YOUTUBE AS A SUBJECT: Interview with Constant Dullaart

By Cecilia Guida

Constant Dullaart (the Netherlands, 1979) is a visual artist who ironically explores new modes of imagining and using the internet as a medium. His research is focused on the contemporary language of images and re-contextualizing material found on the Web. For him, the Web is a space, a landscape, a world to investigate in all its various parts, from the ‘default’ style of the platform, to its contents, and its popularity and widespread use. His works are widely discussed online and have been shown internationally. Having participated in 2009 at Video Vortex #5 in Brussels where he presented on his artistic practice that uses online video, this interview connects the ideas presented there through focusing particularly on his series ‘YouTube as a Subject’. Taking his work on the image of the YouTube play button as a point of departure, the conversation reflects on the social theories of Marshall McLuhan, perceptions of artwork on the YouTube platform, questions regarding the position of the artist, the relationship between online and physical spaces, and the interaction of the audience in the era of the ‘participatory culture’ of the Net.

The website of Constant Dullaart:


Cecilia Guida: In your series of short videos titled ‘YouTube as a Subject’ (2008) no people are visible in the work. On a black background the familiar image of the YouTube play button falls off the screen, bounces as a ball, grows out of focus or changes colour by the sound of techno music. The button is at the same time the starting point and subject of the work. Through a simple and smart gesture you reflect upon the digitalization of our contemporary visual culture, and call the spectators’ attention to meditate upon the relationship between the user interface and the moving image in logical and semiotic terms. For you, where did the idea for ‘YouTube as a Subject’ emerge?

Constant Dullaart: First of all I have to say that I disliked the YouTube design and video quality in 2005 when it started to come out—the chaotic site structure, the badly designed layout, and the obnoxious play button. After a few years it was clear that YouTube had won the battle of online video hosting companies, and it started to function as an archive (practical contemporary rights issues that avoid it from functioning in this way, and the 10 minute time limit aside), not only as a medium that was breaking with the authority of the expensive craft of the moving image professional. This caused me to wonder why the obnoxious play button had not been used as a subject since it was the first image people would see before watching all these important reference videos, art, wedding, news, etc. The play button is the starting point regardless of whether it’s a meme video, a Joseph Beuys performance, a Warhol screen test, or an instructional video. Every single one starts with the same image.

CG: In the Sixties early video art united negative and positive criticism about the technology, and offered alternatives for a traditional approach to the medium. Fluxus artists were pioneers in these investigations. Among them, Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik used techniques such as détournement, manipulation, repetition, slowing down and speeding up images, etc. in order to explore the technical limits and possibilities of the medium. In particular, Paik incorporated the ideas of Marshall McLuhan in his work, specifically exploring video as a form of social experiment to bring people closer together and a suitable medium for audience participation. Do you relate to these strategies of technical investigation, and to video as a form of social practice, in your work?

CD: Comparisons between media are often made around a whole range of issues, from the anxieties and fears during their establishment in society (such as the predominantly negative influence on children of video games, television, graphic novels or even books),  to the celebration of a medium’s influence on a better future, to the announcements of their so called deaths or exits from daily use in society.

To apply this comparison to an artist’s research of a medium is a simple step.

For this artist’s research, first, the technical possibilities of the medium are often explored, and art is made to exhibit these capabilities. These works tend to catch the attention of the general public more often in the beginning establishment of a medium. Why this works in this way exactly I have never understood. It seems like the medium is still suffering from a lack of original medium specific content, and needs to attract attention by showcasing its capabilities. These conclusions are difficult to draw between the internet as a medium and older media such as painting. But the comparisons can be made between the birth of the film camera, the influence of photography on contemporary western image language, and very recently,
video art. But then the internet contains several developing social media, like mail and text driven media, so it is hard to compare it to a single older medium, especially since it is so dynamic.

The second step would be to find the boundaries of the technical capabilities, whether it’s human / user related or medium related.

The third step of this medium research would be to view the young medium on a metaphysical level: not only what is the use of the medium, but also how is it being used, and what is the meaning of this usage? After this, the medium’s content could escape the process as described above and it should be able to be used with more authentic or medium specific content. An example to understand it would be the filmmaker Andrej Tarkowski. As the formal and technical possibilities of the cinema movie had been researched in the 20’s, he found an ‘adult’ medium to work with knowing a lot of the medium implications and playing with it in more detail. He used the medium specific qualities to enhance the content and tell an authentic story disconnected from the medium itself. Let’s say that for now in relation to internet: the medium is more interesting than most of its content.

My ‘YouTube as a Subject’ work can be seen as a reference to Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the Medium is the message’, although I thought of the work more as purely formal in the sense that the form was the content. You could say that if the form is the medium, then form became the message. But, I think this series of my work was not about the implications of the social web or of mass social online video hosting, it was not dealing with the hotness or the coldness of the medium as McLuhan would describe it. It was more about the specificity of one corporation existing within the medium. YouTube itself is not a medium. To have the work exist outside of YouTube was important to me. To collect my videos and contextualize them outside of YouTube (on an html page with embedded videos) meant it was about the player, and not so much about the social part of the website, to separate it more from ‘the Medium is the Message’ idea.

*** Interview to be continued in the second Video Vortex Reader, currently in production at the INC***