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Russell Smith: On Culture

Uh-oh, Spaghetti-Ho: a viral perfect storm Add to ...

It is difficult to talk about the latest Internet meme, or much-pastiched video, without describing it in detail or showing it, but this one has generated dozens of pages of learned discussion about the value of performance art and the new audiences it might encounter online, so I'm going to try.

The film in question is an amateurish video of a student art piece that happened last spring in a small gallery in Chicago. It shows an audience of extremely young people - they look to be mostly students - crammed into a space, most of them sitting on the floor, to see a young woman (her name, it turns out, is Natacha Stolz) doing a performance that involves reciting a couple of nihilistic lines and then doing strange things with a can of SpaghettiOs. Some of the things that the woman does are deliberately shocking, and there is brief nudity, so you won't want to watch it at work.

The piece is an homage to an artist called Carolee Schneemann, who did similar performances years ago, and even the title, Interior Semiotics, is a reference to a notorious 1975 Schneemann performance called Interior Scroll.

It all seems quite familiar if you have spent time among art students. But whoever was filming it decided to focus not so much on the performance as on the audience: The camera just scans their faces as they sit there in deep and respectful focus. The piece ends with applause.

The important thing about this audience is that they can be only classified as hipsters, as they seem to have all been reading the manual on this highly codified style of dress and are wearing wool tuques and heavy 1980s glasses and mustaches and odd dresses. And they are almost all white. This ends up being important to the reaction to the piece.

The story of the video is this: The artist posts the video on YouTube and it goes unnoticed there for several months, as so much underground art does. Then someone posts it to the Internet forum called 4chan, a famous repository of the nasty and mean, the video starts getting mocked and passed around, and the comments start getting hysterical and out of control.

People hate this video; they hate it passionately and viscerally. The comments around the world grow into the thousands and they include threats of rape and murder against the artist. People start posting reaction videos on YouTube, in which they sit in their bedrooms and rant about the state of modern art. This one video seems to symbolize everything that's wrong with the kind of privileged white kid who doesn't have to do anything in the world but go to art school. It's not clear what people hate more - the art, or the pretentious audience looking so damn serious. People start making mashup videos of the original, editing the performance and setting it to music.

This is what qualifies it for discussion on the surprisingly intelligent website Know Your Meme, which tracks the progress of viral reiterations like these; it even has graphs showing when the spikes in views peaked, and some speculation on the reasons for the hysteria of the reactions, and a few examples of the most amusing Lolcat-style images referring to the now famous Spaghetti-Ho. An interview with the artist and another account of the debate can be found at Rhizome.org.

So now the bulk of the online discussion is about the fallout rather than the original video; it is an analysis of what kind of person would become obsessed with it and why. Many commentators agree that the outrage must have some class resentment in it, since so much of it focuses on art schools and hipsters and their clothes and poses.

The tempest also shows us something new: Performance art no longer happens in private, in those white-walled downtown loft spaces. One person has a camera, and the performance is instantly internationally accessible.

This hipster party was crashed by almost a million outsiders. It will be interesting to see if or how the conventions of this art form will change to adapt to this massive and impatient new public.

 

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