It took me a few years to realize what a complete library YouTube would turn out to be: not just a flea market of random fun finds - all the singing dogs and crashing skateboards - but a real visual and aural library of actual art, meticulously cross-catalogued by keywords. For the past few years, fans of cinema and music have been painstakingly copying and posting bits of their favourite movies, radio announcements, music videos, until we have reached the point at which it's nearly all there.
So now if I'm having an argument with someone about which Andrei Tarkovsky film has the levitation sequence in it, I can type a few words and watch the entire scene right away. In fact, I can watch the key scenes of every Tarkovsky movie, as well as every famous bit of Michelangelo Antonioni and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Akira Kurosawa. I can watch every TV interview with Muhammad Ali. I can see what Paul Robeson looked like as he sang, or Maria Callas. I can watch the Human League's first video. I can watch all of the BBC art series Ways of Seeing . I can instantly check which operas were parodied in which Bugs Bunny cartoon. It's a genuine library of visual history, an astounding, ever-expanding resource. And it will only grow more complete.
This thing about YouTube, though, is that if you don't know what you're looking for, you don't know what you're looking for. It's like a vast art gallery created by author Jorge Luis Borges with no maps and no signs. It's crying out for curators.
A Canadian project has set out to provide marked doorways into the labyrinth, by inviting prominent writers from around the world to curate their own galleries of free Internet videos. The project, a website called Ryeberg.com, has been created by the Toronto-based writer Erik Rutherford, and is already expanding as quickly as YouTube itself. (The name Ryeberg comes from Rutherford's Swedish great-grandfather, who was apparently an entertaining guy.)
The idea is this: Rutherford invites a guest curator to select a couple of video clips that he or she has found interesting for any reason. There are no restrictions as to subject or style. The curators are all people who already have names in one field or another: They are novelists or artists or professional critics. They write short essays that embed these visual poems.
Full disclosure: I know Rutherford, and I am one of the participants. So are the U.S. author Mary Gaitskill (who writes densely and brilliantly about both baroque opera and Lady Gaga), the British author Joanna Kavenna (who writes on Jung and Hamlet ), the filmmaker Peter Lynch (who writes about science fiction in the 1960s), the painter Sholem Krishtalka (on children's television), the playwright Anton Piatigorsky (on a singer), the professor Mitu Sengupta (on Bollywood and the arms industry), the filmmaker Mike Hoolboom (on Richard Pryor) and authors Sheila Heti, Claudia Dey, Lynn Crosbie and Catherine Bush.
The resulting essays are fascinating in two major ways: (1) they guide us to pieces either beautiful or curious that were probably unknown to us and (2) they are personal essays about their authors. So they illuminate both the art and the critic.
Attempts at sorting the pullulating mass of videos on the Web have been made before: There are video-sharing sites such as Nizmlab, and the daily-video-buzz specialists like The Daily Tube, and the specialists in underground art films such as Chunnel. Most aggregators of video rank them according to popularity, or organize them according to theme. Ryeberg's content is organized by curator, not by theme, which turns the focus onto the writers rather than the videos.
Rutherford says he saw a need for discussion of short videos right now, as they seem to play such a large role in our lives. "We use them to nourish our nostalgic yearnings, to test each other's sensibilities, to explain ourselves to one another," he wrote in an e-mail interview. His site was partly inspired, he says, by Richard Wurman, the co-creator of the international TED idea conferences, who coined the phrase "information architect" to describe how one might structure the mass of unfiltered information now available by providing "poles of authority." Rutherford says, "But whereas he sought to popularize the intellectual, Ryeberg intellectualizes the popular."
We have had illustrated lectures - in the form of slide shows or television documentaries - for many years. But static text embedded with moving pictures, whose viewing can be controlled by a solitary reader, is a relatively new form. It's private, individual reading rather than a group activity. And it represents an engagement with the world of floating visual flashes that is more active than passive. I suspect we will be seeing more of it.