Kevin B. Lee, a filmmaker and film critic who has produced almost 200 video essays exploring film and media, has been called “King of the Video Essays” by the New York Times. In 2014, Lee released “Transformers: The Premake,” a twenty-five minute exploration and critique that begins with amateur fan-made YouTube videos and expands into the financial and cultural implications of Transformers 4 before the juggernaut even hit theaters, all via computer screen. He’s also combed through YouTube to create an unofficial showcase of the video and film art in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the concept of the desktop documentary.
A: The idea of the desktop documentary is a subgenre of desktop cinema, where the general premise is having the video take place entirely on a computer screen and using that interface to tell the story in a cinematic way, using the normality of our daily online activities to tell stories about our lives. In relation to non-fiction story matter, it raises a lot of questions about reality and distance.
Q: How did the Transformers premake project get started?
A: The original concept was just to shoot a conventional observational documentary about Transformers 4 filming in Chicago—the city’s filmmaking culture and industry, the impact on public space and how it was changing people’s experiences of the city. It was also an attempt to get away for a bit from the video work I’d been doing from behind the computer screen and go outside and actually film. I planned to just stake out the locations and observe, seeing a piece of something and guessing what it might be as part of the full picture. It’s really a clever marketing gimmick to make the filming become such a spectacle, to encourage people to make a specific connection to carry with you. It became very hard to get access and I kept noticing other people in the same places doing the same. It was definitely humbling, it felt a lot less unique and special. Then when I looked on line I found 355 videos of a huge breadth and quality, with different points of interests. 355 “behind the scenes” videos before it was even finished. And that made me wonder, could I make a version before it finished—a premake? What would that look like?
Q: How did you decide to use the desktop documentary format to organize all the material you were finding?
A: I tried putting it together as a straight-up documentary, but I felt something was missing. I spent hours trying to put the video clips and my own footage and all the background I had gathered from other sites together trying to make sense of it. Then I was meeting with my adviser and I clicked all of them at once, and all the windows opened up, like an explosion, and my adviser said that was the most interesting part he’d seen. So then I saw it as the desktop experience just waiting to be put together, with the desktop as the setting and the location for telling the story. From there it was just a mater of moving things on the screen in a way that made sense. It was all together a nine month process, and six of those months were before I started putting it together in desktop form. Then I was just screen-recording non-stop. The project had a new life at that point.
Q: Can you describe how you put the final project together?
A: The video moves through some general thematic areas. Why is [amateur filming and posting videos] allowed, which leads into considering crowd-sourced marketing, and the innocent wonder of people watching versus the commercial promotion of the film, the advertising through free or unknown labor, all seemed very endemic to the times we live in now.
Then there were issues of geography, why they were shooting in different locations, which opened up into issues of tax incentives and cities hoping to raise their cultural profile, and even odd disparities that seem surreal, like the transformation of downtown Detroit streets to look like Hong Kong. And that leads to questions about why there is such a strong Chinese presence in the movie, which led into looking at the Chinese film industry in the global film market.
And all of these coincided with this particular film breezing through Chicago with such global marketing force, a juggernaut, literally taking on the biggest movie franchise of the year. There were people pooh-poohing the project, saying it wasn’t worth investigating because it was so dumb and so massive. But ordinary people were being captivated by it, and it isn’t any less important as a cultural phenomenon.
Q: Did any kind of copyright issues come up?
A: I did encounter some videos that were being taken down, and when I followed up with people to ask, it was often hard to tell what it was about those particular videos that were removed compared to others that stayed up. It seemed a bit arbitrary, which adds kind of a sinister side, reminding you that there’s always someone at the end ready to pull the plug. I’ve been a film critic for ten years, and have had video essays taken down for copyright reasons. It can get frustrating, since it doesn’t feel to me like I’m approaching it as a commercial project, but really just out of my love for movies. It’s always about being aware though. Some of the videos I found for the premake were shot by someone in Detroit, who posted his videos saying they couldn’t be used, because he was going to make money from them. It’s a little ironic that he was copying the logic of ownership and of DMCA wording from the sources he himself was filming independently.
Q: After seeing and studying all this material, did it change how you saw the film when it was finally released?
A: I could barely watch it as a movie. It just seemed like a giant business development that I kept seeing in terms of its component parts. It was a completely different perspective. Maybe it’s worth it to watch a movie that way. Finding the value, finding the perspective to see something you couldn’t see before, to find that vantage point and share it.
Q: What gave you the idea of creating a YouTube list from the AIC’s video collection?
A: The Art Institute project actually came about as a follow up to the Transformers premake, looking for a chance to get away from the Hollywood world of filmmaking and wanting to be more immersed in the world of film and video in the context of the gallery. Walking through the museum with my advisor Bruce Jenkins, there were only 1 or 2 works on display, and when I looked at the catalog I saw how it was really only one to two percent of the museum’s collection. That raised real questions—if the legacy and the body of film and video art is not accessible even from a custodian like the Art Institute, how will the public ever find out about them? With the Transformers project I had found hundreds of videos documenting the process around the world, so I searched online for every single work. I found over half the collection on YouTube, so then it was a question of figuring out how to understand them.
Q: What kind of observations were you able to make about the videos on YouTube?
A: There were three kinds of videos for the most part—the works themselves, in a digital format, as if you were actually watching it; site filmings, where someone who has gone to the museum and found it on display films it, so a crowdsourced kind of documentation; and remixes and remakes. There are a lot of those from Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandoes (1964)—you get Kustom Cycle Kommandoes and Kustom Cat Kommandoes and so on. Those are a real product of internet meme culture that I find delightful, that these videos can take on a new life when they join the Internet domain.
Q: Were you surprised to find so many of the works had been independently uploaded?
A: I was surprised to find that there were so many on YouTube—the guards will tell you not to film but obviously a lot gets captured anyway. It’s interesting that some museums are trying to work with this—the Museum of Modern Art in New York has an app for visitors, that encourages a kind of engagement that also becomes a kind of curated marketing resource provided through crowdsourcing. But even there I saw a guard stopping people from filming. There’s a disconnect between guidelines and ideas—the terms between artists and museums to protect the artist’s intellectual property rights and the visitors’ agenda to share that are shaped by the social media, and museums being mediators between the scarcity economy of art and the attraction to social media and community-based free market exchange and crowd sourcing. They definitely see the energy all of that contains. It’ll be interesting to see if museums will make attempts to work with artists to produce works to galvanize that kind of activity, and if some artists might approach work specifically with this intentionality.
Q: The videos on your playlist are organized by popularity, in terms of most YouTube views. Why did you decide to arrange it that way?
A: Organizing the videos by popularity again speaks to the issue of value, how we find value in encountering them. It raises interesting questions about what makes certain ones popular, how they translate to the logic of YouTube and how that impacts the value. How does being online change the reaction? What pieces stimulate other online behaviors, such as sharing or liking or watching to completion. How one context changes to another.
Q: Did you talk with the curators about why more of these pieces aren’t on display, or accessible, to museum visitors?
A: I met with some curators and they understandably brought up limited space concerns, as well as limits on replicating the display context for some of those pieces, which definitely raises questions about where you go to experience art work. Do you really experience the aura of the work’s presence, or are you experiencing a copy? It’s a trade-off: everything gets put under lock and key so it can only be accessed as intended versus having wider access, and the idea that it is worth being able to experience something even at the remove of a digital format.
Q: You actually recreated Bruce Naumann’s Clown Torture, the most-viewed video on the list. Tell us about that.
A: In a way it was like the premake, to make my own version using online footage and documentation of the room and especially seeing other people filming it. It’s the most popular artwork video on the YouTube list; are there certain works that can inspire or elicit the response in the viewer to film? The documentation also becomes really fascinating, as we seen a general trend of viewers moving from one end to the other in the same way, we can really see the patterns and how people look at things. So what can we learn from that, about how we as an audience react to any given piece? What does it mean, and how can we break out of that? Or how can we make use of patterns in phone use? Experimental iPhone filiming, using it in ways that you’re not supposed to—I tried running, throwing the phone, just new ways to engage with the room and see things you couldn’t see otherwise. It was really evolving my whole experience with the installation—what else could be done? Now it’s the audience that has the ability to respond. How do we use the technology we have now to create our own way of looking? Even if it’s about pre-existing material, why not take full advantage of that rather than just follow the descriptions and patterns in place?
Lee is editor in chief of the Press Play blog at Indiewire and a founding editor and video essayist for Fandor. His work can also be found at his blog, Shooting Down Pictures, at Vimeo, and at alsolifelike.com.