241 Things

1000 Things is a subjective encyclopedia of inspirational ideas, things, people, and events.

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Ine Poppe publishes about digital culture, technology, art and science, mainly for the national newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She gives the master course Critical Art Writing (in Amsterdam). She lectures at the Audio Visual department of the Willem de Kooning Academy, Rotterdam.
Her art-projects Mother milk cheese (1984) and Women with Beards (1997) were shown worldwide. Poppe made several documentaries for Dutch National television. Hippies from Hell, about Dutch Hackers, was shown in Europe and America at festivals, musea and universities. It was the first online Dutch documentary, licensed together with Lawrence Lessig under Creative Commons. Poppe also wrote scripts for several computer games.

page from Folk Archive
Snowdrop the Mechanical Elephant by the Clare Family, Egremont, Cumbria, 2004.
page from Folk Archive
page from Folk Archive

The book, Folk Archive, by artists Jeremy Deller (1966) and Alan Kane (1961) is a true feast for the eyes and radiates the pleasure of making. The publication documenting the exhibition on folk art showcases the artists’ love for the phenomenon. Over a period of seven years they collected all they could on “British creativity”. On the BBC’s website, you’ll find a number of video clips in which Jeremy Deller, an attractive young man with long hair, the winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, walks through the exhibition, enthusiastically explaining: “There are two hundred and fifty artworks in this show, and they’re all very different in nature.” He shows a drawing by a prisoner, envelopes for sick notes scrawled daily by a guard who also happens to be an amateur tattoo artist, but also eggs hand painted with eerily realistic clown portraits.

Exhibition view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2008.

With great pleasure and fervour, Deller and Kane collected a range of anything they could find on the broad topic of “contemporary popular culture.” They took photos and videos , received documentation from others, as well as found historical footage of celebrations that have been part of tradition for centuries, such as the World Championship Silly Faces or the Egremont Crab Fair, a week long festival in Cumbria that occurred in 1387 and included a pipe smoking contest, a vegetable show, and an apple-giving parade. Among the exhibition were objects they collected, like embroidered underwear used at certain festivals for wrestling matches. The last retrospective on British folk art had taken place in Whitechapel, meaning a more modern perspective was very welcome.

Tom Harrington, Cumberland and Westmoreland Wrestling Champion, Egremont, Cumbria, 1999.

For a year, the Folk Archive exhibition travelled from museum to museum. Luckily, we still have the wonderful catalogue comprising of a colourful collection of photographs, texts, and screenshots. Each time you page through the book, you’ll come across something you hadn’t noticed before: a giant bear made of straw walking through the high street, an old Cambridgeshire custom in which the villagers would be expected to dance for this “bear” on the town square and feed him honey. Or an old forgotten tradition in Blackpool that prompts young girls to dress as old women for a celebration.

The book has been divided into different categories such as performance (like the silly faces competition) but also into politics, life and death, animals. Included are Ed Hall’s beautifully painted signage and banners used by members of the trade unions during demonstrations. The forward begins on the cover, in which Deller and Kane start explaining their methodology: “a personal selection of images and stories that excited or amused us.” They refrain from using the term “outsider art”, a term used profusely in their art world. These artists shift their choice, their archive, from one context to the next, from the street to the museum.

Deller and Kane explain that they were searching for humour, modernity, a new perspective, refreshing directness, and much more: “We find ourselves in an area between art and anthropology. As artists, we’re going on an optimistic journey of personal discovery (often close to home.) As anthropologists, we hope to describe and experience something worth seeing. For those interested in anthropological approach, we must apologise for the term ‘archive’ which is so often misused. Also, we’ll have to apologise for the artistic nonchalance in relation to details. (Artists have been using the term archive left and right recently, it’s a fashionable term that’s sometimes used to describe meagre collections. Archive apparently sounds interesting. To all those involved in folk or regional cultural scenes, we’d likewise like to apologise for that cheap term, ‘folk’ as well as plundering whole worlds.”

Folk Archive is a journey full of surprises through an unfamiliar England.

Folk Archive, Contemporary Popular Art from the UK by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane (2005).

Pizza Rut, Blackpool, Lancashire.
Tar Barrel Rolling, Ottery St Mary, Devon, 2004 © Jessica Mallock.
Speaker Stack, Notting Hill Carnival, London, 2003.
Line of beasts
Snowdrop the Mechanical Elephant by the Clare Family, Egremont, Cumbria, 2004.

The hunt is a symbol of the desire for the One. The hunter appropriates the power to love, to experience total bliss in the ritual. But no matter how beautiful and seductive the game is, the hunt is tragic. Sandor Marai sees his wife as prey, Petrarca regards love as a tasty poison and also for Leonardo da Vinci pleasure and grief are intertwined. Whatever is hunted or seduced, ambivalence always reigns.

A real hunter has a gun. Not a pistol, but a big, long object that kills: a rabbit, a deer, a hare. A hunter is a murderer. The hunt evokes images of a kennel of dogs, hunter’s garments, the scent of forests and wet leaves. A drop hanging from his nose.

This came to mind when I looked at a white dildo-like thing, with a cute pair of antlers at the top that resembles twigs. The white, elongated sculpture has a seam that runs crosswise, which makes it resemble a toy: I was once in the possession of a plastic doll with a crosswise seam. The white renders the sculpture innocent, the shape reminds of a female body with a Bambi-like head. The art work is called Deer Squirrel and is made by New York artist Robert Beck (1959). On the internet one can find a picture of another of Beck’s works, material: gunpowder on paper. A white sheet with gunpowder, black powder in a circle as if a shot has been fired. Bambi, the hunted deer, shot by the hunter.

The book Portraits of a Marriage by the Hungarian author Sandor Marai contains a wonderful scene in which the narrator and protagonist sneaks up to the woman he desires. He approaches her as if she were a prey and, later, reminisces the scene to explore his motifs: ‘It is very possible that at that point I still had the hope, deep, very deep inside my heart, that somewhere in the world there would be a body that could harmonise completely with mine, and with the help of which, I could transform the thirst of desire and the saturation of satisfaction into a mild quiet – corresponding to the dream people call ‘happiness.’ The mistake of this thought was that happiness as such does not exist, but I did not know that by then.’

It basically comes down to the protagonist’s pursuit of ‘happiness’ and whether it exists or not, it is clear that it is a temporary state and not a remaining constant. Happiness is like life, it passes. Love, in all its shapes, demands exactly the opposite: something infinite, forever, like the soft murmur of a PC when we write something. In other words: as long as we live, we have the duty to love. It is because of this that love, seduction, is always paired with desire for death, the fixed stasis of a moment with the wish to efface oneself and to coalesce. The hunt – evidently linked to murder – is a symbol of this desire for the One. The hunted object is, in a sense, always innocent and the hunter appropriates the power to love, to experience total bliss in the ritual: aiming the gun, the silence in the forest, slinking past crackling leaves, a beautiful hit. Finally, a corpse always remains, until the next hunt. Seduction, true seduction, is surely accompanied with play and flirtation, in which all innocence has been put aside and one is no longer a deer, but perhaps a squirrel, cheerfully jumping up and down, ostentatiously, from branch to branch. Or like in New York, the city that Beck comes from, a rat who scrounges around waste bins to find a meal – ‘tailed rats’ is the nickname for rats over there.

Ah, that sweet seduction, the lovely game of flirting. The French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) painted many pictures of women in lace dresses making advances on men in wigs. One of them depicts a woman on a swing, below whom is a reclining young gent who can see under her skirts as she lifts her leg and lobs her left shoe to him. The images of this French Rococo Painter who lived at the time of Louis XIV, the Sun King, now seem gaudy to us. The French Revolution forced him to give up his career in painting; he spent his last years doing administrative jobs and finally died in obscurity. His love life I have not studied, but his paintings show the appeal of forbidden, secret pleasures. The ritual of the hunt is also marked by the forbidden, because it is in silence –in secret- that the hunter approaches the prey to avoid being discovered and the bounty escaping. No matter how beautiful or seductive the game might be, the hunt remains a tragic affair. The killing is cold, sometimes repulsive, sometimes necessary. It is always the shot that matters. A hit or not?

Fragonard's The Swing

The famous philosopher Petrarch (1303-1374) wrote the following on love: ‘Despite myself I love, forced by faith to sadness and tears.’ He adds that love is ‘a hell that fools make into their paradise’, a ‘tasty poison’, ‘an attractive torment’, and ‘a death that has the look of life.’ Put differently, pleasure and grief are inextricably interwoven, like Siamese twins.

Petrarch (1304-1374)

Leonardo da Vinci made an allegorical drawing that shows two men who share torso and legs. They represent Grief and Pleasure. The one man is old and wears a twig from an oak tree, the other is young and has reed in his hand, carelessly dropping some golden coins. Da Vinci provided the following commentary: ‘They are depicted with their backs to each other for they are each other’s opposite, but sprout from the same trunk for they share the same origin. (...) Pleasure has been depicted with some reed in his right hand, insignificant and weak, that can cause nasty wounds.’

Da Vinci's drawing

The pursuit of pleasure or the sublimation of love in the mind by chasing dreams, that is what matters to Da Vinci. The latter is bigger, more intense that physical lust: the dream of the One is linked to wishes and fantasies that always end in grief. Whatever is hunted (a girl, a young boy, an older one) ambivalence always reigns here, as a swing that arouses in us an alternation of fear (this is too high, I might fall) and joy (I’m flying). Up and down, from heaven onto earth – ouch, what a desire.

Hundreds of cheap labourers are making money through websites like Amazon and Google Image Labeller. These Internet workers are also known as Mechanical Turks. Visual artists also make use of their services.

“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a Mechanical Turk.”

It sounds absurd, but it actually makes completely sense. Worldwide there are millions of so-called MTurks active in dozens of countries: people with a computer and an Internet connection that, all the while clicking and tapping, make money. New international digital workers are added daily, even in Africa by mobile phone. Meanwhile, visual artists have discovered the benefits of this cheap labour: the first art projects using Mechanical Turks are starting to make their appearance on the Internet.

Het artikel zoals verschenen in NRC Handelsblad

Organising labour over the Internet is an interesting affair. National borders are crossed with ease, and a social security number is unnecessary—all you need is a bank account. We’re already familiar with images of Asian youths gaming for hours on end for people in the rich West, but there are many other forms of online remote work.

The Mechanical Turk made its appearance in 2005 at Amazon and is based on the idea that we are all part of a great machine. Tasks can be found on the Internet for the reward of a few cents to several dollars. These are so-called HITs (Human intelligence Tasks) that vary in their degree of difficulty. You could, for example, insert tag words to photos and videos, arrange images by colour, write vacation reviews for websites or collect links about UFOs—that last example earns 15 dollar cent per link. Because the amounts are so trifling, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site is also mockingly referred to as the “virtual sweatshop”. Still, many use the site to earn their whole month’s wages, while others earn themselves a bit of pocket money.

The term Mechanical Turk derives from a legendary chess computer from 1770, made by the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen at the request of empress Maria Theresia. Old etchings show a doll wearing a turban, the Turk, who is sat behind a box onto which a chessboard is fixed. Viewers believed that the space underneath the board was empty, and that the doll was controlling the chessboard.In actuality, inside the box, a chess player was hiding. Through an elaborate system, he was able to see the chess pieces and move them using the doll’s arms. The apparatus, at that time a mechanical wonder, travelled through the royal courts as an exotic attraction. In 1836, Edgar Allen Poe attempted to describe the workings of the Turk, in order to show that there must have been a player of flesh and blood within the device. His essay, Maelzel’s Chess Player, is still regarded as the first “whodunit”: who was deceiving the audience, and how?

A reversal has occurred in our time: while people were first creating machines mainly to facilitate life, now machines need people to properly perform tasks. Good examples of this reversal are captchas, a type of small puzzle that can only be completed by a human being. Everyone who uses the Internet comes across a captcha sooner or later: for example, in the form of distorted letters or numbers that need to be entered when you take an action on Facebook. The computer knows that a person must have entered the correct interpretation of this information, because a machine is incapable of interpreting the distortion. This principle is used to ensure that replies to e-mail or blogs are not generate by machines; all to avoid nonsense, advertising, and other sorts of spam.

Filling in captchas can also be implemented differently. At this moment, thousands of books are being scanned into sites like Google Book Search. Things often go wrong during the scanning process, and letters accidentally become distorted. A machine cannot see or correct this, but we can. Every time you fill in a captcha, you could be helping a little by making a scanned and distorted text legible.

Another form of intelligently utilizing joint labour is Google Image Labeller, an online game where people supply images with “tags” (key words.) A player sees an image, for example, a red car in the forest. Through a database, he’s paired with an anonymous opponent. If you and your opponent fill in the same tags, you can go on to the next image. Thanks to many people adding tags to images in this way, we’re able to easily find images online.

You’ll stumble across the strangest forms of labour on the Internet. For example, the Internet project Payday (only for Americans) where you can earn 1000 dollars by hitching people with a credit card. Because you won’t want to be bothering your friends with this, you’ll go on a forum and offer 50 dollars for anyone who applies for a new card. This will then cost you ten times 50 dollars – meaning you’ve earned 500 dollars for yourself. Payday receives 1650 dollars from the credit card company for eleven new credit card holders, advertising money that used to be reserved for the “old” media.

The American artist Aaron Koblin uses virtual labourers to make art. In 2006 he asked Mechanical Turks to make ten thousand hand drawn sheep. He offered 2 dollar cents per drawing, meaning the entire work cost him 200 dollars. He collected the sheep over a period of forty days; people completed the drawings on average in 105 seconds, which means that the wage comes down to about 0,69 dollar cents an hour. Koblin’s website shows a selection of these doodles that together form the work, The Sheep Market. Thousands of sheep stand against a white background, all of them facing to the left. Some sheep are accurately drawn, while others are drawn quite clumsily.

Koblin completed a similar artwork in collaboration with artist Takashi Kawashima, named Ten Thousand Cents. For this project, the artists divided a hundred dollar bill and asked the Mechanical Turks – who were unaware of what they were looking at – to draw a piece of the bill on a drawing application. The thousands of puzzle pieces can be seen online, pasted together into a new bill (on sale for $100). When you click on one of the pieces, you’ll see a film showing the example and how it’s been drawn. You can clearly see who’s done their best and who hasn’t: these pieces are inaccurate. Koblin’s most recent project with Mechanical Turks, Daisy Bell, has awarded him a prize for the media festival Transmediale in Berlin. The starting point for this artwork is the song Daisy Bell from 1892, which in the sixties was one of the first tracks to be recorded using synthetic voices. The song was also used in the final scene of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, in which HAL the computer sings.

Koblin gave each individual Internet labourer the task to listen to a note, after which they had to emulate it (6 dollar cents per tone.) He then combined the tones to form a piece of music. When you view Daisy Bell online, you’ll see a graphical representation: a bar slides over the staff and you’ll hear 2088 voices that together, without knowing it, join in song and form an overwhelming cacophony. But however beautiful the result may be, Koblin says his wants his work is mainly an instrument to critique the use of the MTurks. They are usually required to perform simple and repetitive tasks. Their work is done on a contractual basis and the employers pay no taxes, and so laws concerning minimum wage and overtime are circumvented. In the case of Koblin’s sheep, the artwork is Koblin’s property and not the drawers, who renounced their copyright for 2 dollar cents a drawing.

Inspired by Koblin, blogger Andy Baio wanted to find out who is behind the MTurks. He asked people to reveal their faces for fives cents. This fee was apparently too low—only two people reported themselves within 24 hours. After a bit of experimentation, it turned out that fifty-dollar cents was the minimum. The assignment was to make a photo portrait of yourself in front of the web cam holding a handwritten sign including the reason why you “turk”. “I turk for...” The result can be seen in a collage on his blog: thirty portraits of women and twenty men between 20 and 30 years old of diverse ethnicities. 21 turk for the money, 9 out of boredom or for fun.

In The Netherlands there are also artists who experiment with the Mechanical Turk. Artist John Puckey (29) and graphic designer Luna Maurer were asked to design Museum de Lakenhal’s annual report. They decided to ask the MTurks to translate the report into English, in spoken language. Most could not speak Dutch and recorded what they thought the text could possibly be about. On the website you can view the annual report and read the MTurks’ English interpretation. The experiment is funny and peculiar. An example of a sentence from the annual report: “This shift in thinking is not made by the grace of God,” interpreted by a voice with a South-American dialect: “The others in death, gave nothing to him by the grace of God.” Pucky has also worked on a video clip for C-Mon & Kypksi, a band from Utrecht, that makes use of Mechanical Turks. For the song More is Less, video artist Roel Wouters made a video in which fans can play along. The public is asked to imitate a pose that one of the band members takes in the video. One frame is selected from the video that you have to imitate to the best of your ability; upon which you take a picture of yourself and place it on the site. The website is very user-friendly. Thousands of people have taken the time to upload their image. The photos are, after a selection by MTurks, placed into the right sequence on the computer. Through this, a video is formed that shows a different person in each frame.Slowly, a video is growing where the musicians see themselves mirrored by their fans. In total there are 14000 available frames. The photos rotate, the video refreshes itself, and so everyone has their own “frame of fame,” which is also the name of the project. The hired Mechanical Turks are the ones who evaluate whether people have taken the right pose and if the image quality is good enough.

The influence of virtual labour is still young, but the development has already had unforeseen consequences. Who had ever thought that Mechanical Turks would be used to track missing persons? In 2007, friends of the American millionaire Steve Fosset came up with the idea to, through Google Earth, employ MTurks to assess satellite photos of Nevada. They hoped that someone would spot wreckage pieces of his disappeared airplane. When computer scientist Jim Gray and his sailboat went missing, MTurks were also employed. The workers were given around 25 cents to study a series of satellite photos. Aaron Koblin makes use of the “power of numbers” with art works like The Sheep Market or the music piece Daisy Bell. With the music video One-frame-of-fame, the outcome is less predictable. When the project started, they were unsure what would happen. Last Monday, the 25th, 10217 participated. For the makers, the popularity and creative interpretation came as a surprise. The potential for art lies within this unpredictability, whether made by MTurks, fans, or gamers.

The Internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia is one of the top six visited websites in The Netherlands. Interestingly, the content of this source of knowledge is contributed completely by unpaid volunteers and write the entries in their spare time. It’s curious, indeed, that this functions at all. In June 212, the Dutch Wikipedia will have existed fifteen years.

The Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia.

I use Wikipedia almost daily, and often compare entries in different language. It’s fun and informative, but I must admit I don’t write entries myself. Somehow this is a shame, because the best way to improve the encyclopaedia is to actively contribute. That’s the main principle of Wikipedia: two heads know more than one.

At the moment, most of the contributors to the Dutch Wikipedia are highly educated men of around thirty years old. Men and women above forty hardly contribute at all. The Dutch online encyclopaedia currently encompasses more than 600,000 articles. The English version is the largest, with more than 3,100,000 articles.

Artists often complain about inaccurate entries about them on Wikipedia. This is readily resolved; they can leave a remark on the discussion page of the article with a reference to the correct sources. Dutch celebrities who threaten lawsuit almost always decide against it when they realize how easily entries are corrected. Every so often information cannot be protected. For example, an actress was unable to take action when the encyclopaedia published her maiden name at her disapproval because the same information was readily available at countless other places online. On account of this, the information remained on the site.

Critics are still concerned about the way that Wikipedia operates. This is mostly in regards to how neutral or reliable entries are.And, for example, what mechanism of control monitors Wikipedia when basically anyone with “good intentions” can participate? But the facts belie this suspicion. A study by scientific journal Nature in 2005 showed that Encyclopaedia Britannica was only slightly better than the English Wikipedia. And in the past five years, Wikipedia has grown and improved so extensively that one wonders who would be best now.

“Critical Point of View,” a Wikipedia conference, was held in the Public Library in Amsterdam in March, and took a critical look at the problems concerning Wikipedia. During these two days, international Wikipedia versions were examined, and their advantages and disadvantages were discussed at large. The Dutch Wikipedia includes a page where the disadvantages are described point by point. Like: “the majority is not always correct”, and “idiotic and purposely wrongful entries are easily taken seriously”. Wikipedia cannot guarantee the accuracy and quality of information. It’s admitted that, because of the project’s open character, vandalism is a problem here and there.

Like many before them, American conceptual artists Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern have experimented with the encyclopaedia. They created Wikipedia Art, an article created as an art work/performance that anyone could edit. But because this concerned a conventional page in the English Wikipedia, the page was soon removed. The artists argued that the page should be kept because references to this “art work” could be found in credible sources: interview, blogs, and texts by media-institutions. The argument used to remove the entry was that it consisted of information not suitable for an encyclopaedia. The action seems to be a futile attempt at using the encyclopaedia as an “art platform.” The debate around the project can be re-read on wikipediaart.org.

The photography competition Wiki Loves Art/NL is an example of another Wikiart project, initiated by Wikimedia Nederland. Last June, visitors participating in the project were asked to take pictures of art works in different museums – something that normally would not be allowed. Around 5000 photographs were uploaded to the website Flickr, and made accessible to Wikipedia under a creative commons license.Among the winning photographs was a photo of a lamp by Gispen, the brushstrokes on a painting by Isaac Israëls, and a vacation home by Rietveld. While browsing through the website's amateur photographs, it's striking how unalike the same work can appear in different lighting, or even by simply taking the picture from a different angle. Graphic designer Hendrik-Jan Grievink also noticed this.Previously, he had designed the memory game Fake for Real, in which two cards slightly differ from one another: one is "real" and the other is "fake".An image of a real clownfish is juxtaposed against an image of Little Nemo from the Disney animation, for example. Currently, Grievink is busy making an art book, Wiki Loves Art, and searches for the amateur's diverse perspectives: paintings are photographed with or without their frames, are very pixelated or extremely sharp. By playing with the many photographs from the amateur collection, Grievink not only documents these images, but also “re-mixes” them.

In 2006, the Royal Tropical Institute donated footage of our former colonies Surinam and Indonesia. These photographs were digitally "restored" by volunteers (edited so that the images would become clearer). Via Wikipedia, the Tropenmusem publishes information about the Surinam Marrons, descendants of the Africans who were forced to Surinam by slave traders.Also, volunteers translate captions into Bahasa Indonesian for the Indonesian Wikipedia. Institutes such as the Tropenmuseum benefit from Wikipedia's archiving of photographs. The material is used fanatically, improved by volunteers, and is provided with secondary information (metadata). This means that more people are being able to profit from the collection, which in turn increases its importance.

Of course, museums and archives publish their collection on their own website, but they lack the manpower and critical mass to improve the information. Also, digitalizing their collection doesn't necessarily increase visibility or reach a wide audience. By collaborating with Wikipedia, they’re easier to find through search engines, and they're able to reach a different target group. And, of course, an encyclopaedia remains an encyclopaedia; it's no online museum or archive.

For many museums, yielding control over their collections by donating footage under a free license is a great shift in thinking. The license naturally has some conditions, like referencing its source, but usually the material is also released commercially. Through using platforms such as the Internet, museums are developing new business models to place art and culture at the foreground. The first steps have been made in making available materials, made with public money, to the public domain. All of us are now able to use this material, which is good for creativity and, who knows, good for art.