Famous on the Internet: Web celebs get their fifteen minutes at the Hyde Park Arts Center

Maybe someday a University of Chicago PhD candidate will become famous on the Internet. That day may not be too far off. In fact, it could be close for any of us. A 25-year-old PhD candidate at University of Minnesota, Tay Zonday, has become fairly well known since the release of his song and video, “Chocolate Rain”, on the video site YouTube. He has been featured on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” VH1, CNN; he’s also appeared in People magazine and a Dr. Pepper commercial. More than 13 million people have watched his video on YouTube.

When you search for his name on Google, it yields more than a half-million hits. Now, the young academic can add contemporary art to his repertoire. Mr. Zonday and other YouTube artists get one of their first exhibits in “You Can Be Famous on the Internet,” a video installation by artist Adam Trowbridge.

“Famous on the Internet” was born from an assignment in an MFA seminar at University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Art and Design. Students were asked to come up with a project to fill the space of Hyde Park Art Center’s Catwalk gallery. Six were chosen to have their own two-week run, including Trowbridge’s (along with his partner and wife Jessica Westbrook). Together the series is entitled “Drive-By” and UIC obtained the show through an architecture professor who designed HPAC’s new space. The gallery’s enormous projection is accessible internally and externally, as locals can walk inside the HPAC complex as well as down Cornell Street between 50th and 51st–with Tay Zonday serenading them.

Besides uploading the videos onto a program to play one after the other, Trowbridge is essentially a curator. What qualities does he look for in a video candidate? Putting aside minors, whom he doesn’t want to exploit, he looks for “real people. People who are their own stars.” He looks for “the way in which they appeal to their audience.”

Trowbridge doesn’t make any edits to the videos that contributors send him from YouTube; he simply selects, arranges the order and alignment of the five screens. As five run continuously, only one video emits sound. But won’t the quality of the picture magnified a few hundred times be, frankly, horrible? Trowbridge sees this as an aesthetic advantage. While home-production quality has greatly improved (some match TV, he believes), he’s still working with downloaded video clips. “The pixels frame rates are going to be terrible,” he said, “but I love that aesthetic of seeing the squares in pixels.” But when I spoke to him on Friday, he hadn’t ever seen the videos from the internet as big as they will end up at HPAC. Video work in the virtual age presents some interesting circumstances; “I’ve sent off work to Russia and had shows I never even saw.”

By taking these videos out of the perceived context in which they exist and offering them to the public without having to find them on the web, he seeks to “re-represent” them. The project may be a manifestation of Trowbridge’s evolution through, within, and alongside the Internet. He’s had more interaction with Chicago through the Internet than in person. As a Navy brat, he got his first computer around 8th grade, and has been posting on message boards, becoming a part of the limitless virtual community, ever since. He’s developed deeply meaningful relationships with individuals he met in the ensuing ten years. When asked about that virtual community, he said, “it’s harder [than a real one] and more difficult, but it’s possible.”

Mr. Zonday, of “Chocolate Rain,” played his first New York show at Club Europa last week. The Internet has profoundly integrated itself in our lives: Tay Zonday’s, my grandma’s, and now anyone who walks by Hyde Park Art Center. Andy Warhol notoriously said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.” Trowbridge likes a different interpretation: “In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people.”

“You Can Be Famous on the Internet,” Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. February 11-24. Monday-Thursday, 9am-8pm; Friday-Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday 12-5pm. (773)324-5520. www.hydeparkart.org