Sunday, April 05, 2009

Art Space Talk: Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern logo

Wikipedia Art is Dead. Long Live Wikipedia Art. (Before they kill it again.) 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, before it was removed by one of their administrators.

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

*Addendum and postscript*
Between the writing and publication of this article, Kildall and Stern were contacted by lawyers representing the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia. They were challenged under trademark law for using the name "Wikipedia" in their project and specifically asked to transfer the domain name to Wikimedia. The artists are currently in negotiations with their lawyers. While their research has concluded that Wikipedia Art is protected under fair use laws, Wikimedia nevertheless has deeper pockets than the artists. Updates will be intermittently posted on, while it lasts. The performance continues...

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

Scott Kildall & Nathaniel Stern: 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.

Sherwin: What was the response on Wikipedia itself?

Kildall & Stern: 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 and transformation 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.

Sherwin: What were your expectations and hopes?

Kildall & Stern: 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.

Sherwin: What was revealed to you about the Wikipedia structure?

Kildall & Stern: 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.

But 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 the 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.

Sherwin: 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 (admittedly 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 performance-based 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 this 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.

Sherwin: What are your future plans with Wikipedia Art?

Kildall & Stern: 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 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.

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

Kildall: 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.

Stern: 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.

Link of Interest:

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

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor
myartspace blog on Twitter


tom moody said...

Hi, Brian,
Nathaniel Stern neglects to mention that he solicited my support for the project, appealing to that same ego he now finds so egregious. As politely as possible I told him it was a waste of time, so now he's trashing me.
Best, Tom Moody

PS Here's the first paragraph of the email Stern wrote me:

Hey Tom:

I hope this email finds you well. I wanted to let you know about a new collaborative online intervention I've initiated with Scott Kildall. The more authoritarian based aspects of the project are partially inspired by the new "art blogs" Wikipedia entry (which you seem to be oddly missing from), and the problems many artists and arts writers/bloggers have had getting recognized by the site. We'd love for you to become a "collaborator" through any of your artistic/blogging/writerly/curatorial capacities. A description follows, images at the links.

Robert Sloon said...

I just saw a physical manifestation of the work at the Joburg Art Fair, where the entire discussion page of the Wikipedia page was printed out onto nearly a metre and a half of paper. It really struck home in this format how much people have to say and discuss, how important the discourse is but also how it can descend into meaningless babble. A metre and a half of 10pt text!