- The Video Auteur
A 19-second video changed the world on April 23, 2005. At about 8:30 that night, Me at the Zoo was uploaded to the Internet. The video features a twenty-something man in a royal blue T-shirt and a baggy nylon jacket talking to a handheld camera in front of a couple of elephants at the San Diego Zoo. “The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long trunks. And that’s, that’s cool. And that’s pretty much all there is to say.” The audio is so bad it’s subtitled in English.
Me at the Zoo is the first YouTube video. The quality of it, the subject of it, none of that mattered. What did matter is what still matters—the revolutionary video-sharing software that made it easier than ever to distribute videos. YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim engineered the software. (It’s Karim in Me at the Zoo; his video still gets hits, with over seven million views.)
“Broadcast Yourself” isn’t just the anthem of our age, it’s a global compulsion. It’s caused a digital storm that won’t let up—of cat videos and self-surveillance videos and any thing or moment imaginably filmable. Much of it is flat out intolerable. And still, we shoot, upload, and view obsessively. I do, that’s for sure. On city streets, in corner cafés, on buses, in bedrooms, classrooms, and courtrooms, it’s easy to witness universal media comfort. But that is not the same as media literacy, which requires us to reflect critically. And media literacy is not the same as media art.
There’s that word, art.
Here’s the definition I favor—in fact, savor. It’s from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin: “Art is contemplation. It is the delight of the mind that [End Page 195] penetrates nature and divines the spirit by which nature itself is animated. It is the joy of intelligence that sees clearly into the universe and creates the universe anew by endowing it with consciousness. Art is our most sublime mission since it is the exertion of the mind trying to understand the world and to make the world understood.”
Sounds a lot like Montaigne.
The literary essay—personal, lyrical, contemplative, improvisational, and performative—is well researched and valorized. We have a much-cherished canon at our fingertips, thanks to writers and scholars such as Phillip Lopate, John D’Agata, and Carl Klaus who have excavated the essay’s origins and historicized the art of it.
When we lift the literary essay off the page, render it in a media-arts frame with sound and image, we attempt the video essay—a postmodern project that confounds the boundaries of literature and time-based art in a mash-up of creative nonfiction, poetry, the art house indie, documentary, and experimental film. It’s a distinctly interdisciplinary endeavor. It tests the very form of the essay. At the same time, the writers, filmmakers, and other artists who attempt on screen what has been practiced on the page for centuries defy the mind-numbing Broadcast Yourself status quo by infiltrating it with the aim of the essayist—to reach for some new awareness, or as Rodin might say, to make the world understood.
Known on YouTube by her web moniker “Silentmiaow,” Amanda Baggs demonstrates the profound possibilities of the video essay. Nonverbal and formally diagnosed with “low-functioning” autism, Baggs has found her voice through new media. Her stunning eight-and-a-half minute In My Language (2007) is about “what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication; and what does not.”
Baggs presents her language in a way that only a video essay could convey. First we hear what becomes a sort of chant—the long “e”—sung in movements that turn into an evocative sound score. We see the back of someone—the upper head and shoulders of a silhouetted figure standing in the natural light of a modest room. Facing a picture window, she rocks forward and back; she is round and has short hair. Cut...