Kevin Buist, ArtPrize’s Director of Exhibitions andSarah Urist Green, Curator and Creator of PBS show The Art Assignment discuss all things vlogging, audience engagement and breaking the law...
Kevin Buist (KB): I was hoping you could start with a little bit of background about The Art Assignment? How did you go from being a curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to doing this PBS Digital show?
Sarah Urist Green (SG): I was sitting in a lot of museum meetings where people were talking about engagement and how to engage with younger audiences, and I just couldn’t silence the inner voice that was telling me that it was worth a shot to go to where people already are. I love museums, I loved working in a museum. But I couldn’t resist the urge and opportunity to try something new, and that was to try a web series.
That was in no small part motivated by my husband John Green’s internet presence. Through him I had a glimpse of this extremely rich, engaged, intellectual online world, and the potential to reach this audience and to share the gospel of contemporary art was too great an opportunity to ignore. So then I formulated the concept of The Art Assignment, which is to approach artists working around the country and ask them to develop an art assignment for the audience. Then we create an under-ten-minute video with them that presents that assignment, and then it serves as an open call for people around the world to respond and to post their responses to social media platforms with #theartassignment. I pitched the idea to PBS Digital Studios, they loved it, and now we’re a year-and-a-half in.
KB: That’s awesome. So John and his brother Hank… they’re pretty much pioneers right? Some of the early internet personalities. And there’s this thing where they would call you the "Yeti" because you would never appear in the videos—you were sort of a mythological creature. Were you resistant to appearing on camera, or was that sort of an accident, the fact that they were doing it and you weren’t?
SG: John and Hank started their video blog [Vlog Brothers] in 2007 when I was still finishing up my masters in art history at Columbia. I was applying for jobs and, at the time, was a bit resistant to social media. So I made the decision in 2007 to not be part of his videos, but I had no idea it would go on for so long. Flash forward many years and I definitely wish I had just appeared once or twice in his videos early on, not because it bothers me to be called the Yeti, but because it made a bigger deal of my anonymity than I cared to make.
When we started to develop The Art Assignment, I wasn’t keen to be on camera at all. As a museum curator, I was content to be behind the scenes and to introduce the artists. And that is basically what I do now, just in front of more people. We decided to include me because Internet video tends to be more successful when there is a consistent personality behind it. We made that decision consciously, to do our best to create a community of people interested in art, and that’s why I’m there. So it was a great sacrifice I made to exit my private Yeti-dom.
KB: It’s interesting because—and John was one of the people who sort of engineered this—there’s a very particular aesthetic that exists in web video that didn’t exist in video before, or film before that. It’s a new thing, and it seems like there is a realization that if you’re going to operate in web video, then it has to feel and look like web video.
SG: I kept thinking to myself when I’d watch online video about art that most people making it didn’t get the pace right. And it’s not because young people and people who live on the internet have no attention spans—I don’t think that’s it. They’re watching it at their desks, on their phones, and it’s just a different way to view media. If you’re at home watching an art documentary on a larger screen, and you’re leaning back, and you’ve got a glass of wine—that’s a completely different viewing experience than watching on a small screen. So one of the goals of The Art Assignment is to see how art video could function at YouTube’s pace and style.
It’s always a balance because the conventions of art video are very much ingrained in me. The way you present an image, and how it cuts in for detail, and the way the artist is interviewed looking far off, documentary style, with long pauses and slow music that makes you think that they’re geniuses. Which artists are. [Laughs] But I don’t think it furthers the cause of art education to present artists that way. So we strive to strike a tone that inspires people to be interested in the artist and their work in a genuine way, and to present the artist in a flattering light, but that also acknowledges that people today consume media in a vastly different way.
KB: Video blogging is only one of a number of new media experiences that have emerged in the last decade or so. Do you think that’s pulling the contemporary art world in a certain direction? Do you think it’s having a reciprocal influence? Or do you think it’s just limited to a platform for communicating what artists are doing?
SG: I don’t think the art world really pays much attention to online video culture. I think there are several museums that are innovative with art video. MOCAtv is awesome and very innovative. Tate does great online work as well, along with a handful of other institutions. But for the most part, most people in the formal art world aren’t really thinking about it.
And I don’t think there’s a tremendous number of artists—art-world artists—who are engaging with online video. Although it’s definitely growing. Cory Arcangel has been doing really interesting things engaging with the internet world for a long time. And I can see the YouTube aesthetic in Ryan Trecartin’s work as well, but he was making those before YouTube had emerged in full force. But I’m excited to see how it unfolds. I think there are a lot of makers online who don’t intersect at all with the fine art world, and who are making interesting things. Which artists do you think are making work that is informed by online culture?
KB: Hito Steyerl is somebody that I like a lot. She just did this video in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that integrates viral YouTube dancing videos and a lot of other stuff. And it’s really smart, it’s really good. So she’s somebody who’s figuring that out as well. But I think that for the most part, to be honest, I would have to say that internet video is an enormous cultural movement that—in a century the importance of it will be quite clear. The majority of the contemporary art world is letting it float by. They’re like, "We’ve got a website. We’re doing it."
SG: Yeah! Hire some interns to make some videos, and be surprised when they get no views. Tameka Norris, one of our Art Assignment artists, did a great series of confessional-style videos while she was getting her MFA at Yale. It would be sort of an end of semester confessional where she would be this character who was this Yale grad student who was venting about her upcoming thesis show or what-have-you. They’re very funny, and are extremely reflective of online video conventions. It’s happening. We just have to wait a little until it filters into the upper echelons.
KB: Back to The Art Assignment. You’ve done it for a year and a half. Has your approach to it changed at all since you began? What have you learned about doing it through doing it?
SG: I am so much more attuned to the audience than I was at the start. The concept of The Art Assignment is about being as empathetic towards the audience as possible. In my museum work, I was certainly aware of the audience: I intersected with them, I gave tours, wrote blog posts, and made videos. But now I interact with our audience every day and on a deeper level. I read and respond to YouTube video comments. I read and answer tweets. I look at their work and respond to it on Tumblr. If I get something wrong they tell me right away. If they don’t like something, they tell me right away. In general, they’re very respectful, which is critical for me. If the level of discourse went south I don’t think I could continue. But I feel like I have a much better sense now of what they will respond to.
Our assignment with Fritz Haeg was to make a rug—taking old t-shirts or textiles from around the house, ripping them up, and using a particular technique to make a hand crocheted rag rug. And I thought, who’s going to be able to do this? I could barely understand how do it. But there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have made these rugs and posted them online. So in that instance, it tapped into an existing internet culture of makers and DIY and crafting that have very healthy presences online. Now I think, of course that did really well. And so now when I’m considering artists for the show, I think about who might be a good art world person to tap into existing maker communities online?
KB: Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. What are you able to do with The Art Assignment that you couldn’t do as a curator, and what could you do as a curator that you miss now and can no longer do?
SG: So I’m not sure in which category this falls [laughs], but I have to work at a much greater pace. Something that I really like about this job is we make a new video every week, so I can’t overthink things. I can’t turn something over and over and over, and fret about it and get hung up on a particular detail. I just have to do the research as best I can, have faith, and put it out there. While I do miss the deeper research aspect to my museum curatorial work, it’s a good stretch for me to say, today I’m going to write a script for a one-minute animation about the artist Rebecca Horn, and how it relates to an upcoming assignment. I know Horn’s work, but I’m not super fresh on the material, so today I’m going to do my research, write the animation, record the voiceover, and send it off to our animator in New York. And then she’s going to make this super rad animation from it in short order.
I do miss the completion aspect of putting up an exhibition. I get that a little bit with putting up a video. When you’re working at a museum as a curator, you work on something for years, and then you have this exhibition and it’s done. That whole cycle for me is greatly condensed now. There are good aspects of that and bad. But I appreciate both sides.
KB: Yeah. I just watched the “Please Break the Law?” episode of The Art Assignment that you did, which I thought was really fascinating. Could you talk about that and summarize it for people that haven’t seen it? What led to that?
SG: The subject came up because one of our very first assignments was with Chicago-based artist Deb Sokolow, and her assignment was to do a stakeout and document what happens. So she instructed people to put out some sort of object of intrigue, and hide while watching what happens as people interact with it. It brought up a lot of interesting conversations about privacy and about your rights in public space, and whether it was ethical to photograph people without their permission, or make videos of them. This was one of the first videos, and it was really fulfilling for me to participate in this conversation and to say, hey, the way to execute this assignment is completely up to you. Some people drew what happened. Or they made a comic of it, or they showed it from a great distance, or showed people only from behind. A few people made written accounts. They didn’t feel comfortable taking pictures or video.
In the follow-up to that, I started jokingly reminding people to please don’t break the law. Mostly because I didn’t want us—The Art Assignment or PBS Digital Studios—to be liable if someone did something irresponsible. But it became a recurring joke, and several in the audience started lobbying for "Please don’t break the law" to be our sign-off, because we don’t have a sign-off [a YouTube convention]. But I didn’t feel comfortable with that because I think there are perfectly good reasons to break the law. There’s a history of law-breaking in art, so I made a video “Please Don’t Break the Law?” that talks about Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot and others who have broken the law as political action and as art. It completely quieted the debate about the sign-off.
KB: How would you describe your target audience?
SG: My target audience is wider than my actual audience. My actual audience mostly follows the demographics of YouTube, which is primarily ages 18–24, and then the next highest group is slightly older than that. We do skew towards more of a female audience, and I don’t know the reason for that. We have an international viewership, which I am heartened to see. And we’re growing. More and more people consume media online, every week, every year, and while the YouTube audience tends to skew younger, that will change as those people grow up. My target audience is everyone. And it’s not like I think that I’m going to reach everyone, because I know that not everyone is interested in art. But it’s my strong desire to show people—all people—that art being made today is relevant to our lives. I like the platform of YouTube because it’s truly the most accessible. It’s not available in some countries due to censorship, and some schools don’t allow YouTube in the classroom. But in general, YouTube is where the highest number of people can freely access the widest range of content.
KB: How optimistic are you about the Internet democratizing access to the arts? The show comes off as being very positive, but it kind of has to because that’s part of the tone that’s required for excitement and attention.
SG: It’s hard to say. The Art Assignment exists at a particular moment in time with the knowledge that there is very little art-related video on YouTube. So it’s filling a role for this moment. What I hope is that the formal art world becomes accessible. And I think the Internet is an amazing tool for that. But I don’t think it’s just about museums making websites and having Twitter accounts. I think institutions have to be increasingly experimental to try to figure out how they fit into that. How do you approach that with ArtPrize?
KB: ArtPrize is a digital native institution, in a way. For us, it’s entirely the opposite concern than a museum that has been around for a century and has a building and a collection, and suddenly has to be like, "How do we use the internet in an innovative way to market and educate?" ArtPrize began on a whiteboard. What could we do? It was very much empowered by that open, democratizing force of the Internet. Everybody could have a vote and their voice could really count in what’s happening. When we started in 2009, it was a particular moment. There were these waves of optimism and then pessimism around what the Internet can do. And I think far beyond art, in terms of politics, like the 2008 election and the Arab Spring. You can’t think about the Arab Spring now the way that we did in 2011, because of how those protests evolved into civil war in Syria. You know?
There is a very practical sense that what ArtPrize does simply would not be possible without network technology. The public vote, the scale, the speed at which we do it—we could not have done it a decade earlier, or even five years earlier. The decentralized way that the exhibition is curated is entirely empowered by the technology that we built. Which is exciting and I think that’s a real difference and a real change. But I think even with myself and my colleagues… it’s easy to drink your own Kool-Aid, and be like, "We’re changing the world!"
SG: When some of those centuries-old museums opened, they were super innovative. How do you remain relevant? It’s a tough question. I have a lot of sympathy for museums. I went this direction, and I’m not saying that I’ll never go back, but I think that my outlook will be forever changed because of this experience.
KB: Yeah. You’ve probably studied the history of museums and exhibitions. We have this sense that museums are eternal and they’ve always been around. But that’s not true at all. They started out as particular colonial enterprises, and they were largely private. There was sort of a revolution when people asked, "What if we just let anybody in here?" and people freaked out. They said, "The working class will come in a break all this stuff!" But now we understand that museums are public trusts.
There are always certain institutions that respond to each historical moment, and if you think about it that way, the idea of a decentralized annual art competition or web video series… those can be institutions, too. I think of ART21 that way, too. ART21 has been around over 10 years, it’s starting to feel like it has always existed. But it’s actually an innovative idea.
SG: Right. What does ART21 do next? It has to evolve. When you were talking, I was thinking about Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s "Learning to Love You More," which was a big influence for my creating The Art Assignment. And when they started it in the late 90s they had a website where you could upload your responses to their assignments. But the Internet wasn’t the place it is today. I wanted to see how related art challenges might fare in today’s online environment, capitalizing on where and how people are communicating at this moment.
KB: How do you stay connected to what’s going on in the art world, living in the Midwest?
SG: I made a video about this actually. Of course I did, because I make a video every week. It is titled “How to Learn About Contemporary Art.” I don’t think it’s easy to stay current with what’s going on with contemporary art anywhere you happen to live. The field is so big and so diverse. If you live in New York or London or LA or Berlin or any art center, there’s a lot more opportunity and venues to go see work. But the truth is that a lot of people there don’t take advantage of that. My approach is to be as aggressive as possible when I travel, to see as much as I can, and to do a lot of research online. There are a lot of ways to learn about contemporary art online. And you do the best you can. You learn to be open to art experiences in places that are not the center. You certainly know that—you live in Grand Rapids.
KB: Yeah, I know. I would say all the same things. And when I do get to those bigger art centers, I tend to see shows a lot faster than I would like to admit because I try to get a lot in, which sort of does a disservice to the work. I’m just sort of running through the Whitney Biennial or whatever.
SG: I like to be able to retreat to a non-center and think about it without having my judgment clouded by the official scene. I feel like when I do go [to major art centers], I have a bit more perspective. I’m excited because I love seeing art, but I’m also not thinking as often, "oooh that artist is only doing that show because they’re friends with the curator."
KB: What’s an exhibition that you’ve seen recently that’s moved you or surprised you?
SG: The most recent thing I saw was a Michelle Grabner exhibition that just opened at the Indianapolis Musem of Art. She did this amazing platform of her paper weavings, which she’s done before, but it’s the largest one to date. And it includes a new series of paper weavings for Indianapolis that use the spectrum of colors of the rainbow. It’s very sly commentary on the recent LGBTQ discrimination debacle in Indiana. So, it was a way to express her and the museum’s support of the LGBTQ community here in Indianapolis and everywhere. I was moved by that.
KB: So I know you haven’t been to ArtPrize yet, but what’re you excited about, or what’s interesting to you about it?
SG: The construct of it is fascinating to me. The democracy of it I think is absolutely vital to the future of art. I am amazed at what ArtPrize has done to involve the community of Grand Rapids and beyond, and to get them to really care about art, and to demonstrate that their voice and opinion matters. I hear all the time from people who look at art and say, "I like it or I don’t like it, but I’m not a fair judge." And I always say, "Yes, you are!" You might not have a formal art education, but your opinions are valid. I’ll tell you why I think it’s interesting and worth your consideration, but ultimately it’s your call and you have the right to think it’s good or bad. ArtPrize provides that opportunity and underlines the opportunity that everybody already has. So, I’m excited to see it in person and to see the democracy play out.By Kevin Buist on