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myartspace.com interview with Nathaniel SternWikipedia Art – A Fireside Chat (February 2009)

An edited transcript by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern

Nathaniel Stern: I was lucky enough to spend some time with Scott Kildall in Second Life last week; Scott works with various forms of digital media (video, prints, performance, sculpture) looking at what he calls “realms of the imaginary.” Around a virtual campfire, we discussed our new collaborative project, Wikipedia Art. Wikipedia Art is an artwork composed solely on Wikipedia, and so is art that anyone can edit – with a few stipulations, of course.

Scott Kildall: I finally got to meet Nathaniel Stern in person last fall at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, where we gave a double lecture about both our bodies of work and practice. Nathaniel works across socially participatory art, interactive installation, digital and traditional print and video. During this conversation, we got a chance lay out the framework for Wikipedia Art.

*

NS Places virtual hands out over virtual fire. Nice fire, Scott. Feels good. But not really.

SK: Thanks. I coded it myself. Well, not really. I bought it online.

NS: This kind of playful non-reality re-mix is a common thread in your work. You often slip into roles, re-edit histories, create virtual worlds and characters and performances, to question material and knowledge and ownership. 

SK: I believe we are on a precipice of losing what is real, culturally speaking. Our relationship to knowledge and histories has become murky. We see this in places like Second Life where identities are anonymous and copyright law is largely flouted. It’s like the Wild West of digital culture. I think that’s where much of my work has been focused, from performances in virtual worlds, to a recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landing, to videos that capture dream-spaces by using  “in-between” shots in Hollywood films.

NS: And this led you to the idea of an intervention on Wikipedia?

SK: Yes, well, that largely came out of our discussions together; but I’m most excited about questions of knowledge and how online institutions – like Wikipedia – frame remembrance. Online histories (and memories) get confused because they can be so easily overwritten. Although it is archived somewhere, the “truth” can get buried in the eighth page return of a Google search, rendering it effectively invisible.

I keep coming back to the strange fact that Wikipedia is an assumed source of authority. Despite the huge amount of information-space on the web, one central repository of encyclopedic information persists. This is wonderful since it is to some extent democratic, but it’s also full of holes and omissions.

What led you to the Wikipedia Art idea?

NS: I’ve been interested in performance and in words for a long time. I used to do slam poetry when I lived in New York, and my first interactive installations asked people to chase or maneuver around text with their bodies. With interactivity more generally, I’m less concerned with how software responds to us, and more with how we physically move in relation to space or words or meaning. My recent prints are performances as well, where I traverse the landscape with a scanner to make dynamic and time-based images. I think of Wikipedia Art, which is somewhat text-based, as a performance, too. Even more than that, it’s performative.

SK: My spell-checker says performative is not a word.

NS: Performative utterances, or speech acts, perform some kind of action. The most classic example of such an event is a wedding. With the spoken words, “I do,” the speaker is transformed from a single person into a spouse. If I knight thee, you are henceforth Sir Scott; or if I declare war, peacetime has ended between us. These words distinctly change my or your state of being. I (or you or our relationship) become something else the moment I utter them.

SK: Roasting a marshmallow. So how does this lead us to Wikipedia Art?

NS: Well, you’ve noted the inherent tension around notions of truth on Wikipedia. On the one hand, it’s currently the second most visited website in existence. And Google (#1) often lists Wikipedia entries at the top of any given search page. The entire world sources most of its information from Wikipedia. On the other hand, anyone can edit most Wikipedia pages, can say something there for the world to see. So, if I “utter” something on Wikipedia, it becomes “true.” This is classically performative.

SK: Yes, but Wikipedia’s success lies in that it has certain standards that enable it to function as a viable entity. Any Wikipedia articles that do not have citations from credible external sources are removed. Otherwise, anyone could post or change any article. It would be a smorgasbord of fact and fiction.

NS: But even with that regulation, there are still problems.

SK: Right: problems such as perceived lack of authority. After all, who gets to decide what is a “credible” source of information? These sources are granted an authority that winds up influencing reality, the worldly information that we “know” as “true”. The inherent problem here is that Wikipedia is not always true, and never really real. This is Wikipedia’s strength and its weakness. It is currently affecting the real world in tangible ways.

NS: That’s the funny thing. Wikipedia is indeed controlled information – try starting your own page some time and see what happens. Its odd hierarchy grants authority to people who simply have the time and inclination to write and discuss details, who get clout through their ongoing involvement and self-propagation on the site. These folks have a lot of power, and are, both wonderfully and scarily, semi-anonymous.

The artist David Horvitz played with this, with affecting the real world and propagating himself, by editing Wikipedia. Horvitz altered the Wikipedia entry for Ian Curtis – lead singer of Joy Division – to read that in the last moments before Curtis committed suicide, he glanced at one of Horvitz’s photographs. The falseness of this tidbit was eventually found out and removed from the page, but not before it became part of the mythic story: many Curtis fan sites still include Horvitz in their account of his death. In other words, Horvitz didn’t just edit Curtis’ Wikipedia page; he edited his story (history).

SK: Good example. These sorts of cases where fake stories are granted a pass in reality have appeared in popular culture as well. Remember the Halloween tale of the person who put razorblades in apples, then passed them out to kids? This never really happened! But we hear it every Halloween, from parents, on the news, from teachers and in emails. (You can verify its untruthfulness on Wikipedia, by the way.)

With online communities, instant access to research and communication, there are more opportunities for ongoing interplay; you can redress propagation stories like these.

NS: And that’s where our project starts. The core “activity” of Wikipedia Art first addresses then plays with the invisible authors and authorities of and on The Web / The Google / The Wiki. It is an artwork that is composed on Wikipedia, and so is art that anyone can edit. If people edit the Wikipedia Art page, then they performatively edit Wikipedia Art itself.

SK: And here’s the rub: before we can publish the Wikipedia Art page for the very first time, we have to be able to cite its existence and “credibility” from external and “reliable” sources of information.

NS: In other words, we have to publish this very interview before we can “birth” Wikipedia Art. They have to come out at the same time. Otherwise, the page may be removed by the powers that be: Wikipedians. (Thank you, Brian Sherwin and MyArtSpace, and all rebloggers and writers elsewhere, for your performativity.)

SK: Chickens and eggs. This is a classically interventionist piece. According to the Wikipedia page on “art interventions,” this is “an interaction with a previously existing artwork, audience or venue/space.” Like Wikipedia and its community. “It has the auspice of conceptual art and is commonly a form of performance art.”

NS: And in addition to being a kind of performance, Wikipedia Art is conceptual art because the idea is more important than the material. In fact there is no material.

Go on then.

SK: “Although intervention by its very nature carries an implication of subversion, it is now accepted as a legitimate form of art and is often carried out with the endorsement of those in positions of authority over the artwork, audience or venue/space to be intervened in. However, unendorsed (i.e. illicit) interventions are common and lead to debate as to the distinction between art and vandalism.”

NS: You’re right about that. I worry about this being seen as vandalism by the Wikipedia community, about the powers that be simply removing the entry. This is where the press and citations act as a kind of doubled gesture: they validate the project while also potentially changing it (and that change also validates the project, because that’s the point of the intervention).

SK: “Performative citations.” We invite bloggers, writers and editors to join in the collaboration and construction, the transformation, the destruction and the resurrection of the work itself – by publishing then citing and thus changing Wikipedia Art.

NS: I have a feeling that there will be many Wikipedians who will see Wikipedia Art as neither valid information, nor art.

SK: Which is also why it’s such a good intervention. Wikipedia Art intervenes in Wikipedia as a venue in the contemporary construction of knowledge and information, and simultaneously intervenes in our understandings of art and the art object.

NS: Like knowledge and like art, Wikipedia Art is always already variable. It is an intervention to be intervened in. It is a project that lacks material, but still has a make up: that of social space, of the social interstice, of its own and our potential.

SK: The layered intervention. You can hijack the intervention itself. Wikipedia has flexible meaning; art has flexible meaning; meaning has flexible meaning. We are problematizing all of this, and asking others to participate in the process, in that performance.

NS: Just as the term “art intervention” alludes to, Wikipedia Art is a subversion from within the dominant paradigm. It uses context and media to speak back to power; it’s a feedback loop between what is, what could be, and who says so. Like Banksy hanging his own art in the Tate without permission; or Duchamp’s submission of a signed urinal to the Society of Independent Artists in New York.

SK: Those examples are from the Wikipedia page on art intervention.

NS: Point illustrated. And for the grand finale: “I now pronounce Wikipedia Art.”

SK: It’s alive! Alive!

Wikipedia Art is Dead. Long Live Wikipedia Art. (April 2009)

On February 14th, 2009 – in a nod to the infamous ILOVEYOU email virus – Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern launched a page on Wikipedia called “Wikipedia Art.” The idea: art that anyone can edit. They simultaneously oversaw the publication of several online articles about the work, and cited these back on the Wikipedia entry page itself, so as to circumvent immediate deletion by strict Wikipedia editors.

Wikipedia Art was made “legitimate” and “encyclopedia-worthy” by Wikipedia’s own standards of verifiability, since its page referenced what are considered credible sources by Wikipedia’s own editors – including this very blog. The project lived on Wikipedia for approximately 15 hours as an intervention, performance and artwork.

Kildall and Stern, both together and individually, agreed to answer a few follow-up questions about their work.

What were some of your initial intentions for a work of art on Wikipedia?

We hoped to create a piece that would continuously transform, die and be resurrected, by a collaborating public. Once the initial entry and essays were published, we invited any and all potential partners – perhaps Wikipedia would call them conspirators – to write additional articles about the work. Our suggestion was that such writing should not just “cover” Wikipedia Art, but could also “change” it. If someone publishes, for example, “On March 16, 2009, Wikipedia Art spawned the Wikipedia Art Object – which is green and spherical” on a “credible” blog, then one could cite that quotation back onto the Wikipedia page itself, making it “true.” In addition to being an interesting and artistic feedback loop between online communities and one of the main systems that informs them (Wikipedia), the work also serves as an intervention in, and pointer to, the egos and biases behind said system.

What was the response on Wikipedia itself?

Within an hour, the “Wikipedia Art” page was tagged AfD (Article for Deletion) by Wikipedia editor, Daniel Rigal. After an AfD tag, the standard process is to have a 5-day community review on the merits of the article. What ensued was a hotly contested debate on several discussion pages. 15 hours its after its birth, an 18-year old Wikipedia admin calling himself “Werdna” removed the page, and locked it down from future inclusion on the site. Interestingly, this move was in violation of Wikipedia’s own standards, but we have no recourse there.

During these discussions, both of us stepped back and let others hash out the legitimacy of the project. We never participated in any of the Wikipedia Art online debates, on Wikipedia or elsewhere. We take the fact that so many people were involved in edits to the page, heated deliberation on Wikipedia, Rhizome, Art Fag City and elsewhere – not to mention that there were many outside attempts by others to put the work back on Wikipedia’s meta-Wiki, their page for Conceptual art, the page called “Wikipedia loves art,” and several others – as a testament to the piece’s success as both a collaboration and intervention.

What were your expectations and hopes?

We had expected, as stated in the press release, that the “Wikipedia Art” page would just be removed temporarily, not locked down completely. We hoped there would be a chance, or chances, to get it back up after more publications came to the fore. In retrospect, we realize that this was a vain hope— the Wikipedia powers that be would never allow it. We feel lucky that it was not simply deleted immediately, without a whimper. We would have seen that as a real failure.

What was revealed to you about the Wikipedia structure?

We are both strong Wikipedia supporters. We still contribute to the site on a regular basis and promote the values behind it – free information, creative commons and GNU licenses, etc. Like most encyclopedias, it only scratches the surface in its entries, but it’s a great and easy place to start when embarking on new research, or just looking for a few useful tidbits. And the fact that Wikipedia is not owned and run by a corporation is of enormous importance.

One of the problems we discovered is that a huge demographic of very young people (ages 16-23) dominates the Wikipedia culture, ethos and information trade. The result is a bigger emphasis on pop culture and esoteric geek factoids, while topics like art movements and artists get sidelined. Try looking up something like “Warlock (Dungeons & Dragons)” as compared to, say, digital art star Cory Arcangel, who is currently on the cover of Art Forum. The standards for the two are completely opposing! The D&D page only uses online sources far from the mainstream, while the Cory Arcangel page references some of the most important museums in existence today. Despite this, the D&D page actually calls for “expansion,” while the Arcangel page is prefaced with a disclaimer that its citations are insufficient. The pretenses that Wikipedia is somehow objective, that same standards apply across the board, that anyone who cares enough and knows enough and is willing to dedicate their time can be an editor, all need to be challenged. Like it or not, Wikipedia is the dominant power behind online information, and so it is our responsibility – and theirs – to take each other to task.

In short, we see a self-propagating loop of dis- or mis- or what we call un-information, where websites and other references will now quote or cite Wikipedia as proof of vitality – or worse, assume something is unimportant if it does not have a Wikipedia entry, or its entry is short or full of disclaimers – reinforcing holes in cultural knowledge. Given that so many top sites simply copy text from Wikipedia in order to flesh out their content – making their surface scratching text the dominant online information – in a post-Wikipedia age, we very often have less information at our fingertips, rather than more.

How did the blogs respond to the event?

Kildall: We definitely received a polarized response from blogs and the public. I felt like my name was dragged around in the mud while at the same time I received numerous private emails commending the project.

The critiques ranged from the old refrain: “this is not art” to being “too slick” to being “half-baked”. The congratulations were on setting up a simple framework that led to discussions about Wikipedia’s power within a conceptual art context.

That a huge number of people had such diverse reactions to the project, in a time when many art projects simply get ignored by the blogosphere, shows that people care about how the structure of Wikipedia is deviating from its original mandate.

Stern: What I found most fascinating on both Wikipedia and in the other debates (for example, on Rhizome) was how quickly people imputed their own issues or desires on to the project. While playful artists like Pall Thayer and Shane Mecklenburger attempted to transform Wikipedia Art through conscious decisions and performative utterances on its Wikipedia page (mostly skipping over the publishing elsewhere part), many others just wrote about what it “meant,” and transformed the piece in that way, rather than how Scott and I had initially intended. Still, that precise process and debate, at least for me, was far more interesting than I would have expected.

For example, Wikipedian Daniel Rigal, who first marked the page for deletion, saw it as a well-meaning experiment that happened to break the rules; ironic, given that Wikipedia itself is a well-meaning experiment that happens to break its own rules. Performance artist and professor, Patrick Lichty, gave it its academic, tactical and tautological flare – things he and his online personae are endowed with. Wedrna, the 18-year-old and recent high school graduate Wikipedian who eventually deleted the page, thought we “made it up at school.” Laid back artist and blogger Jon Coffelt just asked people what they thought; he found the whole thing rather amusing and interesting, from a distance. Art blogging star Paddy Johnson felt pity for the Wikipedians, and how hard they must work to maintain such a huge web site – something she is all too familiar with over at her own site, Art Fag City. Rhizomer and blogger Tom Moody made it all about himself, his ideas, his own bruised ego – something, anyone who reads his blog or Rhizome discussions will know, he manages to accomplish with just about every online debate he involves himself with (and there are many). South African writer, thinker and arts critic Chad Rossouw says the project is about how art only exists fully through discourse – most critics (myself included) would likely agree.

And so on; in retrospect, it seems so obvious that this would happen, that Wikipedia Art could not last, that the debates would start out interesting but then egos would get in the way and the debaters would place themselves in the front lines, then blame each other if they got hurt, and then blame the project itself as it, and they, unraveled. But during the actual unraveling, we mostly cocked our heads, opened our mouths, and watched in earnest. It was quite a performance. 

What are your future plans with Wikipedia Art?

Wikipedia Art is in Phase II. It has been taken off of Wikipedia, the online discussions have mostly died down, and we have properly archived the performance on our own website at WikipediaArt.org. We’re now hoping to see more in-depth writing about the work; we are courting a few academic publications and writers to see how Wikipedia Art’s meaning might still be transformed over time.

Where does Wikipedia Art lie within Conceptual Art’s history?

Scott: This remains to be seen. At this point, Wikipedia Art is driving a stake into the ground, contextualizing what it was, or could be, through this very interview and beyond. It depends on how people write about it.

Nathaniel: Isn’t that, how people write and talk about a work to find its place in history, the case with all art – conceptual or otherwise? For better or worse, it’s the writers, the media, the Wikipedians who decide.

According to his Wikipedia page, New York Times arts critic Jerry Saltz once said, “We live in a Wikipedia art world.” So be it.

Related artworks: Wikipedia Art, Three Mile Meal, Doin’ my part to lighten the load, Tweets in Space, getaway experiment . net
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