Crowdsourcing: The art of a crowd

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

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    ’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.
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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.

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."

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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."

Assignments ranged from the quirky, like "make an encouraging banner" (sample response: "SHINE ON!"), to the serious: "Spend a day with a dying person." Responses were published in a book with a cover photograph of two seniors kissing (assignment: "Take a picture of your parents kissing"). "The idea that, as an artist, you embrace the public in a creative and productive way," Mr. Frieling says, "is expressed by that picture."

Ms. Grover says the project was "very generative, a hallmark of a good crowdsourced work. The idea was to inspire some kind of universal understanding or humanistic quality through the assignments."

Mr. Fletcher, associate professor of art and social practice at Portland State University in Oregon, co-originator of the work, says, "It was a system of creating empathy through these projects and seeing other people's responses." He says his goal is to "be inclusive of people rather than expecting them to be an audience and appreciator of what I do."

In "Never Been to Tehran," Jon Rubin and Grover solicited collaborators to take photos of what they imagined Tehran to be like and submit them to a photo-sharing site. The images were projected in gallery exhibitions in seven countries, including Iran. "The idea was to create an empathic relation to a place we've never been," Mr. Rubin says, "to think about how – even though we have access to reams of information – there's still ignorance due to the difference between secondhand and firsthand experience."

Rubin and Dawn Weleski conceived a project called Conflict Kitchen, a takeout restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict. Customers get a spiced ground-meat sandwich (typical Iranian fare) wrapped in paper printed with words gleaned from interviews with Iranians about the current political turmoil, Persian poetry, etc. Food for thought, indeed. Diners are encouraged to share their thoughts so that, with their takeout meal, they take in art.

Yoko Ono's "Wish Tree," recently shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is another example of participatory art. Her instructions encourage people to write wishes and hang them on a tree. Of the more than 120,000 scribbled wishes, Christophe Cherix, chief curator of prints and illustrated books, says, "People had a very generous vision and basically wished things for the common good."

Ms. Ono's art, he adds, is "about how we can change the world and have a positive impact." The success of this public dialogue depends on the experience engendered in the viewer. "The work is not better because it's participatory," Mr. Cherix says. "What you take out of the work is what makes the work."

One form of collective art involving actual painting was conceived by Tunisian artist Hechimi Ghachem in the 1980s. When the Connecticut-based painter David Black went to Tunis in 2008 and learned the system called Tunisian Collaborative Painting, he became a convert and now preaches its virtues in the US.

Teaching 10 workshops to 125 painters recently at New York's Art Students League, Mr. Black coached students, with four artists working on a single canvas without a preconceived design, to produce a finished work together. "You give up your ego. You give up ownership. The actual painting is greater than the sum of its parts," Black explains. "In a strange and marvelous way, it's in tune with what's happening today on the Internet."

While some might see wiki-art as outsourcing the artist's unique vision to a mob of amateurs, Mr. Szott disagrees: "One person's 'dumbing down' is another person's 'making it acces-sible.' " According to Ms. Butler, "It's actually 'smartening up.' Participatory art becomes more conceptual, less craft-driven, and more idea-driven. It speaks to you intellectually."

It also can inspire creativity in people who might never dabble in art. "If we open the public to the nature of the creative process and allow them opportunities to experience it, a great humanistic service will have been done," says Ramona Austin, curator of the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. Yet she cautions against under-valuing experts who have attained mastery of their craft: "It's important not to invest in the anti-intellectualism that runs through our society."

Other drawbacks are cloudy issues of intellectual property and authorship. "Something's being given away free, but someone is profiting," Purves says. "Genius is traded for other people's creativity and time and inspiration. If what the public produces is 50 times more interesting than what the artist puts into it, it creates an imbalance."

"Like any tool, it's as smart as the person using it," Grover says. Without a strong structure, the result can be chaotic, mediocre, or trivial.

In this new paradigm, the artist's role is more curator than creator. "An artist has to set up the basic framework with tremendous skill and thought and then, with great generosity of spirit, let it go for others to come in and transform it," Austin says. "Generosity of spirit motivates the best of these encounters."

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