In 1970 a graffiti culture emerged in New York. Less than a decade later the cultural practice had become an urban fixture, public scourge, and (not least) a full-blown art movement which in its stylistic innovation rivaled anything in modern art history. The rapid evolution of graffiti art followed from a specific set of circumstances:

  • Ready access to the necessary technology

  • A medium uniquely suited to reaching a large and diverse community

  • A team of dedicated practitioners driven by social ambition

  • A core set of aesthetic values shared by the practitioners

Such movements are easy to recognize in hindsight — but spotting them as they unfold can be a tricky proposition, for two reasons:

  • The practice often remains hidden from or inaccessible to potential viewers.

  • The esthetics employed are insufficiently mainstream to be acknowledged as art.

Fast-forward to 2013: graffiti is now a standard tool in the arsenal of corporate marketers. But what rough art lurks out there, waiting to be born? The answer, it turns out, is on YouTube. YouTube Poop YouTube Poop (or YTP) is an underground community existing in the nether regions of YouTube space. The community is dedicated to — and based on the evidence, fanatical about — the production and consumption of Poops, YouTube-sized mashups of video clips obtained from a core set of abject pop material:

  • CD-i versions of the video game The Legend of Zelda, which at the time of their release in the mid-1990’s were widely acclaimed in the gaming community as some of the worst video games ever made.

  • Hotel Mario, another CD-i video game from the 90’s and similarly acclaimed by gaming conoisseurs as mediocre or worse.

  • Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, an American animated television series derived from the similarly-named video game, and first broadcast in 1993.

In addition to these core elements, Poops encompass a wide range of secondary material, centered around pop content such as SpongeBob, Batman, and anime, but extending to virtually anything available on YouTube (notably including Ronald McDonald, Michael Rosen, bagels, Star Wars, and Volvic bottled water). Community The YTP community appears to consist largely of adolescent males, based on the tenor of the comments left in the video comments section, and the prevailing esthetic in the vast majority of Poop (which like all other art forms is subject to Sturgeon’s Law). However, the work by the best Poop artists embodies not only serious artistry (by any standard), but also a degree of worldliness far beyond that of a typical adolescent male. This is perhaps best exemplified by SwishFilmsinc, the Lubitsch of Poop, whose work reveals a sexual sensibility that ironically appeals to the YTP audience of young straight males obsessed with gay sex. Talent-wise, the Poop creators can be categorized as follows:

  • A small army of toys: unskilled amateurs who — enabled by the low barriers of entry to the production and distribution of Poops — have created the vast majority of the 300,000+ Poops currently on YouTube.

  • A deep pool of mid-level talent which has authored Poops garnering thousands of views.

  • A handful of superstars (WalrusGuy, Deepercutt, SwishFilmsinc, Waxonator, Boogidyboo).

It’s impossible to accurately determine the size of the YTP community. However, one of the most highly-watched Poops to date has 10 million views, and several others have surpassed 500,000. The two most famous Poop stars (WalrusGuy and Deepercutt) each have well over 20,000 subscribers. Esthetic Trangression in every possible dimension: sexual, racial, linguistic, formal, and (due to copyright infringement) legal, as befits an audience of adolescent males. The degree of transgression is tempered by YouTube’s restrictions, which strengthen the art by forcing Poop creators to deploy formal devices — some traditional, some new — to allusively depict transgression. Historically transgression has had limited success as an esthetic generator, with one crucial exception: formal transgression, which has been the driver for a century of innovation in the fine arts. As in graffiti, so in YTP: the best way to approach Poops is to ignore the adolescent surface detail and focus instead on the formal innovations:

  • Radical extensions of cartoon-world physics, far beyond anything seen in a golden-age Warner Brothers cartoon.

  • Extreme use of cinema, described technically in the YTP community as “sources, rapes, stutters, and loops”.

The best Poops include extensive references to dialog and images in the core YTP material — a full appreciation of such work requires a high degree of familiarity with the material. Serious Poopers know their material forwards and backwards (in some cases literally). YTP esthetic does have historical antecedents in the art world, but it’s unclear to what degree such roots are mere comedies of similarity. The cinematic assemblage esthetic was pioneered by Bruce Conner in his film A Movie. A far more striking YTP antecedent is the artist known as Jess and his Tricky Cad series of altered Dick Tracy comic strips: to view a classic Poop is to see Tricky Cad come to life. Process Historically the tools used to create Poops were near-punk in their minimalism:

  • Windows MovieMaker (included free with Windows)

  • YouTube video downloaders

Windows Movie Maker was the original application of choice, and is indeed paid tribute to in various Poop metanarratives. MovieMaker supports basic editing and manipulation of sound, speed, and color; a majority of Poops are thus wholly expressed in this limited vocabulary (which — along with the limited set of core material — contributes to YTP’s coherency as a body of work). But in recent years the pressure for formal innovation has pushed the top Poop creators into using more advanced tools for more advanced special effects. YouTube video downloaders are available both as stand-alone applications and as a free service on certain websites. The downloaders serve a crucial function in the YTP community by providing easy access not only to the universe of cultural material available on YouTube, but also to the Poops of other artists: many toys create their first Poops by downloading a favorite Poop and then modifying it. This ability to rapidly generate variants of a given Poop is the engine that powers YTP fads. Group dynamics The YTP community resembles a test-tube version of the art world:

  • Inquiries and debate on community history

  • Collaborative competitions (aka “tennis”)

  • Profiles of the stars

  • Music videos (aka “YTPMV”)

  • Social exclusions over perceived stylistic violations

  • Stylistic trends (aka “fads”)

  • References to the classics

  • Satire

  • Legal entanglements

  • Blatant ripoffs

  • Media

That such goings-on so closely parallel the art world is extraordinary, given how the vast majority of YTP participants has no discernible background in the fine arts. But even more extraordinary is the accelerated pace of YTP events, which is due entirely to the Internet’s scope and speed. For this reason the YTP community may well serve as a model for future simulation-based education and research in the visual arts.

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