Last year the electronic music duo Justice reached a global audience with their infectiously cheery single D.A.N.C.E. This year electro's favorite French pair is causing a furor with a new video that seems to illustrate perfectly the limits of the Web as a platform for artistic expression.
Stress, first posted May 1 by Justice (Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay) on the website of rap artist and producer Kanye West, is a seven-minute video depicting a group of French adolescents, visibly of African and North African descent, wreaking havoc as they swarm from their neglected homes in the outskirts or banlieues of Paris into the heart of the city, all to a grueling, nightmarish electro beat. Followed by a camera crew from their housing project to Sacre Coeur to Charles de Gaulle airport, they harass women, break a bottle over a café owner's head, fight with the police and commit a carjacking. The video ends with the car set aflame and the cameraman apparently beaten unconscious. The screen goes black, and a final, garbled voice screams in French, "Does filming this get you off, you S.O.B?" The video has been viewed more than 2 million times on platforms like YouTube and France's Dailymotion an average of 100,000 times a day since it was first posted.
But as the video rages across the Web, it leaves in its wake a flood of commentary from viewers who see it as everything from a tasteless marketing ploy to a brutally effective critique of the media's portrayal of the banlieues, the desolate and poor neighborhoods on the edge of French cities, which exploded in violence in the autumn of 2005. On a British video webforum, a viewer named Scooper enthused, "awesome powerful and driven like a car with no brakes," adding "finally a video that makes me feel something!" Blogging in Finland, DJ Orion called it Justice's "worst video to date," asking "maybe this is post-modern media criticism, but I just don't get it what's the point of showing pointless violence?" Online in France, where memories of the 2005 riots are still vivid, Nico wondered too: "If the point was to facilitate the stigmatization of a whole category of the population, it's a success."
The video was directed by Romain Gavras, cofounder of Kourtrajmé, a collective of filmmakers mostly born in France's banlieues. Kourtrajmé pays homage to the aesthetic of Mathieu Kassovitz's award-winning 1995 film La Haine (Hate), which portrayed banlieue life with brutal realism. For French online media commentator David Abiker, Stress is "a modern work of art in its own right," worthy of the son of legendary filmmaker Costa-Gavras. Stress clearly evokes groundbreaking films such as La Haine, Man Bites Dog, and Clockwork Orange. Yet for the French daily Libération, "it's above all an absence of point of view that remains." Worse, laments Le Monde, far from dispelling clichés about the banlieue, the video leaves one feeling that the filmmakers "have ended up joining those they wish to denounce."
After nearly two weeks of silence, Augé and Rosnay sought to quell the controversy by releasing a statement defending the piece as a fusion of art and entertainment. "The film was never intended as a stigmatization of the banlieue, nor an incitation to violence, nor above all, as an underhanded way to deliver a racist message," they stated. From the beginning, they said, Stress was meant to be a "clip unairable on television" for a "track unairable on the radio," and they have "refused any television broadcast of the clip, so as to impose it on no one." According to the group's record label, Because Music, the video was conceived not "as a marketing coup" but as "a parody of the way the major television channels treat the news."
So why did so many otherwise savvy consumers of popular culture not pick up on the artists' intentions? The problem may lie less in the work itself than the medium chosen for presenting it, as one viewer pointed out. "It's dangerous to do something as emotive and important as this without some kind of dialogue, set only to a music track," wrote Loz. "Set within a film, in a context, I'm sure it wouldn't feel this way."
Justice says their goal was "to open a debate, raise questions, something done regularly by cinema, literature and contemporary art." Yet YouTube is unlike any of those other media. There is no buying your ticket, no shifting in your seat with popcorn in hand; no stiff new book to crack open; no grappling with an artist's meaning in solemn galleries. Framed by neither the walls of a cinema or museum, nor the written page, YouTube is a kind of non-context, an ether from which one draws images designed for rapid, repeated consumption. Content of great value mixes with bullies terrorizing their classmates, public flatulence and some six-year-old's piano recital.
The Stress video controversy draws out precisely this dubious quality of the Web. Justice calls the hoopla a reminder of "just how difficult it is today to control the destination of images and the integrity of their meaning." Indeed, that integrity seems to get fuzzier with each new viewer clicking play and, for that matter, with each new dot-com article about it.