Visual Culture

Why the Internet Is Obsessed with These Videos of People Making Things

Casey Lesser
Dec 10, 2016 1:16AM

This past spring, artist Annette Labedzki unknowingly inserted herself into a social media phenomenon. It began when she stumbled upon a video on her Instagram feed—a close-up of a few dabs of paint that a person rhythmically swirled together with a palette knife. Labedzki, a painter herself, was inspired to start making videos of her own paint-mixing activities. So she began adding new videos to her Instagram regularly, sometimes posting as many as four in a day, varying color, technique, and composition. Her follower count exploded.

Five months and over 280,000 new followers later, Labedzki is among the top drivers of what’s become known as the “paint-mixing” trend that’s swept social media and the internet. In June, around the time this trend first peaked, art critic Jonathan Jones wrote in favor of it on his polemic Guardian blog, pointing to the pleasing materiality of paint. “The paint stays wet, raw, and sexy,” he wrote. “The people posting these videos are re-enacting the story of painting.”

Indeed, these videos emphasize material, texture, tactility. And there’s a sense of gratification to be gleaned from watching one person’s creativity unfold—all in under a minute. This double-pronged appeal is true of a host of popular video genres that have taken Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube by storm—all of which involve a person making something by hand. The “something” being made ranges from a ceramicist working at a pottery wheel to a cook whipping up a bacon mac ‘n’ cheese pot pie. So why are these videos becoming more and more popular now? And how are individuals capitalizing on this trend?

Psychologist Dr. Larry Rosen, an expert in the “psychology of technology” attributes the popularity of such videos to the rise of smartphones and our ever-busier schedules. “We have become a society that has become more visually directed,” Rosen noted. Therefore, “visual stimuli will have more attention-grabbing power than auditory stimuli so these videos would be quite attractive.” Rosen points in particular to videos like those found on BuzzFeed’s food-focused vertical Tasty, the rocketship growth of which has become legendary in digital media circles. Across channels, Tasty’s videos now reach over 500 million people monthly, generating upwards of 1.5 billion views.

BuzzFeed launched Tasty on July 31, 2015 and quickly overhauled the time-honored traditions of cookbooks. Mostly shot from a bird’s eye view, any given video may cut from mixing bowl to butcher’s block to oven in a seamless hyperlapse episode that can be consumed in 60 seconds or less on your Instagram or Facebook feed. Ingredients are procured delightfully from thin air before anonymous hands whip together a neat tray of chicken parmesan stuffed garlic bread or a batch of cookies ‘n’ cream brownie cheesecake bars.

The videos’ viral success has led BuzzFeed to launch regional channels devoted to various global cuisines—Proper TastyBien Tasty, and Tasty Japan among them. They’ve also spun off a version of Tasty for the DIY community, called Nifty, where viewers can learn how to craft a wine crate coffee table or pack for a trip with incredible efficiency.

“Each idea needs to either teach something (like a hack or a technique) or improve on an experience that people already know about,” says Jessica Probus, director of market and Nifty for BuzzFeed. “The main through-line between all our [Nifty] videos is that they help people live smarter, whether it’s a shortcut or a time-saver or a money-saver, all our ideas are geared towards helping people live better on a smaller budget.”

Psychologist Dr. Ben Michaelis, who specializes in creativity, happiness, and mental health, notes that these videos also appeal to broad audiences because of their accessibility. “They allow people to feel like they can do these activities,” Michaelis says. Whether or not viewers step into the kitchen or workshop, “the videos bring us into the creative process, which is an inherently intimate process. It feels like we are getting a secret peek in on a creative experience.”

Ceramic artists like Eric Landon have capitalized on Michaelis’s latter point through Instagram. Landon regularly posts videos of himself creating vessels on the pottery wheel, sometimes manipulating a lump of clay into a giant vase; and at other times, focusing on the plasticity of his mesmerising medium. Less oriented towards a direct learning experience than the Tasty and Nifty channels, Landon’s videos offer a mesmerizing and calming experience of repetition and material—a shared attribute with the paint-mixing videos. This is central to the feedback that Labedzki has received from her followers. “They watch the videos to help them with anxiety or to help them fall asleep,” she says.

By watching these videos, we’re offered a momentary escape from the activity of our everyday lives, and the ability to induce a state similar to that achieved through mindfulness activities that have likewise gained huge popularity in recent years. “Paint-mixing videos, and other videos of similarly repetitive actions, are quite calming to the mind because of the repetition itself,” Michaelis explains. “There is strong evidence that the calm that is induced through meditation and prayer comes about because the repetition provides a temporary suspension of the sense of self. These videos and other repetitive actions may produce a state known as ‘transient hypofrontality,’” he says, describing a temporary state of underactivity in the part of the brain that controls “sense of self.”

For Labedzki, the videos have also become an important extension of her artistic practice. Not only does she use the paints she mixes in her videos for her artworks, the act of mixing paint has become, for her, a performative act in itself. “These videos are performance art for me. I listen to the audience, and I perform for them, ” she says. “If the fans like a certain sound, then I give them more of that sound. If they love certain colors or palette knives then I give them more of those.” Video offers opportunities to artists whose work does not traditionally render well in photographs; it gives all artists the opportunity to share an abridged visual story of an actual painstaking process that goes into their creations. And importantly, as was the case with the paint-mixing trend, artists can tap into new audiences, including those that may have little to no current interest in art.

Casey Lesser
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Director of Content.