Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Counterpoint: Collective Creativity in service of the unfunny

When Tim and I first started batting around the idea of this panel, one thing was clear from the beginning: we didn't want this to be boosterism at the expense of honest examination of the phenomenon. This is one of those times.

Above is an example of the New Yorker's caption contest; for those not in the know, the contest was started about 5 years ago as a way to drive more traffic to the New Yorker site by having one of their esteemed artists draw a potentially hilarious cartoon, but leave off the one-line zinger below . The New Yorker then invites the audience to submit the caption, of which the best three were picked by the editors. These three then are listed on the site for the New Yorker audience to determine the winner. It is, in a neat little package, nearly exactly what we've been getting at in this discussion.

It's also an abysmal failure, in my humble opinion.

What makes people go to solo art shows, show up for one-woman plays, read manifestos, and, perhaps most germanely, think a trip to a comedy club might be a good time? In a phrase, it's singularity of vision. The New Yorker caption contest takes away everything that is (ok, occasionally) brilliant about New Yorker cartoons, namely, that the best ones are usually completely misanthropic and rather twisted. Only a magazine dedicated to the vast social experiment that is New York could wrangle the pathos that comes out in some of the cartoons in the magazine, and that is why they are funny. They are funny in a way that all slack-jawed gapes at the absurdity of life are funny; they are funny because they are bred from one too many brushes with humanity.

With all due respect to Ms. Klein and Msrs. Templeman and Harrington, the final captions options at the top of this post are, by contrast, tragically unfunny. The caption contest planes down the singular despotic comedic vision into a bland, Two And A Half Men, good-enough formula. I assume the people that enter want to win. So what's most likely to win? Probably that which appeals to the massive base of the New Yorker readership, which, while I'll grant is probably a little more urbane than most, doesn't necessary possess the nihilistic wit that a really sharp cartoon commands.

So. We end up getting suggested captions about broken coffeemakers. Crowd-sourced, indeed.

69 Love Drawings

There's a great new project, currently near completion, that aims to illustrate each song of The Magnetic Fields' "69 Love Songs" suite. How Fucking Romantic is the home of the project, where contributors' creations are posted, and the list of illustrated songs is maintained.

The project is intensely Indirectly Collaborative: Originally, the songs were written by Stephin Merrit, and were then filled out by the musicians who played on the album. The songs were then used as inspiration by not just one, but a collection of artists to create a body of visual art that was originally never intended, but serves as a great compliment to the music. It's interesting to think about how such cool illustrations could not have come to exist were it nor for an influence so removed from the visual art field. I think this speaks volumes to Merrit's ability to conjure provocative imagery with his songs, and the artists' ability to distill the mood of the music.

From the project site:
We are a loose collection of mostly London-based comic-artists, illustrators and writers, who have grown up listening to the Magnetic Fields and got together over a mutual love of the songs. One day, on Twitter, a couple of us decided that illustrating – or writing a comic – or a short story – inspired by all 69 songs was a worthwhile and exciting pursuit, so here we are!
Image by Huw "Lem" Davies

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cage Match

GOOD Magazine, in their Slow issue, highlight a composition by avant-garde artist and composer John Cage, most well known for his four minute and thirty-three second piece comprised of no notes.

Another piece, Organ²/ASLSP, has an instruction that it should be played as slowly as possible. Some Cage devotees in Halberstadt, Germany have taken that direction to heart and have begun a very slow performance of it, begun in 2000, to be completed in 2639.

This is an interesting example of Indirect Collaboration, where interpretation is paramount to other types of contributions, maybe even including even the original input. Of course the notes being played are important, but those are mostly performed, or at least sustained, by mechanical means.

This calls into question the role of the gatekeeper. This instance could be considered to have two gatekeepers, or maybe none. Cage wrote the composition, but then stepped away. The Germans stepped in, free to meddle, but only in one direction. Is this creative? Collaborative? Certainly it's indirect.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Q&A: Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is an Australian-born science writer who — along with her sister, the poet and critic Christine Wertheim — cofounded the Institute for Figuring, a Los Angeles-based organization "dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and the technical arts." In 2005, the Wertheims launched the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project in their Highland Park living room; in 2010, the now-massive sculpture will be exhibited at the Smithsonian. From the beginning, the Wertheims imagined the project as a collective enterprise — but they had no idea how far it would spread. Joshua Glenn interviewed Margaret Wertheim in January 2010.

GLENN: What is the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project?
WERTHEIM: We produce sculptures that are a crocheted version of the Great Barrier Reef. Coral reefs have this very distinctive look about them — these crenellated, frilly forms, which are basically versions of hyperbolic geometry. And it turns out that the only way we know how to make models of hyperbolic geometry is with crochet. [From the IFF website: "The basic insight is to understand that these forms result from the simple process of increasing the number of stitches in every row. The more often you increase stitches the faster the model will grow and the more crenellated the finished form will become."] The Project was conceived because coral reefs all over the world are dying out. The evidence is that by 2030, corals might not grow any more due to the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere going into the seas. So the Project resides at the intersection of mathematics, marine biology, feminine handicraft, and collective art practice. It is also a political project, because it is raising consciousness of global warming.

GLENN: The code that allows you to model hyperbolic geometry with crochet was discovered by Daina Taimina, a Latvian mathematician at Cornell. Was it she who figured out that these crochet models look like bits of coral reef?
WERTHEIM: Dr. Taimina was interested in just doing them as pure mathematical models. Christine and I realized, after we'd crocheted a few [hyperbolic models], that if you started deviating from the mathematical perfection of Taimina's models, the [resulting creations] actually looked like a coral reef. As soon as we started varying the formulae a little, you get things that are not mathematically perfect — so, not good for teaching a course on hyperbolic geometry at Cornell, but they look a lot more organic. We realized, this is what nature is doing. Nature is not being strictly geometrically perfect because nature doesn’t have to adhere to the rules of mathematics. Instead, it is doing variations, and that is why you get the diversity of forms in nature — because life starts from a simple code and then diversifies and complexifies. We started saying, "OK, how can we replicate things that look like natural forms rather than pure mathematical ones?"

GLENN: How has the Crochet Reef developed differently, thanks to "indirect collaboration," to use Joe Alterio and Tim Lillis's phrase, than it otherwise might have?
WERTHEIM: Everybody who takes up these [crochet] techniques starts to vary it in different ways — in ways that that we would never have thought of, necessarily, ourselves. So you get this endless variation that comes from people just trying things that are, as it were, inherent in the whole system. [From the IFF site: "Loopy 'kelps,' fringed 'anemones,' and curlicued 'corals' have all been modeled. While the process that brings these models into being is algorithmic, endless permutations of the underlying formulae result in a constantly surprising panoply of shapes. The quality of yarn, style of stitch, and tightness of the crochet all affect the finished forms so that each is as individual as a living organism.] Which raises very beautiful questions about the relationship between pure mathematics and the physically manifest material structure of the world that we actually live in.

GLENN: You and your sister started to make the Crochet Reef in Christmas 2005. Did you imagine it as an open-source collaborative project from the beginning?
WERTHEIM: Yes, I put up an announcement on the Institute for Figuring website asking for people to join us. We thought maybe ten, twenty people around the world would join us — and that the final project would occupy a few coffee tables' worth of space. Nearly five years later, there have been thousands of people who have contributed models to our exhibitions and hundreds of thousands of people have come to the exhibitions, and who knows how many have attended workshops and learned to do it. It has become this unintended worldwide movement, and it has just blown our minds.

GLENN: Why has the Crochet Reef, which has no major institutional support of any kind and very little funding, taken off like this?
WERTHEIM: What people are really doing when they participate in the Project is a form of experimental mathematics. And I think it is not insignificant that that is happening among women, not men. We have had a few men, and we welcome them, but 99.99% of people who do this are women — who tell us, again and again, that they love the idea of being taken seriously as people who engage with math and science. Here is a project in the context of a handicraft that women feel comfortable with and enjoy, and they are being told, "You too, can understand the mathematics that underlies general relativity." The Project has tapped into a hunger of women, everywhere, to be taken seriously as intellectual forces. Which is a reason that I've made it my full-time job, though there is no full-time salary.

GLENN: Might the Crochet Reef one day receive funding from the kinds of institutions that try to engage folks with scientific and mathematical ideas — through things like Lego Mindstorms and the X Prize?
WERTHEIM: I guarantee, from my work as a science communicator, that 99% of people who engage in Lego Mindstorms will be boys. Millions of dollars are being pumped into such projects, and there is no money being pumped into the Crochet Coral Reef Project, which is engaging thousands and thousands of women and girls all over the world. I think community projects and community creativity, it is one of the important trends of our time. But the resources available to encourage such projects are overwhelmingly in computers, say, or robotics. I am all for those things, but most of people involved in those things are boys. Engaging people in math and science can also take place in things like paper and scissors, it can take place in crochet. There are lots of handicrafts that have math and science involved — in fact, weaving led to the invention of the loom, and punch-cards come from the loom, and punch-cards helped lead to the computer. So it can be argued that weaving was the first digital technology. When any collective project happens, it's worth asking a political question: "Where is the support, and which projects get supported?"

GLENN: Is the opportunity to collaborate in a collective artwork — as opposed to being a solo artist — another important part of the appeal of the Crochet Reef?
WERTHEIM: One thing that we get told, again and again, is how much engagement with the math and science is meaningful. And the other thing that the participants tell us that is immensely powerful to them is the opportunity to participate in a total work that is more than just themselves. In the upper echelons of the art world, what is valorized is the individual genius of the artist. But what this project taps into is the opposite of that. There are many tens of thousands of hours of work in this totality. When you walk into an art exhibition where there is more than five hundred people’s work on display, the sheer congealed hours of human labor helps you see that it is just simply is physically impossible for one person to do this much work. The totality of what thousands of people produced is much more — both greater and more beautiful — than what any individual genius, one individual person, could produce.

GLENN: So it's not merely the Crochet Reef's sheer size that's so impressive, but its variation?
WERTHEIM: When you walk into a room with five hundred people’s work and each person has been free to express themselves differently — obviously many of them just do the "canonical" reef patterns, but lots of them will also take up and go in special directions — you get such a feeling of commitment and intensity, of handmade labor. There are knitting machines, but there is no such thing as a crochet machine, so the Project is true commitment.

GLENN: Do you think women are more attracted to collaborative projects than men are?
WERTHEIM: In terms of the collective group enterprise, women have been having sewing circles and quilting bees since the dawn of time. Some critics have argued, with good cause, that the collective feminist art projects of the early 1970s — like the 1972 installation "Womanhouse" — were the start of this whole trend that is now called Relational Aesthetics, which is to say artistic practices that take as their point of departure human relations as opposed to a solo genius, and which has been taken up by many men.

GLENN: What is your end goal for the Crochet Reef?
WERTHEIM: What we would love is if some museum somewhere would give it a permanent home so we could set it up once and for all beautifully. It is too big to store in our house. At the moment it is all in storage in Arizona, and then it will go to Ireland, and then to Smithsonian Museum of Natural History later this year.

GLENN: If a museum does take the Crochet Reef, will people stop contributing to it?
WERTHEIM: I doubt it. Every week, I get emails from communities all over the world saying, "We want to do this." It has truly gone viral. People say, "How long do you intend to keep doing this?" I don’t know. I used to have a serious career as a science journalist. I write books about the cultural history of physics, and I have been struggling to get my most recent book finished because the reef literally took over my life.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Music seems to be an obvious candidate for indirect collaboration and I thought I'd dogpile into the current theme by posting my own favorite -- and very timely -- example: FAWM. FAWM is short for February Album Writing Month, and challenges your procrastinating tendencies by asking "Can you write 14 songs in 28 days? What are you waiting for... inspiration?".

I heard about this site a few years ago from good friend and long time fawmer Ryan Woodard, who has used the site to collaborate with musicians in far-flung places like Alaska. What I like about FAWM's approach is that it adds a "time-critical" angle to the mix by cramming the creative process into the shortest month of the year. While structural constraints (e.g. haiku) are often used as a foundation for the creative process, FAWM incorporates time as a constraint in the form of a deadline.

I'd love to explore the other ways time can be employed as a creative constraint beyond its obvious role of providing a deadline. But I'm too busy right now to look into it...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Public Record

While we're on the subject of collectively written music, lets take a look at The Public Record. This project has Mötley Crüe alum Tommy Lee offering some raw tracks of his music for download. Users can then play along and upload their own accompanying tracks to help create the new album of Lee's current (rap-metal) band, Methods of Mayhem.

My understanding is that Lee's producer Scott Humphrey came up with the idea when unsure that a new Methods of Mayhem album would move any units. I think this will certainly generate a lot of exposure and possible sales as participants point to their contributions and share the tales of their involvement. Scott Humphrey seems like a smart guy. Tommy Lee: definitely still an idiot.

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out, certainly there's some semi-related precedent, with jazz musicians who have never met before coming together to create a new version of a standard, infused with their particular style. A step closer to this is Radiohead's public invitation to remix "Nude" from their In Rainbows album. With The Public Record though, contributors are able to get in much closer to the ground floor.

Shoot Yourself, Get Famous.

C-Mon & Kypski's video project
is similar to the subject of Joe's recent post on this blog. The concept here is a little more straightforward, and for that reason I think it invites even more participants to pitch in – so far 8312 and counting. From what I can tell the band filmed the original video, and invited fans to replace certain bits of video with their own, not unlike the Star Wars Uncut project that had fans reshooting 15-second clips in their own style to remake the movie.

It almost seems the featured song was collectively written as well. Synth-ska? Hmmm.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Largest Art Prize Winner Chosen by the Crowd

I'm not fond of art prizes because they tend to reduce art to fashion and celebrity, but the recently launched Art Prize isn't catering to the rich and famous. Now entering its second year, Art Prize is the largest cash award to a single artist ($250,000 for first place) and the winner is selected by the crowd. 37264 registered online voters selected ten prize winners in 2009.

Here's how it works.
"At ArtPrize, any artist—from established to emerging—has the chance to show work. Any visitor can vote. The vote will determine who wins the largest art prize in the world...There is not one official curator or jury for the competition...

ArtPrize is not anti-jury, anti-curator, anti-establishment or anti-anything else. We do not believe that we have contrived the "best" way to discover the "best" art. The prize money, the public vote, the open venue system simply creates an environment where public can engage artist and artist can engage public in a fresh way. To us, it's an irresistible social experiment."
In ArtPrize 2009, Ran Ortner of Brooklyn, N.Y. captured the top prize of $250,000 for his work Open Water No. 24. The second-place award of $100,000 went to Tracy Van Duinen from Chicago for Imagine That! and the third-place award of $50,000 went to Eric Daigh from Traverse City, Mich. for Portraits. The remaining entries in the top 10 received $7,000.

I'm not certain that Art Prize will revolutionize artmaking, but it's certainly a refreshing approach to giving away money; it adds visibility and value to the creative process, and let's everyone get in on what's generally by invitation only. The 2010 round runs September 22 – October 10!

Street Sounds

Sponorship as a force of good: Streets Sounds is an interactive way for users to upload various found environmental sounds to a rich media database of the US. Though it might not be useful in a professional capacity – seems like most sounds are recorded in a low enough quality for upload's sake that they're probably best used as tidbits – it advances the idea of a collective database of not just information, but experience. Taken together, it's a useful collage of what our country sounds like, especially if it gets popular. Up next: the Library of Congress' Archive of Smells!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Ministry of Reshelving

Pervasive and Alternate Reality Game designer and theorist Jane McGonigal is the brains behind such "Serious ARGs" as CryptoZoo (with the American Heart Association, 2009), Superstruct (with the Institute for the Future, 2008), and World Without Oil (with Ken Eklund and ITVS, 2007), a collaborative simulation of a global oil shortage.

Both Serious and (I guess) Frivolous ARGs and PGs teach collaboration strategies and collective intelligence skills. Instead of merely challenging players to solve a gamemastered puzzle, Serious ARGs relinquish a great deal of narrative control to players, and encourage the development of a "collective imagination" among them.

Collective intelligence is useful, pragmatic; collective creativity is visionary. The former is what makes Pandora and Amazon's "Other Customers Bought..." functions work; the latter is what might save our collective ass one of these days.

McGonigal and compatriot during the Ministry of Reshelving game

Here's an item I wrote for the Boston Globe's Ideas section in August 2005 about Jane McGonigal's Ministry of Reshelving project — in retrospect, I think it was her first step away from doing ARGs as PR stunts for video games, and towards what she does now.


Earlier this summer, Jane McGonigal and three dinner companions were chatting about doublespeak, censorship, and surveillance when someone idly commented that George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 should be reclassified as Non-Fiction, or even filed under Current Events. "Five seconds later, I said, 'Wait — we could actually do that,'" recounts McGonigal. So last Monday she took the lead in launching the Ministry of Reshelving project, an ambitious, opt-in performance piece whose goal it is to secretly reshelve 1,984 copies of Orwell's book in bookstores in all 50 states.

Though such an undertaking sounds daunting, it's child's play for McGonigal, a doctoral candidate in performance studies at UC-Berkeley who earns a living working as a designer and "puppetmaster" for 42 Entertainment, an Emeryville, Calif.-based outfit that creates elaborate "alternate reality games" — played by thousands via chatroom, cell phone, e-mail, even billboards and want ads — in order to drum up excitement for various new products. But McGonigal's true passion, she said via e-mail from San Francisco, is "making games that give people a platform for changing social norms and public policy." As of this writing, she reports, some 55 "ministers" — from California, New York, Idaho, Kentucky, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and a half dozen other states — have relocated over 100 copies of 1984. Evidence of these hijinks is being posted around the clock to the photo-sharing website Flickr.

Is Boston behind the curve? By no means! On Thursday morning, McGonigal said, a Bostonian "minister" informed her that a copy of 1984 had just been moved from the Fiction section of the Borders in Downtown Crossing to the Political Science section, where it was reshelved next to a book titled Inside the Mind of Bush.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Public School

A project of Telic Arts Exchange in Los Angeles, The Public School was begun by Fiona Whitton and Sean Dockray in 2008, and produces curriculum based exclusively on community-demand. Subjects may be proposed by anyone (via the website), and if enough people show interest (by signing up), the school finds a teacher, and a course on that subject ensues. Recent curriculum at The Public School includes, “Economies of Attention: Media Technology and Biopolitics” proposed by “caleb waldorf”, and taught by Kenneth Rogers; “Canning, Pickling, and Preserving” proposed by “cybelle”, and taught by Paul Pescador; and “Performance / Performativity / Enactment” proposed by “liz_gL”, and taught by Liz Glynn.

In 2009, The Public School began expanding internationally, and now has satellites in Brussels, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Paris and Philadelphia.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

NYC BigApps

Today marked the end of voting at NYC BigApps competition – a sort of crowdsourced and collaborative project. The project aims to have developers create applications that take advantage of NYC's DataMine.

The city is using the contest format, which is becoming more and more synonymous with crowdsourcing in some circles, to increase transparency and utilize all sorts of publicly available data sets. The more interesting apps seem to be emerging where the developers are using multiple data sets instead of say, one set of public library locations. This approach enables the data sets to collaborate with each other (and the user) in a way that can offer much more value than a Google search would. The result is hopefully a perfect example of good collaboration, a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Walkshed, an app that provides a walkable "heat map" based on your activity preferences, and Nexttown, an app that pulls data about your local elected officials and their efforts, are two entries that stand out to me as great examples of data collaboration.

The winners will be announced on February 4th, so stay tuned to see what NYC deems the most useful BigApps.

Sour's 'Hibi no Neiro'

Ok, ok, maybe a bit beneath the intellectual vibe we're fostering here about Big Ideas. But cute nonetheless.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we've got a time.

...and that's at 5:00 PM on March 15, 2010. Woohoo! Looks like we're in a prime spot, too; while there's people presenting at the same time as us, I think we're diverse enough that we'll attract a great crowd. Totes cool.

See the full schedule here!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Riley on Colbert!

Our esteemed colleague Riley was just on the Colbert Report last night, pimping the idea of collective action and it's robust way it can solve problems. 'Grats, Riley, you media hound.

The Colbert wedsite doesn't seem to allow embedding, so check out the episode here. W00t!