Can YouTube pranks ever be art?

YouTube is renowned for videos of people doing stupid things racking up millions of views. But could it actually be art? It might just be, says David Barnett

David Barnett@davidmbarnett
Thursday 14 December 2017 19:29
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Concrete bungle: YouTuber Jay Swingler managed to cement his cranium into a microwave – for the ‘lolz’
Concrete bungle: YouTuber Jay Swingler managed to cement his cranium into a microwave – for the ‘lolz’

Did you see that idiot last week who cemented his head into a microwave oven? Ha ha, what a fruit-loop. And a time-wasting fruit-loop at that; it took firefighters more than an hour to cut the oven from Jay Swingler’s head after he used seven bags of Polyfilla to secure the appliance to his noggin.

But wait a minute. What if we’re getting this all wrong? Swingler, 22, didn’t just pull the stunt because he’s mentally deficient or has a microwave fetish – he did it for the lolz and the hits. Swingler, you see, is a YouTuber, and the video of his misadventures quite naturally went viral.

Under the YouTube name TGFbro, Swingler has more than 3 million subscribers and the 10-minute video has been viewed more than 3.7 million times.

What if this just isn’t a stupid prank for shits and giggles after all? What, in fact, if this is art?

Blockhead: 22-year-old Swingler, known as TGFBro, has racked up millions of views for his ‘prank’

In isolation, Swingler’s stunt could be taken at face value – the action of a young man with an adolescent sense of humour who has a desperate need to be liked, even if that translates at literally millions of people laughing at him, rather than laughing with him.

But YouTube is full of stuff like this, and while you might be content to consume your media from the tried and tested mainstream outlets, such as the one you are reading now, your kids probably don’t feel the same way.

Despite ultimate ownership by global corporations, platforms such as YouTube are the new media: semi-regulated, delivering the news, comment and art – and blurring the lines between all three – that the younger generation is absorbing through the ever-present osmosis of their diverse internet connections.

In short, YouTubers are the new Situationists.

Consider this. Last year, YouTuber Dan Jarvis and three others who regularly posted on the Trollstation YouTube channel were jailed for a total of 72 weeks, after admitting in court two counts of threatening behaviour causing fear of unlawful violence.

Trolling in the deep: prank group Trollstation staged a fake robbery at the National Portrait Gallery, causing havoc (YouTube)

In 2015, Jarvis and his mates had staged a hoax robbery at the National Portrait Gallery in London, dressing as cartoon robbers and carrying fake paintings, falling over each other like bungling crooks in a carefully-choreographed piece of performance art.

Their presence, coming just weeks after the Tunisian beach terrorist attack, caused widespread panic, especially when the piercing alarms were set off, and several people were trampled in the bid to flee the building.

It wasn’t the first prank Jarvis had initiated. He’d previously dressed as a member of the Queen’s Guard and stood outside Buckingham Palace, getting a friend to provoke him and then retaliating, shocking passers-by as the guards are renowned for keeping a poker face in the line of duty, whatever is thrown at them.

Pranking is one of the foundations on which YouTube is built: either acts of idiocy such as Swingler’s, public hoax stunts like Jarvis does, or out-and-out fake videos, such as the highly controversial ones from the last couple of years, including Sam Pepper’s notorious video of him “kidnapping” a young man and tying him to a chair, forcing him to watch his friend being “murdered”.

Money to burn: in 1994, KLF took an audience to a boathouse in Jura and set fire to £1m in cash

YouTube didn’t invent pranking, though some of those who participate might like to think they’re reinventing the wheel. In 1994 the K Foundation – Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, whose various musical incarnations included the KLF and the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – took an invited audience to a disused boathouse on the island of Jura and set fire to £1m in banknotes.

The act was captured on video and over the next year Drummond and Cauty toured the film around the UK, holding discussions afterwards on what it all meant. It wasn’t a prank, nor a hoax; they really burned the money, the proceeds of their successful music careers.

In the 1980s, the idea of “culture jamming” became prevalent, in which anti-capitalist protesters altered and defaced advertising billboards to send subversive messages, with groups like the Billboard Liberation Front sending anti-corporate messages using the companies’ own methods of delivery.

The Billboard Liberation Front began their activities in 1977, on traditional, papered billboards, but the advent of electronic billboards has given hackers whole new ways to culture jam. In 2002, billboard hackers took a beer ad, featuring a man ripping open the ring-pull on a can of beer with the slogan, “Crazy enough to try it?” and replaced the can with an H-bomb.

In 1977, the Sex Pistols signed to A&M records right outside the gates to Buckingham Palace (though signatures had actually been put on paper the day before in the record company’s offices) in a public stunt by the punk band. On Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, 7 June that year, music impresario Malcolm McLaren hired a boat on the Thames from which the band played God Save The Queen outside Westminster, ending in chaos as the police descended.

The Shorter Mermaid: Hans Christian Andersen’s statue in Copenhagen was beheaded by the Situationists

All of these examples of pranking, from the Sex Pistols up to poor old Jay Swingler’s cemented-on microwave, could arguably be said to stem from one source, formed 60 years ago: the Situationist International.

The Situationists came together from the avant-garde art movements of the 20th century; the Surrealists, with their nightmarish Dali-esque scenes and their Duchamps who made art of urinals; the Dadaists with their bewildering cut-up techniques to make jarring remodellings of literature and film; the Letterists, who wanted to carve away the fat and bloat from culture, and return it to pure, simple forms.

On these foundations, the Situationists built a movement that was essentially anti-capitalist Marxist theory, centred on the idea of the “spectacle” – modern society being in thrall to things, to possessions, to technology, to media. The movement came into being in June 1958, and in 1967 one of its leading lights, Guy Debord, wrote the Situationist bible, The Society of the Spectacle.

Piece of piss: it’s not such a stretch from Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal as work of art – to cementing your head in microwave

The Society of the Spectacle might itself be the biggest Situationist prank of all time. It’s a mostly impenetrable treatise dressed up as a political art manifesto. Sample quote: “In the essential movement of the spectacle, which consists of taking up all that existed in human activity in a fluid state so as to possess it in a congealed state as things which have become the exclusive value by their formulation in negative of lived value, we recognise our old enemy, the commodity, who knows so well how to seem at first glance something trivial and obvious, while on the contrary it is so complex and so full of metaphysical subtleties.”

The Situationists took their name from the French detournement, or situation, which basically means turning the establishment’s own tools – art, culture, media, advertising, etc – against them. It also means hijacking, or re-routing.

Jonathan Green, in his sublime book about 1960s counter-culture, All Dressed Up, describes the Situationists and their list of demands thus: “…to cut through this mass-produced illusion, to counter the pervasive tedium, to range against boredom the excesses of the unfettered sociopath: better the man who slashes the Old Master than the mandatory adoration of the Old Master; better the spontaneous riot than the well-policed demonstration; better unmitigated chaos with all its risks than sanctioned, if comfortable order.”

Pistols at dawn: the Sex Pistols sign a new contract outside Buckingham Palace, which was terminated a week later (Getty)

It’s not too much of a stretch to draw a line from Duchamp’s Fountain – a urinal as work of art – to cementing a microwave to your head, or from the Situationists beheading the statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, to Jarvis’s fake art gallery robbery.

Yes, yes, but is it art? Sex Pistols bouncing about outside Buckingham Palace, KLF burning cash, fake robberies and microwaves cemented to heads, it all might have resonances with the work of the Situationist International and its forebears, but does that make it culture? Were the Situationists artists, even?

Art is, of course, a moveable feast. I once went to an art gallery in Birmingham where there was a pile of rubbish – actual, literal rubbish – in a room. The artist said it was a work of art. I became complicit in the idea by looking at it, and considering it as such. In an alley outside, it would just have been a pile of rubbish.

So art is what someone says it is, and maybe I say that the juvenile pranks of today’s YouTubers are art, art with a long and illustrious lineage, art with meaning and power and sociopolitical overtones. What does staging a fake robbery at an art gallery tell us? That art must be set free, perhaps. What does cementing a microwave to your head mean? That we’re prisoners of the technology we think emancipates us.

Does it matter that Jay Swingler or Dan Jarvis might not even consider themselves artists at all? Could that be the most Surrealist aspect of the whole affair – they’re artists, but they just don’t know it?

Or, maybe this entire piece you have just read is a piece of Situationist art. Maybe it’s all a hoax. Maybe I don’t believe what I’ve just written. Maybe I just did it for the money. After all, like Oscar Wilde said, all art is quite useless.

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