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Crowdsourcing: The art of a crowd

Crowdsourced art, also known as wiki-art, erases the line between artist and audience.

By Carol StricklandContributor / January 14, 2011

’Never Been to Tehran,’ conceived by Jon Rubin and Andrea Grover, solicited photos from people taken in their home cities of what they thought Tehran, Iran, looked like. Among them are photos from (clockwise from top left): Jon Rubin of Pittsburgh; Dean Baldwin of Toronto; Heidi Hove Pederson of Copenhagen, Denmark; and Otto Von Busch, of Malmo, Sweden and Istanbul, Turkey.

Courtesy of Andrea Grover

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It used to be that artists painted, sculpted, or collaged images drawn from the world or their imaginations into original compositions. Now artists make collages from other people's voices, dreams, and actions. Called "social practice" or "crowdsourced" art, the new format requires contributions from strangers. "We're look­ing at people's behavior, ideas, and interactions as material for the artwork," says Jon Rubin, associate professor of art at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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Jeff Howe first defined "crowd­sourcing" in a 2006 article in Wired magazine, referring to content, solutions, and suggestions solicited from amateurs via the Internet. Beginning around 2002, artists began experimenting with how Web 2.0 culture (browsing, sharing, producing, and aggregating data) could merge with art.

Now the last bastion of individuality – the notion of art as an expression of one person's vision – is crumbling, invaded by art as a group activity. "There's definitely a groundswell for this type of work," says Randall Szott, coeditor of a journal of social practice called "127 Prince."

Sharon Butler, professor of art at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, notes, "The old paradigm is of artists isolated in a studio for 10 to 12 hours a day, focused exclusively on their own projects. People are increasingly turning their focus outward." Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, agrees: "It's here to stay. It's not going to go away."

The impulse to work collectively is not new. Fifty years ago, movements like Fluxus, Happenings, and Performance Art engaged the public. "The '60s avant-garde was very interested in eliminating the boundaries between artist and audience," says Andrea Grover, Warhol research fellow at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie-Mellon University. "Having the audience become cocreators is not a new impulse. There's simply a new platform."

Ted Purves, chair of the graduate fine art program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, calls "Learning to Love You More" (a project initiated in 2002 by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher), "the most archetypal model of crowdsourcing in fine art." The artists conceived 70 assignments publicized on the Web. Over seven years, participants sent in 8,000 contributions. "It was part art school and part a participatory blog/database of responses," Mr. Purves says, "which became a show of everybody instead of the artist as a central figure."

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