The week of July 19, 2015

Ratboy Genius would like to say hi

By Joe Bucciero

“Knock knock, it’s me, the Ratboy Genius,” sings a CGI-animated rat with an electronically inflected voice. He looks a bit like a shinier Simpsons character, yellow-skinned and with big, round Mickey Mouse-style ears, a red shirt, and blue shorts. “I just came over to say hi,” he adds. Soon he’s on a real-world beach on the coast of Southern California, roller-skating, then lifting weights while he sings his song. When he’s finished, the Ratboy Genius whips out a flute and plays an infectious melody for the remainder of the video.

This is “Ratboy Genius Theme Song Video,” a delightfully strange and colorful document—the ultimate reward at the bottom of a late-night YouTube rabbit hole. But the video only opens another rabbit hole. The ratboygenius YouTube channel currently boasts over 100 videos that have altogether amassed nearly 4 million views since 2007. They vary in animation style, subject matter, and overall quality; however, as a whole they demonstrate a cohesive breadth of artistic vision and glee rarely found on YouTube (or in art, for that matter).

Although some of the videos stand alone, like the Abraham Lincoln-praising “Ratboy Genius Back in D.C.,” many are grouped in a series, like Ratboy’s Kingdom, Little King John: THE FLOOD, and Ratboy Genius Dreams Minecraft. Like a sitcom season, the series’ plots are largely episodic while containing loose narrative threads. Each series takes its audience through a maze of jokes, non sequiturs, and affecting emotional scenarios—delivered by text-to-speech voices, fantastic CGI mise-en-scène, and playful, understatedly sophisticated music.

Ratboy Genius is innocently funny, endlessly imaginative, thoroughly curious, and more often than not, quite baffling. Indeed, when I spoke with Ratboy’s California-based creator, Ryan Dorin, he lamented that the most frequent comment on his videos is “some version or variation of ‘WTF.’”

The Ratboy Genius likes potato knishes, and I do too.

Although the “WTF”-like comments on Ratboy Genius videos perplex Dorin a bit—“Why bother commenting?” he wonders—they speak to the work’s pervasive originality and ambiguity, exciting qualities on a video platform saturated with cats, Vine compilations, pop music videos, and the like. Dorin also acknowledged that “WTF” isn’t necessarily negative.

“I guess I provoked a reaction,” he says. “I’m not sure what it means, but it’s fun to see comments.”

• • •

The story behind Ratboy Genius videos highlights Dorin’s commitment to the Internet’s self-starting, egalitarian ethos. Studying music in graduate school, Dorin began to teach himself how to use different multimedia software. Eventually he had a character in his head—the Ratboy Genius—and burgeoning computer animation skills. Because music was and still is his primary artistic pursuit, he thought making animated videos would add another dimension to his less academic musical compositions. YouTube’s rise throughout 2006, meanwhile, confirmed for Dorin that in addition to satisfying him artistically, video was in many respects the future of music.

“It was just the convenience and the idea of having pictures and sound together,” Dorin says. “And even if you’re a musician, if you really want to succeed on YouTube I think you have to have a music video. Some people just put audio up, but I don’t think that’s actually as attractive as having a video because people like to watch stuff. They always have.”

He’s right, of course; many of the most-viewed YouTube videos are specifically music videos. And although Dorin keeps up a Ratboy Genius Bandcamp page as well, filled with brilliant recordings, it’s difficult to get as deeply entrenched in Ratboy Genius’s Kingdom without the visuals.

The music, visuals, and story of any given Ratboy Genius video are conceptually linked to others, rendering each series a distinctly 21st-century version of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.Potato Knishes,” an excerpt from Ratboy Genius Dreams Minecraft and Dorin’s most popular video (1.8 million views), derives its appeal from various sources: the at-once recognizable yet disorienting setting (a Minecraft scene); the song—catchy, but not in a conventional pop manner; and the text, which isn’t particularly riveting in a narrative sense but hooks the viewer with its unique word choices and off-kilter repetition. “Knishes,” by the way, is pronounced “Kuh-nishes” by the text-to-speech software powering the Ratboy Genius’s voice, repeating the lyric: “I turn little black worms into centipedes.”

In short, “Potato Knishes” succeeds because of its alternating impressions of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Like some of the more outré Adult Swim television shows, it’s approachably weird. The Ratboy Genius likes potato knishes, and I do too. He likes little black squash balls, and while I’m not sure what those are, I’d like to find out.

“I really liked the idea of nothing in particular happening for extended periods of time, and nothing having to happen. There’s no point… It’s just events.”

It feels like I’m digging too deep to say that the absurdist intrigue of a video like “Potato Knishes” resembles modernist art and literature more than everyday children’s television. Such a resemblance, however, is no accident; Dorin names surrealist painter René Magritte as one of his chief visual influences. He counts Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, meanwhile, as Ratboy Genius’s storytelling inspiration: “I really liked the idea of nothing in particular happening for extended periods of time, and nothing having to happen,” he says of Beckett’s play. “There’s no point… It’s just events.” The videos don’t “obviously refer to anything else,” he continues, “even if it’s just contained in its own space. Even if that space is sort of bizarre, or even off-putting to some people.”

That Dorin synthesizes heady influences like Magritte and Beckett, using their appeals to absurdity and meaninglessness as methods of providing open-ended, all-ages fare, highlights the sophistication and clarity of the Ratboy Genius’s otherwise happily nonsensical Kingdom. In “Potato Knishes,” nothing happens, per se—and yet it’s warm, funny, and contains both a song and a character viewers are unlikely to forget.

• • •

In the Gesamtkunstwerk comparison, Dorin plays Wagner; however, Dorin is even more of an auteur than the Romantic-era composer, creating each and every aspect of each and every installment himself. “Some part of my brain is working on it all the time,” he says. Any video “could always be better—but I tell myself, ‘No one’s paying me to do this.’ It’s costing me time and money to do this, so I just have to stop at some point and say, ‘That’s good.’”

Like many YouTube video creators and artists in general in today’s climate, Dorin works because he loves to. “I haven’t made a lot of money with the YouTube partner program,” he said, “but I have enjoyed using it.” He says creating Ratboy Genius was “mostly for my own amusement and because I wanted to try to tell little stories.”

Despite his humble aims, Dorin’s time-consuming labor of love began racking up more and more plays on YouTube. Why, then, did the artist stay semi-anonymous for so long? From Ratboy Genius’s debut in the summer of 2007 until recently, Dorin shied from the spotlight. His identity wasn’t entirely a mystery; with some Internet digging, you could find his name, as well as that he had acquired an advanced degree in music from New York University, and surprisingly enough, that he had played a bit part in the 1997 sci-fi movie GATTACA.

But beyond those fairly intriguing facts, Dorin remained largely behind the scenes. He gives a simple enough reason: “I didn’t want to call attention to myself because I was afraid that if too many of my colleagues found out I was doing [Ratboy Genius], there would be some disdain toward me from academic quarters,” he said, “because it seemed so antiestablishment and antiacademic… At the same time, I needed to express myself, so the anonymity of the Internet was a great thing for me personally.” Even if secrecy from his high-minded fellow musicians was his original aim, he also kept his name hidden “partially because I wanted to enjoy a little anonymity.”

Dorin typifies the interesting state of artistic production and agency in the past decade: Artists can use the Internet to promote their faces and their work in a way they never could before, but they can also easily hide behind a screen, creating their art more or less anonymously while disseminating it across the globe. Of course, when they do the latter—as in Dorin’s case or those of countless underground musicians such as the London electronic artist Burial—speculation about “true” identities can run rampant.

Making YouTube videos strikes many as a hobby more than an art; and to devote so much time to a hobby, and to make the result so bizarre—the creator must be crazy.

On some level, Dorin expected such a reaction. “Like, ‘Who was making this stuff? Where is it coming from?’” he imagined a viewer wondering. “The mystery of ‘Where did this come from?’ is a fun thing about the Internet, I suppose.” As the adage goes, however, it’s only fun until someone gets hurt—and while Dorin has never been hurt, so to speak, some of the online speculation about him proved a bit unnerving.

“Another thing that happens on the Internet is people have a lot of their own ideas about who I am: What’s wrong with me? What kind of psychological problems do I have? What kind of mental disabilities do I have?” With Ratboy Genius’s strangeness, in conjunction with the sheer quantity of videos Dorin’s produced, it’s unfortunately easy to imagine a viewer asking similar questions.

Many artists toil long hours for no profit, often creating something unusual in the process. But we’re not yet conditioned to view a collection of weird YouTube videos—moreover, ones with an anonymous creator—as “normal” artistic production. Is it because you can’t buy them, as you might an album or a painting? Is it because YouTube is a decidedly populist platform, not as esteemed or time-tested a culture-consuming venue as a gallery or even a record store? Making YouTube videos strikes many as a hobby more than an art; and to devote so much time to a hobby, and to make the result so bizarre—the creator must be crazy.

“I figured I’d better set the record straight, at least in a small way,” Dorin says. “And it’s not something I’m embarrassed about or ashamed of at all. It’s something I’m really proud of, and so I’m happy to speak out a little bit.”

This attitude reflects his belief in the power of YouTube—and other free and accessible platforms—to break down the cultural barriers established by universities and art galleries. Indeed, Ratboy Genius is fiercely individualistic in that Dorin writes the stories, constructs the animation, and writes and performs the music. But the series, and Dorin’s thought process, showcases time and again a conscious invocation of the Internet’s ability to foster community, across traditional spatio-temporal (and cultural) boundaries.

• • •

Ratboy’s accessibility across platforms (YouTube, Bandcamp, T-shirts, etc.) might suggest Dorin has created a brand, but it’s more apt to call it a community. Even if he’s perplexed by some of the YouTube comments, he values communicating with his audience—a capability enhanced particularly by the Internet and its social media platforms. “YouTube makes it so much easier to connect with like-minded people,” he says. “As far as social media goes, YouTube is a great phenomenon in my opinion.

“I suppose beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, and YouTube just provides an endless number of beholders. That’s the most special thing about YouTube.”

“Google’s done a pretty good job making YouTube user-friendly and also creator-friendly,” he adds. Even though he remains firmly at the helm of Ratboy Genius, he often takes audience feedback into account in his creative process. He responds to many of his YouTube comments not as “Ryan Dorin, creator,” but as the Ratboy Genius, in character. “Occasionally I’ve gotten some inspiration for my stories from comment threads,” he says, “and that’s kind of fun.” He even integrated his fans’ adoring submissions into Ratboy Genius’s Kingdom in the “Ratboy Genius Fan Art Tribute” video, now topping over 44,000 views.

But Dorin wants to further develop Ratboy Genius’s community involvement. “[For] my next fan art tribute,” he says, “I’m expecting it to go even deeper and have some of the fans actually make some of the animation for the story… I want to see how far I can push that collective creativity in the coming year.” Ultimately, it’s Dorin’s audience that proves Ratboy Genius’s raison d’être—and YouTube allows him to reach them.

“Having a worldwide audience: that’s the greatest thing,” he says. “I suppose beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, and YouTube just provides an endless number of beholders. That’s the most special thing about YouTube. Literally in almost every country that has the Internet, I get hits. Maybe just one or two a month—but to know that somebody in Bahrain or Mali is watching my videos, at least for a few minutes, is amazing.” Most importantly, such an audience provides exposure and creative inspiration that more serious artists are largely unable to come by in the 21st century. “It’s not something that could ever happen to me as a concert music composer,” Dorin says. The Internet spurs his creativity—and his videos in turn spur creativity in his audience.

In addition to providing a creative spur, Dorin wants to educate. He first aimed his videos at the children of his friends and family. “My initial target audience was, like, 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds,” he says. “It still kind of is.” Some installments, such as “Back in D.C.,” have specifically educational segments, albeit injected with the Ratboy Genius’s characteristic humor and naivete. Instead of by-the-book children’s education, the videos also offer a sort of Computer Age meta-education. As we watch the Ratboy Genius evolve, we watch Dorin discover new outlets for creative expression. The first few entries in the early series Ratboy’s Kingdom feature childlike, two-dimensional drawings laid over photographs. Then Dorin discovered Blender, an open-source animation software, and turned the Ratboy Genius three-dimensional.

Open-source software gives Dorin and others access to free methods of creation that were previously complex to learn and expensive to use. Moreover, when deciding to use Blender, he “wanted something that had a sort of community support, rather than being beholden to a corporation.” His community-oriented ethos, then, is embedded within the very techniques used to make the videos. Watching the Ratboy Genius morph from a two-dimensional to three-dimensional character is watching Dorin learn to use new software. “Also,” he says, “it would be part of his story: [the Ratboy Genius] turned into a computer model.”

Inspiration, in the case of Ratboy Genius, goes both ways. These videos might not strike everyone as “serious” art—and maybe they’re not. But this new art form is something that questions such a designation in the wake of open-source creation, YouTube monetization, and the ability for artists to collaborate so easily with their audience, and does so without the pretensions of other art with similar effects. Indeed, Dorin’s work is, ultimately, comfortingly accessible. After all, the Ratboy Genius just came over to say “hi.”

Illustration by J. Longo