“With ever-increasing speed we alternate between subject and object, representation and self-representation, viewer and viewed. Ultimately the technology we make can also make us.” – Ned Carter Miles, writer and art critic, 2016
Between the millennial phenomena of Internet fame and the viral landscape of YouTube, technology has not only revolutionized the ways in which people interact with one another, but also in how we choose to represent ourselves.
Long gone are the days when omnipotent media outlets afforded attention to some lucky few – in the age of the Internet, we have become our own biographers and, consequently, our own broadcasters. Illustrated in a simple interaction like hitting the subscribe button on a YouTube channel, we’re now able to tap into the lives of people from all parts of the planet. And what we choose (and not) to share about ourselves on this electronic information highway reveals so much about what kind of content we value in a digitally literate and networked society.
Among other things, a substantial portion of YouTube’s database is dedicated to vlogging (video-blogging for the uninitiated) – a hybrid genre that became popular in the mid 2000s, soon after the launch of video-sharing platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube. Generally speaking, vlogs centre on an individual or group, either following their day-to-day encounters, tutorials, pranks, lifestyle hacks, or simply acting as a kind of video diary. A key thread of conception in most vlogs is the sense that the viewer is looking at a presentation of the self, created and curated by the vlogger for public consumption. One of my personal favourite vloggers, Trisha Paytas, gained YouTube notoriety in 2013 after posting a video titled, Do Dogs Even Have Brains?
Since then, Paytas has turned her attention away from clickbait-style content toward a more mainstream and marketable product-review and lifestyle-vlogging format.
Recently, and occasionally at the expense of appearing completely authentic or candid, vloggers and YouTubers alike have started to adjust the nature of their content according to what will make them more eligible for monetization (aka what advertisers are willing to put money into to sell their product). In the instance that a YouTube channel lacks mainstream appeal, or even if within its niche appeal it isn’t sufficiently “ad-friendly”, it likely won’t end up being picked for monetization.
Fame and riches aside, the desire to turn the camera on oneself as subject is something that, although contemporarily distilled so perfectly in the form of a selfie, can be traced back as far as traditional oil painting in Renaissance Italy. Alongside the practice of portrait painting, come questions of resemblance, truth, and beauty, and how these components interact with one another authentically. In the same degree, how accurately do our online personas represent who we are offline? And is the desire to find resonant and authentic online channels a response to the oversaturation of very glamorous, unrealistic videos that pervade so much of YouTube and other media streams? This is part of the reason I started to enjoy Trisha Paytas’s videos so much upon first encountering them. It wasn’t the Dog-brains clip, or her product-plugs that bloomed my fondness for her, but rather videos like he cheated. i’m done wherein Paytas breaks down on her living room floor, after enduring a very painful and much publicised breakup. Back in 2016, when she initially uploaded this video, it seemed to echo so much of what I was going through in my own life at that time.
I was a final-year Fine Arts student, carrying a toxic relationship and a slapdash honours-paper along with a healthy dose of self-pity. Much like Paytas, I spent a good amount of my time oscillating between what felt like bouts of perpetual misery and then sheer euphoria.
When this phase first began in early 2016, I was working on a paper describing the prevalence of the ‘pudica’ pose in Italian renaissance painting, one that’s historically almost entirely reserved for female subjects, but that offers two main functions when it comes to interpretation of the subject: shame or modesty. Almost always, the subject’s hands would be rendered as a cover-up of sorts, forearm held over breasts and other hand’s palm on the mons.
Watching Paytas’ physically apparent break-down rekindled memories of my essay on two paintings so distinctly adopting the pudica pose to such distinct ends. Both created in 15 century Italy, Sandro Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus (c. 1486) praises classical antiquity, adopting the pose first seen in the Venus D’Medici of the 1st century BC, alluding to the classical depiction of the ideal female nude. It stands in contrast to an earlier fresco by Masaccio titled, The Expulsion From the Garden of Eden (1425) wherein Eve is painted in the very same pose, however, she appears to be suffering and looks ashamed.
The desire to be more authentic and to relate to others as they hope to relate to you is an attitude that I wholeheartedly hope the vlogging community continues to embrace. Shane Dawson, a stalwart in the vlogging community with a subscriber base of just over 13 million, has also more recently made the choice to shift some of his content toward more personal, storytelling vlogs.
Returning to the subject of the digital, mechanistic self-portraiture that YouTube affords, it is something that has had mixed effects on me: Much of my experience and use of YouTube (which is daily) has markers that are so clearly aligned with my personal interests and can be far more revealing than what I’d be willing to share with a close friend in conversation. The fact that I occasionally watch clips of Vine Fails is something I’d more quickly reveal to others, than my subscription to – and daily dose of – Dr. Phil clips. Much like how articulating within this blog that I regularly watch and actually find depth in videos by the Dog-brain vlogger also makes me slightly uncomfortable.
In summary, my primary motive for watching a vlog has been one of two distinct things: (a) a vicarious-experience-package and (b) a one-sided friendship, where I find personal resonance and understanding in the subjects covered by the vlogger. In the former, the digital landscape illuminates the role of the computer screen as a kind of interface between the viewer and the life they wish to live. The latter can be viewed, specifically, in the lens of the present-day, wherein our encounters with a screen have become as prevalent as our exchanges with other people IRL (In Real Life).
SORABELLA, J. 2000. The Nude in Western Art and its Beginnings in Antiquity.