Tiyan Baker: The Witness – Portrait of r/WatchPeopleDie (2017)

There’s an internet community for everything. You haven’t even dreamed of the niches within niches out there, in the muddy depths of unpublicised YouTube channels and discussion forums. Tiyan Baker’s video portraits of loneliness have won major awards. Here, she turns her attention to create a side-glancing portrait of one internet community: people who post and watch videos of other people dying—on Reddit. Some people like to do this—881 people, to be precise. The extremely NSFW forum is highly regulated, populated with threads that must have a descriptive title, along the lines of:

“A couple having a late night kiss on a road are struck and killed by a drunk driver.” “Car sliding sideways takes out a guy, he stays upright while it shoves him into the wall.” “Woman busy texting fails to see water in front of her and drowns.”

There are further rules. “There must be a person—not an animal—actually dying in the link.” From the murk of these video links, Baker creates a guided meditation video in which the viewer is invited to feel their own death—as you imagine life departing the body, tension leaves the muscles, bloodflow slows, your thoughts disconnect from the day’s worries and you slip into a state in which life is felt rather than verbalised or intellectualised. Baker washes her low-res death clips through a soft pink and purple cast, sometimes duplicating and flipping them symmetrically to generate further abstraction, and imprints the comments of Reddit users over the top. It’s their video too.

I don’t really know what death is and I don’t think Western societies are good at understanding it. So I understand the fascination of the r/WatchPeopleDie users, why they post and watch and comment so obsessively, perverse as that seems. To me, Baker’s video is a very sincere work in an era of irony—lateral in the realisation of its themes and oddly, spookily relaxing to engage with. But there are deeper ironies: what are the ethics of distributing footage of a stranger’s death without consent, of making such footage the fodder of art? How is it possible to find catharsis in videos of trauma, and is that okay? Watching an act involves you in it in some way: do the Reddit viewers think about that? Baker herself puts it this way: “Are some engaging in a meditative act by witnessing this content and forcing themselves to be unmoved by it, and therefore unmoved by the inevitability of their own deaths? Is what they do somehow transcendental and important and honourable and brave?”

The video can be listened to without visuals for a purer meditative experience, because once you realise the video’s premise, you begin to pre-empt each death. Intelligently, Baker withholds that moment, instead letting you see seconds of danger in often mundane situations: a person perched on a ladder or a plane sailing overhead becomes a dreadful sight, the implication is everywhere. Lauren Carroll Harris   


Tiyan Baker is a Sydney-based video and sound artist. Examples of her work can be found on her website http://tiyanbaker.com

22 May 2017