Saturday, February 14, 2009

Wikipedia Art: A Virtual Fireside Chat Between Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern

Nathaniel Stern recently contacted me about an Internet-based and interventionist project that he and Scott Kildall have been working on. Entitled "Wikipedia Art," the project is art that exists only on Wikipedia. Thus, it is art that anyone can edit-- a mass collaborative project that welcomes all.

Stern explained to me, “The caveat, of course, is that the piece needs to follow the enforced rules on Wikipedia. Any changes to the art must be cited from 'credible' external sources: interviews, blogs, or articles in 'trustworthy' media institutions, which birth and then slowly transform what it is and does and means simply through their writing and talking about it.”. He added, “It may start as an intervention, turn into an object, die and be resurrected, etc, through what we've started calling "performative citations.".

Readers can take part in the project directly-- or support the project by writing about it. Feel free to use excerpts from this article and to include a link to the project itself,

Wikipedia Art - A Fireside Chat: An edited transcript by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern

Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern have a virtual two-way interview.

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!

Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern conclude their virtual two-way interview.

You can learn more about Scott Kildall by visiting his website-- You can learn more about Nathaniel Stern by visiting his website-- You can take part in the Kildall and Stern's Wikipedia Art project by clicking here,

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


jen said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Matt Hodgkinson said...

Self-indulgent drivel. Try doing something useful instead of creating nonsense pages on Wikipedia and getting your mates to write about it. You're no different to the comment spammer above.