Art & Context – Reflections on the YouTube Sundance Channel

Art & Context – Reflections on the YouTube Sundance Channel

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In his 2008 Pullitzer Prize-winning article, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten posed the question of whether people would still react as if they were hearing something magnificent if world-famous violinist Josh Bell were dressed as a street musician and played at a D.C. Metro Station. (Short answer: No! One person out of thousands of commuters recognized him and less than a dozen stopped to listen to the music).

In his article, Weingarten interviewed the National Gallery Senior Curator Mark Leithauser who explained that art was all about context:

ellsworth-kelly“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”

In this analogy, one might liken YouTube to the D.C. Metro Station or the restaurant and the Ellsworth Kelly painting or the world famous violinist to the twelve shorts selected by the Sundance Film Festival from more than 8,100 submissions to be screened on the Sundance Institute’s “The Screening Room” Youtube channel this past month.

The Sundance Institute, primarily known for their annual lavish Winter film festival, has made it their mission to ‘advance the work of risk-taking storytellers’. But do these avante garde shorts clash a little too much with YouTube sensibilities?

Is YouTube The Best Context For The Sundance Channel?

I’m not gonna lie, I don’t get this!

Seraph, for instance, has just under 300,000 views to date and has a thumbs up/thumbs down ratio of nearly 2:1. Named after the literal version of an angel in Christian theology with fire and six wings, the animated story tells of a boy being told by his dad “It’s hard to get to a love, you can’t understand,” after which the boy walks through some form of paradise where he sees a naked man, cuts himself where images of eyes start appearing, meeting someone in a car with the scenery changing, and a final arrival in prison where he gets cut again. If this story doesn’t seem to have a narrative to you, a lot of the YouTube commenters concur. The two highest rated comments read: “Am I the Only one Who’s Kind of Creeped Out by This?” and “I’m not gonna lie, I don’t get this”.

It helps to know that film producer and chief animator Dash Shaw made the video as a response to the song by “sigur rós” but that’s only revealed in a video interview that comes from a different channel that isn’t linked to the main page at all.

As for the rest?

While a number of the other videos are a little more approachable, they tend to lack context and come off as esoteric projects designed more to show off the skills of the filmmakers than to entertain a general audience. One film “What’s in my pockets?” (150,000 views) espouses a snippet of profound wisdom about how perhaps the junk in his pockets will lead him to the perfect girl or perfect situation. His choice of animation is confusing. Not surprisingly,the top-ranked comment here is “I want to stab him a hundred times in the abdomen”

Of possible interest…

The Roper has around 126,000 views and is a quick 6-minute mini-documentary about a fish-out-of-water character who’s a minority in what he does (black, from the South) but pursues it (rodeo) with passion.

What do you think (answer in comments below)?

So while its probably true that Sundance gains a reputation for embracing new media through their channel, does that necessarily work for the film creators? Would they be better served by a dedicated environment where those who appreciate the avante garde would feel more at home? One where the viewers who leave comments have greater sympahy for their experimental efforts?


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