One Million Souls

Lauren Carroll Harris

The setup is simple. Artists Tiyan Baker and Xanthe Dobbie have crafted digital video portraits of Australian YouTube stars. Their subjects are ordinary people who upload their own videos to YouTube to tens of thousands of subscribers and make actual money in the process. Part of the hidden economy and ruthless commercial logic of YouTube is that it provides a cut of advertising revenue to the quasi-professionals who create original content. But YouTube celebrities like Damielou Shavelle and Lauren Ostrowski Fenton don’t do it for the money, they do it for the love.

In the emerging realm of video portraiture, Baker and Dobbie have created a series of small studies in online adoration. But who exactly are the adorers? Outside the frame, the other subjects of One Million Views are people like YouTube user iKirbyPink, who wrote the following comment one year ago on Damielou’s cover of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space:

“I saw your ad and I was about to skip it and then I just kept it on for a few more seconds and I saw your beautiful face and decided to watch the whole video it was amazing. I looked up your account I'm literally watching every video you put up and past videos. What I'm trying to say is, you are beautiful amazing and you make great videos”

You can’t understand Baker and Dobbie’s work without considering the iKirbyPinks – the individuals who have watched Damielou’s version of Blank Space more than 93, 000 times. Beyond the page-views, these are the people providing the moments of connection that YouTube celebrities strive for. They are more than users, and the YouTubers they subscribe to are more than content providers. YouTube may well be a no-man’s-land of microcelebrities. But for Baker and Dobbie, YouTube stars are not just click-baiting, attention-seeking, big-noting and grandstanding. They are laying bare – making real attempts at emotional closeness. To be loved and accepted without conditions: that’s the dynamic underlying the bid for online fame. The Damielous of the online world are not selling their souls but stretching them towards others. One Million Views overturns the conventional vision of YouTube celebrity in much the same way that critic Ben Davis has argued that the most common Instagram conventions – selfies, bling, abundant cafe meals – are in fact digital continuations of the big themes of art history. Images of still lifes, aspiration, wealth and self-portraiture have slipped free of the gallery and into the online stream.

The artistic legacy we are really talking about is that of Andy Warhol, who I suspect at some gut level knew that fame was not just a search for dollars but a stab at mass intimacy. Warhol contemplated the same dynamics of YouTube worship in an era that predated the Internet. His 1960s anti-film portraits of people sleeping were nothing if not deeply, creepily intimate. With their similar formal elements to Baker’s – no editing, unmoving camera-work – Warhol’s sleeping films read as predictions of One Million Views. But Warhol could never have known the extent to which digital technology would reduce the proximity between fans and the famous, creating ever more passing moments in which to perform fame.

These passing moments are the focus of Dobbie’s work. Her portraits’ irony lie in the way they deliberately clash opposing formal and aesthetic elements: the cut-and-paste collages, bouncy moving parts and bright colours of the online experience arranged following the classical rules of composition of the Renaissance period. In a way that makes me think of pop-up advertisements and endless open tabs, the portraits play out in an infinite loop inside the traditions of pictorial art: the balanced, arced, intricate configurations familiar to us from the tableaux of 16th Century Italian frescoes. Here, digital materials are used to distance the work from any modernist notion of portraiture and extend a through-line from the heart of Western art history to the new, evolving field of video portraiture. Some of the formal concerns of portraiture remain the same, and some diverge – the works ask what portraiture means in the digital age, putting those reworked ideas of portraiture in dialogue with art history and trickling the form through digital, moving-image materials.

By contrast, the perversity of Baker’s work is to explore intimacy through its opposite and motivating feeling: loneliness. Baker treats the inner lives of YouTubers with the same seriousness afforded by their legions of subscribers. Perhaps that’s also why Baker’s video portraits show their subjects alone in the moments before and after the fleeting seconds online connection – Damielou taking a moment to herself in the bathroom, the anxious ambient sounds of everyday life and a baby crying in the background. We see her indirectly through a melancholy lens and a series of visual framing devices – a blurry doorframe in the foreground, then reflected in a mirror as Damielou stares at herself. Her face is a small dot in a set of larger frames, a few pixels dwarfed by a much bigger picture. We stay with her for a long time like this, in a picture of loneliness. We cannot look at her directly, so we look on from afar.

Lauren Carroll Harris is an artist, writer and researcher. She has written for Guardian Australia and appeared on ABC24 News to name a few. She is the author of 'Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia's Film Distribution Problem' (Platform Papers, 2013) and is completing a PhD at the University of New South Wales this year.