YouTube activism or YouTube art?

Curator's Note

"Nobody Wins" (2018), by trans YouTuber Sarah Zedig, is a video-essay response to another 2018 YouTube video from the popular channel ContraPoints. I consider this sensitive intertertextual close reading an important critical work on the subject of YouTube aesthetics. It also meditates on a potential conflict between the roles of online "influencer" and artist.

The ecosystem of user-generated political vlogs and video essays on YouTube has for several years been swamped by right-leaning-to-far-right voices (see this report by the Data & Society Research Institute). Natalie Wynn, creator of ContraPoints, is currently leading an overdue resistance against this "Alternative Influence Network," spearheading a growing movement of further-left-than-liberal video creators, termed "Left-Tube" by fans. A self-described "Leftist propagandist," one crucial function Wynn performs is that of the activist, or at least educator: debunking the arguments of YouTube fascists, conservatives, and reactionaries with better rhetoric, politics, and jokes.

Wynn is thus herself undoubtedly a political "influencer" (390,000 subscribers, growing mainstream coverage, etc.). She has also, however, increasingly been adapting the audiovisual vernacular of YouTube into a highly personal artistic style – a metamodern mélange of John Waters, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Monty Python. Populated by a growing cast of fractious fictional characters embodied by Wynn – from Freya the Fascist to Tabby the Antifa cat-girl – ContraPoints videos typically stage irresolvable, serio-comic, "degenerately" camp Platonic symposia for the post-Pepe era. Seldom presenting clear-cut ideological calls to action, they can sometimes resemble more, say, the satirical performance/video-art of Rachel Maclean than the conventionally vlog-like communiqués of some of her Left-Tube allies. So – should they be evaluated as activism or art? Interpreted rhetorically or aesthetically?

It’s this tension Zedig addresses, especially as it relates to ContraPoints’ large trans following. The bulk of the video she analyses – appropriately titled "The Aesthetic" – dramatises an uneasy duologue between two trans women debating whether, as public figures, they have a political obligation to attempt to appear traditionally "feminine." By refusing to resolve the issue in a manner "unproblematically self-affirming of trans people," Wynn hurt and angered some fans; Zedig too reports that this video "fed [her] demons." However, she suggests that this itself might be reframed positively if we regard the work less as YouTube activism than "YouTube art." If we focus only on ContraPoints’ potential influence, Zedig ultimately argues, "we devalue the right and desire of a transgender artist to depict her own pain in a way that isn’t safe, or kind, or helpful, or easy to digest." Because, when it comes to art, "the painful reality is that it’s all problematic…"

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