Guggenheim “YouTube Play” Artists
Andrew Nicholas McCann Smith and Rob Stockman (writers/producers)
Aaron Phelan (director)
It’s official: YouTube has democratized art. Now a talented artist from Bison, Kansas has precisely the same chance as anyone else to see their work presented in a preeminent museum – this is something to celebrate!
The Guggenheim Museum, in partnership with YouTube, kicked off in June its first ever YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video, which “aims to discover and showcase the most exceptional talent working in the ever-expanding realm of online video, regardless of genre, technique, background, or budget.”
In the open call for submissions, they received 23,000 videos from 91 countries. The jury – comprised of artists such as the music group Animal Collective, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, and visual artist Takashi Murakami – whittled the thousands of submissions down to a mere 125 Shortlisted works. From this Shortlist, 20 pieces will be selected for the Biennial exhibition to be held October 22-24 at the Guggenheim in New York, while other selected pieces will be on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao; and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.
As I perused the shortlisted videos, I was drawn to one called Home: Soup, where we meet a senior named Rose living in a retirement home. She’s trying to accomplish the once-simple act of eating tomato soup. (see film below) I was drawn in because it forced me to think of mortality and the idea of aging with dignity. Growing old is the inevitability we all face, but in our hurried, over-scheduled lives do we stop to connect with our elders…and if we don’t, will anyone connect with us when we are the frail person trying to get a soup spoon to our mouths?
You can’t watch Soup without thinking about how cyclical human life can be. In the short film, we also see a retirement home employee show her exasperation at the mess Rose has made of her shirt. I relate to that nurse’s sentiment – as a mom of young children, I’ve had moments when I react with similar frustration to seeing my kids with their breakfast all over their clothes, forgetting the fact that they were feeding themselves to the best of their ability. Busy lives and compassion need to co-exist.
Soup, created by Aaron Nicholas McCann Smith, Robert Stockman and Aaron Phelan, is one of 6 short films in a series they made called Home. In this series of films set in a retirement home, the filmmakers intend to shed light on their idea that it is a “misconception that we grow wiser, learn from our mistakes, and become more human” as we grow older.
The Canadian trio share more insight in the q&a – you’ll see that they’re not only thoughtful filmmakers, but also entertaining people. And if anyone goes to Canada, bring back Coffee Crisps! (see the Proust Questionnaire)
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The three of you are young and you picked a topic about people on the other end of the age spectrum. How did you decide on this subject matter…and are you already so acutely aware of your mortality?
Aaron: As a new(ish) dad, I’ve started seeing the world through another set of eyes. Things look and feel different in the different seasons of life, but for Rose (the character in the film), soup is eternally delicious.
Rob: I was walking by a retirement home and someone had written ‘mortality sucks’ on the sidewalk in the pavement and I thought it would be cute if an old man wrote that in the pavement with a cane.
Andrew: My grandpa died in a nursing home, and my great aunt had arthritis, which she used as an excuse to cheat at cards. She was my inspiration for this video. Now I’m watching my dad become a senior. It’s scary. Are we aware of our own mortality?
Rob: Yeah. Isn’t everybody?
Your own synopsis about the Home series states that it addresses the “misconception that we grow wiser” as we grow older. I had a different reaction after watching Soup – it made me reflect on mortality, end of life and on the fact that we must find ways in our Western culture to treat all aging humans with the dignity and respect they deserve. What reaction or call to action do you hope to elicit from viewers, and what other feedback have you received from people after they view the film(s)?
Rob: From the beginning, we really wanted to show that ‘seniors’ aren’t second-class citizens, but that they are people and they have their own types of problem.
Andrew: We’re going for both emotional response and humor. Part of it is to question our own mortality, but also to be able to laugh at what happens when we age.
Aaron: The point is not that old people are wise, or beautiful, but that they are real. And this is a phase of life that people are afraid to talk about – in film, in television, and in general. We wanted take viewers to a place where they wouldn’t go on their own.
Andrew: I like the reactions we’re getting. My favorite YouTube comment was “brutally subtle” and The Independent (UK newspaper) called it “pleasingly simple.” I find it interesting that a quarter of our YouTube responses consistently click the ‘dislike’ button, which just goes to show it’s not the easiest thing to watch, because it does elicit conflicting emotions.
Rob: I don’t think I’d want to make something everyone liked.
Soup was one of 125 shortlisted videos out of 23,000 submissions. What do you think made your film stand out to the jury of the Guggenheim YouTube Play competition?
Andrew: It’s short.
Rob: It’s funny and sad at the same time. Which is such a simple thing. And we had such a wicked performance from Winnie (she plays the character Rose.)
Aaron: For me this scene jumped off the page, from my very first reading of the some thirty scripts that Andrew and Rob gave me. As other people joined the project they said much the same thing. I think the moment between Rose, her soup and us as observers is both original and iconic. It creates a lasting mark on the imagination and I was glad to be able to actually capture it in film.
Were the actors involved in the 6 short films trained actors, or are they residents at the retirement home?
Aaron: Neither. Winnie MacIsaac is a dear friend. This is her first acting role and she took it on with great zeal. In casting the entire production we sought out people who simply had the character in them, regardless of their level of experience, and then just strategized on how to bring that personality out in the performance…
Andrew: …and in editing.
When you initially created the Home series, where did you expect to show it? Will you put all six short films on YouTube at some point so we can view the entire cycle?
Andrew: It was originally conceived to be a TV show. Our intention with the shorts was to put them on YouTube to gain interest and then approach production companies, but since we’re getting such a good response we’re planning to take the series around to film festivals first.
It was obviously a good choice, but out of all six films in the Home series why did you choose to submit Soup for the Guggenheim’s competition?
Rob: It’s the most poetic. It’s very quiet, I could see it in a gallery.
Andrew: It’s also very universal, because it doesn’t really have much talking.
Aaron: It is a solo performance. A great deal of intimacy is created with the viewer, and that speaks to how powerful the experience of connecting with the world online can be. But there’s also an element of voyeurism, both in this scene and in general, with viewing the world through your computer screen.
What were your reactions when you discovered you’d been selected for the shortlist?
Andrew: I was happy.
Rob: I didn’t think much of it until I started looking at the other submissions and the promo tape that the Guggenheim made. And I didn’t realize there were 23,000 submissions, I thought there were 2,300.
Aaron: We had a celebratory pillow fight.
Andrew: I don’t remember that.
Prior to entering the Guggenheim’s competition, had you used YouTube as a distribution vehicle? Is it common practice for artists to use YouTube as a “gallery” to have their work seen?
Andrew: We’ve never used it before. I think it’s pretty uncommon for artists to use YouTube as a “gallery,” because the internet isn’t a high-brow place and it’s hard to get funding to just put the work on the internet.
Aaron: Our original idea was to upload some totally tragic scenes from Home involving a well-known brand-name pharmaceutical, get lots of views, get sued and get even more views.
What’s next for you three?
Aaron: We chose just 6 of 30 scripts about the retirement home. I’d love to bring the other 24 scripts to life.
Rob: To get “Home” on HBO.
Andrew: We’re also working on getting funding for a quiet poetic 3D short set in the forests of Northern Ontario.
My favorite snack is:
Rob: Ketchup chips
Andrew: Coffee Crisp or fruit leathers (Coffee Crisp is a presumably awesome Canadian candy bar)
Rob: Coffee Crisp! Can I do my top ten?
Don’t ask me to:
Aaron: watch “The Bachelor/Bachelorette”
Rob: get up before 10 am
Andrew: you can ask me anything
I would put into a time capsule my:
Aaron: my favorite indy vinyl from 1996
Rob: My cat, Luso
Andrew: His cat, Luso
My favorite place is:
Aaron: The former site of Expo ‘67
Andrew: Right now my favorite place is the Bell Lightbox (a new cutting-edge film center in Toronto)
Rob: Mine too
When I have a creative block I:
Aaron: solve a technical problem
Andrew: Listen to Joanna Newsom
Rob: Kind of do nothing
My favorite mantra is:
Aaron: big things are just made up of small pieces
Andrew: trust your instincts
Rob: K-I-C. Keep it concise. Honestly, I don’t think I have a mantra.