades we have experienced the relative freedom of an 'anything goes'
philosophy of expanding pluralism. Feminism and many previously
unheralded Others (and content in general -- the counterpoint to
abstraction and formalism) took their turns in the spotlight of a
postmodern era churned by the broad, alternating strokes of minimalism
and the ornate. The formal properties of postmodern art and culture
swing back and forth between the classic simplicity of natural forms
(minimalism) and the playfully complicated synthetic hodgepodge of
bricolage (neo-rococo).

If pop art essentially signified the big bang that commenced
postmodernity, an era characterised by cultural diversity and hybridity,
then we can imagine fragments of art mixed with culture flying away from
the centre of a cataclysmic implosion. The postmodern implosion of the
early 1960s resulted in an expanding universe where art and culture
mixed haphazardly. Art remained as a concept at the centre of the
postmodern implosion, recognisable only through art historical
references. Art was pure and identifiable only if it quoted or repeated
its past, an art history crowned by its highest order: abstraction - the
zenith of modernism.

The Second Implosion: Postmodernity Itself Collapses

We have now undergone a second, even more violent and gargantuan
implosion. The second postmodern implosion took place early in the
millennial decade: 2002-2005. The cultural debris of the expanding
postmodern cultural mix, the delightfully insane levels of diversity,
hybridity and horizontality characterising late twentieth century
culture and its fragmented, disintegrated pockets of contemporary art,
had reached a density and weight so disproportionate to the vacuum at
the centre of 'art' that a second complete collapse was unavoidable. In
other words, after five decades of relative chaos, postmodernity itself
has collapsed and imploded with such intensity that we now occupy a vast
cloud of cultural disorientation.

If this exercise in cultural cosmology seems unreal and strangely rooted
in a philosophical premise that art has an important function in
creating, remaking and even maintaining order in our increasingly
turbulent cultures, be warned that this text was written by an artist, a
believer in the value of art. Artists believe strongly that it is their
role to push cultures to change as a result of the imposition of their
art. Art is extreme, twisted, marginal culture; a minority report.
Artists believe they are agents of change and act accordingly. Artists
ask embarrassing questions. Artists are ahead of their time. By simply
embracing the present, thereby glimpsing the future, artists lead
audiences reluctant to let go of the past. The principle tenets of the
belief system of art are that art refreshes culture and somewhat
paradoxically that the history of art can anchor culture during stormy
times of disorder. We live in such stormy times.

Art is a belief system in crisis. At the centre of this belief system we
find art chained to art history, to times before the dominance of
computers and the emergence of networks and vastly distributed
authorship. We find contemporary art that finds security in looking like
art from the early to mid-twentieth century (modern art). While these
historical references have been stretched to the breaking point by time
and technocultural change, the broadest public persists in embracing an
idea of art that remains antithetical to television, radio, cinema,
design, advertising, and the Web. The Web of course encompasses all of
the media before it and stirs the pot to the boiling point with a large
dose of interactivity. Art at the centre necessarily acquiesces to the
parameters of art as have been defined by the history of art, refusing
to be corrupted by interactivity, but for more and more thinking people
art historical references are unconvincing and useless in the face of
our collapsing cultural order. These anachronisms are security blankets
with diminishing returns.

One thing for sure is that levels of uncertainty are up big time. The
speed and volume of cultural exchange is undermining the lasting impact
of 'original' ideas, images and sounds, and the economics of both
culture and art are undergoing radical change. In the millennial period,
everyone is looking for a foothold. Artists are just as uncomfortable
with instability as everyone else, but the prevailing myth has it that
artists seek and thrive on uncertainty. But there has to be some order
before artists can break the rules. Seeking order and security, artists
have been moving back and forth between two pillars of thought
throughout the five decades of postmodernity: 1) the history of art is a
source of order and content in a posthistorical era, and 2) culture in
the broadest sense (television, cinema, radio, newspapers, magazines,
music, the Web), has its own mind-numbing conventions in formulaic
programming, but provides access to broader audiences. Artists inhabit
and straddle these opposing, negligibly conjoined islands of form and
order and gaze at the turbulent universe swirling around, under and over

The Immediate Environment following the Collapse of Postmodernism

The immediate environment is a cloud-like swirl of fragmented particles
and perforated strips of culture and art. The second implosion has been
devastating; delightfully so if one is selling telecommunications
transceivers. Isolation and alienation must be countered by real and
potential social opportunities. MySpace, Facebook and YouTube come to
mind. Digital, electronic networks provide the only perceivable order
and stability in the immediate environment. Digital telecom is the
lifeline. This is ironic as digital telecom and the horizontal,
decentralised nature of internet communication has been the major factor
in eroding institutional authority and order. Museums, universities, the
press, religions and the family have all taken major hits. Internet
communication, while having tremendous advantages in terms of range and
asynchronous time, has serious shortcomings in depth, especially
relative to a physical social world. On the other hand, a physical and
social grounding through links with a virtual world are better than
nothing. Nature, we are told, is on its deathbed. The autonomy of the
individual has eroded psychologically to the extent that the body has
become a fleshy temple. We savour our food, go to the gym, have sex and
otherwise push ourselves physically, to the point of exhaustion, in
order to feel our bodies.

The current environment favours messaging, the propagation of short,
direct, functional messages. The characteristics of poetic art,
ambiguity and abstraction, are not particularly useful in a messaging
culture. We desperately seek concrete correspondences between our world
of messages and the physical realities of our bodies and what remains of
nature. While messaging can extend beyond our immediate physical
environment, the body must remain in contact with the earth. Global
telecom, the breakdown of space and time, is balanced by the emergence
of microregionalism. Cities are redefined as manageable neighbourhoods.
Nature is attainable in specific places; say a clearing in a wooded area
behind a graveyard. Messaging often coordinates physical meetings in
particular spots at specific times.

Messaging differs from industrial culture (cinema, television, radio,
newspapers, and the synthesis of these smokestack media through the Web)
in its pragmatic referencing of the body and specific locales. The body
is the last autonomous, 'original,' non-mediated physical object, at
least until it is cloned, and its geographical position can be tracked
and noted. A person, a body, may issue voice or text messages, but the
body is referenced physically by photography or video to create a sense
of the site of authorship. Messaging is tied down, given weight and
actuality through references to the emanating body. Disclosures of place
are also key to message functionality. 'I'm having a coffee at Starbucks
on Marshall Street. (here's my image to prove it) Where are you?' This
message from Starbucks differs from art and industrial culture such as
commercial cinema in its brevity and simple goal of placing the body.
Obsessive messaging interrupts longer, more complex objects of thought
like cinema. Movies, television and certainly literature are perforated
as audiences and readers are sending and receiving messages instead of
paying total attention, thus breaking the continuity of narratives.
Cultural objects are perforated by messaging, compounding their state of
fragmentation at the hands of advertising. Longer, more demanding
narratives are being blown full of holes by the apparent necessity of

Ambiguity and abstraction fare poorly under the siege of constant
interruption. Explicit, pragmatic short message forms, repeated for
clarity and effectiveness, may survive the perforation effect. This
perforation analogy can be used to describe consciousness itself in the
millennial decade. There is no such thing as an interruption anymore
because attention is defined through the heavily perforated veil of our
consciousness. We give away our attention by the split-second to
incoming traffic on our cell phones, PDAs and laptops. Our observational
skills have suffered as we have mastered multitasking. We now commonly
send messages while we are in the act of receiving information.

The millennial environment is strangely similar to a premodern
environment in that accurate description and literal representation tend
to rule. The authors of messages (texting, voice, e-mail, webcam, clips
for video file sharing networks) have short-term, clearly defined
goals. In this period after the collapse of postmodern industrial
culture and art the environment is 'stable' only in the sense that it is
unrelenting in its turbulence and incoherence. There is no room for
small talk in this kind of environment. The behaviour of other species
in environments and ecologies with high levels of uncertainty offers
insights into our current situation. For instance, scientists think that
birds only say two things, no matter how elaborate their songs at dawn
and dusk. The birds say 'I have a really good tree,' and 'why don't you
come over and have some sex?' Human messaging follows similar patterns
in terms of directness. I have a body and I am in a particular place.
Use your imagination to figure out why I am contacting you.

The medium of video, and in particular live, real-time video, is the
heir apparent to the summit of messaging. No medium establishes presence
and fixes position as well as video. The development and application of
communications technologies forced the initial collapse of modernism in
the early 1960s. The coming of age of digital telecom in the millennial
decade has created the conditions for an even more complete breakdown of
the meaning of industrial culture and art. We now navigate within a
thick cloud of shifting cultural debris, anchored by networks permitting
us to interact. Most of the messages insist that we exist and insure
that we can sustain ourselves (the business of water, food,
companionship, amusement, sex, shelter within the broader concerns of
economics and politics).

Given the reality and inevitable growth of such a culture of messaging,
there are questions we have to ask about the future of culture and art.
When will poetic work emerge again in a network-anchored culture
dominated by straightforward pragmatic exchanges? And if ambiguous and
abstract messages once again emerge, will there be anyone left with the
strength of attention to read them? And finally if artists cling to a
belief system that includes the potential for transforming culture
through autonomous, strategic interventions, then how will they do so
effectively in a culture of messaging that continues to diffuse the
power of individual messages in favour of an increasingly scattered,
distributed, collective authorship?


Note: Acknowledgment is due to the art historian Arthur C. Danto for the
clarity and utility of his analysis of postmodernity. Danto's After the
End of Art (Princeton University Press, 1996) served as a springboard
for my scan of the post-postmodern culture of messaging in 2008.

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