Fleeting Youth, Captured in YouTube Videos and Modeling Photos

A blanket from "If I Die Young" — "H.M.M." (2013) (All photos courtesy 319 Scholes)
A blanket from “If I Die Young” — “H.M.M.” (2013) (All photos courtesy 319 Scholes)

Over the past few years, 319 Scholes gallery in Brooklyn has played host to a slew of excellent group shows featuring emerging artists working with the internet and digital technology. The space doesn’t usually host single projects, but their next exhibition will change that. Curated by art critic Gene McHugh, If I Die Young is an installation by artists Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski that appropriates videos and photographs from the internet to investigate the fleetingness of youth as caught through online artifacts.

If I Die Young is composed of two sections. In the front gallery, 12 speakers will play YouTube covers of the Band Perry’s “If I Die Young,” a recently popular country song that has become a meme for young girls to cover and post online. Ten custom-made, monochromatic twin blankets will hang in the rear of the space. The color of the blanket is determined by taking the average color of various images from child modeling agencies found online and then sticking the agency’s watermark over the resulting hue, which ranges from blood red to pale pink all the way to black.

In an email Q&A, I talked to McHugh about how the project came to be and what the meme of YouTube song covers means. Hyperallergic is also happy to debut some of the blankets (see above and below) before the show opens tonight at 7 pm. Also, check out the artists’ preview site for the exhibition.

Blankets from "If I Die Young"
“” and “kinderschüle” (2013)

Kyle Chayka: How did you originally discover the work of the two artists, Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski?

Gene McHugh: Another artist told me about Bunny’s work in, I think, 2010 and said she was doing a totally different type of thing, which turned out to be true. I think it all starts from her website, Before I saw the projects, that domain name seemed so dead-on to me. It was beautiful and mysterious, but sort of funny. Like if you spend a lot of lonely time surfing around online, you come across these weird ‘.ru’ websites. And ‘meryn’ was from fantasy novels or something, which also seemed such a totally perfect encapsulation of the kind of stuff that you see on the internet. And then when you went in, the main thing at the time was her collection of ribbons — breast cancer ribbons, AIDS ribbons, ribbons for other diseases, wars, personal accomplishments, whatever. She organized all of these ribbons that all symbolized something to somebody and they were so crude, but lovely and touching.

I met Filip through Bunny and immediately realized that he, too, was this sort of brilliant, creative guy that New York was lucky to have. His projects, to me, come from a similar position of being online a lot and feeling how the internet very seriously makes you feel so lonely but so connected at the same time, and it’s very difficult to reconcile these feelings. I think for him, being creative is about responding to the world through different means, using materials that seem more relevant to his experience. The blog project he made about Bunny, “Elizabeth Leaving,” is one of the great landmarks of net art.

Image from Filip Olszewski's "Elizabeth Leaving"
Image from Filip Olszewski’s “Elizabeth Leaving”

KC: Was this new project developed specifically for 319 Scholes or did it come out of ongoing work by the artists?

GM: I approached the artists with the idea of doing one simple gesture in the relatively large galleries of 319 Scholes, as a sort of turn on the large group shows I’d seen at 319 Scholes over the past couple of years. That was all I had in mind. They came back to me with a fully though out, two-part installation that they had been discussing, in various forms, for several years. I think it’s the perfect fit.

KC: The work seems like it engages a certain YouTube trope, that of the cover song. Could you talk about how that developed and what role YouTube tropes might play in culture?

GM: YouTube cover songs are a distilled example of web culture. The videos hover around these polarities — beautiful/pathetic, hopeful/hopeless — that often strike viewers as more meaningful than the original, slickly produced tracks. Seeing people’s bedrooms and their personal touches adds to this. When there are lots of these different cover videos of the same song and you click from one to the next until you’ve watched dozens, a hundred different people singing the song, it reaches a critical mass and becomes a different type of cultural experience altogether.

Bunny and Filip were particularly interested in the one featured in the show — young girls singing “If I Die Young” by the Band Perry. They monitored it early on, before it really became a small meme, and started collecting them. Now there are nine hundred or so; the entire mass of young girls singing these lyrics about dying young becomes haunting. The front room of the show, which features a chorus of 12 of these voices that you can listen to individually (by going up to the speakers) or collectively (by standing in the center of the room), captures this.

One of the “If I Die Young” cover videos

KC: The blankets in the rear gallery appropriate child modeling agency photos and reduce them to an average color. What’s the impact of that reduction, and what role does preserving the watermark play?

Blanket from "If I Die Young"
“Nymphets Studio” (2013)

GM: One figure I was thinking about in relation to this show is Richard Prince, who, among other things, rephotographs photographs of media iconography such as the Marlboro Man. To reduce his complex intentions to a couple of lines, he’s asking his viewers to consider the photographs as photographs — objects in the world — as opposed to what the photograph is depicting. He’s not interested in cowboys per se, but pictures of cowboys and the relationships of people to these pictures. I think this is very interesting, and the way he did it was massively important; however, Prince’s work also takes part in the sensationalism that’s implicit in what he photographs.

I don’t know if that’s a critique I have of Prince, but I’m interested in how, in “If I Die Young,” the artists leave a void in place of the image. They use an objective measurement of its content — its average color — and this trace — the watermark — to stand in for the model. If you let yourself really sit and deal with the work for a moment, it becomes devastating. It also foregrounds the watermark, which is a widespread but largely invisible part of digital image culture. By looking at the watermarks, you get the whole story.

If I Die Young opens at 319 Scholes gallery (319 Scholes Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) on March 28 from 7 to 10 pm and runs through March 31.

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