By Nathaniel LaCelle-Peterson
It is with little fanfare that the Internet has seeped into the day-to-day routine of life. It is a quiet medium that regurgitates pictures of my friends smiling and pointing at waterfalls or platefuls of chicken-waffles, the day’s news, the day’s think pieces about yesterday’s news, and the vague affirmation of strangers quantified in likes, “wows,” and retweets. There’s rarely a waking hour where I don’t unthinkingly reach for my phone and let myself melt down into the two-dimensional world of image and texts. I am not here to pass a judgment on these changes—they are complex, and too easily condemned out of the discomfort of change—but to explore the simple idea that art, in some capacity, reflects life. And a significant portion of our lives are now spent online.
The Internet is not devoid of people making (loosely-defined) art; YouTube, any image-sharing site, and social media make large audiences handy to anyone with WiFi. This does not mean that all of the art being made on the Internet is good—middle school boys not only comprise most YouTube comment sections, but provide us with commentaries, satires, music videos, and Minecraft “lets-play” videos—but it is exciting to think that any living room can become the stage for an audience of millions.
Living rooms with online audiences are a radical democratization of art, but the sense of intimacy they provide is a voyeuristic trick. It can feel as if you’re really there, sitting awkwardly close, on the bedroom floor of your talented friend who’s playing an overwrought cover of “Let’s Do It in the Road”—although you many think that their tasteful posters and ironic T-shirt are proof that you’re destined to be fast friends, to the onscreen kid with the guitar, you don’t exist. Off-screen, you know nothing about their life.
Bill Wurtz is one of the many amateur-turned-sensation content producers (I’m shying away from throwing “artist” around here; the difference between art and commercial content online is constantly challenged and a little arbitrary) who, for most viewers and readers, exists only as their work, in the trivial ether of the Internet.
Wurtz is most famous for his 9-minute-long, frenzied, and attention-deficient “History of Japan” YouTube video, which shares a fairly nuanced history through manipulated graphics and gratuitous lounge-jazz intrusions on his speedy narration. His commentary on various historical turning points and developments is both whimsical and informative, and the musical jingles that suddenly grip his storytelling often bookend major historical events or adjectives (“It’s time for World War One,” “Jesus,” “Trees,” and “Beautiful” are all suddenly sung and played). Besides this sole longer work, Wurtz’s videos are essentially just these bookend jingles—an unresolved chord progression, played on a synth keyboard and clean electric guitar—set to simple computer graphics of text, or webcam videos of Wurtz in his messy room. The “lyrics” are all short catchphrases, ranging from “I hate myself,” to “space toast,” to “a neat thing to do in your spare time.” The music is impossibly upbeat, which is ironically undercut by the simple, frequently sad lyrics—my personal favorite being the sung line: “Hello, thanks for checking in, I’m still a piece of garbage.” The video graphics are neon-paletted and pulled out of the deepest reaches of Microsoft Paint. The videos are painstakingly low effort—typically, they are only the text of Wurtz’s singing and small Clip art style pictures which relate to the lyrics.
There are a number of exceedingly talented and strange people on the Internet, and in some ways, Bill Wurtz is just another. His videos are not especially profound and have not created a notable cultural echo.
What I find so remarkable about him is his website (www.billwurtz.com), which houses all of these videos and a page labeled only “notebook.” Wurtz’s notebook is a blank webpage with a descending list of hyperlinked dates, all formatted by the date and time: “3.29.15 9:07 am.” That particular link, when clicked, leads to another nearly blank webpage, with “hi i know what i’m doing” written in plain font in in the upper-left corner. There are over 350 entries all similar to “3.29.15 9:07 am,” ranging from “and also one more trick is, a good way to deal with this stuff that you may have forgotten about is RAVING EXISTENTIALISM” (12.21.13 1:02 am). Some are prognostications—“one day bikes will ride themselves. so you can just stay home” (11.30.14 1:24 pm)—or tidy sayings: “going to legally change my mind” (3.1.15 4:18 am). It is a truly strange thing: why would someone so dutifully record these passing thoughts and share them with invisible digital strangers? On the whole, they seem to be little more than chuckle-worthy flotsams of consciousness. And how much can they reveal of Bill Wurtz? All the notebooks seems to do is beg you to try: try and see if you can turn these passing thoughts into an understanding, or seek and find the entries which add a layer of authentic, spontaneous humanity to an artist otherwise only available in his carefully composed videos.
I’ve read most of Wurtz’s notebook, and I haven’t been rewarded with any great, complex knowledge of Wurtz or his projects which would make his videos seem more meaningful, or my life make more sense, as a good book or song sometimes does. But there are moments where there is an arresting tenderness to the whole project—the anonymous Internet user (me) is catching a passing thought of Wurtz’s at 5 a.m., a closeness that typically, in the day-to-day world outside of a screen, we share with only our closest friends (or no one at all). But most of the time, our choice as browser-readers is rewarded (punished?) with “tag, nobody’s it” (2.17.15 10:22 pm).
“Notebook” is an intensely personal project for its sense of spontaneity, but also a lonely, alienating one. Knowing the passing thoughts of a stranger at any hour of the day is less intimate than it may sound—the interactiveness of searching through the moments of Wurtz’s mind in the notebook is no substitute for the give and take of conversation. “Notebook” is a project which deeply fascinates me, but it can’t escape the trap of Internet art—the promise of communion with a complete stranger, undercut by the alienation that seems inherent in the vast Internet.
Both through the notebook and through his larger digital footprint, Wurtz is capturing a cultural moment. His notebook can be read as a dramatization of the digital experience: both in “notebook” and the Internet at large, there is a constant give and take between moments of spontaneous humanity and random banality. For all the moments of humanity—those where, through the flat space of the Internet, you glimpse a vulnerable thought or moment of a total stranger and feel understood—there are many more moments of randomness—those where the massive size and speed of the Internet as a whole seem to overwhelm and subsume any possible glimpse of humanity.
These two contradicting sensations are what guide his videos: even when the words alone sound sincere, the music and graphics remain highly ironic. Wurtz takes the sights and sounds of the Internet and uses their context to frame his lyrics. Microsoft Paint style text and Clip art would not be the most sincere way to set the text “I hate myself,” even without the context of Internet memes, image macros, and all the other ironic, silly, ephemeral Internet content which looks like it. Perhaps it’s a better visual setting for the text “the origin of pineapples is chickens,” as neither the text nor the image attempts to be serious or significant. The use of plastic, glossy jazz frames all this—the silly and the serious—with the generic background noise of advertisement, which is unavoidable on the Internet. As he alludes to in his notebook: “i went to the hospital to see if they can remove the ads from my blood. they said it’s ok, the ads are supposed to be there” (11.7.14 10:29 pm). Advertising jingles aren’t supposed to be conveying feelings of deep isolation, or even Wurtz’s inability to write songs over 15 seconds (which is itself a recurring theme of the videos and notebook), but they do seem to come naturally to Wurtz; the mock seriousness of jingle-jazz is a perfect compliment to both sides of his own creative focus and a good sound for both the whimsical, silly side, and the spontaneously human side of the Internet, too.
The Internet is very young. As a form for possible creative expression, it’s barely begun—we’re a few decades in, which compared to the novel, song, poem, painting, or even film, is no time at all. Of course, the Internet of today will probably not be a whole lot like the Internet of tomorrow, but this moment of the Internet—a chaotic and exciting, lonely, and overwhelming place—is well-preserved in a perfect product of it: Bill Wurtz. Will he be remembered? Who knows. Regardless, his videos and words will remain, dumped into the digital void, available to all who care to click.