Tuesday 31 May 2011

In conversation with... Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern

Scott Kildall, Nathaniel Stern

What is, and isn't, art? Where should art be constructed and exhibited?

In 2009, an article was published to Wikipedia, called "Wikipedia Art". To substantiate its publication, several articles were simultaneously published and cited. In the following few hours, the article was fiercely debated on Wikipedia, and eventually deleted; legal wrangling followed, with specific reference to the use of the term "Wikipedia".

The work, by Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern, was selected for exhibition at the Venice Bienalle that year, and is now on display as part of "Made Real" at the Furtherfield Gallery in London. We caught up with Scott and Nathaniel, to get a first-hand account of the work, and the culture of Wikipedia.


Please give us the background to the work.

SK: Nathaniel and I collaborated on a piece called Wikipedia Art. The piece was officially launched on Feburary 14th 2009, although we had planned it for around seven months before that time.

The idea behind it is that we were looking at the way in which Wikipedia articles are created, and the community that creates those articles. Specifically, we were looking at the feedback loop that was created by the citation mechanism of Wikipedia.

Wikipedia articles are normally validated when they become cited. So, the threshold for inclusion is not truth, but verifiability from reliable media sources.


NS: Whatever that means...


SK: Whatever that means, and this can create a lot of problems. An example is with the Digital Dark Age. It talks about a time when old media cannot be read by devices, and the data becomes lost. The article cites the 1976 NASA landing on Mars, with the Viking lander: how they couldn't get a lot of the data from the magnetic tapes. It turns out that there was no citation for that source.


NS: It was on the site as "Needs citation" and they left it up, but then what happened is that all these newspaper articles picked up the story, and started publishing about the lost data on the Viking. Then, of course, Wikipedia can cite the sources that have used Wikipedia to get the information in the first place. So you have this awful vicious circle.


SK: It's a feedback loop of misinformation, or "uninformation". Wikipedia claims to be a reference of the information out there. They're saying that they are citing information, but the truth is that it is often the first source of information.


And it's so prominent on Google.

NS: Yes. If you're on Wikipedia, you're very important. For us, there's a lot of criticism of Wikipedia out there, but it's very misguided. People say that Wikipedia is not a good primary source of information. The truth is that no encyclopedia is a good primary source of information. That's asking too much of an encyclopedia.

The larger problem is that people don't understand it as a media-based institution with people behind it that have agendas and interests. When we watch certain news stations, for example, we are aware of the politics of corporations behind them. Although Wikipedia mostly comprises of people that aren't quite that devious, they do have certain interests: 18-23 year old white guys, mostly from America.


SK: The demographic is skewed towards males. An example of an article that should be pulled off Wikipedia is one on demon lords in Dungeons & Dragons, with the only sources being dungeon masters' manuals – not actually sources.


NS: You can find pages on superheroes, although at the time, the page on Cory Arcangel, who has been on the cover of Artforum, was marked up as "Needs citation" and so couldn't be there.

Wikipedia Art was really two projects. On one hand, it was this beautiful found object that anyone can edit. On the other, it was attempting to be an intervention into the hierarchy, the power structure behind Wikipedia, in order to bring it to the surface, and to make people aware of it.

We still love Wikipedia. We still both contribute to it and we still think that it's a good thing, but we wanted to make a critical work and not in the sense of negativity, but in the sense of critical analysis. We want people to be aware of what's behind that system.

When we made it, we thought "Oh, this would be a fun little thing". We knew that there was going to be a big debate on Wikipedia. We figured that there would be the 15-hour deletion, with the scrolls of discussions. But, the fact that it went straight to the top... Jimmy Wales calling us names. Mike Godwin fighting with our lawyers...


SK: ... and the threatened lawsuit. That's when it got interesting. A lot of people felt territorial: almost as if we had got inside their house and peed on the wall. We had trespassed.


Because you were invading their territory.

NS: They really wanted [our article] off. The funny thing about it, is that this is how Wikipedia works. It was very revealing when someone wrote about the controversy of Wikipedia Art; one of the editors said that it was no more controversial than any other article. That's exactly the point. The contributors have a personal investment, and if they think that something should not be there, they will find a reason for it not to be.

With our article, firstly, we were told that the cited sources were not good enough – but we used sources that we personally checked were already being used on other Wikipedia pages. That's why we courted them. "You can't verify this information" - actually, we can. We followed every single rule. They went down a long list. "It's not encyclopedic enough" - but Wikipedia has a page about every opening sequence of The Simpsons.


So you're having excuses go back and forth.

NS: The page was deleted with the Snowballs Clause: "We don't believe that there's a snowball's chance in hell of this belonging here", so it was deleted. Although there was a lot of what was called Wikilobbying by us, asking people to participate on some level, we actually never participated ourselves. We initiated the project; sent out press releases; asked people to write about it, but we never engaged in any of the debates.


SK: Our online personalities stayed out of the debates, except for points of clarification. For example, I was contacted by a Wikipedia editor, asking us how and when we did it, and I was happy to provide the information. With Wikipedia Art, we had to be transparent about what it was, and what it was doing.

It was said that we were performing it through people writing about it; how we hoped to make it into an ongoing debate with the invisible authors and authorities behind Wikipedia. So, as it unfolded, different forces started bickering, and came to the conclusion that Wikipedia Art should be off there for certain reasons, and that "these artists are terrible people". There was a lot of negative spin going on, which validated our original point.


NS: They got their knickers in a knot, because we exposed their knickers. Wikilobbying is a term, used on Wikipedia. Wikilawyering is where you used the speak of a lawyer to try to make your point, which isn't a very good one... these are all actual terms. Deletionists versus inclusionists... it happens on Wikipedia. We exposed the weird subculture behind it, and that's why they didn't like it.

They're right. This isn't any different to any other Wikipedia page. The difference is that the general public got to see it [the Wikipedia culture].


SK: Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, but technically speaking, to be an active editor and to do anything with Wikipedia, you have to be part of this strange subculture. You have to engage with their norms; you have to engage in certain behaviours; you have to have an online personality that's very active.


NS: It's like Nietsche. By the time you understand Nietsche, you talk like him and nobody understands you. That's Wikipedia.






Is Wikipedia seen by the general public as being an authoritative, objective voice, and that they do not understand its subjectivity?

NS: There are a lot of ways in which people engage with Wikipedia. What we know for sure is that people go to Wikipedia to find out answers...


SK: ... including us. Most people want answers to questions, but very few think about how the system is created.


NS: I do think that people need to have a much more critical eye, when they look at Wikipedia. It doesn't mean negativity: I want people, when they watch Fox News, to know what's behind it, but doesn't mean that they shouldn't watch it. I use Wikipedia but I know that information is missing, and it isn't my first source. The person that deleted Wikipedia Art was an 18-year-old kid in Australia who, on his Wikipedia profile page, called himself a fairy penguin.


SK: Online literacy is what we're talking about, and how these media are created. We teach our kids how to read books, how to think about the author's voice, and to think about the information being presented. We think about that kind of literacy with books, but we don't teach how information is created online – and, yet, people have to deal with that all of the time.


NS: The dialogue is oversimplified right now. When you hear mainstream media talk about Wikipedia, or blogs, it's as if there aren't different editors, and different kinds of information on Wikipedia, depending on what you're looking for. There are different blogs, and different kinds of people behind those blogs. We need to talk about them as individual entities, and understand what's behind them. You can't talk about mainstream media and lump the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Sky News and Fox News all into one bundle. Wikipedia is known as this amorphous blob: the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. That's not what it is.


What is the future for further work that may disrupt the community? Has this created the potential for greater critical discourse?

NS: There isn't necessarily space for another artwork such as ours. We wouldn't go back onto Wikipedia and attempt to perform this again. However, I do believe that this book ["Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader"] is the beginning of real critical discourse. As the back cover says, the book goes beyond base criticism. It's the first book about Wikipedia that isn't funded by Wikimedia. We feel privileged to be part of it.


SK: I'm hopeful that there is now more dialogue about Wikipedia, and that there can be a lifecycle to emergent media. At first, we don't understand what it's about, and then as it becomes more established, people take a deeper look at the forces of construction behind these media. This is probably the case for books, and for television too.


NS: I try to engage politically. I have a lot of criticisms of my home country, but it doesn't mean that I don't love it. I would be devastated if we disrupted Wikipedia to the extent that it would not function. But, we want it to function better.


Is 'social media' a fallacy, because it isn't just about people, as people are subjective? There's a richness and a complexity.

NS: I walked into a gallery a few months ago. On my way, I was asked if I had my spiel, and didn't think that I needed one. When I arrived, the first thing that I was asked was "So, what's your elevator pitch?" While on the one hand, there's something quite lovely about broadcasting exciting little exclamations to the world, that's all they are. 140 characters. You don't even get the sense of the one character behind the 140. It becomes a performed self, rather than an actual one.

Saying that here, I now realise what this show is about: taking networks and giving them form, reciprocity, love, and time. Networks matter. Social media matters, but it matters so much more in a personal dialogue - in this space, with people talking about it, with bodies, space, and time, than in smaller spaces. Giving it that human, material aspect – the many forms that add to one another, rather than exist in isolation – then we start to get somewhere, and get something. I have always struggled with "We need good content!" ever since the early 1990s. People don't want good content. They want meaning.


SK: In addition to meaning, people want connection. There's an illusion with social media, that you need to have hundreds of Facebook friends. Facebook and Twitter can hopefully be a means to an end. People appreciate making connections.


NS: Scott and I met online. We swapped emails through a mutual friend. These things are great and important. They are interesting progressions in the ways in which you can initiate meaningful relationships, but they don't make them.


SK: It's a filtering mechanism.


Do you think that we are now moving away from the early-1990s vision of a free, open and democratic web?

SK: Those ideals were always suspicious. In the early 1990s, there was a lot of hullabaloo about the free web. We quickly saw how it became ripe with corporate advertising. It became very commercial, very quickly. Wired was talking about how the web will free us all. We have heard this refrain – that the technology will free us all - so many times. Yet, if the political and social systems are not there to make that happen, then technology alone will not do it. Technology can help us to get there, and certainly the web has opened that up. But, this idea that technology or the web alone, by their mechanisms, will do it... it's a silly idea.


NS: It's quite cyclical. Gutenberg's press, pirate radio, broadcasting by individuals. We go back and forth. These things are quite revolutionary. On the one hand, Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody is quite magical in how he talks about it. You can't opt out of that; you cannot deny that change.

On the other hand, I am also critical of the Andrew Keens of the world – the naysayers, who can't trust this [digital media], and that there are no experts, and that it devalues the work of real researchers... as if an amateur cannot do good research. It doesn't mean that they always do, but they can.

I stand somewhere in the middle of all of this; I wouldn't be an artist without new media. The way that I am able to realise my ideas, and have an aesthetic – whatever that means in contemporary art – would not be recognised 200 years ago. I feel very privileged to live in the time that I do, and access the kinds of information and tools that I do. I pay homage to all of that, but I also take a middle-road aspect. It's not that I am not opinionated, but I am critical of extremes, and invite others to do the same.


SK: In the early 90s, the freeness and openness of the web isn't the free and open web that we talk about now. The freeness and openness of the web in the middle 1990s was the anarchic nature of the web. No-one knew what to do with the web, because corporations weren't on it. It was a beautiful time, but a lot of that has now been packaged. You have memes going through which everyone understands. You don't have that feeling of the Wild West.


What additional works are you exhibiting at Made Real?

NS: We are collaborators, but also have individual practices.


SK: Playing Duchamp is based on my desire to make a chess computer, that played like Marcel Duchamp. He was more interested in chess than art, and gave up making art for 20 years in order to play chess, where he represented France. He was a master. He played chess with John Cage and many other artists, and had a pocket chess set that he carried around in his jacket pocket. I researched this aspect more and more, with Duchamp being the master of conceptual art that we have to contend with.

So, why don't we think about the function of the chess algorithm, within contemporary society? Deep Blue has beaten Kasparov; we now know that computers can beat humans at chess. So, let's build a program that wants to play like a human that loves chess. I took all 72 of Duchamp's recorded chess games, and figured out how he plays in each one, consulting with the expert on Duchamp's chess games, Jennifer Shahade. We mapped out his rating and strategy in each game, and from that I adapted from GNU Chess, releasing it online as Playing Duchamp.


Playing Duchamp; photo by courtesy of Scott Kildall


NS: Given Time features two live, streaming avatars, staring at each other in Second Life. You see them, streamed, looking at each other in real life, looking through the interface of the other. They're gazing at one another, gifting one another with each other's presence, across virtual and actual space.




There are two inspirations to the work. The first is Untitled: Perfect Lovers by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, where two battery-operated clocks are set to the same time. They slowly fall out of sync, then one dies, followed by the other. It's very simple – then you find out that he made it on the day that his partner was diagnosed as HIV positive. All of a sudden, it becomes a devastating work about body mortality, and time's inevitable flow. When I was looking at the work, I was also reading a philosophical book called Given Time. It was about notions of gifting throughout culture, and how, very often, gifts aren't really gifts; they're about love. Derrida said that the true gift can only be given, when there's nothing left to give.


So I wondered what would happen if we took this piece, which is, in many ways, about love and reciprocity - but also about time and the body. What would happen if we removed time and the body? It would become a true gift. It led me to Second Life – not as a space, but as a material. There's no access to this work in Second Life; it is permanently logged in, and each avatar is the other's avatar, so we wanted to create a highly potent space; a space of lovers.


Scott Kildall, Nathaniel Stern


Scott Kildall is a cross-disciplinary artist working with video, installation, prints, sculpture and performance. Nathaniel Stern is an artist working with experimental installation and video, net art, and print.

Further information on "Wikipedia Art" is available from the Wikipedia Art website. Kildall and Stern have contributed a chapter, "Wikipedia Art: Citation as performance art" to "Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader", a free PDF and hard copy book, available from the Institute of Network Cultures.

Made Real, an exhibition showing all three works, is running at the Furtherfield Gallery until 25 June.

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