Just how long do I have to keep grinning? It is a question we often ask ourselves: craning over a colleague’s shoulder, squinting at a fuzzy two-inch square video clip on a computer screen of some overweight kid getting stuck in a fairground ride, our patience begins to wear thin. We laugh unconvincingly, struggling to conceal our true feelings. ‘Who would have thought it?’ we say. ‘That's a really great clip. Thanks. Really funny.’ Now can we get back to work?
Of course YouTube itself cannot be blamed for a tendency in certain individuals to exhibit a rather tedious sense of humour, nor can it be directly held responsible for the countless hours of office time wasted through endless circulation of its content. Whilst it is true that a well-intentioned visit to YouTube will often descend into nothing more than an obsessive pursuit of inane visual trivia, it does not necessarily need to. The content of the video-sharing website merely reflects the interests of its users after all. The ubiquitous online video clip surely deserves to be understood as something more than a meaningless diversion for idle workers and bored teenagers. Rational Rec’s Rational Review of 2007 sought to do just that by using YouTube as a vehicle for a socio-cultural review of the year.
For the event at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, three panelists – curator Lisa Le Feuvre and artists Russell Herron and Giorgio Saddotti – were invited to screen and discuss their favourite YouTube clips of the year. Russell Herron introduced his clip – an early television performance by Billy Bragg – with an entertaining story of his encounter as a seventeen year old with the singer. Already enraptured by Bragg's debut LP, the young Herron’s excitement was amplified when he caught sight of his hero outside a record shop in Cambridge. The floundering Herron approaches the singer with the greeting: ‘are you who I think you are?’ To which Bragg replies, ‘yes, I probably am.’ ‘I recognised you by your turn-ups,’ he continues, before Bragg utters the immortal response, ‘a nose like this and you recognise me by my turn-ups?!’ Herron’s touching reminiscence provided an affecting context for the clip, which was warmly appreciated by the audience.
Lisa Le Feuvre began with an admission of her personal dislike of YouTube clips, stressing how unfunny she almost always found them to be. There was one exception however: a clip of an adult panda being startled at the sudden and unexpectedly loud sneeze of its offspring. This one, she confessed, made her giggle uncontrollably every time she saw it; and sure enough when it was screened she duly accompanied the audience in hearty laughter. Le Feuvre’s second choice however betrayed a humour of a more troubling nature. The clip showed the bizarre spectacle of a vast courtyard full of Philippino prisoners dressed in identical orange clothing dancing in unison to the Queen rock classic Radio Gaga. It was undeniably hilarious, a classic piece of humour through incongruity; but as Le Feuvre pointed out, the longer the clip played the more we became aware that this was not an innocent and jovial performance at all – that in fact these men had been coerced into a wholly unnecessary and gratuitous act of humiliation.
Giorgio Sadotti’s choice of the final scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Eclisse was an attempt to illustrate the importance of context. Comprised solely of moody shots of buildings, trees, lampposts and passers-by, the sequence resolutely avoids depicting either of the main characters of the film. Deprived of any narrative interest our understanding is forced instead to focus on what is immediately present. Sadotti’s claim was that our appreciation of the scene’s visual richness arises from the same lack of context which allows us to enjoy YouTube clips. The more information we are given, he seemed to be saying, the less able we are to appreciate a clip’s visual or humorous content.
Given the panel discussion set-up of the event, we might have expected a slightly different level of engagement from that of pure enjoyment. But the brevity of the speakers’ introductions and the almost complete lack of discussion afterwards – perhaps a side-effect of Rational Rec’s characteristic balancing act of earnestness and irony – meant that the few glimpses of substantial content became rather flattened out in a YouTube-like jovial triviality.