For about 3 years now I have been noticing variations on the online video phenomena that is discussed in James Bridle’s recent Medium article entitled “Something Is Wrong With The Internet”. This internet-specific video format seems to bubble up every now and again in my feed as a hot topic:
If you are not familiar with the concept of these videos, Bridle summarizes it like this:
“On-demand video is catnip to both parents and to children, and thus to content creators and advertisers. Small children are mesmerised by these videos, whether it’s familiar characters and songs, or simply bright colours and soothing sounds. The length of many of these videos — one common video tactic is to assemble many nursery rhyme or cartoon episodes into hour+ compilations —and the way that length is marketed as part of the video’s appeal, points to the amount of time some kids are spending with them. YouTube broadcasters have thus developed a huge number of tactics to draw parents’ and childrens’ attention to their videos, and the advertising revenues that accompany them.”
And here is a good example of the types of videos being discussed:
Sometimes adult’s reactions to these videos, and related internet phenomenon is one of fear or disgust: that these videos are really creepy and undeniably bad for children’s brains. College students and adventurous teenagers on the other hand probably like to watch these videos. The videos elicit the kind of response in a viewer that half of all Adult Swim/Super Deluxe programming is striving to create. But these videos are the real thing. Algorithmically-generated culture has an incredible ability to mirror back to humans whatever we are trying to run from. That is a gift not a nightmare. It would be cool if Adult Swim bought the rights to every single one of these videos and started another cable network just to play these all the time. What should be the name for this style of video, and/or the name for the new TV network?
It is unclear to me actually how these videos are made. I have read many of the articles but still have yet to find someone who has interviewed someone in charge or hired to collaborate on any of these videos. It is not (although it may seem this way) as if machines are doing it all by themselves. Part of the abject feeling we get when watching this stuff might come from not knowing what creative decisions were made by a person versus what decisions were made by computer programs. The myth of The Gremlins as it relates to technology (more on that later) comes out of an inability to understand why machines break down: there must be a reason this machine isn’t doing what I want it to do, there must be a mischievous being inside that is intentionally breaking things to spite me.
I would argue that every technology (or set of inter-related technologies) humans have made has lead to Gremlin-like chaotic outcomes (not just computers). Once introduced into society on a mass-scale, all technologies produce an inability to decipher unintentional institutional/technological disfunction from intentional human decision-making/ follow-through. 20th century Terry Gilliam Brazil-style endless red-tape bureaucracy comes to mind.
Ultimately I am interested in the panicked reaction by adults I have seen online relating to these videos, because it reminds me of a similar reaction I remember adults having to the sensory overload of cheap and quick, fast and dirty-style kids entertainment, technology and merchandizing that I grew up with, in the 1980s. It was another time when everything felt out of control.
As an adult I spend much of my creative energy trying to make things about people’s emotional relationship to technology and popular culture. It’s complicated. Some of us like it when we feel like we have a sense of control over culture. But when culture begins to “wake up” and feels too chaotic or ugly (especially if that culture is created by a computer program), then we tend not to like it as much.
Or maybe we can’t look away from the train wreck of algorithmic culture because it reminds us of our own attempts at finding patterns in noise. The human mind tries to combine moments from daily life into a story in order to shape some kind of meaning. Algorithmically (or pseudo-algorithmically) produced content mimics this process: we can’t help but super-impose our own existential search onto these thoughtless machines, as if the machines were also grasping at straws to try and find a reason to keep going . . .
I have yet to make a good video using, or exploring this new phenomenon in children’s entertainment. I really want to, but I can’t figure out how yet. This stuff takes time. Maybe it is because I am still trying to deal with all of the children’s media that crept it’s way into my own child brain, 30 years ago.
About 3 months ago I stumbled upon the above poster at a toy/thrift/record/pop-culture store in Chicago. I went home and watched this movie (I had never seen it) and I got my mind blown. This movie felt like the missing link between this new form of contemporary internet panic (exemplified in TV shows like Black Mirror), and some kind of related panic surrounding TV, toys, and propaganda that I remember witnessing in the 1980s.
I had also just finished watching Gremlins 2. Halloween 3 and Gremlins 2 (and Gremlins 1 actually) are movies that through cartoonish exaggeration do a good job at visualizing America’s anxieties towards the technologies and popular cultures that were shaping that particular time period in American history: the beginning of “trashy” cable TV, cheap plastic toys, consumer electronics manufactured outside of the USA, and the very start of computer automation in the work place. One of the main ways that evil spreads in Halloween 3 is by kids sitting too close to the TV.
The 1980s was of course a simpler time when it came to media made for kids, and I am probably manufacturing this memory in a way that is more intense than it actually was, but I recall that when I was allowed to sleep over at a friend’s house (and thus gain unlimited access to toys, TV and sugar) I would fall asleep worrying that I might fall into some kind of black hole if I watched too many Saturday morning cartoons, or ate too much cereal, or played with too many violent toys. These fears were only heightened with the advent of home video game systems, and reached their apex when I was invited to play Dungeons and Dragons with the older kids from Church Choir. Does anybody else remember any feelings like this?
Actually looking back on it: by the time I was 8 or 9, and was able to explore “children’s entertainment” a bit more independently: the black hole was morphing into a pandora’s box: the forbidden, scary death trap was becoming more of a secret maze.
This cultural moment (late 80s/90s kids culture) is also particularly important to look at now because it was one of the last (and maybe biggest yet to manifest on planet earth) fully-formed popular culture moments to exist, without the Internet. That is perhaps why the Netflix show Stranger Things is so popular: nostalgia for a pre-internet relationship to consumer technology and culture. Characters are always using hacked home-brew technologies to find ways out of problems. It is not uncommon for every-day information systems like phones or TVs to act as portals to secret worlds. Consumer electronics were banal but still magical. It’s a pre-smart phone way of relating to technology. Smart phones have never been magical they have always been stressful.
But you can also feel the internet’s future-shadow lurking behind almost every scene of Stranger Things. When I was 8 my version of the Upside-Down was a virtual dream world in my head, where all of the characters from Video Games, Toys, Candy, and Movies hung out together and never slept. This was a network of media that all felt alive in summation (like the internet) but it had yet to be connected to itself digitally (like the internet). Once they plugged everything in it started to feel more and more like an infinite, gross, disgusting, sticky maze (like the internet):
This kind of relationship to popular culture and technology (one predicated by equal doses of both fear and desire) is what in my early 20s led me to be so attracted to the work of Fort Thunder:
Also my sister and collaborator Jessica’s bedroom looked like this around this time:
Brian Chippendale (who lived at Fort Thunder) wrote an interesting essay about the complicated and sometimes tragic relationship between fear and safety, or between comfort and danger, as it relates to the actual physical space of Fort Thunder here:
The work of Fort Thunder (and many others) would eventually fuel my own work, as I tried my best to understand how I could convert this intoxicating mix of playfulness and violence, treasure and junk, or decay and rebirth, into an exploration of early internet culture.
I don’t think that children’s culture is more out of control today because of networked computers than it was in the 1980s. If you are open to it you can always find “the scary gross beautiful green neon monster mask created by the collective subconscious mind of popular culture” staring you in the face. In fact I would love to hear some stories of what this scary green mask looked like in the 1950s: I should ask my parents.
At this point you may be wondering why you are reading this possibly ego-centric-sounding blog post about my artistic development. It’s because I know I would not be the same artist nor have a career (which, along with teaching art, is my “job”) without this infinitely confusing relationship I have towards consumer-based entertainment. This relationship was implanted into my brain at an early age. My obsession with being eaten alive by “bad media” when I was becoming a kid has become a creative, productive force for me as an adult, one that continues to shape me as an artist even at the age of 40. We say that desires are something that can be formed or controlled. But more often it seems like they unfold, fall apart, or become increasingly de-formed.
As the years have gone by many younger artists have figured out ways of making interesting and inspiring work out of the materials from popular culture, most of it now in some way or another inextricably linked to Computers and the Internet. For that reason I am not scared or worried, but anxiously waiting to see what kind of art the toddlers who are currently binge-watching these YouTube videos will make once they get into high school, and begin to unpack what I suppose could be called “the inevitable trauma of growing up in a consumer society.” I hope this doesn’t sound like I am advocating some kind of fraternity-style culture-hazing for all toddlers. I am just pointing out that you can’t turn trash into gold without trash. Not that I think entertainment is trash . . .
Here is a good quote from Dis Magazine about mass-market fashion:
“Mass-market department stores are not where the trends go to die, it’s where they culminate.”
And here is my itteration of this quote:
“Algorithmically Produced Click-Bait YouTube Videos For Kids are not where animation goes to die, it’s where it culminates.”