YouTube's Chris Di Cesare on legitimizing online video as an art form in its own right

YouTube has been making a lot of news of late, not only for the massive amount of user-generated content it continues to upload (24 hours worth of video every minute), or for the billions of video views its serves up every month, but for the quality of the video its bringing onto its site and the expanding programs it's offering serious aspiring video makers.

YouTube logoYouTube, having just turned five, is growing up, and like any business that survives its first half-decade, it's looking to refine its place in its industry.

Director of Creative Programming Chris Di Cesare, who joined YouTube three years ago from Microsoft, talked to FierceOnlineVideo about how YouTube--without abandoning its massive community of users--is nonetheless making a special effort to legitimize and recognize video artists, independent filmmakers and is looking at developing a more serious side.

Last year, it focused on the YouTube Symphony, which was assembled through open auditions on YouTube and with the help of the London Symphony and several other partners. The online, collaborative ensemble eventually played at New York's Carnegie Hall in April 2009, directed by Michael Tilson Thomas. More than 15 million viewers watched audition tapes by the time the concert was performed.

Since then, YouTube has also reached out to independent filmmakers, in January debuting a limited rental service for several Sundance Film Festival offerings. While the service had limited initial success, it drew raves from the independent film community for the outlet it provided.

YouTube's play for indies and a place at the VOD table continued in June when it announced a deal with Gravitas Ventures, an indie film distributor that is offering hundreds of independent titles through its branded channel GravitasVOD.

In addition to a July 9 announcement that it would offer partner grants--a $5 million program that targets YouTube's "new creative class"--just two weeks ago, YouTube rolled out support for 4K video, enough resolution to project on a 25-foot-wide screen. The implications for indie filmmakers--the first step toward an inexpensive, universal distribution channel--and their excitement about the potential was immediate.

YouTube / GuggenheimFinally, YouTube, in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, has, for about a month, been collecting video entries from more than 70 countries as part of YouTube Play, a project that will identify 20 short videos that are changing the video art form. The selected videos will be exhibited in the Guggenheim's branches around the world.

A jury for the contest--which closes July 31--includes musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson; musical group Animal Collective; visual artists Douglas Gordon, Ryan McGinley, Marilyn Minter and Takashi Murakami; artists and filmmakers Shirin Neshat Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Darren Aronofsky; and graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, with Guggenheim Chief Curator and Deputy Director Nancy Spector serving as jury chairperson.

FierceOnlineVideo: What was the throught process behind YouTube Play, your partnership with the Guggenheim Museum?

YouTube's Chris Di Cesare: We were just excited about how the YouTube Symphony project worked last year and we started thinking about the opportunity of partnering with different institutions, and changing the process a little bit and democratizing the opportunity for people from around the world. That was our basic motivating factor for the project.

YouTube PlayWhen we really started looking at content, we were surprised at some great grass roots content coming in; we were really impressed by in terms of creativity as a whole, but we were kind of surprised that it hasn't emerged yet, or been legitimized as a recognized art form.

And so, part of it was we saw this content coming in and asked ourselves "What can we do?"

Well, we started thinking about an institution that would share our vision for this and we approached the Guggenheim. One thing led to another and that's how it all kind of emerged.

FierceOnlineVideo: The Guggenheim ... no hesitation ... it just jumped right into this?

Di Cesare: They, honestly, pretty much thought hard about how the traditional curatorial process that they go through works, and about how or what YouTube works and how those two things could be married and work effectively together.

They were excited about the opportunity from the very beginning and then as we talked more and more, Nancy Spector, the chief curator at the Guggenheim, just decided to jump in with both feet. She really saw the opportunity, taking something that traditionally could be considered an elitist opportunity for some, but opening that up for the world was really something that she was excited about.

FierceOnlineVideo:  The Guggenheim's an interesting partner. There are so many others, the Museum of Modern Art, the Newseum in Washington... any more of those collaboration in the works?

Di Cesare: Well, we're looking at this as a regular event, and we're always looking for opportunities to partner in the future. We kind of are looking for an institution that kind of challenges conventions, giving online video an opportunity to legitimize as an art form.

The honest truth is the Guggenheim is a world-renown, global institution, and even though we come from very different worlds, we were surprised at how much we think in common and talk the same language.

We're very excited with how things have worked to date with the Guggenheim, and we're looking forward to more of this kind of project.

FierceOnlineVideo:  Your jury certainly is an interesting mix... It's diverse, interesting; how hard was it to put together?

Di Cesare: Well, we're fortunate in that we have two brands, YouTube and the Guggenheim that everyone on that jury knows about. I think they were excited about how this is a fairly novel effort as a whole and that really kind of helped people to kind of say "Hey, I want to be a part of this."

We really tried to have a panel that--while relatively small--also has a unique composition. We have musicians, filmmakers, and artists involved. It has males and females, it's global in scope when you have people from [graphic artist Takasi] Murakami to Animal Collective to [director Darren] Aronofsky. As you would imagine, there was a lot of discussion in terms of making sure we had a panel that we felt would be the best kind of judges of this work. We're pretty excited about where it ended up.

Guggenheim / YouTubeFierceOnlineVideo:  How do they get through 6,000 videos?

Di Cesare: Actually, as submissions come in, the Guggenheim curatorial staff is reviewing the content. They're narrowing it down to 200, what we're calling the short list. It's the 200 short list videos that will go to the jury in order to arrive at the 20.

It's a process that's been going on for some time and then they'll go from there.

FierceOnlineVideo:  This has had to be a challenge for the Guggenheim...

Di Cesare: What's interesting is that even though it's not turned overnight, it's been a big change for the Guggenheim's curatorial staff, the process is so different from what they're used to.

The museum's traditional curatorial process sometimes can take years, where they evaluate an artist's work and look at historical content, in order to plan an exhibit.

Using the web is unique unto itself, and then using one video versus historical work and then just the speed in terms of evaluation is just really changing the convention in terms of what is involved in terms of curation. Even though it isn't overnight, for the curators at the Guggenheim, it's a very unique dynamic. It's different than anything they've ever done before.

FierceOnlineVideo: So, no drunken cats or skateboard accidents?

Di Cesare: Well, listen, I guess we have to just keep it open to whatever comes in... I mean Andy Warhol, his work was fairly unique unto itself, but it's art. Art is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Seriously, though, there are, a lot of different video creators out there doing mind-blowing work. When you have 24 hours of content coming in every minute on YouTube, some of it just doesn't get the exposure it deserves. This really will elevate video creativity and highlight what's taking place around the word.

But YouTube is like society, it has everything... skateboarding dogs to artistic work.

FierceOnlineVideo:  The Sundance project, the Symphony, The Guggenheim, 4K video, the Partner Grants, it's really an interesting evolution for YouTube. Is this something we'll be seeing more of? Is it a new direction for YouTube?

Di Cesare: We're always looking for opportunities and there is a degree where--we just passed our five-year anniversary--where YouTube is maturing and different brands are finally embracing the video marketplace. You're starting to see opportunities like some of the ones you're mentioning now coming into being. For the first few years, people were just trying to get their head around "what is this new medium and how am I supposed to think about it?"

Now, there's more business related, promotional and project related things that we're starting to see. It's all happening at a quicker pace and it's being much more readily accepted than I saw in my first few years.

FierceOnlineVideo:  YouTube as an innovator? From the thought-process side of things?

Di Cesare: It's hard sometimes to figure out how you can do things like this at scale and make it something special. We ask ourselves, "What can we do to really put the control in the hands of our users, and be the platform that can enable things to take place that otherwise couldn't without us helping?"

We're trying to provide an opportunity for ordinary people to be put in extraordinary opportunties. Things like the Symphony, like Play, are good examples of that; where we really think that everyone wins in this situation.

Our goal is the democratization of this art form, its legitimization. And, really, it's about providing recognition to these amateurs, these unknown video creators.