Youtube: History Re-linked
1 Aug 2009

By Greg Tobey

When I began my summer internship at the Art Gallery of York University I knew that I would be curating a Youtube project. What I did not know was that I would sift through 1,385 videos, consuming roughly 48 hours of footage. At first I was lost. I did not know where to begin. I was thrown into this vast database without any restrictive guidelines or boundaries. With the reconstruction of General Idea’s exhibitions at the AGYU, I was to pull themes from this legendary Canadian trio whose performative aesthetic, affordable dissemination of material, and archival production preceded the Youtube phenomenon. I was to embrace General Idea’s strategies in an image databank so massive that at times I felt the weight of it bearing down on me. After all the moisture in my eyes evaporated, I selected 20 videos that run at a combined 40 minutes.

Curating a collection of videos on Youtube in relation to the work of the most important international Canadian artists was as confining as it was liberating. General Idea often used performance to explore and demystify cultural values. They were successful in deconstructing popular culture myths through the same mediums in which those myths were constructed. They used television and magazine formats, and pop-culture genres to engage in a process of fictional staging, focusing on how pop-culture formats function by examining constraints specific to each medium. By following some of the strategies employed by General Idea, I began to develop loose ideas surrounding my own curatorial project. And so began the most difficult part of the process.

Using General Idea’s paradigms while swimming through an ocean of videos on Youtube didn’t get me very far. I found myself drifting, treading, and coughing up the occasional gulp of water. As mentioned earlier, General Idea predated the Youtube phenomenon. Most of their work appropriated a dissemination device of some kind which challenged copyright. They established archives and image banks, they founded Art Metropole and created FILE Megazine. They were among the pioneers that used correspondence to mail and exchange art. On top of this, a great deal of their work is performative. Sound familiar? Youtube is all of the above. All videos on Youtube operate within parameters previously explored by General Idea. Because General Idea and Youtube are inextricably linked, the door was left open for a wave of possibilities. This is what made this process more liberating than confining and its precisely what kept me from drowning. But still the question remained, where was I to begin?

At first I tried to understand Youtube by watching the site’s most viewed videos. It seemed logical to get at the core of the site by navigating through the most congested traffic zones, but after watching cat faces, cats talking, and dogs with sunglasses on their butts I was more confused than ever. These videos weren’t going to make the cut and they certainly weren’t helping. So then I thought of General Idea and the way in which they inhabited specific pop-culture genres. I then began to explore commercials. Commercials oscillate between knowledge of the past and projections of the future, while remaining very much grounded in the present. They speak to an audience of the moment, who are well informed of the routine, and they reveal a lot about a cultures values, myths, and ideologies. When broadcasted on Youtube, commercials are ripped out of their original context. And as I repeat this process once more, by strategically incorporating the videos into my own project, their meaning shifted again significantly. I realized that when placed within a socio-political context the commercials were given new agency. And so I embarked on a journey through time.

As I surfed between  Coca-Cola and Exxon commercials from the 1950’s onwards, I began thinking about the post-War world. Between the so-called “Golden Age” and our current “Information Age” I started to narrate my own subjective account of modern history. With specific attention to American power politics, neoliberalism and its adverse affects on Latin America, I found myself engaging in a process of historiography. Western culture is fascinated by stories — and you have to admit we all love a good story. What’s even more fascinating or perplexing is that we’ve applied this paradigm to history. We all like to think that there’s a grand chain of causation that drives the course of history but in reality it’s extremely contingent. By conforming to the history-as-story paradigm in my Youtube project, as General Idea had done with pop-culture genres, I waged war on the foundation of history from within its own conventions, with Youtube as my Trojan horse.

I then turned to one of the most extraordinary Presidential addresses in modern history — and no its not from Barrack Obama. In his farewell address to the American nation in 1961, President Eisenhower, a former five-star general, warned the country of the institutional power commanded by the “military-industrial complex.” Like the commercials explored in this program, Eisenhower made a projection into the future — but what’s terrifying here is that his projection turned out to be absolutely right. At the core of American power politics lies this enormous, highly pervasive institution that has heavily influenced national policy over the past sixty years. Throughout my post-secondary education, whenever the opportunity arose I studied issues pertaining to this establishment. Drawing on what I’ve learned and discovered, I once again return to this phenomenon by critically examining it through the lens of popular media.

By exploring institutions that have had far-reaching implications on the post-War world, the socio-politcal context of my project took shape. Besides the military-industrial complex, big oil, corporations, and car manufacturers also come under scrutiny. I intermixed commercials produced by these institutions over the past fifty years with archival footage, a tribute video, clips of Andrei Tarkovsky and Allen Ginsberg, a profound presidential address, and perhaps the greatest live spectacle ever performed in history. The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony marks the beginning of the program as it also marks the beginning of a new point in history. Since history is a socially constructed institution, human numbers play a predominant role in my program. From the opening ceremony to the Zapatista and Cuban revolutions, performance, conformity, and rebellion are all given agency through sheer human numbers.

As General Idea once said,”we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites. We moved in on history and occupied images, emptying them of meaning, reducing them to shells.” Influenced by the Burroughsian parasite metaphor — like General Idea, I became a parasite. Through popular media formats I’ve infected institutions that have come to define our contemporary time. My arms became translucent tentacles that latched onto videos within the host Youtube. Just as General Idea took over LIFE magazine with FILE and T.V. itself with the Colour Bar Lounge, so I reduced history to its shell. In a world that has drastically changed with the sudden development of information technologies, the internet has given us the gift economy. Within this mode of exchange — that’s free of market value — I have curated a project for you. A project moulded through the eyes of a suburban kid who is tired of the corruption and sick of the lies.

Opening Ceremony Beijing 2008 1

In the summer of 2008, China spent roughly one-hundred million dollars on the Beijing olympics opening ceremony. Whether the amount of money spent can be justified or not, the opening ceremony was arguably the greatest live spectacle ever performed in history. I have chosen the first ten minutes of the two-hour spectacle, the countdown, to begin my program Youtube: History Re-linked. The ceremony marks not only the beginning of the program but also the end-point of the histories in question.

Adidas, 2008 Olympic Games

This Adidas commercial, produced for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 ties an immense economy to the Olympic games. The games would not be possible without major corporate sponsorship. It’s interesting to see a free-market capitalist company like Adidas embracing the power of human numbers — an element of Chinese communism.

A Fabulous 1950’s Commercial for Coca-Cola (Coke) (No 4)

Flashback to the glorious 1950’s and we witness the humble beginnings of television commercials. In this 1954 Coca-Cola commercial, Coca-Cola convinces us that its beverage is inseparable from elite society. The white male made for T.V. voice, look, and personality sells us not only the popular drink but the image of a 1950’s society subordinated by a white patriarchy.

1956 Chevrolet TV Ad: Sleeping Beauty

This next 1956 Chevrolet commercial uses classical Western mythology to sell its product. The ad draws upon Sleeping Beauty, a Cowboy, and the traditional Western homestead to convey that safety is assured when driving a Chevrolet. But when we scratch beneath the surface contradictions emerge. In 1956, cars simply weren’t as safe as they made themselves out to be. Added to this, drinking and driving was legal and common. The threat of a crash was constant. Leo Strauss once said that myths mask contradiction and in this 1956 ad, myths are used to mask the contradictions inherent in ’safety.’

Eisenhower warns us of the military industrial complex

In this profound speech, Eisenhower argued that beneath the glorious 1950’s lurked a social institution that had grown out of control — much like the social hierarchy of the time. President Dwight Eisenhower could have walked away from a remarkable career in public service rather quietly, but no, instead he decided to do the right thing by dropping the ‘military industrial complex’ bomb on everyone. A former five star general inextricably linked to the military, says, hey everyone, I think we’ve created a monster here, we’d better be careful because its susceptible to corruption – and no one seemed to listen?

Magpul Industries FMG9

This next video promotes a folding machine gun titled the FMG9. If alarms in your head weren’t going off during Ike’s speech, then they should be now. This is a clear indication of how far arms producers and the military-industrial complex have gone.


It’s fascinating to see one of the world’s largest arms producers using the innocence of a child’s voice to narrate a commercial. It attests to how pervasive the military-industrial complex can be.

Allen Ginsberg in London-Ah Sunflower.

Sitting in his garden in London, Allen Ginsberg, an icon of the 1960’s counter-cultural movements, tells us to be critical of what we see on television. In other words, he tells us to scratch beneath surface meaning.

Andrei, what is art?

Ginsberg’s Cold War intellectual counterpart, Andrei Tarkovsky, sits in a different garden and answers the question — what is the meaning of art? Both Ginsberg’s and Tarkovsky’s experiences were mediated by opposing socio-political forces but notice the similarities and differences in their performances.

1984 Nissan Commercial

In 1984 Nissan released this commercial arguing that the company is perfecting cars that could run on hydrogen and electricity. Using the word ‘perfecting’ may have been a stretch when twenty-five years later we still haven’t come close to perfecting either of these technologies.


Highways across the Northern hemisphere were made possible by generous donations from big oil and as Horace Greeley said in 1865, “Go west young man, go west,” they too, under a century later were saying ‘drive west young man, drive west.’  Exxon continues this trend with a commercial that sings “turn the key.” It’s unfortunate that our excessive habits have had such adverse affects on the rest of the world as this next video shows.

Subcomandante Marcos

After NAFTA was signed in 1994, a northern Mexican known as Marcos came to defend the peasants of the Chiapas from starvation and displacement — not with weapons but with words. Marcos, also known as El Sup or Subcomandante, helped mobilize the illiterate natives of the Chiapas against the Mexican government in what became known as the Zapatista revolution. Marcos inhibited Mexican mythology by wearing the mask and he was championed by the Mexican public. He became a mythical symbol and he helped shed light on the plight of the indigenous Mexican population. Later, after his identity was finally discovered and revealed by the Mexican government he faded from public interest.

Massacre at Tlatelolco

On October 2, 1968, many students and civilians were massacred at Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City. In the tumultuous year of 1968 the world witnessed two devastating assassinations, escalating violence in Vietnam, the My Lai massacre, student revolts at Columbia University, and student riots in Paris that almost toppled the Charles de Gaulle government. In such a year it is only inevitable that certain world events go unnoticed. But this is not acceptable. Not until my third year in university did I learn of this event. In the crowd at Tlatelolco Square was Subcommadante Marcos — a young adult at the time whose radical political views took shape out of this massacre.

CHILE- GOLPE 11 sept

This video is a clip from Ken Loach’s short film in 11′09”01. In this ten minute film Loach tells the story of a different 9/11 that occurred in 1972. Much like the 9/11 of 2001, the American backed coup d’etat in Chile had catastrophic consequences. While most of the other short films in 11′09”01 deal with 9/11 directly, Loach uses 9/11 to shed light on an event that has largely been forgotten. By asking why some events take precedence over others Loach questions history itself.

Life cereal: Mikey likes it!

Being televised concurrently with the Chilean coup was this Life Cereal commercial that aired in 1972. The commercial was so popular and so ingrained in the American psyche that it aired for over a decade.

Exxon Commercial

This commercial, which aired before the 1989 Valdez oil spill in Alaska, assures us that Exxon is helping to solve some of the world’s energy problems — while also creating most of the world’s environmental problems.

Chevron Human Energy : New Frontiers

Watching oil companies respond to twenty-first century environmental challenges has been enchanting — as their ‘green’ commercials will have us believe. In this commercial Chevron uses a computerized male voice and a soft piano to make it seem as if the world’s energy crisis was yesterday’s news.

Lockheed Martin: Environment

Even arms producers are finding it fashionable to be environmentally conscious. Once again innocent children are used to mask the companies own guilt in creating most of these problems. What’s even more fascinating is that Lockheed Martin admits that there’s a planet that we all share.

Lockheed Martin – Second To None

In a drastic change from the planet we all share to the country we must defend, Lockheed Martin expertly crafts a four minute manifesto that preys upon the fear that permeates throughout American culture. This commercial attests to the power wielded by one of the largest social institutions in the world — the military-industrial complex.

Soy Cuba 1964 funeral

In this clip from the 1964 film I Am Cuba a massive funeral procession ushers a martyr through the streets in what becomes the beginning of the Cuban revolution. The epic sequence, which incorporates an elaborate system of pulleys, wires, and dollies remains to be one of the great feats in film history. While it can be seen as a propaganda piece much in the same way as the Lockheed Martin commercial before it, this clip remains to be one of the most beautiful and expertly crafted sequences ever shot. This sequence marks the end of Youtube: History Re-linked.




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