How the Guggenheim’s “Play” Failed

The Guggenheim's interior during the Play opening event

The first offering of the Guggenheim’s Youtube Play biennial kicked off with a lot of spectacle, not limited to a ladder-perch musical performance by Ok Go and a stage setting more suited to a television show than an art exhibition. From the emcee to the nightclub vibe, this was no normal biennial. In fact, judged as an art exhibition, I think Play was a failure.

However, that doesn’t mean the whole event was a failure. In evaluating Play I think we have to first carefully state our terms- what we’re judging the show as and what we’re judging it against.

Play lasted three days (October 22-24th) at New York City’s Guggenheim homestead, encompassing an opening event on the 21st, video projections on the museum’s facade, and a more traditional exhibition in the museum’s galleries. The stated purpose of the whole shebang was to display “a selection of the most unique, innovative, groundbreaking video work being created and distributed online during the past two years,” according to the Guggenheim’s website.

The conflict for me comes between Play as a trade show and as an art exhibition. Reader Sean Capone commented on our earlier Play roundup,

Maybe it’s not bad that it wasn’t just the kind of videos you see in the Whitney Biennial and whatnot. There are a lot of ‘creators’ that deserve attention.’Creators’ was the homogenous term that these design conferences started using to encompass the web/animator/filmmaker/design professional demographic.

Play didn’t exactly play to the art world’s standard definition of video art. The videos highlighted by the exhibition were glossy, produced works that had more in common with multimedia advertising than, say, Bruce Nauman. Likewise, the exhibition itself lacked an art historical context- no explanation of where the YouTube videos fit in to the history of “video work,” no placement in a continuum. Rather, the YouTube videos just existed by themselves, products of the new media culture that Capone refers to as made up of “creators” rather than artists.

I like the idea of an overview of this new media world, though. Despite the fact that it’s not a traditional biennial and the work isn’t displayed exactly as art is usually, I think we need a way to marshal the new media world, be it fine art or not. A roundup of the anarchic world of internet media every two years would be much appreciated, but I hope the event can develop a greater dialogue and exchange with the art world.

The distinction is similar to the one between design and fine art. Not being able to tell if a piece is advertising or art isn’t exactly an asset, and though the YouTube Play videos are excellent examples of contemporary media, fun to watch, shiny, viral, they don’t all qualify in the world of video art. The Guggenheim doesn’t do design conferences, they do art exhibitions, and it was clear that this one wasn’t up to the standards of curating, contextualization or research that the museum usually holds.

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