John Green & Sarah Urist Green Tell Us About 'The Art Assignment' & Their Quest To Mesh the Art & Internet Culture
The Green family is already an Internet phenomenon. Two of the most influential video bloggers out there, John and Hank Green have been doing their online-thing for going on seven years now. In that time, they — along with their collaborators and community of fans, the two of which often overlap and go by the name of "Nerdfighter" (no, they don't fight nerds) — have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charitable causes, been innovators in multiple arenas of online content-creation, and just in general made the Internet a brighter, more awesome place to be. Plus they're just fun.
Now, in a collaboration with PBS, another Green will be joining the online video fold: Sarah Urist Green will be teaming with John for The Art Assignment , a series that's looking to mash the worlds of "high-brow" art and "low-brow" Internet communities together in a way that challenges the very idea that brows exist, except for on your forehead.
I've written the praises of the Green family multiple times in the past (and will no doubt continue to do so in the future), so my surprise at the announcement of The Art Assignment had a little to do with my immediate pleasure about its existence and a lot more to do with who was hosting: John's wife Sarah, who has long been considered some sort of mystical being among Nerdfighters, will use her vast experience and expertise in the art world to headline this new show.
The Art Assignment finds Sarah traveling around the country (with John tagging along), meeting with artists in their own space, who then assign the at-home audience easily accessible projects that likely won't require a trip to the art store. As the press release announcing the show describes it, it will "celebrate risk-taking in the creative process and the act of making."
I was able to talk with John and Sarah recently about the show, their excitement in bridging the art-Internet gap, and how Sarah feels about being called "The Yeti."
"We didn't have any good ideas, so we reached out to different people in our lives who we like and know," John said of the time several months ago when PBS approached him and Hank with the idea of a collaboration. "Sarah pitched this idea and created The Art Assignment, and of all the ideas we cooked up this was the one that they were the most excited about and that we were most excited about and the one that ended up happening."
"At first I kind of said no," Sarah says of her initial response to the idea. She has, after all, been known throughout Nerdfighteria as "The Yeti" for years now, in reference to the fact that she rarely, if ever, appears in Vlogbrothers videos, yet features heavily in their mythology. John's the one who's spent all these years on-camera talking about everything from the complications of health care to giraffe sex (which, weirdly, is still their most-watched video). Now, it's Sarah's turn.
It's not as if Sarah Urist Green has been inactive in the time that her husband has been taking over the Internet — in fact, far from it: She's has been a well-respected public figure in her own field, curating contemporary art for the Indiana Museum of Art (IMA) and generally making a splash with her intelligence, know-how, and wit.
And in fact, it's that know-how — combined with what she's witnessed her husband accomplish online — that contributed to inspiring this next endeavor.
"I've been working in museums for many years now and hadn't really seriously considered it," she says. "But the more I thought about it the more I saw this as an opportunity to think about a sort of wider audience, and a way to bring my contemporary art curating skills to play on the Internet."
"I think ultimately my goal is that sort of built-in Internet audience — there's a bunch of people who are already working creatively and doing a lot of interesting projects, and to both expose working artists from the more formal art world to that creative outlet and to that Internet audience, and then vice-versa. Opening up people who are comfortable being creators online but not necessarily frequenting museums and galleries all too often; I feel like there's sort of a cross-feed between those worlds."
It's something collaborative art production companies like Joseph Gordon Levitt's hitRECord have touched upon, but this endeavor has less of an emphasis on the finished project and more on bridging the divide between the people whose work is displayed in museums and those in the audience watching and making things at home.
"There are so many people who don't think of themselves as art viewers," said John, "who don't think of themselves as liking or being interested in contemporary art, who in many cases just haven't been exposed to contemporary art in that right way, so that's one thing we're gonna be trying to do."
"Contemporary art is so multidisciplinary now," Sarah agrees, "and it's so many things that's not just painting or sculpture — there's found art, video art, and there are a lot of things that exist online. I'm excited for frequent Internet users to kind of make that realization."
As for how it feels to be moving from museum curation into a gig in front of the camera? "I'm terrified!" she exclaims, laughing. "But in a good way. I think whenever something is intimidating it means you're learning something, and I think it'll be fun. I'm excited to do this — with John — and bring artists in front of the camera as well."
And for John, who's collaborated heavily with his brother for so long (and will continue to do so) — what's it like now working with his wife in a professional capacity?
"It's very exciting," he says, "I've always been a huge admirer of Sarah's work and her passion and her commitment and her professionalism in her career, but at the same time I'm very much in the background on this. I'm excited to, you know, travel with her and meet these artist. But you know, it's her show." They assure me, as well, that they've already got some experience under their belts when it comes to visiting studios together.
"John's been traveling with me and doing studio visits with me for many years now," says Sarah. "I mean, of course I do a lot of studio visits on my own, but we've always had so much fun doing that together when we've had the opportunity, so it's kind of making us fulfill something that of course happens anyway when husbands and wives are involved in each other's careers." "I really love doing these visits with Sarah, and I always find it fascinating," says John. "And I've always played the role of the person who doesn't know anything about contemporary art, so the show will be very natural coming from that."
In fact, you can see snippets of one of their art-related travels in one of my favorite Vlogbrothers videos, "Thoughts From Places: Small Town America," which also coincidentally lead to the solving of a small Internet mystery through the sleuthing of Nerdfigheria — perhaps exactly the kind of community engagement they're looking for in The Art Assignment?
The couple both say, after all, that what they're most looking forward to about the show is the opportunity to see that the community at home will create.
"I'm excited to see the work that people make as the assignments," says John. "I'm really excited to see all this cool an interesting stuff that people will make together." Sarah feels similarly: "I'm super interested to see them looking at the work and responding to the work."As for how she's responded to the nickname "The Yeti"?
"Well, when the nickname originated I had no idea that this video blog was gonna go on for so long!" she says of New Year 2007, when the Vlogbrothers videos kicked off as "Brotherhood 2.0," a challenge between Hank and John to see if they could go one year without communicating textually.
"I was much more private and almost afraid of putting myself out there on the Internet. Since then, though, as I've been working in museums — I'm in museum videos, I have a very public life here at [IMA], I speak publicly a lot, so people who have wanted to find out who I am have been able to for a while now. So I think I'm just — I'm ready now to acknowledge now that I'm no longer really 'The Yeti,' but I'm a full person.""It's been strange for us for a long time," adds John, "because Sarah has been having this very successful career as a curator — and a very public career. She speaks all the time to large audiences, but you know, in the world of our videoship she's been this semi-anonymous person. That has been changing these past couple years, so I don't think it's a huge transition, but it is a little bit of one."The Art Assignment doesn't premiere until early 2014, but until then you can subscribe to the show's channel and watch the promo here: