FIVE YEARS AGO, music videos were specific things you saw in specific places. Working with music video meant engaging a big-budget, commercially motivated form that was strongly tied to the cable stations (MTV, BET, etc.) promoting it. Artists could be complicit with this structure, intervene in it, work alongside it, parody it, or deconstruct it, but, explicitly or implicitly, these acts were always undertaken with regard to this highly codified commercial system. It was a stratified relationship.
Today, discussions of who has access to technology aside, that relationship is far more level. Music videos are no longer about MTV: They’re about YouTube. With the exception of certain pay-for-placement programs—a special fee gets your video into a “promoted” section, for instance—YouTube treats all videos the same, whether they’re from a label like EMI or a guy with a guitar taping himself in his bedroom. And with few contextual clues, the online audience treats all videos the same: Be it a music video, a commercial, or a work of art, all viewers want is something to hold their attention.
While this leveling is utopian in some respects (“It’s like public access that actually works!”), it also puts artists working in music video, or any other pop form that’s prevalent online, in a tricky position. They’re no longer working in relation to a singular commercial form; they’re working in relation to a constant and rapidly changing dialogue of videos, remixes, sharing, and commentary. In addition, many of the strategies artists have traditionally employed in the critique of culture—amateurism, appropriation, and humor—have become the customary language of YouTube and Internet culture. While the democratization of these techniques also seems utopian, with their spread comes their adoption by the very culture they were initially employed to critique, which brings their efficacy into question.
As an artist, I’m not sure how best to negotiate this new landscape. One option is to make work that takes up these new relations as its very subject. Another is to fully embrace the messiness, putting work online and allowing it to be read (and misread) as part of the Internet dialogue. Yet a third option is to distance one’s work from the mutability of digital media and single-channel video entirely, taking up forms that require a physical, and therefore more controlled, engagement—installation, objects, performance, etc.
I’ve tried variations of these approaches in my own work. For instance, my videos Chapters 1–12 of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet Synced and Played Simultaneously  (whose title speaks for itself) and Subterranean House (Oonce Oonce)  (which digitally re-configures Bob Dylan’s famous music film for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as an endless loop with a house beat and a single onomatopoeic cue card) were designed to dovetail simultaneously with Internet culture and the preexisting threads of video art. Both works are distributed online as well as shown in traditional art settings, each audience bringing different associations to the work. Much of my work in animation, on the other hand, has focused on reconsidering Internet and digital aesthetics outside the framework in which they are normally viewed: a lone person sitting at a computer. With these pieces, the controlled physical engagement of the gallery is part of the project.
Perhaps more than suggesting a specific strategy, this new set of conditions simply requires that artists—and not only those working with music video but those working in all video, as well as images, sound, and text—fully consider the context and distribution of their work, integrating into their practice an awareness of what’s happening online. This doesn’t mean making paintings of chat rooms, but rather recognizing how the Web has changed (and continues to change) the way much of society thinks about media, information, and social relations. Perhaps ultimately, surfing the Web has become as necessary and fruitful an engagement with the world as opening the newspaper or taking a walk.
Michael Bell-Smith is a New York–based artist.
Artforum invited Michael Bell-Smith to select several videos to accompany the reproduction of his article online. Below are some of his choices along with his commentary.
Oliver Laric’s 50 50 cuts together fifty home videos of people rapping along to 50 Cent songs—all culled from online video-sharing sites—into a cohesive music-video-style montage. While it touches on a variety of themes, the video’s main subject is the very role of music video in a culture with sites like YouTube.
An amazing example of where music video is today, the first version of Diddy’s “Swagga Like Puff” is a single camcorder shot featuring the millionaire rapper/entrepreneur eating cereal, shilling his brand of vodka, dancing around the room, and occasionally lip-syncing a lyric—but mostly just sitting there listening to his song. The video’s second version isn’t much more elaborate: five minutes of shaky footage of Diddy and Co. cruising alongside Central Park in a Jeep. Either clip would make perfect sense on the video blog of a bored (and perhaps rich) college kid, and yet they come courtesy of a rapper who was ranked No. 33 on Forbes Celebrity 100 in 2008. Compare and contrast with the glossy, big-budget videos Diddy (then still Puff Daddy) was making with Hype Williams in the ’90s, videos that defined the look for that period of hip-hop.