239 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

239 Things

Felix Gonzalez-Torres: When people ask me, “Who is your public?” I say honestly, without skipping a beat, “Ross.” The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.

Ross Lalock was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ partner. When the doctor diagnosed Ross with HIV, he assessed his ideal weight to be at175 pounds. Portrait of Ross is precisely that: 175 pounds of candy collected into a mound. By the invitation to take one of the candies, the viewer becomes part of the work and becomes more than simply a viewer. Every morning, the mound is replenished until it’s back at its ideal weight.

These candies are not only a representation of Ross’s weight, but also one of his struggle against the illness. HIV emaciates its patient, but the weight of the soul remains the same and allows for the patient to carry on, day after day.

Each day, the work risks being reduced to absence as the mound dwindles to nothing and no candies are left, in which case the viewer would be responsible for the lack of an artwork. And every day, Gonzalez-Torres plays this game with his audience, allowing them to decide the form of his work. With his work, art becomes fluid and in movement, but also in constant risk of disappearing.

A black and white photo of an empty bed with two pillows. A slept in bed. This is the artist’s own bed. The image was exhibited at the Projects Gallery at the MOMA, as well as on twenty-four billboards around the city of New York: Second Avenue and East 97th Street in Manhattan and Third Avenue and East 137th Street in the Bronx. None of these places were related to the art world of museums, galleries, and collectors. The number, twenty-four, relates to the date on which Ross died.

With Gonzalez-Torres’ sparse and tranquil photograph, the barrage of images that overwhelm New York pedestrians was temporarily paused. No text was supplied to explain the text. And there was no intention, as other billboards typically have, to lure the passerby into buying something. It was nothing more than a photograph of an empty bed with two pillows and a crumpled sheet. An image of private space manifesting itself within public space.

Gonzalez-Torres’ decision to refrain from showing Ross’ image can be seen as a political act. Typically for that time, depictions of AIDS denoted a discerning breach between the homosexuals and the heterosexuals. The sick homosexuals and the healthy heterosexuals. Gonzalez-Torres refuses to depict Ross. With his billboard, Untitled, he depicts the invisibility of the gay community. But he refuses to place himself in opposition to the dominant population, as Robert Mapplethorpe was doing. Gonzalez-Torres invites the viewer, regardless of their sexual preference.

Gonzalez-Torres: Go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resem­bles something else [….] We have to restructure our strategies [….] I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack.

But Gonzalez-Torres also uses other strategies to include absence in his work. By allowing the viewer to take a part of his work, he plays with the role of the artist and the role of art. The role of the artist as designer, the role of the artwork as form. His work displays and art that is not static, but susceptible to constant change.

Gonzalez-Torres: Go to a meeting and infiltrate and then once you are inside, try to have an effect. I want to be a spy, too. I do want to be the one who resem­bles something else [….] We have to restructure our strategies [….] I don’t want to be the enemy anymore. The enemy is too easy to dismiss and to attack.

To what extent is it his work?

Gonzalez-Torres:Perhaps between public and private, between personal and social, between fear of loss and the joy loving, of growing, changing, of always becoming more, of losing oneself slowly and the being replenished all over again from scratch. I need the viewer, I need the public interaction. Without the public these works are nothing. I need the public to complete the work. I ask the public to help me, to take responsibility, to become part of my work.

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.

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.

At the brink of a new century in which less is more has a bio-political connotation, paradigm shifts will dramatically alter the boundaries and limits of social, economical and media-landscapes and therefore the discourse on the opportunities and the responsibilities of the designers involved has become exceptionally urgent. It is obvious that tomorrows design-problematique demands an integral and responsible approach. No longer can the role of the designer be limited to obeying the rules of functionality and aesthetics. Although the impact of the latest rapidly evolving developments in media-usage cannot be measured in full effect yet, we now have reached a state where the best of both of social and mobile is being combined, enabling anyone to operate on a global scale, from the comfortable setting of our personal phone. New applications are being put on the market every day and new functionalities of usage are being discovered by users as well. Everyone has become a photographer, a video-artist/journalist, editor , news/content-caster and a graphic-designer.

The professional designer (or design instructor) has two options during this media-avalanche. The first is to join the masses, but maintain some leverage. This implies that the level of involvement in the new media-landscape is more or less the same as the large group of participants, but the trained eye of the professional will spot strengths and weaknesses sooner than the masses and could therefore take a leading role within this community. This person will adapt to new developments very quickly and could gain momentum by riding on the front-end of this wave. Authority will be generated by knowledge of the present, and therefore has to be maintained carefully. We will call him/her the Shepherd.

The second role the professional could assume is that of the outsider. Standing firm in the midst of the storm, keeping a strong believe in concepts and originality. Is much more theoretical based and chooses types-of-media as they seem appropriate for the process. Will stick to outdated systems and analogue techniques if necessary. Claims that quality will always have a market (and is probably right), but misses large scale connection with the public. Will behave very critical towards the revolution, but does not theoretically oppose to the development of new media-systems. We will call this type the Wolf.

Note that both types have abandoned the notion of objective media-design. Designing without a clear and well profiled opinion on the urgent global matters is a violent and destructive act. To look or not to look is a political matter.

Ad Reinhardt, Moma
Ad Reinhardt, Moma

What does it really mean? Artistic research

Everyone is suddenly talking about “artistic research” and the “artist as researcher”. Only since recently can artists and designers undertake a PhD at the University, a new Master Artistic Research has started at the Royal Academy of Fine Art of The Hague, and art tutors are conducting research.

Ad Reinhardt (1913 – 1966) said his black paintings were about “nothing”. In the first of these paintings, made in 1953, darker tones of green, red and blue were discernable. They also varied in size. But from the 1960’s until his death, Reinhardt only painted black canvases on identical formats, five by five feet (157,5 x 157,5 centimetre. He was “painting the very last paintings,” he said, “the last that you can make.”

The paintings are severe, although they are less stringent than you might initially think. They are not evenly black, in some places the paint is more matte, catches more light, than in other spots. Glancing sideways at the surface, you’ll see squares within the paint, and Greek crosses. Otherwise, every other characteristic of a painting has been discarded: representation, composition, brush stroke, expression, and colour. Yet, they are not anonymous or mechanical. The black breathes, is space. These paintings are exceptionally fragile, because Reinhardt used minimal amounts of binder to ensure a paint made almost purely of pigment. The black plane is unfathomably deep, and all light disappears into these depths.

Reinhardt owes his important position within modern art to these black canvases, as well as to his radical views on painting. But to the general public, he was known in a very different manner, namely as cartoonist for, among others, the magazine The New Yorker. In 1946, Reinhardt made a series of cartoons named “How to Look at Modern Art”. One of the drawings from this series, “How to Look at a Cubist Painting”, is depicted above.

Cartoon uit de serie “How to look at a Cubist Painting”, 1946.

A mocking viewer responds to a cubist painting. In English, “to represent” has the same double meaning as in Dutch: “to represent” as in “to portray” or “to display”: but also “to represent” in the sense of the degrading, “that doesn’t represent much”, “that doesn’t mean much”. By angrily retorting, “what do YOU represent?” the painting confronts the viewer with himself.

And this is exactly what happens while looking at an artwork. The artwork is silent and confronts you with yourself. As opposed to all other forms of art like theatre, music, dance, and literature; visual art does not immediately immerse you. This silence is not only relevant to painting and sculpture, but in general also to performance, video, film and acoustic art: little is “said”, and there is no finality in intent, or hardly. Duration of time is rarely ever prescribed. The artwork unfolds itself within the span of time that the viewer takes to look at the work. The “narrative” that arises is the exchange between the viewer and the artwork.

Only through the viewer’s effort does the artwork reveal itself. The viewer must take the first step, open himself up, and set aside his own preconceived notions. He can then penetrate the work and engage with the artwork. Within this dialogue, the distance is bridged between one world of thought and another. The experience of engagement with an artwork allows the viewer to become aware of the activity of his own thinking, of living, and of being alive. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer said: experiencing art is a “multiplication of existence.” This is what makes artworks important.

It’s difficult to look, said Reinhardt, but we can learn to do so through art. This is not just true for the viewer; it also counts for the artist himself. The artwork is the result of the combination of the desire to make something and the desire to see something. The artist is the first viewer of the artwork. He must learn to see what it is that he’s made, and to recognize it’s meaning. This is reflection; thinking about one’s own experiences and about how and why something has been made, with the goal to clarify the structure of the work and to find a foundation and a context for it. This reflection can only take place once the maker distances himself from the experience of making. To then, if the work is unfinished, pick up where he left off.

The artist's reflection on his own work is the subject matter of artistic research. Within this, the importance of the process of making outweighs that of the final product. Artist-researchers share this reflection with others through conversations, debates, publications etcetera; and are likewise fed by this.

making = thinking
thinking = speaking
speaking = thinking
thinking = making